We’ve seen a boom in digital media and content over the past decade, and we’re still adapting to the aftermath. The media landscape has become fragmented and complex, with an ever-growing number of online platforms. A whole new advertising market has emerged, bombarding consumers with thousands of ads across the Internet. As a result, consumer attention is now hard to get, and tech companies are struggling because it is monetizable. The attention economy is big, but its current mechanisms raise ethical questions.
The current attention economy
At the moment, how tech companies collect and use consumer data is the main 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 advertising.
And in some cases, our data can’t just fuel traditional advertising. For example, the Facebook scandal a few years ago leaky Its users’ data to the Cambridge Analytica political company was quite large. The leak is said to have impacted the US presidential election because it gave Donald Trump a chance to design a more effective campaign.
Tech companies generally want to know 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 amount and type of data that is extracted from our online activities on a daily basis.
Businesses follow people online. Then they use the collected data to generate revenue, according to Harvard professor and social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff name it surveillance capitalism.
Some see it as a rip off. Tech companies can create products, but those products cannot generate profit without users themselves. Users do their part of the work every time they post something. The effort comes from both sides, but only one benefits financially.
In addition, people lose time in the current attention economy. You have to look at online advertisements, which is hard to avoid these days. Our attention is equal to time and we cannot buy it back.
And its injustice
Of course, some bloggers can make millions of dollars from their content. Still, social media users typically don’t get paid from companies like Facebook and Twitter for the data they create. But for most users, the reality is cruel. In 2020, internet guru and technologist Tim O’Reilly calculated how much money a user would make per month if Facebook gave back their profit for data-generated income: the amount would be less than $1 per month for a US user. Likewise, O’Reilly estimated that an Indian user’s “data price” would fall to a shocking less than $1 per year.
Even more: Sure, we produce the content. However, this content does not belong to us when we press the button to put it online. All of our data somehow becomes the property of these companies. Not just her who sell data, but they can delete anything you post on their apps and websites if they don’t like it, while keeping any posts you delete yourself.
This system turns users into objects and not actors in the value chain. First of all, the world saw the attention economy as a battleground for business. Then this topic became a hot topic of discussion. And in recent years, it has become increasingly clear that the battle should be fought between businesses and users.
Why we still need this data
What seems the easiest and quickest way to change the system? Probably to completely ban tech companies from collecting personal data from users. But it’s not the best solution. In fact, this data can be useful for us. For example, for any research dealing with people, what their behavior or even their health can mean.
“In the face of global problems such as climate change, migration, a precarious and uncontrolled international financial system, the ever-present threat of pandemics, not to mention a geopolitical ‘war of all against all’ at the international level, what is needed is a viable and inspiring vision of a global future . In addition, the global network society is data-driven. Therefore, the most important reforms or initiatives that we should expect are those that make more data, of better quality, available to more people and institutions,” said David J. Krieger, Director of the Swiss Institute for Communication and Leadership, said once; and at the same time against clickbait, filter bubbles, fake news and other negative aspects of social media.
Also, the generated data helps the developers to improve the customer experience. In addition, it helps provide consumers with more relevant products, which makes our lives easier. Targeted ads are essential for small local businesses. They often have no other tool for effective advertising than Instagram. So these small ventures make the economy healthier and provide us with services and goods that we like and need.
In any case, we need to clarify the process of collecting and storing user data. This allows non-tech people to see and understand where their personal information is going and how it is being used. Unfortunately, basic digital skills are still far from common knowledge. Only after spreading some basics can we wake people up and motivate them to make decisions about their data usage.
ways to change
There is a lengthy conversation about the illegality of the current system that monetizes consumer data. The most popular idea is to let people own their own data and make money from it. The concept sounds simple, but it requires drastic changes in data collection and sales. Computer scientist and futurist from Silicon Valley, Jaron Lanier, suggests that we have to create new institutions for this.
These institutions will collect data from users in exchange for financial compensation. Lanier sees it as a kind of insurance company. Based on what these companies offer, people will decide who to give their data to. Lanier’s vision statement seems like a promising option. At the same time, he notes that many people don’t believe that such an idea can work and may give up before trying.
Lanier is pessimistic about users’ eagerness to fight for ownership of their data. However, there are already legislative changes that could improve the situation. For example, the California Consumer Privacy Act grants internet users the right to delete their data and opt-out of the sale of their personal information.
The law does not mention people who pay for their data, but entrepreneurs and lawyers Andrew Yang sees this as a first step in turning things around. He wants the law to recognize personal data as property and make companies pay for it.
Also with celebrities like rappers and entrepreneurs Wilhelm are starting to talk about personal data protection and people are becoming increasingly aware of the issue. A to learn by Insights Network shows that 90% of US consumers think it is unethical for their personal information to be shared without consent, and 65% of respondents are uncomfortable with it being shared with companies for profit.
Web 3.0 promises to fix the situation
Recently, the promise of putting users in control of their own data has come from Web 3.0 (aka Web3) enthusiasts. According to his vision, giant technology groups will not dominate Web3, and it thus remains fairer. However, Web3 developers also adhere to the logic that users should be paid for their data.
The Brave Browser team has created the Basic Attention Token, the cryptocurrency designed to allow users to pay for their data. It’s open source and transparent. Users earn Basic Attention Tokens for viewing ads anonymously. Later, they can exchange them for any other cryptocurrency or fiat money. This approach also helps advertisers by providing them with higher quality data for targeted ads.
The thing about Web3 is that it doesn’t look any better or different now than what can be done with Web2. So blockchain is not a magic wand that can uniquely fix the problem. It still requires digital competence and is already developing its own power structures that are similar to those of Web 2.0.
Also, the full decentralization promised by the Web3 pioneers cannot happen. Also, the quality of the code is not perfect, which makes it unstable for hacking.
Today there is no doubt that the existing patterns of the attention economy should be reformed. The main reason is to give users more control over their personal information. There are various ideas on how this can be achieved. It looks like we’ll have a satisfactory solution one day. Or even several of them, be it in Web2 or Web3.
But it won’t be quick. Therefore, for now, the tech community should pave the way for this revolution by spreading digital literacy among people. Along the way we have a lot of food for thought and a lot of work.
Photo credit: William Fortunato; Pixel; Thanks!
CPO and co-founder of OTM, a technological programmatic platform acquired by global digital operator VEON in 2021. Over 15 years of experience in the AdTech and MarTech industry, leading development of technology products. Solid expertise in product management, unit economics and paid marketing, resulting in a 5+ year journey in mentoring and investing in startups.