The New Gatekeepers

Does a ‘universal attention token’ sound good? Then you’re going to love the blockchain

September 4, 2018

If you’re already confused about what a “blockchain” is, or how it works, and what role you might play in a media industry powered by cryptocurrencies (whatever those are), then a new proposal that would use the blockchain to reengineer the advertising business might not be your cup of tea. A company called SocialFlow, however, thinks it is the future of a sustainable ad-based media industry. In a nutshell, SocialFlow—which manages social-media campaigns for media companies—wants to replace the ad business and its shady click and page-view model with a cryptocurrency-based “universal attention token,” which it announced this week.

Whether SocialFlow can convince enough media and advertising companies to adopt this new model remains to be seen (the company notes it has 200 clients, and says the content it distributes generates 9 billion clicks per year). But one thing that does become clear the more you read the company’s proposal—and similar proposals from other would-be blockchain offerings—is just how confusing, and even dehumanizing, the language used in these kinds of projects can be. The idea that your thoughtful perusal of a news story or touching human-interest tale will be converted into “attention tokens” is just the beginning. The whole thing feels like an exercise in commodification.

According to SocialFlow’s white paper, readers would earn tokens by consuming content (including ads) and then be able to use those tokens to pay for paywall access and other features. As the paper describes it:

User clicks on content published through the SocialFlow platform are expected to provide the initial basis for SocialFlow’s blockchain of attention. As Users click on these links, SocialFlow intends to have the short link system generate a unique click ID and timestamp that will be hashed via a strong and well-tested one-way hashing algorithm, distributed to the blockchain at regular intervals. SocialFlow anticipates that Users will be able to replenish their tokens by engaging with brand content.

If you aren’t that excited about engaging with brand content in order to replenish your tokens, don’t feel bad. And I’m not trying to pick on SocialFlow—lots of other blockchain-related services also sound like this. The idea of an “attention token,” for example, is already built into a new web browser called Brave, which was launched in 2016 by Brendan Eich, co-founder of Mozilla and creator of the Javascript programming language.

In a recent interview with the website set up to promote the token idea, Eich talked about how Brave uses machine learning. “The key with machine learning is data feed quality,” he said. “Browsers are juicy: navigation, tab clusters, opener/openee relations, scrolling of content, form fill data. Plus info you volunteer when onboarding about demographics, brand loyalty, that stays on device.” Not exactly the kind of thing that makes you feel warm and fuzzy about your role as a valued member of an ecosystem. For Brave and SocialFlow, you are mostly valuable as a data input for an algorithm.

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This isn’t surprising for new ventures like these, especially ones that are based on the blockchain, since they are primarily designed by software engineers, who are used to seeing people, or people’s data, as inputs. But it does give the whole enterprise a soul-less quality. You know who else sees people primarily as inputs? Facebook. In a recent Medium post, David Auerbach—a software engineer—wrote about how the network has flattened human communication by forcing it into the little boxes demanded by its system, including “emoji” responses for like, sadness, etc. Why? Because real human communication is hard for computers to understand.

Maybe the way human beings interact does need to be re-engineered somehow, whether it’s by using the blockchain or some other system, because the way we’ve been doing it doesn’t work any more—the media environment is broken in many ways, advertising first and foremost. But it would be nice if at least some of the humanity remained after the re-engineering process.

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.