Avoiding a 'culture of fear' in the attention economy

As marketers, we describe it as a need to "cut through the clutter" or a desire to be "disruptive," but what we are really talking about is commanding our share of the attention economy among consumers.

As marketers, we describe it as a need to “cut through the clutter” or a desire to be “disruptive,” but what we are really talking about is commanding our share of the attention economy among consumers.

This situation can sometimes foster sensationalism and distortion to garner an appropriate share of eyeballs. It can compel the intrusion of brands into our online lives, rationalized both by a call to create greater “relevance,” not to mention a billion-dollar advertising market.

I attended a brilliant South by Southwest Interactive presentation by celebrated researcher and luminary Dr. Danah Boyd - she has too many credentials to list here - entitled “The Power of Fear in Networked Publics,” where she described the use of fear to gain control of people, particularly for things that are not well understood. She discussed the role that social media plays as an instrument to foster fear and explained that fear is a powerful motivator to drive action, or reaction. She offered three primary premises:

  • We live in a culture of fear;
  • The attention economy is fertile ground for the culture of fear;
  • Social media is “amping up” the attention economy, further complicating the culture of fear.

Boyd punctuated her statements with a number of very poignant examples. She said that while there is panic over protecting children from strangers online, cyberbullying assaults take place among people who know each other, not by strangers. Media and governments have effectively created a culture of fear that outweighs the value of rational argument. She further pointed out that we have been at terror threat-level orange for a decade now, and that it has been an effective way for governments to control people who wouldn't think to challenge the system. She references the 2012 elections as another example of how candidates use fear about the economy, social issues, etc., driven through social media to garner support for their campaign.

This is all complicated by the density of the media environment. Boyd wasn't suggesting that media saturation only causes numbness, I believe she was also implying that in a culture where the shift from broadcast media to networked media alters the way information flows, that social media significantly increases the noise. As such, it is only the extreme gestures that capture the attention of the public, not the veracity or relevance of the information. This might encourage some very bad behavior among attention seekers.

While I would like to think that we as communicators take a more ethical approach, not overtly using the construct of fear to drive people to action, there is no doubt that we might be accused of robbing people of their attention in favor of gathering impressions for brands. As I think about it, this notion only makes a stronger case for deep audience insights when building a communications strategy and a responsible use of social media. It is our imperative not to pump garbage into the river of news. We must honor the public with true relevance and substantial value.

I got a chance to catch up with Boyd after her presentation, introducing myself as a marketer who frequently uses social media as a tactic in communications campaigns. I asked her what she thought the relationship is between marketing and the “Culture of Fear” and what should be done about it.

She suggested that it is our responsibility to take the time to be certain that our campaigns are not fueling a culture of fear, but instead tapping into the positive undercurrent of human need.

You can follow Boyd on Twitter or read her blog.

Chad Latz is president of the global digital practice at Cohn & Wolfe.

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