Business

Seeking Attention

Measuring exactly who’s looking at what and for how long, some experts say, is the Web’s new gold.

If you’re wondering why the term “attention” has suddenly replaced “eyeballs” and “stickiness” as the new media buzzword du jour, look no further than Seth Goldstein.

A former entrepreneur-in-residence for Flatiron Partners, where he built and managed a $75 million new-technology investment portfolio, Goldstein admits to plugging the term shamelessly to friends and colleagues, after first stumbling onto it two years ago.

“I was working with Josh Schachter in 2004 and heard him summarize what a tag was,” says Goldstein, refering to the human-applied word label used to sort Internet content on Schachter’s site, del.icio.us. “He said a tag is just crystallized attention, and it stuck with me.”

Two years later, that introduction has resulted in Goldstein’s participation in the launch of at least two early-stage companies: the non-profit Attention Trust and for-profit Root Markets, two outfits dedicated to helping users and marketers quantify attention as yet another metric of Internet use. It’s also resulted in a string of invited appearances at industry gatherings such as the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference and the Release 1.0 PC Forum.

While not the only person touting “attention” as a new way of looking at the Internet publishing model, Goldstein takes credit for “galvanizing thought” around the concept on the business side of the Internet community.

“My wife, who works for AOL, is my biggest critic,” he says. “A year ago when I was cooking up Attention Trust and talking about helping users take control of their own attention data, she was, like, ‘No one cares,’ but I kept doing my thing. A year later, she gets an e-mail from a senior executive from AOL saying, ‘We need to get our arms around not only Web 2.0 but also attention. Have you checked out Attention Trust?’”

Goldstein chalks up the sudden acceptance to a number of factors. First and foremost is the growing realization that business sustainability on the Web has become less an issue of quantity than quality. Attract the so-called “alpha” users who can drive development, propel your message, and add inbound HTML links to raise your site’s PageRank, and the Internet trade winds will take even the smallest company wherever it needs to go. Fail to do all those things, however, and you’ll find yourself spending millions just to escape the Internet equivalent of the horse latitudes.

Like most ready buzzwords, “attention” means different things to different users. For Internet marketers, a group in which Goldstein claims early membership, it means intelligent lead-generation – knowing who views what and for how long. Dubbing lead-generation the “waste management” side of new media, Goldstein said he cofounded Attention Trust as a way to help educate Internet users about just how much information they were casually throwing away, and to set up a possible marketplace so that alpha users could get more value in return.

“The dirty little secret of the Internet is that most of the content you see each day costs nothing, because you pay for it in other ways,” says Goldstein. “You pay for it by supplying additional pieces of information about yourself to advertisers every time you click on a page or add a new link.”

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.

Extending the Goldhaber perspective to the Internet as a whole, however, requires a few intermediary steps, Goldstein says. Last November, after launching Attention Trust, Goldstein handed off the reins and started focusing on Root Markets, a commercial venture designed to facilitate the collection and sale of individual user data.

Goldstein likens Root Markets to Fannie Mae, the federally backed company that buys, bundles, and resells U.S. home mortgages to the investor marketplace. Individual users or publishers acting as a proxy for users supply their Web usage data to Root Markets with the agreement that Root Markets, in turn, can bundle the data for resale to certain marketers and advertisers. In addition to knowing how their information will be used and sold, users receive whatever discounts that Root Markets can wring out of corporations eager to get its hands on bulk pre-qualified leads.

“Wells Fargo doesn’t want one mortgage lead today; it wants 50,000 leads, and it wants 50,000 leads for delivery in October,” says Goldstein, singling out one potential buyer. “That way they can better plan out the bandwidth costs at their call center.”

Not too many people sign up to be on the other end of a telemarketer’s call sheet, but that’s the whole point, Goldstein says. The first thing a user notices upon registering a Root Markets account is how spyware sites bearing names like “a.tribalfusion.com”

and “atdmt.com” dominate the daily “visits” page, a visual artifact of the cookies that follow and monitor us from page to page. Even if one dismisses the Goldhaber economic view of attention as its own currency, Root Markets certainly exposes how cheaply many of us currently value our Web usage data.

“We want to be influential, but we want to give away as little information as possible,” says Goldstein. “We can give away no information at all, but that’s sort of like storing all your money in the mattress. This provides a way to control your data while at the same time participating in the broader economy.”

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