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Attention economics is an approach to the management of information that treats human attention as a scarce commodity, and applies economic theory to solve various information management problems.


Herbert Simon was perhaps the first person to articulate the concept of attention economics when he wrote:

" an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it" (Simon 1971, p. 40-41).

He noted that many designers of information systems incorrectly represented their design problem as information scarcity rather than attention scarcity, and as a result they built systems that excelled at providing more and more information to people, when what was really needed were systems that excelled at filtering out unimportant or irrelevant information (Simon 1996, p. 143-144).

In recent years, Simon's characterization of the problem of information overload as an economic one has become more popular. Business strategists have adopted the term "attention economy" (Davenport & Beck 2001), and some writers have even speculated that "attention transactions" will replace financial transactions as the focus of our economic system (Goldhaber 1997, Franck 1999). Information systems researchers have also adopted the idea, and are beginning to investigate mechanism designs which build on the idea of creating property rights in attention (see Applications).

Relationship with advertising

"Attention economics" today is primarily concerned with the problem of getting consumers to consume advertising. Traditional media advertisers followed a model that suggested consumers went through a linear process they called AIDA - Attention, Interest, Desire and Action. Attention is therefore a crucial and the first stage in the process of converting non-consumers. Since the cost to transmit advertising to consumers is now sufficiently low that more ads can be transmitted to a consumer than the consumer can process (see clutter (advertising), and, inevitably Spam (electronic)), the consumer's attention becomes the scarce resource to be allocated. In 2005, there was thus a surge of interest in attention economics as applied to advertising:

  • The non-profit organization was founded with a mission to "guarantee users' rights to own, move, and exchange their attention data" ( 2005). This involves transmitting the user's click stream to a remote site for resale to advertisers.
  • O'Reilly Media announced that "The Attention Economy" would be the focus of the 2006 meeting of their annual Emerging Technology Conference
  • Consultants began offering expertise in the attention economy as applied to advertising (Haque 2005). "Across consumer markets, attention is becoming the scarcest - and so most strategically vital - resource in the value chain. Attention scarcity is fundamentally reshaping the economics of most industries it touches; beginning with the media industry."


Controlling information pollution

One application treats various forms of information (spam, advertising) as a form of pollution or 'negative externality'. In economics an externality is a by-product of a production process that imposes burdens (or supplies benefits), to parties other than the intended consumer of a commodity. For example; air and water pollution are ‘negative’ externalities which impose burdens on society and the environment.

A market-based approach to controlling externalities was outlined in Ronald Coase's The Problem of Social Cost (Coase 1960). This evolved from an article on the Federal Communications Commission (Coase 1959), in which Coase claimed that radio frequency interference is a negativity externality that could be controlled by the creation of property rights.

Coase's approach to the management of externalities requires the careful specification of property rights and a set of rules for the initial allocation of the rights. Once this has been achieved, a market mechanism can theoretically manage the externality problem. The solution is not necessarily simple in its application to media content (Hay 1996).

Email spam

Several researchers have proposed treating spam as "information pollution" and applying Ronald Coase's ideas to control it.

Sending huge numbers of emails costs spammers very little, since the costs of email messages are spread out over the internet service providers that distribute them (and the recipients who must spend attention dealing with them). Thus sending out as much spam as possible is a rational strategy: even if only 0.001% of recipients (1 in 100,000) is converted into a sale, a spam campaign can be profitable (Mangalindan 2002). Spammers are demanding valuable attention from potential customers, but they are avoiding paying a fair price for this attention due to the current architecture of email systems.

One way this might be implemented is by charging senders a small fee per email sent. It might be close to free for an advertiser to send a single email to a single recipient, but sending that same email to 1000 recipients would cost him 1000 times as much. A 2002 experiment with this kind of usage-based email pricing found that it caused senders to spend more effort targeting their messages to recipients who would find them relevant, thus shifting the cost of deciding whether a given email is relevant from the recipient to the sender (Kraut 2002).

Closely related is the idea of selling "interrupt rights," or small fees for the right to demand one's attention (Fahlman 2002). The cost of these rights could vary according to the interruptee: interrupt rights for the CEO of a Fortune 500 company would presumably be extraordinarily expensive, while those of a high school student might be more reasonable. Costs could also vary for an individual depending on context, perhaps rising during the busy holiday season and falling during the dog days of summer. Interruptees could decline to collect their fees from friends, family, and other welcome interrupters.

Another idea in this vein is the creation of "attention bonds:" small warranties that some information will not be a waste of the recipient's time, placed into escrow at the time of sending (Loder, Van Alstyne & Wash 2004). Like the granters of interrupt rights, receivers could cash in their bonds to signal to the sender that a given communication was a waste of their time, or elect not to cash them in to signal that more communication would be welcome.

Supporters of attention markets for controlling spam claim that their solutions are superior to the alternatives for managing uses of information systems on which there is no consensus on the question of whether it is pollution or not. For example, the use of email or text messages for rallying political support or by non-profit charitable organizations may be considered spam by some users but legitimate use by others. Laws against spam put the power to make this decision in the hands of government, while technological solutions like filtering technologies put it in the hands of private companies or technologically savvy users. A market-based solution, on the other hand, allows the possibility of individual negotiation over the worth of a given message rather than a unilateral decision by a controlling party (Loder, Van Alstyne & Wash 2004, p. 10). Such negotiation itself consumes attention and carries with it an attention cost, though.

Web spam

As search engines have become the primary means for finding and accessing information on the web, high rankings in the results for certain queries have become valuable commodities, due to the ability of search engines to focus searchers' attention. Like other information systems, web search is vulnerable to pollution: "Because the Web environment contains profit seeking ventures, attention getting strategies evolve in response to search engine algorithms" (Page 1998). It is estimated that successful exploitation of such strategies, known as web spam, is a potential $4.5 billion per year business (Singhal 2004, p. 16).

Since most major search engines now rely on some form of PageRank (recursive counting of hyperlinks to a site) to determine search result rankings, a gray market in the creation and trading of hyperlinks has emerged. Participants in this market engage in a variety of practices known as link spamming, link farming, and reciprocal linking.

The economic incentives are similar to those of email spam: it costs very little to spammers to create huge numbers of links, so even a very small conversion rate (percentage of searchers who click on a spam-boosted search result) can be profitable. The costs of web spam are distributed among the search engines, which must spend tremendous amounts of money and labor on developing spam-detecting technologies, and searchers, who must spend attention on determining which search results are valid and which are spam (since the search engines are never 100% successful in keeping spam out of their indexes).

An attempt to change the economics of one kind of web spam is the "nofollow" attribute for hyperlinks, which causes search engines to ignore those links for the purposes of ranking results. The hope is that webmasters and makers of web discussion software will implement systems that automatically add the "nofollow" attribute to all hyperlinks not under a site owner's direct control. The effect would be to increase the cost of creating spam links, since spammers would only be able to create links on sites they controlled.

However, as opponents of the "nofollow" attribute point out, while this solution may make it incrementally easier for search engines to detect link spam, it does not appreciably change the incentive structure for link spammers unless 100% of existing systems are upgraded to support the standard: as long as some critical mass of spammable sites exists, link spam will continue. Furthermore, the "nofollow" attribute does nothing to combat link farming or reciprocal linking. There is also a philosophical question of whether the links of site commentators (as opposed to site owners) should be treated as "second-class," leading to the claim that the attribute "heists commentators' earned attention" ( 2005).

Another issue, similar to the issue discussed above of whether or not to consider political email campaigns as spam, is what to do about politically motivated link campaigns or Google bombs (Tatum 2005). Currently the major search engines do not treat these as web spam, but this is a decision made unilaterally by private companies. There is no opportunity for negotiation over the question of what is an appropriate use of attention expressed through hyperlinking. It remains to be seen [vague]

whether a market-based approach might provide more flexible handling of these gray areas.

Sales lead generation

The realization that the attention focused by search engines was a valuable commodity led to the creation of the paid inclusion model, in which search engines charge advertisers to have hyperlinks to their sites included in search results. The dominant form of paid inclusion is pay for performance, in which advertisers bid on the rights to have their hyperlinks listed in the results for a given search query. The auction winner then pays the search engine the agreed price per user that follows their hyperlink. With the advent of paid inclusion, profit-seeking web sites could choose to legitimately pay for the attention of searchers, rather than attempting to subvert search algorithms.

The paid inclusion model, as well as more pervasive advertising networks like Yahoo! Publisher Network and Google's Adsense, work by treating consumer attention as the property of the search engine (in the case of paid inclusion) or the publisher (in the case of advertising networks). This is somewhat different from the anti-spam uses of property rights in attention, which treat an individual's attention as his or her own property.

One approach to sales lead generation which does treat individuals' attention as their own property is that of ROOT Markets, a startup founded in early 2005. ROOT Markets intends to create a commercial exchange for the trading of information about human attention (to media) and intention (to buy products or services). An individual can record his or her on-line attention data by installing a web browser extension that logs browsing history. This data can then be bought by investors in the attention market and sold to advertisers (Goldstein 2005). The main difference with the current web advertising model is that individual consumers, not just publishers, can sell attention, and that third-party investors can easily enter the market to engage in arbitrage. It remains to be seen whether ROOT Market's attempt to create an attention exchange will be successful.

References and further reading

External links

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