Tim Wu Takes on the Attention Merchants

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on December 2, 2016


In his new book, Columbia law professor Tim Wu examines the “attention industry.” The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads explains what has led to today’s new “normal” where in nearly every moment of our waking lives, we face a barrage of messaging, advertising enticements, branding, sponsored social media, and other efforts to harvest our attention.


Professor Wu argues that this scramble for our attention is not simply the byproduct of recent technological innovations but the result of more than a century's growth in the industries that feed on human attention.


From the book’s description:

From the pre-Madison Avenue birth of advertising to the explosion of the mobile web; from AOL and the invention of email to the attention monopolies of Google and Facebook; from Ed Sullivan to celebrity power brands like Oprah Winfrey, Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump, the basic business model of "attention merchants" has never changed: free diversion in exchange for a moment of your consideration, sold in turn to the highest-bidding advertiser.


The Attention Merchants also examines the revolts that have risen against the relentless siege of our awareness, such as the creation of public broadcasting and Apple's ad-blocking OS. But Professor Wu points out that the “attention merchants are always growing new heads.”


Professor Wu recently sat down to discuss his new book with Terry Gross from NPR’s Fresh Air. In the resulting story, “How Free Web Content Traps People in an Abyss of Ads and Clickbait,” Professor Wu exclaimed: "I think you spend 50 percent of your mental energy trying to defeat ad systems. It's amazing that we've got this great scientific invention, the Web and the Internet, and then it has come to the point where using it reminds me of swatting mosquitoes."


Professor Wu shared that the book was inspired by his own experience of sitting down to look something up on the computer and finding, four hours later, that he had slid into a world of digital distraction. "It's what I call the casino effect," Professor Wu says. "It's this effort of the environment to make you lose control of your sense of time and your attention kind of gets dragged away.”


Below are a few excerpts from Terry Gross’ interview with Professor Wu, “How Free Web Content Traps People in an Abyss of Ads and Clickbait.”


On how we are used to content being free


It's a bargain with some historical precedent. I think back starting with radio, starting with television, we got used to this idea of stuff being free as long as you just watch a few ads. ...


This attention-merchant model has spread to so many areas of our life, where we're completely used to everything being free. But then the payoff, or the exchange, is that then we also agree to stuff that is compromised, because it is always trying to get us to click on ads at the same time. So we have this bargain that we made — and you can call it Faustian, you can call it whatever you want — that we have decided that we have to have everything for free, and I think we're starting to pay for it in terms of our mental states.


On the pervasiveness of Internet advertising


In the media, traditional media like print, we had boundaries, we had spaces that ads didn't leave, they stayed where they were on the page, they didn't float around over the text, and we're sort of lost on the Internet.


We don't have any barriers. We have a demand for growth that is insistent, and so advertising just keeps getting heavier and heavier and heavier. It doesn't have any natural limit, and we haven't found a place for the limit.


On how advertisers can use technology to target individual "moments"


I think this is going to become more intense in the coming decade as we start to carry more and more technology with us. We already have our phones, but other wearables and those technologies are going to want to know when you're deciding things and then offer some kind of input, subtle or less so, on that moment.


So you know, discovering the moment: Let's say you're someone's phone and you notice that your owner is drinking coffee at certain times of the day, just very subtly indicating where the local coffee shop is, which happens to have paid whoever makes your phone, at the right moment. ... We are possibly facing little tiny bits of manipulation in all of our waking hours, if we don't have that already.


On how Facebook "likes" help advertisers


Every time you click on a "like" button on another site, you've told Facebook that you're doing that, and so therefore advertisers know who their fan base is. When you decide to "like" something you may feel you're innocently putting out your preferences, but actually you're delivering something of enormous value, which is indicating that you essentially like to be advertised to by this company.


It's so funny that the Internet has become a series of traps where you do innocent things like give your name or address or indicate a preference — "I like this thing" — and therefore you open yourself up to a deluge of advertising based on those stated preferences. That's what you're doing, you're signaling who you are as a consumer.


On what can happen when Internet companies know intimate details about individuals


I'm concerned with our autonomy. ... I particularly don't like it when it's used to exploit your weaknesses or make you lose control in some ways — so it's like advertising casinos to people who have gambling problems, or just things that are too sensitive — if you have a disease and suddenly you started getting ads for cures for that disease, it's an embarrassing disease. All that kind of stuff, it just gets into that zone of autonomy or privacy where you feel a sense of freedom to be who you want to be, and I'm afraid when too many people know too much about you, it actually makes us all a lot more boring, because you're afraid to express yourself.


Professor Wu emphasizes: "We can have a better Web. Whether it's a combination of subscription models or nonprofit models, I would like to have a Web that we feel proud of, that lives up to its promise."


Read more about The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads:


Tim Wu is the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, director of the Poliak Center at Columbia Journalism School, and a contributing writer at NewYorker.com. He is credited with coining the term "net neutrality." He is author of The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires. In 2013, he was recognized by the National Law Journal as one America's 100 most influential lawyers.