Last week saw the launch of AttentionTrust.org, a non-profit hatched by Seth Goldstein, Steve Gillmor and Hank Barry which is “dedicated to promoting the basic rights of attention owners.” I’m honored to be serving on the initial board of AttentionTrust.org, along with Dick Costolo and Clay Shirky.
I’ve written about attention before, but I realize it remains a nebulous concept to many folks. I think part of the problem is that those of us who write about attention tend to be talking to people who already understand the concept, so I’ll write this on the assumption that you have no idea what I’m talking about.
In a nutshell, the idea is that your attention data – that is, data that describes what you’re paying attention to – has value, and because it has value, when you give someone your attention you should expect to be given something in return. And just because you give someone your attention, it doesn’t mean that they own it. You should expect to get it back.
I know that sounds a little weird – it took me a while to grok it, too. So I’ll use an example that’s familiar to many of us: Netflix ratings and recommendations. By telling Netflix how you rate a specific movie you’re telling them what you’re paying attention to, and in return they can recommend additional DVDs to you based on how other people rated the same movie. In return for giving them your attention data – which is of great value to them – they provide you features such as recommendations that they hope will be valuable to you. In my mind, this is a fair trade.
But what if Netflix collected this information without your knowledge, and rather than using it to give you added value they sold it to another service instead? I imagine that many people wouldn’t like that idea – chances are, you’d want to be given the opportunity to decide who this information can be shared with. This is one of the goals of AttentionTrust.org: to leave you in charge of what’s done with your attention data.
But what about this whole idea of mobility, as mentioned on the AttentionTrust.org site? What’s the benefit of making this stuff mobile? Dave Winer provides a nice example: suppose you could share your Netflix attention data with a dating site such as Match.com, so you could find possible partners who like the same movies as you? For that sort of thing to be possible, you’d need to be able to get your attention data back from any service which collects it. (As an aside, this also means you could share your Netflix queue with any new DVD rental service that comes down the pike – so my guess is that smaller, up-and-coming sites will be more willing to share attention data than the more entrenched sites will.)
This is the stage we’re at now with attention data, but my prediction is that attention will become far more important down the road. Right now we’re witnessing the growth of services who provide aggregated attention data, and statistics suggested by this data will increasingly impact those of us – journalists and techies alike – who hope to survive in the online world. And the Utopian in me would love to see this grow into a means to find out what people are paying attention to (so we decide what the top stories are) but I fear that spam and the usual assortment of garbage that comes with popularity will give rise to “safe” outlets that still end up choosing the news for us. Regardless, though, now is a good time for something like AttentionTrust.org to plant a stake in the ground and let attention-based businesses know what’s expected of them.