Attention is oxygen for movements
In about one generation, we have gone from a world in which cameras were a rarity in many places to one in which billions are connected, almost instantly.
We no longer live in a mass-media world with a few centralized choke points with just a few editors in charge, operated by commercial entities and governments. There is a new, radically different mode of information and attention flow: the chaotic world of the digitally networked public sphere (or spheres) where ordinary citizens or activists can generate ideas, document and spread news of events, and respond to mass media. This new sphere, too, has choke points and centralization, but different ones than the past. The networked public sphere has emerged so forcefully and so rapidly that it is easy to forget how new it is. Facebook was started in 2004 and Twitter in 2006. The first iPhone, ushering in the era of the smart, networked phone, was introduced in 2007. The wide extent of digital connectivity might blind us to the power of this transformation. It should not. These dynamics are significant social mechanisms, especially for social movements, since they change the operation of a key resource: attention…
Attention is rarely analyzed on its own; a significant oversight given its importance.
Attention is oxygen for movements. Without it, they cannot catch fire.
Powerful actors try to smother movements by denying them attention. Censorship is usually thought of as a dichotomous concept: some-thing is either censored or not, often by a centralized gatekeeper, such as governments or mass media. For example, governments may censor an unfavorable story by banning it outright or pressuring mass media not to cover it. It is difficult to understand today's social movement trajectories using this traditional notion of censorship. In the twenty-first century and in the networked public sphere, it is more useful to think of attention as a resource allocated and acquired on local, national, and transnational scales, and censorship as a broad term for denial of attention through multiple means, including, but not limited to, the traditional definition of censorship as an effort to actively block information from getting out. (…).
Movements also experience other kinds of obstacles from mass media in their quest for favorable attention. A movement may not get favorable media coverage because of ideological or corporate reasons, rather than government censorship. Traditional journalists may trivialize, marginalize, or ignore a social movement because they disagree with it or dislike it, or a corporate parent may decide that a social movement doesn't fit well with its financial interests—for example, that the movement is unsuitable for the corporation's advertiser-dependent business model. In the past, mass media operated like it held a monopoly on public attention, and movements needed mass media to publicize their cause and their events to tell their story. This dependency involved many considerations and trade-offs for social movements. News media were more responsive to formal nongovernmental organizations (NGO) so movements would try to get the resources to create one. This meant that movements of poorer people were greatly disadvantaged. A movement shut out of mass media could try being disruptive or provocative as a strategy to get attention, but this strategy ran the risk of provoking negative coverage: discussion only within a framework of disruption. Movements often faced having their causes trivialized or distorted by mass media, with no chance to talk back. Mass media's near monopoly on attention often meant that the two were conflated, and an analysis of attention would often be confined to analyses of media. Now that mass media no longer hold a monopoly on attention, neither censorship nor the competition for attention operates in the same way.
Over the years, the Spotify algorithms have correctly identiﬁed that I tend to like “chill” music of a certain BPM ...
When I design online ads for American Apparel, I almost always look for an angle that will provoke. Outrage, self-righteousness, and titillation all work equally well. Naturally, the sexy ones are probably those you remember most, but the formula worked for all types of images. Photos of kids dressed up like adults, dogs wearing clothes, ad copy that didn’t make any sense—all high-valence, viral images. If I could generate a reaction, I could propel the ad from being something I had to pay for people to see (by buying ad inventory) to something people would gladly post on the front page of their highly trafficked websites.
But entertainment has the merit not only of being better suited to helping sell goods; it is an effective vehicle for hidden ideological messages. Furthermore, in a system of high and growing inequality, entertainment is the contemporary equivalent of the Roman “games of the circus” that diverts the public from politics and generates a political apathy that is helpful to preservation of the status quo.