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The Attention Myth

Everyone seems to be looking for attention. Today as I write this, it’s “Black Friday,” where retailers are offering all kinds of strange offers hoping that it garners attention of shoppers. For writers and creative professionals, many have focused on getting attention for their writing via social media, accumulating “likes” and “friends” and “pins.” This emotions that many writers feel about this is pretty adequately expressed in this post by Sean Beaudoin: “The Horrors of Self Promotion.” (thanks to David Farkas for the link) While I don’t agree with a couple of Sean’s key premises, I definitely feel that the depth and complexity of emotion around this topic is pervasive and very real for so many creative professionals.

A friend recently mentioned that “attention is the only finite resource.”

I’m not sure if that is true or not, but it certainly makes for a good quote. And it explains how we seem to have a greater capacity nowadays for more stuff in shorter timeframes. EG: We don’t wait for a monthly magazine to learn about movie stars, we need a new scandal every 20 minutes on TMZ, from people created as “celebrities,” specifically for this purpose.

But this is only part of the equation. Someone I was working with in a course I teach for Mediabistro recently said this to me after a lesson: “This was an interesting exercise in that it opened my eyes to the discrepancy between my expectations and those of my client. I have been helping the client get attention, but I have no plan in place on how to convert attention into action.”

I am writing this at Starbucks, and in the 1/2 mile drive it took to get here, I was behind a truck for my local lumberyard, who I couldn’t help but notice had a big Facebook “F” logo painted on the back of their truck. This was a signal that they felt it was so important for local customers to check them out on Facebook, that it was a key connection point. Yet, when I go to their site now, I see pretty much what you would expect: haphazard updates without any real frequency. There is nothing “wrong” with their page, most of their updates are actually expressions saying “it’s hot out there, be careful,” which is nice.

But it’s indicative of what many writers feel: this pressure to be present on a social media channel and develop an audience for some mysterious point in the future when they know what to do with all that attention?

The result is often this:

  1. They never really accumulate that big of an audience.
  2. They never really do anything special with the channel they are focused on. (e.g.: Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
  3. They never learn how to turn a vague sense of awareness that someone has for you or your work, into any meaningful connection, whether it is a relationship or the sale of a book.

The word I hear most from people I chat with is this: “overwhelmed.” And there has been some backlash to this idea of attention seeking, with some folks taking sabbaticals or social media breaks.

If I look back at what I am thankful for this year, it is never the base metrics of things like “Followers.” It is always a reflection on a meaningful conversation I had – be it via social media, email, Skype, phone, text message, letter, or in-person. And perhaps the biggest takeaway here for me is that meaningful communication truly happened via EACH of those channels for me this year. And the skill that I need to develop is not to grab MORE attention from MORE people, but rather, to create more meaningful moments regardless of the channel I am using; that these moments are never about “going viral,” and always shared between just two people.

That seeking attention is a hollow action unless you have a clear understanding of how it can lead to a meaningful experience.


  • Michael Kelberer

    Nice, Dan! Mindless attention-seeking calls to mind “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Helps to reconnect with the “why” of what we’re doing, the quality of our life not the quantity of our living.

  • Pearl R. Meaker

    I think this is a large part of why I’m dreading the whole process of “developing a platform,” or whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing with all of this. Thank you. I’d really rather make friends. 🙂

    • Thanks Pearl. Yes, it is often about how one frames the concept of a “platform.” It is really not about promotion, but about communication and trust.

  • Richard Newman

    I think that it’s also important to remember that, allowing for the obvious exceptions, writing often does its work slowly, out of the public eye, and while there are certainly things you can do to help make that work more visible, and to capitalize on those moments when it suddenly becomes visible in ways you might not otherwise expect, no amount of marketing or relationship-building will do the work that only the writing can do. And waiting for that work to happen takes patience, which is precisely what social media, Black Friday, and everything else of that ilk mitigates against. I guess part of what I am doing is drawing a distinction that I think is implicit in a lot of what you write but that you don’t really make explicit—or that I haven’t seen you make explicit: the distinction between what it means to relate to people as a human being who is a writer and what it means for your writing itself to touch those people. It takes patience to see each of those come to fruition, but you can have some control over the first; but you cannot really control the second; and I think that’s a hard thing for writers to learn to accept, since it is, after all, the words we have put on the page/screen that we believe are worthy of people’s time, energy, and money—and that we think will in some way change them/the world for the better.

    • Richard,
      Wow – wonderful point, thanks for exploring & sharing this. This seems to align with “you can’t plan for success, but you can prepare for it,” and I think there is a big gray area between the two things you distinguish against here. Love your perspective here, thank you!

      • Richard Newman

        So much of this work is in that “gray area.” You try things and they work; you try things and they don’t work. It’s a constant process of “range finding,” if you know what I mean, and of balancing ambition against reality, and of learning to accept that if something fails, it doesn’t mean you are a failure; and that you can only ride the wave of each success for so long before you have to start “range finding” again. And I think, as I am writing this, that it’s also very important to say that learning to be patient with and in this whole process is not the same thing as doing nothing; it’s about, among other things, not forcing what you do do into some preconceived notion of what the end result is supposed to look like.