10 hours from judgement day: time to reflect
seth godin's marketing mistake (?)

attention is not the endgame

Labslogo Max Kalehoff recently posted an interesting study by HP's Social Computing Lab.

In Max's review, he summarizes as follows:

Attention is the ultimate currency of crowdsourcing, or, really, any active user contribution. Attention is scarce, and the few active, most valuable contributors in your immediate or extended community are hardwired to seek it out. Marketers should factor this not only when creating incentives for contribution, but in driving overall engagement. Because to grant attention is to acknowledge; and acknowledgment is the basis of all relationships.

Attention While I cannot discount the overall truthiness of this theory, I would like to explain why this study lacked depth, and therefor arrived at a flawed conclusion.  Before I question the conclusion, I would like to present you with HP's Abstract:

The tragedy of the digital commons does not prevent the copious voluntary production of content that one witnesses in the web. We show through an analysis of a massive data set from YouTube that the productivity exhibited in crowdsourcing exhibits a strong positive dependence on attention, measured by the number of downloads. Conversely, a lack of attention leads to a decrease in the number of videos uploaded and the consequent drop in productivity, which in many cases asymptotes to no uploads whatsoever. Moreover, uploaders compare themselves to others when having low productivity and to themselves when exceeding a threshold.

Critique 1: Firstly, the HP study monitored a series of You Tube users, analyzing this environment semi-extensively, and deriving assumptions about crowdsourcing and the social dynamic as a whole based on this analysis.

Rationale: You Tube is but one "channel" in a far broader social dynamic.  While it is true that low engagement may discourage many, engagement on YouTube is not necessarily driven within the YouTube environment itself.  Blogs, emails, social network embeds, presentation at a conference - these are all steps that can lead to "virality" or attention.  By analyzing YouTube as a stand alone environment, this study was nearly flawed from the start - because they didn't recognize the value of Worth Of Mouth in a video channel.

Critique 2: This study viewed attention as the end-game for most users.  However, attention is only a bridge to further engagement. 

Rationale: While it is true that attention is the starting block (if your video has 5 views, you may not be thrilled with your success), attention is not the end metric.  Social equity is. 

Case in Point: Millions may watch a high schooler slashing a broom as if it were a light saber, but that doesn't encourage this user to upload similar videos.  In this case the attention was negative.

Case in Point: Some videos are created as "viral" tactics, hoping to drive a user to a URL.  In this case, attention (views) alone would be considered a failure had these views not converted into clicks.

Critique 3:
Furthermore, this study assumed that YouTube was built as a sharing house of good content.  They therefor regularly refer to The Tragedy of Digital Commons as described below:

What makes crowdsourcing both interesting and puzzling is the underlying dilemma facing every contributor, which is best exemplified by the well-known tragedy of the commons. In such dilemmas, a group of people attempts to provide a common good in the absence of a central authority. In the case of crowdsourcing, the common good is in the form or videos, music, or encyclopedic knowledge that can be freely accessed by anyone. Furthermore, the good has jointness of supply, which means that its consumption by others does not affect the amounts that other users can use. And since it is nearly impossible to exclude non contributors from using the common good, it is rational for individuals not to upload content and free ride on the production of others. The dilemma ensues when every individual can reason this way and free ride on the efforts of others, making everyone worse off—thus the tragedy of the digital commons ...
And yet paradoxically, there is ample evidence that while the ratio of contributions to downloads is indeed small, the growth in content provision persists at levels that are hard to understand if analyzed from a public goods point of view...

I hesitate to think that there is a group of people on YouTube working towards a common consensus.  They are there for themselves.  However, facets of their behavior may reflect a group's shared affinity or goals (creating a common social good).  For example, I enjoy Common Craft's simple explanations of Web 2.0 properties, but that doesn't mean that I don't enjoy watching junk videos as well.  I am not there as part of a community, I am there as an individual - who's behavior may at times reflect the common social good.

Critique 4: YouTube attention must be put in context and cannot be viewed as a universal success metric.

Rationale: YouTube is a fairly open environment.  Their embeddable players are regularly viewed all across the internet.  Analysis of views alone lacks context, and therefor delivers a flawed conclusion.  As we said earlier, views be negative. 

Case in Point: A co-worker uploaded a video of his child in the bath a few years ago.  Cute kid, 2 years old, smiley and bubbly personality.  He meant for this video to be kept "private" (family and friends) but did not properly set the privacy settings.  A week later this video had thousands of views and a handful of disturbing comments.  He pulled the video immediately.  Not only did this co-worker not want this video viewed in public, he uploaded it with the hope that it wouldn't generate mass attention.  All he wanted was to share a piece of content with a SMALL and SELECT group.

Critique 5: You Tube View Counts are not Crowdsourcing.

Rationale: YouTube view counts do not reflect the crowdsourcing phenomena.  Crowdsourcing via wikipedia and others, is about collaboration, and yes, recognition.  YouTube view counts are an engagement metric, not a driver of further views or a reflection of a common effort.

Critique 6: Video is linear.

Rationale: Crowdsourcing is at it's best when there is a back and forth, a low level and of entry and strongly diverse population building collaboratively.  YouTube is a poor example of Crowdsourcing.

My Point Of View

HP did a tremendous service to the community, they got us talking.  However, I fundamentally disagree with this study and it's conclusion.  I believe (theorize) that we participate in the digital social dynamic because it delivers personal equity.  In the case of crowdsourcing, we may do so for personal gain, but attention alone is the the driver of this engagement. 

My brother was a professor at a local college, and he edited his college's wikipedia page because it contained untrue allegations about the founders of the college.  He received no attention for this edit.

This same brother participated in a college film festival, where he played an outlandish character.  This video was then posted out of context on Google Video (in the very early days of online video) and quickly generated tens of thousands of views.  He was recognized in the halls, at meetings with professional associates, on line at the supermarket, and even by students at an academic conference overseas.  He did not want this attention, as it could potentially tarnish his career as a professor of advanced religious studies.

Key Takeaway: Attention is not the social driver, it is a step towards a result - desired social equity.  We do not participate or contribute in search of single metric, we do so for a wealth of subjective reasons. 

photo credit here