The Attention Merchants

A unique book discussing the history of people who have harvested the attention of others in order to turn a profit. This is something that’s been growing enormously in recent times, with the free business model established with the likes of business services like Facebook and Google. As recent as it sounds, the model started over a century ago, with the first advertisements appearing in newspapers, with several businesses taking advantage of it to grow enormously. I think Rohan’s mindset has finally started making more sense to me, although I’m not entirely sure I agree with his philosophy. In addition, the author started presenting a very negative, opinion-driven philosophy when talking about the “attention merchants” of today’s world, which began to seemingly tarnish the reputation that the book gave off. Here are some insights I’ve gotten as a result of the book.

  • I have a stronger understanding of the adage “If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product” now. Large companies like Facebook inherently exist to make money, and thus they can only operate if people spend longer amounts of time on their website. As a result, their bottom line doesn’t necessarily depend on connecting people to others, but on the time that people spend on their website.
  • Similarly, the above applies to television and other mass media as well. I think that’s a strong result as to why we see less risky enterprises on television the way we do with radical books; there’s simply no money to make off of them. There’s no such thing as an arthouse tv show the way they have with movies or books. This is a direct result of these things coming down to the bottom line of making more money and taking less risk as a result of that.
  • Media has the power to change habits, and it may even happen over a short period of time. People in the 1930s changed their daily lifestyle to wrap around watching Amos ‘n’ Andy, a popular television sitcom. The same happened later on, with I Love Lucy and the adoption of Saturday morning cartoons. Today, we see it with strong social media usage and addiction. This also happens with establishing brand loyalty in people.
  • It’s debatable that advertising is evil, but one perspective is that advertising often ends up creating false pretenses of choices that people have (drink Coke or be alone), which often ends up in people making choices that they wouldn’t have otherwise, or at least illogical choices. One problem with this is that the idea free enterprise system rewards companies for creating concepts of value, for which they’re rewarded with; however, advertising can lead to companies being rewarded for creating useless products. Think “As Seen on TV”.
  • Fun fact: snake oil salesmen were really! The first person to truly take advantage of the system of harvesting attention, Clark Stanley, sold hella “snake oil” promising to help consumers of curing their ills. Sounds silly, but I think similar things happen today.


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