Thursday, January 11, 2018

Grabbing Attention

Cory Doctorow's latest LOCUS essay expounds upon the "arms race" for our attention in the media. He compares the "race" between the purveyors of memes and the consumers of them to the evolution of our immune response in reaction to the mutations of pathogens.

Arms Race for Your Attention

A fresh meme—for instance, the exciting new game everybody's playing—hits the "attentional soft spot" by deploying "cognitive traps" that lure the target into an "escape-proof limbic dopamine loop." Most people do eventually escape, though, as they build up resistance to the allure. So the forces clamoring for our attention have to escalate their intensity and develop new tricks.

By comparing old-style advertisements to those we see today, Doctorow illustrates how much harder we are to captivate than earlier generations of audiences. I'm reminded of how tame the TV commercials of my childhood in the 1950s and early 60s were, in contrast to those on the networks nowadays. Viewing some of those old commercials on DVDs of vintage TV programs vividly highlights the difference. Although I wouldn't go back to the 50s unless a time-twisting genie offered to compensate me with wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, in some ways that really was a more innocent era. Of course, nowadays we can fast-forward through commercials, so the ads have to become really flashy and cool-looking to snag our attention and keep us from skimming past them. As for Facebook ads, the scam e-mails that flood our in-boxes, and phone solicitations (which appear positively quaint compared to the Internet messages), does anybody actually respond to any of those appeals? Strange as it seems to me, SOMEBODY must, or the would-be sellers wouldn't keep producing them.

Doctorow also remarks that the battle for our attention is waged for more serious purposes than selling stuff and hooking people on games. It has political applications, too. So it's important to keep our "immune systems" healthy.

As for us authors, how can we best attract the attention of potential readers—in polite ways that don't backfire by turning them off? I've never paid for an Internet ad (although I've accepted the offer of free ads on a review website, where at least people visit voluntarily and are interested in finding new books). Since I ignore those kinds of things myself, why would I expect potential buyers of my books to respond to them? I don't want to become one of the scammers (which is the only issue discouraging me from trying that "boost post" strategy Facebook keeps nagging me about). On the other hand, if I don't promote myself in some way, nobody will know my books exist. When e-books were a novelty, being an e-published novelist was enough to attract attention. When my former publisher Ellora's Cave, the pioneer of erotic romance for a female audience, was practically the only game in town for the erotic paranormal romance subgenre, being one of their authors distinguished a writer from the throng, at least in a modest way. Now it's become a prime example of Doctorow's thesis that potential audiences invariably develop resistance to each new "attentional soft spot."

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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