Experimental Lex

Playing with words.

Tag Archives: attention

Personal Attention Databases

A number of years ago, the well-known entrepreneur Seth Goldstein, along with Wall Street legend Lew Ranieri, launched a startup called Root Markets. The focus of Root Markets was the attention economy and the concept was to give users the ability to track their online interests and share that data with Root Markets. The theory was that your attention had value because you were a potential sales lead for various products and services. And therefore, your “lead” data along with everyone else’s could be traded as commodities in an exchange marketplace. Highly speculative definitely and perhaps a little ahead of its time.

It’s probably been a while since I or anyone else has thought about Root Markets. It seems that they quietly closed up their operations and very few noticed. Yet, the attention of Internet users is as important as it ever was and the attention economy continues to thrive and evolve. With the dramatic growth of mobile computing and social networks, the attention economy is expanding along new trajectories.

I bring up this obscure reference to Root Markets to introduce this concept of personal attention databases. One of the challenges that Root faced was storing and presenting your attention data in a useful way for users. While thinking about The Social Content Graph, I have been contemplating this problem – how to track the content and people that you like as you hop across devices, services, social networks, and content publishers. I called it a “complex beast” and that is an accurate description.   To simplify things, I will start using the acronym “PAD” as a replacement for personal attention database.

In the first decade of the Internet, users bookmarked the content they wanted to keep or revisit. Social bookmarking sites like Delicious.com made it easier to manage thousands of bookmarks by applying “tags” to bookmarks and therefore making your bookmarks database searchable. Delicious.com is definitely one of my favorite Internet innovations ever created and I certainly hope they survive and continue to keep my universe of bookmarks at my fingertips. This was the first generation of PADs. And now, we are contemplating the next generation of PADs, capable of mapping the social content graph.

Attention Spaces

This supremely complex goal of mapping attention in your social content graph requires that we toss around some ideas about how it might work. One feature that does not exist today with social bookmarking is the logical separation of your attention “spaces”. For example, work versus home. I use Delicious avidly and it is really the only bookmarking tool I want to use. Yet, I sometimes use Google Bookmarks and Faves.com, because I want to separate the different pools of content.

The need for separate attention spaces becomes more critical when you try to imagine a personal attention database that includes your social graph. A useful comparison is the logical separation of your social networks across Facebook and LinkedIn. Obviously, you want to keep it professional on LinkedIn and not share YouTube videos or party pics, and vice versa with Facebook. Hence, our theoretical PAD design would automatically provide separation of Spaces, like Work Space and Personal Space. (If you have a better name for “spaces”, please let me know.)

Editor’s note: This article has already taken several days to write, so it’s time to wrap it up and come back to it later.

You heard the man. I’m closing out this post and will continue with it later. I’d like to avoid publishing something really dumb while pretending it is not. Next time, we will look at the content types we like to follow and the different patterns of content consumption.

The Social Content Graph

Greetings and happy holidays! Apologies for not publishing anything lately. I feel physical pain every day that goes by when I am not writing anything. Possibly, my choice of long-form articles have hampered me from reaching that tipping point where writing becomes an easy and fluid task. So, we will try a new approach by writing lighter pieces. Many of these might look like “fluff” pieces based on current news, personal views, and speculation, yet still within the general universe of digital publishing and mobile content. We can worry about how to re-assemble this content into a book some other day. The only thing that matters is actually writing.

With that said, I would like to discuss my vision of the social content graph. This is not a new term and I have not researched prior usage of this term. However, I do feel it is a meaningful term that has relevance to digital publishing. When you look at the entire spectrum of companies, platforms, software, and content in the extended digital content ecosystem today, you will recognize that reading is becoming more social.

That may sound like Captain Obvious talking. Nonetheless, this is the essence of the social content graph. The term “social graph” is well known and widely used in reference to a person’s social network. A person with a large number of Twitter followers and Facebook friends has a large social graph and the content they share has a powerful “network effect”. Perhaps it’s just the technical and contemporary way of quantifying popularity.

So is there such a thing as a content graph? A quick search on Google shows that it was a significant term in 2010. For example, here’s an interesting quote from this article called The Content Graph and the Future of Brands

In the Social Graph, you’re defined by your friends. In the Content Graph, a content brand is defined by its distribution relationships with other content brands.

Unfortunately, that’s not the Content Graph I am thinking about. Instead, I am trying to express how digital content is published, consumed, shared, aggregated, republished, and consumed again in the digital world today. Publishers and content creators seek to publish content that is original and popular. Content is given life by consumers who share the content with others. Until the content is consumed, shared and discussed, the content barely exists. (Call up metaphors like “tree falling in the woods” or “Waiting for Godot”)

Consider the inter-twining relationships between content creators, consumers, and companies like Twitter, Bit.ly, and Flipboard in our digital content ecosystem. Sharing content via Twitter is usually done with shortened urls (generated through services like Bit.ly) which redirects users to the original URL. The importance of short URLs is a by-product of the 140-character limit that is built into Twitter. While this limit originates from the character limit of SMS messages, it also provides a universal rule that makes all messages short and easy to browse.

Anatomy of a Tweet

When browsing through Twitter messages, you see a microcosm of specialized syntax to accommodate as much content and meaning within the 140-character limit. For those new to Twitter, it can be a daunting experience trying to grok the meaning. The most basic tweet is just text from a Twitter user. In addition, a tweet can have any of the following:

  1. link: usually a shortened URL (example: http://bit.ly/eOsrVQ)
  2. #hashtag — one or more topic tags that serve as searchable metadata
  3. @username — used for replies and mentions using the “@username” format
  4. RT (retweet) — a flag that signifies when one user has republished another user’s tweet

In addition, your Twitter feed contains not only the people you follow, but also the extended conversation taking place between between people in your Twitter network and their network. Each “@” mention is a clickable link that takes you to a user’s Twitter page. Thus, it becomes another point of interest as you browse for interesting content. Yes, it seems overwhelming and yet it happens to be the best way of getting the latest and most interesting content. In the end, the Twitter messages that contain links are often the ones that are the most interesting, and the Twitter users who share the most interesting content are usually the ones worth following.

Curated Content

This brings us to curated content, which is content that is shared and republished by tastemakers and thought leaders within different areas of interest. In contrast, content that is found through organic search is not hand-picked and the quality of search results can vary greatly.

Flipboard is an iPad app that presents streams of curated content that the reader chooses, across a number of topics. Most notably, Twitter integration in Flipboard presents the links shared by people in your Twitter network in a pleasing user interface that resembles a magazine. Hence, Flipboard and other reading apps like it are an important part of our social content graph. Of course, the content you consume in Flipboard is easy to share with others through the usual channels (Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, etc).

Social Reading

When you have reading devices and apps that have social networking “baked in”, you have the beginnings of a social reading experience. Curated content that is recommended to you through your social network is an entry point to social reading. Social reading is also found at a deeper level, where readers can share bookmarks, comments, and quotes from the content they are reading within their social network or with everyone. Such social reading features are found in the Amazon Kindle reader and may have originated there. We are starting to see this kind of social reading and sharing in education reading apps like Inkling.

Mapping the Social Content Graph

I’m going to admit that my concept of the Social Content Graph is still half-baked, and I think that’s ok for now. The point I am trying to make is that the social content graph is a complex beast, since it is a chain of people and content links. The reason why Flipboard is such an excellent reading experience is that it understands that this is a complex beast and it tries to organize it for you in a way that makes it pleasing to browse and consume.

And yet, Flipboard is just a reading experience and does not help you understand and organize your social content graph. You still need to bookmark or republish the content you like if you want to be able to find and re-read content in the future. That feels a little weird to me… sharing by Twitter just because I don’t have a convenient way of mapping and saving the parts that I want to keep.

In my mind, I have this mental image of a social content graph somehow looking like that clever visualization that you see in a LinkedIn profile that shows how you are related to another person. It nicely illustrates the “degrees of separation” between you and others on LinkedIn. And the ideal visualization of my social content graph would be something like that. It would show me a 2D/3D spatial view of the people I follow and the content I like, and it would let me pivot the view along the people axis and the content axis. Someday, it would be nice to explore the reverse angle and see the people who follow me or like the content I have shared or created. Yeah, whenever that happens.

The Future of QR Codes and Digital Content

I’ve been thinking about QR Codes for a while now. Usually, I dismiss it as a silly technology looking for a purpose. If you don’t know what QR codes are, perhaps it’s because it is the kind of emerging technology that only geeks know of and care about. Rather than try to explain it myself, let’s defer to some better write-ups:


From the Wikipedia page:

A QR Code is a matrix barcode (or two-dimensional code), readable by QR scanners, mobile phones with a camera, and smartphones. The code consists of black modules arranged in a square pattern on white background. The information encoded can be text, URL or other data.

And an excellent article on QR codes at SXSW:

While QR codes have reached a mainstream Japanese audience, in the U.S. QR code usage is limited to alpha geeks–and not all of them are sold on the idea. … Many think QR codes are gimmicky, clumsy, not used well or enough, or that they’re “a solution looking for a problem.”

“QR” supposedly stands for “quick response” but it’s possible that this definition was applied later, just like RSS was rebranded as “Really Simple Syndication”. Even this friendlier definition of RSS was still too geeky and obscure for normal people and eventually “feed” became the mainstream term used to refer to RSS content and other subscribed content. Yes, I’m referring to Twitter and Facebook status updates, since these are also linear streams of content presented in reverse chronological order.

Anyway, the purpose of this article is not to rant about QR codes. The real purpose is to discover the future of this technology, which may be something besides QR codes. This week, I came across this Engadget article about Microsoft Tags and it captured my attention. Here’s an excerpt:

201010291847.jpgMicrosoft might be late to the cameraphone-able barcode game, but it appears to be making up for lost time. Its multi-colored (and, frankly, rather attractive) Tag barcodes added a few important innovations on top of the general QR code concept, and apparently to good effect: 2 billion Tags have been printed since the January 2009 launch, and 1 billion of those Tags were printed in the past four months. Sounds like Microsoft has found some momentum, and they claim to have gained a lead in the publishing industry already.

Here’s what I find interesting about this:

  1. Microsoft has a history of creating products based on pre-existing technologies and giving them simple and obvious names. The best example is Microsoft Windows. The name alone explains what it is and most people like things to be simple and obvious, especially with computers. At the time, the alternative was a Macintosh, and the name did not explain what it was. Instead, it was often perceived as “expensive”, among other things.
  2. “Tags” is another example of this practice. Most people can recognize “tag” and guess that it is like a label that helps identify something.   
  3. In a weird way, the colorful Microsoft Tags have a vague similarity to the Windows logo, while a QR code seems to evoke old technologies that lacked color like Xerox copies and UPC bar codes.
  4. They already have excellent uptake with 2 billion tags. I suppose that translates to 2 billion products or ads or physical items that have a unique tag barcode.

If you visit the Tags website, the story gets more intriguing. Microsoft even did a nice job with the tagline: “Connecting Real Life and the Digital World using Mobile Barcodes!” Wow, since when did Microsoft figure out how to market things. (which, by the way, is different from choosing simple product names)

Microsoft’s approach with Tags seems to be spot-on. They are touting how Tags provides benefits that businesses really care about. Specifically, metrics and reporting are important to large companies whenever they make an investment in media or advertising. Omniture is a great example of this. Companies want to know the ROI of their online properties and marketing campaigns and are willing to pay millions to get the pretty executive reports.

And that’s when I had my “Aha” moment. Tags (or some future version of it) will be the Omniture of the future. The measurement of attention will move beyond websites to the mobile world, which is a mixture of mobile device users, mobile Internet, and the interaction with all content wherever it happens to be. That includes publishing, outdoor ads, local businesses, television, Internet video, coupons, etc. All content and all attention will need to be measurable.

Well, we’re not quite there yet. I feel that the basic problem with Tags and similar barcodes is that it depends on user-initiated interaction with a displayed code. Currently, the interaction model requires a user to take a picture of the code using their mobile device camera. That’s kind of clunky.   The call-to-action is really not there unless you specifically draw attention to it and offer an incentive.

What really needs to happen is for mobile devices to be auto-aware of nearby Tags, and hence Tags would need some kind of broadcast mechanism or wireless network to publish to. It seems likely that you would also need micro-circuits that uniquely identify the Tag. In simple terms, I think the Tags of the future will be more like stickers with embedded circuits and code that mobile devices can interact with.

Perhaps in a future article, we can discuss how Tags are being used in the industry and how they might be used in digital publishing.