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From Subprime Attention Crisis, published last month by FSGO x Logic.

Though we’ve mostly forgotten this now, the idea that the internet would give rise to some of the largest and most profitable businesses in the world was not at all obvious in its early days. As late as 1996, Viacom’s CEO, Ed Horowitz, remarked dismissively that “the internet has yet to fulfill its promise of commercial success. Why? Because there is no business model.”

In the two decades since, the answer to the question of how to make boatloads of money on the internet has been, resoundingly, advertising. At its core, advertising is a marketplace for attention. When your eyes skim over an advertisement as you scroll through your news feed or read an article, your attention has been sold by the platform and bought by the advertiser. This process has been automated and streamlined in ways that we often fail to appreciate. Machines dominate advertising on the web.

The method known in the industry as programmatic advertising leverages software to automate the buying and selling of advertising inventory. This ecosystem has transformed products and services that weren’t previously monetized in this way. And major scientific breakthroughs, such as recent advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, have largely been made possible by a small handful of corporations that derive the majority of their wealth from this new automated market.

Why does this matter? It is responsible for a colossal portion of the money that drives the internet. And shifts in the marketplace for attention would have major consequences not only for the economy but for our self-expression, our identities, and our democracy.

In Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott explores what he terms “legibility.” To administrate at scale, governments and large bureaucracies need to be able to see the world clearly. To set up a system of taxation, for instance, it is necessary to create a system of fixed identities so that the government can track which people have paid their taxes. Establishing a legible system of fixed identities may require cultural changes such as introducing the concept of last names to populations that previously did not use them. In other words, governments must shape the world in order to carry out their administration of it.

Social media is no different. The need to create a liquid market of human attention influences the architecture of the web. Social interactions between people are mediated by structured tags such as “like” and “favorite” because these render sentiment easy to measure. We’ve lived for so long in an online social universe built for advertising that it is difficult to imagine what an alternative might look like.

Consider for a moment a social-media platform that we’ll call Super Social Media 3000 (SSM 3000), a bizarro opposite of the advertising-legible versions we use every day. It consists of a single page on which everyone interacts and where everyone sees the same thing. Rather than having structured text boxes, users manually draw shapes and words with their cursors. There are no user profiles, and you do not need to be logged in to use it.

This is an advertising nightmare. Users’ contributions are all jumbled in an unrecognizable mess. The system logs no relevant demographic information. In contrast to the discrete, measurable likes on a Facebook post, a given section of SSM 3000 provides advertisers with only a difficult-to-interpret doodle.

SSM 3000 would assuredly be a social experience. Users would interact with one another, and they would likely make friends and even build communities. But it would be light-years away from what we currently understand as social media. It would lack the features that advertising has encouraged and helped to mold. By and large, we don’t have platforms like SSM 3000 because the broad range of expression that the internet might otherwise enable has been limited to ways of connecting that are consistent with the financial demands of advertising. The free-form scribblings of SSM 3000 are financially unsustainable compared with the shallow paradigm of likes, retweets, and short comments. In this sense, advertising is complicit in restricting the grammar of social interaction online.

The programmatic advertising model does more than simply enforce a certain kind of product design. We have been taught how to interact with other people online by platforms built to buy and sell our attention. One wonders whether that will constrain the social possibilities of the future. At first glance, it might seem that no one would want to use SSM 3000: the anonymity and lack of clear individual spaces might degrade into a digital wall of bathroom graffiti in a few hours (or less). But that presumed deterioration says less about fundamental human nature than it says about how we have learned to interact online. Our approach thus far has assumed the features of an advertising-driven internet.

There is, therefore, a strong ethical imperative to hope for the collapse of the attention economy.

So how might that happen?

The advertising industry has long struggled with a simply stated but complex question: Does advertising work? In other words, how does one really know that the messages being broadcast actually influence the browsers, readers, and listeners out in the world? Traditionally, this struggle has been summed up by a pithy adage often attributed to John Wanamaker, an early advertising pioneer: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Today, a complicated ecosystem of data brokers, cookies, and surveillance allows advertising to be precisely targeted. But while consumer behavior is exposed in fine detail, the wealth of tracking data doesn’t help advertisers determine a fair going price for reaching a particular kind of person.

This degree of opacity in the marketplace creates a smoke screen behind which an economic situation can deteriorate significantly without broader market awareness. And there are strong indicators that the real value of online ads is steadily decreasing.

Advertising relies on attention: it is not the attention itself. All an advertiser purchases is the right to display its content on a web page. When a demand-side platform is programmed to seek out opportunities to reach a demographic such as “males aged eighteen to twenty-four living in the United States,” it tells us whom the advertising will ideally reach, but not whether the people who actually see the ad will be persuaded, or even interested.

This divergence between the asset being bought—ad inventory—and the asset underlying it that defines its value—attention—parallels what happened to collateralized debt obligations during the 2007–08 crisis. CDOs were, in effect, bundles of mortgages. Financial institutions packaged mortgages of differing risk and sold the stream of payments coming from these loans as a single asset. But the CDOs were not the mortgages themselves, and each CDO contained bundles of mortgages from different homeowners in different places. One CDO might contain high-quality home mortgages that would reliably pay out over the entire lifetime of the loan, and a seemingly identical CDO might be filled with high-risk mortgages likely to default. In financial parlance, both CDOs and online advertising inventory are derivatives—they derive their value from an underlying asset. CDOs draw their value from the mortgages they contain; online ad inventory draws its value from the attention it represents.

In the same way that we might peel open a CDO to learn which types of mortgages it contains, we can peel open an ad and assess the quality of the attention it captures. When we do this, two problems become apparent. First, the value of the attention packaged by online advertising is declining. Industry data clearly indicates that online advertising is increasingly ignored—or actively resisted—by the public at large. Second, the attention ads do receive is increasingly garbage—the product of a massive, fraudulent economy of click farms designed to extract money from advertisers. In short, as many in the industry certainly know, the bottom is falling out even as prices are pushed higher and higher.

Eventually, the bubble will pop. And there is good reason to think that this will happen sooner than we expect.

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November 2020

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