Selling Our Attention
The sale of our attention to advertising algorithms sows division and risks our sanity
A third to a half of all Americans get all or most of the "news" they absorb each day through social media. Social media like Facebook and Twitter are engaging. They help us keep up with the lives of our friends and relatives. Best of all, unlike traditional print media, social media is “free”. There is no subscription fee. All we need is a connection to the internet. But there is no free lunch. We pay with our attention—and our attention is sold algorithmically to purveyors of merchandise and propaganda, peddlers who may or may not be worthy of our trust. Judd Legum, one of the writers I follow on Substack ($50/year and worth every penny), details the pervasiveness of right wing media sources on Facebook in an article entitled, “How Facebook's algorithm devalues local reporting” from June 22.
The Daily Wire takes another outlet's reporting, excerpts it, and gives it an inaccurate or incendiary spin.
For this minimal effort, The Daily Wire is rewarded with massive engagement on Facebook while the source of the journalism, quite often a local media outlet, gets a tiny fraction of engagement.
The key is the sensationalist, incendiary, spin that attracts clicks that feed the algorithm and plants headlines of misinformation in the minds of less than careful readers. News outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and, yes, the Spokesman Review maintain reporters who do original work, e.g. this excellent video documentary dissection of the January 6th insurrection from the New York Times that came out June 30. (The Daily Wire will not be spinning that video on Facebook.) Doing original reporting and publishing a print newspaper is expensive—and print ad revenue is migrating to the internet. It is a financial squeeze of which The Daily Wire, The Daily Caller, and other right wing propaganda sites take advantage by playing the ad algorithms while subscriptions prices for mainstream print media present a barrier to accessing primary reporting.
There is another model. Below I have copied a short essay by Chris Best, one of the founders of Substack, an online platform for writing and publishing newsletters founded in 2017 (and the current platform for this email). My former platform, Mailchimp, founded in 2001, is primarily designed for online marketing. Mailchimp charges a fee based on the number of emails sent. Substack takes 10% of any subscription fees the writer collects. If the writer does not ask for or require a subscription Substack publishes the newsletter (email) without charge.
Substack is growing. There are now a number of authors who make a living from the material they research and publish on the platform. Some have a very wide audience, like Professor Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American, who offers an optional paid subscription, was reaching 350,000 subscribers already in December of 2020 (and likely many, many more people as her work is shared. Judd Legum of Popular Information, whose article is referenced above in the first paragraph, also publishes on Substack, is widely read, and is often quoted in other media.
One sad result of the Trump administration is that many Americans fed on Trump’s call of “Fake News,” find themselves unsure of what is true. Substack offers a platform for writers to gain the trust of a loyal following by consistently providing well-referenced material and perspective often not available elsewhere.
I recommend you read Chris Best’s article reproduced below. Don’t hesitate to check out Substack and the writers I referenced above.
Keep to the high ground,
The ad-peddling model that dominates the internet and hijacks our minds is costing us too much by being “free”
Jul 1, 2021
For nearly two decades, social media giants have showered us with content while accepting nothing in return – other than our engagement. Now, with the normalization of online vitriol, the skyrocketing rates of mental distress linked to social media, and the surrender of intimate information to unaccountable corporations, it has become obvious that we are massively overpaying – so obvious that even Big Social is now branding its old offerings in new flavors. But a minty fresh cigarette is still a cigarette.
For a while, it felt like we were getting a great deal. Social media giants gave us rekindled friendships, family photos, even the occasional uplifting story or useful insight. But too much of what we’ve received has been toxic gruel, tube-fed (through aptly named “feeds”) by sophisticated algorithms designed to exploit our worst impulses and keep us agitated, excited, engaged.
The marks of this new and uglier world are everywhere. We have become conditioned to accept that viciously tearing down complete strangers online is normal and admirable, and that it is right and proper for a bad tweet from decades ago to ruin someone’s life. A new vocabulary – “doom-scrolling!” “hate-reading!” – is now necessary to capture how dysfunctional online activity has become. Even worse, these poisonous dynamics have leached into our offline lives, in the form of broken relationships, decreased attention spans, and damaged mental health.
This doesn’t mean that social media cannot be used in productive ways, that ads and algorithms are evil in themselves, or that we users don’t bear responsibility for our own behavior. Rather, all of it shows that we are paying in the wrong currency, with devastating consequences. When platforms make their livings by harvesting and selling our attention, they achieve that by shoving unsolicited junk into our minds, while we obediently scroll down and down and down.
One day, we will look back on this early era as a dark age, when we wrongly assumed that no one would pay for great writing on the internet, that writers could be valued only by how much attention they could command, and that readers could be played for suckers. The good news is that there is finally a clear way out.
It all starts by paying with a currency we can understand and measure: money. This is how we take back control.
With money, you know exactly what you’re paying and to whom, and you can cancel payments when you want. Transactions become transparent, and incentives become properly aligned. While platforms that depend on ad sales must harvest attention any way they can, platforms that depend on people’s willingness to pay must foster trust and satisfaction. Writers succeed only if readers are happy, and in turn platforms succeed only if writers are happy. In this world, users are finally at the table rather than on the menu.
For writers, this means being able to control their relationships with their audience instead of being mediated by fickle corporations whose algorithms decide what gets the most attention. It means independent writers can be well paid by the people who value their work instead of having to play hunger games for a share of an advertising pie where the biggest slices always go to the platforms. And when they answer to their readers instead of to the platform, writers are free to do their best work.
For readers, the effect is just as profound. It means having more control over what you put in your mind. When an engagement-based algorithm isn’t prompting you to scroll just a little further down the feed, you are free to make content consumption decisions thoughtfully and intentionally, based on what you find trustworthy.
We know it can work, because it already does. Creator-focused companies such as Teachable (courses and coaching), Clubhouse (live audio), and Substack are subverting the attention economy by putting people, not platforms, in charge. These companies are all young, but they already account for millions of daily active users and hundreds of millions of dollars of economic activity, the majority of which accrues to the creators. In fact, this model is working so well that even the social media giants now are dabbling in it – a welcome development, albeit one that evokes Joe Camel offering you a Nicorette.
Still, the ad peddlers will continue to claim that their product is “free,” and that the memes, trolls, and hot takes on their platforms are minor side effects rather than the active ingredients. But we now know that the lower the price, the more we’re paying.
We all thought we had lost our minds, but it turns out we just pawned them. Now it’s time to buy them back.