“Attention is vitality," said Susan Sontag. "It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.” Indeed, except it's bloody difficult to pay attention.
I'm sat at my desk this second with Jeff Buckley singing into my ears, with Skype messages popping up, with 54 tabs open on my browser (really), with Discord pinging, with notifications from my calendar appearing, and with emails announcing themselves in my inbox. I switched notifications off on my phone though so I'll be ok, right?
For anyone who deals in pixels, be they writers, illustrators, photographers, or marketers, today's environment appears to demand one key skill above all others: the ability to interrupt. The ability to stop people for second from scrolling or talking or watching or reading, to pay attention to whatever it is you want them to look at.
The outcome? The people making stuff feel empty inside, and the people consuming the stuff feel empty inside; neither can focus long enough to remember why they were even there in the first place, and thus move on to the next piece of content.
This probably sounds rather dramatic, and that's deliberate because I thought it might get your attention. But I do think this is important, and perhaps the most important thing as we move forward in the world.
Clicking is winning
In communications and marketing the thinking goes that if you manage to get someone to click, it's a win. If they click, they're more likely to read or watch something. And maybe they'll watch something else, and so on and so forth. It's a numbers game.
The people who click through and read tend to number only 0.01% of everyone you've targetted. This means you need to reach an awful lot of people with an awful lot of content to have a decent number of clickers and potential readers.
Once they come through, you then check their behaviour. What did they like? What didn't they like? If one article is read 1,000 times and another one 100 times, it means article number one is ten times better. So you take that article and repeat it.
This incidentally is how we know definitively that Macbeth is better than King Lear: you just need to count the number of Royal family members that have watched live productions.
"When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure."
Artists are being pushed into becoming masters of interruption based on this metric. Would-be writers are being asked to simply focus on today's hot topic, videographers asked to stick to glossy stock footage, and photographers are not being asked anything because we've all got phones so why bother paying them?
I know all this because, well, a big chunk of my professional career working in communications has been - is - about interrupting people. The ability to create something that'll stop you from scrolling into infinity, something that might distract you from your conversation to do an action such as like or share. Anything that would pull you from the thing you planned to do, to do something else. I don't feel very good about that.
Now, working in the non-profit sector makes this act of interruption easier on my conscience. I like to think that the information I was interrupting people with was possibly more important than the other thing they might have been distracted by. And maybe, just maybe, it'd make people feel enough empathy to support and donate to help those in need. Sometimes it's worth interrupting people. But, there's always a but.
The demand for content forces 'creators' to focus on the timely over timelessness, on the daily grind, replicating whatever is popular at that period in time. That is the opposite of artistic creation.
The endless tide
Each and every day begins anew in the social mediaverse. Streams and streams of messages go out into the world, mostly ignored and forgotten about. The receivers don't remember, the senders start the process again. Each day, a reset.
With Instagram dropped into her hand, Susan Sontag wouldn't have a second to give due attention to a tiny fraction of all the images being thrown at her. And without that attention, there is no connection to ourselves or to others.
With the need to create content now, and then now again, and then now again, we are sacrificing depth. There is no opportunity to reflect or mull over ideas (let alone read a book). And that's why so little of what is produced today for online viewers is remembered a month later, let alone years later.
And the metric-driven content which steps in its place, which is often things that set your insides on fire with rage, is waiting to welcome us all with open arms and manipulate us into watching more and more. There's a reason we're seeing political fractures open in countries as different as the UK and Brazil. Metrics got us there.
A less depressing section
None of this is very good, and reading back this looks like one of my more depressing posts. But I do cling on to some hope that things can change for the better.
I do believe people will continue to move away from platforms like Facebook into smaller groups, which will in turn force the way companies and big organisations try to engage with people online with a more nuanced approach. The growth of Discord is a decent indicator of this, perhaps.
People, particularly young people, are also hyper-sensitive to advertising now. I've seen how their eyes automatically move around anything that looks paid or corporate.
The rise of the likes of Substack shows that there is an appetite for good writing, for lengthly writing, for strange writing.
And NFTs ("here he goes again") are offering some artists a way back to get paid for good work.
None of the above is perfect of course. I'm well aware that we could pick holes all day in any number of those points. But the fact they exist and present opportunity is, to my mind, a good thing.
There is a collective will, it seems, for change, or at the very least to mitigate the consequences of all this. As we begin to get to grips with the technology that has gripped us for, let's face it, a relatively short period of time all things considered, there is hope that we are chaotically finding a path towards something better.
That's why I'm not saying to hell with everything, and it's all wrong. I'm just saying we need to pay attention.