We Sell Our Attention Too Cheaply

The message of Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants is that we should more carefully consider what we get in return when we let companies sell our eyeballs to advertisers. In fact most we don’t consider it at all. If I’ve failed to turn off Twitter or my mail app while working, inevitably, barely thinking about it, I click away from the task at hand to quickly check my inbox or Twitter feed. I’m lured away from productive work by something that is literally optimized to capture my attention.

In the case of Twitter, as all of us these days are aware, the salable product isn’t the app, it’s your attention. Twitter, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Instagram, are nominally free because these companies are  what Tim Wu calls attention merchants, capturing your mental space and selling it to advertisers. In exchange, we get pretty good free email, a way to stay in touch with old high school friends, and a chance to argue politics with idiotic strangers who we’ll never meet in real life.

The attention merchant model isn’t new – Wu traces it back to the first tabloids in New York, which sold their papers below cost, hoping to make money through advertisers. To make this business model work, tabloids like the New York Sun were the Buzzfeeds of their day, trafficking in the 19th century equivalent of clickbait.

In the case of Gmail or Facebook, yeah, we know they’re selling our data, but we think the trade is worth it. The same is true with broadcast TV: the Superbowl is free to watch, and in exchange, we sit through some high-budget, clever ads. What’s not to like about this deal?

Wu argues however that we’re selling ourselves too cheaply. Without blinking an eye, we let advertisers vie for our attention in our most personal and protected spaces: our homes, our bedrooms, our schools. At one time, as Wu documents, the idea that one would let a stranger pitch a sale to the family sitting around the dinner table was outrageous. No longer, as we eat in front of our TV’s and phones.

Not only have the attention merchants completely invaded every last corner of our personal space, but their business imperatives have also distorted the content we get. We think we get a great app or great TV shows in exchange for looking at a few ads. Wu shows however, we put up with content that is not driven by the creative talents of directors, screenwriters, performers, journalists, or editors, but rather by the talents of those whose business is to commoditize human attention – and the content sucks as a result. As examples, Wu cites the rigged quiz show craze of the late 1950’s, or the crappy reality TV of the aughts. (Interestingly, Wu argues that we’re getting great television now, thanks to companies like Netflix that, rather than selling attention, sell subscriptions.) One could also cite the deluge of completely fabricated news stories during this past election.

One question that Wu didn’t seem to me to have a good answer to is, what’s the alternative? Take journalism for example, perhaps the most important locus of tension between the attention merchant business model and the critical societal need for content that does not actively mislead or exploit readers or viewers. Few newspapers these days can survive on subscriptions – so how do they stay afloat without selling out their readers? Cable news has clearly gone all-in on the attention merchant model, pursuing sensational but trivial stories to keep viewers glued to the screen.

I got bogged down in a few places in this book – Wu’s critiques of specific social media apps is very detailed – but, overall, Wu gives the reader a deeply engaging history of attention merchants and advertising. He ties together the first tabloids, the original snake oil salesman, and the tortured history of AOL.

I don’t think I’m as pessimistic as he is, but we absolutely should take seriously his call for a “human reclamation project”, creating protected zones in our lives “for our own consciousness and mental space.” While we unquestionably benefit from many of the “free” things we get from attention merchants, we’ve failed to adequately reckon with the consequences to human civilization of the commodification of our mental space. “What are the costs to a society of an entire popluation conditioned to spend so much of their waking lives not in concentration and focus but rather in fragmentary awareness and subject to constant interruption?” Wu asks.

Seeing how we’ve just come through an election dominated to an unprecedented degree by fake news, propaganda, and other ridiculous distractions from the very high stakes that were on the ballot, we’re about to learn the answer.

You can hear Tim Wu talk about this and more on the Ezra Klein show, where I first heard about this book. And yes there are ads on this blog, but I guarantee you they’re well worth the content you get here.

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