Time. Collective Action. Google. Gillmor. Attention.

LordganeshA discussion of three related topics.  The first is the concept of Google as content provider, the second is the Gillmor focus on an “attention economy” and the third is collective action.  The battle matters for the PR practitioner and social scientist alike because it provides the filters to discern the winners.

Google as Content Provider

Google originally created a valuable brand through buzz from alpha geeks using a minimalist interface that worked.  It worked, it helped us find stuff, because it leveraged something under the radar which was, at the time, hard to game or trick.  That thing was described as page rank which to oversimplify means links to your web site (content) are votes for your site and therefore the site is probably more relevant.  So links about a topic mean this content is good and you probably want it so we (google) will direct you (you) to it.  They provided a service to help us make the best use of our time seeking stuff.

We cared about google because we lack long attention spans and don’t want to waste time going through 5 pages of search results to get to the answer.  We are smart and impatient and want what we want and we want it now.

[Sidebar: that elephant is Lord Ganesh the Remover of Obstacles which just seemed appropriate for this post]

So google helped us get to our stuff.  But with its success became an awareness of the value of links, which led to over-eager search engine optimization techniques which devalued the very system that created it.  Like a nano-particle, the act of observation changed the object itself.  So google can no longer differentiate based on links and can’t come up with new innovation that doesn’t involve content creation.  This leads to the launch of http://maps.google.com and Google Earth, both of which I love.  They compete with Mapquest, but what do I care if two corporate behemoths fight it out?  Plus Mapquest has been a bit more innovative with a little competition with the traffic overlay for example.  All is good and the consumer overlooks the fact that Google became a content provider.  Their brand equity is still gold.

But the problem lingered in the back of their minds – they are aware of the challenge per this NYT article on Google which quotes them as saying:

"advertising-funded search engines will inherently be biased toward the advertisers and away from the needs of consumers."

The Gillmor focus on the attention economy

Gillmor, as self righteous as google by design, believes links are dead and that it is all about attention.  Nielsen was right all along, measure what people are watching (this assumes Nielsen is accurate, but stay with me on this one).  Measure what people are paying attention to, and mark that up as what has value.  Links are of course a measurable method of tracking attention but Steve would argue they are one of many.

This attention stuff sounds cool.  But now tell me how YOU got through High School English class?  You were physically there but your attention sure wasn’t.  So physical presence is not an indicator of attention.  What killed the value of links as a differentiator was “awareness of links” causing a devaluation and not necessarily even through abuse. Just being aware of the concept changes our behavior.

To be fair, you CAN measure attention if you have a two way channel with the viewer or participant.  Hence Microsoft’s interest in the attention economy because they provide server and desktop software.  They have both sides of the connection.  (Disclosure the same can be said about our company’s Tendenci software although we only see the server side.)  You can’t measure attention through voluntary disclosure such as attention.xml unless it also includes a toll.

The Collective Action Problem of TIME

Mancur Olson’s book The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups discusses situations where individuals taking action that is in their personal best interest may cause a less than optimized result for the group.  We all have sheep that graze in a pasture until someone buys a bunch of extra sheep and the pasture is ruined from over grazing – is the classic example of a collective action problem.

Mancur believes that for some collective action problems they must be solved with legislation or tolls; appealing to everyone to “do the right thing” is about as effective as an American recycling program.  Collective action problems are system problems and their nature can’t be changed so quit fooling yourself.  Face the facts.  Schools are needed for our kids; we must tax the population to provide the schools so everything doesn’t fall apart after we are dead.  Education is a collective action problem that is solved through taxation.  Roads are crowded so start charging a toll and raise the price of gas.  Problem solved.

Timing is everything.  Bill Gates has a lot of money, but he has limited time.  Time is the be all and end all.  Every religion that had a god visit earth has them constrained by time.  Even Redwood trees can only pay attention for so long before they run out of time.

Time, attention, is by its very nature a collective action problem for the individual.  Everyone is clamoring for your time, your attention, by every means.  This results in over grazing of the individual and the group’s time.  (Please excuse the mixed metaphors – I should have paid more attention in that English class.)

Google as arbiter of time

So google provided the collective action solution, a third party impartial rater of content, albeit measured through links, to help the individual shepherds find a pasture for their sheep that could be grazed.  Their search engine told us how we could spend the next precious 30 seconds looking for an answer to our question that was probably what we wanted.  Google acknowledged that we have limited time on earth, that this was a problem, and provided us a legislative-like solution through governance for the collective action problem of time.

So now Google is being asked by the street for continued growth.  They are looking at content creation.  Blogspot worked out horribly for them when after being purchased it quickly became synonymous for splogs (spam blogs to increase search engine rank).  Blogspot received double hit of no tolls (free) and a conflict of interest in search results with an obvious result.  Now Google, based on the success of Blogspot, has decided to go up against eBay and Craigslist for classified advertisements.  No really, what the hell are they thinking?  SEO’s will post fake classified advertisements all day for the link backs (just ask Craig!). 

The Warren Buffet Results

Mr. Buffet is always said to look at the long term.  So the situation with time, google and collective action has to play out in a number of ways.  Links will keep value, but not as much.  Gillmor is right about attention but will never come up with a clear way to measure or make use of it without endorsing a monopoly that tramples civil rights so his comments are fun, but not actionable.  And google will have to do one of two things:

  1. Google gets out of the content creation business.  Realize the dangers as described above, spin off a new company with all that extra IPO money but don’t be ostrich-like and expect their charming brand will solve a problem that has befuddled mankind since the beginning of time.  And that problem is time itself.

    or

  2. Google stays in the content creation business, which causes a delayed but inevitable drop in their search engine traffic based on individual’s actions and distrust.  You can’t be a contestant and a judge in the same contest.  It would take a skilled debator to convince anyone that judging your own contest does not constitue "evil".

My advice for a new blogger or content provider is to avoid any google content providing properties like the plague.  You will note this is posted on typepad, not blogger.  I’ll pay money to be associated with quality and to avoid apparent conflicts of interest.  If you believe in the brand that is you, you should too!

Hopefully someone will explain the nature of humans, the concept of time and collective action theory to google before they ruin a perfectly good brand.  Before we all stop paying attention.