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January 05, 2006

Pricking the insular tech bubble

Structured blogging - this strikes me as a solution in desperate need of a problem. Well, I know *who* has the problems -- blog search engines, rss aggregators, and the like who are hoping to be able to better define the blog reading experience. But the users definitely don't have the problem -- neither the reader nor the writer is calling out for structured blogging... Are they?

Attention Trust. There's been quite a bit of blog froth about the subject of attention, and the development of Attention Trust, a group dedicated to ensuring that people's attention is appropriately valued. I was hoping I could avoid saying much about it, because it seems like a circle jerk of well-meaning technologists who are totally out of touch with consumer needs. I was dismayed, then, when the otherwise on-the-money Bokardo identified "attention" as a trend to watch in 2006. Dismayed because, frankly, there are much more important problems for designers (and engineers, and, well, anyone) to solve than managing issues of "attention." Attention management is one of those classic problems that direly affects the cognoscenti, and has little impact on the bulk of humanity. There are so many more bigger issues to address -- can we focus our attention (ha!) appropriately?

Posted by peterme at January 5, 2006 01:55 PM

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I think Structured Blogging might be helpful, if it's done in an entirely unobtrusive and relaxed way. It remains to be seen if it in fact is an imposition of old-skool CMS-style content-writing interfaces, precisely the crap that The Big Text box of blogging did away with.

But thanks for bringing up this Attention nonsense. It has made absolutely no sense to me since day one, and even Bokardo's usually clear explanations can't mange this one. Circle jerk is exactly it.

Posted by: Marcus at January 5, 2006 02:42 PM

Yeah, I was kind of curious to see what AttentionTrust.org was all about when I saw it on the agenda for BayCHI. I think I'll go to see if it's a tempest in a teapot or if there's some worthwhile ideas - it'll be a good way to kill a Tuesday night.

Posted by: Al Abut at January 5, 2006 04:28 PM

Gene--

Yes. But, does it need a movement?

Posted by: peterme at January 5, 2006 08:38 PM

I am an employee for root.net as their blogger. Josh Porter sent me a link to this post.

As you may or may not know, Root /Vaults is an Attention bank and it uses the AttentionTrust's Attention recorder to allow consumers to store and analyze their clickstream. In the future, there'll be functionality that lets users INPUT|STORE|VIEW|OUTPUT|SHARE|TRADE their clickstream. There's a lot of stuff in development.

As you may or may not know, google, yahoo, amazon, experian etc track our clickstreams with toolbars and other means. Although toolbar users agree to it, we do not have control over what they do with that data. Conspiracy theorists might say that they could use it for a lot of things (like selling that data to junk mailers) or supplying it to governments without warrants (John Battelle). But, most likely, they will use it to deliver better services to us. But, we won't necessarily be an active participant in how that happens.

If you've read John Battelle's new book, The Search, you'll notice that the gold that Google and Yahoo are minting right now is because of their knowledge of our clickstreams, which is really just an indication of what we are paying attention to. They use that data to deliver more targeted ads.

Root /Vaults aims to provide users with control along the way, as new uses for our clickstream are developed. The service currently provides a simple way to view and analyze your clickstream. Which may or may not appeal to many people. Currently, there are a thousand users based on a soft launch.

A thousand users certainly doesn't prove a mass market. So, I wouldn't claim (at this point) that managing clickstreams (and other attention revealing data) is something that will pass the mom test. But, I certainly wouldn't dismiss it as nonsense or impractical. Or unimportant...

I really don't think it is a small issue. In fact, I think it is vital that we have control over our own data. Although, companies like yahoo and google will not cross the boundaries of what we think is acceptable use of our behavioural data (because they risk soiling their brand image), there are plenty of advertising networks and lead generation companies that already do cross the line. And as we share more data about ourselves that reveals what our interests are, there'll be more financial incentive for these companies to use our data surreptitiously.

For this reason, I think there is a compelling case for providing a means for user to manage their own attention data. Whether they use it to optimize their time management or to optimize offers they receive from advertisers, to improve accuracy of search results, I think there are a lot of benefits to be derived from paying closer attention to attention data.

Root.net is having /VaultStock on January 20th in NYC. Here's more information. The goal is to bring anyone interested together to talk about all of these issues and how best to develop solutions for [all kinds of] people. We especially hope that people that aren't quite buying the "attention" concept will join us and engage us in some conversation. We certainly have a lot to learn before we make this a reality.

If NYC is within your reach, Peter, I'd especially enjoy meeting you. Your book has been recommended to me by several people.


Posted by: Peter Caputa at January 6, 2006 09:28 AM

"As you may or may not know, Root /Vaults is an Attention bank and it uses the AttentionTrust's Attention recorder to allow consumers to store and analyze their clickstream. In the future, there'll be functionality that lets users INPUT|STORE|VIEW|OUTPUT|SHARE|TRADE their clickstream."

Good Lord, Peter, what the *fuck* are you talking about? This gibberish addresses no obvious user problem in anything like an appealing way. INPUT|STORE|VIEW|OUTPUT|SHARE|TRADE is a computer shouting at me in Boolean, not a set of usable tools.

It's as if some genius realized the metaphor of "paying attention" implied a kind of measurable "currency" that we could treat like money. It's the kind of strained metaphor Michael on "The Office" would use. ("'Relationship' has the word 'ship' in it, so who's the captain of this 'relation-ship.'?")

*Privacy issues* are of real concern to real users of all experience and interest levels. It would be great to have usable tools for helping understand what companies are learning about me as I use the web.

"Attention" is some bizarre academic abstraction that only vaguely maps onto that problem. The *real* problem is: "Google is actively taking something from me as I use their products." This "attention" theory flips it around to blame the user: "You have a reserve of 'attention' that you give out to companies like Google." So now it's my fault for somehow "paying attention" in the wrong way? And now I have to do something different to fix the problem? (Or wait for Google to change? Will that be before or after their stock hits $500/per share?)

Posted by: Marcus at January 6, 2006 10:12 AM

Hi Marcus,
I don't think that it flips the privacy concern back on the user. AttentionTrust.org is actually a long-term mechanism for empowering users to decide what companies can and cannot do with the fodder that is their use patterns in the cloud.

While I do agree that AttentionTrust and /Root have a big language problem to hurdle, I have spoken a bit at length with these guys and when you get through it all, it is not about creating the market. it exists. Whether you like it or not. It has existed for years. Just like catalogs making most of their money selling address databases, this is just the same thing, but with a heck of a lot and more personal data. But the data is there for the taking and the question is who should own and or control it.

One issue to deal with is that this is NOT about "clickstream". Even Google who is attempting to patent hte idea of 'attention" understands this. its about who I call, what I TiVo, who I e-mail, what I buy, etc. Some of this is part of the clickstream, or can be integrated into it, but some of it can't, as no one lives a purely Internetized life and not all of the components are speaking to each other yet.

I do think we are years from seeing any real effect here, but I do think that what Root is offering is compelling for the new adopters. It gives people an opportunity to have business intelligence on themselves. I don't know what will come of it, but I do think it can be valuable to the end user. It is an incredibly complex design problem that involves all the core elements of good interactive systems design.

Posted by: Dave at January 9, 2006 07:29 AM