The Attention Merchants

With the next meme or viral hit bursting into the cultural zeitgeist faster than Thanos can snap, it can be hard to organize your attention on what is truly important in the world. Columbia University professor Tim Wu, author of the book, “The Attention Merchants,” looks closely at media attempts to control our attention. From the advent of print media to the current digital age, Wu examines the formula for garnering our interest in celebrities, notably in his chapter on what he refers to as the celebrity-industrial complex.

Wu begins by telling the story of the founding of Time Magazine. Its creation was a response to the dominating news entity of the era: The New York Times. The great institution was not without its critics, as Wu reveals that a New Yorker writer in the early 1920s described the publication as “colorless, odorless, and especially tasteless.” In other words, dry and uninspired for the nature of the postwar Roaring ’20s.

It appeared that their audience wanted more than just the bare bones facts; thus, Time-Life Magazine was born. Here in the chapter, Wu seems to emphasize this shift as a point where news media also became an outlet for entertainment and personality. Even the standard for article length was changed, as Time founder Henry Luce decided that 200 words were the absolute limit. In the modern context, one can apply it to how people respond to the 200 character or so tweets that Twitter users publish, and how that can gain far more attention than would a 3,000-word article from The Guardian or Huffington Post.

If Wu is arguing that size matters in the attention economy, then it definitely pays to be short and sweet. As he quotes Luce in the chapter, “People just aren’t interesting in the mass, it’s only individuals who are exciting.” Time Magazine was the first magazine to focus on the individual. Whether they be significant statesmen, generals, artists, or entertainers, the philosophy behind the publication of Time was to put “a different notable face on the cover every week.” This would lead to the annual Man (and eventually Person) of the Year. “The relentless focus on personalities was a different way to do news,” as Wu explains. Over the years the faces of Stalin, Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, and even Taylor Swift have all graced the cover of Time Magazine; their images glorified and immortalized on a single glossy sheet

Wu falls short of saying that celebrity focus was popularized by any single news entity. However, some publications, like People, developed an effective formula. Richard Stolley, a former editor for People, explained that he decided each week’s cover based on two key factors: the face had to be “recognizable to 80% of Americans” and there had to be something you want to know about them.

Any average consumer of entertainment news can now infer that any individual making it onto the cover of a prestigious magazine like Time, Elle, or Vogue is an indication of status, as well as an investment into the attention economy.

As consumers, our eyes are drawn to the flashy covers, whether we want to recognize these individuals actively, eventually we passively come to collect enough general information about them that you can, at the very least, say you know more about them than they know of you.

As so-called attention merchants, media executives set the standards of what deserves their consumer’s attention, based on what attracts the most attention. Consequently, it developed very exclusive standards: young is better than old, pretty is better than ugly, rich is better than poor. These standards continue to permeate entertainment publications, despite “body-positivity” and “real women” movements, there are still narrow standards of beauty for women, and men for that matter. However, other standards have seen a notable change in recent years, that do not seem to reflect today’s media: TV is better than music, music is better than movies, movies are better than sports, and anything is better than politics.

Personally, this writer would argue that music, due to online streaming services has reached, if not surpassed the attention economy of TV and movies. Many people are dropping their cable subscriptions in favor of other services, and movie attendance has seen a general decline over the years. More to this writer’s point, politics has now become the main focus once again of the average American. From infotainment shows like “The Daily Show” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” to daily news coverage of national politics, it is clear that we have once again become an issue-oriented attention market versus the personality one that we lived in up until we reached peak celebrity culture.

Wu describes our passive participation in the attention market as almost insidious in its nature, “you don’t have to be a fan to identify [ …] Angelina Jolie or Leonardo DiCaprio. You know them like you know the names of major cities you never visited.” So what explains the fascination that literally can cause a physical reaction in our body? If you’ve ever encountered a celebrity or famous person, you know that feeling of your heart beating faster and having the urge to document the moment as if it were something so deeply important to your well-being.

Wu argues that the strength of these feelings can be connected to older traditions of worship, such as religion and magic, though he falls short of equating celebrity worship to a religion. Though he does bring up the allegory of Moses’ and the golden calf idol, he burned for being a false idol. In fact, there are several connections made to the Bible in this book, so much so that it’s hard not to equate celebrity and prophetic worship.

In summation, Wu’s general argument is that the celebrity-industrial complex is maintained not by “the existence of [celebrities] but rather the idea of constructing an industry based on the demand for feeling some communion with them.” In other words, the complex exists because we, as consumers of entertainment media, crave a connection with someone who looks just like us, yet feels worlds apart.

For anyone interested in the story of how our eyes and minds are controlled by advertisers and programmers, and how little control we actually have over what we consume, then “The Attention Merchants” by Tim Wu is a must-read.

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