Attention policing paradox

I was reading this article on attention policing on The Atlantic, talking about major light memes of the week and the reaction against them. And it struck me that the author wasn’t addressing one of the major problems with attention policing, which I saw in action this week, and that is: it backfires.

Authors know this. I have had writers at conventions try to convince me to give bad reviews to their books rather than declining to finish them and staying silent, because they know this: when you talk about something, you draw attention to it, and if you talk about it enthusiastically, you draw more attention to it, regardless of whether your enthusiasm is positive or negative. Sure, the people who read me are more likely to trust me if I say, “Uff da, that was a stinker,” but not 100% likely. Nor am I 100% likely to follow any of your recommendations! If you say, “That book was so boring, it was not worth the time, it was just hundreds of pages of Chinese medieval monetary theory,” why, that’s the book I just picked up to read! That’s music to my ears! So this idea that we don’t pay attention to each other’s recommendations 100%: this is a feature, not a bug.

It’s not that I’m unwilling to give a bad review. But I do think that it’s worth being careful, especially when my reaction is “this book [/movie/TV show/etc.] is okay but overhyped”–because that kind of reaction can contribute to making the work central. It contributes to the feeling that the work is the important one that everyone must discuss–even if they don’t like it.

So yes, on Thursday my social media feeds were full of llamas and whether a badly photographed dress was white and gold or black and blue. But they were also full of people talking about how they weren’t talking about these things. Talking about how they didn’t care. Even more of that came up for the Superbowl, the Emmys, the Oscars. “I am not watching the thing everybody is watching!” said everybody. “Look at me thinking it is not important, and making it more important by keeping it the only topic of discussion.” One of my FB friends posted a little cartoon the morning after one of the Academy Award shows that said, “I did not watch the thing,” and I wrote back, “Too bad, you missed a great hockey game.” Because there is more than one thing. There is always more than one thing.

Telling people, “You should not like the thing you like!” or “You should not care about the thing you care about!” hardly ever works. They already like it. They already care. If you want to shift discussion and attention, it’s time for the tried and true, “Look, the Winged Victory of Samothrace!” What can sometimes work is, “hey, look at this other interesting thing!” Because the other interesting thing engages. It provides its own conversational points–and yes, sometimes these relate back to the first thing that the other person was interested in, that you wish they weren’t. If you were tired of llamas, then hooray, a badly photographed dress came along! And then some people combined the two in ways that they hoped were amusing! Someone said, “But look over here,” and they did, and some of them were wholly diverted from the llamas, and some weren’t.

So yeah, you’d be disappointed if you were hoping that the next big wave of comments would be about Russian/Ukrainian politics or new treatments for bone cancer instead of badly photographed dresses. These two things are not very much equivalent, though, and “STOP TALKING ABOUT LLAMAS” never once got people to talk about bone cancer. Attention is capricious and fickle, but some parts of it are predictable, and that’s one. So if you’re frustrated with the llamas, go craft your comments about your new local cheesemaker, the anime you just fell in love with, or the charity you think is worthy. Make them pithy, make them shiny, make them interesting. Virtue does not always out in the attention economy. You have to help it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *