Can users become full-fledged links in the attention economy and reap benefits?

We have seen a boom in digital media and content over the past decade, and we are still adapting to its consequences. The media landscape has become fragmented and complex, with an ever-increasing number of online platforms. A whole new advertising market has emerged that bombards consumers with thousands of advertisements on the Internet. As a result, consumer attention is now hard to capture, and tech companies are fighting for it because it’s monetizable. The attention economy is great, but its current mechanisms raise ethical questions.

The flow Attention Economy

For now, how tech companies collect and use consumer data is the primary concern. We use social media, search engines and other free digital services. The companies behind them track and use our data to make a profit by selling targeted advertisements.

And in some cases, our data can serve as fuel not just for traditional advertising. For example, a few years ago, the scandal caused by Facebook leak the data of its users at the political firm Cambridge Analytica was quite enormous. Apparently, the leak had an impact on the US presidential elections as it gave Donald Trump the chance to create a more effective campaign.

Tech companies typically track our location, age, purchase history, hobbies, relationship status, and other personal information. The problem is that we don’t even have a complete picture of the volume and type of data extracted from our online activities every day.

Companies follow people on the Internet. Then they use the collected data to get revenue, so it’s no wonder that Harvard professor and social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff calls him surveillance capitalism.

Some see it as a scam. Tech companies can create products, but those products themselves cannot generate any profit without the users. Users are doing their part every time they post something. Thus, the effort comes from both parties, but only one benefits financially.

Plus, people are wasting time in today’s attention economy. They have to watch online advertising, which is hard to avoid these days. Our attention is equal to time, and we cannot redeem it.

And its injustice

Of course, some bloggers can make millions of dollars with their content. Yet social media users don’t usually get money from companies like Facebook and Twitter for the data they create. But for most users, the reality is horrible. In 2020, internet guru and technologist Tim O’Reilly calculated how much money a user would earn per month if Facebook returned their profit for data-generated revenue: the amount would be less than $1 per month for a US user. Similarly, O’Reilly estimated that an Indian user’s “data price” would drop to less than a dollar a year.

There’s even more: of course, we produce the content. However, this content does not belong to us if we press the button to upload it. All of our data somehow becomes the property of these companies. Not only do they sell the data, but they can delete anything you post on their apps and sites if they don’t like it while keeping any posts you delete yourself.

This system makes users objects rather than actors in the value chain. So, first, the world saw the attention economy as a battleground for business. Then this question became a hot topic of debate. And in recent years, it’s become increasingly clear that the battle must be between companies and users.

Why we still need this data

What might seem the easiest and quickest way to change the system? Probably, to completely ban tech companies from collecting users’ personal information. But this is not the best solution. Because in fact, this data can be useful to us. For example, for any research that concerns humans, which could mean their behavior or even their health.

“What is needed in the face of global problems such as climate change, migration, a precarious and uncontrolled international financial system, the ever-present danger of pandemics, not to mention the international geopolitical ‘war of all against all’, is a viable and inspiring vision of a global future. Moreover, the global networked society is data driven. Therefore, the most important reforms or initiatives we should expect are those that make more and better data available to more people and institutions,” said David J. Krieger, Director of the Swiss Institute for Communication and Leadership, said once; while being against clickbait, filter bubbles, fake news and other negative aspects of social media.

Additionally, the data generated helps developers improve the customer experience. In addition, it allows us to offer consumers more relevant products, which makes our lives easier. Targeted ads are essential for local small businesses. They often have no effective promotional tool other than Instagram. Thus, these small businesses make the economy healthier and provide us with services and goods that we love and need.

Either way, we need to clarify the process for collecting and storing user data. Thanks to this, people who are not involved in technology can see and understand where their personal information is going and how it is being used. Unfortunately, basic digital literacy is currently far from common knowledge. Only after we get some basics out there can we wake people up and motivate them to start making decisions about their data usage.

Pathways to change

There is a long conversation about the illegality of the current system that monetizes consumer data. The most popular idea is to make people own their own data and make money using it. The concept sounds simple, but it requires drastic changes in collecting and selling data. Silicon Valley computer scientist and futurist, Jaron Lanier, suggests that we need to create new institutions for this to happen.

These institutions will collect data from users in exchange for monetary compensation. Lanier sees something resembling an insurance company in it. People will choose who they bring their data to based on what these companies offer. Lanier’s vision statement seems like a promising option. At the same time, he notes that many people don’t believe such an idea can work and might give up on it before they try.

Lanier is pessimistic about the willingness of users to fight for ownership of their data. However, there are already legislative changes that could improve the situation. For example, California’s Consumer Privacy Act grants Internet users the right to delete their data and opt out of the sale of their personal data.

The law does not mention paying people for their data, but a businessman and a lawyer Andrew Yang sees it as a first step to change things. He wants the law to recognize personal data as property and to require companies to pay users for it.

Plus, with celebrities like the rapper and entrepreneur William we are starting to talk about the protection of personal data, and people are increasingly aware of the problem. A study by Insights Network shows that 90% of US consumers find it unethical for their personal data to be shared without their consent, and 65% of respondents feel uncomfortable about it being shared with businesses for profit.

The promises of Web 3.0 to solve the situation

Lately, the promise of giving users control over their own data comes from the proponents of Web 3.0 (also known as Web3). According to his idea, the tech giants will not dominate Web3, and it will stay that way fairer. However, Web3 developers also stick to the logic that users should be paid for their data.

For example, the Brave browser comes from the creator of javascript, co-founder of the Mozilla Foundation Brendan Eich. Regular web browsers get more trackers to accumulate our data with each new update. Websites also have their own tracers, such as cookies. The Brave Browser reduces the number of trackers that can track a regular internet user, improving their privacy.

The Brave Browser Team created the Basic Attention Token, the cryptocurrency intended to provide users with payment for their data. It’s open-source and transparent. Users will receive basic attention tokens to view advertisements anonymously. Later, they can exchange them for any other cryptocurrency or fiat currency. This approach also helps advertisers by providing them with better data for targeted advertising.

The thing about Web3 now is that it doesn’t look any better or different than what can be done with Web2. Thus, blockchain is not a magic wand that can solve the problem in a one-size-fits-all way. It still needs digital literacy, and it already has its own power structures resembling those seen in Web 2.0.

Moreover, there cannot be the complete decentralization promised by the pioneers of Web3. Moreover, the quality of the code is not perfect, which makes it unstable to hacker attacks.

Take away

Today, there is no doubt that the existing patterns of the attention economy need to be reformed. The main reason is to give users more control over their personal data. There are a variety of ideas on how this can be achieved. It looks like we will have a satisfactory solution one day. Or even a number of them, whether in Web2 or Web3.

But it won’t go fast. So, for now, the tech community should lead the way in this revolution by spreading digital literacy among the general public. On this path, we have a lot of food for thought and a lot of work.

Image Credit: William Fortunato; pexels; Thank you!

Vitaly Gerko

CPO and Co-founder of OTM, a programmatic technology platform acquired in 2021 by the global digital operator VEON. Over 15 years of experience in the AdTech and MarTech industries, leading the development of technology products. Solid expertise in product management, unit economics and paid marketing which culminated in a 5+ year track record mentoring and investing in startups.