We’re told we’re living in an attention economy. Sites and platforms harvest our data, then use it to place targeted ads in our path. But how does this business model actually work? What are the processes and practices taking place behind the scenes that make this lucrative arrangement possible?
We spoke to Shengwu Li, an assistant professor of economics at Harvard, to learn more about the deep machinery of the attention economy.
"Presumably the time and the IP address are logged by the New York Times, but how do they know I’m female and twenty-five to thirty-five years old?
They’re guessing that based on your cookies, which are just strings of text that contain information about your online activity. But the New York Times may not be able to interpret your cookies. So they’ll pass the cookies on to the auctioneer, who passes them on to the bidders, and the bidders will interpret them.
Now maybe the bidders can understand your cookies better than the New York Times. Maybe they can make a pretty good guess that you’ve been looking for a ski holiday or that you've been looking for a divorce lawyer. And from that they'll compute how much they think your eyeballs are worth to them. They'll send their bid back to the auctioneer, who determines the winner and then sends the winning impression back to the New York Times. That's how you get an ad for a ski holiday or a divorce lawyer one tenth of a second later.
And so every time I go to the New York Times it is taking all this information and sending it to third parties who send it along to fourth parties?
Yes. Whenever you're accessing one of the many websites that sells advertising in this way, all of your cookies are being made public in this fashion. I think people don't realize that this is part of their everyday internet experience.
Is there any government oversight of this process? Who's even supposed to be regulating that?
No, there's essentially no oversight. It's the Wild West out there."