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How Free Web Content Traps People In An Abyss Of Ads And Clickbait

Oct 17, 2016
Originally published on October 17, 2016 4:02 pm

If you feel like Internet ads are more pervasive and invasive than ever before, you're not alone. Author Tim Wu tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that the Web has gotten worse over the years, not better — and unrelenting ads are to blame.

"I think you spend 50 percent of your mental energy trying to defeat ad systems," Wu says. "It's amazing that we've got this great scientific invention, the Web and the Internet, and then it has come to the point where using it reminds me of swatting mosquitoes."

As a professor at Columbia Law School, Wu became known as an open Internet advocate who is credited with coining the term "net neutrality." His new book, The Attention Merchants, examines how advertising has changed the Internet — and how those changes affect us.

He says the book was inspired by his own experience of sitting down to look something up on the computer and finding, four hours later, that he had slid into a world of digital distraction. "It's what I call the casino effect," Wu says. "It's this effort of the environment to make you lose control of your sense of time and your attention kind of gets dragged away."

Wu points out that much of the "free" content on the Internet comes at a price to users, who are subjected to ads that are targeted specifically at them and which are increasingly difficult to ignore or close. "Google, Facebook, Twitter — the whole set of companies essentially knows all your weaknesses and essentially how to manipulate you in subtle ways in order to have you do things you might not otherwise do," he says.

Wu says that although the Internet is full of "clickbait that brings ads along like a bad cold," it doesn't have to be that way. "We can have a better Web," he says. "Whether it's a combination of subscription models or nonprofit models, I would like to have a Web that we feel proud of, that lives up to its promise."


Interview Highlights

On the quest for clicks

It's inherent to the business model. It's very driven with the need to grow, to get more clicks and clicks and clicks. And some of this book is about the history, and we often say that ratings kind of ruined television in the 1950s, well, the quest for ratings looks dignified in comparison to the quest for clicks.

So much engineering talent and ability has gone into trying to make people click on things that I think we've almost lost the last five years of development. It's been very disappointing.

On how we are used to content being free

It's a bargain with some historical precedent. I think back starting with radio, starting with television, we got used to this idea of stuff being free as long as you just watch a few ads. ...

This attention-merchant model has spread to so many areas of our life, where we're completely used to everything being free. But then the payoff, or the exchange, is that then we also agree to stuff that is compromised, because it is always trying to get us to click on ads at the same time. So we have this bargain that we made — and you can call it Faustian, you can call it whatever you want — that we have decided that we have to have everything for free, and I think we're starting to pay for it in terms of our mental states.

On the price of "free" Internet content

If you really want change in this area, and you want to act, you probably have to pay for stuff, pay for content. Some people are like, "Oh my God I have to pay?" But people do pay. They pay for Netflix, they pay for HBO, they pay for other types — they subscribe to newspapers sometimes.

Generally speaking, when you pay for stuff it has more of your interests at heart. ... In other words, a lot of the websites are always serving two masters, they're both trying to get you entertained enough to stay there, or to click on things, but to also then make it a good platform for advertising. So I have sort of a plea to people who want to change these sort of things is, like, maybe just suck it up and start paying for more stuff.

On the pervasiveness of Internet advertising

In the media, traditional media like print, we had boundaries, we had spaces that ads didn't leave, they stayed where they were on the page, they didn't float around over the text, and we're sort of lost on the Internet.

We don't have any barriers. We have a demand for growth that is insistent, and so advertising just keeps getting heavier and heavier and heavier. It doesn't have any natural limit, and we haven't found a place for the limit.

On Google's approach to advertising

I think Google is the most profitable attention merchant in the history of the world. ... They started a very idealistic beautiful company in many ways, but they didn't have a business model.

The most interesting thing about Google is its founders hated advertising and in fact, they wrote this paper in the '90s, saying in its appendix that any advertising-based search engine would always be corrupted and unable to serve its highest purposes, because advertising always corrupts the goal of the search engine, which is to try to give you the most important stuff, not the stuff someone paid to be there.

Google is this conflicted company. I think they thought they could do this deal and keep advertising at bay, but I think year in, year out Google is starting to get worse instead of better. ... You can see it with Google Maps, you can see it with Google Directions where somehow Uber is always one of the options, and it's becoming exactly what they said was what they never wanted, which is a pay-for service where the highest bidder gets the best results. So it's kind of a cautionary tale.

I do think the best thing for companies like Google and Facebook, if they are afraid of this ethical trap of advertising, is they should start letting people pay who want to pay and avoid some of the advertising.

On how advertisers can use technology to target individual "moments"

I think this is going to become more intense in the coming decade as we start to carry more and more technology with us. We already have our phones, but other wearables and those technologies are going to want to know when you're deciding things and then offer some kind of input, subtle or less so, on that moment.

So you know, discovering the moment: Let's say you're someone's phone and you notice that your owner is drinking coffee at certain times of the day, just very subtly indicating where the local coffee shop is, which happens to have paid whoever makes your phone, at the right moment. ... We are possibly facing little tiny bits of manipulation in all of our waking hours, if we don't have that already.

On how Facebook "likes" help advertisers

Every time you click on a "like" button on another site, you've told Facebook that you're doing that, and so therefore advertisers know who their fan base is. When you decide to "like" something you may feel you're innocently putting out your preferences, but actually you're delivering something of enormous value, which is indicating that you essentially like to be advertised to by this company.

It's so funny that the Internet has become a series of traps where you do innocent things like give your name or address or indicate a preference — "I like this thing" — and therefore you open yourself up to a deluge of advertising based on those stated preferences. That's what you're doing, you're signaling who you are as a consumer.

On what can happen when Internet companies know intimate details about individuals

I'm concerned with our autonomy. ... I particularly don't like it when it's used to exploit your weaknesses or make you lose control in some ways — so it's like advertising casinos to people who have gambling problems, or just things that are too sensitive — if you have a disease and suddenly you started getting ads for cures for that disease, it's an embarrassing disease. All that kind of stuff, it just gets into that zone of autonomy or privacy where you feel a sense of freedom to be who you want to be, and I'm afraid when too many people know too much about you, it actually makes us all a lot more boring, because you're afraid to express yourself.

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Tim Wu thinks advertising has gone too far on the internet - too invasive, too aggressive, too pervasive. His new book considers how we got to this point by examining the rise of the advertising industry. The book is called "The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads." Attention merchants are the people who harvest our attention, firms whose business model is the mass capture of attention for resale to advertisers. Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School. He's best known for having coined the expression net neutrality. Tim Wu, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Did this book come out of personal frustration with internet ads?

TIM WU: You know, something like that. It came, frankly, from that experience, which I don't know if you've had, where you sit down at your computer, and you have this idea you're going to write an email or something. And then something happens and then four hours later, you look up and think, like, what just happened?

GROSS: (Laughter).

WU: So it's (laughter) - you know, so it's not - it's what I call the casino effect. It's this effort of the environment to make you lose control of your sense of time and your attention kind of gets dragged away. And, you know, that kept happening to me, and I was like, what is going on? And so it wasn't quite the ads so much as it was the design of the web to, you know, suck you on these vortexes.

GROSS: So your book is about all the demands on the internet for our attention, but you focus on ads, which are always demanding our attention. I mean, I find - I have to match wits with the ads. Like, there's pop-ups that, like, move around and you have to chase them like it was a video game or something. And then there's ads where, like, you know, the X to, like, close the ad screen is so kind of small that you can't find it and you have to actually go looking for it. And so I spend all my energy - instead of, like, absorbing what the advertiser wants to communicate to me, I spend my energy trying to figure out how to defeat the ad.

WU: It's amazingly (laughter), you know, that we've got this great scientific invention, the web and the internet, and then it's come to this point where using it reminds me of swatting mosquitoes. Honestly, I think you spend 50 percent of your mental energy trying to defeat ad systems. And, you know, I - there could be a better way. I just - I also think it's inherent to the business model. It's very driven with the need to grow, to get more clicks and clicks and clicks.

And, you know, some of this book is about the history, and we often say that ratings kind of ruined television in the 1950s. Well, the quest for ratings looks dignified in comparison for the quest for clicks. I mean, so much engineering talent and ability has gone in to trying to make people click on things that I think we've sort of almost lost the last five years of development.

GROSS: You write about the bargain that we make, free content in exchange for ads. Talk more about the bargain and what you think we're - what you think's being compromised in that bargain.

WU: Sure. No, it's a bargain with some historical precedent. I think back in the - starting with radio, starting with television, we got used to this idea of stuff being free as long as you just watch a few ads. And it's gotten to the point - now, that was once sort of limited to television - a tiny, small sphere, maybe newspapers - but it spread. This attention merchant model has spread to so many areas of our life where we're completely used to everything being free. But then the payoff or the exchange is that we then also agree to stuff that is compromised because it is always trying to get us to click on ads at the same time.

So we have this, you know, bargain that we made - and you can call it fousty (ph) and you can call it whatever you want - that we have just decided we have to have everything for free. And I think we're starting to pay for it in terms of our mental states.

GROSS: I have such ambivalence about some of these things 'cause I really believe people should be paid for the work that they do. And it bothers me when people, say, you know, write for, you know, a web publication and get paid little or nothing or, you know, expecting to, like, read the best newspapers in the world and not pay a cent for it. Those newspapers need money in order to operate.

And when you're reading a newspaper and you're seeing ads on the page, it's not kind of invasive. Like, it's on the page next to the article. You can look at it or not. You can turn the page when you're ready. On the internet, the ads - many of the ads - just are so controlling. They insist that you see them (laughter)...

WU: Right.

GROSS: ...Which I suppose you can say about television, too. But I don't know, it just seems more in your face. So I am so conflicted between my resentment at some of the more in your face internet ads and my belief that there should be a revenue stream that helps pay for the publication or for the work and helps pay the people who do it.

WU: Yeah, no, I have two things to say about that. Maybe the most important thing is that if you really want change in this area and you want to act, you probably have to pay for stuff, pay for content. You know, that said - for some people, like, oh, my God, I've got to pay. But, you know, people do pay. They pay for Netflix. They pay for HBO. They pay for other types - they subscribe to newspapers sometimes. And generally speaking, when you pay for stuff, it has more of your interests in heart. Movies you pay for - well, sometimes they throw some ads at the beginning now - but generally you pay for ads. And that business model - actually, much more ancient, paying for stuff - is much more straightforward in terms of the incentives of the people who are then giving you the stuff.

In other words, they're not - a lot of the websites are always serving two masters. They're both trying to get you entertained enough to stay there or to click on things but then also make it a good platform for advertising. So I have sort of a plea to people who want to change these sort of things is like maybe just suck it up and start paying for more stuff. The other problem is - I think that you've alluded to this - the second thing is that in the media, traditional media like print, we had boundaries. You know, we had spaces that ads didn't leave. They stayed where they were on the page. They didn't float around over the text.

And we're kind of lost on the internet. We don't have any barriers. We have a demand for growth that is insistent. And so advertising just keeps getting heavier and heavier and heavier. It doesn't have any natural limit, and we haven't found the place for the limit. And I think it's really important, therefore, that some of the revolts that are undergoing right now, you know, whether it's ad blockers or other things, are people trying to set some lines so that we say, you know, this far but no further. And this is where it ends. And I think both those are very important for our future.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tim Wu who is most famous for inventing the expression net neutrality. His new book is called "The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads," and it's about advertising with an emphasis on internet advertising. Is there a moment in time where you can say this is where advertising on the internet begins for real?

WU: Yeah, I think it is with the rise of clickbait - The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and things like that - and also with the success, frankly, of Google, making serious money off an advertising model. I think those are the two developments that really take us to where we are right now. You know, in the '90s, it was a little unclear how any of this stuff was going to make money. Some of it was going to stay nonprofit. Some of it still is, like Wikipedia.

And actually I wish more of the web had stayed nonprofit. But the advertising model took over and I think has delivered us to where we are, along with the development of content, which is designed to do nothing else but make you click on it or share it. And I think it's kind of a low goal for content, and I think that's taken us to our current abyss.

GROSS: Let's go back to AOL, because you talk about AOL as starting as a subscription service but then bringing advertising into the model, and something called the walled garden strategy. Could you describe that strategy and why it was important in the larger scheme of things?

WU: Sure. Right, so AOL is a incredibly important company in the history of our present, frankly, because they were, first of all, one of the first to have this idea that socialization would be the most successful thing to bring mainstream audiences to online computers. I mean, you have to think back to the '90s. The computer was this terrible-looking thing that was trying to compete with the television. And it was this idea of email and chat rooms and this kind of stuff that first people - got people there. AOL also had the idea of the walled garden that you just mentioned, the opposite of net neutrality, which is you pay AOL to be there. And whether it's flower delivery or news, they decide all the content you're going to see.

And, finally, AOL was one of the pioneers of the advertising business model later in their history. They started claiming billions of dollars of revenue. Later on, it turned out that most of that revenue, one way or another, was fabricated, that they were booking the same line of revenue twice or doing all sorts of other things. Eventually, the Securities and Exchange Commission went after them, and the company got in a lot of trouble. But, by then, most of the founders and the early executives were gone. So AOL sort of introduced our present in this sense of moving the Internet and the web into something that was social advertising driven and, you know, we're sort of living in that reality right now.

GROSS: Google started as a free search engine. It's still free, but now it's making a lot of money on ads, right? A lot of money. Is that fair to say?

WU: I think they're the most profitable attention...

GROSS: (Laughter) How precise is that? Is it making exactly a lot of money?

WU: ...Yeah, I think Google is the most successful attention merchant - profitable attention merchant in the history of the world, most successful advertising-only based company - most profitable. They started a very idealistic, beautiful company in many ways, but they didn't have a business model. The most interesting thing about Google is its founders hated advertising. And, in fact, they wrote this paper in the '90s saying, in its appendix, that any advertising-based search engine would always be corrupted and unable to serve its highest purposes because advertising always corrupts the goal of the search engine, which is to try to give you the most important stuff, not the stuff someone paid there to be there.

So, you know, Google is this conflicted company. I think they thought they could do this deal and keep advertising at bay, but I think, year in, year out, Google is starting to get worse instead of better. I think this is happening to a lot of the web companies, is as their demand to increase the payload they deliver in ads increases, they end up degrading and corrupting their own services. And you can see it with Google Maps, you can see it with Google Directions, where somehow Uber is, you know, always one of the options. And it's becoming exactly what they said was what they never wanted, which is a pay-for service where the highest bidder gets the best results.

So it's, you know, it's sort of a cautionary tale. I do think the best thing for companies like Google and Facebook, if they are afraid of this ethical trap of advertising, is they should start letting people pay who want to pay and avoid some of the advertising. That's - that goes back to my idea of, you know, if you really care about content, you should pay for it.

GROSS: A premium service?

WU: Yeah, exactly - or just an ad-free version of it. You know, I think Facebook, I think, would be something like $12 a year. So, you know, working those models out, so we're less in this conflicted thing. I don't think the engineers like it either. They don't like building a product, which is primarily designed to get you to see an ad. They want to build the best product. That's the way engineers are.

GROSS: So when Google started to turn to advertising, what did it have to offer advertisers that other sites did not?

WU: You know, that's a great question. Google has you at a very specific mental state that is, looking for something. And what they've always been able to say is, we deliver your message at the exact time someone is, say, looking for fishing hooks or looking for marriage counseling or looking for a lawyer for a particular problem. And here we have our customers telling you what is in their heart and soul. It's something that, you know, advertisers have wanted for decades.

When you think about normal advertising, it's just like, hey, here's a car and, you know, we don't know if you're looking for a car or not. So Google promised that mental state, and then were able to prove that delivering the message at the exact right moment would make someone click on something. So they pioneered the idea that advertising could be profitable on the internet, that a specific, very micromental state could be targeted. And they established the primacy of the click, which has haunted us ever since.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tim Wu, and he's the author of the new book, "The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads." And it's kind of a history of advertising with a focus on internet advertising and how that's changing the internet and changing our attention. So we're going to take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Tim Wu. He's best known for coining the phrase, net neutrality. He has a new book called "The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads." It's about how advertising, historically, has tried to get inside our heads, but the real focus is on internet advertising and how it's changed the internet and how it's changed our heads. Google has something called AdWords. Would you describe what that is?

WU: So Google's AdWords, they allow you to bid on words that people will type into the search engine, and they cost more or less. For example, I think mortgage refinancing can cost - now, it's probably hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars. So, in other words, they are allowing you to bid on what people are going to type, and that is the AdWords program. So you own certain terms, and then your ads show up as opposed to someone else's.

GROSS: And does that affect the placement in the actual search?

WU: It doesn't - so Google has - at least at this point - maintained the line where it keeps organic results separate from the advertisements. But over time - so in other words, you still get the - there still are honest to goodness results which are based on an algorithm which is based on how important or how many people link to that particular site, so there's that. At the very beginning, there were unobtrusive advertisements on the side that sort of showed up when you typed in certain phrases. Over time, the amount of real estate that those ads take up has increased.

They used to be sort of marked off very distinctly. Their color has gotten paler, so it looks more like the regular results. And overall, everything has been done to sort of crowd it and make it as much as possible like the true results. And I think it's been an unfortunate development. I don't think anyone at Google feels happy about it, but they've been in some sense, you know, enslaved to their business model, and so they have to satisfy their advertisers.

That's the problem with this business model. I mean, all business models have something challenging about them, but the problem with the attention merchant business model they have is they need to keep increasing the amount of ads they deliver to people and therefore make their product worse.

GROSS: So getting back to AdWords - if you go onto the Google AdWords site, the AdWords is directing itself to potential advertisers, and it says be seen by customers at the very moment that they're searching Google for the things you offer and only pay when they click to visit your website or call.

WU: Right.

GROSS: I mean, obviously that's a real approach that can only happen on something like the Internet. You couldn't do that on TV. Though, now on podcasts like, you know - podcast hosts are always saying and give them this, you know, code word or something, so they know that...

WU: Right, right.

GROSS: ...You found out about the advertiser through this podcast. But that's much less scientific than actually, you know, tracing clicks.

WU: You know, it's one thing - advertisers for years have dreamed about, you know, microtargeting just this tiny group. They used to try - in the '70s, it was like can we get the right neighborhood of people who drink TaB so we can market diet coke to them? You know, that was a neighborhood basis. Then you started trying to hone in on individuals, and now we're trying to hone in on moments, exact moments. And I think this is going to become more intense in the coming decade as we start to carry more and more technology with us. We already have our phones, but other wearables, and those technologies are going to want to know when you're deciding things and then offer some kind of input subtle or less so on that moment.

Let's say you're someone's phone, and you notice that your owner is drinking coffee at certain times of the day, just very subtly indicating where the local coffee shop is which happens to have paid, you know, whoever makes your phone at the right moment. I think we're in a future where frankly we are possibly facing little tiny bits of manipulation in all of our waking hours, if we don't have that already.

GROSS: Google collects a lot of information from people. What concerns you most about how Google is using that information?

WU: I am the most concerned that we end up in a situation where your - everything is known about you and so therefore, not only Google, but Google, Facebook, Twitter - the whole set of companies - essentially knows all your weaknesses and therefore how to manipulate you in subtle ways in order to have you do things you might not otherwise do. In other words, I'm concerned with our autonomy. I don't like the idea of people collecting information on me in general, but I particularly don't like it when it's used to sort of exploit your weaknesses or make you lose control in some ways.

And, you know, so it's like advertising casinos to people who have gambling problems or just things that are too sensitive. If you have a disease and suddenly start getting ads for cures for that disease and it's an embarrassing disease - all that kind of stuff it just gets into that zone of autonomy or privacy where you feel a sense of freedom to be who you want to be. And I'm afraid when too many people know too much about you, it actually makes us all a lot more boring because you're afraid to express yourself. This is something I think has really changed.

So the Internet, you know, 10 or 15 years ago sort of felt like the wild West. You could go out there and do anything and search for things, and, you know, find out about stuff. Now always in the back of my mind, you know, whether it's email or whatever else, it's like, well, is this going to show up somewhere? Is someone going to keep track of this and, you know, know I was searching for - maybe it's an embarrassing disease, maybe it's a weird hobby? Whatever it is, it's kind of become the opposite of a freedom an enabling tool in that way because when you're being watched, you behave a lot differently. I think all of us are like that. And so I'm kind of concerned the combined effect, not only Google, all these companies is kind of to make us more boring and that seems the opposite of what this medium was supposed to be.

GROSS: My guest is Tim Wu. His new book is called "The Attention Merchants." We'll talk about advertising on YouTube and Facebook after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Tim Wu. He's best known for coining the term net neutrality and for writing about it. Wu is a professor at Columbia Law School. His new book "The Attention Merchants" is a history of advertising that culminates with advertising on the Internet and how it's changed the experience of being online and invaded our privacy.

How did ads end up on YouTube? Youtube started as, like - it's a place you could put your little home videos or, you know, your favorite recording or whatever. And now, like, there's so many videos where there's an ad first that you have to watch. Well, like, what changed?

WU: Well, they decided they need to stop losing money and making a lot of money, and so they adopted an ad load which, frankly, makes television look modest by comparison. You know, often you need to watch a 30-second advertisement before you, you know, get a minute of content and so forth, and there's banners and so forth.

What changed is the business model demanded its payout. And many people were promised a lot of return on investment, and that ended up trapping YouTube into becoming something, frankly, which is much worse than it was even a few years ago. What's so interesting about the internet - I keep saying this - is the web has gotten worse over the last five years as opposed to better.

GROSS: Do you know who actually decides what ad will be on what video and who's selling the ads? Like, is it the individual who's uploading the video or the company that's doing it...

WU: Oh, no, Terry, it's...

GROSS: ...Or is it, like, YouTube?

WU: Oh, no, it's incredibly complex, and it's based partially on the information that has been gathered about you. So, you know, if you have a weakness for furry slippers or something, you might end up with that kind of advertising. It's a very complicated algorithmic decision. There's no one dude who's deciding what ads are going with things, and it's very individualized also. And that's the idea of collecting information is that in theory, you're showing people things that they should want to see or for which they are a good target. So, no, there's no master person.

GROSS: And does, I mean, like, does everything get an ad or, like, how do they decide what's worthy of an ad?

WU: It's also very complicated. I think, by this point, almost everything on YouTube has some ad or another. I mean, I don't work there. But, you know, the only parts of the web that have escaped this are the ones that never embrace this model. I'll bring up Wikipedia as an example. Wikipedia, a nonprofit, is an enormously popular website but has managed to operate without advertising. And, you know, maybe it's a little simpler than Google and YouTube, but it does show there's another way.

GROSS: Yeah, and Wikipedia often has a banner at the top of the page asking you to contribute money because it doesn't have ads.

WU: Right, right. And, you know, they actually do quite well with that contribution model. You know, public radio is supported by a contribution model.

GROSS: Yeah.

WU: I mean, I don't want to sit here just, like, blaming all the companies, but I want to have us ask, like, what do we want the web to be? And we can do better (laughter). So I'm kind of calling for a - I'm not the only one - you know, a revolution of some kind where we try to take back the web or start something new because, you know, the dominant medium of our time is in a desperate state and it doesn't have to be like that. It doesn't have to be somewhere where you sit down and the casino effect that I described leads you clicking on stuff for four hours and losing all your time.

GROSS: I want to get a little later to how you think we might, quote, "take back the web." But first I want to get to Facebook...

WU: Sure.

GROSS: ...And what its ad model is and how you think it's changed the Facebook experience.

WU: Yeah, so Facebook, when it began, like Google, was very resistant to advertising. They knew, like all - Mark Zuckerberg, like all good engineers, knew that advertising makes the product worse. But, you know, over time, they've been forced to increase the advertising load more and more and more. And the way they advertise is they - it's subtle but they know everything, you know, about everybody on the site. And so they offer you this incredible ability to customize who you want to reach. So for example, you can reach a Kinks fan in suburban New Jersey who likes large speakers or something like that with, you know, your latest LP or something, so very, very customizable.

But they also piggyback on your friends so that you have the impression that your friends are recommending or liking other products. And I think that's been really the key, the idea of trying to harness social capital for selling purposes. That we've let this happen so easily without clearly getting something in exchange is kind of amazing to me. You know, Google - and some of the other sites, YouTube and, you know - Google has an amazing search engine. The map product is incredible. So there's a sort of exchange when you put up with a bunch of ads. Facebook basically gives you access to your friends who, in theory, you had access to already. So sometimes I don't really understand the deal, but I guess it makes it slightly easier. So that's their contribution.

GROSS: How do the like buttons on Facebook help advertisers?

WU: Well, they - in a million different ways. But one of which is every time you click on a like button on another site, you've told Facebook that you're doing that. And so therefore advertisers know who their fan base is. When you decide to like something, I mean, you may feel you're sort of innocently putting out your preferences, but actually you're delivering something of enormous value, which is indicating that, you know, you'd essentially like to be advertised to by this - (laughter) by this company.

You know, it's so funny that the internet's become a series of traps where you do sort of innocent things like give your name or address or indicate a preference, I like this thing, and then therefore you open yourself up to a deluge of advertising based on those stated preferences.

GROSS: Sometimes when I'm on the internet, I'll get this, like, which of these ad experiences would you prefer? And I'll have a choice of, like, a car, a pharmaceutical item or, you know, clothing. And I'm thinking, like, I don't want any of these. Do I have to choose? And, like, are they all the same length? Like, (laughter) you know...

WU: I'm curious which one you choose, by the way. But, (laughter) yeah, I mean, that's an idea. It's sort of to at least try to make it go down a little more smoothly. You know, at least maybe - but what the holy...

GROSS: But it's also collecting more information from me. It's like, oh, oh...

WU: Yeah, that's true.

GROSS: ...She really likes the clothing ad. She doesn't want the car.

WU: The Holy Grail of advertising has always been advertisement that people want to watch, which occasionally happens. You know, the Super Bowl, people sit there and watch the advertisements. Some print advertising is very beautiful.

GROSS: And that's because they're really - well, you know, they're special ads.

WU: Right.

GROSS: They're designed to be attention-getting, to be wonderful, to be replayed on television because they're state-of-the-art advertising, so they're just not, like, common ads.

WU: Right. And that's the idea. They are still advertising.

GROSS: Yes, right.

WU: Some of the print ads in, like, Vogue magazine are, you know, beautifully done as well, so that's been a long - and so the Internet had that idea. They're like, well, we're going to give people what they want. But I don't think it's been very successful. You know, there was a story in England where this man had pancreatic cancer which is fatal - suddenly started getting ads for funeral homes (laughter).

So the theory there was that, like, that's what he wants. He wants to hear about something relevant to him, but who wants to hear an advertisement for funeral homes when you're dying? You know, that's how the model backfired. And I think we're kind of trapped in this thing. Look, there's always going to be merchants who need to get their message out, but things have gone way too far. And the companies themselves are trapped in this, and that's why I'm saying we need to find a new way. And as I said, take back the web because it is a situation that really isn't working for anyone.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tim Wu. He's best known for coining the expression net neutrality. His new book is about advertising, including advertising on the Internet, and it's called "The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads." We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Tim Wu. And his new book is called "The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads," and it's the history of advertising on media from radio and TV through, of course, the Internet.

Your book goes back to the early days of advertising on radio and television. What's one of the advertising campaigns that really shocked you, you weren't familiar with until you started doing research?

WU: Sure. One that really shocked me - in the '20s, they were big on the idea of using social humiliation as a way of selling products. So Listerine, which originally was I think for cleaning floors, you know - the - and I think it was also used for battlefield injuries and so forth. So it was this, you know, just this product and so it had the idea of advertising halitosis, bad breath, and then trying to make people feel ashamed about it and offer Listerine as the cure. Their phrase for advertising to women was always a bridesmaid, never a bride.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WU: And the implication was because you had bad breath and no one would tell you that no one would want to marry you. They were very tough in the 19 - early advertising of getting to people's anxieties and fears and making you basically feel unworthy and then needing this product to make yourself be who you should be. You know, and maybe it's better that we don't have bad breath, but the coerciveness of it is quite striking.

GROSS: In writing about the history of advertising, you also write about some propaganda, including how Hitler really understood some of the same techniques that advertisers understood. And you write (reading) Hitler understood the demagogues' essential principle to teach or persuade is far more difficult than to stir emotion.

WU: Right.

GROSS: And I'm wondering if you feel like you see that playing out in American politics?

WU: (Laughter) One thing I'll say about Hitler that many people don't realize - and I don't mean to besmirch the industry - but he did get his start, not only as an artist, but as an advertising man writing art for advertisements. And more than anyone else, as you said, he completely understood the union between government propaganda and between - and advertising, that they were in some ways the same thing. In fact, the big steps forward for advertising, especially after World War I were when government just began employing the tools of advertising for its own purposes to get people to join the army and other things.

So there's no real difference between the techniques used. And Hitler, as you said, had this understanding that you speak to people's deepest, darkest emotions and give them voice that can be incredibly effective. So what do we see in politics? That's - and I want to be clear I'm not associating anyone with Hitler themselves - what do we see in contemporary politics that might be said to follow from these lessons?

One thing that all the totalitarian states did was make the great leader's face everywhere. And I will say in this campaign, one candidate in particular has been incredibly successful. Now, he doesn't control the media, but Donald Trump has been incredibly successful in having his face appear everywhere. You cannot go a day without seeing that face somewhere maybe 10 times. Sometimes you go to a website - a news website. It's repeated 40 times and through an operation of a private media, we somehow have replicated some of the visuals of a totalitarian state.

I want to say, however, one thing our media has done which didn't happen in other totalitarian states is it has very effectively stood up to Donald Trump who has obvious fascist tendencies and his - who's a temptation like all authoritarian figures to try to crush the media or make it obey him. As that - the media has, in fact, stood up to him and has refused to bow out or cower.

GROSS: So you are best known for coining the term net neutrality.

WU: Sure.

GROSS: And let me let you describe because you'll do it better than I will what net neutrality means.

WU: Net neutrality is the principle that the service providers who control or access, who own the pipes, should not favor some content over another. It's, you know, an even playing field for stuff on the Internet, and, you know, I think it's very important to the medium that it have a rough quality among contents. Everyone has their shot.

GROSS: So that one, like, site can't have faster...

WU: So we're not like the Chinese Internet where the telecom providers, people who own the pipes, block many sites outright. Sometimes they favor some government sites over other sites. It's a noncensorship principle for the people who own the pipes.

GROSS: So in February of 2015, the FCC ruled in favor of net neutrality, and they reclassified broadband access as a telecommunications service. So would you explain what that means and where we are now with net neutrality?

WU: Sure. The FCC in - as you just said, now has in place a net neutrality rule very strong rule. I think it was courageous of the Obama administration to pass it. And so right now it is illegal for a service provider to censor or block a site because they don't like it or to privilege someone who pays them extra money. So it's basically a level playing field. I think it was a great victory. It doesn't solve all the problems of our time, but I think we've gotten a much better place.

GROSS: But that's being appealed isn't it?

WU: It was appealed, and the government won.

GROSS: OK.

WU: They're trying to get the Supreme Court interested, but I don't think they'll take the case.

GROSS: On John Oliver's first season on HBO, he did a big thing on net neutrality, and the FCC was just, like deluged with emails telling it that it should rule in favor of net neutrality. Did you work with with John Oliver at all on that? What was the experience of watching that play out like for you?

WU: What my experience was, as I realize, that John Oliver is a much better communicator than I am.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WU: I've been trying (laughter).

GROSS: It's such a difficult - you know, it's...

WU: Yes.

GROSS: ...There's so much kind of bureaucracy involved with the whole concept of net neutrality and like technical stuff. So yeah - he made it like funny and lively...

WU: So he had this great thing...

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

WU: No, I'll say that, you know, here I'd been trying to explain this to the public for 10 years or more. And, you know, fast lane, slow lane, and he came up with this, I think, on the air. We - public broadcasting we can't use obscenities, but he basically said it's very clear what this is. This is cable company F-ery. I'll skip the obscenity. And I was like, wow, he really kind of captured it there, and he was like if you want to change this, you really need to write to the FCC. And he made it very clear.

You know, the only reason net neutrality is controversial is because it's complicated. If you understand it, if you get the idea that, you know, AT&T, Verizon or Comcast cable should just give the Internet you want when you pay for it and not try to block some sites - everyone's like of course. Why would I want anything differently? So I learned from that is that, you know, the man has a talent for communicating complicated subjects that I wish I had. I try, but he's better.

GROSS: Since you're a lawyer and you pay so much attention to the Internet, I'm wondering what you think about how to control trolling? You know, the whole like, you know, free speech versus trolling.

WU: Yeah. You know, trolling is an ancient problem. It's been around as long as there has been media. There's always people - it doesn't take many - who have a different psychological makeup than most of us who really get joy out of provoking. They don't always believe the things they say, they just like to watch people go crazy. You know, I knew people like that in elementary school - bullies of one kind or another. So there is this inherent human instinct that the usual way you control trolling is you force people to use their real identities. So there's less trolling on Facebook, for example.

But the problem with that - there's a different problem which is when you're trapped in your own identity and everything is really you, then you feel less freedom to sort of explore who you want to be. So I think it's kind of something we're stuck with as long as humans are the way we are. There's always going to be a tradeoff between trolling and anonymity, and I guess that's the way life will be. And you can manage it, but you can't cure it.

GROSS: All right. Well, Tim Wu, thank you so much for talking with us. I enjoyed that.

WU: Thank you.

GROSS: Tim Wu's new book about the history of advertising is called "The Attention Merchants." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.