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The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

4.10  ·  Rating details ·  2,632 ratings  ·  398 reviews
Feeling attention challenged? Even assaulted? American business depends on it. In nearly every moment of our waking lives, we face a barrage of messaging, advertising enticements, branding, sponsored social media, and other efforts to harvest our attention. Few moments or spaces of our day remain uncultivated by the "attention merchants," contributing to the distracted, un ...more
Hardcover, 403 pages
Published October 4th 2016 by Knopf
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Timothy Wu
Aug 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  (Review from the author)
Learned an awful lot writing it.
Jonathan Karmel
Dec 12, 2016 rated it liked it
As a new book, this was only a 14 day loan from the library, and I felt like there was an implicit challenge from the author to finish the book before it was due. "You're probably wasting so much of your time staring at screens that you don't even have the ability to focus on a book long enough to finish it in 2 weeks."

This book is a history of how advertisers have tried to get inside our heads for the last 100 years. I enjoyed learning the story of Clark Stanley, the original snake
Tadas Talaikis
Dec 24, 2016 rated it really liked it

Yesterday was two months I was building my next startup and for a while was thinking about how to bring customers there for free (or as much as possible for free). Also for some time I was following some interesting projects on Facebook (ex., "ドープ Acolyte", above pic or "Keule Ruke", hey ;), below pic) and was thinking that previously mentioned goal can be achieved via some creative marketing. Last time I was just using something called "guerilla/ stealth marketing", ex. go to competitors' semin
Mal Warwick
Nov 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
If you’ve been paying attention, you can’t have missed the changes in the character of advertising over the course of your life. Certainly, I have. Chances are, you were born in the age of radio, at the earliest. If so, you’ve witnessed a string of new technologies enter the realm of news and entertainment, almost always paired with aggressive advertising sooner or later: network television, cable TV, the personal computer, the Internet, and the smartphone.

In his insightful history o
"As William James observed, we must reflect that, when we reach the end of our days, our life experience will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or default. We are at risk, without quite fully realizing it, of living lives that are less our own than we imagine." Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants

The only thing missing from this read is the chapter I'm sure Wu will include in the paperback about this election.
Charles J
Jan 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
Tim Wu’s “The Attention Merchants” is part history and part social analysis. The history related in “The Attention Merchants” tells us something we all basically know—that economic forces simultaneously drive businesses to offer us “free” entertainment, while at the same time making our attention to that entertainment a product to be sold to advertisers. Hence the title. And, since everybody likes free stuff, and in a free market, new markets will always be sought and exploited, there is a natur ...more
Daniel Chaikin
Aug 09, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When you listen to half a book in April, then the rest in July, then immediately leave town for two weeks, then sit down for a review, you're first thought might be something like, what was the book about again?

So, in the discombobulated and scattered pieces of my recent memory, I can confidently say this was a pretty fun history of advertising. Wu really begins with the early news papers, especially the ones in the early 1800's that hit on the idea that they could make more money from advertising then f
Dec 12, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I wasn’t so much disappointed with what’s in the book as what isn’t in the book. Like most people, I’ve lived through a lot of the technological changes detailed here; a blow-by-blow of the basics doesn’t really serve any purpose at this point. Unfortunately, that’s mainly what this book consist of: the obvious. It’s not wrong, and it’s well-written, but the book ultimately fails to do anything new or worthwhile.

Perhaps the most insidious thing about this kind of book is that it relies on its o
Jun 19, 2017 rated it liked it
It may be disappointing to some, but Tim Wu's The Attention Merchants reads like a history first and foremost and infrequently as analysis. The history is framed around this notion of an "attention merchant," - namely one who captures attention and re-sells it for commercial intent-
and while the term is a result of analyzing the trends of advertising and pop culture, there's not much room for trend analysis in the text. On one hand, while I prefer some analysis to accompany the history, it's falla
Otis Chandler
Mar 05, 2018 marked it as to-read
I liked this article from the author:
Nov 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating, sobering and thought provoking survey of the eternal quest to "harvest" attention by various "agents", starting from organized religion since ancient times, to military recruitment advertisements during the world wars, culminating in the modern techniques of print, radio, TV and social media.
The book succeeds in giving a rich, whirlwind tour of both development of technologies as well as many, many personalities involved in spearheading the campaigns used on these platforms. I ha
Feb 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
‘Attention could be harvested on a mass scale and converted into unprecedented levels of commerce and military might.’

Wu detailed the evolution of the attention merchants, people who create things that get our attention and trade it for stuff. First there was patent medicine advertisements involving treatment such as the original ‘snake oil’, which gave rise to its meaning of useless medicine. Backlash was swift but World War I found advertisements work better than conscription, at l
Oct 22, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Excellent. A terrific history of marketing and consumer behavior over the past hundred years, from a time when attention merchants barely existed. Tim Wu connects disparate dots, adding context while foreshadowing developments to come.

The question raised by this book: Where and when should attention merchants conduct business?

In the end, Wu writes, we should reclaim our time and attention. When we read a book, become engrossed in work or play with children, we reclaim attention from t
Apr 12, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: design-type-etc
Disappointing, lazy, and superficial. This highly selective history is not even justified by a clear theory or argument. It's not that it's selective because it is trying to cherry pick facts to make an argument, there is no argument, it's just a weak history. I was waiting for a big redeeming discussion at the end, but it never came.
That said, it begins well: interesting background on snake oil, a bit about propaganda, French burlesque posters, etc, but it falls apart as it enters the sec
Peter Mcloughlin
Talking about the battle for eyeballs and attention from the early days of the penny press to the latest fake news post on facebook. Including propaganda and advertising by posters, radio and television and cable and the internet in between then and now. Long view of how our media space has crept into places unheard of only a decade or two ago. Interesting take on the Tsunami of various media penetration into our heads.
Mike Zickar
Nov 14, 2016 rated it liked it
I enjoyed this book (listened to the audio version) though I didn't find anything particularly revelatory about it. I was hoping for some insights into our media infatuation that would cause me to look at things in a new light, and I felt like this was a pretty standard telling of this history. . .
Gaylord Dold
Jan 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2016. $28.95)

At a recent small college basketball game I was in the stands with perhaps twenty or thirty other fans, most, unlike me, parents of players, or friends of coaches, along with a few teachers and academic administrators. Sitting near me was the father of a female player who I knew to be on the court as a starter. This man, perhaps fifty years old, paunchy, pale and badl
Joseph Evans
Aug 15, 2019 rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Nov 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Tim Wu manages to alight upon his subject as with butterfly wings, without ever mentioning the politically loaded term, MEDIA, which might succeed only in rousing tired old arguments from the "politically polarized" sides of the sort of debate meant to be aired on CNN or CSNBC. By naming his book The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, Wu cleverly sidesteps having his work shelved in dusty corners next to Bill O'Reilly, Chris Matthews, or Al Franken which are inevitab ...more
Feb 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
I was mostly driven to Wu's book by the all the ads constantly pestering my peripheral vision, or jumping right in front, demanding an 'X' click. I was also wondering about the tricks Facebook and others use to keep my attention... how they manipulate the periodic drip of dopamine to keep me checking email or posts despite the steady wash of unwanted information and advertisements. Wu covers this, but he also more intent on the history of 'attention merchants:' those who who sell our attention. ...more
Dec 08, 2016 rated it really liked it
I've been reading a few texts more oriented towards the "how" of the attention merchants (that is, the psychology of attention) so it was nice to get my hands on this much more history oriented text. Wu does go into a few tidbits of the "how" attention works, but his main focus is on the development of attention over the past century, and in that context he's put together a fascinating if somewhat broad overview of the topic, and he gives it a nice coverage. Certain specific topics are, maybe, g ...more
Oct 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Great summary of the history of media and advertising - highly relevant for everyone in the media business. I expected some more details on how the latest generation of attention merchants work to track down their targets and where the industry is moving now, but the great historical chapters make up for it. This book will be my Christmas gift to my colleagues in Aftenposten - a Norwegian newspaper traditionally living off ads (80% of revenues) but increasingly converting to a digital subscripti ...more
Oct 19, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is meticulously researched and chock-full of content, but it is very slow-moving. I was under the impression it would focus mostly on the present day, and I didn’t expect it to be such a comprehensive history of advertising. That’s a double-edged sword: to understand how the marketers of today get inside your head, you have to know the origins of advertising, its use in wartime propaganda, the importance of media being able to get inside people’s homes and demand their attention via ra ...more
Nov 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Thoroughly enjoyable (er...) read - actually quite ambitious as it presents itself as a partial history of propaganda and advertising and showing how these threads (attitudes?) towards separating Americans from their money has evolved into separating Americans from their attention. I have some reservations about the book (more on that in a bit) but read it quite quickly and it falls into that strange area I have been feeling about some non-fiction of late: It could have been either 100 pages sho ...more
Nov 03, 2016 rated it liked it
The Master Switch was interesting and original. This is just a bunch of stuff that's either been done better before (read Michael Kammen's American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change and the 20th Century for a more interesting discussion of the beginnings of whatever Wu is talking about), or been discussed to death in the past decade - Google, Facebook a.s.o.
The bottom line? Advertisers are trying to get info about you so they can capture your attention and sell you stuff. Thanks, Pro
Mar 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book is a history of entertainment, advertising, and the way we are fed information. We do not have to have advertising. We must take control of the social contract or understand the bargain we have made if we are to demand a change in terms.
Nov 20, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Succint and thoughtful history of the industries that profit on our attention, the scarcest resource in a world where information is abondant.

The last few chapters are probably a bit more pamphletary than I'd make them, but this is definitely a book that deserves reading.
Daniel Rodic
This book discusses one of the most important currencies in the 21st century; our attention.

From the early days of religion, the creation and growth of the newspaper / radio / TV, to military propaganda by the British in WWI and the Nazi's in WWII, to the proliferation of the internet, "Attention Merchants" have been actively harvesting our attention with the intention to convert it into value for themselves.

It can be as contrite as converting our attention into the sale of a produc
Mar 31, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I first came across this book via a podcast with the author talking about Attention as a commodity. It was quite fascinating. The book too is a good read. Wu chronicles how mainstream media changed over the years and demanded the consumer attention via various means.
Wu starts with the first world war and how the British captured the attention of the nation's youth through the "Your country needs you" campaign that helped bolster the army through volunteers. This was the first instance of widesp
Alex Railean
This was a thought-provoking read that made me think about my own digital footprints and how these are used by others. The author makes it clear that modern social media is just another phase in a long tradition of consuming our attention and manipulating us into buying more things we don't need,

Here are some hints to help you get off the grid (not taken from the book, just my own experience):

- if you're on Facebook, `unlike` all the pages (personalities, brands, pr
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Tim Wu is an author, a professor at Columbia Law School, and a contributing writer for the New York Times.. He has written about technology in numerous publications, and coined the phrase "net neutrality."
“As William James observed, we must reflect that, when we reach the end of our days, our life experience will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or default. We are at risk, without quite fully realizing it, of living lives that are less our own than we imagine.” 31 likes
“It is no coincidence that ours is a time afflicted by a widespread sense of attentional crisis, at least in the West - one captured by the phrase ''homo distractus,'' a species of ever shorter attention span known for compulsively checking his devices.” 7 likes
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