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The Attention Merchants

The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads

Tim Wu

More books on Behaviour

Benjamin Day started (in1833) the New York Sun, first penny paper. Ran at a loss but he was first to realse that he could make it profit by selling ads. But soon had to compete with copycats. So came up with classic news tactic: bullshit. Invented a story that astronomer Sir John Herschel had invented a new and super powerful telescope which had enabled him to see (winged) beings living on the moon. Herschel was in S Africa, so dificult to contact, and nobody else had a telescope anywhere near as powerful, so there was a helpful delay before the story could be exposed.

Next roadmark was the 1860's introduction of big and colourful posters, firstly in Paris but then quickly spread. And they were sited for the 'in-between' moments, such as when travelling and nothing else to look at.

Huge propaganda effort USA WW1, bc WW had run as a keep-America-out-of-the-Euro-war candidate in 1916, then had to reverse course to intervene in 1917. One effort was to recruit volunteers to give 4 min pro-war speeches in cinemas while reels were being changed. 75,000 volunteers delivered 3/4 million speeches, reaching an estimated 134m people. As well as printing 75m pamphlets and books. Virtually every interface with the public - post office walls, churches, halls - was a venue for the pro-war message.

Walter Lippman was a pro-war activist within the Wilson admin, but the campaign made him a cynic. He saw the gap between the true complexity of the world and the narratives that the public use to understand it.. He later wrote that he believed that the 'consent' of the governed had been manufactured. A brief period in the 1950's of "peak attention" - when there were only 3 TV channels, and people watched all evening. Absolute peak Sunday Sept 9 1956 Ed Sullivan Show debuted Elvis Presley - 82.6% of viewers watched show. With so many Americans watching the same show, even across 3 channels, you got a convergence that made 1950s a decade of conformity.

1966 meeting bt Timothy Leary and Marshall McLuhan. Leary had identified a spirit of rebellion in young, disllusioned by mainstream media and their manipukative advertising. He wanted advice from McLuhan as to how he could spread his message more widely. McL said "You call yourself a reformer, a philosopher. But the key to your work is advertising." To wean people off advertising, he needed to adopt some advertising tactics and skills. Leary realised that all the successful philosophers were the ones who could sell their message, suually with pithy slogans - "Give ne liberty or give me death", "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself".

Hence, "Turn on, tune in, drop out." Leary later complained that people had misinterpreted this as "get stoned and abandon all constructive activity". What he meant was, stop paying attention not only to TV and its advertising, but also all the other authoritarians trying to control your life - govts, schools, parents, work.

But in the clash between the counter-culture and the establishment, advertising triumphed. They realised that what most people wanted was not to totally withdraw from society, but to be an individual, not a conformist. And, no matter how much they claimed to be disillusioned, most people didn't stop watching TV. So got Virginia Slims "You've come a long way, baby" co-opting the feminist movementthe "Pepsi generation" telling the kids they were different to their parents.

We don't clearly understand why people like to read about celebrities, or why get so 'starstruck' if they happen to meet thedm. Suggestion that it's the modern equivalent of worshipping the transcendant divine, the accessible demigods, as belief in gods and magic recedes. But what the media realized was that whereas in the past most stars wanted to keep as private as possible, modern celebs realised that they needed the attention of the masses, both to stroke their ego and to maintain their market value. Fame wasn't a byproduct of what they did, it was part of their professional capital.

MTV had a wonderful business model. Because record companies recognized that videos sold records, they provided MTV content for free. And thed DJs were happy to work for a pittance in exchange for exposure. But by the 1990s the novelty was wearing off, and MTV realized it needed new content. So came up with reality shows - tracking people in semi-real situations (drama queens preferred). This was the beginning of trajectory that culminated in Keeping Up With The Kardishians.

By the 2000s, just about everfy office worker had a quite powerful, internet-enabled computer sitting on his desk, supposedly to let him work more effficiently. But the law of unintended consequences kicked in - millions of bored office workers created the Bored At Work Network (BWN). Newspapers and magazines were natural candidates to fill this void, but they were reluctant to put content online, and the opportunity was seized by a wide and disparate group that came out of nowhere. An unsuspected creative class - a mass of amateurs each with own little niche of special interest groups.

Main benefit of Facebook was that you cd keep up with what friends were doing without having to go to the bother of talking to them.

An usual commercial bargain: to gain peoples' awareness/attention, newspapers offered reproting, TV offered I Love Lucy, Google helped you find your way around. What exactly did Facebook offer in return for the detailed demographic and behvioural data that users were handing over?

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