Attention, and your chance to suffocate the bastards

Have you heard the phrase “attention economy”? I spend more time than is perhaps wise reading about the internet (on the internet, naturally), but this phrase is increasingly common; no longer the reserve for self-styled “social-media experts”.

The thinking is: (via wikipedia)

“Since the cost to transmit advertising to consumers is now sufficiently low that more ads can be transmitted to a consumer than the consumer can process, the consumer’s attention becomes the scarce resource to be allocated.”


This blog post isn’t about adverts, though, but more general messages. For example, a famous person saying something which is then reported on and commented on.

The old adage of  “all publicity is good publicity” shows that (some) celebrities and promoters are more concerned with exposure and recognition than they are with their reputation. Naturally, this is not something that only arrived with the advent of the internet.

“I won’t give them the oxygen of publicity” is a slightly hackneyed phrase, albeit with a kernel of wisdom. As our culture moves from a one size must fit all to a gloriously varied, yet siloed approach, should we be modifying our response methods to media stimuli?

I believe the era of mass culture is coming to an end, as Seth Godin argues so convincingly in We Are All Weird. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s pretty obvious it’s happening, too, if you take the time to think about it.

Seth Godin Profile pic

Seth Godin

I’m only thirty, but the fragmentation of culture since I was a ten year old is startling. We don’t all watch the same programs, at the same time. We don’t all go and see the same films, at the same time. Each of us has a music collection that’s spiralling further and further into a profusion of niches comparable to only the die-hard music enthusiasts of years gone by.

All of this can be ignored as merely a cultural phenomenon to think about if you have something to sell or promote, but as we’re no longer in a few to many communication network- rather a many to many network- we’re all a greater part of this than our established systems are trained for. Do we need to rethink our approach?

There’s a strong argument that the best way expose a fool is to give him space to talk. To air a weak argument gives others the opportunity to expose its flaws and cut away public support for it. A classic example of a reputable body taking this approach to a  controversial subject is the appearance of a British National Party leader and an alleged holocaust denier at an Oxford Union debate.  It’s hard to quantify the effect of such exposure.

What actually prompted me to begin writing this was watching my twitter stream’s response to Baroness Warsi’s article about “militant secularisation”. The actual details of what she said (and even my thoughts on it) are not the focus of this article. What I’m interested in here is the question “what is an appropriate response?”

Baroness Warsi

The Baroness (Harkonnen)

If we accept that there’s a continuous stream of new information out there, of varying degrees of relevance to us, we have to have some sort of filter in place regarding how we react to it. To use Warsi’s article as example fodder, does my quite exhausting level of disagreement with her mean that I should:

1)Write a withering dissection of her poor reasoning, false assumptions and so on?
2)Retweet/blog/link via facebook/etc the most appropriate examples my online community provides?
3)Simply ignore what seems so clearly to be an absurd view from a source known for questionable views?

In contrast, what does it mean if I fail to mention/retweet/post/blog about it? Will those who follow my opinion believe I don’t hold a strong view? This can lead to absurd situations; one cannot comment on everything.

So how are we to choose? The corporate media have their agenda, and I don’t feel I should be led by them. Is there a certain level of interest from my peers that means I should weigh in, or is the reverse true? Perhaps they’re all making such a strong case that I don’t need to?

As an important aside, the web is (of course) still evolving, and one aspect of this that’s easily overlooked, but has huge ramifications, is the filter bubble, best explained in Eli Pariser’s 9 minute TED Talk which I encourage you to find time to see, if you haven’t already:

People take the trouble to point out in their Twitter bio’s that their Retweets do not indicate endorsement. (n.b.  A “retweet” repeats another twitter user’s comment to the re-tweeting party’s own followers.) I have a political journalist friend who retweets the most dreadful shit. But he does this to highlight what dreadful shit some politician is tweeting.  (Despite the great impression I’m giving of him here, he’s actually great and writes wonderfully.)

I’ve known him 15 years, but even just from his twitter feed over the last few years, it’s clear when he’s pointing out something rather than endorsing it.  This contextual insight can only be relied upon when you have built a relationship with your listeners/followers/readers/etc.  I can never know in this broadcast environment if this is the first you’ve heard of me.  Nevertheless, I have to trust that you’ll interpret accordingly.  This is why comedians telling jokes to a sympathetic crowd will get into trouble when  quoted out of context.

Frankie Boyle

Frankie Boyle realising he's done it again

I suppose I’m finally groping towards my point here, which is that if you’ve built up a reputation for (say) being a champion of secularism, it’s not necessary to respond and thus draw attention to a religious advocate every time they try to suggest the role of religion in society is positive.   You can therefore deny them the oxygen of publicity they crave.

Exactly as I have done here.

********************************************************************************

Endnote: Seth Godin’s book, mentioned above, is amazing.  Read a good interview with the author here.