Fear and the Attention Economy
danah boyd is thinking about — in a draft essay, and as a recording of a presentation — fear and the attention economy. Basically, she is making the argument that the attention economy magnifies the culture of fear because fear is a good way to get attention, and that this is being made worse by the rise of social media.
A lot of this isn’t new. Fear has been used to sell products (I’ve written about that here) and policy (“Remember the Maine!” “Remember the Alamo! “Remember 9/11!”) since forever. Newspapers have used fear to attract readers since there were readers. Long before there were child predators on the Internet, irrational panics swept society. Shark attacks in the 1970s. Marijuana in the 1950s. boyd relates a story from Glassner’s The Culture of Fear about elderly women being mugged in the 1990s.
These fears have largely been driven from the top down: from political leaders, from the news media. What’s new today — and I agree this is very interesting — is that in addition to these traditional top-down fears, we’re also seeing fears come from the bottom up. Social media are allowing all of us to sow fear and, because fear gets attention, is enticing us to do so. Rather than fostering empathy and bringing us all together, social media might be pushing us further apart.
A lot of this is related to my own writing about trust. Fear causes us to mistrust a group we’re fearful of, and to more strongly trust the group we’re a part of. It’s natural, and it can be manipulated. It can be amplified, and it can be dampened. How social media are both enabling and undermining trust is a really important thing for us to understand. As boyd says: “What we design and how we design it matters. And how our systems are used also matters, even if those uses aren’t what we intended.”