We have witnessed a boom in digital media and content in the last decade, and we are still adapting to its consequences. The media landscape has become fragmented and complex, with a constantly growing number of online platforms. A whole new advertising market has appeared that bombards consumers with thousands of ads on the internet. As a result, consumers’ attention is now hard to catch, and tech companies are fighting for it because it’s monetizable. The attention economy is big, but its current mechanisms raise ethical questions.
The Current Attention Economy
For now, the way tech corporations collect and utilize consumers’ 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 ads.
And in some cases, our data may act as a fuel not only for traditional advertising. For example, a few years ago, the scandal caused by Facebook leaking its users’ data to the political firm Cambridge Analytica was quite huge. Allegedly, the leak has impacted the U.S. presidential elections because it has given Donald Trump the chance to create a more effective campaign.
Tech corporations generally seek to know our location, age, history of purchases, 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.
Some see it as a rip-off. Tech companies may create products, but these products can’t generate any profit themselves without users. Users do their share of the work each time they post something. So, the effort comes from both parties, but only one financially benefits from it.
In addition, people lose time in the current attention economy. They have to watch online advertising, which is hard to avoid these days. Our attention equals time, and we can’t repurchase it.
And Its Unfairness
Of course, some bloggers can make millions of bucks with their content. Still, social media users typically don’t get any money from corporations like Facebook and Twitter for the data they are creating. But for most users, the reality is gruesome. In 2020, Internet guru and technologist Tim O’Reilly calculated how much money a user would make per month if Facebook returned its profit for data-generated income: the amount would be less than $1 per month for a US user. Likewise, O’Reilly assessed that an Indian user’s ‘data price tag’ would fall to a shocking less than $1 a year.
There is even more: sure, we are the ones who produce the content. However, that content does not belong to us if we press the button to post it online. All of our data somehow becomes the property of these companies. Not only do they sell the data, but they can delete anything you put out on their apps and sites if they don’t like it while keeping all the posts that you delete yourself.
This system makes users into objects rather than actors of the value chain. So first, the world saw the attention economy as a battleground for corporations. Then this issue became a hot topic for debate. And in recent years, it’s becoming more and more evident that the battle should be between the corporations and users.
Why We Still Need That Data
What may seem the easiest and fastest way to change the system? Probably, to ban tech corporations from collecting users’ personal information completely. But it’s not the best solution. Because, in fact, that data can be useful for us. For example, for any research that is about humans, which may mean their behavior or even health.
“What is needed in the face of global problems such as climate change, migration, a precarious and uncontrolled international finance system, the ever-present danger of pandemics, not to speak of geopolitical ‘war of all against all’ on the international level, is a viable and inspiring vision of a global future. Moreover, the global network society is data-driven. Therefore, the most important reforms or initiatives we should expect are those making available more data of a better quality to more people and institutions,” David J. Krieger, director of Switzerland’s Institute for Communication and Leadership, once said; while being against clickbait, filter bubbles, fake news, and other negative social media aspects.
Besides, the data generated helps developers improve the customer experience. What’s more, it helps offer consumers more relevant products, making our lives easier. Targeted ads are essential for small local businesses. They often have no other tool for effective promotion other than Instagram. So these small ventures make the economy healthier and provide us with services and goods that we like and need.
Anyway, we must clarify the process of gathering and storing users’ data. With this, people who are not involved in tech can see and understand where their personal information is going and how it’s being used. Unfortunately, basic digital literacy doesn’t currently come close to being common knowledge. Only after spreading some basics can we wake people up and motivate them to start making decisions about their data usage.
Pathways to Change
There is an extensive conversation about the wrongfulness of the current system that monetizes consumers’ data. The most popular idea is to make people the owners of their own data and earn money using it. The concept sounds simple, but it requires drastic changes in data collection and sale. Computer scientist and futurist from Silicon Valley, Jaron Lanier, suggests that we need to create new institutions for this to happen.
These institutions will gather data from users in return for some monetary compensation. Lanier sees it as something resembling an insurance company. People will choose to whom they will bring their data based on these companies’ offers. Lanier’s vision statement seems to be a promising option. At the same time, he notes that many people don’t believe such an idea can work out, and they might give up on it before trying.
Lanier is pessimistic about users’ eagerness to fight for ownership of their data. However, there are already legislative changes that may improve the situation. For instance, California’s Consumer Privacy Act grants internet users the right to delete their data and opt-out of their personal data sale.
The Act does not mention paying people for their data, but businessman and attorney Andrew Yang sees it as a first step to turning things around. He wants the law to recognize personal data as property and make corporations pay users for it.
Moreover, with celebrities like rapper and entrepreneur Will.I.Am starting to talk about personal data protection, and people are becoming more aware of the problem. A study by Insights Network shows that 90% of U.S. consumers find it unethical that their personal data is being shared without consent, and 65% of respondents feel uncomfortable about it being shared with businesses for profit.
Web 3.0’s Promises to Fix the Situation
Lately, the promise to put users in control of their own data comes from Web 3.0 (also known as Web3) enthusiasts. According to its idea, giant tech corporations will not dominate Web3, and it will thus stay fairer. However, Web3 developers also stick to the logic that users should be paid for their data.
The Brave Browser team has created the Basic Attention Token, the cryptocurrency intended to provide users with payment for their data. It’s open-source and transparent. Users will get Basic Attention Tokens for anonymously viewing ads. Later they can exchange them for any other cryptocurrency or fiat money. This approach helps advertisers, as well, by providing them with higher quality data for targeted ads.
The thing about Web3 is that now it doesn’t seem any better or different from what can be done with Web2. So, blockchain is not a magic wand that can fix the problem in some unique way. It still requires digital literacy, and it’s already getting its own power structures resembling those seen in Web 2.0.
Moreover, there can’t be the complete decentralization promised by the Web3 pioneers. Plus, the quality of code is not perfect, which makes it unstable to hackers’ attacks.
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 data. There is a variety of ideas about how this can be achieved. It looks like we may one day have a satisfying solution. Or even a number of them, be they in Web2 or Web3.
But it won’t happen fast. So, for now, the tech community should pave the way for this revolution by spreading digital literacy among people at large. On this path, we have a lot of food for thought and a lot of work.
Image Credit: William Fortunato; Pexels; Thank you!