Fighting the attention merchants
Fighting the attention merchants
  • TRUONG, Thuy Quynh
  • 승인 2021.05.21 21:39
  • 수정 2021.05.23 01:57
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Division of International Studies
TRUONG, Thuy QuynhDivision of International Studies
TRUONG, Thuy Quynh
Division of International Studies

Whom among us does not have a social media account? Whom among us has not experienced scrolling through social media until losing a sense of time and space? Whom among us does not find social media a must in this era?


‘Attention merchant’ is a term coined by Tim Wu in his book of the same title. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, among others, are commodifying the attention of users, profiting off the time we spend on their platforms. Their goal is to both keep us hooked to the ‘feed’ and keep us perennially dissatisfied. The next video has to hold our attention, yet it is not designed to fulfill our needs. The ideal situation for these companies is that we are pinned to the ‘feed’ without ever being done with it.


A few weeks earlier, I experienced a streak of low energy and procrastination on work. I found myself constantly scrolling on Facebook and Instagram. I have been unable to get in the flow state or stay in the present because the desire to log into social media kept emerging. I became aware of this situation and decided to delete Facebook and Instagram apps from my phone. When I calmed myself down and reflected, I recalled the discussion about "The Attention Merchants" by Tim Wu and acknowledged what psychological effects social media has been waging on me. I am very vulnerable in this battle. Social media can attack me when I'm at a low mental, emotional point and keep me hooked to its offer of thoughtless, mindless scrolling.


Take a step back. Be mindful.


This is the mantra I repeat to myself. To activate the awareness needed to compel my attention toward the working of my inner world and how it is being molded by social media requires that I acknowledge how I – subconsciously – use social media to compensate for my mental and psychological distress. Speaking of awareness, I have used another strategy to help me get closer to the goal of understanding my identity and moderating my behaviors. That is mindfulness.


I started yoga since June 2020 and have learnt the art of mindfulness since. Initially the practice of mindfulness stayed at the bodily level, as I was trying to stay aware of my hunger - fullness - pain - irritation - breathing patterns. I was watching my breaths the whole time and tried to notice how my body reacted to each and every pose. I was also watching my thoughts and attempted to pull it back to the present, to bodily sensations when it showed signs of slipping away.


This practice of mindfulness was, at first, intended only for me to increase breath quality, concentration capability, and physical health. Then something peculiar happened. This mindfulness began to spill over into other aspects of my life. I started to be mindful of my thoughts, my emotions, my behaviors in daily life. Noticing my thought patterns, emotional outbursts, and autopilot behaviors has forced me to question them and challenge them.


The other day when I had that moment of tension with my friend, I also tried to be mindful of what was going on in my heart and my mind. This mindful attitude allowed me to stay distant from my emotions and thoughts, instead of automatically taking them as who I am or what I want. This seems to resonate with Yuval Noah Harari's discussion about free will in his book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century”. Harari argued that emotions are also products of biochemical processes in our brain that happen below our level of awareness. A book I read earlier this year - Blink by Malcolm Gladwell - also talked about how much happened below our consciousness, how much such subconscious forces influenced out thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Trying to grasp this almost arbitrary nature of my emotions opens the door for me to stop taking them too seriously and stop depending on them for well-being. Mindfulness is powerful in that sense. It helps me keep track of what I am doing and feeling and pulls me out of my head and body.


Another strategy in the battle against attention merchants is knowledge accumulation. Many philosophers have attempted to unravel why social media can be a mental, psychological, or emotional cushion for late modern and post-modern human beings. Erich Fromm, in his book “To Have or To Be?”, talked about human pursuit of pleasure as “orgiastic states”, where human beings hide in to diffuse their sense of loneliness or separateness. Fromm described this state as the feeling of the world disappearing and with it the sense of separateness from the outside world. This experience is similar to how many youths use social media to forget the agonizing sense of the present, to lose the sense of time and space, and escape reality. Victor Frankl, on the other hand, may call this experience an expression of “the will to pleasure”, which is a mask for the existential vacuum – state of meaninglessness in life. Frankl believed that we sought pleasure to compensate for the existential distress entailed by our vain search for meaning in life. Learning to look at the world, at ourselves through the lens of these psychoanalysts and philosophers grants us an opportunity to understand the nature of our behaviors. Breaking away from social media, then, will make a lot of sense.


I still do not Facebook or Instagram on my phone. I am determined to fight this battle with the attention merchants and curious to learn how far I can go.

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