Buying and Selling Attention

Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants is an interesting book. I must confess I enjoyed the first half more than the end. The end of the book is a pretty conventional view of where we are now. I don’t think anyone will be surprised to learn that Google is grabbing a load of data and some people on the internet use outrageous headlines to persuade you to click.

The beginning was more novel to me. The story of the early attention merchants — people who traded on gaining the public’s gaze. There are a range of great stories. Benjamin Day, who saw the potential for a newspaper that sold for less than it cost him to print. He would rely on reselling “the attention of his audience, or advertising”. (Wu, 2016, page 12). The idea with advertising that Wu reiterates throughout his book is that the product is not the newspaper, internet video, TV show. To Wu “readers may have thought themselves as [Day’s] customers, they were in fact his product.” (Wu, 2016, page 12). Day’s product was his reader’s attention.

The story of AOL is a useful recap. (Though it is depressing to think that the ’90s is long enough ago to be “history”). The discussion revolves around the tech gradually being infiltrated by advertising. Somewhat naïve computer science experts are seen coming to terms with having to make money. Apparently AOL CEO Steve  Case considering a deal for a banner ad from Sprint said: “What really bothers me… is the ads are in a place where members will see them.” (Wu, 2016, page 209).

Wu’s book is mostly useful as an interesting history, his underlying message is limited. That said he has some good turns of phrase and ways of explaining ideas. I liked the way he explained the idea of differentiation. “In business there is always potential to gain something by zigging while everyone else is zagging” (Wu, 2016, page 329).

I’d recommend reading Wu’s book. Advertising has a fascinating history. It isn’t always pretty but it seems worth paying attention to.

Read: Tim Wu (2016) The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads Alfred A. Knopf, New York