October 25, 2016—Tim Wu, author of The Master Switch and professor at Columbia Law School, discussed his new book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, during a conversation at the Shorenstein Center with Erie Meyer, Joan Shorenstein Fellow.
Wu, whose past work also includes the FTC, Google, and Free Press, discussed the historical origins of the attention economy, how people are fighting back against the encroachment of advertising, and considerations for media and technology companies. Below are some highlights from the conversation as well as the full audio recording. Also available on iTunes, Google Play (login required), and iHeartRadio.
The audience as product
I’m concerned about a living environment that is trying to take us away from focus, from concentration, from other people, and taking us toward mindless distraction for the purpose of advertising.
Wu described his new book as “a history of a business model,” that model being the “resale of human attention—that is, gathering eyeballs or access to the public’s mind and selling it to advertisers.”
“This is a business model which has long anchored the media, clearly television and newspaper industries, but over the last 10 years, or maybe 20 years, it has exploded into all parts of our life, mainly through the rise of internet companies that depend on advertising.”
“Part of why I was motivated to write this book was…the feeling where you go to the web, and you have this idea you’re going to write an email, and almost involuntarily you start to click on some story like ‘three celebrities from the 90s who never really made it’…and hours can go by…I call it the casino effect… I’m concerned about a living environment that is trying to take us away from focus, from concentration, from other people, and taking us toward mindless distraction for the purpose of advertising.”
The origins of the sale of attention
Wu traced the origins of today’s attention economy to the newspaper industry in New York during the 1830s. “Benjamin Day, who gets credit in my mind as the first attention merchant, had this ingenious business idea…he thought he would lower dramatically the price of the paper, to a penny. He would begin to cover…human interest stories for a mass audience…the key idea he had, when he started the New York Sun, was to see his readers not as his consumers, but as his product. He was the first person to really appreciate the idea—you gather a crowd, and you’re not interested in that crowd for its money or as customers, but because you can resell them to someone else who wants their attention.”
The ethical problems with fighting for attention
“One of the risks in markets which are completely driven by attention seeking is they tend to run toward the most lurid, outrageous, attention-getting content and operate in a winner-take-all manner. If you care about our culture, care about our media, it’s something to be concerned about.”
The public revolts against advertising
Wu described the development of the “original ad-blocker,” which was a remote control, produced by the electronics company Zenith. “The original remote control looked different. It was a gun, and you were supposed to shoot out the annoying ads.”
“You can see in that the beginning of resistance. Because the business model of advertising harvests our brains, because it’s annoying and intrusive, there are periodically revolts. One of the first ones was in Paris at the turn of the 20th century when they decided they’d had it with posters…it led to pervasive regulation of outdoor spaces in Paris…advertising is restricted to certain areas.”
“We may be in the beginning of or perhaps in the middle of another revolt against advertising and advertising content. The ad blockers are one example, the fact that major companies like Apple have gotten involved, there are browsers like the Brave browser…that blocks advertising and tries to renegotiate the terms under which you’ll watch ads.”
A lesson from Google
Many of the major web platforms in the last three or four years I don’t think have gotten much better for consumers, but have definitely gotten better as ad platforms.
“Google obviously built a good search engine, but at one point they were bleeding money, early in their careers, and they didn’t really know what to do, so they thought about advertising, but…Page had personally written a manifesto…where he declared that advertising-funded search engines will always be biased, will never serve the interest of people…this tirade against advertising and how it’s inherently corrupting.”
“So they came up with AdWords, which they believed was a form of advertising that actually made the product better and that didn’t bother people…I think that was true at the beginning…the problem is that having made that choice, here’s the slightly Faustian side of it…the demands of the ad attention model have grown and grown, and forced them to make more and more decisions that I think are a little less noble…they’ve increasingly blurred the line between the results that are organic and those that are ads…there’s increasing question about why and when Google Maps shows you things—Uber started showing up as one of the options to get [to] places.”
“Many of the major web platforms in the last three or four years I don’t think have gotten much better for consumers, but have definitely gotten better as ad platforms. So much of the talent effort now is going into convincing you to click on things.”
The drawbacks of free content
The bottom line is we need to suck it up and pay for more stuff.
“We’re in a time where we’re obsessed with or addicted to free stuff—free content, free services…but one thing people have started to realize over the last several years is the reason it’s free obviously, is we are the product. You are being resold, and more precisely, what is being resold is something that is very scarce, which is human attention, some access to your mind. It is hard to get access to people’s mind, and that’s what makes it so valuable.”
“If you want to really support content you like, you have pay for it…subscriptions that come from that impulse—less that you’re buying it but that you’re supporting it…it’s a subtle difference in motive but I think an important one…the bottom line is we need to suck it up and pay for more stuff.”
“Paid models have their problems, but they support a much broader variety of content, because you don’t need an enormous number of people to have a viable product offering. Ad models, because the model is dependent on having a minimal size of audience to be plausibly sellable, requires the underlying content to more generally be mass content.”
“This is one of the reasons I think you’ve seen a transformation of television over the last 15 years with the rise of paid content. Once upon a time television was three networks and absolutely driven by advertising content and absolutely ratings based…they soon found by the late 1950s that it was a very winner-take-all kind of market. Whoever was running against ‘I Love Lucy’ on Monday nights was losing money, because 70 million people were watching ‘I Love Lucy’…the contest in television…very quickly became a race to the absolute middle…shows like Ed Murrow’s ‘See it Now’ were cancelled because they just didn’t have the ratings…television, which now gets 50 percent of its revenue, non-advertising, has become better as a result.”
This event is co-sponsored by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Article by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center.