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The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu

Published in October of 2016.

In his essential new book The Attention Merchants, Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu quotes from William James' (1842-1910) observation that "our life experience would ultimately amount to whatever we had paid attention to.”

In The Attention Merchants, Wu takes us back to the origins of the monetization of attention. He starts with the observation that there are two ways that information industries can capture revenues. They can sell content directly - such as through tickets or subscriptions or cover price charges etc - or they can sell the attention of an audience to a third party. The realm of advertising - the attention merchants in Wu’s story - is that of the reselling of that attention.  

The modern attention economy can be traced back to the 1830’s, and the launch of mass-advertising through the penny newspapers. The New York Sun lost money on every sale, but made up for the gap between price and costs via advertising. The business model of every subsequent mass-market information industry company is built on this early penny newspaper business. Wu recounts the story of each of these industries, going from the advent of radio (and the original broadcasting networks), to television, the internet, and finally to the ascension of social media.  

The strength of this book is the time that Wu takes to place the current digital attention economy within its historical context. The Attention Merchants provides insights into why today’s digital companies that depend on advertising - such as news organizations and platforms such as Twitter - struggle to achieve economic viability. At the same time, companies that have ridden network effects to gain dominance over our attention platforms - such as Google and Facebook - are able to mint money.  

Do you remember the forebearers to today's dominant digital attention platforms? When AOL seemed unstoppable? When in the mid-1990s when Microsoft spent hundreds of millions of dollars to launch its failed MSN 2.0 portal? And when that same Microsoft was spurned by Yahoo in 2008 in its $45 billion takeover bid?  Are you fascinated by the rise of social media, the displacement of blogs by micro-blogging (Twitter), and the migration of our digital conversation (and attention) from the computer (the 3rd screen - films the 1st, TV the 2nd) to the 4th screen of the iPhone and Android mobile device?

This history fits in with a larger narrative of the history of radio, tv, newspapers, and magazines  - all business that have depended on advertising. The Attention Merchants gives us a framework in which we can make sense of the history and future of the information economy, a story of interest to all of us participating as consumers or producers (or both - and nowadays we are all both) in today's attention economy.

What is clear through The Attention Merchants is the price we all pay, as individuals and as a society, for basing so much of our social and economic life, on the buying and selling of attention.  When I was growing up in the 1970's and 1980's, that price was the willingness to sit through TV ads. I look back in some disbelief on the sheer number of my childhood hours spent watching TV shows (and presumably TV ads). Is it really possible that my younger self once knew the entire primetime schedules of NBC, ABC, and CBS? That I sat through not only episodes of good shows like M*A*S*H, Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere - but rerun dreck such as Hogan’s Heroes and The Brady Bunch?

Today, many of us are able to avoid the types of ads that were a fixture of previous decades. Besides watching live sports, when was the last time you sat passively through a 30 second TV ad?  

We have all become believers in the idea - recently expressed by Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, that, "...when an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product.” 

We subscribe to Netflix so that we can watch House of Cards, and get HBO Now to have access to Game of Thrones. As Wu notes about this trend….

"Certainly among its most desired target demographics, the young and the affluent, advertising seemed to become one more avoidable toxin in the healthy lifestyle, another twentieth-century invention mistakenly assumed to be harmless, like sugary soft drinks, processed foods, and tanning beds."

If we look a bit deeper, and Wu is of course highly articulate and persuasive in his analysis, we see that we are not as good at avoiding the attention merchants as we might believe.  

Anyone who spends their time on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram is trading their attention (and their personal details) for resale to advertisers.  Google is not actually a public good - as Wikipedia has maintained itself - but a mechanism in which our attention (through search) is traded for exposure to advertising.

The attention merchants are no less dominant in the digital age as they were in the age of mass media.  They still ply their trade through traditional TV advertising.  The attention game, however, has moved from a mass to a targeted audience.  

Search for a product or a service once on Google, and ads for that product or service will follow you around the internet.  Spend time on social media platforms or a specialized content website, and you will be continually shown ads optimized for your demographics, preferences, and past purchase behaviors.

Should our campuses be a safe-zone from advertising?  

Will higher ed follow the path of the the public schools that Wu describes, schools that raised much-needed dollars by selling advertising space on report cards?    

Will we teach our students how to recognize if they are customer or the product?

What are your favorite books about the origins and the economics of the information economy?

Where might higher ed fit into the narrative of The Attention Merchants?

The Attention Merchants just might have my vote for the best nonfiction book of 2016.

What are you reading?


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