AttenTV turns Web surfing into eerie spectator sport

Do you want to see what sites others are viewing? A service called AttenTV aims to turn "clickstreams" into entertainment. Screenshot: AttenTV

Someone peering over your shoulder as you browse the Internet would probably make you uncomfortable. But what if the situation were reversed?

Broadcasting your clickstream--a record of the Web sites you've visited--used to be considered a privacy violation. Now, some companies are trying to turn such broadcasts into just another way to squeeze value from what seems to be one of our most precious assets: the things we pay attention to.

I came across a service called AttenTV last week at a tech meetup and was both repulsed and fascinated by what founder Seth Goldstein had created. AttenTV offers people a visual depiction of the Web sites that others are clicking on, with the expectation that the browsing habits of those individuals will be interesting enough to watch, and even spur the "watchers" to check out some of the same sites.

"It's more than just spitting out URLs" Goldstein said in a phone interview. "It's (about) how you can present and translate that as entertaining."

After all, personal information that once was considered private is already ubiquitously displayed for the entertainment of others. Blogging about deeply intimate details, posting personal photos, or even attaching a camera to your head 24 hours a day are all the norm in the world of Web 2.0. Soon, showing the world all the Web sites we're looking at may seem routine as well.

AttenTV is still in its trial stage, but anyone can sign up for one or both parts of the service. One of its features is a download of a Firefox browser plug-in, called the Attention Recorder, which monitors your clicks. I skipped that part. The more interesting aspect, I think, is the client download, called Attentron, which enables you to watch what others have been watching. A bit creepy, right? Sure, but I still had to take a look.

Once downloaded, Attentron is pretty straightforward and easy to use. The application's viewer window provides a pop-out list of "sources," or channels of users. When a channel is selected, we can watch the clicking habits of a person, identified by his or her selected user name. Double-clicking a channel displays the sites a person has browsed, along with a time stamp for each. A revolving cube turns every few seconds to creatively display the home page of each site visited.

It's not exactly like sitting next to someone while they surf the Web, and nothing behind password-protected pages will be shown. (For instance, Attentron will display the Gmail or Bank of America home pages, but not e-mails or online bank records).

AttenTV broadcasters cannot specify who can or can't see their clickstreams, but they can choose when they broadcast their activities and when they don't. The broadcaster can also block specific sites from being broadcast--so it's less likely we'll see unsavory sites popping up on the AttenTV viewer.

But how entertaining is this really? Do I care that "HamletK" read Techmeme, CNN Money, Aggregate Knowledge and GigaOM on the night of April 10? Or that "KyleTalbott" was cruising BrooklynProperties.com Thursday morning? Not at all. But marketers might.

HamletK obviously is interested in technology and financial news, and KyleTalbott is apparently apartment hunting. And one of the ideas behind broadcasting your clickstream is to enable you to get the things you want more easily--via, perhaps, better-targeted advertising or Web site visits that are tailored based on your Web usage habits.

"It's about controlling your publicity, not restricting your privacy," Goldstein said. "We're in a world where the data is out there anyway. Every time I go to CNET, they drop a cookie on me. Every single Web site is watching what I'm doing...the only defense is a good offense."

One person investigating this approach to the Web world is Dave Henderson, a Web 2.0 consultant in Boulder, Colo. For years he has been storing lists of his clickstreams on Root.net, another of Goldstein's applications. Henderson says he's a pretty busy guy, so having his clicks tracked could be a great time-saver if the Web sites he visited were customized for the kinds of content he is interested in.

"I want applications to be built on this data stream that will give me a return on my attention. As more people get involved in the blogosphere, there's more confusion. We need tools to help us filter though all the noise and all the value," he said.

While the concept of having someone watch the Web sites you visit seems invasive or exhibitionist or both, attention fans like to couch it as a way to exact control over something already being used by marketers and Web sites every day. What we pay attention to is clearly worth something: credit services company Experian paid $240 million in cash for search-data collector Hitwise and its clickstream database.

Experian is essentially buying a way to view the behavior of consumers, who probably don't even know they're being observed. "The day is going to come quickly where we are going to want to be recognized for the value we're providing to other people," said Goldstein. "Instead of them doing it without our knowledge, I think it's much more powerful to be in a world where you have control over what people know about you."

Henderson said, for instance, that he'd love for a site like that for The New York Times to have access to his entire Web clickstream, not just what pages he views within nytimes.com. So when he visits that news site, his experience would be completely personalized, without Henderson having to answer any surveys or provide other information.

The idea for AttenTV was sparked last year, Goldstein said, when he began pondering a way to visualize how we spend our time online. This is just his latest venture within the so-called attention economy, however. Goldstein is also founder of

Many more attention-economy applications will likely have to start cropping up before the idea takes off, however. Until then, social utility is the most important value that anyone can hope to get out of AttenTV, according to Goldstein.

"It has to work as a social environment first--before you try to monetize it," he said. "And, it has to be entertaining in and of itself. Otherwise you'll never get an audience large enough."

Only about 30 people are broadcasting their streams on AttenTV so far.

Among them is Derrick Oien, president of a mobile social-networking company. He joined AttenTV a couple weeks ago and says he finds attention broadcasting "extremely fascinating." He especially likes that he can see what one of his favorite bloggers, Fred Wilson--another AttenTV broadcaster--is looking at on the Web. Oien says he finds that many of the AttenTV users read the same sites he does.

Interesting, perhaps, but where does the "customized" Web experience come in? Clickstream broadcasting is still in its infancy. To progress, more average Web surfers need to be comfortable with the idea of voluntarily exposing their Web surfing habits. There's no real incentive to sign up yet, but there could be if marketers start buying that information or developers start building applications to use all that clickstream data.

"If it stays an academic idea, then it's not important," said Oien. That's why he's volunteered to be an attention guinea pig. "If you're going to be a supporter of this kind of thing, you have to hold yourself out as an example of someone who's exploring those tools."

It may be its very early stages, but AttenTV could be a viable business someday. Goldstein says he is by nature "focused more on the theory and the concept first." The next step is to show a proof of concept--that is, how this data revealing our online habits can be interesting to other people, such as friends, family or people on our social networks. "Or, if I'm really popular," Goldstein said, "my fans."

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