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Attachments and Attention: How Social Media Impacts Our Responses to Real World Events

The physical and social limitations caused by the pandemic greatly expanded the scale and importance of social media in our lives. We now have more sources of novelty, as well as dopamine, the happy hormone, than ever. At the same time, long-term focus has become increasingly difficult to capture.

The distinction between distraction and attention has become increasingly blurred, creating a “social field in which the same imperatives and forces incite one another” (Paasonen, 2016). How will the increasing prevalence of the digital landscape influence our behaviour in response to real world events?

A square containing anecdotes about family deaths in the aftermath of the Syria-Türkiye earthquake can stand alongside a get ready with me video.

The answer to this question depends on how we approach our consumption of social media. Are we dopamine-motivated consumers, where our attention is viewed as a commodity by corporations who use it to finetune their algorithms (Crawford, 2015)? Or are we social media users who consider their basic needs, like emotional satisfaction, linked to the achievement of public goals and civic value (Shirky,2012)?

What complicates this question is that companies have made unpredictable content into a unnegotiable feature of the internet, all in an attempt to capture our attention on their social media sites amid a myriad of other platforms.

However, our attention quickly and constantly shifts. We have seen this in the coverage of wars such as those in Ukraine and Syria, which receive high attention at first but also have a high risk of disappearing from the news cycle (Sabbagh, 2022). Because algorithms have increasingly determined what information we receive, the perceptions and attachments of people to these events can change just as rapidly.

This is largely because algorithms are designed to keep our attention on platforms for the longest time possible, so that we can see more content and spend more money on products being advertised on social media.

Entire accounts are dedicated to viral and absurd moments on TikTok, the implausibility of these events contributes to the spectacle (@wildtiktokss on twitter)

From the point of view of the companies that implement these algorithms, the content that may hold our attention should primarily drive us to consume, not necessarily motivate us to commit to altruistic actions.

When we are truly on social media for quick dopamine, apathy can make it easier to scroll past virtual images of suffering and just turn away. But our responses are not so black and white. Social media can be one of the most effective means to spur people to act based on negative emotions such as loss and pity. For instance, a post by the Embassy of Türkiye calling for aid after the earthquake this year was widely shared online; this led to many Singaporeans organising their own donation drives. When hawker centres were in trouble during the pandemic, individuals stepped in to patronise stalls owned by elderly hawkers. The distinction between simple scrolling and conscious consumption is clear. When individuals are actively mindful of the content they consume, visibility can spell the difference between the survival and disappearance of certain issues.

A conflict emerges between our instincts to shape and be shaped by culture. It follows that algorithms themselves can be thought of as “multiples'', or unstable objects that influence culture and are impacted by it, as they determine what content we see, as well as replicate the biases of their creators (Seaver, 2017). If we choose to shape culture in ways that positively benefit communities, it is important to strike a balance between maintaining support and momentum for the most vulnerable and make sure that other issues that crop up continuously receive coverage.

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