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The attention economy

Contributed by HP Senior Fellow Bernardo Huberman


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A daunting consequence of the ubiquity of digital media is that information, which used to be scarce and therefore valuable, is now so common as to be almost devoid of monetary value.


Today, search engines, billions of websites, social networking, and micro-blogging provide us with myriad ways of taking care of our most complex informational and entertainment needs. What is now scarce, and therefore valuable, is our attention, which explains the intense efforts being made to obtain it through focused advertising, pop-ups, short videos embedded in news portals and, most disheartening, spam.


As most commercial enterprises make websites their main point of connection with customers, their ability to draw our attention to their most valuable and important products can trump even price advantage (since there’s no value in having added features or discounts if a product or service is not noticed). As a result, their success typically requires our noticing their products while experiencing a simple, aesthetically pleasing and useful interaction with the website.


The problem of attention becomes even more acute, though, when we realize that we’re increasingly using mobile devices for the majority of our daily needs. It expands the visual playing field on which an enterprise has to compete and increases the pressure it’s under to display truly, compellingly relevant information.


The attention of others is important to us as individuals, also. While it can be rightly said that web 2.0 has given everyone a megaphone, the problem is that we all now have one. So the race is on for each of us to generate more content of all kinds (video, blogs, news etc.) in order to be noticed. It also explains the exorbitant valuation of companies that deal with social data and communication, for regardless of the services they provide, their economic value is in the attention that their customers pay to their content.


This race to draw attention to both our own thoughts and feelings and corporate ideas and products, coupled with the exponential growth of online traffic, means that we are starting to inhabit a world where data production is outgrowing our capacity to analyze it. Worse, it is increasingly hard to discover what is relevant in that continuously evolving flood.


This huge challenge of making sense of this contemporary, and worsening, data deluge, is one that both interests and motivates some of us at HP Labs.


We’re developing new tools that exploit our growing understanding of how individuals allocate their limited attention - so that both users and enterprises can derive the most utility from their time spent online.


One example of our work is Odin, a mobile tool that lets users find salient documents and opinions from a large data set such as a massive archive of news stories, all powered by the wisdom of the crowd. Odin directs a user’s attention to critical opinions using a natural magazine-style metaphor, with elegant visual call outs and other typographic changes that respect the small visual real estate of the device. You can read about Odin and see a short video about it by going to this link.


This focus on attention helped us develop techniques to accurately predict the box office revenues of movies about to open in theaters by carefully measuring the attention they receive in social media outlets like Twitter. While predictions about movies might seem removed from HP’s core business, the same technique can be applied to forecasting the attention, and thus success, of our new products or services – or those of our customers -  provided we have access to online conversations about them.


Similarly, we have developed algorithms that measure an individual’s influence inside a social network, which can then be used to target specific content to large groups of people using what amounts to a new form of “viral marketing.”


In some cases, dealing with information overflow requires a radical redesign of visualization techniques – making content not only more easily noticed, but also allowing peripheral concerns to smoothly shift into the center when appropriate. This is the approach behind one of the most recent innovations to emerge from our lab: Clevr, a novel way of presenting data aimed at the enterprise that is not only visually compelling but extremely informative and easy to use.


As the attention economy continues to develop, novel ways of presenting and interacting with content are starting to disintermediate a number of businesses that today exist to filter and present information. This is yet another instance of the pattern of creative destruction that we have seen at play over time in many other economies.


Related links:


Predicting the Future With Social Media




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Excellent article, gives a clear description of the current efforts in data visualisation and data discovery. Although, the central point of this article was not clear. For example, it talks about the need to capture attention has become more important as ever before due to the amount of content that a user can access. However, it doesn't give good reasons for how this connection between the two points are formed. 

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