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Seeking attention


IT SEEMS that social media has been changing the rules not just on how news and information is delivered but also on how ratings are measured. It’s no longer circulation or audience rating that determines popularity. Incentives are provided by virtual platforms to those who invite “hits” or followers on their content. Audience share is measured by engagement, the attention garnered by a particular piece of content.

This metric of hits or number of followers is supposed to determine inclusion in the formal media accreditation for bloggers (or trolls) for press briefings of the new administration. Never mind the vetting process of due diligence in filing stories and getting both sides of an issue which is a discipline imposed by editors of traditional media. Is this intended to crowd out the critics?

Does the “attention economy” exist only in the digital world where this terminology is accepted? Is it all about attention generated? Attention is a new currency. Holding it longer, with “stickiness” or engagement, is the goal of content creators. Marketers track hits to determine advertising success. It’s referred to as “share of mind” which translates into market share, eventually.

It is seen as a sign of intelligence, or maybe just perseverance, when an individual exhibits a long and sustained attention span. (Keep talking Sir, I’m taking notes.) Not staying engaged has been deemed a learning disability, termed as “attention deficit,” displayed in a child never completing any activity, getting easily distracted and moving hurriedly from one unfinished project to another.

A student’s ability to pay attention is the key to discipline and getting good marks in school. Attentive listening is part of becoming a responsible person. A good listener is prized for paying attention with a quick summary of the presentation — so, you plan to dump this nasty job on me?

However, putting the burden of paying attention on the “consumer” is no longer the rule. Attention needs to be earned. It is a currency that is paid to the supplier in exchange for compelling content. The teacher who is boring her students with a lesson in history that uses chalk and blackboard to jot down dates or, horrors, a straight lecture as exciting as the airline announcement on how to fasten seatbelts is bound to get a bad rating from even such obligatory consumers as students. Being a boring lecturer or presenter is like coughing in the elevator. It’s no longer acceptable. (Just watch the TED talks.)

The challenge to any messenger is to keep the target’s attention engaged, and to do this in as short a time as possible. There is now a new term for getting proposals approved. The “elevator presentation” hits all the talking points and gets to the conclusion while an elevator gets from ground floor to the top.

There is some solace in slowing things down. Listening is still an art, if not an act of charity. There are narratives that are not necessarily entertaining, but ultimately rewarding. Does the boss have to be amusing when he announces that you have been promoted?

Ordinary conversations over dinner are not meant to always fascinate and delight. They provide a routine that stabilizes life’s journey. Not all boring persons who don’t crackle like stand-up comedians deserve to be simply dismissed. Sometimes they have something worthwhile listening to — I’ve included you in my will. (What did you say Grandpa? I wasn’t listening.)

Conversations with friends have no slides, only hand gestures and maybe some table-pounding laughter. There are no interruptions (get to the point) for a meandering story full of digressions. No touch screen can switch the channel. Repetition is allowed.

Normal conversation is not obliged to keep attention from straying. There is no six-second timer to change subjects — next topic please.

Still, this routine of life, so ordinary and repetitive, gives pleasure and invites interest. Conversations on small things we can change and big things (like new presidents) we cannot are a lifeboat in the tossing sea of attention grabbers.

It’s alright to doze off in the middle of a story we have heard before, and to be shaken awake again — are you paying attention?

Life is not a business meeting. It’s alright to yawn. The parts you missed will be taken up again… unless there is an early departure.

Tony Samson is chairman and CEO of TOUCH xda


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