Creating Meaningful Engagement in the Attention Economy
Scrolling through my newsfeed this morning, I saw nothing of note: cat GIFs, an aspiring actor asking friends to vote on his new headshots, Trump memes, “top 10 things to do in [insert city] this fall” lists, and a slideshow of butternut squash recipes. I clicked on a few links, skimmed, closed out of articles I deemed “tiring” (anything longer than a few paragraphs, and certainly anything longer than one page), and Pocket-ed one “for later” (read: never). What did I learn? Nothing. Except I may make that squash and ricotta toast this weekend. How much time did I spend? I checked the clock – 45 minutes, and that’s just one voyage into the matrix of the several I’ll make today.
As far back as 1971, Herbert A. Simon was writing about our attention economy, with,
“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”
Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World
Simon may not have anticipated the ubiquity of the cat GIF, but he certainly anticipated the effects of the internet – we are all overloaded with information and spreading our attention thinly and inefficiently. Once you participate in social media, it’s nearly impossible to get away from the constant stream of (mostly) useless “fluff,” other than by unfollowing everyone who posts it. Except that includes everyone I know, including myself.
In a world where people are more up to date with the Minaj/Cyrus/Swift feud than the presidential election, how can small organizations and people who are doing good things spread the word enough to become successful? Let’s take a look at Kickstarter. Some guys raised over $50,000 to make potato salad, while actually worthy causes go unseen and unfunded every day.
It is more crucial than ever to simultaneously stay on trend with topics and style (in order to stay “relevant” and respectable in the eyes of the masses) while somehow ignoring the black hole of the internet long enough to actually accomplish something. Practically speaking, you need short, wow factor re-posting (“This [person/organization] did [activity] and you’ll never believe what happened next“), a sleek logo/website, and, of course, a viral video. Thanks to some savvy folks, there are organizations that have managed to work and even thrive within that environment (i.e. Ice Bucket Challenge and GoldieBlox). Getting celebrities involved helps.
But how can we, as consumers, find and promote meaningful engagement, particularly online? I’m not the first person to worry that my brain is melting every time I turn on my computer, and yet I still do it every day. There is certainly immediate gratification when scrolling through a good Buzzfeed list. But starting now, I’m going to be an active participant in my own consumerism. Though it doesn’t always feel like it, I do have control over what I choose to experience; attention is time, and we’ve all got a limited amount. I’d like to choose to focus on things that matter to me and the skills I want to improve, and try not to use the internet for mindless activity/alone time.
Instead, I can take a walk or practice guitar. I can call a friend. I can look at bulletin boards around town and share things about events I attend, like the Sustainability Expo at the Ann Arbor Library, where I learned about Natural Area Preservation and the Ann Arbor Seed Company. I can set a 10 minute timer for Facebook and refuse to click anything with a superlative or an animal in the title (except sometimes). I can increase my engagement with those aforementioned “tiring” articles (x, y, z) if they’re on something I’d like to learn about, and visit NYT more than Reddit. Maybe if we all set little rules like that for ourselves and become more aware of how we engage with media in general, we can start bringing actual content and good works to the forefront.