The Marketplace of Attention: How Audiences Take Shape in a Digital Age
By James G. Webster

The MIT Press
280 pages; $29.95

Some Facebook users were outraged this summer when they learned that the world’s biggest social network had, during a week in 2012, manipulated their emotions by tweaking its News Feed algorithm. Researchers showed some users mostly upbeat posts, and others only depressing updates. The result? Those with happy News Feeds posted more positive things, and the negative feeds prompted more bummer posts. When news of this willful audience manipulation broke, users were shocked. “Facebook Totally Screwed With a Bunch of People in the Name of Science,” read a Time headline. A senator even asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate.

But most tech-industry experts shrugged, noting that Facebook’s privacy policy allows it to undertake experiments like this, even when it isn’t doing so in the name of science. “[G]uess what, everybody: if you use the Internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site,” wrote OkCupid cofounder Christian Rudder. “That’s how websites work.” He went on to explain a few experiments in audience manipulation that OkCupid has conducted. It’s pretty common for Web developers to do “A/B” testing, showing two different design configurations to two different groups of users to determine which catches their attention and keeps them on the site longer. Is that catering to digital crowds or manipulating them? It can be tough to tell.

It’s as if we want the bots to understand us, but also to indicate somehow that they can never fully understand us, that we are more than a collection of clicks.

This has always been a tension in journalism: Do we exist to give readers what they want, or are we here to tell them what we think is important for them to know? Who’s driving whom? In the pre-internet days, this was mostly a topic of conversation among editors behind closed doors. And the answer, at most mainstream news outlets, at least, was that journalism exists to give readers both what they want and what we think they need. Some things of no news value made their way into the paper just because readers liked them (the crossword, the comics, recipes for ranch dip), and others were there mostly because editors deemed them important (coverage of wastewater-treatment meetings, wire reports on conflicts in tiny African nations). Save for the occasional piece of service journalism, most of the pure reader-bait didn’t make it anywhere near the front page. The business model meant that it didn’t matter—subscribers were all buying the same package of content. And if readers had opinions about the hard-news content, they were free to write a letter to the editor. Mostly, readers’ desires were an abstraction.

Thanks to data and analytics, readers’ desires—by which I mean their clicks—are now of concrete importance. News outlets can see exactly which consumers are coming to them, and for what. In theory, they can use that information to convince advertisers to spend money on them, and to keep even more readers coming. In order to do that, though, they must consider the search engines and social-media networks those readers use every day. Editors have been tailoring headlines to Google’s needs for almost a decade. The homepage, traditionally thought of as the A1 of a news organization’s digital presence, is increasingly irrelevant as more and more of those readers come in through the side door of article pages, having followed links from social media. Very few readers get the total package anymore. And so even on an editorial level, our understanding of audiences, and what motivates them to give us their time and attention, has never been more important.

Ann Friedman is a magazine editor who loves the internet. She lives in Los Angeles

This story was published in the September/October 2014 issue of CJR.