“Attention economy” or “affirmation economy” are terms to describe the current state of our social world: the hunt for likes.
I have written some posts about social media and probably some readers are familiar with my reservations with respect to it. Lately I have had some eye-opening conversations about the topic and I also encountered an informative article in Psychology today (one of my favorite every day reads) that validated some of my thoughts, although the original text wasn’t exactly about social media. Shortly, I believe the way we use social media without making conscious choices about how we use it, can do a lot of damage for our actual social interactions and self-esteem.
Ever since Facebook got a like button, sharing changed. And I think there is a simple and natural reason for that: in general, people like to be liked. And since there are no alternatives, we can only like – or comment which, I think, has a certain stigma nowadays. I mean, we all know what are the comment sections are like in general. The conversation isn’t always very educated and if I imagine what it would sound like, I would hear multiple people shouting on top of each other without listening at all.
We like positive attention, and is there a more simple and easy way of giving attention than clicking the like button? To like, you don’t need to know what you’re liking, you don’t need to know anything about the topic or to engage in conversation about the topic. You simply click and move on which is extremely handy because people will get a notification and probably they will assume that the like indicates attention, although it might not. Likes are cheap. Just to make a point, I have to say I know a bunch of people who will scroll down their news feed and click like on everything they see without stopping to actually give a second thought to anything. Not liking something is almost a statement from them. So actually a like isn’t attention – it’s the standard procedure.
Of course to many, liking is what I personally would love it to be. I click like when I see or read something I really find interesting or nice. There was a time, though, when I started gradually shifting towards the conveyer-liking, because it works. The more you like, the more you get likes. And in enterntainment business, attention is what brings the money in. At some point I noticed though, that this method made me more and more vulnerable. I was paying so much attention to how many likes I would get and the likability began to be what define the content although I have always appreciated quality more than popularity.
So in a way, liking is a way to reinforce oneself. The moreI like your stuff, the more you like my stuff back.
But, think of a situation where every time you clicked like, you would have to say something, question, make a point – start a conversation about the subject. You would actually have to engage in a topic more deeply and possibly get back to it later, possibly even multiple times. That’s something that people nowadays don’t seem to do too much (even videos are less than a minute long to make the viewers watch the whole thing; thus, persistence isn’t a very modern thing). Or if there actually was a dislike button to balance the equation. At the moment, we either get positive reinforcement or no attention at all.
I believe that it would reduce the amount of attention people get and give significantly, but at least it would be more real. But because the opposite is the current reality, the content of social media in general is more and more about grabbing the attention – more skin, sex, drama, violence, exclamation points, capslock… Shocking but easily digestable content that appeals to most humans since most humans are interested in other humans, human stuff and things that evoke basic emotions; fear, aggression, joy and sorrow. Content that goes beyond these basic emotions and that challenges the reader/viewer isn’t as popular.
And the world needs something real. Social media connects people across the globe but the connection is rather superficial. If that superficial connection is mistaken for friendship, we predispose ourselves for dissapointment.
Is it really staying in touch, if you see the other person in your news feed but you never even send a private message? Is it really knowing what’s going on in their lives, seeing the public story?
I don’t think it is. But it’s fine as long as we know it.
I get a bit sad every time I see someone writing about how there’s something bad going on in their lives. I always think that I wish they would have someone who would really be there for them, to listen to them and to comfort them because waiting for empathy from social media is a bit like lottery – sometimes you might win and usually if you win, it’s small money. You might get likes and reassuring comments but those things can never replace real hugs, real company, real listening… And when seeing someone post about negative stuff over and over again, I think that it is sad how the social media has taught these people that they get attention for highlighting or even exaggerating the hardships.
Some people seem to think that this way of using social media is being real. To share everything with everyone. I kinda used to think like that until I relized that most people don’t really care – and I’m not blaming them. As I shared really personal thoughts, emotions and life events, I was expeting real attention but I got likes instead, and at some point I realized that the more I shared about me, the worse I felt. The more neglected and alone I was. In reality, I was replacing real people and real connection by attention which I mistook for caring. And I do think that deep down, we humans need caring and acceptance instead of attention.
Hugs are real. Touch is real. Research says that a hug releases neurotransmitter oxytocin which is also active in reducing depression and anxiety and the impact is long-lasting. A like makes one feel good for a little moment and controversially, if there are only a few likes, they make one feel bad. We need more likes to feel good. The attention economy starts looking like addiction.
I don’t wonder that so many people are starting to “fight back”. They get off social media and engage in more traditional activities that promote mindfullness. I am doing that myself, too.
There is a but, though. Social media is sort of necessary for someone like me – I need to promote my work and there are some real virtues in Facebook, for instance. The messenger and the group function are extremely useful. Most of my work-related communication happens in Facebook and if I sign off, I’m in trouble.
So, here I come to the point in the first section – it’s not about whether we use social media or not, but how we use it. I’m doing my best not to engage in the attention economy so I avoid posting if I feel lonely, sad or misunderstood. Instead I want to use social media for promoting things I really believe in and for taking care of business. Friendships and family matters belong into the real world for me. And truly personal insights onto the pages of my diary.