Book Review: The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our HeadsThe Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a fascinating history of the industry, people, and tactics that relentlessly pursue your attention. The book covers the advances of this industry as it keeps pace with advancing technology, from propaganda posters, radio, movies, television, email, the web, and most recently on social media and to the ‘fourth screen’ the mobile devices that rarely leave our grip. It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone that you are constantly being advertised to, but it’s still very eye opening to learn the history and evolution of the efforts to get inside your head, eye opening and unnerving.

I began reading this book the weekend before Thanksgiving. And on an unrelated whim, on Thanksgiving Eve, I decided I would focus on enjoying the company of having my kids home for the holiday, and take a ‘Facebook Fast’ for three days. I’m guilty of being pretty much addicted to Facebook, obsessively checking in, sharing another selfie, forwarding a ‘real’ news article, and liking and commenting on the sharing by others. The notion of opting out of Facebook for three days felt much like a drinker’s (which I am) going on the wagon for a few days, just to prove to themselves that they can. Well, I did, and it was find. I should have turned off the notifications from Facebook on my phone, which worked to suck me back in, but I resisted.

And being off of Facebook, helped allow me to more quickly tear through this engaging book, which coincidentally, in it’s final lines, advised doing exactly what I had done,

“If we desire a future that avoids the enslavement of the propaganda state as well as the narcosis of the consumer and celebrity culture, we must first acknowledge the preciousness of our attention and resolve not to part with it as cheaply or unthinkingly as we so often have. And then we must act, individually and collectively, to make our attention our own again, and so reclaim ownership of the very experience of living.”

My only wish for improvement would have been if the book had included a section of photos and illustrations. Frequently when reading, I couldn’t help but tear my attention from the deep reading I was enjoying in order to Google a wartime poster, or a person, or breakthrough advertising campaign in order to better know and appreciate what I was reading about. All things which should have been included in the book.

Despite that minor quibble, I recommend this book highly. And I expect that my successful experiment of a Facebook Fast is one that I’ll repeat. Not just to prove that I can. But to reclaim ownership of MY very experience of living.

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This Salsa Sucks!


Coca-Cola paved the way. When a company launches a new version of their product, and it sucks, they sheepishly re-offer the original version and call it “Classic”, as Coca-Cola did 31 years ago after customer backlash following the launch of New Coke.

I recently learned that Salsa has done the same with their online advocacy tools.

I’m not new to Salsa. I actually worked for a competing vendor, NGP VAN, for seven years. Since then, I have had extensive opportunities to use Salsa’s tools. I learned through that experience that they didn’t suck. Salsa had strengths and weaknesses when compared against what I was familiar with, but I came to learn and appreciate what was good about them, and to use them effectively.

When I recently started in a new job and sought online advocacy tools to use, I did a quick review of alternatives, but lazily went with Salsa as it was what I had used most recently. I had no reason to suspect that I was purchasing something different than the Salsa tools familiar to me. Their website describes simply “Online Advocacy Software”. So when I signed a contract purchasing “SalsaEngage”, I expected I was buying the familiar tools that I told their sales rep I had used for years. When I first launched and began to explore them, I found a different looking interface, but just assumed they had been upgraded (I’ve looked at that ‘I want the new interface’ login screen checkbox for a long time already).

Instead, over the course of two months, I found that SalsaEngage was a completely new product. And I found it to suck. From the very start, the most fundamental first step of importing new contact records and attempting to assign them to a group code (now called a segment) proved ridiculously challenging. Attempts to learn how to do this from Salsa’s support only compounded my frustration… “Yes, I have already read the online documentation that it took you two days to refer me to, and No, it still doesn’t answer the question I asked.”

That was only the beginning. I soon learned that the only batch option for making edits to multiple records was to DELETE THEM ALL (maybe adding a group code, or updating some other common field would be useful instead of deleting them all?). I also found that the reporting on A/B testing of emails in one view didn’t match the results shown in another view of Salsa’s interface (who clicked? who unsubscribed? If Salsa Engage has these answers, I couldn’t find them.)

My patience exhausted, I informed Salsa that I wished to terminate our contract and requested a refund for the remaining 10 months of unused service for the year that we had prepaid. And I received the following reply,

“Thank you for your message. Yes, we did receive your message and I was speaking with my supervisor before getting back to you. SalsaEngage is a stripped down, very on-rails tools that we offer for users who are not looking for a ton of customization or flexibility with their email, advocacy, and fundraising needs. After reviewing your concerns and frustrations, I believe that SalsaClassic would be a much better fit for you and your organization, and would be more than happy to setup a time to show you a demo of the tool to ensure that it can and will meet your needs. What’s more, after speaking to my supervisor, I can offer you SalsaClassic at the same price you were paying for SalsaEngage, which is at a discount.”

And there it was, Classic Coke! For the first time a distinction was made between the product I was given, SalsaEngage, and the product I believed I had purchased, Salsa “Classic”. Despite the fact that I had described myself as an experienced Salsa user, there had been no previous mention that I was buying a “stripped down” version of the tools I expected. Would I now like to receive what I had originally asked for? My response was simply, “No! Thanks for the offer, but NO! It’s too late.” To which I received the below reply from my Salsa “Client Success Agent”:

I completely understand the frustrations that you experienced and I want to apologize again that you were not shown the SalsaClassic tool initially when you were looking at our services. However, after speaking with the upper management team, because your organization signed a contract with Salsa for 12 months of service, we are not going to be able to cancel your account. We can, however, offer you the SalsaClassic platform, at the rate you’re currently paying for SalsaEngage – and, I got approval for us to credit your organization for the two months that you spent on SalsaEngage that you feel like was a waste.

Really Salsa? Is this how you do business?

Contractually, Salsa may be able enforce our 12-month contract. Ethically, they misled me into purchasing a product that was not what I had every reason to expect I was getting. Then only after I had wasted my time learning how badly SalsaEngage sucks, offered me their never before mentioned “Classic” version.

I let my Salsa “Client Success Agent” know that I wanted to speak with someone in their “upper management”, and after a week of silence, I repeated that request. I was contacted by Salsa’s “Director of Client Success”, and made clear that the only successful outcome for me would be a terminated contract with a refund of the unused amount. He said that would be a “heavy lift”, but that he’d see what he can do. That was a month ago, and I’ve heard nothing back.

I wish Salsa had done the right thing by offering me an apology and a refund. They chose instead to hold me hostage as a customer, bound either to an inadequate product or an outdated one. They can do that. My responsibility to our community is to share this story of my experience as a cautionary tale.

Something’s gone very wrong in the Labs. And I want you to know, in my humble opinion, this Salsa Sucks.

The Clumsy Stormtrooper

Home again after a 40-day work trip abroad, my lovely wife took the day off for my first day back, to start a wonderful long weekend to reacquaint. And what did she suggest? “We should watch ALL of the Star Wars movies to be ready for the opening of the new one”! (My wife is awesome). I’m no fanatic, but I know my Star Wars pretty well. I know that Han shot first. I’ve heard the Wilhelm Scream in there. I’ve had lengthy debates with friends about whether Luke ever returned to Dagobah to complete his Jedi training after ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. I’ve even followed recent debates about whether the destruction of Alderaan was justified. I can still quote lines from the original like it’s memorized, and I often do. So, not a fanatic, but still I think, Star Wars savvy.

So tonight we mix our drinks, make our popcorn, and settle in to watch the original Star Wars, Episode IV, A New Hope. We addressed the question of the proper order (release order, sequence order) and she doesn’t know it yet, but I think we’ll try the Machete order, but I digress.

The point is, I’ve seen this movie about a thousand times, but there’s always something new. Tonight, I think for the first time, I spotted this; while Han, Chewie and Luke are off on the Death Star detention level, stuck in a trash compactor, C-3PO and R2-D2 are barricaded in a control room that Stormtroopers are breaking into. Watch closely the Stormtrooper on the right, as they enter the control room.

Wow! How did I miss that before? Curious, I turn to Google, and not surprisingly, I find I’m about the last one to notice. The YouTube video I’ve embedded here has been viewed almost five million times. And this article in the Star Wars Wookiepedia explains the history of the head bump, and reveals that George Lucas added a sound effect in the 2004 DVD release to actually point out the gaffe, and I guess to remind us that Stormtroopers are human too.

Anyway, we’re looking forward to the next installment that we hope to catch over the holidays, and we hope to hear a Wilhelm Scream and to see a good head bump or two.

Tell Chris to Walk the Dog!

Hey Friends,

I’m playing around with some online advocacy tools and I created this petition as an experiment. If you’re reading this, help me out and sign the petition.


Chris (and yes, I’ll walk the dog, I promise)

UPDATE: I walked the dog.


Goodbye Family Minivan

I don’t care much about cars. I’m definitely not anything at all what you would call a ‘car guy’. My requirements for a car, as Steve Martin so succinctly put it, “Four fucking wheels and a seat!”. But we just sold our car, and the truth is, I’m feeling pretty sentimental about it.

We purchased our 2001 Honda Odyssey used way back when it had about 20,000 miles on it, and we just sold it with 208,074 miles. And among those miles in between, we raised our family it it. Local miles to school and soccer games, family trips to the Outer Banks, and home to Illinois. It drove us through big cities, and it delivered us to campgrounds. Our kids learned to drive it, and it sat loyally in the driveway every winter, posing for the obligatory buried in snow photos without complaint.

But as we empty our nest, and downsize our belongings, we no longer need an old minivan. We considered many options; shooting it (don’t own a gun), living in it (down by the river), abandoning it (probably traceable DNA to be found on lost french fries and cheerios on the floor), or selling it. I’m very happy that we found a buyer, a family with five kids, and dad’s a mechanic. They live close buy, so it’s gonna be kinda weird seeing our minivan on the road sometimes. But it will be nice to know, it’s found a new family to serve.

Here’s a few photos from over the years:

A Driving Odessey

Boardwalk Empire at the National Archives

So a few months back, talking TV shows over a few beers, my buddy TJ recommended the HBO Series ‘Boardwalk Empire’ to me. I had a vague notion it was a period gangster type of thing, and having recently read a few good books about the prohibition era, TJ’s endorsement pushed me over the edge to check it out. Because who doesn’t have time for another TV show in their life? Fortunately, modern life means missing a show doesn’t mean missing it forever, or even waiting for reruns. We can consume our TV on demand. And so I’ve been binging on Boardwalk Empire lately. No one else in the family is watching it, so it’s either late night solo shows, or commuter episodes snuck in on my iPhone on the bus (thank you grandfathered unlimited data plan!).

Anyway, I’m halfway through season 4 of the 5 season show and really loving it, when I got an email from the National Archives about a free ‘behind the scenes’ discussion with the author of the book that inspired the series, the writer who developed it for HBO, two actors from the show, and the visual effects supervisor from the show. It was a very interesting and entertaining event, and much to the Archives credit, the whole thing was live on YouTube and remains there now. If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll really enjoy watching this. But you had to be there to get a signed copy of the book 🙂

Book Review: The Great Agnostic

The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American FreethoughtThe Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought by Susan Jacoby

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first learned about the American politician, orator and ‘great agnostic’ Robert Ingersoll after reading a couple of books about American Freethinkers back in 2005 and 2006. I similarly enjoyed this biography about him, a book which now has many dog eared pages for particularly noteworthy quotes or passages. Among my favorites from Ingersoll is his creed,

Happiness is the only good.
The time to be happy is now.
The place to be happy is here.
The way to be happy is to make others so.

It’s opportune that I finished this book while near Peoria, I will try and pay a visit to his statue in Glen Oak Park while I’m here, and must later visit his resting place in Arlington National Cemetery. Robert, you have a standing invite to attend ‘Chris’ Afterlife Dream Party of Historical Figures’. I hope you’ll be there, oh wait… nevermind.

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UPDATE: We made our visit to Glen Oak Park and paid homage to Ingersoll!



20 Years Ago Today – Sen. Kennedy Announces 1st Congressional Website

At it’s current rate of growth it is expected at at some point this month, June of 2014, the number of websites on the Internet will surpass the one billion mark. The first website was launched on August 6, 1991 by the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee.  By mid-1994 there were 2,738 websites on the Web. And by the end of that year there were more than 10,000.

On June 2, 1994, the office of Senator Kennedy released a press release announcing the launch of their official website, the first for any member of Congress. It was developed and hosted by the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The same release shared a public email address for the Senator, joining just a handful of Senators accepting email from the public by that point. And it also detailed the Senator’s previous means of online outreach to his constituents, including a network of dial up bulletin boards, ftp and gopher servers, and postings in Usenet newsgroups.

Press release announcing the launch of Sen. Kennedy’s website, June 2, 1994.
The June 2, 1994 press release announcing the launch of Sen. Kennedy's website. 940602_emk_web_pr-page-002

Being old enough to remember, and being able to remember, are two different things. And it’s truly difficult to recall the World Wide Web in mid-1994. Before, craigslist and eBay. Before Netflix, Google or PayPal. Before, and only shortly after Yahoo. Every baby born since is arriving into a much more webbed world than their parents ever imagined. Every minute of the day approximately 255 babies are born world wide. And in that same minute on the World Wide Web, approximately 571 new websites are created.

When the Senate’s own website was launched almost a year and a half later in October 1995, Senator John Warner of Virginia, then chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, thanked the many staff of the Rules Committee and Sergeant at Arms and Secretary’s offices involved in the effort. And he also included, “Additional thanks to many of those Senators and their high-technology staff members who were early adopters of this emerging technology, and who indeed gave us the impetus to move forward to this day.”

Twenty years ago today I was 28 years old, and working for Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts as his Systems Administrator. I was excited by the possibilities of exploring the intersection of technology and politics, and I was very fortunate to collaborate with others much smarter than myself to push the boundaries of what had yet been done. Jeff Hecker, Jock Gill, John Mallery, Eric Loeb, and Laura Quinn were the firsts among so many others I’ve been able to work with over more than 20 years in online politics, and I’m very grateful to each of them.

The first long distance telegraph message from the U.S. Capitol was sent by its inventor Samuel Morse, asking his recipient the deep question, “What hath God wrought?”. He didn’t get an answer, but a question in reply, “What is the news from Washington?”. Today, much of the news from Washington comes from our modern telegraph, the Internet. How will it arrive in another 20 years, or another 100?

When Senator Kennedy passed away in 2009, I wrote this remembrance about his impact on online politics. If he had not become the first member of Congress on the web 20 years ago, some other member would eventually have been some time later. But Kennedy was, and among the very many much larger accomplishments in his long career in public service, it’s still one worth remembering.

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