Hype and the Battle for Attention


The Internet is the wild west of information and connectivity. Anything and everything goes.

As the new frontier of our times, the Internet provides countless opportunities and useful resources. With every new development, however, there is a side effect, or a dark side.

Regardless of what sites you frequent or what media you consume, everything out there is doing one thing, and one thing only—screaming as loud as possible to get your attention.

Traditional media (TV networks, radio, newspapers and magazines) also jumped on the digital bandwagon. All this web presence makes it very hard to sit down and focus when we’re a click away from the wonders of the World Wide Web.

And let’s not forget that we don’t even have to sit in front of a computer anymore. Access is as mobile as we are.

There is beauty and power in connectivity and access. But there is also noise and distraction.

Today more than any time in history we’re bombarded with messages that unfortunately end up being more hype and fluff than substance.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably experienced the overwhelming and distracting side effects of limitless access.

I’m not going to tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing online, or how to manage your time. Today’s message is about attention grabbing noise—hype.

Hype is the bait that hooks your attention.

Hype amplifies a message many times over. It gives it a sense of importance and urgency that hijacks your time and attention.

How many times have you checked something that sounded important, only to spend an hour clicking from link to link without much to show for it?

This happens to me a lot, especially on Twitter (my guess, other sites are pretty comparable). I start with reading a few updates and before I know it, I’ve clicked through many links, and wasted 20 minutes without much benefit.

How can we tell what to consume and what to avoid?

There isn’t one simple answer that applies across the board. But I’ve gathered below a few practices that seem very effective in capturing my attention.

Identifying hype can be helpful in stopping us from getting hooked.

Hype tactics

There is nothing wrong with any of the methods mentioned below, if used with the intention of providing value.

However, in today’s fast-food-style of information consumption, such practices seem to drive a lot of traffic (or attention) regardless of substance. Let’s take a closer look at each one.

Tantalizing headlines/titles: This is one of the biggest attention grabbing methods.

Just because a headline is well written with the intention of getting your attention (arousing curiosity, promising to solve a problem, or sharing an emotional story), doesn’t mean the content is worth your time.

There are cross promotional services that once you’re on one site, you get a list of links to more captivating headlines, just waiting for you to click.

You may visit ten sites that register you as a visitor, but without any added benefit whatsoever to you.

High social sharing count: Somehow the number of tweets or the count of likes and shares makes a message sound important.

Evidence suggests otherwise. People don’t necessarily read what they share. The number of shares is not an indication of real value.

Social pressure: This goes hand in hand with high social sharing. We feel that if our friends are reading, listening, or doing something, then we should try and keep up. But back to the point above, not everything our friends share has been read.

Controversy: Anything that’s remotely controversial gets magnified a thousand times, and is given way more importance than it deserves.

A famous rapper arrested, or a billionaire spewing racist remarks. How is that of any benefit to you or me?

Join the conversation and trends: We’re expected to participate and share our opinions on various sites. The more opinions and comments, the more attention a story gets, and then it snowballs into a trending topic.

What’s trending is something that sits in front of your eyes tempting you to click and read and spend as much time as possible on the site.

From hype to consumption and spending

All of the above, and more, feed the cycle of hype and consumption. It goes something like this:

Hype drives attention, and attention drives traffic. Traffic improves website rankings, which encourages more advertising, and more hype, which in turn generates money in sales of products and services.

You and I are the source of traffic, and the source of money. We pay with our attention, and then we pay with our dollars when buying stuff. And that’s okay—if we’re willing participants, not hapless victims of hype and distraction.

How to reclaim your attention

The best way to take control of where you spend your time and energy is to become aware of the tactics used to lure you in. Then do things differently. Consider the following 3-step process:

1- Notice. What are the sites that tend to be the largest disappointing time sucks for you? What were the reasons that tempted you to click and consume?

2- Limit access. Once you know what sites take your precious time without much benefit, set a limit for how long you can be on the site.

This is the best way to tame a curious or tired mind, when willpower is waning, or when resistance is at its peak and we start looking for excuses to avoid the important stuff.

3- Let go of trying to keep up, and embrace selective ignorance. There will always be more stuff than you can ever keep up with, no matter how long you stay on any site, and how often you visit and read. Most of the stuff is transient noise that will be forgotten in a few hours. Ignorance is bliss when it comes to online hype.

Taking things a step further, we can deliberately focus on the things that we enjoy and are useful. A few suggestions below:

4- Use bookmarks and lists for attention worthy sites. As you learn more about your online activity, bookmark the sites you like visiting because they provide value. On twitter, create a list of the people you like reading stuff from. You can do the same on your Facebook page by determining which updates show up on your wall. And if in doubt, remove the bookmark/item from your list, and move on.

5- Be bored. These days it’s almost impossible to feel bored. There are so many things that can keep us entertained forever. We may feel overstimulated and scattered, but not bored. It’s okay to sit and do nothing and be bored. It fosters creativity and sparks ideas.

6- Play. Giving ourselves time to play and do nothing productive can be rejuvenating and motivating.

There is nothing wrong with playing a game, listening to music, chatting, checking what’s trending on social media, or watching funny videos—if done mindfully, and in moderation.

We need a break, and it’s better to do it intentionally rather than reactively when we feel tired or confused and fall prey to hype.

Access and connection are wonderful tools, but they also can be abused. The more we become aware of useless hype, the better we can steer our attention towards what’s important, and what we truly enjoy.

A good reminder of the true nature of hype is how little it matters in the long run. Most of today’s noise fades away within hours, not even days. It’s not something we’d miss.