Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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“Attention Policing”

I expect the term “attention policing” has been around since the dawn of time, but in fact I never noticed it before. Two thoroughly interesting blog posts brought it to my attention, in the context of The Dress. So you see how useful The Dress phenomenon is after all.

Anyway: here is the first, at The Atlantic.

Here is where that article, by Megan Garber (which is well worth reading in its entirety, btw) gets down to business:

So, yeah. You can read the dress — sorry, #thedress — as a metaphor: for our knee-jerk impulse toward partisanship (#TEAMBLUEANDBLACK), for the dynamic nature of observable reality (#TEAMWHITEANDGOLD), for the Internet’s ability to prove Walt Whitman right yet again, for its ability to prove Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrong yet again, for the fundamental challenge of consensus-building in American democracy, for Plato’s caves and Russell’s turtles and Bill Murray’s groundhog. What I want to focus on, though, is a little sliver of all that: a particular strain of commentary that arose during the explosion of conversation about #thedress. Here is a representative tweet, from God (well, @TheTweetofGod) himself: The color of a dress? Really? That’s what you’re asking Me? THE OCEAN LEVELS ROSE FOUR INCHES IN TWO YEARS. You know that, right?

This is a line of logic that will be familiar from most any Meme Event—the logic that says, basically, “don’t look at that; that is unimportant.” It’s attention-policing, and it’s reminiscent of so many other strains of rhetorical legislation that play out in online conversations: You can’t say that. You can’t talk about that. GUYS, the attention-policer usually begins. How can you be talking about a dress/a leg/a pair of llamas/a dancing neoprene shark when climate change/net neutrality/marriage equality/ISIS/China/North Korea is going on?

Ah, yes! We are all familiar with this type of argument, probably. “Attention policing” is a great term for it.

Megan Garber goes on: The problem with attention-policing—besides the fact that it tends to be accompanied by humorlessness and marmery, and besides the other fact that it serves mostly to amplify the ego of the person doing the policing—is that it undermines the value of Internet memes themselves. Those memes, whether they involve #thedress or #llamadrama or #leftshark or #whathaveyou, are culturally lubricating. They create, and reinforce, the imagined community.

All true! Good points!

But here is an answering post, in which Marissa Lingen points out:

I was reading this article on attention policing on The Atlantic, talking about major light memes of the week and the reaction against them. And it struck me that the author wasn’t addressing one of the major problems with attention policing, which I saw in action this week, and that is: it backfires. . . .

So yeah, you’d be disappointed if you were hoping that the next big wave of comments would be about Russian/Ukrainian politics or new treatments for bone cancer instead of badly photographed dresses. These two things are not very much equivalent, though, and “STOP TALKING ABOUT LLAMAS” never once got people to talk about bone cancer. Attention is capricious and fickle, but some parts of it are predictable, and that’s one. So if you’re frustrated with the llamas, go craft your comments about your new local cheesemaker, the anime you just fell in love with, or the charity you think is worthy. Make them pithy, make them shiny, make them interesting. Virtue does not always out in the attention economy. You have to help it.

Personally, I read the bit about attention policing backfiring and my instant reaction was: She’s right, it totally backfires. My second reaction was, Which is not actually a *problem*! Thank God attention policing backfires! Because if there’s one thing about attention policing that stands out, it is for me the self-righteous holier-than-thou attitude it exemplifies.

Though actually the tweet from God was kind of funny.

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2 Comments “Attention Policing”

  1. pete mack

    Wow. What I got from #thedress was something completely different: A fascinating look into the workings of human perception. #llamas was a classic stupid human tricks joke, but that dress image still blows my mind. And no, it did not detract from my attention for cancer or something.

  2. Rachel

    I thought #thedress was the funniest, most good-humored thing I’ve ever seen go viral. Perceptually it was genuinely interesting, but mostly it was all about watching people have fun with it. The comments about that dress at Amazon are also delightful.

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