Fighting for Attention Online
Image: Aurelie via Flickr
I read a line today in a friend’s Facebook status that stuck with me: “fighting for attention online.”
Yes, the Internet is an infinite space, but attention is a finite resource. It’s sort of like the earth itself. You can place as many humans as you wish on the surface. The amount of physical space on this planet is so enormous that it may as well be infinite for the sake of this example. But the resources people need to live are finite, and we can see from the way we’ve set up our societies that many people go without whereas some people have an overabundance. In between a large chunk of people are getting by — some of whom focus on what they don’t have while others barely give the size of their resources a second thought.
And the blogopshere mirrors that. It’s vast, though only as infinite as the number of servers that support it, and certainly there is room to keep putting sites online. But attention becomes that finite resource akin to food or water.
There are some people who get no attention, no matter how much they try to connect with others. And others who easily gain an enormous amount of attention. And then there is the chunk in between who has enough attention to get by — some of whom focus on the traffic they don’t have and growing their space, while others are happy with their small blog and write for writing’s sake; to capture a slice of their life or keep friends and family informed of their goings on.
I don’t look down my nose at attention. It’s a human need. At our heart, we’re like Harlow’s experiment, wanting cloth-covered comfort over extra food. And there are different sorts of attention. There is attention seeking for personal gain (eyes on a post to increase the chances for future sponsored posts) and attention for attention sake. Because we all need to be noticed from time to time.
Most of us don’t need a huge audience or to get anything more out of blogging than a few head nods a day, the equivalent of people calling out to us: “I see you! You exist.”
The Internet can be a wonderful space if you enter it with no needs. And it can be an awful, damaging space if you enter seeking reaction and connection.
Because it’s a strange medium. You post your need for comfort and then you wait. And you hope someone reads it. And you hope someone gives you kind thoughts or advice. At the very least, you hope that no one shits too hard on you.
It is a passive form of communication. Even if you curate your audience on social media, sending something out to your friend list so you know precisely who could see it, you have no clue whether the message reached the recipient. There is too large a chance for your message to slip through the cracks.
The receiver may not have the impulse to act due to the bystander effect, hoping that someone else who reads the post or status will have a better response than one they could come up with. They may feel ill-equipped to deal with the problem, or have no clue how to reach out in a helpful way when the methods we use in the face-to-face world are impossible in the online world. They may carry judgments on the medium, assuming that if you were truly hurting, you’d reach out directly to individuals rather than sending your words into the ether. Not everyone gets the Internet the same way.
I would always encourage someone to write for writing’s sake; to get the thoughts out of their head. To record a moment in their life, even if it’s a very painful moment. I would remind them that their words could make a difference for someone else. We all have stories where something we read online made us feel less alone. But I would never tell someone that the Internet is a good place to gather comfort.
The Internet isn’t even a cloth-covered wire monkey.
It’s more like the Triwizard’s tournament maze.
You may run through it unscathed because other people are making it possible for you to do so (yes, it was for nefarious reasons in the book, but still, external support cleared the path) or you may turn the corner and see a blast-ended skrewt scampering toward you.
Even those who run the gauntlet and reach the center may not find the trophy they were looking for. As Jodifur so aptly stated this week about her blogging experience: “Sometimes fairy tales don’t end the way you want them to, but they end anyway.”
That phrase stuck with me for hours after I read the status update and subsequent discussion: “fighting for attention online.” Maybe it’s the word “fighting.” I don’t really look at it as fighting, maybe because I don’t think the vast majority of bloggers try to push others down in order to raise their words to the surface. We’re all posting alongside one another, but we rarely verbally push and shove.
“Struggle” is perhaps more appropriate. Struggling for attention online.
I sometimes think of the blogosphere as a big expanse of dirt, and some posts poke out of the ground and reach me, while I know that there must be other posts underground that for some reason or another never break the surface. I am always cognizant that I leave more things unread in the blogosphere than I get to read. I worry about those posts that remain underground, that never poke my personal surface. What sorts of things are written in them? Are they calls for comfort that I am inadvertently missing, and in doing so, negatively affecting someone else’s life? That thought sort of sucks.
“Struggle” calls to mind the fact that attention is something you need to constantly be getting, and the struggle for it is exhausting. Attention isn’t something you can count on from day-to-day. One post may get hundreds of reads and dozens of comments, but that isn’t enough for the vast majority of people seeking attention from the Internet. You want your next post to get that too. And your next post to get that much attention or even more. How many people sit back and say, “yeah, I once had a great response to a post so I certainly don’t need that again.”
We’re navigating the online world with the twins now, letting them take baby steps into a world where external commentary rules. Right? The metrics and the comments and the depth of comments and the number of friends and the speed with which people respond…
The moment you leave the default settings in place, you invite all that self-doubt in. You take a hard situation — getting through life — and potentially make it harder. Or you make it better. See, that’s the thing. You have no clue how it will go because the Internet is a passive medium that expects you to just sit and wait.
When you need comfort, be direct. Ask for it by reaching out to individuals. Don’t post vague statements online. Don’t write detailed explanations online. If you need something whether it is advice or a hug or something much larger — medical intervention — be direct. Getting your needs fulfilled should not be a guessing game; a peek at who cares enough to step forward.
I want the twins’ journey through the online world to make their daily life easier. That has been my experience. I’ve been very lucky that my online interactions have been — for the most part — positive. Social media and blogging are mediums that have enriched my life. The online community has brought me comfort on numerous occasions. I worry that they won’t have a positive experience, mostly because I know that a lot of people don’t.
I don’t worry so much that they’ll grow up focused on the metrics and commentary because before the Internet, there were always friends to count or opinions to hear in the face-to-face world. But I worry that they — and all people — are being conditioned to post and wait for the reaction.
A lot of people are writing about their experience with depression today due to Robin Williams’s death. I’ve read more than once this morning someone pointing out how upset people are about Robin Williams yet their own friends struggle with depression and they ignore them. I’ve read more than one person talk about how they write about their depression online, and yet help doesn’t come.
It’s completely valid, and I can see how they reach those conclusions. But the Internet isn’t a safety net — at least, it is not a dependable safety net. It seems to be a safety net for some and a flimsy sheet for others when they jump with their words.
If you are struggling right now, please contact resources directly. Talk to someone you trust. And if you don’t have someone in your face-to-face world to talk to, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.