You might already be feeling the itch to leave this page to check your email, pay your credit card bill, make a dentist appointment, or go back to whatever work you were supposed to be doing – and you’re not alone. Stanford Professor Byron Reeves has been studying what people actually do on their laptops and computers, and his findings suggest that we flip between online activities with dizzying speed and frequency.
This creates a kind of “psychological blur,” Reeves says, as we bounce between different parts of our lives – work, health, finances, personal life, shopping, news, entertainment – all within the same computer screen. We used to chunk these experiences into more segregated blocks of time, but that’s no longer necessary now that everything is available at our fingertips.
Many have lamented the side effects, like feeling increasingly unable to focus on tasks for long periods of time. But the truth is, the digital environment isn’t designed to have you linger in one place – the Internet wants to grab and divert your attention. In fact, attention is the basic currency of the web, as Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu writes in his new book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads.
Much of the Internet is supported by advertisers who pay for your click – essentially, your eyeballs, your attention, even if it is just for ten seconds, or even half a second before you navigate away to more interesting things. According to Wu, our present day Internet was forever changed when Google CEO Larry Page decided to turn to advertising to support the search engine.
“I think this is one of the most consequential decisions in the history of the web,” Wu says. “It set Google, and frankly the rest of the web on this path where they are constantly forced to make their platforms better for advertisers.” And as a result, the quality of web content has suffered, because in order to survive, publishing platforms trend towards clickbait.
Our attention is a limited resource. We only have so much of it to give. In our conversation as well as in his book, Wu lays out the stakes: an ad-based business model doesn’t just make for an irritating Internet experience, it also threatens our ability to regulate ourselves. The Internet is a marketplace, and it’s no wonder some people feel frazzled as our attention is constantly being splintered into smaller and smaller slivers of time.
However, some platforms have figured out how to hold our attention, and perhaps offer an alternative to the ad-based experience. Netflix is the star example of a tech company that runs successfully on a subscription model, and they are masters of putting customers’ behavior data to good use to improve their product. On the next episode of Raw Data, we’ll head to Hollywood, where a data disruption is well underway.
P.S. We’ll be taking a few weeks off for the winter holidays. Check back in early 2017 for our next episode! Til then, happy holidays!
MICHAEL C. OSBORNE: Welcome to Raw Data. I’m Mike Osborne.
LESLIE CHANG: And I’m Leslie Chang. Today’s episode: Attention is Money.
MCO: In the most literal way, the Internet, HAS OUR ATTENTION. We just can’t stay away from our screens for very long.
LC: So today on the show we’re going to take on this concept of attention from two different angles. The main segment of the episode is a conversation I had with Columbia law professor Tim Wu about his new book The Attention Merchants. But before that, we’re gonna begin with a short segment with an interview Mike did with a Communication professor here at Stanford. So Mike, can you set this up for us?
MCO: I can, but I'm going to do it by way of a somewhat awkward segway.
MCO: First of all ... Can you tell me ... I want to ask you a question, how many tabs are open on your computer right now?
LC: I have five open right now.
MCO: Is that a pretty typical number of tabs to have open?
LC: It's actually atypical. It's fewer than I usually have, like they're all maximized out to a rectangle, usually I have little squares because I have so many tabs.
MCO: Wow, okay and why do you do that?
LC: Because I don't want to lose thoughts, I sometimes have a thread of a thought and move on to something else and then come back to it, and I don't want to lose it. I get really anxious if I accidentally close all my tabs, like when you hit "X" on the browser.
MCO: Right, like there was something you were really into that was really important that somehow ... It's like a to do list almost.
LC: Exactly, yeah.
MCO: Do you think you're unique in terms of having multiple tabs open or multiple screens open at the same time?
MCO: I don't think you are either, and neither does our next speaker.
LC: Nice segway.
MCO: Thank you, took a while. His name is Byron Reeves, he's in the communication department here and he's done several studies, where he tries to measure how often Stanford undergraduates are switching tabs and switching windows on their laptops. So here's Byron.
BYRON REEVES: I'm a Stanford sophomore and I've got my laptop in my room right now, and I want to watch a movie or I want to write a paper. Anything. I want to check on Mary Beth's Facebook page. We had suspicions that these were not being consumed in large chunks like everybody expected, so what we did was actually log with software on their computers what people were doing on their screen every five seconds for starting – we started out with a week.
MCO: So every five seconds, for a whole week, this software takes screenshots, and sends that information to a database. Each screenshot is categorized by what kind of content it is, whether the person was checking their email, doing some online shopping, watching a video on YouTube, doing schoolwork.
BR: These are screens that people are actively switching, one, "I'm tabbing to the next thing. I'm going to Facebook. I'm coming back to YouTube. I'm going to the movie."
MCO: It's like it's multiple tabs or multiple browsers but all on one device.
BR: Yeah. A lot of affordances to make this happen very easily. What are people doing? The median amount of time that a Stanford sophomore spends on a single screen is nineteen seconds. Our second study, it was eleven seconds. It's somewhere around ten or twenty seconds. Just think about this. I'm writing my paper. I'm arguably one of the smartest sophomores in the country. But I'm doing whatever I'm watching a movie, there's a whole lot of stuff that's happening bam, bam, bam. Boy, that really means that you've got to think about what a content category is in a dramatically different way.
MCO: The temptation is really to chalk this all up to a sort of ADHD culture of our inability to focus, that every eleven to nineteen or the average of that or whatever it is seconds, like we've got to switch screens because we just can't stay focused on anything. Is that the message you take from it?
BR: No, no. I think this is fire and there's some good things and bad things about it. Certainly there's some bad things, in that contemplative long periods of thinking and muddling through fuzziness and difficult content and whatnot may suffer a bit, because if you can't think of what the next sentence should be there's Mary Beth's Facebook page, and I'll go check and see if there's new content…
...but the interesting part about it is that this next sentence really is tough, and I'm stumped, and I'm bored, and I'm frustrated. The engine is not running at enough RPMs to really get through this, but ten seconds, twenty seconds on the Facebook page – oh! Okay. There are new pictures of the Saturday night party. Okay. Now what was it I was trying ... Now back to my paper. What was it I was trying to write?
And what we found in one recent study is that there's early suggestion that people are writing a little bit more when they come back from a paper task unrelated segment. They're writing a little bit more and a tiny bit better, and they're also doing more editing of stuff they wrote before they left the paper in the first place. You're regulating emotion. You're regulating your excitement level in a way that's very natural.
We measure this in the lab with skin conductance measures, heart rate acceleration and deceleration, simple psychophysiology, but it's all in the lab. With new technology you can get a wrist-like device and send people home with it. You can get physiology every five seconds that corresponds to those screenshots.
Here's what we found is that about ten to twenty seconds before a switch occurred arousal levels are rising.
So I'm writing my paper. Arousal is going down. You can see the skin conductance levels actually going down – and I'm making this up. We don't have direct evidence that I'm thinking, but I think it's consistent with the data at least. "Oh, I'll get this one last sentence done here and then I'll check Facebook page or read the news, just a little bit." My excitement level about the anticipation of the switch is actually going up while I'm finishing up on that window, and then you can see the maximum excitement is actually at the point of the switch, and then it starts going down again from that.
One of the lessons of those early experiments were that life is progressing in bursts of experience that are being joined together. You just can go between radically different kinds of experiences. Money, health, finances, relationships, work, play, games, all this, email. Just name any kind of content and literally it's a click to get to the next thing, so that we notice just looking at the laptop.
So what might that mean? I mean we're just starting to study this, but what might that mean? Here's one thing it might mean. It might mean that it's not as interesting to think about how I deal with any one of those little bursts, but more interesting to think or as interesting to think about the sequencing of the bursts, so I get a very intense social relationship going into a financial investment decision, going into a Facebook post, going into reading the news. You get this we call it a psychological blur.
MCO: But it's a story in a sense.
BR: It's a story and it's my story. The story is a very important part of it, but it's a blur, so all the things in psychology that are not about what I think about this particular piece of content but are all the contextual framing, priming, sequencing, serial position, all these things that happen in psychology – we thought those were important fifty years ago and twenty-five years ago, but the opportunity for them to be experienced is huge now. It's just got to be part of all that switching that's going on. You're just carrying the arousal or thoughtfulness, or thoughtlessness from one of these segments into the next, so it's just a big blur.
[MUSIC: “Ambient-M (2003)” – Antony Raijekov]
MCO: So is that true for you Leslie? Is it just a big blur from one sort of compartment of your life to the next.
LC: I guess I never thought about it that way until I heard Byron explain it like that. This doesn't come across well in radio, but, when you see the graph of what he's talking about with all the little slices of like thinking, to schoolwork, to Internet, to Wikipedia, whatever. That does, that is a big blur.
MCO: The switching.
LC: The switching, yeah.
MCO: Do you do that? Where you're working on something and you're like, "I'll just check Facebook real quick" and then back to the work.
LC: All the time, all the time, yeah.
MCO: So would you imagine that if you actually had the skin conductance meter, that's measuring arousal that, that would kind of correlate the way he describes it? Where like in the moment of leading up to Facebook, okay back to work.
LC: Yeah, I bet it would.
MCO: Just like that.
LC: I'm not a college sophomore, but I think it's actually, probably pretty universal.
MCO: Actually, I totally agree with that. I think that, that is kind of the limitation of this, is that he's talking about Stanford undergraduates, which is very debatable whether or not you can extrapolate much from that population. But, I do think actually, you probably can. Most people have a lot of tabs open and are doing exactly what we were just talking about, so that's really a little insight into the science of attention. What I like about Byron's work is, I've never had like that detailed of a window into what's happening in your brain and literally on your body, as you're working on a computer. But, there's a whole other angle to this thing about attention, which really is the business of it. So that leads us to Tim Wu, can you introduce us to Tim Wu, who is this guy?
LC: Yeah, so he's a professor at Columbia Law school and he's probably most famous for coining the term, "net neutrality." I think he wrote the original essay that kind of popularized that idea and he's been a champion of it for a long time, but he's also a writer. He writes for the New Yorker, he writes a lot about media and technology, and a few months ago he published a new book called "The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads."
MCO: So that phrase, "attention merchants." I mean it's sort of self-explanatory, but you know, what does it mean? How would you describe it?
LC: So the way I would describe it, and I think the way Tim writes about it in his book, is that rather than selling physical products or services, necessarily, what attention merchants do is they sell the attention or "brain space" of an audience. So we see this a lot on the Internet, you talked about it with Byron, where you said it feels like we live in an ADHD culture where attention is constantly being divided. That is ... That's a result of most of the Internet being on this business model of selling and audiences attention.
MCO: It is interesting to think about it like a commodity, you know. Like, it's something that we're trading in because it is a scarce resource, and maybe it's the only resource, right?
LC: Yeah and I mean it's like, time or money, it's limited. We only have so much of it to give and I think what Tim is trying to communicate in his book, and as he traces the history of attention merchants, is to show how we've gotten to this point. Where it's increasingly a precious resource that everyone is fighting for.
TIM WU: It was once a very obscure business model, it was confined mainly to tabloid media. Since the 19th century it's spread into many areas of our lives, entertainment and news. It made the leap into the internet space somewhere in the early 2000's. In some way the book is about the spread of that business model. Whether you call it selling eyeballs, ad supported media, whatever you want to call it, that strange thing where you turn your audience into the product.
LC: And why did you want to write the book? What was your goal or hope for the reader?
TW: I wanted to do more than one thing. One is make a contribution just to help us understand this business model that affects so much of our lives today, and if you're also in business, forms a part of your life. and I feel like as the model moved and became the power behind Google and Facebook and Twitter and other major utilities in our lives, I felt like we didn't really understand where it came from or how it worked.
I also wrote the book because I wanted to have people understand better the idea of attention and its importance. (9:31) It often somehow gets kind of missed. Often we think that we choose the best product or the best candidates, but of course we have to know something exists first and that attentional stage, the battle for attention is one of these things that I think is always going on, but we aren't always aware of it. I guess I wanted people to become aware for themselves.
And there's a third reason, I think I personally felt that I was having more trouble controlling my own attention and focusing on projects I wanted to get done. I noticed,, that I would go to the computer and try to write an email and three hours would go by and I try to figure out what happened, and how I sort of also ended up feeling like I need to use Twitter everyday or Facebook. I was like, "What is this?" I don't even enjoy Twitter that much. I kind of like it now. I was trying to figure out that personal part of my life, (9:29) and as opposed to just saying, "Oh, this is this," try to understand how the business models might anchor our reality. I am of the belief that economic forces really do do a lot to determine how we live.
LC: In his book, Tim Wu covers the history of attention merchants, from the days of the penny press in the early 1800s, through government propaganda in the world wars, the first paid sponsored radio, television of course, and then the Internet. And he writes about this important milestone when we first started turning attention into data.
TW: In the 1930's there were these two MIT scientists who invented what they called the attention meter. It was a way, they believed, to keeping track of how much human attention was being spent on different radio stations. All it did was keep track of what radio station you're listening to for how long. That invention caught the attention of a guy named Arthur Nielsen, who was, I believe, the grandfather of contemporary attention geeks, at least when it comes to media industries.
He was this dude who believed that it was all about hard numbers, measurement. You didn't know anything unless you had a number on it. He bought the attention meter, or licensed it from those MIT professors, he turned it into a "black box" that measured how much people were listening to the radio, and installed it in enough homes that he felt he could say in this confident way, "I know what America is paying attention to". It's like he was the brain and these sensors were these little black boxes installed in all these households. Later on we called that "ratings", but the ability to quantify attention for the first time in the 1930's and '40s was a big deal in the evolution of all of our media industries, all of our tech industries.
On the positive side, it allowed people to prove, "Okay, people really are watching this, I have an audience to sell you. I'm not just kidding around." On the negative side, once you have a hard number, it makes everyone fixate on the number. What's the number? Who's ahead? In some way you can draw a direct line between Arthur Nielsen and Larry Page and the other Google engineers, who were the first to put hard numbers into internet advertising. Both of them did something incredibly amazing, and then also something that has had mixed consequences for the media that underlay it. The one made us obsessed with ratings on television, the other has made us obsessed with clicks and the idea that whatever you click on, that's the winner.
LC: You also write in your book about this really interesting moment. All the AOL stuff, that's pre-Google, and then Google comes along and they start to gain momentum as a search platform. They had to decide how to make money, and the co-founder of Google, Larry Page, actually had a pretty strong viewpoint on this. There was a specific moment in time where he had to make a decision about the future of Google. Can you just take us back to that moment and describe the dilemma that Larry Page was facing?
TW: Sure, I think this is one of the most consequential decisions in the history of the web,. So Larry Page had invented this awesome search algorithm, he and Sergei Brynn. It's better than anything that everyone's seen before, people were flocking to it, it was the talk of the town, but he had this problem, really two problems. Number one, with more and more users coming online, the costs of running the search engine were getting higher and higher. Problem number two, he had no revenue model to speak of.
Maybe in retrospect it was obvious that advertising would be the way to go, but we need to explain that Larry Page had a very personal animus towards advertising. He, like frankly a lot of engineers, saw its corrupting potential, probably hated ads themselves. He had written in an appendix to his famous search paper a long diatribe as to how search engines particular were very prone to being corrupted by advertising. He believed that a search engine that depends on advertising would always end up being biased in favor of the advertisers and against users. He believed, and Google still believes, that if you follow the user, all else will come, or whatever the slogan is.
There he was, had this dilemma, what was he going to do? Well, the answer to the dilemma was very Silicon Valley in the sense that Larry and Sergei and the other Google engineers decided they could invent their way out of it. They believe that they could invent a form of advertising that wasn't, to use Google-speak, "sucky".
LC: Really, is that the term they used?
TW: Yeah, that's the term they've always used. (23:15) So they wanted to come up with advertising that was not "sucky", and they believed they did it with the AdWords project. They turned to advertising, the AdWords project, they believed, was going to give people the advertising they actually wanted, and so therefore it wasn't going to be evil. In that way, Google and its founders were the first web company to really successfully make a lot of money on ads.
Google convinced people because it could show that they had clicked on links, that in fact it had invented a kind of internet advertising that actually worked.
They started making money hand over fist, and the rest is, in some sense, history. Except for, I think the deal they made, that Silicon Valley sort of Diet Coke "We can have our cake and eat it too,” "We can invent a form of advertising that doesn't wreck the product", I think was true in the short term. On the other hand, it set Google and frankly the rest of the web on this path where they are constantly forced to make their platforms better for advertisers, because that's the business model.
I think in some ways, here we are later in the history, I don't know if they quite regret it, but they're certainly starting to feel some of the costs of an advertising model.
I can't tell you how much talent and skill has gone into trying to get people to click on ads, as opposed to trying to make products better. It's sort of a little bit of a trap. It looks like free money, but of course nothing is free money. Over times, the demands of advertising are always in danger of corrupting, and indeed degrading, your product.
LC: I do want to step back for a second. In the introduction to your book, and we talked about this a little bit at the beginning too, you wrote that kind of your hope in researching and getting this book out there is to help people understand the terms of our relationship with the attention harvesters and the attentional industry, and to see some of the trade-offs that we're undertaking. You write that you want to help the reader, "Demand bargains that reflect the life you want to live." I'm wondering for you personally, after writing this book, what are some of the bargains that you have decided you are willing to take or not willing to take with attention merchants, if there's any personal changes that you've made.
TW: That's a great question. Let me start with the premise and repeat it, because I think it's an important one. Attention is like magic, it's a scientific thing, it is moving the resources of your mind to one stream of information, but it is essential to getting anything done. If you sprinkle attention on anything, and I'm not just talking about your children or a garden, but really anything in your life, whatever it is you put attention to will first of all make you who you are, but also allow you to accomplish things. I'm the kind of person, I like to have this sense that I live a life that is mine, that I'm becoming ideally who I'd like to be. A lot of that fundamentally comes to how you spend your attention.
I guess I'm pretty rigorous about how I approach these kind of things and what I think is a good deal or not. I think that I try to put attention on the things I care about most, like other human beings, like entertainment or materials I really like, like books or movies that I really enjoy. But then part of it is that when I am going into the true attention merchant market is to watch the deal, and as we said in some ways "police the deal".
I guess sometimes, as I said, that means opting out. I don't watch commercial television, because the ads are just too much for the deal, I think.
On the other hand, I do like sports, and I'm like, "Okay, well I guess that's the deal." I think they sure put a bunch of advertising into sports, but they'll get me to watch some sports, so there's one area. Print newspapers I think are reasonable, even online newspapers are not too bad.
I feel like there is an equilibrium at which advertising is a fair deal and reasonable. Sometimes you see it, maybe print has it right, like magazines, the advertisings are beautiful. They're a little bit annoying but you can kind of turn past them,
Online, they're out of your control, they do everything they can to try to make your experience worse, they slow everything down. Everyone hates the ads and the advertisers hate online advertising because it doesn't work that well for them because people hate it. There's this terrible lose-lose situation. I feel bad for publishers, I feel bad for us, I just think I feel bad for everybody. Not only that, it's also hurt the web in terms of what kind of content the web can support, because the ad model requires, leaving Google and Facebook aside, if you're in publishing, it requires essentially stuff that is pretty click bait-y. Everything runs toward Buzzfeed, let's put it that way. I think that's a little too bad for a medium that once held so much promise.
At the web, I think we're at rock bottom. I think we've blew it basically, and partially because no one ever figured out a business model other than advertising. Advertising wasn't very lucrative, and now I'm talking about web as a publishing platform, so there's not enough space to support as many businesses as you might want. There's only 168 hours in a week, and so in order to be successful you need to somehow get inside people's head in some way in some of those hours, and that's a very scarce resource. There's not that many businesses that can first of all, survive, and second of all, to survive they have to be very attention-getting, very click bait-y. It affects the quality of the content.
The only companies that look pretty good, I think Wikipedia looks pretty good because they went to a nonprofit model earlier on and so they have a lot more freedom to do what they want. Everyone else is under this incredibly relentless pressure to harvest more clicks, get more people's attention by any means necessary, and I think it's too bad.
We never figured out micro-payments. People have tried it like 100 times 100 different ways, never quite figured that out. Subscriptions have had some success, but until we have different business models, the web will not recover.
LC: Also cultural norms, right? Everyone likes to get stuff for free, and right now because that's how a majority of apps and the internet works, we kind of just expect things to be free. I feel like it's kind of also a public shift in mindset around that, to get people used to the idea of micro-payments or subscribing to things.
TW: Yeah, absolutely. I think that culturally we have a little bit of, as consumers, we have some responsibility here. the expectation that everything should be free forever is a little bit juvenile. I've had that view at points of my life and I hope that everything will take care of itself, but then you get a little bit older and you realize that people who create content need at least a middle class salary if they're going to keep doing it.
What's funny is that when you do solve the problem, it's almost miraculous what happens. Television had the ad model saddled with this, "Oh it's free, it solves all of our problems, we're great," for like 50 or 60 years. Until finally, they got the pay model working, and here I point the finger at HBO and Netflix for finally figuring out how to get pay television working. The consequence is they're flush with cash, there's tons of money, television is better than it's ever been, I think, and there's enough money now in TV to support more video content than there ever has been in the history of the world at higher quality. It's kind of amazing.
I don't have the magic bullet, but I do feel that we could do better.
As you say, it takes more responsibility on the part of consumers to pay for stuff they want to support. We as publishers, so the other side, needs to find a way to make that easy. The obvious model is Netflix's question, it's just how we get there.
LC: Netflix isn’t a new company, but as Tim said, they have figured out how to get people to pay for content online. They’re the first big tech company to be successful since Google led us into an Internet filled with ads.
MCO: And Netflix has taken the next logical step. Beginning in 2013 with the show “House of Cards” the company is now at the forefront of developing original content. A few weeks ago, I talked to Mike Smith. He’s a professor at Carnegie Mellon, he’s been studying the entertainment industry for decades. Mike told me that for Hollywood, House of Cards was a gamechanger.
MIKE SMITH: What Netflix did is Netflix said, "Hey, you know what? We can help you find exactly the right audience for this show. AND, we're not going to ask you to make a pilot episode, we're going to give you 100 million dollars upfront for a two-season, 26-episode order," which really was unheard of in the traditional broadcast industry. They ordered pilots and then if they like the pilot, they ordered six episodes. If the six episodes worked, they gave you a little more money. Ted Sarandos at Netflix said, "No, here's 100 million dollars, make 26 episodes, we'll help you find the audience." That was just fundamentally different than how television had always been made.
[MUSIC: “Go 'n' Drop (2003)” – by Antony Raijekov]
MCO: The data disruption underway… in Hollywood! Next time on Raw Data.
MCO: Raw Data is me, Mike Osborne, Leslie Chang, and Isha Salian. You can learn more about Byron Reeves and his research on Stanford Cyber Initiative’s website, which is cyber DOT stanford DOT edu. Byron’s collaborator for many years was a man named Clifford Nass, who passed away in 2013. Clifford’s TEDx talk titled “Are You Multitasking Your Life Away,” is totally worth a watch.
LC: Once again, Tim Wu’s book is called The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads. You can also learn more about Tim at his website, Tim Wu DOT org.
MCO: Our show is a production of Worldview Stanford, and we’re receive additional support from the Stanford Cyber Initiative, whose mission is to produce research and frame debates on the future of cyber-social systems.
LC: If you like our show, we’d love for you to give us a rating on iTunes – it helps get the word out and for new listeners to find our show.
MCO: This is our last episode of 2016, and we’ll be back in early January. Thank you so much for listening, and happy holidays.
A Stanford podcast about how big data and cyber systems are transforming our world. Produced by Worldview Stanford and supported by the Stanford Cyber Initiative.