Thomas Rodham Wells writes in Advertisers Should Pay You that attention suffers from a tragedy of the commons:
Taken moment by moment [attention] is a finite resource, like a sandwich, whose consumption by any party means that other parties can’t consume it, including the person themselves (Rivalrous). At the same time our current institutions make it difficult for any party to prevent others from consuming it (Non-excludable). Our attention is a valuable commodity and a vast number of businesses are determined to dig it out of us and sell it before someone else does.
Wells suggests three categories of interventions to manage the attention commons.
First, ‘attention preserves’, large spaces which would be off-limits to advertisers. I suggest it would be in this spirit to make advertising not subject to copyright. The preserve that this would make off-limits to advertisers would not be a physical space, but the commons of free speech. I’ve previously mentioned a related Banksy rant.
Second, market interventions to realize property right in attention for individual, such that using attention requires individual’s permission, e.g., ad-blocking. Also in this vein but broader is the concept of Vendor Relationship Management (cf. CRM), and mostly narrower, projects to mitigate privacy loss that goes with ubiquitous targeted advertising; Aloodo is particularly interesting for being supply-side.
I’ll quote the third in whole for its dismissal of arrangements dependent on copyright:
other, more socially efficient, ways of funding services that can be scaled up at almost zero cost. This is particularly important now, because zero marginal cost is what the internet is all about. Access to these digital services shouldn’t be dependent only on the commercial models of advertising vs subscriptions. Journalism for example is too important to be reduced to clickbait and abject dependence on Facebook and Apple. Other industries, like academic publishing, use a subscription model that excludes a vast proportion of possible readers at the profit maximising price.
From an economics perspective, this is idiocy. We are leaving social value on the table. We should be looking for alternatives, whether different funding models (like micro-payments, or a spotify for books and academic journals, or voucher systems), different funding sources (like pledge drives), or different economic structures imposed by governments (such as restrictions on 3rd party sales of your information, or democratising the governance of large social media companies like Facebook).
Well, leaving aside that ‘spotify for X’ is not a different funding model.
Wells states that terrestrial broadcast is the best case for advertising as people can easily choose to not listen or view based on their preferences for or against advertising. But there are far better cases, in which people direct their attention toward advertising, e.g., trade and local publications and sites like Craigslist read and visited primarily or even entirely for the ads. These are an inspiration for my ad-related idea, which at the same time is an intervention of Wells’ first and third categories, and would likely promote second category interventions for competitive reasons.
By the way, I highly recommend Wells’ blog, The Philosopher’s Beard. Each post considers an important issue as thoughtfully and interestingly as advertising in the one quoted above.