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.”

Posted on April 25, 2012 at 6:51 AM24 Comments


Daniel April 25, 2012 7:07 AM

I believe “attention tumor” would be a fair term for this kind of phenomenon.

Because it is malignant and the fact it is growing faster than the surrounding (t)issue is the main problem with it.

Scott April 25, 2012 7:20 AM

“Give America a myth based on fear and the cancer from within will devour it.”

I’m not sure who said it, but it is eerily prophetic.

Clive Robinson April 25, 2012 7:22 AM

@ Bruce,

we’re also seeing fears come from the bottom up. Social media are allowing al of us to sow fear and, because fear gets attention [it] is enticing us to do so.

Even the “bubling up” is not new.

Think of “gossip” others misfortune, and character assassination spreads quickly and easily by word of mouth.

This is mainly not due to fear but like with certain classes of jokes, because it makes us feel better or more superior than the person being gossiped about, sadly in most cases it’s spiteful behaviour of faux adoption of the supposed moral high ground.

The difference these days is the reach social media has. Once upon a time what you said would get heard by only two or three people at a time so you would have to repeate it over and over, likewise they could only tell two or three people at a time, so rapidly as gossip spread it was still quite slow. Now a tweet can be read by thousands if not millions in seconds and they can re-tweet just as quickly so the spread can be world wide within minutes.

Thus as more people pick up the story it moves quite quickly into other more traditional media and the process develops a life of it’s own.

This can be good or bad, in the London Marathon a fund rasing competitor sadly died a mile from the finish. She had raised 500 GBP by her own efforts from friends and others in the small vilage she lived in. The story hit the news and new media and last night her fund page had pledges of over a thousand times the amount she had originaly raised.

will shetterly April 25, 2012 7:48 AM

I wrote a short essay recently about Outrage Theater, then threw it away because it boiled down to “rants get hits” and “humans are adrenalin junkies.”

Off to read boyd now.

Ted April 25, 2012 8:10 AM

With regard to social media (and, back in the day, even e-mail), there is definitely a distinction between the fearmongers and the “snopes”-ers.

The number of people who blindly forward “helpful” notifications has always been much greater than the number who fact-check and question. Fortunately it does seem like many are starting to learn to question what they read.

AlanS April 25, 2012 9:32 AM

Agree that this is nothing new but all this runs deeper than you suggest in the section above. Notions of risk and danger are fundamental to the ordering and re-ordering of human relations. Anthropologists have been writing about this stuff for almost as long as there have been anthropologists. See for example: Van Gennep (1909) Rites of Passage; Mary Douglas (1966) Purity and Danger; and many, many others.

Douglas (from the intro): “These danger beliefs are as much threats that one man uses to coerce another as dangers he himself fears…”

Dan Hill April 25, 2012 9:48 AM

My only hope is that social media will allow so much fear to be spread so quickly that the fears begin to drown each other out…

AnotherAnon April 25, 2012 10:38 AM

Getting geeks in touch with three-mile-island…

Some of Danah’s themes reflect well on the risk model and topics of outrage management that Peter Sandman has been practicing for decades. His focus industry isn’t in high-tech or security circles, but the relevance of his work is uncanny. Apparently, he’s been having a very difficult time staying retired!

Recognizing that social/emotional factors as well as technical ones must be managed founds a lot of his practical guidance. As geeks, we’re likely blind to some of the outrage factors and intuitively, although ineffectively, combat emotional responses with data.

There is a trove of free informational articles and discussion pages at his website Peter M. Sandman Introduction to Risk Communication and Orientation.

AEF April 25, 2012 10:38 AM

I’m not sure I’d consider fear the motivator for either the Maine or the Alamo. Those were calls for vengeance. “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute!” and all that.

echowit April 25, 2012 10:40 AM

@Dan Hill

My only hope is that social media will allow so much fear to be spread so quickly that the fears begin to drown each other out…

Seems like that should be (and possibly is) happening given the amount of content out there, but it seems (IMO) that most users self-filter sources that conflict with their paradigm so they’ll never see the duplicity or conflict in the facts presented and will readily accept them as real in nature and realistic in number. Thus the dumbing will continue…

kashmarek April 25, 2012 11:25 AM

The basis for marketing (including fear) by corporations and politicians is found in the 4 part BBC series, “Century of The Self” (in black & white). This is the same methodology used for public relations and maintaining a good image in the public eye. The files can be found on the internet. It is a story about Freud and his nephew that took Freud’s concepts to New York and used them for advertising, which is a disease that permeates the world today. This is basically what PNAC wanted to export by pushing democracy to the rest of the world (PNAC, under Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz & Cheney, provided the Iraq war plan).

Figureitout April 25, 2012 12:03 PM

Restless Leg Syndrome

Add the word Syndrome to the end of any otherwise innocuous phenomena like “blinking eyes __” or “salivating mouth __” or “thinking brain __” and suddenly you have a disorder for which I have the perfect drug for you…Yes you have a disease that needs treatment, trust me I’m a medical professional; I know better than you. If you don’t you will die from blinkidosis, slobberitis, or intelligepsy.

Daniel (a different one) April 25, 2012 12:54 PM

Personally, I think the key word in all of this is amplification. As I sometime remark the first amendment to US Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech not the freedom to yell. As a society we have taken the magnification and amplification of everything for granted and forgot how unnatural that actually as. Even St Paul could figure out that the difference between puffing something up and edification (1 Corinthians 8). Maybe it’s just old age but I sometimes curse the person who invented the sonic amplifier. Whoever yells and screams the loudest, wins.

In other words, I don’t think the initial problem is fear vs knowledge. I think the intial problem is how do we turn the volume down on whole conversation so that some of the quieter, rational voices can actually be heard.

Otter April 25, 2012 2:00 PM

Oddly… or more likely, as you might expect… “Radical Transparency” was a cognitive therapy applied to oneself. One admitted/confessed one’d irrational fears, thereby liberating oneself, putting down the unnecessary load. But note : irrational fear, and unnecessary load. One considered carefully, often with professional assistance, which was which and what the consequences of revelation might be. And was a blade with two edges two edges : one discovered and admitted to oneself one’s fears and motivations; then revealed to one’s trustable friends and relationships.

Harvey Milk liberated himself, in California. However, he betrayed Sipple, who had good reason to hide.

Radical Transparency, when used by and for oneself, is a great tool, a walking stick. When used against others, it is lethal weapon.

Wikileaks, and Vikileaks, do not disperse or prove unreal the fears with which one blights one’s own life. They expose the lies with which the powerful blight other people’s lives. Not transparency at all, but illumination.

Otter April 25, 2012 3:02 PM

“outing” is another concept which has been perverted.

“coming out” was an act of faith and bravery. When famous people “come out”, they make all feminists/gays/whatevers more acceptable and safer.

“outing” was an act of illumination. The politician who preached or tolerated homophobia but snuck into the bathhouse, the priest who sermonized against adultery but met prostitutes in sleazy motels, the man who professed feminism but oppressed his wife, all were “outed”.

Many people forgot the distinction. Coming out is liberating. Pushing out scoundrels is justice. Outing the powerless, those with rational fears, is thoughtless or hostile.

If Zucherman really wanted people… including himself… to be accountable, he would have displayed a big red button labelled, “If you click this button, you will reveal your true name. If you don’t reveal your true name, you can’t play in my sandbox.” His customers don’t pay for accountable people; they pay for identified people (or more recently, unidentified and safely unaccountable Arabs).

As danah never manages to say, outing is not transparency. It is subterfuge.

Wayne April 25, 2012 3:04 PM

“The answer is that one would like to be both the one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.”

Figureitout April 25, 2012 3:36 PM

Here’s why I can respect Bruce more than most, because he should probably not talk about how fear can be exaggerated and blown out of proportion, it’s not in his financial interest to do so.

He doesn’t completely throw his cards down though, business is business as you can see with the talks he gives. He will play down a buzzword like “cyberwar” or “advanced persistent threat”, and then at the end say “..well you know, maybe cyberwar’s so easy, even kids can do it.” And then he’s good at adding that dramatic pause to let listeners run those scenarios through their heads and he does the big-eyed stare.

People don’t watch/read the news to hear how little Timmy helped his granny carry the groceries into her house. They watch/read it to eat the fruits of the muckraker’s labor. “Ho hum, woe is me, how’s the world going to end now?”

Look at people like “Evel Knievel”, how they do otherwise stupid, irrational stunts like lighting himself on fire and jumping over 50 cars. The fire adds to the show, gives a little flare, and people want to see it, the guy made a career out of doing stuff like that. Deep down, do people have lustful desires for the priss and proper or for the wild, outgoing risk-takers?

Aside from all that, I think fear is not all bad. If you don’t fear anything, you don’t respect anything, and even though paralyzing fear is probably unhealthy and not a good way to live life, I still feel that the most paranoid people are people who are some of the most intelligent people who are aware of too many real dangers. Bruce didn’t lose some of his hair because there isn’t any stress in life and the computer security field.

Regarding social media, even though I’m spiteful of advertisements/marketers for a variety of reasons, it was an ad that really struck me and contributed to the many things that got me off of twitter/facebook and all the other wannabe sites. In one scene, people are outside, interacting with real people and enjoying life like humans have up until the last 20-30 years. In the other scene is a girl, sitting by herself in front of a screen, making fun of the people out doing stuff about how little “friends” they have. And the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that social media are not all they are cracked up to be, and considering all the benefits and costs, will have more costs to society in the long-run.

Petréa Mitchell April 25, 2012 4:08 PM

To address the larger question of how the new networks are used and can be manipulated: Driver nodes. The phenomenon has been well-understood in the marketing world for a long time, but this is the first rigorous description in terms that the computer world will find easy to grasp that I’m aware of.

conor April 25, 2012 7:21 PM

I call “bull shit” on this.

My fear comes from my ability to add and subtract.

Has anyone looked at any of the Fed’s numbers? If not, shut up.

Bill Minuke April 25, 2012 10:32 PM

I don’t call bull on this. I call ignorance; I don’t understand fear, we live in among the safest countries on the world. Everyone has their anecdotes, but what are the facts?

I’d like to see the demographics of the fearful. I’d like to get a handle on what they are afraid of and what lead them to be fearful people.

Vance April 26, 2012 12:51 AM

@Dan Hill

Not sure if that was meant in jest, but it seems unlikely that competing fears will have a damping effect on one another. A climate of fear makes it difficult to accurately judge the reliability of information. As stated in this interesting post (emphasis added):

The assumption that all information is unreliable, and all sources biased, has had the perverse effect of ensuring that all rumor is taken seriously. This is not to say all rumor is believed — on the contrary, most information is received with skepticism — but that it is shared, parsed and discussed to a degree belying its dubious origins. The result of ubiquitous paranoia is not disbelief. It is credulity.

So this doesn’t seem like an environment that is inherently self-correcting.

Daniel April 26, 2012 12:43 PM

Interesting article, @vance. I agree that the result tends to be credulity but a low grade kind of credulity. You can believe anything but nothing too much. I think this was the case in the USSR before perestroika.

The biggest problem then is how this situation limits both social and personal growth. No one wants to commit any money or energy into a cause because they are worried that the rug will be pulled out from under them. Even when the truth does come out it doesn’t edify in any way because it’s just an isolated fact in a web of lies.

Russia is instructive in this regard because it shows that when such a society gets the truth with both barrels of the shotgun it isn’t always welcome, as evidenced by the rise of Putin. A society can get too much truth too fast and the social dislocation becomes disorientating.

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