How Our Need For Attention Online Drives Us Crazy

Ed Zitron 7 min read

When I started writing this newsletter, I did it because I had to write. If I don’t write, I feel bad - I feel like I haven’t created anything (as my job is really about convincing other people to make things or repping other people’s creations) and that my ideas are being appreciated. My brain begins to slow down, and I get depressed - probably some bizarre level of arrogance that I have that I “must be heard,” though I’ve never really had that thought.

I also add that I’m still sick, so my brain is in rare (bad) form. Please do not unsubscribe. Please. I need you.

That being said, I’ve found myself in a position recently where I’ve had less to say, or at least not had the energy to say it - driving myself into some weird form of burnout off the back of two straight, massive growth months for this newsletter.  I think that, on some level, I got wrapped up in the success of my Atlantic piece and committed a cardinal sin I swore I wouldn’t. I started writing for my audience (versus things that I found deeply interesting, or annoying, or both), and what I believed would “do numbers,” which is a classical failing strategy for any enterprise that is at its core personal.

Before you get worried, no, I am not stopping my newsletter, nor am I going to change what I’m doing at all because that’s the joy of having a free publication. But I have become wrapped up mentally in a problem that I think everybody faces when creating something for themselves that they want to read - the natural point at which your interest in growth overwhelms your interest in doing something because you enjoy it. You stop doing things naturally and begin trying to make lightning strike two or three times in the same place, then get pissed off when it doesn’t even strike once.

It’s a natural thing that happens to any creative pursuit. You may have a few things that do well, and you’ll say, “oh, that’s cool, people like what I’m doing!” but not necessarily change as a result. You’ll perhaps do a few things, and then something will do well, and you’ll experience the beautiful endorphin rush of feeling popular. Maybe this free thing you made can make you money? Or maybe, in place of cash, it can give you power, or popularity, or an Arnold palmer of the two?

And then, as I have, you begin trying to hit those same beats from the most successful piece, and you can’t work out why it isn’t working. You drive yourself insane trying to recreate a thing from the past that did well in the past for some combination of reasons you will never, ever understand. You are left thinking that perhaps this whole time you were a fraud, or maybe you are now the biggest, stupidest moron in all the world.

I think a lot of it comes back to how many raw metrics we have access to. I can drive myself insane by looking at the performance of individual articles, subscriber growth over time, and even the links through which people found my newsletter. As a result, I can tell you absolutely nothing about my actual articles - I do not know what the numbers mean, other than some go up, some go down, and some stay the same. In any case, they turn me into some desperate freak - trying to source retweets from big accounts, retweeting my summary quote tweets in the hopes I can juice the numbers a little further, all progress toward a non-specific goal.

I think what I’m experiencing is a natural problem of being online. Just about everybody on the internet wants attention, even if it’s just from one person or a small group. We all want people to pay attention to us - perhaps to confirm our biases, or laugh at our jokes, or even tell us we’ve upset them - but I don’t think that most people actively seek it until they’ve had enough of it to feel the thrill of being “someone,” even in a tiny little online microcosm, or perhaps from a famous person or a person they respect.

The most common one I’ve seen is when people have a tweet that goes viral - the 10,000-like atrocities - and they begin changing what they tweet to try and get that same fix. I won’t name him, but there was a former tech journalist I knew who became a Trump Joke Guy whose account is unreadable - it is obvious joke after obvious joke, engineered to get retweets around #resistance grifters. It seems to have worked for him, as he got a job in TV - and good for him, work is work! - but it has subsumed his online presence, turning everything into a lazy hack political joke, which is fine but feels like a lot of work.

It feels so weird to write about this because it’s so hard to pin down exactly what to call it. It isn’t quite self-promotion because there’s no real thing you’re promoting other than a vague sense that you are a person to pay attention to. In my case, I write my newsletter because I enjoy writing, but also love knowing that people read it and think I’m smart - and the most challenging part of writing initially was writing with the knowledge that very few people would know or care what I was writing.

It’s different yet in the same neighborhood as personal branding - where you take something that’s you, and you start doing it differently so that people will like it (and, by extension, you) more. Everybody wants to feel like people respect and love them, and content - the noble short-form posts of the Twitter user to newsletter writers - is a vehicle to do so. I think that anyone who says that they’re posting on their feed only for their edification is a liar - myself included! - because there is always that little instinct in your head that you want people to like or retweet, or reply to it because you want that little feeling that you’re important and unique.

Ironically, I think this is why many people find posting stuff for professional reasons so loathsome. When it’s work, it isn’t something that you can pretend is all about you - it’s got a clear plan, a straightforward thing you’re going for, a financial enterprise that benefits as a result of that click. Your regular posts don’t seem to have a plan (and in most cases consciously don’t). Thus when they do well you feel like you earned it for being yourself - which is why the sensual pull of engagement begins to gnaw at your soul. To get more attention and engagement, you are changing who you are, what you believe in, and what you’re interested in, even in subtle ways.

Because, deep down, it feels nice to say something and have lots of people read it and respond to it. I don’t think that people realize how simple this is and how much online activity is driven by the idea that many people could read and appreciate what you write or say or show them. It feels nice to feel wanted and equally bad when you don’t feel wanted, even if the matrix through deciding you’re unwanted is literally “the numbers are the same or slightly lower than before.”

While I think everybody wants attention, I’ll add that it takes a few events before someone reaches the point where this shit matters. You’re required to have had a few successes, or at least one big success, so that you know how it feels and can begin to measure everything by these vague standards of engagement.

All of this is part of the problem of our hyper-quantified online lives. Instead of the simple feeling of being wanted by those around us, we have a numerical understanding of how popular or unpopular we are not simply in a vacuum but in a particular moment. It’s like if every comment you made in a conversation at a bar got scored in realtime - we begin to naturally measure what we’re doing not simply by how much we like it, but how much others like it, and how much they’re willing to publicly display their pleasure with our work through a retweet or a quote or a share.

I personally (and presume others do too) find myself adding way too much stock to people’s willingness to do these things naturally - if someone doesn’t retweet something, it’s a split-second decision likely based on whether it immediately made them laugh or happy, or resembled something they deeply care about. That split-second decision is genuinely meaningless to them - they can (and will!) move on almost instantly. Still, in the grand scheme of content, these minor social media moves are so significant to people in such an outsized way that I believe drives them a little bit insane.

I try and pull myself back from these involuntary moments of social media anguish by laughing at how obtuse they are. Even while writing this, I’m sitting evaluating whether it’s terrible, whether it’ll be the end of my newsletter not to have got pissed off at a Wall Street Journal article about remote work, and whether this “isn’t what my audience wanted,” despite this being a newsletter that I wrote because I enjoy writing and, I imagine, people enjoy reading.

There is no natural conclusion to any of this, other than admitting that I have a push-pull problem in the content I put out and believe that this is a thing that other people experience too. I think that anyone who’s creating anything online naturally gets to a point where they’re faced with how they can engineer the social media machine to make them feel important, and those who have gone totally crazy have simply been absorbed by their need for that attention over all else.

I also believe that there’re many people online who simply want the attention of specific people and specific things. They may literally want to see the tweets of a select few and want their approval and their attention, which is totally fine, and a lot more mentally stable than I make my life.

In any case, tomorrow I have one of the biggest things I’ve ever written running in a big publication, which is cool. I definitely will not read every single comment in an obsessive, unhealthy way, privately stewing in my annoyance at those who don’t get the point.

I am very normal.

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