How We Sell Our Attention

Efforts by advertisers to attract attention are not new. What’s different now, says author Tim Wu, is the extent to which we open our lives to advertisers in exchange for having the world at our fingertips.

For more and more people in the developed world (and increasingly, in the developing world), being apart from a mobile phone — and the instant information it provides — is becoming a faded memory. From the moment we wake up until the time we go to bed, we are receiving streams of information, whether we are at work, at home, or mobile.

Certainly, there are benefits: Anyone connected to the internet can search for almost anything, and much of the information is “free.” But as Columbia University Law School professor Tim Wu notes, we pay for the information with our attention and with clicks that help advertisers learn about our likes and dislikes so they can better tailor future messages. In his new book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (Knopf, 2016), Wu examines the 20-year evolution of the web from “a commons that fostered the amateur eccentric in every area of interest” to what we have today: an information flow “thoroughly overrun by commercial junk, much of it devoted to the very basest human impulses of voyeurism and titillation.”

Efforts by advertisers to attract the attention of readers, listeners, and viewers are not new. They date back to the earliest billboards and newspaper ads, Wu points out. What’s different with the web, he says, is the extent to which individuals are willing to open their lives to advertisers and trade away their time and private information for having the world at their fingertips. (“With radio and television, we got used to the idea of stuff being free,” he told interviewer Terry Gross recently on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”) This creates unprecedented opportunities for manipulation.

Whether advertising-based business models will continue to dominate the web remains to be seen. Among web users, Wu notes that there has been growing interest in ad blockers. On cable television, subscription-based content providers such as Netflix and HBO have become increasingly popular, demonstrating that some people are willing to strike back against the distractions of advertising. With mobile devices, he says, individuals will need to decide whether to reassert their privacy, even if it requires turning the devices off.