Joho the Blog[liveblog] Tim Wu - Joho the Blog

[liveblog] Tim Wu

Tim Wu [Twitter: superwuster] is giving a talk jointly sponsored by the Shorenstein Center and the Berkman Klein Center. His new book is The Attention Merchants.  He is introduced by Erie Meyer, a Shorenstein fellow this year.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Tim begins by noting that he was at the Berkman Center at its beginning, when it was pretty much just Charlie Nesson and Jonathan Zittrain.

He says that his new book is the “history of a business model”: the re-sale of human attention. This model has “long anchored the media,” but now has “exploded into all parts of our lives.” It’s part of many business models these days. Even the national parks are selling naming rights to trails.

“Maybe a thousand times a day, something tries to get us to spend maybe a micro-second” to notice something. “The deepest ambition of the book is to say that this is having an effect on the human condition.” He points to the casino effect where you get distracted by links and an hour later you say, “What just happened?” He’s concerned about a model that has us taking our attention away from people and our surroundings and into a commercial space.

The book is a history, he says. “”Newspapers once upon a time were not a mass media.” In 1830 NY’s biggest paper’s circulation was 2,000.”“Newspapers once upon a time were not a mass media.” In 1830 NY’s biggest paper’s circulation was 2,000. Papers were expensive. So, Benjamin Day — “the first attention merchant” — lowered the price of his paper to a penny, and covered a broader range of topics, “human interest stories for a mass audience.”. E.g., the first story in his paper, The NY Sun, was about tragic lovers. He was selling his audience to the advertisers.

“We’re in a time when we’re almost addicted to free stuff — free content, free services.” But people have begun to realize that we are then the product. “What’s being resold is something very scarce: human attention.” And as food, shelter, clothing, etc., are abundant, so the scarce things become even more valuable. We have 168 hours in a week, and that is one of the last scarce resources. “The models of free are scrambling to get at that resource.”

ERIE: You say in the book that trash-talking grabs our attention.

TIM: Many of the current techniques are quite old. E.g., Trolls. The NY Sun attracted competitors, including the NY Tribune. The Trib got attention by picking fights with other newspaper editors. He was the first troll. It worked. “We’ve seen recently that you can run an entire campaign just by insulting people.” The Sun fought back with even more salacious stories. E.g., “it reported that a scientist had discovered life on the moon, including trees, horse-like animals, and man-bats. They never retracted it.”it reported that a scientist had discovered life on the moon, including trees, horse-like animals, and man-bats. They never retracted it.

ERIE: As you point out, one of them grabbed attention by being pro-Abolition, which caused the others to become rabidly anti-Abolition.

TIM: The book doesn’t totally condemn that attention-seeking model, but it warns about its tendency to run to the most lurid content. This makes for constant ethical problems.

ERIE: You talk about the Oprah model…

TIM: “Orpah Winfrey is one of the great innovators in this area.” She was a fully integrated celebrity, production company, advertising company, and a tv network, all in one. She created product endorsements that drove a lot of advertising. She also married the appeal of ministry (salvation, forgiveness, transcendence) and commercialism. By 1995, she was making more money in entertainment than anyone else and gave rise to celebrities who are themselves attention merchants. E.g., Martha Stewart, Donald Trump: the celebrity builds her/his own media empire. Tim expects this to be the future.

One of the subtexts of the book, Tim says, is that the value of human attention was not widely recognized until the 20th century, except for organized religion. The entities interested in what you spent your time doing, before the 20th century, were organized religions that wanted you praying, and going to church, and in various ways to keep God on your mind.” In some ways, Tim says, the story of the book is the story of government and business figuring out that this is valuable resource. The govt realizes it when they see they can raise an army through govt propaganda. Industry, after govt, realizes they can sell products if they have public attention.

ERIE: Can you talk about micro-celebrities?

TIM: There’s a fascinating change in celebrity. (Tim name-checks me for the line “In the future, everyone will be famous to 15 people.”) And reality tv offers the lottery of fame to anyone. This has some consistency with the American dream: Everyone can have their own land and be sort of wealthy. “We have this idea that everyone can be famous.” The negative side of this is that in fact the disparities remain: it’s extremely hard to become famous, and the pursuit of it leads to empty lives. “It’s not like you write something and people read it.” The main reason is biological: ““The default setting of our brain is to ignore everything.”The default setting of our brain is to ignore everything.”

You can control attention to some degree, but it’s always darting around, and you can really only attend to one thing at once.

ERIE: You say the first ad blocker was a remote control…

TIM: In the 1920s, Zenith was a maverick company. The head of it (“The Commodore”) thought commercials had ruined radio. He had his engineers work on ad-blocking software for TV. They came up with the remote control. Originally it was a gun so you could shoot out the commercials. There have been other revolts. In Paris, there was a revolt against posters. In Paris, advertising is still restricted to certain areas. We may be in another such period now. (He mentions the Brave browserthat blocks ads from the gitgo.) “I believe in the power and legitimacy of results.”

ERIE: “You’ve said that if you have a mission in life, it’s to fight bullies.” What should aspiring entrepreneurs do?

TIM: I struggle with this. “A lot of people who have gone into tech have been very idealistic people.” The pay-for-content models haven’t worked so well. One chapter tells the story of decision-making at Google. At one point, it was bleeding money and didn’t know what to do, so they thought about advertising. But in 1996 Larry Page had written a manifesto that declared that advertising-funded search engines will always be biased and will never serve the interests of people. But Google thought it could square the circle with Adwords: a form of advertising that made the product better and didn’t bother people. That was true at the beginning. If an ad showed up, which usually didn’t happen, it’d be useful to you.

But the demands of the ad-based model have increased. The longer it gets, the worse it gets. They’ve increasingly blurred the lines between the organic results and the ads. Google Maps shows us things and it sometimes unclear why. Most of the major platforms haven’t gotten much better for consumers over the past few years, but have gotten better for advertisers. A developer said, ““The best minds of our generation have gone to getting people to click on ads.”The best minds of our generation have gone to getting people to click on ads.”

Tech is a key driver these days, he says. “Which has changed your life more? Government or tech?” I wish Google had considered a different kind of corporate form or model. “I give Wikipedia a lot of credit for going non-commercial. I give even more to the original creators of the Internet who just built it and put it out there.” E.g., the creator of email didn’t look for a business model. Likewise for the creators of the Internet Protocol or the Web.

ERIE: Have you ever clicked on an ad on purpose?

TIM: I think yes. I think I wanted to buy those razors.

Q & A

Q: Two positive examples: FB put out the call to register to vote. Services raise money for worthy causes.

A: Yes. Gathering up attention for some purpose isn’t inherently good or evil. The book argues for carving out quiet spaces, but I believe in the Habermasian public sphere.

Q: Platforms can abandon ads but show us content based on who pays them. How can we rebel against what we can’t see?

A: Ad-blockers are not the most sustainable form of rebellion. I’ve decided that my attitude that I should never pay for anything on the Web came from my adolescent years. You have to support the content you like. “”There’s a difference between buying and supporting.””“There’s a difference between buying and supporting.”

Q: How about “Society as Spectacle“? And Kevin Kelly’s True Fan theory?

A: Paid models support a much broader variety of content. Ad models require the underlying content to more generally be mass content. That’s one of the reason that TV has gotten better over the past fifteen years. Ad supported TV drove to the middle. TV now gets 50% of its revenue from non-advertising.

Q: What’s been your hardest struggle to regain control of your attention?

A: All books probably come from a personal place. Control of attention is a struggle for me. One of the places I decided I needed to write this book was during a 10-day solo trip in the Utah desert. Time seemed to pass in very different ways. An hour could feel like a week. I felt like the modern regime was having me lose control. I like the Web, but I found I didn’t like the way I’d spent my time. I wish I’d spent time on activities I’d consciously chosen. I like JS Mills’ Chapter 3: Life is a matter of autonomy and self-development, and you need to make decisions that are yours.

Q: Is your a book is a manifesto for policy change, or a self-help book?

A: Can I have a third option?

Q: Are there policy implications?

A: I struggled with how much to make this legally prescriptive. Should I end the book with policy proposals? I decided not to, for a number of reasons. One had to do with craft: those last chapters of policy prescriptions, after a book covering 200 years, are usually pathetic. It’s very hard to regulate well. A lot of it has to do with how people conduct their lives. Policies aren’t sensitive to individual situations. I have complex feelings about it and didn’t want to cram into the book. And then people focus on those prescriptions at the expense of the rest of the book.

“If you get down to it, there is room for a new era of consumer protection” that tries to protect attention. Especially when it’s not consensual. E.g., the back of a taxi cab where you’re forced to be exposed to ads. “Non-consensual things reaching you…in law we call that ‘battery’.”

Q: Is commerce in attention span part of a democracy? People have to learn things they would not willingly learn.

A: If we perfect our filters, we may live in worlds where we learn only what we want to learn. I have complicated ideas about this. The penny press did a good job of creating the sense of a public and public opinion. But I resist the idea that to be a democracy we have to all attend to the same sources of information. “In the 19th century, America was a flourishing democracy and there was no national media”In the 19th century, America was a flourishing democracy and there was no national media, and lived in geographically defined filter bubbles. I don’t pine for the 1950s when everyone watched the same news broadcasts. Building one’s character means making your own information environment.

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