Everyone thinks the attention game is about attention. It is (of course) but it isn’t. It’s about meaning. We give attention to the things that we find meaningful. Attention being a rough proxy our brain provides for meaning. That means we spend time on, thinking about, sharing the ideas, information and experiences we find meaningful. The mind-changing ideas, the discoveries, the strong emotions. The important stuff right?
Well no. That’s not always what we spend time on. But let’s look concretely at some examples. Think back to when TED talks first started. Enough of us had the experience when we first watched the videos and got attached to the feeling that we’d just participated in insightful and valuable information. But then we clicked next video and did it all again. And again. And again. Until eventually 8 hours later we felt stale about the whole idea of receiving an epiphany in a video in bite-sized form.
I don’t watch TED talks any more and I have to ask myself why, and how that fits in the world of me wanting insights and epiphany. Are these videos interesting but not actionable? That’s relevant but it’s off the mark.
So why did we click, and why did we pay attention? And why did it all go wrong? How did things get unstuck? These videos call our attention, but don’t matter to us. Even though they are fascinating and attractive. An info-hazard: be careful or you will be sucked into “many-ted-talks”, where-did-my-afternoon-go?
Well – meaning. We seek meaning. We seek to matter, and we seek to do things we care about. (this is not insightful, it’s obvious).
When you watch your first video, it’s pretty new, it’s unique and insightful. The second delivers the same. And the fourteenth? It doesn’t matter how interesting this one is, it’s probably not the same wonderful feeling as the first video. It’s getting to be the same delivery of information. Despite being exciting, it’s also getting old. It’s losing its meaning…
We start out wanting meaning, we start out getting meaning, and after a while we don’t really get the same thing any more. We are not designed to notice meaning wearing off – we expect it to keep being there. Until it’s well and truly worn out so bad that it’s a shock to the system. The same way that we go blind a little each day and don’t notice until we crash a car. “that’s how blind we are”.
I think there is insight in the application of meaning to different cultures and how they share information, how they share narratives and what they share.
How different cultures do meaning is worth observing. A SJW culture shares meaning by describing, packaging and sharing the emotions associated with outrage and offence. It matters that people are getting hurt and it matters that we are fixing that. It matters more than joy and happiness, it matters to raise the baseline. I had a fascinating experience as I was first starting to notice meaning. I went on a date with a person who was part of Social Justice culture. They insisted on asking about politics and telling me some key experiences of pain and outrage that someone they knew had experienced.
At the time I indulged by hearing the story. And at the time my defences against 3rd party emotions kicked in. I just can’t bring myself to care about 3rd hand outrage. At first I was confused, why this story? Why tell it to me? That’s when I realised that this story that was being shared because it mattered. Because it was meaningful to this person and because being able to connect over these strong emotions is how someone in this culture vets their potential dates and their qualities as an empathic person. I failed. And I could tell as it was happening that I was failing. But it was only days later that I really worked out how and what I had failed at.
In a culture where sharing the experience of strong emotion by one person – and being empathetic of that experience is how we connect, we need to find those stories to share, and then share them.
The core of what is meaningful in this culture is sharing that emotional experience.
The 4Chan (and shared to the alt-right) culture I appreciate conceptually so much more because of what it does. It was around before Social Justice but it grew stronger in response to the Social Justice culture. It derives it’s meaning from creating outrage, then sharing it. The most outrage you can stir up, the more attention you can get, the more butt-hurt, the more jimmies you can rustle, the better. In that culture we can celebrate the success of creating outrage where there previously was none.
On the internet, in the early Bieber days, 4Chan created various, “shaving for Bieber” and other sad-for-Bieber phenomenon. A dual rumour that was shared round the internet was:
- Justin Bieber had cancer.
- You should shave your head in acknowledgement/solidarity for the fact.
The thing about shock and awe and how this generates maximum outrage, is that not only is 1 not true but 2 does not at all follow. It’s not clear if, whether; and how many teenage girls were caught in a misinformation storm, and quickly shaved their head, only to be embarrassed when they found out the lack of truth to the matter.
It’s never going to be clear what really happened. Whether a few people shaved their heads for the cause and were later embarrassed. Whether a few people had shaved heads and then decided to join the bandwagon since they fit, and were later embarrassed to have done so. It’s not clear if anyone at all fell for it.
But in the 4chan culture, the creation and propagation of such a rumour is part of what the culture loves. What is meaningful is to make the most outrage. It’s a win if anyone shares the story, it’s a win if anyone indulges the story, and it’s an extra win if the conventional media outlets get on board with it. That’s what’s meaningful. That’s how you get status, you get attention to your outrage generation. It’s might be understood as a “troll” but I believe that loses information. Meaning, and how it is assigned in this culture adds information to the explanation of why troll.
Of course these two cultures enjoy hating each other, it’s in their nature. SJ can’t stop being outraged and sharing the outrage they feel around the 4chan behaviour, and 4c can’t stop finding ways to generate outrage and get themselves talked about. In fact each culture helps the other stay alive and grow. Because it’s about meaning.
These two cultures help each other to grow each other’s meaning maps. Each could exist without the other. There will always be events to be outraged at, and there will always be people making outrage where they feel the opportunity presents for the fun of it, but put these two cultures together and they fuel each other.
Facebook Attention Wars
In the Facebook world, each user is limited in time they have each day. Each user can only give attention to a small fraction of the potential information that is served to them. Facebook is not AI smart yet. If it’s an argument, a discussion or the cat pictures. Facebook only knows that you did partake. Facebook is agnostic to the reason that you partake. And in an effort to keep you doing so, it serves you similar content (in a variable fashion to keep you addicted to intermittent reward).
It’s commonly know that the Facebook algorithms are out to get you, they are designed to maximise “time on site”. If you curate your feed so that you get to see the interesting, relevant (and meaningful) things. All you end up with is a more attractive place to visit. i.e. you do Facebook’s job for it, of attracting your eyeballs and keeping you there.
Facebook is constantly trying to guess at what you want to give your attention away to, what you find meaningful, and serving it to you. But it cheats. And it gets it wrong all the time. When was the last time you went on facebook and left thinking, “wow that’s exactly what I wanted from that experience”. I was served perfectly what I wanted to see just now. Never?
And your friends. The “attention seekers”, posting whatever drivel will get them the most attention. They weren’t wrong to try to get attention alone, and they weren’t trying to post drivel. They were trying to post what was meaningful to them. (SJ meaningful, 4c meaningful or some other kind of personally meaningful). If you find it inane drivel then that points to different values, caring about different things, finding meaning in different places. In seeking attention they were only seeking a proxy for meaning (A very good proxy). If someone is giving you attention – that can be meaningful to you. A person giving you attention reminds you that you are important, that you matter. That external validation of the meaning we all seek. That’s what receiving attention is. Validation in a variety of forms that what we care about it.
- Validation that I agree with what you have to say
- Validation that we are in the same group/tribe or similar in some way.
- Validation via respect of each other’s time and ideas
- Validation that your experiences are significant or relevant to me
- Validation that what you find meaningful is what I find meaningful
If you don’t like what someone is sharing, posting – how someone is trying to get attention. You are saying, what is meaningful to you is not meaningful to me. And so we fail to connect with each other, we Dare Greatly (book by Brene Brown), put ourselves out there, shoot for the stars and accept whatever form of connection we create, or fail to generate by putting out our meaning. Or we don’t. We answer, “how are you?” with, “fine, thanks” and successfully stay safely protected from making shared meaning and something to connect over.
In Brene Brown’s theory, it’s called necessary vulnerability. It’s necessary to be vulnerable by taking a risk and sharing what “matters to you” in order to even have a chance to connect with other people at all. Brene stops there, because her research was in building connection, in creating loving relationships. I want to go further to say we do that for the important purpose of finding loving relationships meaningful to us. And some of us don’t find them meaningful, or don’t expect that we will, so we don’t worry about it.
There are other forms of meaning. Just like watching too many TED talks leaves us with a feeling that something is missing. Spending too much time on Facebook also leaves us with a feeling that something is missing. That is because we also get meaning from other things. Meaning from attention is catchy. It’s self sustaining. But we have so many kinds of meaningful things, experiences, ideas, imagination, creation, feelings – curiosity, legacy, religion (list of common human goals).
What’s meaningful to each of us is whatever we inherently think is meaningful along with what we choose to think of as meaningful. And in that sense, anything is meaningful. If you want it to be.
Everyone wants meaning. That’s it. To live a meaningful life, think about what you find meaningful and do more of that. Or. Alternatively. Think about what you give your time and attention to. This is your revealed preferences about what you find meaningful.
Want to live a meaningful life? Just live. The meaning is there by what you give your energy to. Don’t like giving your energy to something? Maybe it’s not what you find meaningful. Or you think the payoff is not going to matter.
Do you work for the money? Or do you do your job for reasons that matter to you above and beyond the money… Is your job meaningful? or does everything you do from 9-5 add up to what you end up doing with the paycheck at the end of the day.
What if you live and find nothing meaningful in anything you do or see?
Then… (you might be depressed, if nothing matters) Nothing is meaningful. The meaning is only there if you want it to be. Surprise. It sucks to live like that. You will find your defences propping up all the time about it. It’s uncomfortable to think that you lack meaning in your life. The cognitive dissonance type of uncomfortable. The kind of uncomfortable that has you reassuring yourself that X or Y that you do does in fact matter. Or doubling down towards your cookie clicker, farmville or irrelevant other goals in the hope that if you achieve that, the feeling of meaning will be there. Exactly where you want it.
Or maybe you will go investigate what other people find meaningful and you will end up in religion or politics or family or any number of areas that other people pursue, seeking your own meaning.
Don’t believe me about meaning? Read Martin Seligman – Flourish (happiness isn’t all of the equation of human wellbeing), Jordan Peterson – Maps of meaning (meaning comes from narrative), Brene Brown – Vulnerability (we need to be vulnerable to connect to one another and that’s really hard), And Marshall Rosenberg – NVC (NVC is big but the part relevant is the acknowlegements and validation that we can provide to each other, even without being on the same side.. I might be wrong, but all these people, they are getting onto something that appears to overlap.
Meta: this took about 3hrs to write, a month to avoid and 2 hours to edit. And I still don’t like it.