Talking loud, saying nothing

09/03/2017 - 13:51

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OPINION: The internet and social media have changed the way many of us interact, but it also has led to the triumph of emotion over intellect.

Being heard is more important than what you have to say. Photo: Stockphoto

OPINION: The internet and social media have changed the way many of us interact, but it also has led to the triumph of emotion over intellect.

The term ‘attention economy’ sounds like something made up by newspeak hipsters at some dot.com startup in California around 2005 (let’s face it, it probably was).

But if an economy is a method of distributing a scarce resource, then ‘attention’ qualifies, in spades. One of the major problems facing any startup, business or media publication is how to get anyone to pay any attention to what you’re saying.

This is marketing, but these days that is a very narrow term, really only used for commercial businesses. The same problem faces politicians, social movements, activists, and anyone engaged in trying to reach an audience – there is only so much attention to go around. Trying to cut through the noise as everyone else tries to reach your audience is an art form, and getting harder every year.

This clamour for our attention has driven us to be selective about what we read. A headline has to grab us within one sentence or we’re gone. No complexity or depth can survive this. Read a newspaper article from the 1960s or earlier, even from tabloids, and our eyes will glaze over around the second paragraph, hunting for something more easily digested.

This has given rise to the clickbait phenomenon – if the only thing we read is the headline, then make the headline irresistible, and never mind what is in the article. Once we’ve clicked on the headline we will see the ads (and that’s the point).

It has also given rise to ‘fake news’. If we only read things we agree with, then whatever the article says need not be factual to be read. Once we have clicked on the headline that reinforced our beliefs, the ads get served (and that’s the point).

And then there’s the ‘outrage porn’, an endless stream of angry posts demanding that the government or someone does something about this or that horrible thing. Emotive, strident, calls for change that involve repeated reposting of the same article to our social news feed with ‘this is outrageous’ added to virtue-signal that the reposter is one of the good guys. Serious social issues are turned to clickbait pulp to feed the advertising revenues of some new-media growth hacker.

Meanwhile, the advertising industry has reverted to pre-internet norms, but with different players. Our Facebook feeds are controlled by ‘the algorithm’, which ensures the only really effective way to reach our own audience of the people who like our stuff is to pay Facebook to reach them.

Thirty-second ad slots on prime-time TV were about as effective, and cost about the same, as a decent-sized social media campaign these days. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Which brings us to the ‘new politics’, Brexit and all that. Not to equate Jeremy Corbyn with Donald Trump, but their rise was powered by the same engine. Deep analysis is gone, replaced with emotive appeal and authenticity.

Mr Corbyn says it like it is, he has strong beliefs and stands up for them. The old-school New Labour centrist politician now seems slimy and fake in comparison. The ‘Washington elite’ are facing the same issue. Authenticity is in, and studied professional politics is out. The triumph of emotion over intellect is nearly complete. No-one had a plan for Brexit, but ‘make Britain Great again’ was irresistible.

This new reality is perhaps easiest to see in Mr Trump’s use of social media. His inane, ridiculous tweets inspired endless outrage during the entire election campaign, and therefore gave him a monopoly on all attention. It’s the economy, stupid, just a different currency these days. Everyone feeds the megatroll.

The goal here is not to tell the truth, but to get the attention. There is no such thing as bad publicity, outrage serves as well as applause. Stay in the controversy and stay authentic, true to your values, and watch the opposition be drowned out by the clamour.

The Western Australian election campaign by and large escaped this trend, generally obeying the old rules (which is why it is so boring). But this may be the usual Perth lag – we get everything about five years after the rest of the world.

There has always been a certain amount of this tactic used in commercial marketing, but the fear of the activist outrage campaign has kept it at bay.

In a post-Trump world, this may no longer be true. Uber has courted disaster and outrage many times, most recently with exposure of its sexist internal culture. Yet every time it seems to come back stronger. Accident or design?


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