Thursday, April 6, 2017
Tim Wu

"I think the web has come close to hitting rock bottom..."

By Peter Boisseau

Like the snake oil salesmen of yesteryear, U.S. President Donald Trump has mastered the most “despicable” techniques of harvesting human attention, author Tim Wu told a University of Toronto law school audience at the 2017 Grafstein Lecture in Communications.

Amplified by social media’s pervasive reach, Trump knows what is required to keep people tuning in, said Wu, a Columbia University law school professor and Internet guru, whose book The Attention Merchants traces the influence of advertising from the 19th century to modern day.

“Trump has deeply understood the point that things like disgrace, embarrassment, absurdity and truth matter much less to his mission than domination of headlines and conversation,” said Wu, who grew up in Toronto before finding academic stardom south of the border.

Trump’s methods are despicable but effective, Wu noted, and they draw on the same techniques used by every attention merchant, from the earliest mass circulation newspapers of the 1800s to the purveyors of miracle cures through patent medicines that contained nothing of real value.

“He identifies something that people are afraid of or deeply desire – terrorism, immigrants, jobs—and then he offers himself as a solution, not unlike snake oil salesmen.”

And just as John F. Kennedy was considered the first television president, Trump is the undisputed social media president, aided and abetted by an “attention economy” that trades on access to human minds lulled into a sense of complacency by “free” services such as Facebook and Google.

“We pass our days getting all kinds of things seemingly for free, but at some level we know we are trading our time and attention to advertisers who pay for the privilege of having that access,” said Wu.

There is a growing sense that people have to act now to reclaim their autonomy, and push back against social media advertising’s drive to consume more and more of their time.

“What you pay attention to is ultimately what you become. -- Tim Wu

“We are paying at least as often with attention as we are with cash, and it’s reasonable to think in the future, that attention and time will become even more valuable.”

In an interview following the lecture, Wu said he’s cautiously optimistic people can break the shackles of the attention economy.

“What it is going to take is for people to get the idea that there is a cost to ‘free’ and that they have to start paying for worthy content,” he predicted.

“If they do that, I think things will get better.”                                    

Wu briefly studied at U of T – where both his parents taught at one time – before going on to obtain a law degree from Harvard University. He is widely known for his previous book on the history of media companies, The Master Switch, and for coining the phrase “net neutrality,” the idea that all content on a public information network like the Internet should be treated equally, without restrictions by government or business.

It was while he was researching his previous book that he became interested in the idea of how the new Internet-based model of selling human attention evolved, Wu told the audience.

Tracing the growth in advertising from the early penny papers to the invention of prime-time television, Wu noted that advertisers in the age of social media and fragmented audiences can no longer rely on the viewing rituals people followed in the past, when large segments of the population would gather at the same time to watch the same show.

While the average American still watches something on the order of 40 hours of television a week, social media has become the most reliable way to find consumers who are in the right frame of mind to be reached by advertisers.

The psychology behind the “random rewards” of social media is what makes it so addictive, Wu said. Most of it is dry, but the occasional moment when a welcome email arrives or an interesting nugget pops up during an online search is what keeps people checking in and coming back for more.

And Google deserves the credit for proving Internet advertising could harness the users’ state of mind to great effect.

“What Google realized is it had something very precious. It had us in a particular mental state that is incredibly valuable to advertisers, namely, looking for something, and telling Goggle what they are looking for.”

The more insidious exploitation of this relationship only evolved over the last ten years, Wu said. A decade ago, free email services and social media platforms, seemingly unencumbered by streams of advertising, made the Internet experience seem almost magical.

“It powered some sense that Internet economics were different, that we’d overcome the traditional constraints of economics, and people were sharing and giving things away for free.”

Fast forward to the present, and it has become obvious advertisers were just laying the ground work, powered by a business model that simply had not taken its bite yet.

“In some sense, the chickens have come home to roost, and now the ad load has gotten heavier and heavier.”

While the race for ratings – especially during the era of prime time – was widely blamed for destroying the quality of television, the pressure for clicks is so intense today, it has stifled most other forms of Internet-based innovations.

“I think the web has come close to hitting rock bottom. It was a beautiful idea, but I think those of us who are idealists and supported it failed, quite frankly, to create any real institutional grounding that would have preserved what was good about it.”

Wu said there is a growing sense that people have to act now to reclaim their autonomy, and push back against social media advertising’s drive to consume more and more of their time.

“What you pay attention to is ultimately what you become.”                        

Responding to a question from Jerry Grafstein—the former senator and lecture namesake—about the future of privacy in the Internet age, Wu said it’s a matter of convincing people it’s important.

“Even though people say they value their privacy, they are very willing to hand over their information,” said Wu.

“Just like the anti-smoking campaign, the privacy campaign has to have a stronger message of harm.”

Unlike Wu—who spent some time in the Obama White House as a special adviser to the National Economic Council—Grafstein had a more charitable view of Trump’s techniques.

Obama used social media echo chambers and other ethically “questionable” methods to manipulate press coverage and public support for his health care plan, Grafstein said in an interview after the lecture.

“I’m a liberal democrat, but when you leave politics, you start to question the tactics both sides use to get power,” said Grafstein, who graduated from U of T Law in 1958 and served in the Canadian senate from 1984 to 2010.

“Nobody has clean hands.”


Watch Prof. Tim Wu's Graftsein Lecture: