I just read a good short paper on Crowdsourcing, Attention, and Productivity [pdf] by Bernardo Huberman, Daniel Romero (who’s an intern here at MS Research with us this summer) and Fang Wu at HP Labs. They used a big dataset from YouTube to measure content contribution and attention.

Thesis: People contribute more to content sites like YouTube when they receive positive attention, and a lack of attention causes people to uploading less content and, in some cases, to stop contributing altogether.

Those contributing to the digital commons perceive it as a private good, in which payment for their efforts is in the form of the attention that their content gathers in the form of media downloads or news clicked on

This isn’t an entirely surprising study. There’s lots of evidence that status is a major motivator for online participation– not just academic studies, but in general game and social software design (see my Tumblarity and FourSquare posts for recent examples). That’s why every arcade game has a leaderboard and why Yelp has an elite classification and why I’m writing a dissertation on the topic.

But Huberman et al. use “status” and “attention” synonymously, which interests me. They operationalize “attention” as “number of views.” On YouTube this makes sense, since the highest-viewed videos bubble up to the index pages, and videos that crack the top 100 in their category get “honors” that appear on the statistics part of each individual video’s page. So on YouTube, attention maps fairly neatly to status. And I think this is true for most sites that have quantifiable status metrics based on views, followers or whatever the site labels it.

On other sites, of course, status might be linked to skill (high scores, artistry, writing reviews of new restaurants), looks (clothing choices, aesthetics, makeup skills), wealth, whatever. But if I’ve created an amazing Polyvore collage, it’s only a status symbol if other people see it (and I’ll be more likely to create more if people view my existing collages). Similarly, although time doesn’t map directly to attention, having a low Slashdot number or an “oldschool” Upcoming badge is meaningless if nobody knows about it. I need to have recognition for my wealth, skill, or looks in order for them to function as status within a group.

I’d argue that attention is an important part of the status metric; but I don’t think more attention always translates to more status (the term “famewhore” comes to mind). But perhaps the attention is what encourages people like Julia Allison or Nick Starr to continue living public lives, even as they receive a great deal of negative attention at the same time. I would be interested to see if attention of any kind correlates with participation, or whether it is only positive attention; if the YouTubers had thousands of hits, but an equal number of vitriolic comments, would they continue to post videos?

Finally: We hear a lot about the “attention economy” or “publicity culture,” in which the most valued skills are those which increase attention. And many people decry this culture for bubbling-up sensational, sexual, or violent content– or just short bursts of info-nuggets– rather than meaningful, thoughtful, difficult ideas. I’d argue that what attracts attention is culturally specific and so we can’t automatically assume that an attention economy leads to lowest-common-denominator content. (Another assumption I’d like to see tested.)

It’s a beautiful day today and all I want to be doing is riding my bike around outside.