The Attention Economy and Mobile Web 2.0

Pay attention! This phrase takes on a whole new meaning in the context of information overload from our modern day communications choices. The 24 hour news day, 500+ channels of TV on cable and dish networks, radio, XM, Sirius, and the web along with one of it’s offspring, the blogosphere, are producing an unprecedented amount of media all vying for our attention. Attention economics is here and beginning to be realized and leveraged by companies large and small. Individual attention is a scarce commodity; scarcity creates value. The primary function of company involvement in the Attention Economy has been focused on advertising, and “paying attention” hints what some hope are the dynamics of Long Tail participation in this market.

Media is the dominant delivery mechanism of advertising and by necessity locked in fierce competition to capture and hold your attention primarily for the purposes of securing ad revenue for the profitable development of their creative products and services. Whether one watches Lost on ABC, listens to All Things Considered on NPR, or reads Robert Scoble’s blog, advertisers or sponsors are funding that experience to gain access to the media consumer’s attention. In the realm of media, the producer acts as the owner of your attention. You pay attention to their media properties. Producers collect information on what and when you pay attention, and in turn, sell your attention to advertisers who wish to deliver their marketing messages.

Who owns your attention

When you use Google or Yahoo! for web search or visit blogs that partner with Adsense or Yahoo! Publisher, it is the search engine that acts as owner of your attention. Stored on Google and Yahoo! servers are the clickstreams of millions. Whether you click through the results of a web search or on an ad placed on a blog, the search engines sell your attention and gestures to advertisers who pay for the increased likelihood that they will get your attention long enough or at the right time to convert you into a customer for themselves or their client companies.

Social networks like MySpace, Facebook, Beebo, Flickr etc. act as the owners of your attention. As you participate in building your profile, interacting with objects in the network (e.g., applications, media, other users) and/or publish your own original content an overwhelming amount of information is available on where and to what you are paying attention. This treasure trove of data is combed on both the front-end and back-end of these networks by advertisers eager to get their message into your view and attention.

John Stratton, CMO of Verizon Wireless (VZW), dramatically declared to big media and advertisers that they own the attention of their subscribers. The following audio excerpt is from John Stratton’s speech at AdAge’s 2006 Madison & Vine Conference bringing together Hollywood and Madison Avenue. In his speech, Stratton explains the value of Verizon’s subscriber attention by describing how his company sold 10,000 concert tickets in one hour.

Stratton sees Verizon Wireless as the owner of your attention to be sold to both Hollywood and Madison Avenue and likely anyone willing to pay Verizon Wireless for ad delivery. Did you download a hip hop ringtone last month? Are you a mobile gamer? Do you live in Los Angeles? Is your name Stacy? VZW’s view into your clickstream is even more powerful than the view of Google, or Yahoo! Web companies have mastered the collection of to what and when you’re paying attention, but VZW can add the layers of where and who you are (identity).

The US government mandated E911 regulation requires carriers to build the infrastructure to accurately determine your location and provide that information to public safety organizations for emergency services. As a result, GPS equipped devices are widely deployed and in use (e.g., personal navigation is one of the breakthrough applications on the carriers’ data networks). Further, your mobile phone number identifies you just as surely as your driver’s license or your passport. Credit checks and state issued identification are requirements for the process of purchasing a mobile phone.

Attention Trust & Root Vault

Your attention has value. It is scarce. Businesses are using technology and services to act as owners of your attention. In 2005, the Attention Trust was formed by Steve Gillmor and Seth Goldstein in an attempt to conceptually create property rights around attention and ensure the ownership of that property resided with it’s originator, you.

Attention Trust

Beyond providing consumer protection and the creation of property rights, Attention Trust seeks to enable individuals to capture their own clickstreams and bring them to market just as your many service providers do. The Attention Recorder is a browser plugin that enables an individual to collect their own clickstream and store it. Individuals may choose to store their clickstream on a local hard drive or on one the services authorized by Attention Trust.

Attention data stored on a service can be bought, sold or traded. Third party investors may purchase attention data and act as arbiters. Advertisers might bid on clickstreams or purchase them outright. The originator of the clickstream owns their data and can chose who is allowed to purchase the data and who is not. It remains to be seem if these initial efforts and services can sustain themselves until the market can be educated.

Attention Economy Leverage

Some companies are getting wise to the fact that the byproducts of Attention Economy also have value. A blogger swarm on any given topic can generate millions of page views; a rapid worldwide spread of a technology, story, event or concept (i.e., a network effect); and the energy drink of all web site owners – google juice. Google juice and related mechanisms for driving an Idea Virus into mainstream consciousness, generally occurring through the leap from the blogosphere into the mainstream media, results in economic value not only in the context of attention, but also, monetarily.

An early example of leverage applied to the attention economy is the phrase Web 2.0. The phrase was coined in 2003, by O’Reilly Media to name a conference held in October, 2004, and instantly popularized by the technology blogosphere. O’Reilly had partnered with CMP to produce the series of Web 2.0 conferences. A blog swarm formed across technology bloggers around the first conference and it’s central theme of “the web as a platform.” In November, 2004, CMP applied for a service mark on the phrase Web 2.0. A service mark is a type of trademark that is used to mark services instead of products.

It is notable that the Web 2.0 service mark application was filed not when the term was coined in 2003 or even over the next year during conference preparation. It was applied for after the conference in November once the term had been popularized among technology bloggers. The existence of the service mark was largely unknown until a small not-for-profit conference in Ireland chose to use the phrase Web 2.0 in the title of it’s conference in 2006. CMP sent a cease-and-desist letter demanding that IT@Cork discontinue the use of it’s service mark. However, according to trademark law a mark loses protection when it becomes a generic term. According to the Harvard School of Law’s documentation on trademark law, Web 2.0 not only “lost” it’s protection via genericity,

A word will be considered generic when, in the minds of a substantial majority of the public, the word denotes a broad genus or type of product and not a specific source or manufacturer. So, for example, the term “thermos” has become a generic term and is no longer entitled to trademark protection. Although it once denoted a specific manufacturer, the term now stands for the general type of product. Similarly, both “aspirin” and “cellophane” have been held to be generic. In deciding whether a term is generic, courts will often look to dictionary definitions, the use of the term in newspapers and magazines, and any evidence of attempts by the trademark owner to police its mark.

but the clearly generic nature of “web” should have prevented the mark from becoming registered at all.

Finally, a generic mark is a mark that describes the general category to which the underlying product belongs. For example, the term “Computer” is a generic term for computer equipment. Generic marks are entitled to no protection under trademark law. Thus, a manufacturer selling “Computer” brand computers (or “Apple” brand apples, etc.) would have no exclusive right to use that term with respect to that product. Generic terms are not protected by trademark law because they are simply too useful for identifying a particular product. Giving a single manufacturer control over use of the term would give that manufacturer too great a competitive advantage.

CMP leveraged the attention network effect created by the swarm of technology bloggers writing and commenting on the Web 2.0 concept. They captured the term’s accrued value by securing a service mark. Whether these events have a direct relationship to the next case is unknown, but a precedent for business and leveraging the Attention Economy was set.

Verzion Wireless announces Mobile Web 2.0(SM)

Verizon Wireless authored and distributed a press release that no doubt many have read as it was reported across the blogosphere, trade press and the mainstream press earlier this week. The press release was titled: Now It Is Even Easier to Get the Info You Want With Mobile Web 2.0 From Verizon Wireless. On seeing the document I immediately took note of the (SM) following mentions of Verizon Wireless’ Mobile Web 2.0 product, as in the following example.

VZW Mobile Web 2.0 SM

In addition, VZW’s press kit (pdf) dated 08/17/07, also, carries the service mark on it’s new product name, Mobile Web 2.0. I phoned Jim Gerace at VZW for comment to verify the service mark application and the date of application, but my call was not returned in time for this article.

VZW is capitalizing on the existing high attention valuation for the phrase Mobile Web 2.0 and it’s forerunner Web 2.0 which has clearly reached mainstream awareness and has become part of the technology vernacular globally. Applying the concepts of Web 2.0 to mobile data applications began at least 2 years ago as evidenced by a book titled Mobile Web 2.0 published in 2006, 272 mil search results at Google, and 3,164 blog posts as indicated by Google Blogsearch. The company can leverage this attention valuation to save on marketing spend, and equally prevent competitors from sharing in that value by using a service mark to proclaim ownership.

Does Verizon Wireless plan to defend this mark? If not, why apply for a mark at all?

Mobile is a generic term. Web is a generic term. The practice of versioning originally used in software parlance has produced gems such, “Al Qaeda 2.0″ from CNN, and “Al Gore 2.0″ from Fox News. Further, the application of Mobile Web 2.0 to VZW’s mobile web service is the very definition of a generic mark in trademark law.

Generic Mark Defense by Payola

One of the more sensational instances of a company defending a generic mark was the case ofMicrosoft v. Lindows, Inc. Microsoft claimed that the name Lindows infringed it’s trademark on Windows. In this case, Michael Robertson founder of Lindows, Inc. and previously, was well armed to demonstrate that Windows was a generic mark. The term “windows” was used extensively in a generic sense by the Unix community and in early documents from research at Xerox Parc to describe UI design elements.

Lindows, Inc. had Microsoft in an awkward position and the company’s choices became increasingly limited. They could bring Lindows, Inc. to court for infringement and risk invalidation of their Windows trademark, or allow Lindows to dillute the trademark and lose it that way. The only way that Microsoft could save its Windows trademark in the end was to pay Lindows, Inc. $10 mil to change their name. So, Lindows, Inc. became Linspire, Inc.

Paying Attention to Verizon Wireless

Shouldn’t VZW’s move to Mobile Web 2.0 be celebrated? Afterall, the carrier is willing to embrace the principles of Mobile Web 2.0, like open APIs, open standards, the full web browser interface, the internet as platform, and the power of indy content. This is great news for subscribers and developers. Finally, carriers will lift their heavy boot from the stream of innovation that open APIs represent for developers and restore that direct relationship loop between user and developer that has propelled WWW innovation.

Similarly, Vodafone’s move to open up the full web experience to their customers this summer was met with praise across the blogosphere, mainstream press, analysts and from their subscribers in the UK. Carriers and operators are at long last understanding the value of taking down their walled gardens of content. Acceptance of Mobile Web 2.0 from VZW means the subscriber is in control and true choice is at long last possible.

Recall that the Stratton speech focused on VZW as a media company. The full embrace of Mobile Web 2.0 means that VZW would compete for ad revenue against the Internet media giants like Yahoo!, Google, MSN, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, etc. What a huge change this new openness represents over the carrier’s attempt of being an application company and the “Mobile Internet” (which became known to users as WAP is Crap) initiatives of the past.

VZW’s Mobile Web 2.0 is…

an updated version of their portal with space for advertising. To VZW Mobile Web 2.0 is a walled garden. Access to the walled garden costs $5.00 per month plus air time (VZW charges it’s subs for the minutes an application is open on a handset along with the monthly subscription for application access) AND comes with advertising on every page. There are, also, featured links which is code forpaid placement. So then, Mobile Web 2.0 is a maximized revenue instance of a walled garden. Who knew?

So the joke is on everyone. Not only does VZW trademark a term popularized by indy media, and countless conferences where hands are held across the divide between web development and mobile development, but in a kind of one finger salute, VZW applies the term for ultimate mobile openness to their walled garden.

It’s time to pay attention to Verizon Wireless. Those who write, speak and evangelize independently may not have legal standing or individually the legal resources to follow the USPTO’s trademark application objection process, but this is the Attention Economy. We can create a negative incentive on VZW’s misappropriation of our attention. A different precedent is needed.

Perhaps a mobile startup will want to play the role of Lindows, Inc. A $10 mil settlement would be a nice round of funding with no term sheet attached.

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