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Published on January 22nd, 2009 | by Tom


Next Up for the Internet: The Attention Rights Movement

In shorter supply than either fossil fuel or ozone, attention — our cognitive ability to focus on information — is being squandered, even stolen, everyday by desperate marketers, their bad advertising, unrelenting spam, and old imposition models.

The most recent report by leading IT media, research, and exposition company IDG shows that the Internet has now passed TV and print media in hours of attention consumed. Users polled exceeded 32 hours online per week compared to 16 for television and 4 for print. This is good news for the world of online media, but we are approaching a critical "jump point" in the power balance between producer and consumer.

As marketers and advertisers hungrily explore ways to monetize online attention, they face mounting challenges. Consumers have migrated online precisely because they want more control over the media they consume. The old bargain — content for attention — is broken. Empowered viewers now reject TV’s standard promise of 22 minutes of content in exchange for eight minutes of brain-dead ads. With place- and time-shifting technology at their disposal, viewers, listeners, and readers do not want, nor need they endure, advertisements. As a result, online ads, be they behavioral, contextual, or declarative data-based, are all falling short. Give consumers the choice, and they would rather get information from a trusted friend or expert. This is giving the old Hollywood/Madison Avenue nexus fits. The ROI on a dollar of integrated advertising today, even when measurable, is dismal.

Worse yet, the information-overwhelmed prey are getting restless, even hostile. And for good reason. In many ways, unwanted interruption-based advertising is nothing short of a misdemeanor. Run an absurdly out-of-place banner ad over my page views, or punctuate my ballgame with, say, a feminine hygiene product spot, and I feel violated. You have wasted my attention, pilfering precious time and focus I could have reserved for dearer claims on my bandwidth, such as my family and friends. Simply put: Attention theft is a crime.

People like Michael Goldhaber have been writing about the Attention Economy for ten years. The very idea of an economy implies an exchange of value for value. It is not clear at this point what advertisers need to do to sweeten the attention bargain, but the current jig is up.

The global resistance movement is gaining steam, and, since the publication last week of my new book, Jump Point: How Network Culture is Revolutionizing Business, I have become an inconvenient truth-teller shedding light on the mounting consumer backlash. There are many efforts feeding the energy.

Over at my alma mater, Boston University, Professor Marshall Van Alstyne has advocated “attention bonds,” whereby emailers would post bonds on the promise not to waste a recipient’s time and attention with unwanted spam. At AttentionTrust.org, they are proposing an attention management utility that gives the user control over the deluge. Globally, we should pay heed to efforts in São Paolo, where all outdoor advertising has been banned as a blight on the landscape; or in Germany, where the "Informationelle Selbstbestimmung" (literally, Information Self-Determination) campaign has already resulted in national consumer-rights legislation. And, I suspect that SEO (search engine optimization) is next up in the cross-hairs, with practices like link farms, keyword stuffing, cloaking, and automated content generators and duplicators getting more consumer fraud scrutiny.

I am sure you'll want to debate me on this: Get in line. But first consider the following manifesto I am offering for the movement. Hard to disagree with these simple dignities:

  • I am the sole owner of my attention.
  • I have a right to compensation for my attention, value for value.
  • Demands on my attention shall be transparent.
  • I have a right to decide what information I want. And don’t want.
  • I own my click stream and all other representations of my attention.
  • My email box is an extension of my person. No one has an intrinsic right to send me mail.
  • Attention theft is a crime.

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