Once upon a time, boredom was a real, regular thing.
In the ’80s, kids like me stood in yards and sat in rooms and declared, with Napoleon Dynamite-esque exasperation, “This is BORING.”
But boredom, it turns out, is valuable. And it is certainly better than the current prevailing mind-state: a constant cognitive jumpiness produced by our ability to annihilate boredom the moment it occurs by beaming up novel, tailored-just-for-us content at any given second.
In the ’80s and ’90s, it was fashionable to rail against the anesthetizing, attention-stealing ways of television. The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy galvanized the sentiment in “Television, The Drug of the Nation.” “Kill Your Television” was a rallying cry for those who (accurately) recognized TV’s power to sway viewers’ attention away from things of value toward garbage like Charles in Charge and that one show with Becky the robot.
Whereas TV was demonized by advocates for freedom and free-thinking, the Internet has largely been championed by those same people—presumably because it redistributes the power of programming from a small moneyed few to the unwashed masses.
But now, the moneyed few own the places where we congregate online. And much of the content we consume in these places is spoon-fed to us through a narrow, bias-confirming tube. You could make a good argument (and some have) that the Internet is more addictive—and more destructive—than TV.
Of course, we all experience the Internet’s deleterious effects in our own special ways. As for me, I often find myself drifting away from my immediate responsibilities to “learn” about some esoteric topic. As soon as the subject matter starts to bore me, I retreat to a new rabbit hole. Anything to divert me from the task at hand; anything to quench my thirst for novelty, regardless of whether it’s actually pertinent in any meaningful way to my personal or business goals.
As I was thinking about this recently, I had (what seemed to me, anyway) a minor epiphany: Our most precious resource as people isn’t time or money. It’s attention. And technology is demanding our attention in ways that we are increasingly powerless against.
If you’re a marketer, this *should* sound great. You’re in the business of getting attention, and everybody’s is ripe for the taking. But the Internet allows individuals to curate their own personal attention-sucking worlds. And gaining entry isn’t easy.
So what do you do? You could spend hours creating custom audiences on Facebook, and then more hours A/B testing headlines and CTAs. You could scour Instagram for influencers and stay up all night DMing them pleas to pimp your products. You could launch a podcast, create weekly videos, and blog incessantly.
And you probably should do some of those things. But you shouldn’t do them blindly, without reflecting on their effects on your audience—or yourself.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Allow me to offer a variation: “What we pay attention to determines who we become, so we must be careful with our attention.” That seems like a good rule for life.
Furthermore, as marketers, we should be careful what we ask others to pay attention to. We should always be asking ourselves about the effects of our attention-getting efforts on the lives of others. As people who get paid to divert and distract them, it’s really the least we can do.