In the latter half of the 20th century, a group of people called the Discordians discovered something magical: the Number 23. They came to call this esoteric bit of wizardry the “23 Enigma,” and pointed out that, once you start looking for it, there are all of these strange recurrences of the number 23 in the world. A small sampler:
LeBron James and Michael Jordan, the two greatest basketball players of all time, both wear the number 23 on their jersey. David Beckham, Don Mattingly, and hockey legend Bob Nystrom also wore 23.
Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times, each parent contributes 23 chromosomes to their child, William Shakespeare was born and died on April 23, Princess Leia was held in cell AA23 in the first Star Wars, Kurt Cobain was born in 1967 (1+9+6+7=23) and died in 1994 (1+9+9+4=23), Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in 1859 (1+8+5+9=23), September 11th adds up to 23 (9+11+2+0+0+1=23), and so on.
It is at this point that we should point out that the Discordians are worshippers of chaos, that the 23 Enigma is utter bullshit, and that this is why the Discordians love it. Simply put, when you decide something is special, you start looking out for instances of its specialness, and inevitably, you find them. The universe is immense, complex, and chaotic, and our attention can only focus on so many things at a time, so if you start looking for a pattern, you will be able to find it.
You could apply the concept to anything: there are masses of people (not all necessarily gullible or stupid) who believe in a concept called synchronicity, which is when a series of seemingly connected coincidences occur in a meaningful way. The concept is used by many as a proof of God: “Well, if the universe has no meaning, explain this unbelievable coincidence.”
This is why fundamentalist Christians see “666” everywhere, why theists find infinite instances of God’s benevolence and mercy, why atheists find infinite signs of a supposed God's cruelty and wrath. We all tend to find what we’re looking for. In reality, we are beings with an extremely finite capacity (about 120 bits per second, according to some fairly reliable research) for absorbing the nearly infinite amount of information the universe throws at us. Our minds have necessarily evolved a mechanism for selecting which bits of information are important.
The ability to separate the important information from the irrelevant information would have been very useful for literally every form of life — creatures that spend all of their time reveling in awe at the oneness of the universe make for excellent and easy snacks — which means that this ability is not only innately human, but innate in organic life itself. It is, in no small part, responsible for our very existence.
But it also means that the mechanisms that developed this selectiveness came before higher level rational thinking. So our supposedly rational minds still select the focal points of their attention using arcane, reptilian, even amoeban tools. Our pretensions at rationality are, at best, only partly true, and at worst, are totally delusional.
The end result of the 23 Enigma is that, even though the Discordians were just trying to prove a point about the randomness of consciousness and attention, they ended up making 23 special to a lot of people. You can find hundreds of little spots on the internet where people talk about the importance of 23, not realizing that the entire concept was made up by chaos worshippers trying to prove a point about selection bias. There are even two movies about people who are obsessed with the number 23, including a very bad one starring Jim Carrey.
In other words, by lying about 23 being special, the Discordians actually made 23 special. Enough kids grew up worshipping Michael Jordan or LeBron James or Princess Leia that 23 has retained a childlike mysticism in their old age — indeed, when I was working as a listicle (or, less generously, clickbait) writer, we had data showing that 23 was the most effective number of items in a list if we wanted to garner clicks.
You do not need to believe in numerology for this to work on you. The next time you see the number 23, you’ll notice it. We are not rational in the allocation of our attention, and this makes us extremely prone to manipulation.
The attention economy
I need to admit something, right here and now — I am not sure how long I can hold your attention, and I want you to read this through to the end. So if you stick with it, I promise that, a few paragraphs further down, there will be an image of pornstar Christy Mack’s butt, and later on, an image of soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo’s naked abs. Just bear with me, they are body parts worth reading towards, I promise.
We currently live in something called “the Attention Economy.” It’s a phrase that seems designed implicitly to actually drive people’s attention elsewhere, which is why I’m forced to bribe you with asses and abs, but it’s an immensely important concept to understand for someone trying to be a decent citizen in the 21st century.
The Attention Economy dates back to the early 19th century, when newspapers started supplementing their income with ads. Prior to this, their money was mainly made on subscriptions, but they had to charge higher rates for this, which limited their readership. Then, a newspaper man called Benjamin Day, who ran the New York Sun, had an idea: you could charge less for a subscription if you sold ad space. This switched the newspaper’s primary clients from the reader to the advertiser. The reader, instead, became the product. You could charge advertisers more if you had more readers, and how would you go about getting readers? By trying to grab their attention with flashy and lurid headlines.
Tim Wu describes the result in his excellent history of the advertising industry, The Attention Merchants:
“A consequence of that model is a total dependence on gaining and holding attention. This means that under competition, the race will naturally run to the bottom; attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative, whatever stimulus may more likely engage what cognitive scientists call our ‘automatic’ attention as opposed to our ‘controlled’ attention, the kind we direct with intent. The race to a bottomless bottom, appealing to what one might call the audience’s baser instincts, poses a fundamental, continual dilemma for the attention merchant — just how far will he go to get his harvest? If the history of attention capture teaches us anything, it is that the limits are often theoretical, and when real, rarely self-imposed.”
This model is the one used to this day by both Facebook and Google which, despite all of their ads proclaiming their intent on “bringing us together,” are primarily advertising companies. The evidence is in where their money comes from: Alphabet, Google’s parent company, made 84% of its revenue in 2017 from advertising. Virtually all of Facebook’s revenue comes from ads.
Their algorithms are based, as such, on delivering not only the content that's most likely to be useful to you, but what you’re most likely to click on. Content creators understand this, and, whether consciously or unconsciously, build their material on what’s likely to capture and hold your attention for the longest period of time.
But enough about that, here’s Christy Mack’s fabulous butt.
What butts, clickbait, and Nazis have in common
Ms. Mack, if you don't know of her (you liar), is a retired pornstar, and this particular picture of her butt is being used to sell a product, which, as it happens, is actually a molding of her butt which you can buy and use as a sex toy. I apologize if that is offensive to you in any way, but you cannot risk losing someone’s attention in this game, and you would not have stuck around for a Toyota ad. Mack is holding your attention to sell a product, and I am (hopefully) holding it so you listen to what I have to say. But these aren’t the only things attention can be leveraged for.
Attention-capture is also the main feature of political propaganda. Hitler, for example, was a notoriously entrancing speaker, and he intuitively understood the importance of capturing and holding attention. When people now ask how Hitler so thoroughly brainwashed an entire nation, it was largely because a) he held their attention, and b) he utterly destroyed anyone else who may have vied for their attention. You could not escape Hitler’s ideas in 1930’s Germany, and this totally warped that country’s psyche to the point where they became, well, Nazi Germany.
After World War II, most of the world became deeply suspicious of political propaganda (with the obvious exceptions of the late 20th century’s great dictatorships, which fully embraced it), but most people did not extend that suspicion towards the use of attention capture for commercial purposes. Marketing firm Yankelovitch estimates that in 1970, the average American saw 500 ads per day. The number in 2006 was up to 5,000. Try counting, just for one day, just how many ads you hear on the radio, see on the TV, pop up on a webpage, or you pass on a billboard. The number, whatever it is, is high.
This leads to ad saturation, which means ads have to try crazier and edgier things to stand out from the sea of ads that we’re immersed in every day. Sex is the obvious place to go, but other popular methods include appealing to some sort of base patriotism, latching onto celebrity, or employing a particularly infectious earworm or catchphrase.
These all have diminishing returns, though. Just look at what’s happened to Budweiser over the past 16 years: they went from the nonsensical but catchy “Wassup?” catchphrase that literally everyone was saying in 2002, to the incomprehensible “Dilly dilly” in 2018.
In the 2010s, as the lines between politics and commerce in all other arenas have increasingly blurred, ads have gotten a bit more political. Politics, it seems, is the main thing that holds people’s attention these days. So Nike (notorious for its long-term use of sweatshop labor) is now a supporter of progressive hero Colin Kaepernick. 84 Lumber is pro-immigrant, and Always feminine care products is, perhaps unsurprisingly, allying itself with the feminists.
Indeed, it is in part because we are so open to being advertised to that the line has gotten so blurred.
The biggest actor by far in recent years has been Facebook, which treated the 2016 election like an ad moneymaking bonanza, and which became an extremely effective place for people with less-than-great intentions to sink dark money and disinformation into. Facebook actively lobbied against any sort of restrictions being placed on that revenue.
New Yorker writer Evan Osnos, in an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air:
"Facebook had used its lobbying power. It had argued to the Federal Election Commission that it should be exempted from rules that require television advertising to be identified by the source of the funding. You know, that point at the end where they say who who paid for the ad. They said we shouldn't have to follow those rules because we're a new technology, and in their filings, they said you don't want to stifle the growth of new innovation.”
We all know the end result: massive amounts of disinformation were targeted at inflaming Trump’s supporters and depressing Democratic turnout for Hillary Clinton. Russia or not, Trump’s strategists have actually said they wouldn’t have won without Facebook. Osnos again:
“To this day Facebook is struggling with that fundamental paradox, which is that on the one hand, their business and their success depends on their ability to tout their powers of persuasion. They are telling advertisers ‘We can encourage users to listen to you, to believe in you, and to act on what you are telling them.’ And yet at the same time, they’re trying to say that they have not had this dispositive effect on our politics. And that is a contradiction."
I personally experienced the political power of Facebook in 2016 while I was writing and editing at a travel site that primarily produces clickbait. On a whim, our senior editor okayed the posting of an inspiring Bernie Sanders video, and it blew up like nothing we’d ever seen before. It was in the realm of millions of clicks in a single day. We usually got, at the time, around 10 million pageviews a month, so this was a huge deal for advertising revenue. The call went out to our writers and editors: Yes, we are a travel site. But we should try to find a way to integrate politics.
I was happy, because I like writing about politics, but we did not have anything close to the budget required to produce actual political reporting, so what was produced was, to put it lightly, of varying quality and usefulness. There was certainly no budget for fact-checking, and turnaround time was expected in a manner of hours, so I have no doubt errors got through.
It could be justified, though, for clicks. It could be justified, as long as we were holding our audience’s attention. And if people hated it?
Hang on, let’s pause for a second and look at Cristiano Ronaldo’s abs.
Hateclicking is still clicking
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” you might be saying. “Why the fuck are you using Ronaldo? Didn’t he just get accused of sexual assault?”
You might, if you really like this piece, share it anyway, but with a caveat on Facebook that you find my use of a sexual predator to hold your attention to be problematic. Others will comment on that post, many will agree, many will disagree, and more people will click on my article.
We in the clickbait business understand that attention is attention, and it does not matter if it is good or bad. If anything, humans have a negativity bias, and having a negative reaction to Ronaldo makes you more likely to share this article on Facebook or Twitter than if you simply “liked” it.
I, as a human being with moral agency, can rationalize my use of the sexual predator’s body by saying I was trying to make a point. Writers are really good at coming up with rationalizations for skeezy actions that are ultimately profitable to them.
In all honesty, if you’re writing something political for a clickbait site, the biggest sin is to be even-keeled. Inflammatory writing is what drives clicks, and it drives clicks from both your supporters and from your detractors.
You yourself are not above this.
Tell me you’ve never posted an article you’ve hated to explain why. Tell me you’ve never commented on an article you hate. Yes, you may have been having a conversation, and that conversation may have been productive. But that conversation kept you on Facebook, and the more time everyone spends on Facebook, the more they can charge advertisers. Your attention was held, regardless of whether it was held by outrage or sex or joy. The morality of it all is completely immaterial.
It is precisely this phenomenon that Donald Trump used to rise to national prominence and to take the United State Presidency. Trump is a master of manufacturing outrage. When he says something awful — say, ripping up the Constitution, targeting immigrants, women, or the most vulnerable people in our society — it energizes his white supremacist base and infuriates a lot of people that that base really likes to infuriate. There’s no reason or rationality behind anything he says, because there doesn’t have to be: the point is the attention. And whether it’s positive or negative, he’s got it.
We are still, two years in, shocked that he won’t stand in the rain for a World War I memorial. We still talk about all of his legal and ethical violations, both big and small, almost endlessly. Are we still really surprised by anything he does? Or are we just addicted to hating him? And what horrible things are happening in the background while we fume about the totally predictable, if perversely fascinating, shenanigans he engages in?
Rethinking the attention economy
Even if Facebook and Twitter collapse in on themselves (which they likely won’t for a while), even if Donald Trump is impeached by January and we all get to go back to our old lives, it’s worth trying to better understand the way our attention economy works, because it’s where we all live at the moment. It’s the reason the world feels like a terrible car wreck you can’t look away from. It’s the reason you’re constantly feeling furious or personally attacked.
The good news is that there’s a solution embedded right there in the name: if we live in an "attention economy," a place where attention is the currency, then it is up to us as stewards of that currency to be a bit more responsible about how we spend it. Someone who spends all of their money on gambling or clothes or booze, for example, is generally thought of as an impulsive, irresponsible spender.
It's surprising, then, that we don't think the same about the people who aren't in control of what they pay attention to. If anything, attention is a more valuable currency than money. Money is essentially a collective fiction that we've all agreed is valuable, even though the material money itself holds no or little actual value to us.
Attention, on the other hand, is the mechanism through which we focus on and experience the world. It is, a la Descartes, the only thing we can truly know exists.
The things that we pay attention to are the things we spend time on, the things we spend time on end up defining our lives. By this standard, people who spend their days fuming about Trump’s latest Tweets and getting into flamewars with MAGA bros, neo-Nazis and Russian trolls are literally spending their lives focused on Trump, and not, say, on building a better society, or on having productive, good-faith conversations with friends and family, or on writing something new and original that could actually change the world in a good way.
If we want to really return to a spot where we’re building the world we want to build, and aren’t merely responding to the abhorrent world being built around us, it’s worth returning to the lesson of the 23 Enigma.
The lesson of the 23 Enigma isn't that people are dumb and easy to trick. It’s that if you call attention to something, people will start to notice it. It will absorb more of their thoughts, and it will start to gain meaning. This thing doesn’t have to be fancy, and it doesn’t have to make sense. It can be something as simple as the number 23, or a pointless wall along the Mexican border. If you can get people’s attention and say something is important, even the ones who don’t rationally believe you will still find themselves thinking about it more. Because our attention is not directed by our smart brain, it’s directed by our idiot brain.
The corollary to this is that if we learn how to master and direct our own attention, we ourselves can be the ones choosing what’s important and what’s not.
I broke it into two articles for two cynical reasons: first, people don’t read articles that seem really long. This article was about 3,500 words, and even though people will spend 10 hours a day online, they get pissed if a half an hour of it is focused on one single thing. The second reason is that many websites will try and parlay a click into more clicks, so as to increase ad revenue. Advertisers pay higher rates for sites that have low “bounce rates,” which refers to the percentage of followers that come to a single page on a site and leave. Better to hold them and keep them poking around. One way to get them to do this is to produce quality content. Another way is to hack the stats by doing garbage slideshows or two-part posts. Sound infuriating? Good! I reveal more of these secrets in the next piece!*
*They’re not really secrets. They’re general knowledge in the industry. But people don’t click for general knowledge.
As a sign of good faith that I am only using these tricks for good, I’ve added more butts and abs into the next post as well.