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Privacy Lost

Tuesday October 17th, 2006 in ,

MSNBC is running an interesting story called Privacy under attack, but does anybody care?, a part of their weekly special report on privacy - Privacy Lost. They did a survey with around 6500 MSNBC users which produced the following results and conclusions:

  • 60 percent of the respondents feel their privacy is slipping away
  • Only 7 percent change their behavior in an effort to preserve their privacy
  • 92 percent of users said they do not want the government tracking their Web surfing habits or reading their e-mail, electronically tracking their automobiles or eavesdropping on telephone calls
  • Most users and consumers will trade some privacy for convenience
  • Privacy is very difficult to define - some consensus around “privacy is to be left alone”
  • It’s difficult to predict the consequences of giving out personal information
  • Their is no consensus on what should be done to preserve privacy

As attention services begin to emerge, it will be interesting to see how convenience is balanced with privacy and where the line ends up being is drawn.

Designed Life

Sunday October 8th, 2006 in ,

As we continue to surround ourselves with technology, we live an increasingly designed life - you could even call it life as a user experience. Come to think of it, through the products I’ve used in my lifetime, I’ve tapped into the creativity and knowledge of thousands of people I may never meet. For example, there’s 1000s of parts in my car, each one carefully designed by another human being. Imagine for a moment, if you can, the faces of the people who created the products you have used in your lifetime. Your computer, cell phone, TV, stereo, car, all the things in your house or apartment, even your home itself. It would be an army of people the size of which you wouldn’t believe.

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The everyday hero of attention data

This story is about something that most of us use on a daily basis and have come to take for granted: Autocomplete. Autocomplete is the younger and cuter version of command line completion, which started life as a tool for speeding up the shell in the Berkeley Timesharing system. Command line completion, now in a improved and less aggressive version, then found its way into Tenex operating system, and was later adopted for use in the Unix systems that are widespread today.

Autocomplete as we know it today eventually found its way to almost anyone who uses a computer by appearing in web browsers, email clients and the shell of Microsoft Windows, Mac OS and Linux.

What’s interesting about autocomplete is that by trying to solve the problem of effectively getting valid input from the user, it became one of the first examples of using attention data to help the user. Read the rest of this entry »

Life after social bookmarking

Social bookmarking, one of the most talked about and crowded web 2.0 spaces, has transformed the way people save, share and discover bookmarks on the web. Del.icio.us, owned by Yahoo and one of the best known social bookmarking sites, recently had a blog post about achieving 1 million users after 3 years of service. Although this is no small feat, Myspace has managed to attract 100 million users in roughly the same timeframe. So, what’s holding back widespread adoption of social bookmarking services?

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What’s next for RSS?

Wednesday September 13th, 2006 in , , , , ,

There’s no doubt that RSS has had a significant impact on how people access and discover information on the web. But to most people the experience has been bittersweet. Sweet because we no longer have to visit sites that haven’t been updated with new content since our last visit. It helps us save time, and for a while it seemed a small yet noticeable step in the right direction for fighting the information overload most of us face every day.

As time passed, more and more websites proclaimed “we have a feed, add it!”, and so we did, thinking that this feed might be the one we couldn’t live without. There was something alluring about the promise of always staying informed and ahead of the game - we couldn’t help it and just had to click the shiny RSS button. Soon, the list of feeds had outgrown the height of the screen, spanning numerous categories. The once so comforting “3 unread items” had been replaced by numbers in the three digit range. RSS suddenly made it all too clear that we will never be able to read and comprehend all the content out there.

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The fight for attention

Wednesday September 6th, 2006 in , , , , , ,

Historically we’ve seen how software companies used proprietary data formats to achieve vendor lock-in, thereby exerting control over their customers. Fortunately, recent years have given us open formats such as XML, which makes systems integration and data exchange simpler. The interesting questions is what caused this development? Did the vendors suddenly decide to embrace open formats?

The vendors relied on their lock-in to stay in business, and would not willingly give up this advantage. So what happened? The customers got smarter, that’s what happened, and they started to make demands: “we already have 20 systems that can’t talk to each other. We are not adding any more systems until they start talking together!”. So, integration became a selling point that vendors would have to deal with to stay in business.

Fast forward to 2006. A lot has happened. We’ve got tons of new web 2.0 services launching each day, massive amounts of user generated content, social networks, feeds, you name it. All of which are fighting for our attention. Although I primarily see this development as a positive thing, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that we are dealing with a brand new kind of lock-in: Attention data lock-in.

Even though attention starts with the user, who expresses his or her intentions as gestures that generate attention data, vendors currently have the upper hand when it comes to these data. They are hiding it in huge silos secured behind huge walls. Why? For vendors such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon, the attention data that their customers generate is the most important asset they have. It’s what gives them a competitive edge - they surely don’t want their competitors to get their hands on it!

Where does this leave us as customers? Currently, most of us aren’t in control of our own attention data; the digital representation of who we are, our identity. The fact is that our attention data is scattered across these different locked silos, and something has to happen before this changes. Let me give you a few examples:

  • You searched countless times on Google for a specific topic, and clicked search results. Can you take this with you to Microsoft Live, Yahoo or other search engines?
  • You rated, bought and did all kinds of stuff using your amazon account. Although amazon is great, Barnes and Noble might have other books you would enjoy. Can you take your list of books, likes and dislikes with you?
  • You’ve spent countless hours building buddy lists and social networks. Along comes a new exiting service that adds that killer feature you just got to have. Can you take your “buddies” and your shared connections with you?

We spend all this time and attention to create the content, the value, yet we don’t have control over it. We can’t take it with us. This is how the majority of current services work, but Flickr is leading the way by opening up their API for direct competitors that are willing to do the same.

A new kind of playing field

What we’re seeing with Flickr is the beginning of a totally new kind of playing field, where customers and users are more in control of their content; pictures being the example of attention in this case. But giving up some of the control will seem frightening to most vendors, since customers can chose to take their content and attention elsewhere.

On the other hand, history has shown that vender lock-in couldn’t withstand the pressure of customer demand, e.g. in terms of integration. I think the same thing will happen in the case of attention data lock-in. Services become more valuable to us when we have control of our attention data. In direct competition, giving users control of their attention data will become a selling point. It provides us with a sense security. We won’t have to worry about loosing time and attention spent on one specific service, we can even get additional personal value from the same attention across different services.

The question that remains is who will take us there and when will we arrive…

How Mr. Search Engine came to know You

Friday September 1st, 2006 in , , , , , , ,

Search engine companies are getting a lot of attention right now by the media (no pun intended). To name but a few articles:

As expected this means that tools for private browsing are getting more focus. Some work by deleting browser history, cookies etc. on the client computer, while others attempt to mask the real user behavior by performing random searches on behalf of the user. It will be interesting to see how this battle for privacy develops, but let’s look at how we got here in the first place.

Ok, so what does every modern search engine need?:

  • Hardware - processing power, memory, storage, network equipment
  • Infrastructure - secure data centers, massive bandwidth and power
  • Talented people - the web is a large place and users want relevant results in less than a second
  • Huge sums of money -  to pay for the three items above

As users we’ve come to expect unlimited free access to search engines. Using them has become so ingrained that I’ve caught my self shouting “the web just broke” if Google.com is down. I couldn’t do my job without search engines - something I would imagine a lot of people share with me. Interestingly I’ve never paid as much as a single cent to use the search engines. Instead, I give them a considerable amount of my attention almost every day. Each time I search I’m stating my intentions, what I’m interested in, but in return I get instant access to relevant information across the world.

Seeing as we have reached 1 billion Internet users, and that advertising on search engines is already a $14-billion-a-year business, the attention of the average Internet user is currently valued at $14 per year. I personally think that this figure indicates that we’ve only just begun to see search engines tap into the value of attention. Why? Every day the results from search engines help people make important decisions, stay informed and buy the right products. From this perspective $14 seems almost insignificant.

Where does all of this leave us? As I see it, the price of attention will continue to be directly linked to the quality of search engines. For this reason, search engine companies will continue to develop technology that gets inside the heads of its users. We will get even more relevant results and be served ads that anticipate what we want before we know it. The one question that we all have to ask ourselves is this:

  • Mr. Search Engine: Enjoyed your stay?
  • You: Yes, thank you. I found what I was looking for
  • Mr. Search Engine: Will you be paying in cash or attention?

Make the choice…

The Attention Life Cycle

Wednesday August 30th, 2006 in , , ,

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ve created a quick sketch of how I see the life cycle of attention. Click the picture for the full-sized version.

The Attention Life Cycle

More details to follow. I’m sure there’s many other ways to represent this, so feel free to voice your opinion.

It’s your attention - use it!

Sunday August 27th, 2006 in , , , , ,

One of the interesting aspects of dealing with attention, or specifically the recording of it as , is the immediate and often strong reaction that people have towards it. I’ve seen reactions ranging from “wow - there’s so much potential in this” to “no way - it’s a huge invasion of privacy”. Both are natural human responses - we all have an inbuilt fear of the unknown, but at the same time we are both curious and adventurous.

Our privacy, or the lack thereof, is at the center of a raging battle that affects almost every aspect of our lives. Scott McNealy from Sun once said “You have zero privacy anyway - Get over it“, which sparked a huge debate. In some ways, this is not far from the truth seeing as experts estimate that information about the average working adult in the UK is stored on 700 databases. Interestingly, at the same time we’re seeing services such as myspace and youtube scrape in millions of users looking to express themselves and who they are. In some strange way it seems that the majority of young Americans don’t want privacy, they want attention.

The fact is, as we go about our daily lives we’re leaving an abundance of footprints in the sands of this huge digital sandbox we call the Internet. Most of us let these grains of information slip right through our fingers. Why? For one, most users don’t realize the amount of information they leave behind in the webserver logs of the sites they visit. At the same time, the majority of users have not yet been given the incentive or strong enough reasons to collect and save their different kinds of attention data.

One way of looking at it is this: many companies and organizations already know a lot about you, why shouldn’t you know the same things and hopefully more about yourself? Plus, it’s not like you have to do any extra work, doing what you normally do is all that is required to collect your attention data (and the right tools mind you). For example, last.fm lets you keep your own fully-automated music journal and helps you discover new music simply by listening to music as you’ve always done. Last.fm shows us just a glimpse of the kind of value that can be found in your attention data. Some might think “I already know what kind of music I listen to”, but in my opinion we’re already way past the point where we can remember or keep track of the things we consume digitally - even on a daily basis.

In a way you can think of your own attention data as an extension of your mind and your memory. And who of us wouldn’t want a sharp memory? We might discover surprising and important things about our selves.

Attention Brings Service Online

Scientists from the RAND Corporation have created this model to illustrate what a “home computer� could look like in the year 2004. However the needed technology will not be economically feasible for the average home. Also the scientists readily admit that the computer will require not yet invented technology to actually work, but 50 years from now scientific progress is expected to solve these problems. With the teletype interface and the Fortran language, the computer will be easy to use. � Popular Mechanics, 1954

June 2006, Internet World Stats reports that more than one billion people use the Internet. That’s one billion people looking to connect, be entertained, discover something new, even learn something. As a result, the Internet has fundamentally changed how some of the most basic human needs are met. The problem is that the principles on which our society is built no longer apply, including the laws of physics and many of the established economic models. It’s an entirely different animal and it’s called The Attention Economy

One important aspect of how this attention driven economy works is known as The Long Tail. Simply put, the long tail means that in terms of business, small is the new big since storage, shelf-space and distribution no longer factor into the equation. When the product range is broadened the sales generated from small names, for example in books and music, starts to add up and the volume of low popularity items exceeds the volume of high popularity items. One thing remains constant though, it’s still all about giving people what they want, and herein lies the challenge.

The challenge can be outlined as follows:

  1. Assume an almost infinitely broad selection of products
  2. Attention is the most precious resource that the user has - for this reason consider it extremely limited
  3. Present the user with the most relevant products in the shortest possible time, and a minimal amount of work required on their end.

I’ve been focusing on how we spend money on music and books, but variations of this challenge exist anywhere we spend attention. We chose the search engine that provides us with the best results, subscribe to the feeds that have the best chance of keeping using up to speed. Or at least we like to think that’s what we’re doing. We can never really know what’s out there, if we missed that one important thing that would have made all the difference.

Hi, I’ll have the Usual / What’s Good?

We’ve established that we all spend attention. The challenge ahead is to maximize the “return of attention”. Ideally, I want relevant products and information at my fingertips. Products that are a perfect match for me, information I can use and enjoy. How can we achieve this? Logic dictates that in order to do this better, the source of these products and information needs to know more about me - my likes and dislikes, what I’ve done previously. This is where attention data comes into play.

As a consumer you can think of attention data as the relationship you’ve established with the seller of the product in question. A premise for this kind of relationship is trust, but once established the experience becomes more enjoyable for you and more profitable for the seller. A few real-life examples of this includes:

  • The staff at your favorite restaurant - they come to know how you like to be seated, the kind of food and drink you like. As a result they will be able to recommend new dishes you’re likely to enjoy.
  • The bartender at the place you usually hang with your friends - lift a finger and she’ll respond with an ice-cold beer of your favorite brand. Tell her what flavors you like and she’ll suggest new drinks for you to try.
  • The same thing goes for the staff at movie theatres, record stores, bookstores, you name it. Basically anywhere they get to know you through your returned visits.

Amazon understands this, and has been hugely successful as a result. Their technology essentially serves the same purpose as the bookstore clerks do in the real world. The big difference is that their servers know about all books and all other customers. They’ve taken some of the service that people enjoy in the real world, and made it work on a large scale online.

The bottom line is that we are all uniquely special, and we enjoy being treated as such, online or not. The use of attention data will play an important role and shows great promise, but in order to succeed we need to strike a perfect balance between too little or too much data in terms of privacy. One thing is for sure:

The fight for attention has begun…