Even as you read this very sentence, you may be an unwitting victim of the attention merchants — those sneaky and subversive salespeople who attract your attention and then resell it for a profit. We’re talking about ad-based TV channels, clickbait producers, celebrities and companies like Facebook and Google. Legal scholar Tim Wu chronicles the rise of the attention merchants in his new book, "The Attention Merchants: An Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads." Steve Paulson recently sat down with Wu to talk about these audacious merchants of attention. We’ve boiled that conversation down to the following five bullet points.
1. They’re converting your clicks into cash.
Wu: "The currency of the realm is the click. And clickbait, which was invented in the early 2000s, is stuff which is only interested in the click and only interested then in making you share it later, and not particularly interested in any other goal. When you think about what the media could be, it’s frankly a pretty low goal. We want you to click and maybe we want you to be so aroused or interested that you share. And it’s like, we have the greatest minds of our generation are working on those goals and sometimes I think like 'Oh my goodness, we really have wasted the last decade.'"
2. Through their economic influence, attention merchants have created a race to the bottom wherein the best content is the cheapest per click to create.
"We used to think about the competition for ratings as being this incredibly degrading thing that forced people to run the worst television. But the competition for clicks has made the competition for ratings look dignified in comparison."
3. That content tends to manipulate you into clicking, often by provoking an emotional response.
"(Jonah Peretti, founder of BuzzFeed) discovered, through enormous amounts of experimentation, that there’s just some stuff that people feel compelled to forward – usually stuff that has a very arousing emotion, like you’re outraged or it’s hilarious or it’s incredibly cute, some very basal kind of emotion that forces you almost involuntarily to think I’ve got to share this with my friends."
4. People have been monetizing attention since the 19th century, and even then people had to worry about the fake news stories of the day.
The very first attention merchant was Benjamin Day, the founder of The New York Sun newspaper. Day founded The Sun in 1833. It was a penny press newspaper with the slogan, "It Shines for All." The Sun shone most brightly of all for Day. It proved that a newspaper could be supported by advertisements rather than subscription fees. And when Day ran out of sensationalist news to cover, he made stuff up.
"One of the most notable examples is he ran a long series of discoveries of what had been seen on the moon by the world's largest telescope. Among other things, he discovered man-bats who apparently were fond of fornication with each other; huge giant trees. And he just ran this as news. People went crazy. They're like, ‘Wow, that’s what’s on the moon? Incredible.’ He never printed a retraction, never even hinted that it might not be true. And so, that sort of showed the early perils of journalism. If you have a business model that depends on attracting people, the race is almost always to the bottom."
5. A bit of good news: other companies know we don’t always like clickbait, and are tailoring their ecosystems to feel like the opposite.
"I think we’ve seen the rise over the last 10 years of paid models, subscription models, by people who just can’t take it anymore. And the most prominent example frankly is Netflix, along with HBO GO and I guess Amazon and other companies, who have started offering the opposite. The re-rise of television, kind of surprising, is a commercial-free product whereas opposed to like clicking around and touching 50 things at once and coming out of it feeling like 'What was that?,' is you sort of sit down and you have a complete story and there’s no commercial advertising and people often turn off the lights and very serious. So companies like Netflix, which have been selling the exact opposite mental state, have done very well. And I think it’s a reaction frankly to the rise of the clickbait."