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The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

by Tim Wu

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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5621043,627 (3.93)10
"From Tim Wu, author of the award-winning The Master Switch and who coined the phrase "net neutrality"--A revelatory look at the rise of "attention harvesting," and its transformative effect on our society and our selves. Attention merchant: an industrial-scale harvester of human attention. A firm whose business model is the mass capture of attention for resale to advertisers. In nearly every moment of our waking lives, we face a barrage of advertising enticements, branding efforts, sponsored social media, commercials and other efforts to harvest our attention. Over the last century, few times or spaces have remained uncultivated by the "attention merchants," contributing to the distracted, unfocused tenor of our times. Tim Wu argues that this is not simply the byproduct of recent inventions but the end result of more than a century's growth and expansion in the industries that feed on human attention. From the pre-Madison Avenue birth of advertising to TV's golden age to our present age of radically individualized choices, the business model of "attention merchants" has always been the same. He describes the revolts that have risen against these relentless attempts to influence our consumption, from the remote control to FDA regulations to Apple's ad-blocking OS. But he makes clear that attention merchants grow ever-new heads, and their means of harvesting our attention have given rise to the defining industries of our time, changing our nature--cognitive, social, and otherwise--in ways unimaginable even a generation ago"--… (more)
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» See also 10 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
A highly readable and entertaining introduction to and history of the advertising industry and its progressive penetration of our time and mental space, as well as the periodic public revulsion against it (we're losing). ( )
  SocProf9740 | Jul 11, 2021 |
Learned an awful lot reading it.

Fantastic summary of the history of advertising seamlessly extending into the present and explaining some of the insanity of the current situation. Unfortunately due to how short it is it has to be very selective and skips over a lot really interesting topics (rise of shopping channels, personal PR) and the present is early 2000s and doesn't include any of the unorthodox advertising methods taking advantage of networks and decentralisation. Given all this research the author did I expected him to hazard a guess as to where advertising will go now. ( )
  Paul_S | Dec 23, 2020 |
3.5/5

At times the style of this was boring. I'm not a big history reader and this was pretty heavy on the history of advertising. That being said, the thesis of this book is absolutely worth consideration. Wu argues that the attention merchants are taking from us the very meaning and control of our lives by having a say in nearly every waking moment for rock bottom prices. I feel like I'll want to read more on this. ( )
  PhasicDA | Aug 3, 2020 |
Great business, cultural and technology history. More to come ASAP.
( )
  Robert_Musil | Dec 15, 2019 |
An enjoyable read, mostly examples and light on theory. The general theme of the book is the history of attention merchants, industries that grab the attention of the average passerbyer and then sell that attention to someone else, typically but not always an advertiser (there are a few chapters devoted to the birth of modern day propaganda in World War I and then its use by the Nazis). Wu discusses two main themes that emerge from the history. One is that there is a trend in attention merchants intruding into previously private spheres of life to sell slices of that attention (examples include the TV entering the household and a pretty horrifying modern day example where students watch ads in return for cash for the school). The other trend is the downward trend in quality of content. As advertisers try to grab the attention of the consumer, there's a race to the bottom as the content becomes more outrageous and attention grabbing (the early ad driven newspapers resorted to straight up fiction, making up stories of discovering bat-moonmen to drive circulation numbers) competing against each other. Once the low point is reached, there is an incentive for people to try to expose the industry (someone writes a report or a book expose typically). At that point, the consumers revolt, unhappy with the trade off of their attention for the content (Wu portrays the 1960s as a sort of meta-revolt of this sort against established attention merchants) and a new balance is reached through technological advances like the remote or ad-blocker or legal mechanisms such as the banning of large posters in Paris, or enactment of regulation through the FDA (in response to patent medicine) or efforts to police TV through the FCC. Wu traces the history of attention merchants from the earliest ad driven newspaper to the TV, through celebrity culture (Wu presents a few interesting theories on the allure of celebrities including as a replacement for pagan worship or a faux familiarity, there's an entire chapter devoted to Oprah, how she started like other shows but through seemingly honest and vulnerable interest stories and promotion of products she loves grow to be a brand onto herself), to the first spam email, first internet viral email (Wu also has an interesting theory on email, that it essentially activates our reward systems to check and find an email there, and the volatility/unpredictable nature of emails makes this addictive the same way roulette gambling is) and clickbait.

Almost as useful as the general theory and meticulous research into the history of each industry are the entertaining anecdotes. The value of these in my opinion are not just their value as stories for cocktail parties (which is great, and in fact the reason I read at all), but also a view of history as contingent on personalities and events. Wu shows that at least in the history of attention merchants nothing is really inevitable (even the magazine format, of ads in between blocks of content, was invented and implemented). Wu discusses the origin of the term snake oil salesman (he was in fact, an actual person who sold it as a cure during the patent medicine era) and even the phrase "always a bridesmaid, never a bride" (that one comes from a listerine ad). Wu alleges that the signature "Seig Heil" came from a man who was inspired by the harvard fight song (though there was no citation for this allegation, a bit concerning, in fact the entire book seems light on citation). I personally found the section on the internet a bit of a disappointment considering Wu's expertise in the area (generally the story told is very mainstream, discussing the harms of a narcissistic tendency in instagram for example). However, even then there were a few insights that I thought were interesting. For example, that Zuckerberg had studied human psychology (saying it was never a waste of time to learn about people) and that facebook reified existing social connections and was driven by its exclusivity. Wu's point about google's rise (off of ad-words) and the inevitable deal with the devil through an ad model and its challenges in its battles against close systems like apple are enlightening. I also found Wu's description of the early internet as interesting, particularly because AOL seemed to succeed where prodigy (an internet service backed by many of the heavy weights in media) failed, despite prodigy generally being ahead of its time in terms of ideas (content creation, sports reporting etc). This reinforces the idea that good ideas are a dime a dozen and rarely leads to success, but it's all in the execution. I liked the book a lot more when I started, but the length is a bit unnecessary and the lack of citations raises questions about the neat narrative presented (details ruin a great story). Still a great read and essential to our age. ( )
  vhl219 | Jun 1, 2019 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Tim Wuprimary authorall editionscalculated
Cashman, MarcNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
My experience is what I agree to attend to. -- William James
I tremble for the sanity of a society that talks, on the level of abstract principle, of the precious integrity of the individual mind, and all the while, on the level of concrete fact, forces the individual mind to spend a good part of every day under bombardment with whatever some crowd of promoters want to throw at it. -- Charles L. Black, Jr.
Learning how to think...means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from the experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. -- David Foster Wallace
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In 2011, the Twin Rivers school district in central California faced a tough situation.
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"From Tim Wu, author of the award-winning The Master Switch and who coined the phrase "net neutrality"--A revelatory look at the rise of "attention harvesting," and its transformative effect on our society and our selves. Attention merchant: an industrial-scale harvester of human attention. A firm whose business model is the mass capture of attention for resale to advertisers. In nearly every moment of our waking lives, we face a barrage of advertising enticements, branding efforts, sponsored social media, commercials and other efforts to harvest our attention. Over the last century, few times or spaces have remained uncultivated by the "attention merchants," contributing to the distracted, unfocused tenor of our times. Tim Wu argues that this is not simply the byproduct of recent inventions but the end result of more than a century's growth and expansion in the industries that feed on human attention. From the pre-Madison Avenue birth of advertising to TV's golden age to our present age of radically individualized choices, the business model of "attention merchants" has always been the same. He describes the revolts that have risen against these relentless attempts to influence our consumption, from the remote control to FDA regulations to Apple's ad-blocking OS. But he makes clear that attention merchants grow ever-new heads, and their means of harvesting our attention have given rise to the defining industries of our time, changing our nature--cognitive, social, and otherwise--in ways unimaginable even a generation ago"--

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