The Marketplace of Attention
Feature films, television shows, homemade videos, tweets, blogs, and breaking news: digital media offer an always-accessible, apparently inexhaustible supply of entertainment and information. Although choices seems endless, public attention is not. How do digital media find the audiences they need in an era of infinite choice? In The Marketplace of Attention, James Webster explains how audiences take shape in the digital age.
Webster describes the factors that create audiences, including the preferences and habits of media users, the role of social networks, the resources and strategies of media providers, and the growing impact of media measures—from ratings to user recommendations. He incorporates these factors into one comprehensive framework: the marketplace of attention. In doing so, he shows that the marketplace works in ways that belie our greatest hopes and fears about digital media.
Some observers claim that digital media empower a new participatory culture; others fear that digital media encourage users to retreat to isolated enclaves. Webster shows that public attention is at once diverse and concentrated—that users move across a variety of outlets, producing high levels of audience overlap. So although audiences are fragmented in ways that would astonish midcentury broadcasting executives, Webster argues that this doesn’t signal polarization. He questions whether our preferences are immune from media influence, and he describes how our encounters with media might change our tastes. In the digital era’s marketplace of attention, Webster claims, we typically encounter ideas that cut across our predispositions. In the process, we will remake the marketplace of ideas and reshape the twenty-first century public sphere.
About the Author
James G. Webster is Professor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University.
“Scholarly discussions of audiences are as fragmented as the readers and viewers they analyze. Theories of selective exposure, bubbles, preference formation, rational ignorance, uses and gratification, scheduling patterns, and counter-programming all vie for attention. This book skillfully draws these theories and evidence together to answer a simple but vexing question: how much do we know about how audiences are generated, and what does that imply about the marketplace of ideas?”
—James T. Hamilton, Hearst Professor of Communication, Stanford University
“A thorough and thought-provoking primer on how the interplay of users and structures affects the creation of audiences that are neither as participatory nor as polarized as some digital theorists have imagined.”
—Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania
“Webster provides an astute explanation of how the transformation from a media world with limited choice to one of bountiful supply is affecting audiences, media, and society. He focuses on how individuals exercise personal choice and create discrete consumption patterns, and what is now required to garner their attention. He shows that traditional conceptualizations of audiences are no longer expedient and argues for a new understanding of how audience and social needs can be evaluated and met. This is an important book for understanding media audiences and behavior.”
—Robert G. Picard, Director of Research, Reuters Institute, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford
“An engaging, coolheaded look at the changing media landscape. There have been many breathless accounts of how new media might be changing the world, predicting we are on the verge of either utopia or disaster. Webster pulls together hard evidence and frontier research to tell us what actually is happening, cutting through the hyperbole and offering a balanced account of where we have been and where we are going.”
—Matthew Gentzkow, Richard O. Ryan Professor of Economics, University of Chicago Booth School of Business