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May I Have Your Attention, Please?

Most of the time, we are the product—the ones being bought and sold, as we swipe, scroll and read. These are attention transactions, rather than financial transactions.

Oh, and thank you, by the way. There is great value in your time—for me, anyway.

We all know the attention economy is selling us. All these apps, social media platforms, and search engines we used on the way in to this conversation: They don’t cost us a cent. We opt in, often feeling they’re ours. If we’re worried, about the concomitant siren calls of cheap clickbait or our privacy, we can opt out.

As of June 2020, seven of the top eight most valuable brands in the world are tech giants: Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Alibaba, Tencent and Facebook. Each with a net worth north of $500 billion. And it is our time, our attention, that makes them so valuable.

The more captivated we are by the echo chambers of our news and social-media feeds, the more challenging it can be to ask: Are we efficiently allocating our resources?

It’s our time, our attention, that fuels the world’s most valuable brands.

In 2015, Zeynep Tüfekçi, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Information and Library Science, argued that we would be better off paying Facebook for the privilege of our time. That’s right. Instead of being granted free use of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok, we should offer to put more money in their already full coffers.

It sounds counterintuitive, perhaps, but there’s a method in Tüfekçi’s madness: “I want to pay a small fee for the right to keep my information private and to be able to hear from the people I want — not the sponsored-content makers I want to avoid,” she wrote in her New York Times op-ed. “I want to be a customer, not a product.”

Now Tüfekçi and many writers like her are now publishing on platforms like Substack, Patreon, and many others, where their readers pay monthly subscriptions for exclusive access to their content.

A self-described “techno-sociologist,” Tüfekçi is widely published; in August New York Times media columnist Ben Smith described her coverage of COVID-19 as “a kind of revenge of the nerds, as outsiders from American politics and from Silicon Valley’s pressure to align money and ideology sometimes see what insiders don’t.”

Insight was born from Tüfekçi’s frustration with “journalism’s failures to both understand how complex systems work and to evaluate emerging information with an eye towards action,” she writes on Insight’s About page. She says her newsletter welcomes “people interested in thinking deeply about the world’s hardest, most complex and vital puzzles.”

On platforms like Substack, readers pay monthly subscriptions for exclusive access to writers’ content.

The “attention economy” is a term that was coined by the 1978 Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert A. Simon, who argued that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” and that we “need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

The way we produce and consume information has transformed since. Social media feeds and email newsletters are ascendant, and many successful new models offer a combination.

Still, by any current measure, “we are in a Substack moment,” as Wired’s Steven Levy wrote last week.

The San Francisco-based publishing startup offers full-service support for subscription newsletters, including design, distribution and payment processing. In 2019 they announced they’d raised a $15.3 million Series A funding round led by Andreessen Horowitz, whose partner, author Andrew Chen, first heard about the platform when they tried to recruit him.

Ben Thompson, whose newsletter Stratechery—with a $100 annual subscription model—was an inspiration for Substack, writes that “[Its model] is far more sustainable and accessible than the old model of corporations and donors subsidizing think tanks, journals, and specialty magazines, and far more ideologically diverse than academia.

Champions such as Thompson say the platform enables much more democratic forms of patronage than in the past. (Substack takes a 10-percent cut of subscriber revenue.) The platform’s detractors see drawbacks, even dangers, of “walling off writers behind individual subscriptions,” in the words of Chicago Tribune columnist John Warner.

More than a simple rejection of the “free” ad-laden model, Substack and media platforms like them offer both writers and readers the opportunity to direct their valued attention more efficiently. A notable step, at a time when the stakes for doing so have never seemed higher.

“We need to restructure the whole way our digital technology operates,” said Tüfekçi in a 2017 TED talk, We’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads. In it she painted a bleak picture: “An “infrastructure of surveillance authoritarianism,” she argues, is well and truly embedded in our daily lives. It nudges us, silently but persistently, according to our proclivities or vulnerabilities: “There is no such thing as ‘opting out’ of our privacy-compromised world.”

This is not what Tim Berners-Lee envisaged when he came up with the idea for a democratic, free-for-all World Wide Web back in 1989. Which explains his current venture, Solid (social linked data) and Inrupt, which use decentralized data stores or pods.

As we find ways to wrest power back from the tech giants, how might we wrest back a little of our own control, as customers rather than products, and achieve a higher valuation for the attention we give?

We still have a choice how we spend our attention, after all.

Like Stratechery, Insight is $10 a month. Some Substack newsletters, including the popular Bitcoin Forecast by Willy Woo, go for $50. Compared to more traditional media models a steep price, but at least—for now—you can be sure that you’re the customer.

Given the deep, dystopian costs of the “free” model, perhaps we need to explore the value of less.

→ Hear authors Jenny Odell and Amanda Hess discuss the perils and possibilities of our online lives in this Public Books podcast.

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