For users, meanwhile, attention means intelligent time management, knowing when to close the laptop and talk to your family, and when to tackle the 200 e-mails in your inbox.
“It’s all about optimizing the limited amount of time we all have,” says Steven Gillmor, a technology blogger and recent Goldstein collaborator. Gillmor traces his personal concern about attention to the advent of the RSS automated newsfeed, a tool that radically restructured his own Web-surfing priorities and prompted the creation of attention.xml, an add-on developed with the help of Technorati founder Dave Sifry that lets RSS users monitor their news-reading activities.
At the 2005 O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in San Diego, CA, Gillmor and Goldstein met and shared their disparate thoughts. Out of the resulting conversation emerged Attention Recorder, a Firefox browser extension that lets users statistically monitor their Web-surfing activity down to the individual click-and-search query, and Attention Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to rallying users and marketers alike around four main principles: 1) attention data should be considered the personal property of the user at all times, 2) users should be able to rent or grant access to attention data at will, 3) users should be able to pay for services with attention data alone, and 4) users should be able to see how marketers use that data.
Gillmor credits Goldstein for coming up with the principles, but notes an emerging tension over etymology. “Seth has this whole dichotomy when he talks about attention,” he says. “There’s the mercenary side, talking about better leads side and the holistic, kumbaya side.”
Goldstein attributes the “kumbaya” side to Michael Goldhaber, a California PhD who has lectured and written papers on the attention concept since the early 1980s. To Goldhaber, attention is more than a metric of interest to users and advertisers – it’s the base unit of human interaction in a post-Internet world economy.
“People in well-off countries have more stuff than they know what to do with,” says Goldhaber, who was a featured speaker along with Goldstein and Gillmor at this year’s O’Reilly Emerging Tech Conference. “If you turn around our current predicament of information overload, you see the true item of scarcity is attention.”
Such statements gain weight when viewed against the backdrop of recent history. Open-source projects such as Apache and Linux deliver millions of dollars worth of new economic value each year, with nary a dollar or euro exchanged at the top levels of development. A similar phenomenon seems playing out in the Internet news realm, where individual blogs, in many cases seeking only momentary notoriety, have out-competed professional news agencies in the gathering and dissemination of major stories.