The Attention Merchants

While I’ve written many posts about my no-love relationship with Facebook, I only ever wrote one post specifically challenging Facebook’s claim to be “free.”

My background is in software contracts. When I wrote the post described above, I was principally troubled by Facebook’s ever-shifting privacy policies. I said that it wasn’t free, because users were paying in personal data. That we didn’t have to directly fork over portions of our paychecks didn’t mean we weren’t paying somehow.

Naturally, most comments were along the lines of how (1) it is free and (2) “if you don’t like it, don’t use it.” I was so annoyed by the comments that I didn’t return this accidentally deleted post when I returned most the others.

A few weeks ago, my sister Rache recommended that I read Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants. I’d been talking about Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and she thought this would be an excellent follow-on. She was not wrong!

Within a few pages, Wu pinpointed what I hadn’t been able to when I wrote my Facebook-ain’t-free post years ago. I’d been pointing at personal data as what users pay to access the service.

Why does Facebook–along with other providers of internet services–want lots of user data? The better to commodify users’ attention for others’ profit: “We’ve already seen the attention merchant’s basic modus operandi: draw attention with apparently free stuff and then resell it. But a consequence of this model is a total dependence on gaining and holding attention. This means that under competition, the race will naturally run to the bottom; attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative.”

Data was a means to an end, not itself the end. Wu elucidates this further the deeper he dives into presenting his case, engagingly answering so many of my lingering questions.

Wu’s chapter on propaganda is an excellent overview of how susceptible human beings are to manipulation through attention capture. There’s a lot to this, but two quotes bear sharing here.

Edward Bernard, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, was instrumental in successfully propagandizing the American public. He saw “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of organized habits and opinions of the masses as an important element in a democratic society.” There might be too much too-messy democracy without it: “I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace.”

(I hope you’re already asking yourself, whose peace?!)

Some days I read bunches. Some days I read little. Overall, though, I will not stop reading. Reading history and politics is my shield against propaganda; the more I read, the more robust my protection.

Nowhere is the need for this strengthening clearer than in the words of master propagandist Adolf Hitler himself:

I do not wish to be the subject.