Attention is the New Currency

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In 1971 Herbert A. Simon, a Nobel Prize winning economist, Turing Award winning computer scientist, and pioneer in artificial intelligence (among other things), wrote:

“In 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: the attention of its recipients.”

He warned that designers of information systems had mislabeled the problem they were trying to solve as “information scarcity,” when in fact it was a problem of “attention scarcity.” So rather than filter out irrelevant information that distracted our attention, they designed systems that produced what came to be known as information overloadinfobesityinfoxicationinformation glut, and data smog.

Nearly half a century later, we’re still trying to wrestle back our attention from the services that keep trying to steal it. And in an attention-scarce world, the only commodity that’s more precious is time. There are still only 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week. But the digital information streaming into our lives just keeps coming in the form of emails, notifications, RSS feeds, advertisements, spam, social network requests, sponsored posts, etc. And the funny thing is, they’re all free. But when those attention-grabbers can’t thrive without our attention, what is the real cost of free?

We’re not the customer—we’re the product

Apple’s commitment to your privacy, as signed by CEO Tim Cook, reads:

“When an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product.”

Today’s information-rich world is powered by tech companies that profit from the sale of the data they collect about us.  We seldom stop to think about it. We don’t put a price on our personal data. And we rarely, if ever, put a price on the time and attention we give to read, consider, or ignore the free services they offer.

A great example is LinkedIn, the largest professional network on the Internet today. It’s the way that almost half a billion people around the world keep track of their existing professional networks. Who hasn’t looked up a new business contact on LinkedIn the same way we might look up a new personal contact on Facebook? But what many LinkedIn members don’t know is that it makes more than 60% of its $3 billion in revenue from its “Talent Solutions” division that sells access to our profiles and contact information to recruiters. Clearly, we’re making a lot of money for LinkedIn and other companies that profit by serving as middlemen between us and the people who want to reach us. They may not be sharing some of those profits with the people whose data they’re monetizing, but at least they’re not asking us to pay to participate in their networks. Or are they?

3 Ways that LinkedIn is costing us

LinkedIn controls who can find us and who can message us. In exchange, we get to participate in the LinkedIn network for free. But we end up paying for this freebie whenever we update our profile information and react to messages from recruiters and marketers. And we’re paying with our attention in three ways:

1.  We’re getting more spam.

When a LinkedIn member tries to message someone outside their network, LinkedIn charges $10 per message for the privilege (they call it InMail). Many people try to sidestep that fee by sending a connection request instead, and putting their message inside the request. The cost to us of this “free” solution? A flood of unwanted connection requests from people we don’t know trying to sell us something we probably don’t want.

2.  We’re being perceived as spammers even when we’re not.

When we sincerely want to contact a professional we’re not connected to with a legitimate request, often we don’t get a response because we’re perceived as just another spammer. It’s the same problem we have with snail mail, where a letter that looks a little too much like it’s from a direct marketer goes straight to the junk heap unopened.

3.  Our opportunities are being limited by a middleman.

LinkedIn determines who we can find, how much we can see about each other, and how many searches we can perform. In some cases, it prevents us from finding each other if we’re not already connected or if we don’t have a connection in common. In other cases, we can find each other if we’re farther apart in the network, but then we can’t see each other’s full profile. If you’re a student looking for a mentor, or a hiring manager looking for job candidates, your candidate pool is severely limited. And if you’re on the other side of the equation—the person being sought—then this lack of visibility could be costing you opportunities.

The Rise of the “Attention Economy”

So in this attention economy that Herbert A. Simon warned us about 46 years ago, how do we fight back? How do we eliminate the middleman, put a premium on our time and attention, and make ourselves visible to the people who want to reach us without making ourselves vulnerable to spam and more spam?

A number of emerging companies—including a company I started last year called Nextio—are gaining traction around the idea of paying people for their time and attention. In this new type of marketplace, we’re passing the value of our customers’ data onto our customers themselves. Intentionally or not, we’re following the vision that Jaron Lanier laid out in Who Owns the Future, published in 2013:

“Information is people in disguise, and people ought to be paid for value they contribute that can be sent or stored on a digital network.”

Why this all matters

Nothing matters more than our personal time and attention, and yet the reality is our attention is constantly being devalued. There’s an opportunity in today’s market to take a different approach, where the value attributed to information and attention flows directly to the end user, not the middleman. We are just now beginning to see the start of this wave, as the disruptors of the past become the disrupted.

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