The Attention Economy thrives on your distraction

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There are a myriad ills that immersion in the social media online can have on your life and mind. It's of urgent importance that we begin a self-regulation — if not de-addiction — process as soon as possible.

In the near future, once enough millennials have succumbed to the devastating effects of this inexorable and ubiquitous phenomenon, we will see the birth of campaigns titled "Say No To Social Media". | Commons

Renowned writer Nicholas Carr once wrote, with reference to the use of Internet (largely social media), the following:

Over the past few years, I've had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn't going, so far as I can tell; but it's changing. I'm not thinking the way I used to think.

 

Consultants, we are often tasked with devising enterprise-wide IT architecture (EA) or social media strategy for our customers, who, standing at the crossroads of legacy systems and future growth aspirations, seek recommendations about which systems to invest in, what sequence to follow and which channels to adopt for their business growth.

The consultant in me often wonders what an individual’s equivalent of enterprise architecture or social media strategy would be? How should we manage the ‘product’ life cycles (albeit of a different type) ie. onboarding, peaking and retiring ourselves on the Facebooks, LinkedIns and Twitters in our lives? How to engage with and help our ‘resources’ avoid the Carr syndrome?

Questions such as these make one want to study the social media’s ‘As-Is’ state or do a ‘historical analysis’ to recommend a better ‘To-be’.

The ‘product introduction’ phase

I am a millennial, one among the 400 million in this country. Much of the formal education we underwent involved the art of letter writing, writing in khata (exercise book) and making class/playmates our friends. Parts of these were enforced by our parents and teachers as mandatory requirements to be good social animals and be successful in life. The adolescence in college, however, not only caught our parents by surprise but also us by amazement. Khatas were replaced by ‘Scrapbook’, friendship started to be sparked with ‘Friend Requests’ rather than in classes/playgrounds, and often required endorsements in ‘Testimonials’.

With the amateurish Orkut losing its way amid the rapid evolution of many other paths of expression, we started to interpret life somewhat differently. We would now liken Ramakrishna’s famous line, “joto mot, toto poth”, meaning “as many faiths, so many paths”, to there being a plethora of ways to express ourselves on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and many more.

Unlike the phase where we entered high school and college through rigorous formal education, the introduction to the world of Orkut, Facebook and others happened rather informally for us, the millennials. These products, primarily designed for the millennials and by the millennials acquired us thick and fast through a ‘genetic mutation’ of basic linguistic expression into more and more complex interactions.

As we hit puberty, we were entering a new phase — the ‘Man-proposes-Zuckerberg-produces’ phase. Life started to change. Albeit with no signs of the grave ‘Carr Syndrome’ so far.

The highs and lows of the ‘As-Is’

It was not Zuckerberg alone. The technology revolution paved the way for the fulfilment of a host of other needs. As the experience from our first few jobs became ‘marketable’, LinkedIn gifted us our professional portfolio. As we understood life better and showed maturity in brevity, Twitter gave us a new lease of life.

As our ‘network’ widened, we kept trading our private and public lives. We put our heart and soul into understanding Likeonomics and other similar fields of study that sprouted from the advent of social media. Today, we increasingly see the social media being one big economy of many trades and currencies — the ‘Attention Economy’.

 

In this global attention economy, as the ‘Like’ became universal, the blue thumbs-up outgrew the red (‘Taste the Thunder’) in popularity. Gradually, the tacit exchange of ‘Likes’ were gradually becoming uninformative or inadequate. It encompassed and broad-brushed too many feelings — enjoyment, gratitude, payback, courtesy, and coax. In the prospering attention economy, we required a language of evolving involvedness. Hence came the slightly more nuanced ‘Love/Haha/WOW/Sad’. The archaic text-based emoticons came to be used as a more expressive form of digital expression. The ‘Share’ button evolved from a voluntary mode of content sharing into the more pushy ‘Notifications’.

Hooked to habit

With its ebb and flow of instant morale boosting, and the real-time drama generated by trolls, with the joy of engagement and the dilemmas of decision-making, social media is our life today.

We enjoy the warmth of our family in virtual closeness — when they, with their likes and comments for our best and worst alike, save us from embarrassment, boost our confidence, ‘feed’ our posts. It feels great to see our ageing parents grow younger in the smartphone era, like Benjamin Buttons in the Matrix.

However, not everything in the social media is pleasant. It tests a lot of our character and patience. The dynamics of the virtual world are constantly evolving and, therefore, often puzzling. Should I add my colleagues and friends in one ‘Home’ or keep them segregated (celebrities on Twitter, colleagues on LinkedIn and friends on Facebook)? How shall I come across on my professional LinkedIn profile: coy or charismatic? How best can I express life in 140 characters without losing its nuances? There’s a laundry list of challenges.

Then there are other nuisances. Certain acquaintances express disapprobation about your apparent Facebook-esque posts on Linkedin. That exasperation of being tagged in that group photo where we look our worst. Then, that disappointment of having garnered zero responses on a post you thought eminently ‘Like’-worthy, and that discontentment of discovering that LinkedIn has found for ’10 jobs you might be interested in’ every evening.

 

In other extremes, navigating the social media has also become a essential life skill — not only in the pursuit of increasing impressions, conducting ourselves appropriately, and maintaining life's balance, but also to protect ourselves from the Zuckerbergs’ algorithms dictating our worldview, pestering stalkers, and prowling hackers. So dangerous are its pitfalls that one (even a head of state) can become the subject of fervent ethics debate over their choice of whom to follow on Twitter, or (the young and vulnerable) run the risk of becoming a Blue Whale victim, or (the Chandini Jains) take mortal care of which aspects of our private life we chose to project online. Perhaps there's a case to be made for including social media studies in a school student’s curriculum.

The ‘To-be’: what recourse?

Social media is here to stay and perhaps we must equip ourselves to handle it with or without formal education. According to a study by socialmediatoday.com, we spend on average 5 years and 4 months of our lifetime ‘socialising’ on internet. Meaning, doing what we do best, counting ‘Likes’, waiting for ‘Comments’, and upping the tweet-count for a period that we could have spent on earning a PhD — possibly in social media studies.

Our gross time spent on the social media is 60% more than the time we spend on cooking, four times what we spend grooming ourselves and 10 times the time we spend doing laundry. Are these statistics not enough to make us realise why modern-day marriages don't seem to last as long?

On a more thoughtful note, Nicholas Carr was not the only one to experience deleterious effects from spending prolonged periods online. A recent article on The Guardian revealed that many younger technologists — from Justin Rosenstein (creator of the ‘Like’ button) to Loren Brichter (inventor of the pull-to-refresh feature) -- who have developed some of the social media products are weaning themselves off their own products, sending their children to elite Silicon Valley schools where iPhones, iPads and even laptops are banned ­— this tendency invited comparisons with a lyric by rapper Biggie Smalls: “Never get high on your own supply.”

If the people who built these technologies are taking such radical steps to dissuade themselves, shouldn’t we, naïve consumers, also exercise our free will? With the majority of our lives spent in front of glass screens, should we be too obsessed with our empire of diligently constructed profile, superbly marketable CV and officially verified folio?

Social media is here to stay and to live a healthy life we’d do well to heed advice from our inner ‘consultant selves’. Let’s try and chart a healthy ‘To-be’ from a syndrome diseased ‘As-is’. Let’s swear by these:

1. Mind over tech: Let us not fall for those ‘red’ notifications immediately after our first blink in the morning or till just before the last blink at night.

2. Well-thought-out restraints: Let us somehow limit ourselves to just wishing birthdays, posting quality thoughts, controlling our own feed and preserving our private lives.

3. No to mad consumerism: Let us not compare the worst of us to the best of others on display. Let us not incentivise an advertising economy by clicking and sharing insanely or even adding friends incessantly.

4. Good technology to tame bad technology: Let us ‘Don't Allow’ those push notifications, scrub those external triggers and track the time we spend online.

5. Making the most of the offline hours: Let us not read, talk and share only what’s online. Let’s be less capitalist and more socialist to spread attention to those earthily objects that enjoy an existence outside of our smartphone.

 

Why wait for the New Year to make resolutions? The rate at which the Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are chipping away at our ability to control our own minds, time is now that we turn resolute.

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