If you’re not paying for it, you might be the product
When media is free to read, watch or listen to, does that make you the product?
According to Professor Tim Wu, author of “The Attention Merchants: How Our Time and Attention Are Gathered and Sold”, our eyes and ears have been commodified by newspapers, TV channels, search engines and social media platforms at the expense of our public sphere and our individual efficiency. We interviewed Mr Wu on our Babbage podcast, where his segment starts at 7.35:
Mr Wu bemoans that a major obstacle getting in the way of our productivity and our ambition is that we often sit down at a computer with a particular task in mind only to find that 2 hours, 12 articles and 20 YouTube videos later, it’s suddenly midnight. By wasting time, we’ve generated a little bit of revenue for so-called attention merchants like Alphabet and Facebook, who have an incentive to keep you glued to their platforms. Such a phenomenon involves thousands of content creators, developers and programmers working out how to best colonise our free time by creating content and platforms that are intentionally addictive. In doing so, they are making it easier for the rest of us to procrastinate. The content is free because the currency of this economy is your attention. Moreover, humans are fickle and tend to get bored, the attention merchants have to innovate and proliferate to survive.
(If you’re reading this, you may have noticed that there’s no paywall and that annoying adverts don’t surround the text. Mr Wu would argue that I’ve already commodified your time and attention and that what you’re actually reading is an advert for a podcast. I’m doing my best not to conform to his expectations.)
“The Attention Merchants” traces 180 years of the relationship between the media and the advertising industry, which he reckons began in 1833 when “The New York Sun” became the first cheap newspaper by using adverts to subsidise their reportage and in doing turned the attention of its readers into a commidity which it could sell on to those who wished to buy it. The book then takes us through the evolution of journalism, propaganda, entertainment, and clickbait. The final destination is Google and Facebook, who offer their services for free, only asking that we look at some advertising and provide our personal data, which is then sold on at a premium to people who want to sell things to us. Mr Wu argues that the attention economy, be it in print, in broadcasts or online, will always incentivise a race to the bottom because that’s where the money is. Enduring quality, he argues, can only exist at a price to the consumer where the creator’s motivation is to garner your appreciation as opposed to just your attention. Such ‘quality’ mass communication already exists in the form of paid for streaming services (Netflix), paid for literature (books) and as some may even argue, in the form of paid for magazine subscriptions. But as successful as these endeavours are, we’re still going to spend a huge chunks of lives staring into our phones because that’s where the news is and it’s also where our most of our friends are.
On the final page of “The Attention Merchants”, Mr Wu considers the idea put forward by the philosopher William James, that our experience of being alive “would ultimately amount to whatever we had paid attention to” during our limited time on earth. There is now a worldwide industry devoted to gaining that attention and lurking within that industry are the greatest artists, authors, filmmakers, musicians and journalists of our time. To truly be a part of our shared culture, most of us feel compelled to engage with the modern public sphere, and so somehow we must strike a balance.
The attention merchants profoundly value every last moment of your day. To get the most out of our lives, whether we’re trying to be productive or just trying to enjoy ourselves, should we all be valuing our spare time as seriously as they are? How should we feel about the race to gain and sell our attention? And what’s going to happen to the attention economy when virtual reality allows programmers to completely immerse us?
Please post your comments below so we can share your thoughts and questions in an upcoming episode of Babbage. Or, if you don’t have a Medium account, you can e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org
Nicholas Barrett is a social media writer at The Economist.