May 02

Attention Attraction for the Attention Deficient Generation

Andy Warhol famously quipped, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” His appraisal of the fleeting nature of fame was mostly right. However, he said that before the advent of repeated episodes, re-run and syndicated series, reality TV, blogs, and social networking. Had he seen these, perhaps he’d have suggested “15 episodes”, “15 seasons”, “15 posts”, “to 15 people”, “15 words”, or “15 seconds at a time”.

The 80’s have been called “the me decade” for selfishness and decadence. I can’t imagine what history will make of the 00’s. Today’s popular culture is a sad contradiction. We are constantly seeking attention from others while having deficient attention spans ourselves.

Once we were content to watch others make fools and national amusements of themselves on game shows. Then came the pranks, gross-outs, and groin kicks of “America’s Funniest Home Videos”. “Real World” kicked off the reality TV genre, but “Survivor” made it a must-see water cooler obsession. We’d graduated from shadenfreude to voyeurism.

We wanted more, though. We wanted to be on the other side of the magnifying glass for the world to see. When blogs and YouTube came along, everyone could be a critic and an internet star. The introduction of MySpace and Facebook made it cool to bare our souls, and sometimes our bodies, for others’ amusement and adulation. We’d surpassed voyeurism and encouraged it with exhibitionism.

That still wasn’t enough, though. Now we have micro-blogging services like Twitter and GPS-enhanced instant postcard services like Brightkite. To tie everything together, we have personal aggregators like MyBlogLogand FriendFeed. Welcome to sanctioned stalking.

So here we are. We’re living in a sound-bite, IM-abbreviated, drive-thru, disposable, impatient, ostentatious, verbose, and nosey world. Can you hear me now? Good. Here we are, now. Entertain us. Broadcast yourself. I want it my, right away.

I was brought to these thoughts by a recent post at ThatNight about Brightkite. Rachel asks if broadcasting our locations multiple times a day is outside of our comfort zones. I responded:

“I’m not comfortable with this. I think people have lost a proper sense of modesty, privacy, and humility. Why must the world know what I’m doing and where I am 24/7? Am I that important? Besides, I think it opens people up to not only stalking but also blackmailing and blacklisting. Employers are getting more savvy about social media every day. I’m probably not as careful about what I say on the net as I should be, and I’m not remotely as exposed as someone like Robert Scoble.”

A particular comment in response to mine inspired this rambling, hypocritical rant, but before I get to that, I’d like to expand on my comment. Here are some dictionary definitions of modesty, privacy, humility. For good measure, I’ve included shame and discretion as well.


  1. the quality of being modest; freedom from vanity, boastfulness, etc.
  2. regard for decency of behavior, speech, dress, etc.
  3. simplicity; moderation

  1. the state of being private; retirement or seclusion.
  2. the state of being free from intrusion or disturbance in one’s private life or affairs: the right to privacy.
  3. secrecy.

  1. the quality or condition of being humble; modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance, rank, etc.

  1. the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another

  1. the quality of being discreet, esp. with reference to one’s own actions or speech; prudence or decorum

Most of the internet, including my favorite parts, are antithetical to those concepts. I’m not proud of my participation in immodesty, vanity, boastfulness, indecency, intrusiveness, shamelessness, imprudence, indecorousness, and gossip. Nor do I think others should. The internet holds great potential for uniting people and transcending unfortunate, circumstantial, and necessary realities such as geographical and national boundaries. However, for most people at most times it’s just an addictive time-suck that over-exposes them. Anyhow, here’s the response to my comment that inspired this post:

“I’m a bit disgruntled about Eric’s use of the phrase ‘a proper sense of modesty, privacy, and humility.’ Different groups have different ideas about what’s proper, so I think it’s inappropriate (hah!) to say there’s some ‘proper sense’ we have lost.

“Further, on the Internet everyone has the opportunity to opt. If you don’t care where I am or what I’m doing, you can choose not to see my updates. Meanwhile, someone might care (hi Mom!), and she has the opportunity to check in on me whenever she likes. Importance is in the mind of the follower.”

My rebuttal:

“Cynthia, I agree that people are and should be free to opt in or out as desired. I also agree that ‘proper’ is in the mind of the beholder. I wonder, though, when it became taboo to discuss what should be proper in general society. A lot of people seem to be so politically correct and relativistic that large-scale value judgments of any kind are met with disgust and disdain.”

Different groups do indeed have different ideas about what’s proper. Stating that merely begs the question of whether some standards are better than others. Furthermore, should there be universal standards upon which we all agree? Is there such thing as natural law or is all morality relative? If there are universal standards or ideals, shouldn’t we aspire to them? I’m not advocating compulsory conformity; as a budding libertarian I respect others’ right to live their lives as they please (within reason). However, respecting individual liberty does not preclude explicit or implicit social indoctrination. After all, we can’t expect people to respect liberty unless they’re educated about liberty and why it should be respected. The same goes for any social mores.

While I suspect the comments will by dominated by arguments of “relativism vs absolute truths”, I’ll save my commentary for another post on another day. Otherwise this post will get too long and lose focus.

Anyhow, if Cynthia objects to “proper”, perhaps she will be less offended by “prudent”. She is right that people are free to opt out of internet services, but will they? I would argue that some powerful forces encourage and coerce participation. For early adopters, there is the lure of the cutting edge. For many people, particularly teens, peer pressure pushes them into new media. For everyone else, there is the inevitable march of progress. Technologies change how lives are lived, and eventually people peacefully embrace new tools and media, are dragged into using them kicking and screaming, or they are born into a world that has already abandoned old tools and media.

New technologies often, perhaps even usually, change our lives for the better, but not always. Ultimately, the driving (or in this case non-inhibiting) force that impacts the largest number of people is ignorance and/or naiveté of the dangers to which they expose themselves. Sometimes the cutting edge is a bleeding edge, and too few people seem to realize or appreciate that. Worse, for some people, questioning the propriety or prudence of using technology and media in certain ways is tantamount to sacrilege. Whatever we do, we mustn’t pay attention to the man behind the curtain!

Thankfully, some people are willing to wonder about the consequences of various internet behaviors. For instance, what kind of affect is text-speak having on the English language and how it’s taught?

“OMG. Hieroglyphic text-speak is slipping into homework. A national look at middle- and high-schoolers found that two-thirds of students have accidentally used instant-messaging style in their academic work, according to a survey released Thursday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. A quarter admitted they have used smiley faces and other emoticons in their papers. Half confessed to informal punctuation and grammar, and four in 10 take typing shortcuts such as “LOL” to express ‘laughing out loud.’ Can NE1 say ‘Big fat F’?”

An editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that internet addiction should be included in DSM-V. I guess that’d be another pressure to add to the list above.

“Internet addiction appears to be a common disorder that merits inclusion in DSM-V. Conceptually, the diagnosis is a compulsive-impulsive spectrum disorder that involves online and/or offline computer usage (1, 2) and consists of at least three subtypes: excessive gaming, sexual preoccupations, and e-mail/text messaging (3). All of the variants share the following four components: 1) excessive use, often associated with a loss of sense of time or a neglect of basic drives, 2) withdrawal, including feelings of anger, tension, and/or depression when the computer is inaccessible, 3) tolerance, including the need for better computer equipment, more software, or more hours of use, and 4) negative repercussions, including arguments, lying, poor achievement, social isolation, and fatigue (3, 4).”

Finally, getting back to the topic at hand, here is an article about people reconsidering the transparency on the internet they once embraced.

“‘All of the sudden I felt completely exposed,’ said Mitchell, a 22-year-old financial analyst in the District. ‘It was fine when I was in school, but I just started my first job. I can’t be out there like that.'”

Don’t get me wrong. I find new technologies exciting, especially “vox populi” media, and I think most technologies are only good or bad by virtue of their uses rather than their inherent natures. However, I also think in our rush to try the next new toy, be part of the “next big thing”, and pray homage to almighty progress, we often neglect to think about the ethical and moral values of our choices and actions. We’re too awed by “coolness” to evaluate “correctness”. I’ll close with this quote from C.S. Lewis.

“We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”

Use the comment form below to share your opinions on this issue with the world. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and entertain 15 friends for 15 seconds with 15 words.

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