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The Attention Merchants

June 7, 2022

The story of the attention merchant began in 1833 with Benjamin Day and the newspaper The Sun. Day was not a journalist but a self-described businessman. When he founded the sun he wanted to rely on a different business model than selling newspapers at a higher cost of production to readers. He wanted a business model of reselling readers, or advertising.

Advertising was of course employed before, but Day wanted to not have the fuzziness between what was an advertisement and what was journalism. He wanted to sell his reader's attention en bloc to more substantial advertisers, but to do so he needed a mass readership. He forged most of the newspaper profit and sold them at a loss. Day instead focused his gaze on advertisement revenue. At first, with every unit sold this lost Day money every day, but eventually, it became the biggest newspaper in New York City at the time, making a substantial profit by selling about 5000 copies a day at the end of the first year.

But soon Day recognized that in order to sell to substantial advertisers, he needed to keep his readership considerable, resulting in total dependence on keeping engagement high at all costs. Soon the competition got wind of this new model and copycats followed suit. Under competition, the race will run to the bottom; more outrageous, emotional charged bottom-up signals work most effective. How far will the attention merchant go to get his harvest? The New York Sun gave us a telling glimpse of the inevitable as it unchanged itself of journalistic ethics regarding truth. Within 2 years it ran a bogus series on a new telescope that was capturing a whole society living on the moon with seas, red rocks canyons, lunar trees, and life. Fake news was born and a new business model was validated as Benjamin Day and his competitors became the first attention merchants worthy of the title.

" I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace."

-- Edward Bernays (nephfew of Sigmuund Freud)

Propaganda – or what it is called now 'marketing' – was first deployed in British Emperium by Herbert Kitchener to elicit civilians for his army. By appealing to his own celebrity status and the need for 'king and country,' it was a massive success. During the Second World War, the Americans learned from the British and George Creel's "Committee on Public Information" was established to manufacture the necessary war-will in the population.

As the techniques behind 'engineering reputation and demand' got more sophisticated, over the years they got deployed in new industries. From fraudulent snake oil medicine to printed posters covering all of Paris, to german radio guards during WW2, and television broadcasting, the book paves a fascinating historical perspective that shines new light on the Attention Merchants of modern life: Google and Facebook. As society switched from well-packaged media products and celebrities on television, the internet grew substantially in popularity with free amateur content and people started to pay attention to one another instead. As attention was paid, soon the attention merchants would follow suit to commercialize it. The democratization of fame reached a new peak as the concept of micro-celebrities was born. It used to be that people became famous for being illustrious, but now the casualty could be circular: one could be famous for being famous.

Facebook copied its entire product from Friendster, a contemporary social network site (SNS) that circumvented the trolls of the web that hid behind anonymity and replaced it with 'real people' profiles. Facebook, however, had an unfair advantage; at first, it exclusively worked as an extension of the Harvard college experience. From there, it expanded to other Ivy League Universities. Its main proposition changed from mostly hooking up to primarily keeping up with one's friends. As more people were allowed to join, more people signed up. Amazingly, they were handing over their personal information for free, because everyone else was seemingly doing so as well. Just like Benjamin Day discovered in the 19th century, as one becomes an attention merchant he is utterly dependent on keeping his base engaged at all costs. So too, Facebook pioneered every persuasive design tactic in the book as it organised itself around one thing and one thing only: growth. Correspondingly. its CEO proclaimed the now-infamous "build fast and break things" mantra that would determine the company's lawlessness philosophy. One function of growth is repeated engagement. As psychological tricks were rapidly deployed, tested, and improved, the technology was increasingly designed to appeal to the lowest parts of users. It's a fact that the pain of loss is much more salient than the rewards of gains. Consequently, anxiety is one of the most effective feelings to provoke to keep users coming back. Correspondingly, Facebook has been designed around generating as much of it in the form of Fear of Missing Out, or FOMO. As these practices intensified, more users started to complain that the site made them feel unhappy and inadequate. A number of contemporary studies found correlations between Facebook use and symptoms of depression, as it was judged as 'less meaningful,' 'less useful,' and 'a waste of time.'

Tim Wu writes: "By presenting us with example upon example, [posturing] legitimizes self-aggrandizement as an objective for ever more of us. By encouraging anyone to capture the attention of others with the spectacle of one's self, it warps our understanding of our own existence and our relationship to others. That this should become the manner of being for us all is surely the dystopian vision of late modernity."

Too many times the Attention Merchants have offered too little in return, or have even been seen to violate the public's trust outright. At such moments their bargain is beset with a certain “disenchantment,” which, if the popular grievance is great enough, can sometimes turn into a full-fledged “revolt”. During those revolts—of which there have been several over the last century—the attention merchants and their partners in the advertising industry have been obliged to present a new deal and revise the terms of the arrangement. We may, in fact, be living in such a time today.