The attention merchants: The harvesters of human attention

A while back, I wrote a very lengthy article on the attention economy, and how and why big data is hijacking our mind. To be honest… I don’t even read long articles on the web anymore. I simply don’t have the attention span for it. (Oops…) So, in all fairness, I’ve decided to repost the article in four parts. This is part two, and highly edited. See the original article for references.

A quick Google search defines attention as:

  1. notice taken of someone or something; the regarding of someone or something as interesting or important.
  2. the action of dealing with or taking special care of someone or something.

Attention is a very valuable asset. It is what allows us to be aware of our surroundings, our safety, and our wellbeing. Paying attention helps us focus, concentrate, learn, grow, and connect with one another amongst other important functions. We are where our attention is. Yet, we are increasingly distracted: “Our attention is nowhere and everywhere at once. Ads, smartphones, apps, social media, the internet —we’re captive to an endless parade of distractions.” We are so distracted because the new economy is the attention economy.

In the attention economy, the mode of currency is our attention. Human attention is a scarce commodity and its value is derived from how much time we spend focused on a particular thing. Attention merchants sell access to our minds for a price to advertisers. They create platforms — newspapers, radio, TV, websites, apps — that profit by selling the attention they capture in exchange for the “free” content they produce.

The business model of the attention economy, harvesting attention for marketing and advertising purposes, dates back to the 1830s. In 1833, Benjamin Henry Day, the earliest pioneers of this business model, radically transformed newspapers by reducing their cost significantly. Back then, newsletters were considered luxury items and accessible only to those who had the financial means. Benjamin Day was looking for a way to make his newspaper, The New York Sun, affordable to the masses to increase his profit margin.

His solution? Sell advertising space on his newsletter and reduce the price of the newsletter to attract more readers. Benjamin Day reduced the price of The New York Sun from 6 cents to 1 cent, less than the production cost of newsletters. A bad business model if the real customers were the readers paying a cent for the newspaper. However, the real customers of Benjamin Day’s were the companies who placed ads in the newspaper to capture the attention of the readers.

According to Tim Wu, the author of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, “Normal businesses sell a product or a service. Attention merchants sell access to people’s minds.” As they say, if you are not paying for the product, you are the product.

But, how did Benjamin Day accomplished the task of getting mass readership of The New York Times? Sensational, dramatic, and juicy news was also very popular back then. Accordingly, Benjamin Day made the only criteria for a successful news story its ability to sell the most number of papers. No longer was there a concern for reporting factual, albeit boring, information. As Hendricks and Vestergaard put it eloquently, “when the sole criterion for success is to sell as many papers as possible, truth is of little or no consequence.”

The attention industry, then, hit its primetime during the first World War, when systemic propaganda techniques proved effective in accessing the public’s mind and persuading public opinion. Prior to the first World War, no one really paid attention to what people were thinking when it came to the business of selling products. A successful advertising campaign by the British government to persuade millions of people to volunteer for the army changed that. Big business took notice: If they can get people to join the Army, we can get them to buy a car. 

The rest, as they say, is history.

Although harvesting attention for marketing and advertising purposes dates back to the 19th century, advancements in technology have allowed for a much precise data-driven, psychologically-engineered, and extremely effective attention harvest. Tech companies are increasingly utilizing our psychological vulnerabilities to capture our attention and keep us constantly engaged with their content. Really, it is the economy of distraction and a very profitable business model. In 2019, Instagram reportedly generated $20 billion in ad revenue. That is a lot of money to be made off of the new, hot commodity: our attention.

Until next time,

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One response to “The attention merchants: The harvesters of human attention”

  1. […] Benjamin Day, the OG harvester of human attention, could have only dreamed of having this level of a…. […]


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