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.(Herbert Simon (1971)).
Tristan Harris, the co-founder of the nonprofit group Time Well Spent, calls
a world dominated by the race for attention.
According to Harris, an ex-design ethicist at Google who The Atlantic described as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,”
we all “live in a city called the attention economy.”
That’s what is shaping everything about contemporary life, Harris says, particularly our increasingly surreal politics.
So what to do? How to make this new community more habitable?
- All of us should recognize that we are all vulnerable and for us to all “curate our own lives”.
- The platform companies should recognize that their users have “vulnerable minds” and for them to make a conscious effort to avoid feeding our “lizard brains”.
1. RIDE THE NEWS, AND THEN RISE ABOVE THE NOISE
A top executive at a large industrial company recently marveled to me that one of Fast Company‘s competitors was tweeting more than 150 times a day; I didn’t have the heart to admit that we weren’t much more restrained. To get people to engage with content, you need to be in front of them. Even more, you need to be constantly assessing what others are doing, and adjusting your tactics and your output in real time. While data can be useful, the critical factor if you want to separate yourself is organizational metabolism: rapid, streamlined decision making. The most distinctive, impactful content requires taking some risks without losing sight of your north star. As Anthony Bourdain, host of the hit travel and food series Parts Unknown, says in this issue, “What’s good for you in the short run is not necessarily good for you in the long run.”
2. CREATE EMOTION
Controversy is one way to gain attention: Brashly challenge convention. (You might call this the Trump Doctrine.) Violence and sex works, too. But such engagement is often shallow and short-lived. To understand what anchors deeper, longer-lasting connection, recall how Hamilton became a global phenomenon. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda used a 200-year-old story to tap into core human truths. The best creative linking of ideas and feelings looks effortless, but it is an art. The best advertising has always done this, whatever the medium. Giphy’s success is built on enabling our creative expression, providing just the right, nuanced image to capture a mood.
3. USE WHAT’S NEW
Once upon a time, we made fun of hapless smartphone users who forgot to turn their cameras to landscape perspective before making videos. And then Snapchat turned those “mistakes” into a new, booming format. From GIFs to chatbots, the tools available continue to proliferate. Even what’s old has become new, like audio, thanks to podcasts and digital assistants like Alexa and Siri.
4. BELIEVE IN SOMETHING
If you’re going to streamline decision making, take creative risks, and connect emotionally using new tools, it helps to have guiding principles. That’s not just about style guides and preferred, brand-appropriate words and images. It’s about clarity of purpose, the mission of your enterprise, what it is you really want to get done. A great example of this can be found in our first-person story about Trader Joe’s work culture from the latest issue. The word “authentic” gets thrown around, as if it’s something to be managed (or, in the worst cases, manufactured). But there’s no substitute for actually believing in something. Whether we kneel, link arms, or stand on the sidelines, our actions reveal who we really are.
New and flourishing modes of socialization amount, in the most abstract terms, to the creation and reduction of dots, and the experience of their attendant joys and anxieties. Dots are deceptively, insidiously simple: They are either there or they’re not; they contain a number, and that number has a value. But they imbue whatever they touch with a spirit of urgency, reminding us that behind each otherwise static icon is unfinished business. They don’t so much inform us or guide us as correct us: You’re looking there, but you should be looking here. They’re a lawn that must be mowed. Boils that must be lanced, or at least scabs that itch to be picked. They’re Bubble Wrap laid over your entire digital existence.
Late last year, a red badge burbled to the surface next to millions of iPhone users’ Settings apps. It looked as though it might be an update, but it turned out to be a demand: Finish adding your credit card to Apple Pay, or the dot stays put. Apple might as well have said: Give us your credit card number, or we will annoy you until you do.