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.
That 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.