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Monday, March 11, 2019

A mess of attention

My daughters love Youtube explainer/demo/unpackaging videos. What's worrisome is that they are absorbing Youtubers' obsession with subscribes, likes, etc. When my daughters make their own videos showing off cool stuff they can do or make, they always start "Hey guys, it's me!" and they end "Don't forget to hit the subscribe button!"

What's troubling is the way they equate high volume of attention with quality of connection. Or rather, they don't really even know that quality of connection means anything. And I find myself feeling the same.

A lot of my thinking these days is about how we can make attention more evenly distributed. As we have less time for each other, less time for the local, we make more time for the incredible.

So parents watch their latest TV obsession, which is amazing, instead of telling their kids stories. (I totally do this. Telling stories is hard!) Sports fans follow all the stars closely, and care less than their parents did about the details of their local team. The number of incredibly gorgeous people that we see every day is higher than it's ever been, and the normal person next door is less interesting -- and we don't know how to strike up a conversation anymore, anyway.

And even within individual social media accounts, there is concentration of attention to posts. My most impassioned posts are ones that Facebook quickly learns won't get a lot of likes; my most generic posts are in a sense "wealthier" with attention than the ones that would challenge my friends and make them challenge me back. Meaning is poorly rewarded, because it is poor in social currency.

What I'm longing for is an increase in the "floor" of attention -- the amount of connection to your fellow humans that we can expect when we reach out, whether it's by organizing a meeting or a club, posting our thoughts, or talking to our neighbors.

The most troubling part of this for me is that even if we partially opt out, the attention concentrators and dopamine hustlers get more and more efficient each year. It's like fighting a losing battle, and the incentives are pretty much all aligned in that direction.

We're amusing ourselves to death, and doing so at the time in history when we need to focus the most on the boring day to day, since climate change is barreling along faster and faster and is going to have huge effects in our lifetimes. How can bringing our kids into tedious political and policy debates, coordinated across multiple unwieldy countries, compare to another episode of Succession?

I don't know whether fixing the distribution of attention wealth would help fix political engagement or group thinking. But I suspect they are connected.

In my writing and technology building life, I've gone both ways. I've written this blog for more than a decade, and long ago decided to keep writing what I felt moved to without regard for the nonexistent audience.

Interestingly, there did seem to be a high floor of attention in the early days of blogging. Ezra Klein talks about this; you could write a response to a prominent blogger and, if you wrote well, you could expect a reply. Now, contrary to what we expected from the internet in its early days, platform matters more than ever.

True, anyone can build their own soapbox using social media, and plenty have, from Justin Bieber to Coleman X. Hughes. Talent, and trolling, have always mattered, and always will. But talent does not seem to surface as effectively as we expected. You must be funded or amplified by someone who wants to profit from your attention, or be willing to play the social media game by sinking untold hours into the sort of generic pablum you see from, say, Casey Neistat.

It's hard to know a way out of this mess.

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