News & Views

Opinion / The Quantified-Attention Economy

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TL;DR? 'Paying attention' is taking on a whole new meaning, as our undivided focus becomes a currency we trade for online content

If there was ever a nerdy internet acronym that summed up the zeitgeist it might well be 'TL;DR' - or 'Too Long; Didn't Read.' Constant connectedness and an excess of stimulus have institutionalised ADD and normalised distraction. A study by Time Inc. last year, for example, found that 'Digital Natives' subconsciously move between devices and platforms 27 times per hour - a behaviour UK TV marketing body Thinkbox dubbed 'meerkating' when applied to TV watchers darting between the box and their laptop or mobile, and back again.

As social scientist Herbert Simon noted back in 1971: '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.' Too much information, then, gives rise to an economy where the most valuable resource is not capital or labour, but human attention. Over the last few years the 'Attention Economy' has spawned a number of 'curation' services as we try to filter the abundance of stimuli we are exposed to and navigate it to best effect. 

While the idea that we operate in an 'Attention Economy' is far from novel, what is new is the degree to which we are beginning to quantify attention and translate it into more precise units of currency. The growing sophistication of motion sensor technology also means we are now able to collect an unprecedented amount of data when it comes to the consumption of traditional media. Intel, for example, has created a camera-equipped set-top box that tracks viewers of its upcoming web TV service. The box monitors direction of gaze so it can tell if you're paying attention to the ads or otherwise distracted. It can also identify gender and track historical viewing trends.

A glimpse into how motion sensor technology may be used by advertisers in the near future can be seen in a patent filed by Microsoft, the contents of which have recently caused a stir in the press. Titled 'Awards and achievements across TV ecosystem', the patent is thought to relate to the tech company's new Xbox One, and suggests the game console may be able to track what users watch on TV, and reward them for watching adverts

The patent describes camera sensors monitoring the eye movements and heartbeats of TV viewers, allowing the console to know if you're in the room when an ad break is on and whether you're paying attention to the screen. You can't even game the system by turning the lights off, because the Xbox will be able to monitor you in the dark. The upside to this console-based surveillance, the patent suggests, is that paying attention to ads will earn you points to buy both virtual and physical awards.

The idea of paying for content via your attention to ads is the basis for HitBliss, a new startup which is divided into HitBliss Store and HitBliss earn. At the Store you can choose to watch ad-free movies and TV by paying a few dollars for each piece of content. If you'd prefer not to pay with cash, however, you can go to HitBliss Earn and watch ads in order to accumulate credits you can then use towards content. 

While HitBliss may not be able to track your eye-movements or heartbeat (yet) it has built in a number of other elaborate mechanisms to ensure you're paying attention, enlisting 300 alpha testers to experiment with every possible loophole. You don't earn credits if you go into another application while the ads are playing, for example, or if you resize the screen, or if you mute the sound.

What's interesting about the HitBliss model is that it lays bare the economics between advertising, data and content. Users have full control over how much data they provide to advertisers: the more data you provide the more credit you get. With consumers becoming more aware that their data is a valuable resource, this sort of model seems likely to become the norm in the future. As Marc Guldimann, co-founder and CEO of Enliken, a startup focused on helping businesses and consumers transact with data, notes: 'In 10 years the idea of not being tracked is going sound silly, but so will the idea of a company using information without your permission. We know that people are happy to share certain types data as long as they are fairly compensated, know what is being captured, how long it's being stored for and what it's being used for.'

With the ability to quantify attention more accurately, the idea of 'paying attention' has taken on a very literal meaning. Our attention has become yet another stream of data to be tracked, quantified and transacted with. But this isn't something advertisers should necessarily be celebrating. 

Nobody needs advertising and, most of the time, nobody wants advertising. But that doesn't mean we should start thinking of watching ads as a form of work people need to do before they can access the good stuff. Rather we should be ensuring that ads are the good stuff.