The Altar of Attention
Om Malik, in a post titled Why internet silos win, writes:
It doesn’t matter whether it is Twitter, Instagram, or Mastodon. Everyone is playing to an audience. The social Internet is a performance theater praying at the altar of attention. Journalists need attention to be relevant, and experts need to signal their expertise. And others want to be influencers. For now, Twitter, Instagram, and their ilk give the biggest bang for the blast. It is why those vocal and active about Mastodon are still posting away on Musk’s Twitter.
If we didn’t care for attention, we wouldn’t be doing anything at all. We wouldn’t broadcast. Instead, we would socialize privately in communication with friends and peers.
I’m using Om’s post as a jumping off point for something I’ve been holding onto and thinking about for a while. I’ve written my thoughts on social media before, and I see these current thoughts as an evolution on what I’ve written before. Mostly: I’m not an online community kind of guy, and I need to finally accept that.
When I jumped on the Mastodon bandwagon a few months ago, I wrote that I had mostly been enjoying myself. And that was true, I guess, but that feeling didn’t last very long. It wasn’t really who I followed, it was the whole idea of a timeline, or the feed. The feed, this box filled with 280 characters or 512 characters or an unlimited number of characters; this box filled with cat photos or moss photos or pretty sunsets; this box filled with people trying to sell me stuff, to influence my behavior in some way, to convince me that their views are right and their views are wrong; this box can go to hell.
I don’t need it, I don’t want it, and I need to get away from it.
Last month, Robin Sloan had this to say about Mastodon, words that have stuck with me ever since (I’m quoting all of it):
Don’t settle for Mastodon
I suppose this is an anti-avenue, because: Mastodon is not it.
When you tell me about Twitter vs. Mastodon, I hear that you got rid of the flesh-eating piranhas and replaced them with federated flesh-eating piranhas. No thanks, I’m still not swimming in that pool!
I’m not saying you shouldn’t create a Mastodon account, or that you can’t enjoy fun, percolating conversations on that platform. I’m just saying that it does not, to me, represent a sufficiently interesting experiment, because it accepts too much as settled.
The timeline isn’t settled.
The @-mention isn’t settled.
Nothing is settled. It’s 2003 again!
Nothing is settled. But what I don’t want to happen is probably what Robin wants to happen, and that’s for people to create something new to replace what’s already here. A new social network paradigm or something similar. What I’m thinking is: no, no we don’t. I don’t think all of humanity was meant to connect to each other in this way, something M.G. Siegler wrote (and I quoted and wrote about) back in October of 2021; mainly, that the problem is us, human beings.
A few weeks ago I went to my friend’s house and we played Uno, Old Maid, and Go Fish with her son and husband, and I had a blast—we all had a blast. We joked around and told stories and I lost my “crown” to my friend because he won the last game of Old Maid, and it was genuinely and simply a lot of fun. What I’m arguing for myself is that I want and need my “tribe,” my smaller community of good friends and family that I can see and hear regularly, and not these formless, shapeless outlines of people behind a screen. I know social networks provide something different—especially for marginalized communities—but this is what I prefer, a real life community.
Aren’t you being hypocritical? I hear someone asking. You have a blog, you’re still on Facebook and Instagram, you’re a Bookshop.org affiliate and are trying to sell me something, so why should I listen to you? You’re right and you shouldn’t. Nobody should listen to me. Like I said, my thoughts on all this are still evolving and will continue to evolve. But I am still going to try and figure out what’s best for me. On the last day of 2022, for example, I collected my login information for my Mastodon, Micro.blog, and other accounts, I saved them in a CSV file (two-factor codes and everything), I deleted my login information from my password manager, I deleted all my cookies and history from all my devices, and I tucked away that CSV file deep in my Documents folder. I am still thinking about maybe printing this information instead, but for now, this is what I’ve done. My intention is to never again login to these services, to never again contribute content to these services, and to simply let them rot until the end of time.
I guess what I’m yearning for is a more genuine human connection with those I already know and will meet in the future, and a way to pull away from these boxes the Internet or tech companies or modern culture as a whole wants to put me in. And to do that, I need to reclaim my attention, to focus on my hands and what I can build with them, and less on those things sucking away at my eyeballs and stimulating my reptile brain.
But what about your blog? Aren’t you writing for an audience or for the chance to build one? Yes and no, I guess. Again—I don’t know. I have an unending physical need to write. I have had it for decades now, and writing online forces me to write something different than when I write fiction or when I journal in my notebook. I don’t think I would have ever written any of these thoughts if I didn’t have my website. They would have been short notes here and there in my notebooks, and maybe a throwaway line a character says in one of my novels. And besides, I’m guessing most nobody reads my blog anyway? So like who cares? But yeah—I don’t know.
I’m still trying to figure my shit out. I have a long list of ideas in my drafts folder I’d still like to write and explore, and I still enjoy writing and publishing things on my own website—more for myself than for others, honestly—so I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. And that’s a good encapsulation of what being a human is like, I guess, and that’s what I want to be doing more of, being more human.