2017 is for the attention innovators

“New strategies of attention have shaped many of the (often divisive) outcomes of recent referenda and elections across multiple continents, and they will continue to be a driving force in 2017 and beyond.”

In the United States, this was the year electoral politics embraced memes in full force. From the “This is fine” dog to #NastyWoman tweets to Make America Great Again selfies, social media users on all sides of the aisle took notice and faved, shared, and remixed. They even transformed those digital memes into physical ones, with countless mugs, hats, t-shirts, and stickers to be printed off and sold with each new hashtag-inspiring utterance and action.

an-xiao-minaThat memes reached the mainstream is just a snippet of a larger picture: the ability to capture, shape, and channel attention in the digital and physical world is a critical component of power and influence in the 21st century. As technology theorist Zeynep Tufekci has noted, “Controlling attention is power — the 21st century goes to those who get this.”

Attention, of course, is not a new issue — just look to the history of television ads that kick up a notch in volume. What’s new are the strategies and context in which media makers have to operate. This often comes with a degree of outrageousness we’re not accustomed to from political leaders.

In a recent talk at the Shorenstein Center, Tim Wu discussed the attention economy we live in and some of the accompanying extremes:

One of the risks in markets which are completely driven by attention seeking is they tend to run toward the most lurid, outrageous, attention-getting content and operate in a winner-take-all manner. If you care about our culture, care about our media — it’s something to be concerned about.

At the global scale, both trending topics and trending campaigns seem to have in common an ability to captivate people’s eyes and ears — often spurring them to speak and type about them, whether or not they agree. Along with that come the added challenges of a diversified and often siloed media landscape influenced by social media, niche (and sometimes fabricated) news sites, and people’s declining trust in facts and figures from traditional institutions.

Our work in 2017 will require creative efforts — new experiments, new tools, new ways of telling stories, and new ways of sharing. It will require a better understanding of how people in power can wield attention in misleading, confusing and damaging ways. But attention innovation is not just for politicians’ clever tweets and GIF bites: from #NoDAPL to Ethiopia’s Oromo movement, in 2016, disempowered communities have also been finding new ways to influence local and international discourse around their causes.

We need to start turning our eyes globally, to contexts outside the Western world, like Egypt, China, the Philippines, and Colombia, where media communities and advocates have also been dealing with this new media environment and working on new strategies. Global coalitions can help us learn from and share with each other.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting we all embrace memes and come up with controversial headlines; rather, we need a holistic approach that includes the personal aspects of attention — human psychology, cultural mores, language divides, issues of trust and relatability — and that drives us to find long term solutions and build a new culture around media. Moving forward will require, as my colleague Tom Trewinnard has written, a careful and sustained practice of building trust with audiences.

This might mean operating beyond the page and screen, to help foster critical media literacy skills and grow supportive communities, and to equip people to better evaluate and create content they see online and offline. This will require new ways to listen more effectively, work with online groups more actively, ask more questions, and experiment within interdisciplinary communities.

If 2016 has taught us anything, it’s that predicting the future is difficult. One thing is increasingly clear: New strategies of attention have shaped many of the (often divisive) outcomes of recent referenda and elections across multiple continents, and they will continue to be a driving force in 2017 and beyond. In the coming year, journalists and media makers will do well to understand the new dynamics of attention more deeply. We won’t solve everything this year, but we’ll certainly lay the groundwork.

An Xiao Mina leads the product team at Meedan and was a 2016 Knight Nieman Visiting Fellow.

Tanya Cordrey   The resurgence of reach

Rubina Madan Fillion   Snapchat grows up

Andrea Silenzi   Podcasts dive into breaking news analysis

Sue Schardt   Objectivity, fairness, balance, and love

Laura E. Davis   Show your work

Megan H. Chan   Cultural reporting goes mainstream

Trushar Barot   API or die

Mira Lowe   News literacy, bias, and “Hamilton”

Liz McMillen   The year of deep insights

Andrew Haeg   The year of listening

Caitlin Thompson   High touch, high value

Jim Friedlich   A banner year for venture philanthropy

Jonathan Hunt   Measurement companies get with the times

Matt Waite   The people running the media are the problem

Ståle Grut   The battle for high-quality VR

Jeremy Barr   A terrible year for Tiers B through D

Erin Millar   The bottom falls out of Canadian media

Cindy Royal   Preparing the digital educator-scholar hybrid

Umbreen Bhatti   A sense of journalists’ humanity

Dhiya Kuriakose   The year of digital detoxing

Doris Truong   Connecting with diverse perspectives

Helen Havlak   Chasing mobile search results

Libby Bawcombe   Kids board the podcast train

Lee Glendinning   A call for great editing

Samantha Barry   Messaging apps go mainstream

Keren Goldshlager   Defining a focus, and then saying no

Moreno Cruz Osório   The year of transparency in Brazilian journalism

Swati Sharma   Failing diversity is failing journalism

Andy Rossback   The year of the user

David Chavern   Fake news gets solved

Matt Karolian   AI improves publishing

Ole Reißmann   Un-faking the news

Jonathan Stray   A boom in responsible conservative media

Rebekah Monson   Journalism is community-as-a-service

Ariane Bernard   Better data about your users

Mike Ragsdale   A smarter information diet

Mary Meehan   Feeling blue in a red state

Joanne Lipman   The year of the drone, really

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Truthiness in private spaces

Robert Hernandez   History will exclude you, again

Steve Henn   The next revolution is voice

Pablo Boczkowski   Fake news and the future of journalism

Almar Latour   Thanks, #fakenews

Hillary Frey   Forests need to burn to regrow

Sydette Harry   Facing journalism’s history

Alexis Lloyd   Public trust for private realities

Laura Walker   Authentic voices, not fake news

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   News after advertising may look like news before advertising

Mathew Ingram   The Faustian Facebook dance continues

Francesco Marconi   The year of augmented writing

Burt Herman   Local news gets interesting

David Skok   What lies beyond paywalls

Asma Khalid   The year of the newsy podcast

Kawandeep Virdee   Moving deeper than the machine of clicks

Tracie Powell   Building reader relationships

Vivian Schiller   Tested like never before

Ryan McCarthy   Platforms grow up or grow more toxic

Claire Wardle   Verification takes center stage

Mark Armstrong   Time to pay up

Tim Griggs   The year we stop taking sides

Peter Sterne   A dangerous anti-press mix

Dan Gillmor   Fix the demand side of news too

Taylor Lorenz   “Selfie journalism” becomes a thing

Alice Antheaume   A new test for French media

An Xiao Mina   2017 is for the attention innovators

Aja Bogdanoff   Comments start pulling their weight

Corey Ford   The year of the rebelpreneur

Guy Raz   Inspiration and hope will matter more than ever

Carla Zanoni   Prioritizing emotional health

Ray Soto   VR moves from experiments to immersion

S.P. Sullivan   Baking transparency into our routines

Alberto Cairo   Communicating uncertainty to our readers

Emily Goligoski   Incorporating audience feedback at scale

Dan Colarusso   Let’s make live video we can love

Julia Beizer   Building a coherent core identity

Rachel Schallom   Stop flying over the flyover states

Bill Keller   A healthy skepticism about data

Tim Herrera   The safe space of service journalism

Reyhan Harmanci   Bear witness — but then what?

Mary Walter-Brown   Getting comfortable asking for money

Adam Thomas   The coming collaboration across Europe

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Earn trust by working for (and with) readers

Jon Slade   Trusted news, at a premium

Sarah Marshall   Focusing on the why of the click

Richard J. Tofel   The country doesn’t trust us — but they do believe us

Ken Schwencke   Disaggregation and collection

Felix Salmon   Headlines matter

Sam Ford   The year we talk about our awful metrics

Millie Tran   International expansion without colonial overtones

Geetika Rudra   Journalism is community

Christopher Meighan   Unlocking a deeper mobile experience

P. Kim Bui   The year journalism teaches again

Coleen O'Lear   Back to basics

Nicholas Quah   Podcasting’s coming class war

Michael Kuntz   Trust is the new click

Nushin Rashidian   A rise in high-price, high-value subscriptions

Michael Oreskes   Reversing the erosion of democracy

Juan Luis Sánchez   Your predictions are our present

Bill Adair   The year of the fact-checking bot

Mario Garcia   Virtual reality on mobile leaps forward

Gabriel Snyder   The aberration of 20th-century journalism

Carrie Brown-Smith   We won’t do enough

Sara M. Watson   There is no neutral interface

Andrew Ramsammy   Rise of the rebel journalist

Cory Haik   Navigating power in Trump’s America

Kathleen Kingsbury   Print as a premium offering

Amy O'Leary   Not just covering communities, reaching them

Margarita Noriega   From pinning tweets to tweeting pins

Melody Kramer   Radically rethinking design

Juliette De Maeyer and Dominique Trudel   A rebirth of populist journalism

David Weigel   A test for online speech

Nathalie Malinarich   Making it easy

Olivia Ma   The year collaboration beats competition

Rachel Sklar   Women are going to get loud

Elizabeth Jensen   Trust depends on the details

M. Scott Havens   Quality advertising to pair with quality content

Javaun Moradi   What can we own?

Ashley C. Woods   Local journalism will fight a new fight

Priya Ganapati   Mobile websites are ready for reinvention

Dannagal G. Young   The return of the gatekeepers

Anita Zielina   The sales funnel reaches (and changes) the newsroom

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting stratifies into hard layers

Errin Haines Whack   Chaos or community?

Mandy Velez   The audience is the source and the story

Amy Webb   Journalism as a service

Annemarie Dooling   UGC as a path out of the bubble

Andrew Losowsky   Building our own communities

Erin Pettigrew   A year of reflection in tech

Zizi Papacharissi   Distracted journalism looks in the mirror

Katie Zhu   The year of minority media

Sarah Wolozin   Virtual reality on the open web

Scott Dodd   Nonprofits team up for impact

Amie Ferris-Rotman   Вслед за Россией

Emi Kolawole   From empathy to community

Lam Thuy Vo   The primary source in the age of mechanical multiplication

Molly de Aguiar   Philanthropists galvanize around news

Liz Danzico   The triumph of the small

Tressie McMillan Cottom   A path through the media’s coming legitimacy crisis

Maria Bustillos   “It’s true — I saw it on Facebook”

Renée Kaplan   Pure reach has reached its limit