I came across a very interesting article in last week's Economist Technology Quarterly the other day (which I was reading a week late, thanks to the efficiencies of the US Postal Service). The article mentioned a couple of sites such as AttentionTrust and Agloco which have sprung up to help users take ownership of their own online behavior data and sell this data to advertisers who want to target them with ads.
Both sites use a browser plug-in which captures browsing behavior and stores it online where it can be aggregated and sold on to advertisers. It's an interesting idea; since the user generates the valuable data about their own preferences, it seems fair that they should get a cut of the advertising revenues generated by this information (according to Agloco, up to 90%).
The only problem is that these users are already getting something for nothing - content. In the current model of ad-supported websites, publishers take money from advertisers who want to reach their readers, and use this money to pay for web hosting, design, maintenance, content authoring, editing and all the other myriad expenses associated with publishing on the web. As a "thank you" to their users, they offer their content for free (ironically, even the Economist is doing this now).
But if users start taking a big piece of the revenue pie just for the privilege of making their eyes available to be presented with ads, ad-supported publisher business models could collapse. The only way out of this bind is if these "attention" networks can take so much of the weight and expense of managing user profiles off the publishers that they (the publishers) can afford to give away such a big chunk of the ad revenues to the users themselves. And it will be a long time before a sufficiently large number of users are in such networks to make it worthwhile for publishers to abandon their own behavioral targeting efforts. And as a publisher I'm not sure I would want to have to deal with multiple attention networks - so consolidation aroung a single (ideally not-for-profiit) network seems like another pre-requisite.
But the development is interesting, nevertheless. At the very least, Agloco's claimed 10 million users is testament to the fact that users are becoming much more savvy about their personal information and even their browsing behavior, and are looking to monetize themselves (what a great phase that is: "Honey, I'm off to monetize myself for the day. I'll be back around 6.30"). How much are you worth?