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January, 2006

Observations from /VAULTSTOCK

I spent Friday afternoon at /VAULTSTOCK, which was essentially a get together for /ROOT owners and, for me, a chance to better understand and explore both /ROOT and AttentionTrust. Whether I'm actually any closer to understanding either is still up for debate, but I do have some observations/thoughts after spending 6+ hours with a bunch of geeks talking attention.

Let me start with a quick explanation for those that are completely new to this. AttentionTrust is a non-profit organization run by Steve Gillmor aimed at allowing people to own their own attention data. Instead of having all these separate entities owning and doing what they want to with your data (think about everything Amazon.com knows about what you read), it's AttentionTrust's aim to allow individuals to take back what's theirs. Using the Attention Recorder you can track all your clicks and know everywhere you've gone on the internet. What you do with that information is up to you.

Which, is where /ROOT comes in. They hope to be your information broker (or so it seems): Creating an online marketplace for attention data to be exchanged. How this will happen is what I hoped to have answered on Friday. I'm not sure I did, but I do have a few general thoughts:

On a personal level attention data seems to have the most potential as a way to power some kind of recommendation engine. If you could plug in all my RSS feeds, attention data, del.icio.us bookmarks, etc. into some kind of system and then compare it all to the same data from friends, I could probably get some good recommendations. Clearly this would be a hot seller for the many of us who are bogged down by 200+ RSS feeds.

With all that said, if that's all that comes out of AttentionTrust, it just doesn't seem like such a big deal. I mean, people there seemed to be looking at this whole thing as a transformative innovation, and if the biggest thing it builds is a recommendation engine I'd hardly say that would transform my browsing habits. (But then again who knows . . .)

As I understand it, part of /ROOT's idea is that they will be able to use attention data to develop better leads. Basically you could look at someone's browsing habits and beat others to the punch in talking to them. Say you were a mortgage company and you saw that someone was searching Craig's List housing section every day for two hours. At this point in the buying cycle, there's no real way for you to know what they're looking or for you to reach them. But if you have access to their attention data, you could swoop in early and grab them before the competition knew what hit them. (Somebody feel free to correct me if this is totally wrong.)

Now my issue with that is for this to be valuable to marketers it has to have a fairly wide adoption. Although there's something to be said for reaching early adopters and letting word-of-mouth do the work, in a lot of categories, that's just not going to do the trick. I mean sure it could be part of a larger marketing puzzle and it definitely is an opportunity to cut through the clutter and speak directly to potential leads, but unless it gets some serious adoption it's not going to blow up the whole marketing world (which I think kind of answers Kareem's question.)

I think it's a really good idea and if everyone recorded their attention it would be a great way for marketers to target far better. But here's my widespread adoption issue: the general public don't think they have an 'attention problem.' If you ask people how much television they watch, they'll tell you less than they actually do. Most individuals have no clue what they actually spend their time doing and they're totally fine with it. Yeah, RSS puts all this information at your fingertips and creates an attention problem. But that's only for us geeks who are subscribed to 300+ feeds. I mean, yeah new technologies will force people to split their time more and more, but will they notice/care? I think it's really important to remember that the average person has no desire to sit around and read all these RSS feeds then blog about them. In fact, if you showed someone how I spend my attention online, they'd probably think I was an idiot who was wasting time.

Which brings me to my last point: non-geeks are not stupid, they're normal. I got the feeling at /VAULTSTOCK that some people believed that those who don't get this attention thing are dumb: As if those who are not worried about better utilizing their time online must be some kind of lower species. It's just not true. But more than that, it's dangerous. When you hold the general public in contempt, you tend not to get very far. Yeah you'll make it in the geek community, and the early adopters will love you, but when it's time to talk to the other 99% of the world they won't be listening.

Updated (1/22/06): Added the word "some" to the sentence about people believing "those who don't get this attention thing are dumb." I think it's important to note that not everyone gave me that impression. In fact, it may be me projecting my own misunderstanding and self-awareness of that onto the group. But then again, it might not be. I mean, it's not unheard of for geeks to be elitist . . .

January 23, 2006
Noah Brier | Thanks for reading. | Don't fake the funk on a nasty dunk.