Advertising Hazards: Your Attention is a Commodity That Can Be Manipulated | Tim Wu

Advertising Hazards: Your Attention is a Commodity That Can Be Manipulated | Tim Wu


So there was a man named Benjamin Day who
I call the first of the attention merchants, the founder of the New York Sun, who was in
his own way a business genius and an innovator. He had this idea which was as opposed to selling
a newspaper for six cents which was the normal way of doing it, he would sell his newspaper
for a penny and try and attract an enormous audience and resell that audience to advertisers. So the newspapers at the time, the six penny
papers, they’re a little bit boring. They covered politics and finance. They didn’t have crime stories, that kind
of thing. And he introduced a sort of a far more interesting
newspaper. The very first issue was all about the suicide
of a man who had been separated from his lover. It had stories of death, mayhem, destruction,
gossip and was sold at such a low price that he managed to attract these enormous audiences
which then were resold to advertisers. Now the thing about that penny price is it
was a money losing proposition unless you sold enough and unless you reach enough advertisers
to make it worth it. So he pioneered this unusual business model
which today is found in as many places as Google, Facebook, Instagram, you know, it’s
sort of taken over our lives. So we are in a period where there’s something
of a revolt going on against advertising. There are a lot of people who consider themselves
immune to ads or try and avoid all advertising. There’s cord cutters and there’s a lot
of people who use ad blocking technologies to try and have themselves sort of in an ad
free zone. And it’s reached the point where it’s
a little bit of a kind of a war, maybe a war of attrition. And I’ll say two things about that. First in the history of advertising there
have been similar moments. It seems that about every 30 years or so there’s
a kind of revolt. Usually because things have gone too far in
one way or another and I think in some ways things have gone too far in the web. That there is just too much, too intrusive,
too much privacy invasion and people are starting to say, you know, this is not what I bargained
for. Whatever deal we had I think you’re exceeding
the terms. I think that hopefully it will lead to a place
where we strike some kind of new deal, some kind of understanding is made. You know the web lacks any kind of limits
as to where advertising should or shouldn’t go. It’s not like newspapers or something where
there’s, you know, you don’t have every page of the newspaper completely covered in
ads. There’s kind of a bargain. And I hope we reach that on the web. Another thing that it will probably lead to
however is also more and more efforts to use advertising that is surreptitious, that gets
under the radar, that you don’t really realize is advertising. You might even call it manipulation or nudges. I think you’ll see this particularly with
some of our devices or new technologies. Let’s say you use Google Maps trying to
find something, a place to eat. How much of that decision is based on what’s
nearby and the best, how much it is based on who is paid at Google to sort of put the
ad there. I think as we move into an era where we increasingly
rely on intelligent intermediaries defining things for us or to be our guides in life
the possibilities of surreptitious marketing increase. And I think that’s a direction that we’ll
probably see, particularly with so much resistance to advertising. You know I think as a culture we’ve become
obsessed with free stuff almost frankly quite to our detriment. You know it’s almost impossible for many
people to consider using anything on the web that isn’t free. Somehow it’s like an outrage if you have
to pay for it. And there’s been a cost to that. I think that when many people signed up for
Facebook in the early days it just seemed fun and free. There was very few advertising or very little
advertising. But slowly we’ve come to understand that
you’re paying in very different ways. You’re paying with your data which you hand
over. You’re paying with your attention. If you spend I don’t know how many minutes
or even hours a day on Facebook you’re giving over something of tremendous value. And ultimately there’s several ways in which
we’re paying. First of all we are granting unprecedented
levels of access to ourselves, to our portal of judgment which ultimately has commercial
influence or can influence our life in other ways. So we may without realizing it end up living
lives that are a little different than we might have wanted to buying more things than
we expected to, voting for people we might not have thought we would. All these sorts of things. We make ourselves open to influence, let’s
just put it that way. And the other cost is that ad supported mediums
have a constant need to deliver a receptive audience. And since we are the audience we are increasingly
programmed to be more receptive which means open to distraction, ready to see something,
constantly clicking and looking. There’s an effect that I call the casino
effect which I think comes to describe our lives on the web where you sit down to write
an email and then suddenly you notice four hours have gone by. You’re not quite sure what happened. You do know you clicked on a bunch of stuff
and you went here and you went there. I think that is kind of becoming our lives
and that’s a very attractive mental state for advertisers because you’re constantly
clicking, constantly refreshing, constantly seeing new stuff. Whether it’s good for us is an entirely
different question. And so I think we’re at risk of losing some
of our ability to deeply focus, to get work done, to have the kind of attention span you
need to do more profound kinds of work. And that I think is some of the cost of free. So one of the inspirations for this book was
the philosopher William James who is one of the first psychologists writing in the nineteenth
century. And he had this one line that really struck
me where he said roughly, you know, your life experience is what you choose to direct your
attention to. And so at the end of your day is when it’s
all said and done what your life was will be the culmination of what you paid attention
to. You know and that’s in some very profound
way true. And it does suggest something interesting
about our times. We live in a time where our life experience
moment to moment is more intermediated than any other time in human history. It’s almost like we live in a built environment
of attention. Most, I don’t know exactly how you count
the hours but many of our hours are screen as opposed to physical. I mean the screen is physical but it’s some
virtual thing. And in some sense we live in a cocoon almost,
a projection at this point. You know we’re still here but in terms of
what our attention is paid to a lot of it is not here. And so I think that whether that’s good
or bad I’ll leave to one side but it certainly makes it important that we understand the
motives of those who are creating the cocoon that you’re living in. If we are living in kind of a simulated reality
that’s where we are, virtual reality is just the stronger version of it. You better pretty profoundly trust who’s
creating your reality for you and maybe have some say in what that reality looks like. And I worry and part of the reason I wrote
this book is to examine those motivations. And if it is fundamentally the motivation
to gather you up for resale to something well that might not actually be in your interest
or sort of suddenly manipulate you in different ways. But even more profoundly than being sold to
which is kind of annoying there is this issue of living your own life, making decisions
which are yours. And I don’t care if you listen to the founders
or John Stuart Mill or if you’re a religious person but the importance of decisions that
are truly ours is so fundamental, so profound to a realized life that I think we need in
this day and age there’s so much that we’re exposed to is motivated by other ideas. We need to be very careful about reserving
time and space for ourselves and making decisions which we can truly call our own in order to
live a life you can truly call your own.

27 COMMENTS

    Ads on the internet are mostly really annoying and stupid. But I feel bad for people and sites that depend on ads so they can make a living and continue what they are doing. What youtube is doing right now not only with their ad system but site overall is quite terrible. They allow so much hate, lies and shit here that could be fixed with a couple of easy updates. But they are just not doing anything

    If I could give feedback to google or youtube on how I feel about ads I would not mind using adblock. But they don't give as the option to rate ads, which could lead to less shitty ads. So I use adblock on youtube but also elsewhere as ads frequently have spyware hidden in them in other sites. So Adblock is a psuedo firewall against spyware too.

    if there are so many revolting against advertising why havent i met anyone else doing the same? where are you guys? I was beginning to worry that i was alone. ha

    what's interesting or more desirable does not necessarily equal a better product, but it attracts more people. this is the fundamental fault of the free market

    Advertising is what is pushing self driving cars. In a few years we are all going to be in Wall-E hover chairs. That's why you can't hardly get a new car without an "infotainment" system and why it's being pushed as acceptable behavior to be distracted enough behind the wheel to need assisted breaking.

    even platforms such as Medium even TDE tailor their content in an Ad-like kind of way… it irritates me because I read between the lines and before I am finished watching or reading a piece I realize I have subtly been sold a product or an idea. People do not realize the underground warfare going on to manipulate us.

    I have never bought anything because I saw an ad and was like: "Hey, I want that!"… Never!
    When I usually NEED something I got ot diferent stores, compare product and prices. GO HOME. Think about it for a week or so, and THEN buy something… If I actually decide that I need to spend money on it. #informeddecision

    I feel like there should be a paid internet like paid TV. On the paid internet no ads exist and no one collects your information or follows what your doing.

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