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.