The phrase that keeps coming to mind as I make sense of the way U.S. society is going is the economy of attention.
These are times of information overload, cacophony of voices, pluralism, multitasking, fragmentation, community, and isolation -to name a few.
It has become an established fact in social psychology that people need attention. Children need attention to develop into healthy, balanced adults.
Everything and everybody is fighting for your attention: your children, your pets, your friends, your twitter friends, mass-media, individual-media, TV, employees.
People and pets will do strange things to get attention: Start a fight, act up.
I’ve been working long hours lately so my cat Pooky gets quite possessive when I come back home. I can’t have a phone conversation without him acting up – the other day, running across the dining table as I was eating and talking on the phone, just to make a point, I’m sure!
So, to quote an Indian English phrase, What to do?!
If you’re in an attention-giving role: Give it. Make smart decisions about who and what needs your attention most. In the long run, in the big picture, is it your Blackberry or your kid?
If you’re in an attention-needing role: Ask for it. It’s OK, you don’t need to fight, act up, attack people just so they will notice you. There are plenty of kind people out there who will sit down to have a loving, heart-to-heart conversation with you. You don’t even have to pay them. You just need to get over your ego and open your heart enough so you can find them.
If you’re in the communication professions (PR, marketing, advertising): Be responsible. Don’t do society a disservice by adding to the cacophony unnecessarily. That’s not going to get you attention. Be smart, be judicious, imagine you have a limited “communication & messaging” account and use it wisely to communicate important, valuable, useful information. Sometimes being quiet will get you attention.
As a college student in Romania, once a year, I’d attend the International Advertising Festival. I’d pay half my monthly income on a ticket to sit and watch back-to-back commercials all night long (9 pm – 5 am). I’ve done this 2-3 years in a row, and guess what commercial got my attention and stayed with me to this day, more than 10 years later? This one stood out among the cacophony of voices, among the visual and auditory assault on the senses:
- Blank white screen.
- Line-drawn piglet shuffles on screeen.
- Stops in the center, stares at you, blinks.
- Text bubble: Why are you staring at me? Go to a museum.
I believe it was an ad paid for by the Serbian Art Federation.
This semester, I won the teaching evaluations lottery. It got me thinking about what makes a good teacher. It’s really an elusive concept. Some semesters I’m the best teacher ever, others I’m… not.
I always try to reach out and relate to students as people. I genuinely care about them and invest a lot, mentally and emotionally, in these people who, for one semester, are my responsibility. I approach teaching with awe and care, because ultimately, what I am doing, is messing with their minds. For one semester, they sit there and we talk, and I’m supposed to guide, direct, have the answers, be right. They open their minds to me and I get to mess with them. Scary.
Messing with their minds is what many of you in the strategic communication professions (PR, marketing, etc.) do. Granted, your audience is more skeptical than mine, but every time you communicate, whether it is to an audience of 10 or 10 million people, there is a chance you are messing with their minds.
You get to teach them new ideas & beliefs, influence attitudes and opinions, and change behavior. You can influence your publics on an individual level (yey! Mary bought my brand of… insert product here) and you can influence the overall culture (think about how the Mastercard priceless commercials have become part of everyday culture here in the U.S.). That’s what I call messing with their minds.
Communicating involves a huge responsibility, because when you communicate, you get to mess with people’s minds.
Are you aware of that responsibility? Do you reflect upon it?
The easy test I apply is: What if they believe me? What if, out of 10 (or 10 million) people, there are a few who 100% believe me? Who do as I say? If my communication is successful, and they believe me and do as I say, will their lives be any better? Will the world be any better? Am I, knowingly, causing any harm? What if my communication is really changing someone/something in the world? Am I comfortable with the direction of that change?
I don’t claim I’m always successful (at communicating, or at applying the above ethics test) and I can’t claim that all ethical responsibility is on one side. Yes, people should take care of themselves and protect their own minds against my messing with them. Yet I can’t help but reflect on my responsibility as a teacher and communicator.
Thank you for (not) allowing me to mess with your mind. What are your thoughts?