Attention is getting a lot of attention. Most recently, Robert Scoble from Microsoft blogged about an epiphany he had earlier this week during a visit to Silicon Valley. He is beginning to see the importance of attention and how it will shape value creation on the Internet.
Attention is hugely important. It is the asset that will determine who creates value and who destroys value in the years ahead. Among other things, it will transform the nature and power of brands, as I discussed recently here, here and here. It is also reshaping the media business as I hinted in a posting on Martha Stewart a few years ago.
But I worry that we are confusing attention with attention profiles – the historical record of where we have allocated our attention in the past. In the process, we may lose sight of what is really valuable and how to harness that value.
Attention refers to the choice we each make regarding where we will focus at any point in time. It is also highly dynamic – each moment we have an opportunity to re-visit our choice and make a different choice. Attention is ultimately what counts – attention profiles have value only because our attention has so much value. I remain indebted to Michael Goldhaber for his seminal article on this topic - "The Attention Economy and the Net".
Why is our attention so valuable? Because it is so scarce or, more accurately, because its relative scarcity has been rapidly increasing. Attention is a constant resource for each of us – we only have 24 hours in the day. It is up to us how we use those 24 hours. What’s changed is that we have more and more options competing for our attention. We face increasing abundance both in the production and distribution of goods and information about those goods. Some people think this is a curse. I happen to believe it is a blessing for many reasons.
But it does pose a challenge. Each of us feels more pressure to increase our return on attention – given more and more options competing for our attention, we run significant risk of fragmenting our attention and diverting our attention to lower value options. Anything or anyone who can help us increase our return on attention will likely get more of our attention over time, especially if they can further increase our return on attention over a broader scope of activities. A powerful increasing returns dynamic can be unleashed if the game is played right.
Attention profiles have the potential (but only the potential – there are serious challenges in harnessing this potential) to increase our return on attention. They can make filters and finders much more effective in connecting us with the people and resources that are most relevant. Given new technologies, we are finally acquiring the tools required to capture and store our own attention profiles and to make these profiles selectively available to others who offer the promise of further enhancing our return on attention.
In a nutshell, this is the infomediary opportunity that I originally outlined with Jeffrey Rayport in a Harvard Business Review article (purchase required) back in 1997 and developed in much greater detail in Net Worth: Shaping Markets When Customers Make the Rules (co-authored with Marc Singer), published 6 years ago in 1999. It is also, as I understand it, the basic proposition driving the recent formation of AttentionTrust.org by Steve Gillmor, Hank Barry and Seth Goldstein, among others.
Unfortunately, the web site and the founders do themselves a disservice and muddy the waters in the way they frame the undertaking. The home page of AttentionTrust.org is framed entirely in terms of rights, concluding with the call to action: “Assert your right to you!” This theme is further developed in a blog posting by Seth Goldstein entitled “AttentionTrust.org: A Declaration of Gestural Independence”.
Having spent a lot of time in this field, I am skeptical whether an appeal to rights or independence is going to be sufficient to get mass adoption. What matters to most people is whether they are going to get greater return on their attention – it is a much more pragmatic concern.
In a posting on March 28th earlier this year, Steve Gilmor presented part of an IM exchange with Kevin Werbach where he responded to Kevin’s question about the significance of attention.xml (a standard being developed by AttentionTrust.org). Steve’s response is interesting – it does a great job of explaining how this new standard can help Kevin deal more effectively with a flood of information by connecting with the information that is most relevant. Not once does Steve talk about rights to attention or attention profiles – it is a very pragmatic and compelling pitch based on increasing return on attention.
In reflecting on the disappointing experience of the first wave of infomediaries, I draw two key lessons. First, many of these businesses led with the proposition of privacy protection, but most people most of the time are not that concerned about protection of privacy – they will readily trade information about themselves for something of perceived value. Witness the frequent fliers who will not board a plane until they know the airline has captured detailed information about their itinerary.
Second, these businesses also emphasized the monetary value of attention profiles and offered subscribers the opportunity to receive money in return for information about themselves. The problem with this approach is that the cash value of attention profiles is actually quite limited from the viewpoint of an individual consumer.
As I emphasized in Net Worth, the real value of the infomediary comes from using attention profiles to reduce interaction costs and increase return on attention. The infomediary can help customers to sort through all the options competing for their attention and to connect rapidly and conveniently with the resources that matter the most to them – not only through search but, increasingly, through recommendation services based on deeper understanding of their interests and preferences.
Unfortunately, this is a much more challenging proposition to deliver on than either blocking access to attention profiles or selling attention profiles to the highest bidder. But it is also a compelling proposition that creates interesting opportunities for increasing returns dynamics. AttentionTrust.org ought to lead with this proposition and focus on developing the technology standards that will help individuals and their infomediary agents to increase return on attention.
For Robert Scoble, the question is whether Microsoft will take a customer or provider lens when thinking about the technologies required to increase return on attention. If Microsoft plays this game right and approaches this from the viewpoint of the customer, it has an opportunity to leapfrog past Google and Yahoo and carve out a leadership position in the consumer arena. Scoble might want to ask around about Microsoft’s acquisition of Firefly back in 1998. The company has taken some initiatives in this direction in the past but without much success. The game is still open.