Attention-Whore-Deficit-Disorder

A friend this week asked me to do a blog post about Youtube pranksters. You know the ones; people who video themselves fondling strangers’ beards, saying deeply inappropriate things to get offended reactions from little old ladies and (sadly, this was a thing) a guy who pretended to accidentally drop his son off a balcony in order to video the reaction from his wife.

Well Rob, I decided to go one better and try and tackle all of the worst things about social media, all in one post. What’s more, I aim to suggest some solutions that actually limit its power over our lives to a point where it barely registers at all.

You may have noticed that I haven’t linked to any of the above and there’s a simple explanation:

Every time you watch one of these videos, you make the moron who created it a little bit richer.

In a world where our lives are saturated in information: power, money and influence depend on who can attract the most attention. Attention has easy metrics: all those likes, views, clicks and shares fund an economy that does not care why you’re watching or listening; it only wants to consume your time as you consume content.

Sometimes that’s a fair trade and sometimes it isn’t, but let’s be clear:

The content we’re absorbing isn’t ‘free’. It’s paid for with the seconds, minutes and hours of our lives that remain.

Our minds and lives are drowning in a sea of shitty content. Facebook narcissists, attention whores, pop-ups. Endless adverts. People deciding to tell you what they cooked for tea. People letting you know that they’ve been to the gym. Lifestyle brags both humble and blatant. “This flight to the Bahamas is going to be a killer”. People who share 300 holiday snaps with so little quality-control that they all blend into one sand / sea-based mass that makes you feel like you’ve been on the same boring, sit-on-the-same-beach-and-do-nothing holiday as they have, and are now secretly desperate to come home again (Or maybe that’s just me).

In case you were wondering, this is what everyone else sees when you take a selfie.

In case you were wondering, this is what everyone else sees when you take a selfie.

And the worst part is that in spite of this, it doesn’t seem to stop us coming back for more.

Such is the scale of the problem that I often find myself trapped in a stimulation loop: checking Facebook, then twitter, then my email, then Youtube, then tumblr, then wordpress, then the BBC news website and then back round to Facebook again. By the time I’ve opted out of the loop, 10 entire minutes have passed that I’m never getting back.

Recently, I installed an app that tells you how long you’ve spent on your phone that day. The results were pretty terrifying. On an average day? 2-3 hours. All those short burst of taps and swipes can really add up. And that’s ignoring laptop-time, lost and distracted on the internet.

How much of that is functional? Where I’m actually communicating something or consuming meaningful content that someone else has created?

Definitely not 2-3 hour’s worth.

I’d guess that most of it is simply me checking whether something new has happened or avoiding the effort it takes to focus my attention on something more productive.

Distraction is the peril of the age. So no wonder our attention spans have sucked all the substance out the mainstream media’s news coverage.

There was an actual video on the BBC website recently (I shit you not) called ‘the situation in Syria in sixty seconds’. As if an explanation, of an extraordinarily nuanced element of middle-eastern politics, that warranted MORE than sixty seconds would be too much for our fragile little minds to handle.

And then there’s the worst of the worst: “Please send us your tweets, texts and emails and give us your totally unqualified opinion on complex global events”.

So there I am trying to get my head around an already fairly confusing macro-economic concept and what do I get? I get Bob from Durham telling me what he thinks we should do to cut the deficit. And he’s given the same fucking airtime as a professor of fiscal policy from the London School of Economics!

Well, fuck you Bob. No one gives a shit what your opinion is, because, and I know this is controversial, your totally unqualified opinion is of NO USE TO ANYONE.

I’m told by friends in the media that this makes current affairs more democratic; that it somehow presents access to facts and truth to people who would otherwise be put off by the complexity and tedium of ‘the news’. What I respect in this viewpoint is that the competitive struggle for ratings is of Darwinian proportions. You are trying to remain the most popular source for content and news in a world where literally any idiot can have a go. The terror of the citizen journalist scares the life (and arguably the quality) out of all the major broadcasters.

And this leads me to the crux of my rant.

#NoFilter

Once upon a time, our information and our content was brought to us by gatekeepers; people who created, vetted and filtered content according to its quality and veracity and, admittedly at times, the snobbery, prejudice and politics of the broadcaster or publisher. The power of the filter was also the power of propaganda and in some countries today this still remains the primary source of the state’s power over its people.

But now, in the west at least, those days are gone. Be it news, music, books or television, no one is really in charge of what you get to read, see and hear. Snootiness has been weakened, pirates prevail and the means of creative production seized by one and all.

Yet basking in all this glorious freedom; that we can watch, hear and read whatever we want, we are also seduced by the notion that anyone can BE watched, heard and paid attention to. Voyeurism and exhibitionism go hand in hand. A blinkered vanity (of which I’m not myself immune) seems to possess people with the notion that just because you can expose yourself to the world, the world will take an interest.

Me: "My Dinner is awesome!"  Everyone Else: "Nobody cares!"

Me: “My Dinner is awesome!”
Everyone Else: “Nobody cares!”

Who are those hundreds of selfies on Instagram really for? For many of us (some of us more than others), the problem isn’t how much of our private lives we share, but how little of it is interesting to anyone but us. If you’re an attractive young woman on the other hand, then you might want to ask yourself that very same question in a totally different way…

To an extent, in moments of quiet reflection, even the worst of us knows this pointless pouring of our hearts into the abyss of cyberspace to be true. So the response of some is to take things to the next level:

If you’re bereft of talent, skill or intelligence then in the mad war for being noticed how are you supposed to compete?

Answer: shock tactics. Find the cheapest, dirtiest, easiest way to turn yourself into click-bait.

The variants are endless, and at the end of that long depressing line of egotism is the Youtube prankster.

But there is still hope.

In this gold rush for attention, its easy to forget that there has never been a time where we have had more control over the content we consume and the content we can share or create.

To take this one step further: what we share and what we pay attention to are completely up to us.

We don’t have to consume all the media that other people share, we don’t have to share everything about ourselves and by taking control of both we can have best of everything.

CONQUERING ‘FOMO’

Many thousands of years ago, human beings lived in small hunter-gatherer tribes of a few hundred people. As social animals our success as a species has rested on our ability to stay tuned into the group; to bond, to spot threats and opportunities, to share this information around, and keeping up with all the gossip and the in-jokes has always been a central part of that. Knowing who’s sleeping with who and who sits on each side of an argument could make the difference between passing on your genes and being shunned by the entire clan.

If you think about it, why else would anyone watch the news? A negative set of often scary things that you can do little or anything about. If we weren’t so sensitive to threats we probably wouldn’t still be here.

Nowadays this instinct is known as FOMO (or the Fear Of Missing Out). Much as I hate the acronym, it pithily describes the major obstacle to our victory over a junk media diet.

STEP ONE: TAKE BACK TIME

I’d like to challenge you to try an experiment. During the next week, spend the first 3 days making a note of how many times you check or respond to social media. Then for the next 3 days decide to check social media once a day. On day 7 reflect on the difference between the nagging fear that you were missing something against the reality of what you actually missed. I’m betting what you’ll find is that your primal instinct to stay in touch with ‘the tribe’ had little connection with the reality. Ask yourself the question: what could I achieve with an extra hour a day?

STEP TWO: FILTER OUT THE CRAP

Next up, spend a week paying attention and making a note of your sources of media: your newsfeeds on twitter, Facebook, the TV you watch, the radio or music you listen to and the websites you visit.

Do the people in your newsfeed share content you value most of the time? Things that make you smile, laugh, or make your day better? Or are they sharing a compilation of their breakfast, brags and bullshit? I promise you that the morbid fascination with their idiocy won’t be something you’ll miss if you simply click ‘unfollow’.

Does the stuff you watch or listen to make you feel better or worse? Does it improve your life or waste it? Your attention is valuable. Your attention is precious. Why should it be pissed away on ‘20 things only cat lovers will understand’?

Me: "Cheeky pint? Don't mind if I do!" Everyone else: "Still at work. Bore off!"

Me: “Cheeky pint? Don’t mind if I do!”
Everyone else: “Still at work. Bore off!”

STEP THREE: SAME NEED, DIFFERENT DEED

The need to stay connected with others and keep informed about the world will never go away. Its in our DNA. So you can’t just go cold turkey: you need to wean yourself onto a substitute. Everyone’s tastes and interests are different, but there are so many different podcasts, channels, content providers and blogs out there (hint hint) that we needn’t waste a single moment on something that isn’t up to scratch. Don’t settle, just swap.

If you end up finding like I do that there’s more high quality music, books, TV, films and articles than you ever have the time to experience then good: that’s exactly how it should be. That’s all the evidence you need that you’re making the most of the best time in history for a curious mind to be alive.

STEP FOUR: GO FILTER YOURSELF!

Before you post or share anything on the big wide web ask yourself these 2 questions:

  1. What value does this add to the lives of the people who’ll experience it? i.e. Why should anyone care?
  2. Am I happy for this to be experienced by anyone and everyone (including my own future grand children) until the end of time / human extinction?
Me: "We're at Glastonbury!" Everyone else: "I didn't get tickets. I hope you get trench foot."

Me: “We’re at Glastonbury!”
Everyone else: “I didn’t get tickets. I hope you get trench foot.”

And finally, one last word on internet outrage. Attention only works in positives. If I ask you not to think about a purple dinosaur then that’s exactly what you’ll see. If you want to steer the fame, attention and publicity away from those who don’t deserve it, then much like the dark side, voicing your hatred only makes them stronger. Try this instead: when something you despise turns up on your timeline, seek out the positive opposite and share that with the world instead.

I now await a deluge of articles on cats.

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