Attention and Intention

This article appeared as my column for Connect Magazine in May 2006.

I just returned from a week in San Diego attending the Emerging Technology Conference (ETech). The center of attention was, well, attention. Attention, as understood in the Web 2.0 world is the data that's created when you pay attention to something online. Similarly, the fact that you ignore something can be recorded as a kind of negative attention.

Attention isn't some hypothetical future scenario. Rather it's a name for something that's been happening since the Web started. Every Web site you visit has the capability of recording your travels through their site and the actions that you take. Amazon for example, knows what books you purchased and what books other people purchased and uses that information to make personalized recommendations.

As you move around the Web you're leaving a record of your attention scattered in log files and databases. Links are another kind of attention data. When you link to a Web page, you're paying attention to it in a specific way that Google uses to determine which pages have value and which don't.

Clearly attention data has value to companies like Amazon and Google, but it could also have value to you, if there were some way to gather it, measure it, and analyze it. Right now, you can't even get your hands on it, but a group of people on the Web, called AttentionTrust.org, believe you have that right. Specifically, AttentionTrust maintains that people should have the right to control their attention data, move it from one place to another, financially benefit from its value, and decide who gets it.

AttentionTrust isn't alone. Michael Goldhaber, who spoke at ETech and has been thinking about attention since the mid 90's, believes attention will be at the center of economic activity in the coming years. The dominant roles in an attention economy are fans and stars. Stars are anyone who can attract attentions. In this new economy, you get attention by being public, transparent, and open.

Your attention is valuable. As an impression on a Web site, is worth $0.001. For a click it's worth $0.50. For a mortgage lead, it's worth $25. Surprisingly, a completed US Army application is worth $2000. We pay attention to lots of things. We'd like to protect our attention from distractions like advertisements, flashing banners, and strangers. These interruptions are stealing your attention. Calls to privacy are attempts to preserve it.

I don't want to give the impression that attention is a precisely understood idea or even that people at ETech came to a common understanding of its use and value. Dan Farber, writing on Between the Lines, sat through the conference and labeled the entire concept "amorphous." Much of the talk was, in Dan's words, "theoretical or aspirational" rather than focused.

One of the most important ideas to come out of all the talk was a notion that Doc Searls put forward called intention. Intention turns the whole idea of attention inside out. Where attention data is about the past, intention is forward looking. Intention moves the conversation away from the sellers who record and use attention to the buyers who not only pay attention, but also cash.

Along these lines, Brian Dear of Eventful, announced a tool called "Dream Events." Dream Events gives you the ability to express your intention to attend an event and the tools to get others on board. Say you'd like the Rolling Stones to play a concert in Salt Lake City. Create a Dream Event and start getting others to express their intentions to come if it happens. If it reaches critical mass, your dream might come true.

Intention gives you the power to combine your intentions with those of like-minded people to get things that would otherwise be unavailable, like a Stones concert. I don't think this is about persuading O'Reilly to bring out the books I want to read, BMW to build the car I want to buy, or Apple to create the laptop I want to use because those companies already do that. That's why they're successful.

Intention is more subtle than that. Seth Goldstien has a company, Root.net, that is building a brokerage to secure and trade or intention, which he called promises to pay attention, or PPAs. I don't know that Eventful is trying to broker Dream Events, but that's powerful idea.

The linkage between intention and attention will ultimately be the brokers who can pool intention to represent real demand for goods and services that no one has imagined yet. Some people, like Steve Jobs, seem to be able to do this intuitively. Building systems that help us follow the path from intention to attention may make it less mysterious to the rest of us.

Phil Windley teaches Computer Science at Brigham Young University. Windley writes a blog on enterprise computing at http://www.windley.com and is the author of Digital Identity published by O'Reilly Media. Contact him at phil@windley.com

Last Modified: Saturday, 11-Mar-2006 14:54:19 MST