The Anxiety of Curated Attention
How the algorithm decides who sees you… and what that means
Back before the invention of the modern, electronic mass media in the early part of the 20th century, we competed for attention with those around us. There was no such thing as a film star, TV personality or influencer. We looked up to older family members or senior members of our community, like monarchs, politicians and tribal elders. These people held the most attention. They competed with few others, and their status was generally secure (unless they were deposed or decapitated, of course).
Even as I grew up, I didn’t worry about who saw me, who noticed me, or what I had to do to get attention. I had my small reality, and I had TV shows and favourite bands. I tuned in to cartoons after school and turned my LP or cassette tape over half way through the album. There was an ‘attention separation’: I focused my attention on celebrities that I admired, and wasn’t much interested in anyone else. I thought far less about myself than I did those I looked up to.
Most of the people we admired earned their status. They went to stage school, struggled through getting their big break in Hollywood, or played multiple small gigs in smoky pubs before someone spotted them and gave them a record deal. They had talent (for the most part), or at least charisma. In order for the mediators of agents, publishers, promoters and directors to pay attention to them, they had to have some X factor that set them apart from the rest of us.
There are still people like that who we look up to and who influence us. There are film stars and pop stars. But in the last twenty years, a new phenomena has emerged, that of the social media influencer. These people have (generally) not been through the normal route. They haven’t had their big break through one gatekeeper spotting them. They’ve often quietly gathered a massive following through a social media platform like YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok. Mr Beast, Addison Rae, Jake and Logan Paul, Charlie D’Amelio: none of these influencers went the normal route into their massive fame. They grew a profitable fan base through video sharing platforms. They managed, for whatever reason, to capture the attention of a (mainly) Millennial and Gen Z audience worldwide, and as a result became hugely successful.
Even Billie Eilish, who is now a household name, rose to fame through posting a song onto SoundCloud, a music sharing platform. It’s no longer important where you are when you create: millions are being made in bedrooms and kitchens across the world each day. You can capture mass attention through a series of short dance moves or talking through video gameplay as easily as you can through creating a big budget Hollywood movie. In fact, the ROI for the former is orders of magnitude greater than the latter, because the cost of production is close to zero when you’re dancing in front of your camera and uploading to TikTok. In fact, the more amateurish the better, which is why big names are taking to TikTok and YouTube to advertise their products in the same, home made way. My current favourite is the Google Pixel campaign that blew up on YouTube and TikTok.
Attention no longer equates to our own personal dollars spent. We have grown wary of gloss and high production values. CGI is losing its appeal. We want real people, in their real bedrooms, doing real shit. This is what captures our interest.
A whole industry is growing up around how to grab attention on social media. Take LinkedIn. There are an increasing number of people making a living from showing others how to capture interest. How to increase impressions (hack the algorithm! Improve your hooks!), boost engagement (don’t forget a CTA!, ensure you give away as much IP as you can!) and convert leads. Some of it is valuable, but much of it is noise.
Andy Warhol was right: now anyone can become famous. We have YouTube millionaires like Ryan Kaji, who rose to fame through unboxing toys and giving his reviews. He is now twelve, but started when he was three years old. As of October 2023, his Ryan’s World Youtube channel had 37.5 million subscribers and 56 billion views. That is a lot of attention for a young child.
But what perhaps many don’t realise is how we have increasingly less control over the attention our creative output receives on these channels. When TikTok was first launched there was a lot less traffic, so creators like the D’Amelios were able to grow a huge following quickly without an enormous amount of algorithmic influence. It’s a lot harder now: I’ve seen an increasing number of posts from creators like Dylan Page (aka News Daddy), take to their channels to complain that the algorithm is somehow working against them. It sounds churlish, and biting the hand that feeds you, but they have a point.
We control attention far less than ever before. And this creates anxiety. If our livelihood solely depends on attention, and AI controls that, then we are not in control. Whilst some might see Page as a whining Gen Z who should be grateful he has a business which involves him commenting on news items, if you pay attention to what he says, you will learn a lot about the current fear that grips so many young people today.
If we believe others control us, we feel paranoid. We become angry that the algorithm is out to get us, that some unseen force has been put in place to rob us of what is rightfully ours. We need millions of views on our TikTok posts to make even a reasonable living, so for every Charlie D’Amelio there are a thousand smaller creators who are just about scraping a living through what they do. So when the algorithm suddenly stops working how it did, and we’re paid less per view, or our content is no longer pushed in front of the same number of people, we have no way to impact on the outcome. This helplessness can be stressful.
Much of this anxiety is driven through the vanity metrics of how many likes we get, as we are hooked on the mini dopamine hits we get when we see that someone has engaged with our posts. But when we build a business solely around attention we are at the mercy of forces we can never control.
In the past, we sold our time and skill for money. Other than writers, who could scale their skill through publishing, and business owners, who could scale through employing others to multiply their services or solutions, there were few other jobs which weren’t bound by what you could achieve in the hours available each day. It was limited, but to a large extent controllable. We could work more hours to earn more money, or we could upskill ourselves so that our value per hour increased.
In an algorithmically controlled world where value equates to attention rather than skill deployed per hour, we are cut adrift from the anchors that would have traditionally defined our sense of worth. We are at the mercy of machine intelligence that decides, for reasons we will never understand, to give more attention to a video of someone falling off a chair, or a funny cat, over anything more meaningful, thought-provoking, or educational we might create. This can leave us feeling frustrated and confused.
What this means to those entering the ‘workforce’ for the first time is hard to say. And what it means to our education system is even harder to define. What we do know is that this isn’t going away: the more attention is commoditised and controlled by algorithmic forces beyond our control, the less agency we have, and the more that will inevitably impact on our sense of self.
The trick is working out how to keep calm and carry on, as we only have one life and we’re in the middle of it. Perhaps it’s simpler than we think. Perhaps we need to care less about what others think, do our thing each day, help as many people as we can, stick to our guns, be patient, and see what happens. That’s been my approach this year and it’s working out ok for me.
After all, attention isn’t much use if you can’t pay your rent or feed your family.