Sunday, 1 April 2018

The addiction of attention.

Maybe the Select Committee set up to address Online Falsehood has glossed over one thing? 
The addiction of attention? 
I guess the question is ultimately this: What drives people to post with such frequency, immediacy and urgency? What do they hope to achieve at the end of an online post?
Is it to educate the public? Is it about being the first to inform and update them of the latest happening? Is it to warn people of some social breaches and infringement, or some shadowy characters in the real world to be avoided, shamed and arrested? 
Or is to tell people how happy, good, fortunate, rich, contented, godly, smart and/or irresistible the one who posts is? 
In other words, is it to put our best curated image on self-sterilising social media? (Am I guilty of the same as I post this?)
Well, it is all, or part, of the above, and probably more. And the social media giants like Facebook and Google leech, exploit and thrive on such cravings for mass attention from its billions of customers.
In fact, the uglier truth is that it is a mutually parasitic relationship where we get to enjoy our 7-min of fame and attention, and they get to harvest our personal data to sell to those who are hell bent on feeding our needs, fears, hopes, delusion, vanity and ego for profit. 
It's a vicious digital loop where more will want more and much will have much, that is, attention, data, profit and all. 
Although today's Sunday Times' "Insight" section had highlighted the danger of online falsehood, the legislative measures proposed to deal with it, and the importance of the freedom of speech, what would probably escape their attention is another tongue-in-cheek article which sniffs out the root-cause of this leviathan-like craving for attention.
It carries this disarming title, "If you're happy and you know it, then stop posting about it." The cheeky author is Krista Burton, a writer for online magazine Rookie.  
It is about lovey-dovey couples celebrating their "weekiversary", yes, every week since the time they gallop down the aisle, and without ceasing. 
This is what Krista (who is involved in a relationship) wrote that sums up her exasperation: -
"The couple are nice people in real life and they are in love and that is wonderful - and they are terrors on social media. The weekiversary posts are just the tip of the iceberg.
There are also close, glistening photos of their home-cooked nightly dinners (kissy face #shesakeeper). There are unrelenting, near-identical pictures of one of them napping next to a cat (heart-eyes #allmine).
The content is nauseating and compelling; an endless highlight reel of two people who are strangely uninterested in keeping small joys in their relationship private."
We have thus become an open book. And I know that radical sobriety is to be 100% transparent and honest, but I am sure that that does not mean to be 100% "transparent" and "honest" to not just loved ones and friends, but every total and complete stranger online, right?
Alas, we have unwittingly traded our sacred privacy for a digital romp in the land of "Likes", "Loves", "Laughs", "Tears" and "Awesomeness". 
Sooner or later, the danger of such overexposure on a whim and fancy is that it runs the risks of becoming an integral part of our relationship or life. 
Our trigger-happiness for attention might soon become an addiction where we unknowingly put the "attention" wagon before the "privacy" or "relationship" horse. 
Kristen has something to say about this too.
"I get especially weirded out by people who seem interested in cultivating "fans" of their relationship.
While it is cute and flattering to have people make comments on a picture of you and your lover, I think it creates social pressure to stay in relationships that might actually be unhealthy.
One of my good friends stayed with her evil ex-boyfriend for more than a year after she knew she needed to leave, worrying about "letting people down". She had relationship fans. Lots of them. "I just feel so stupid," she told me, in tears. "Everyone thinks we're perfect. I don't want to disappoint people.""
Lesson? Mm...just one, and it is set against this backdrop news. 
Recently, Facebook got a taste of its own medicine - a bittersweet one.
It's about a leak (of the 2016 memo about growth at all costs) that caused an uproar in its corporate quarters. 
It reports as follows:- 
"In the memo, Mr Andrew Bosworth, a Facebook vice-president, wrote: Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies.
Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people. The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.
That's why all the work we do in growth is justified...
All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China some day. All of it." 
Of course, Mark Zuckerberg is quick to distance himself from that insidious memo. 
He said: "Boz (nickname for Bosworth) is a talented leader who says many provocative things...This was one that most people at Facebook including myself disagreed with strongly. We've never believed the ends justify the means."
Three memorable phrases above kept me thinking more deeply about this corporate conspiracy: "growth is justified", "to connect more people more often is "de facto" good", and "we never believed the ends justify the means."
Here, I recall a quote that "the only lies for which we are truly punished are those we tell ourselves", and I don't think anyone needs to give the top executives at Facebook shovels to dig their own pit. They are doing it so well with the above pretentious statement to whitewash themselves from the cavernous space of their own well dug pits. 
Honestly, what is "de facto good" and what is one's ends to justify the means are painfully obvious to Facebook and everyone of us with a critical mind to think for ourselves, and it is ironic that I am using their product here to tell them off. Maybe it is called citizenry payback? 
And the fact that Bosworth quickly deleted the memo from the face of this earth and was the head of advertising demonstrate how glaring and unbelievable their hypocrisy is. 
It is said that the last temptation that is the greatest treason (against society) is to do the right thing for the wrong reason. It is also said that to tell the truth with bad intent is worse than any lies we can invent.  
I guess Facebook's denial and Zuckerberg's distancing in the face of incriminating evidence are almost "treasonous" acts committed against the public trust. And Facebook has sadly prostituted truth as a means to a growth-at-all-costs end.
This brings me full circle with Krista's article above and Bosworth's memo.
It is a simple, unembellished case of the blind leading the blind. While the social media giants exploit our addiction for attention, we willingly give up our privacy and data to bask in the virtual-space limelight. And this vicious loop would end up with both blind growth and attention at all costs, with a lot of unintended consequences that the society as a whole will be running helter-skelter to manage and contain.
And this is what the Select Committee addressing online falsehood would have to deal with. It is not just about half-truths, subjective truths, artificial truths or unknown truths. 
It is about the system as a whole, and how we have become an unwitting pawn in someone's hand, and unfortunately a happy pawn in that exploitative grip just as long as we get to enjoy the attention we are reaping in. 
And mind you, locked within this viciously reinforcing relationship, we are often tempted not just to post our "weekiversary" or "photos of us napping with our cats", but more sensationalised, questionable, distasteful, offensive and abusive posts, photos and videos, just as long as we get to be known or  famous in the distorted and deluded oasis of cyberspace. 
For this reason, I fully echo and support the sentiments of NLB in their fight against fake news, that is, by stepping up efforts to inculcate critical thinking skills across society. Education is still the best policy.
Because legislation alone, or too much emphasis on it, is never a long term solution to a problem that is not only systemic, but pervasive, complex, evolving, dynamic, and with many interlocking parts; especially when, in a case like this, we are also the product. Cheerz. 

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