How to Get Someone's Attention (The Hard Way)

Recently I listened to the audiobook version of Free by Chris Anderson.

Like Anderson’s previous book The Long Tail, the book is rich with observations – and speculation – and is provoking debate in the worlds of business and technology. In particular, it got me thinking about the nature of attention.

Anderson expands on the observation that the internet is an economy of attention.

You may identify with a variation on this idea, perhaps the scenario of having seemingly endless spam and email to wade through, reports to read and information nagging to be filtered down to the useful, the essential and the interesting. (Put it this way, I’d been intending to listen to the audiobook for several weeks. Anderson got my attention because I was bedridden with flu with little else to occupy me. This is apt.)

Back in the office, while our filters continue to fail us, incoming information is abundant.

What’s concerning is that people on whom we depend to get things done for us (politicians, public sector workers, companies, organisations and the like) are subject to the same limitations as we are.

Attention is finite. In economic terms, attention is a scarcity. Each email that arrives devalues all the others.

Therefore something has to give – and very often it’s your message that gets drowned out.

A great example from social media is the Twitter whinge. If you’ve spent any time on Twitter you’ll have seen other people moaning, complaining or otherwise airing their grievances and probably done it yourself. In particular, there’s something very appealing about sharing a moan about poor service from an airline, hotel or even government agency. But does it result in any real improvement? In truth, a tweet is the easiest kind of message to publish and is often therefore one of the most insignificant forms of complaint in existence. Unless the company or target in mind is directly monitoring mentions of their name and has a policy of acting on them, it’ll probably achieve nothing.

Part of the problem is that a tweet has zero weight and zero cost. Examples of good attention-grabbing via 140-character tweets, usually when they become “trending topics”, are celebrated because they remain rare. Sometimes you want to make a strong point and really influence a big, sluggish organisation. For that purpose, without the boost of a trending topic, your solitary tweet can be easy to ignore or miss.

In the realm above 140 characters, it can be a similar story. Even the well known blogger Jeff Jarvis had to count on the support of fellow bloggers to build momentum around his Dell complaint. Obviously it helps if you have gathered profile and reputation through consistent blogging, as Jeff Jarvis has done (not to mention his substantial offline media activities).

In the meantime, the subject of your complaint might not see your email or a tweet in the first place. Even if they do see it, they’ll know it was very easy for you to create. Just as every virtual gift you receive via Facebook increases the comparative value of an edible box of chocolates or tangible bunch of flowers, maybe we should all be trying harder.

What are people doing to bypass the online attention economy totally?

Examples abound. Here are three.

  1. Maybe it’s time to rediscover what we consider to be older technologies, such as sending a fax. Write To Them is a UK-based service, built mainly by volunteers, which helps you to fax your Member of Parliament. It explicitly advises against copying and pasting standard emails because such emails are prone to being ignored.
  2. Many charities resort to street fundraisers, or “chuggers“, who pester people into donating. For the charity, these services can be expensive. They can also be highly annoying if you’re the target. Much more intrusive than an email. But that’s the point.
  3. The US television network CBS was forced to air the remainder of a series after cancelling it. Fans complained about the initial cancellation of Jericho by sending peanuts to CBS offices. A reported 18,000 kg of nuts were sent before bosses changed their minds. Arguably no amount of email or tweets would have matched that, although admittedly social media were vital in the coordination of the stunt (more background on this story in the book Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky).

As a wise man once said, the medium is the message. In each of these cases, the physicality of the medium can be a burden for you, the would-be communicator. But the inherent bulkiness of the medium can also be its strength. If you can wield that strength, you might just get things your way.

Carl Morris

View posts by Carl Morris
Carl Morris is one day older than MTV. His personal blog is called Quixotic Quisling. He is based in Cardiff, Wales. He wrote this biography himself, using the third person.