Information is power, used as a tool of social control. But for information manipulation to be successful, the audience needs to be paying attention. The war for attention is the new reality for the media, the public, and yourself.
Limited Choice Created The Mainstream
Control of information is control of the narrative. If you can choose which information people receive, you have control over their thought patterns and worldviews. For decades, the establishment and the media monolith were the gatekeepers of information, and used this power to establish the “mainstream”.
Throughout history, the mainstream was defined by limited choice. Radio had only a couple stations. TV was restricted to just a few channels. There were only a handful of “newspapers of record” – the New York Times being the prominent example. These few outlets were (and still are) controlled by either government or a tiny elite, who used them to define the issues of the day and exercise social control.
Even when choices expanded, such as through cable TV, those new channels were usually owned by the same media conglomerates, or came to be. Six media organizations control the majority of the “respected” outlets.
The mainstream was the only game in town – and they fought to keep it that way. This is how we got “mainstream music”, “mainstream cinema”, “mainstream literature”, and so on. Media conglomerates built on the limited choice available to the public by cross-promoting their own products, and colluding with governments to distort the facts available to the people. Movie reviews and hype came from the same conglomerates making the movies. Radio stations played music they chose after hobnobbing with the heads of major labels. News media created a culture of celebrity around individuals under contract to one media conglomerate or another.
Limited choice created and reinforced the mainstream. With nowhere else to go, the media monolith had a monopoly on attention.
The Mainstream Is Dead
There used to be just one “bubble” per country. Slight differences in taste and opinion were available, but only within the range set by the elite through their control of media outlets.
Then, the internet changed everything. Now, anybody with a web browser has access to text, audio, and video from millions of sources, all available globally. And this information is delivered at the speed of light, building upon itself in the vast public spaces of social media and search engines. The internet gave us unlimited choice.
With this choice, everybody in the world can choose which “stream” they want to be a part of. Every year, millions of people opt out of the “main” stream, finding new sources of information through social sharing and their own searches.
What’s more, preference algorithms mean we are all creating our own streams. Amazon and online shopping will show you products similar to those you have purchased, rather than what they suggest. Google and other search engines customize their results based on what you click. Facebook and Twitter modify your information feed based on what you interact with. We are no longer subject to one single information stream coming from above.
The mainstream is dead.
Attention Is Currency
Information is power, and attention is its currency. When the media monolith and its elite owners were the only sources of information, they had a complete monopoly on the public’s attention. Now, you can pay attention to whatever you want. If you are put off by the “main” stream, you can take your business elsewhere.
Information is powerless if nobody is paying attention. Hence the media obsession with monitoring the public’s attention:
- TV shows obsess over their ratings
- Websites fret over their impression counts
- Podcasts and radio measure their success in listener numbers
- Music labels are worryingly counting Billboard rankings and online stream totals
- Nielsen and comScore rake in millions telling media conglomerates who is consuming their product
Attention is the currency of the information age. Whoever gets the “eyeballs” gets the money. The information you put out is only as powerful as the number of people it influences.
The War For Attention
And so, in the information age, everybody is involved in the war for attention. This reaches throughout society, through all of our institutions and behaviors. The internet and unlimited choice bring the power of selective attention to the general public. Anyone can choose to publish, and rapidly find an audience of hundreds of millions online.
Because they held a monopoly for so long, the establishment and old media are not built to compete – at least not outside of their little club. And so we see old institutions crumbling:
- NFL ratings are down by double digits
- Cable companies are terrified as millions of households “cut the cord” on cable TV
- Album sales fall to historic lows
- For newspapers, print is dying, and digital is no savior
Losing their grip on attention, the elites and media turn to ever more desperate tactics:
- Clickbait headlines, over-promising and under-delivering
- 24/7 outrage culture on cable news
- Manufacturing stories in the news press
- Increasingly ludicrous publicity stunts from music and movie stars
- Hyping “Russian influence” and “the rise of fascism” in our political discourse
The result? Trust in media is at an all time low. Polarization as at levels not seen for a generation. Anti-establishment political movements are flourishing the world over.
Your Attention Is Valuable
For the first time in history, you have almost total choice in what information you choose to consume. There is absolutely no need to pay attention to, or participate in, the mainstream. The war for attention is a war for your mind, but now the power rests with you.
Use this power wisely. Calls for censorship are growing, from government and elite media. Keep your eye open for attempts to manipulate your attention, and fight for your access to free information.