This is part two of a two-part piece on how the internet captures our attention, and, in doing so, wrests control over our own lives away from us. The first article focused on the how the attention economy works and it’s history (using pornstar butts and soccer player abs to keep the reader from getting bored). This article will focus on tools for fighting attention capture.
I broke it into two articles for two cynical reasons: first, people don’t read articles that seem really long. The last 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.
As a sign of good faith that I am only using these tricks for good, I’ve added more butts and abs into the post. Carry on.
How to reclaim your attention
If you read the first part of this piece (don’t worry if you haven’t, they each stand up fine on their own), you are now about 3,550 words in. which is longer than you’ll spend on most pieces of internet writing. This is why I used pornstar butts and soccer player
Telling you that I’m using tricks, by the way, is, in itself, an attention-holding technique called lampshade hanging. This is when you draw attention to a trick you’re playing on the audience to reassure them that you don’t think they’re stupid, that you’re all aware the trick is being played, and that you aren’t trying to pull something over on them. Everyone gets to feel clever, and we can move on.
Knowledge of tricks like this, along with a few other tools, can help you reclaim your attention and be more intentional about how you spend your time and life. Here are my suggestions, as an experienced attention hack:
FIRST: LEARN MINDFULNESS
The number one biggest lesson is to keep an eye out for stuff that draws you in without your making a conscious choice to give your attention to it. If your response is automatic, chances are, you are vulnerable to manipulation.
The best way to learn to detect your automatic reactions it to take up some sort of mindfulness practice. Mindfulness doesn’t necessarily mean meditation, it’s just a practice of learning to notice what’s happening in the present moment. By doing this, you can start noticing what your brain does when it’s on autopilot, like, for example, when you pick up your phone without really having intended to, or like when you realize you’ve eaten half a sandwich and can’t remember starting it.
As a nice side effect, learning to do this is also really good for your physical and mental health, and for your general well-being. You will probably be able to find meditation classes in your area, but there are also thousands of videos, apps, and sites dedicated to the practice. The app I use (and very much recommend) is Headspace.
SECOND: GET OFF THE INTERNET
As with all addictive or unconscious behaviors, the best way to reduce your indulgence of it is to remove the stimulus that causes it. And social media in particular is an attention capture nightmare, so the more time you can spend away from it, the better.
A few practices that could help you do this:
Download apps like Moment which track your screen time and help you to reduce it. The new Apple iOS also now has a “Screen Time” section under “Settings.”
Take a week (or a month) off social media.
Delete Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram from your phone — reserve them for while you’re on a computer.
Turn off your phone’s color. Colors grab attention, and grayscale doesn’t quite as much. Lifehacker has a guide for how to do so here.
If you have a thought that you feel compelled to post, write it down elsewhere and see if you can work it into something more long form. Alternatively, call someone who will appreciate the thought and tell it to them.
Install an adblocker to cut out at least some of the noise.
If you get your news from social media, stop. Media that’s free is usually bad media. This article is excepted, of course, but free media follows the same model as the hacky yellow journalism from the 19th century. There’s a saying in Silicon Valley, “If you’re not the customer, you’re the product,” and that ideology fundamentally compromises the integrity of that media. So take out a subscription to the sources you appreciate, or give $1 an episode to the Patreon of a podcast you like. It will usually cost you a good deal less on a monthly basis than a daily cup of coffee will.
If you have specific blogs or sites you like, sign up to their email blasts or their RSS feeds rather than getting their stuff from Facebook or Twitter. That way you get what they’re producing, but without all of the other noise of your feeds.
THIRD: BEWARE OF MUSIC
The things that are the most automatic are the things that require the least processing in your brain. Which means that you are most susceptible to music and images, far more than you are to words. You would be susceptible to touch and smell, too, but smell-o-vision never really took off, and advertisers haven’t figured out how to give you a massage while telling you about their product yet.
Starting with music: There’s an amazing song from the 90's band Blues Traveler called “Hook,” where they basically tell the audience throughout the song that the only reason they’re still listening is because the band is using a good hook. They happened to have stolen that hook from Pachelbel’s Canon in D, which every listener has heard 10,000 times at a wedding, and naturally finds catchy.
Modern pop music has distilled this catchiness to a science, to the point where a lot of music is lyrically total nonsense, but musically is virtually impossible to stop listening to. There was a lovely viral video a few years back that showed how many of our favorite pop songs use the same basic four chord progression, which is very pleasing to the ear. Churches regularly use this progression in their hymns, as a way of holding the attention of the congregation.
Churches, by the way, are the all-time kings of attention capture. They’ve understood for centuries that, to hold an audience, you need music, you need visuals, you need stories, you need repetition, and you need community. This last bit is something advertisers have seemed the least interested in focusing on, except in a superficial “we’re all united because we drink Coke” kind of way.
Anyway: beyond the structure of the song, we have emotional attachments to music that can’t always be understood in a rational way. It’s tied to certain times in our lives, it’s tied to certain feelings, to certain relationships, and so the use of a popular song in an ad or a piece of propaganda is inevitably going to make you feel strong things, making you more susceptible to the message.
FOURTH: BEWARE OF IMAGES
In writing, we can’t rely as much on sound, so we rely instead on the use of images. It is a sad fact that, in getting someone to click on your article, the image generally matters more than the headline or the text of the article itself.
The most obvious pull is sex. Hence my use of butts and abs to hold you thus far. This is a pretty unsophisticated technique, but it doesn’t matter, because it really works.
Sex aside, it’s easy enough to spot an image that’s been chosen to pull you in. The biggest rule is that it has to evoke some sort of emotion. And what evokes the biggest emotions are other people. The original editor of People Magazine, Richard Stolley, developed a set of rules for choosing who goes on the cover of their magazine, and, though the specifics change from publication to publication, these rules still pretty much stand today for attention capture through the use of images:
1. Young is better than old.
2. Pretty is better than ugly.
3. Rich is better than poor.
4. Movies are better than television.
5. Movies and television are better than music.
6. Movies, TV, and music are all better than sports.
7. Anything is better than politics.
8. Nothing is better than the celebrity dead.
Obviously, that is an embarrassingly cynical list, but when you buy (or click) on impulse, your choices are dictated not by your rational brain, but by your id, which is, to be honest, pretty shallow.
Beyond those rules, there are a few other guidelines:
You pay attention to the color red more quickly than you do to other colors. This is basically an evolutionary quirk: in nature, red can be indicative of poison (as in a coral snake or a black widow), of sexual arousal (flushed cheeks), of food (berries or apples), or of danger (fire! lava!). It’s also far less common in nature than blue, green, or yellow, so we notice it a lot quicker, and when we do, our response is one of arousal. That is why most apps use red as their notification color, and an article headed by an image with a streak of red in it somewhere will be more likely to pull readers in.
You pay more attention to faces expressing strong emotion, like joy or anguish. This is basic human empathy. Seeing strong emotions in others elicits strong emotions in us, which is why social media can feel so draining after a tragedy.
You are more likely to laugh at an image than at words. This is just a matter of barrier-to-entry. It requires more processing time to read and laugh at a written joke, so it’s better to deliver it in an image. This is why memes are so huge — they are a more efficient delivery package than text. There’s even a subgenre of internet comic and meme-making that just adapts text Tweets visually.
Cuteness is king. You knew this, already. The fact that cats are now internet-famous tells you all you need to know. Oddly, studies have found that cuteness actually produces an aggressive reaction in many humans — this is the “YOU’RE SO CUTE I WANT TO SQUEEZE YOU TO DEATH!” emotion you feel when you see a particularly cute baby or puppy. This is because our brains are trying to regain emotional equilibrium after seeing something that turns them into little puddles of gentle, soft feelings. The aggressive reaction does not repulse you, it pulls you towards the object of your aggression.
It other words, it makes you want to click.
FIFTH: BEWARE OF WORDS
Finally, and least importantly, are words. Words are the bane of an internet writer’s existence, because no one wants to read them. Big blocks of text are very intimidating, which is why I’ve been punctuating this article with videos and images.
(Fine — I would hate to insult your intelligence. You’re not scared of lots of words. You read big books and only read the features section of The New Yorker. But lots of text is intimidating to enough people to be noticeable in the analytics. A large enough number of people will click out of an article with massive blocks of text to make it not worth it, overall, for the writer to use them.)
The unfortunate truth is that, occasionally, while writing, you have to use words. And there are ways to make words less scary to readers.
One thing you can do is break up the text.
People are intimidated by big blocks of text.
So writers will just turn short sentences into standalone paragraphs.
Yoast SEO, a pretty standard Wordpress plugin that helps you increase the stickiness of your posts, suggests not putting more than 150 words in a paragraph.
It’s also best to keep sentences under 20 words (I am currently breaking this rule), and keep sections under 300 words before breaking it into a new section. This is why listicles do so well. They naturally break up the piece. They also give some words more importance than other, through the use of headers. In an article, the most important words are in the headline (which is what triggers the click), followed by the blurb posted on Facebook, followed by the headers in the article, followed by the words in the article itself.
(Often, by the way, the only words that the writer of the article actually personally chose were the words in the article, and not the title or the headers. So if you get pissed about a headline, just remember that the person you’re angry at is usually not the writer, it’s the editor. So your hate mail is mean and dumb.)
If the text gets too lengthy and I’m running low on listicle points, I can break up with images or videos. We’re basically just 3 year olds at heart, and when we flip through a page and don’t see a lot of pictures, we’re kind of done.
This obviously works in advertisers’ favor. Yeah, I can pick a video or a photo to show you here, but why not make every third photo an ad?
A lot of internet ad tools are automated. They’re rarely chosen by the actual contents of the article — the ad software usually just plunders the article for keywords, and this often means the ads stand in direct opposition to the message of the article itself.
For example: When I was writing a blog in 2008 in favor of the travel boycott to Burma, Google AdSense posted ads for plane tickets to Yangon, the Burmese capital. I am sure Google’s ad algorithm saw “Burma” and “travel” in my keywords, and made a guess at what type of ad my readers would like.
THIS IS TECHNICALLY THE SAME SECTION, PLEASE DON’T TELL ANYONE
In a pinch, if I have to use words in my article, I can use a few tools that hold attention.
Hyperbole — words like “epic,” “staggering,” and “amazing.”
Identity labels — “millennials,” “people of color,” and “Trump supporters.”
Emotional triggers — phrases like “heart-wrenching,” “pissed off,” “all the feels.”
Our minds have a well-documented negativity bias, so negative words will have a stronger impact. This is why you’ve seen your social media flooded with extremely negative articles about the state of the world. This is why you feel despair all of the time.
Don’t get me wrong: the world is a mess. But the coverage of the world is disproportionately focused on the bad. Frequently, the bad stuff that the media focuses on is low-hanging fruit, like Trump not standing in the rain for veterans, and not on the really bad stuff, like the global slide towards authoritarianism or the fact that technological innovation can’t and won’t save us from climate catastrophe.
For identity, it’s tweaking on something deep and personal that you probably feel protective or angry about. “Millennials” is an immensely popular one because everyone who’s not a Millennial despises Millennials, and everyone who is a Millennial feels screwed and maligned. Generational, geographical, sexual, ethnic, racial, religious, or political identities are all fair game.
The big lesson here is that whatever is written has to evoke an emotion, not a thought. Even when rational inquiry is being discussed, irrational and emotional phrases like “science says” will be used. This is very clearly a nonsense phrase, because “science” is not a monolith, it doesn’t say anything, and scientific consensus constantly changes. Usually, this article will be covering a single study that has yet to be replicated or peer-reviewed, but which says something emotionally appealing, like “Science says drinking whiskey will help you live longer.”
THIS PARAGRAPH HAS INFORMATION. WHAT HAPPENS NEXT WILL PROBABLY FEEL PRETTY NORMAL.
Actual statements of fact are a harder sell for clicks, so titles that make factual statements will often employ something called the curiosity gap. The curiosity gap is a headline writing technique in which you’re given enough information to be curious, but not enough information to satisfy your curiosity. The curiosity gap as a concept was developed by Upworthy, and in its worst incarnation, it read something like, “These puppies had never met a veteran. What happened next will blow your mind.”
That type of headline has mercifully gone out of style. Nowadays, the curiosity gap is still used, it’s just used much more tamely. This headline was pulled at random from the front page of the Washington Post, as I write:
THEY ARE A LESBIAN JEWISH-PALESTINIAN COUPLE. HERE’S HOW THEY ARE USING COMEDY TO CONFRONT STEREOTYPES.
You can see the formula: Statement of fact. Promise of more within the article.
The least effective titles are, in fact, the most informative ones. They are the ones that try the least to engage any of your irrational processes, and instead just try to deliver information. Probably the worst thing you can do for a title is to moralize. The word should is poison for clicks. Far better to exaggerate, manipulate, or evoke something sensory through imagery or onomatopoeia.
Methods for attention capture evolve over time as readers get wise to them. But the core principle remains the same: appeal to the part of the reader’s mind they have less control over. And regardless of the form it takes, it is monumentally effective. On average, Americans spend over 11 hours a day engaging with media (mostly screens, sometimes radio/podcasts).
The correct response to that is holy shit.
That’s too much of your time to not be in control. Which is why the most important thing you can do to reclaim your attention is to learn the difference between actions you undertake automatically, and actions you take intentionally.
This is not easy. When you start a mindfulness practice, you will quickly realize just how much of your day you spend on autopilot. This is because your automatic responses are deeply ingrained. They are habits that we don’t even realize are habits. To try and master them can feel like a monumental task.
But it’s not. It’s actually quite liberating. Once you aren’t just reacting to everything around you, you can carve out some space to think or talk or write on your own. You can actually create.
The things we pay attention to are the things we end up spending our lives on. And the internet, even more than the television, is a massive machine that’s built to seize and hold our attention for as long as possible. This is not to say there aren’t things worth paying attention to on the internet, it’s just to say that we should be making the choice of what we’re focusing on ourselves, not as some sort of thoughtless animalistic response.
We should have the ability to put down our phones and be with each other without unconsciously picking it up to check it. We should have the ability to close out of Twitter and pick up a book, or go outside and breathe the air without thinking about how we can snap a good pic for Instagram.
And perhaps most importantly, you are not valued by the people who are taking your attention. To them, you are not a human who loves, who feels joy and sadness, ecstasy and pain, who creates, who destroys, who lives and dies. You are a click. You are a product. You are a consumer. You are a drone. You are just a number on a spreadsheet. And they’re not even turning you into a lifeless object for a interesting reason. You’re being used to sell dumb bullshit.
Fuck those guys. By hacking your attention, they are stealing your finite time on this earth to hawk their gauche, pointless bullshit. No butt, no sick burn, no cute kitten is worth that. There are better things you can do with your time. There are better things you can do with your life. They don’t have to choose how you spend your life. You can. Take your attention back.