On Attention: How Many Social Approvals Are There In My Post?

Attention, I believe, is the most pricy commodity economically and psychologically. There is always some website that wants your attention (economic) and there is always something you should rather give your attention to (psychology). 

These become the two facets to attention:

a) attention that we have & spend – attention economy

b) attention that we crave – psychological need

The latter is rarely talked about as much, but its nasty (and much more superior) cousin “social approval” is used instead. 

First things first, let’s talk about our beloved attention economy. You have heard it all too many times: Your attention is on sale! You are an “eyeball” that all advertisers want! And that is why your attention is scarce and valuable, so where you spend it is really how you spend your life. So, be wise. Give nourishing attention to people you love. Attend to the leaves of different intricacies. Invest your eyeballs in hobbies that make you feel alive. 

But what is often ignored is the other side of the coin, your psychological-need-for-attention. And it is complexly woven into the same “attention economy” cloth. Because as neatly as we would like to map out our lives, it is never so. Everything is a part of everything and there’s so much mish-mash that detangling them is a glorious mess. 

Yes, your attention is sold to advertisements and social media. But why do you use social media? Why do you rely on vanity metrics like likes, comments, follows, shares? Why does your monkey brain looove #XYZWhoHasTheMostAttention challenges? I think this attention-economy pitfall happens because of the need-for-attention pitfall (which is already inculcated in our stupid genes).

You crave attention. So do I. Everyone does. Yes, even that cool-huh-no-I-don’t-care high-school-fuckboy who cries four drinks down. It is there since childhood – this dire need for gaining attention. It is why babies cry. It is why they fake-cry when a sibling gets more attention from parents. It is why my classmate pretended to faint in the ninth grade. She needed her mere existence to be acknowledged, anyhow.

Sometimes, embarrassing things are done to garner attention. I wore skimpy dresses I wasn’t comfortable in. I did HIIT at 14 to look hotter for a boy who wouldn’t like me even if I was an Instagram model. I pretended to be a pretentious nerdy sophisticated chick who isn’t ever unpresentable.

But there is something deeper in this attention that you and I crave: it is the need to belong. Maslow said it’s #3, and that is pretty close to basic for most of us. This desire to have social belonging is universal. It is also present in that cool-chick-who-doesn’t-take-anything-personally (these-are-more-reminders-for-me-than-you). 

It is when you and I fail to belong that we make ends meet with attention. Sure, you won’t really like me despite my hourglass figure but at least you’d take a look (ahem, he didn’t). Yes, I wouldn’t fit in but if I just did enough drama to have your eyeballs, well, I’ll make do with that. 

This psychological-need-for-attention part is a smelly cat, but it is what it is.

What I want to highlight is how it leads to toxic behaviors in the attention-economy arena somehow, even if the contribution is tiny. It is because you and I need approval, belonging, and attention that people run columns of dating advice run on “playing hard to get” right (don’t give them attention to get their attention!). This may also be why you and I keep checking if we have collected enough followers – so we can call ourselves “accepted by other similar human species” in our own hearts.

Social media makes it easy to live off attention when belonging is scarce. It’s the Maggie bowl that makes it easy to survive when there’s no money for broccoli salads. 

I won’t summarize how to improve digital health for you. That crap is all over the internet. I’ll tell you to sit and resolve the psychological-need-for-attention part, the social-media-gives-me-approval part, the hard part, the right part to work on. 

And then, maybe, maybe, you won’t need another app to use the other apps on your phone less. You’ll just long press and hit the off-switch, you know? We often forget it’s there. 

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