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Moment Zero: A Significant Event occurs. Eye witnesses and primary sources break the news. Statements are made. Videos are posted. Tweets are tweeted.
First Hour: Journalists scramble to disseminate news of the Significant Event far and wide. Most of this happens on Twitter, but placeholder web pages are thrown together on various news sites and cable news channels interrupt the latest car chase to give you “breaking news” about the Significant Event, even though nobody has any clue what’s going on. This is the initial viral wave—let’s call it the “Primary Viral Wave.”
First 24 Hours: There is a gold rush within the first 24 hours to cash in on the Primary Viral Wave. Thousands of journalists, bloggers, influencers, celebrities, and politicians put out their “take” on the Significant Event. These early takes range from quality education to scummy attention whoring. Pretty much anybody who says anything even remotely noteworthy about the Significant Event immediately goes viral, sees their follower count explode, and gets their tweet featured on news media outlets, who still have no idea what’s actually going on.
24-48 Hours: Of the tens of thousands of “takes” that were posted in the previous 24 hours, a couple dozen come out as clear victors in terms of winning in the attention colosseum. These handful of narratives get repeated and reshared to such an extent that they quickly become the conventional wisdom and basic facts about the Significant Event. People who follow the news closely begin informing their friends and family over dinners and boozy happy hours of what they’ve heard about the Significant Event. This makes them feel informed and intelligent.
48-72 Hours: The Primary Viral Wave has reached its saturation point. There’s little new to say about the facts of the Significant Event which hasn’t already been said. As a result, intrepid journalists, bloggers, authors, and influencers begin to look closer at the data and information of the Primary Viral Wave. And sure enough, wouldn’t you know it, this video is fake! And that photo has been Photoshopped! And that data analysis was done incorrectly!
My God, it’s a scandal!
Everything you know about the Significant Event is wrong! The authorities have been lying to you. The mainstream media has fucking duped you. Again, dammit!
The fake content and disinformation that inevitably happens during any Significant Event begins to come to light. This sparks outrage and fury among millions, thus generating another viral wave across social media and news services. Let’s call this the “Reactionary Viral Wave.”
The Reactionary Viral Wave is not a single narrative like the Primary Viral Wave, but a collection of anti-establishment narratives that are colored by various interest groups and cultural identities. Righties will zero in on how rights and liberties are being violated. Lefties will amplify any injustices or prejudices that are taking place. People who live to fight racism will find racism in the Primary Viral Wave’s narratives. People who live to promote free markets will find overbearing and corrupt governments in the Primary Viral Wave’s Narratives. Like a global Rorschach Test, the Significant Event doesn’t alter anyone’s personal views, but rather merely reflects their views back to them.
Because the Reactionary Viral Wave is composed of multiple combative takes on the Significant Event, people soon begin to spiral into conflicts and dog fights about who is to blame and who is at fault. Whereas the Primary Viral Wave generates a sense of unity and desire to understand in everybody, the Reactionary Viral Wave blows everyone apart and cements them back into their own little tribal camps.
1-2 Weeks: The various competing Reactionary Viral Waves have reached peak saturation within their respective audiences. In an effort to keep attention and interest, various news outlets and influencers have ramped up the rhetoric to 11. Words like “traitor,” “criminal,” and “racist” are thrown around so much that they lose most of their meaning. The obligatory Hitler and Stalin references are made. Conspiracy theories proliferate. Everyone is offended and upset by everybody.
If anything is true in the social media age, it’s that narratives will evolve in order to saturate as much attention as they can. This means that any take will eventually be taken to its extreme. News anchors who a week ago expressed mild concern about a war will turn downright apocalyptic. Expert researchers who once appeared on TV to give measured advice will be replaced with doomsayers and anarchists. Douchey influencers and television pundits will try on absurd positions for no other reason than it will get Twitter upset and talking about them again.
It’s among this chaos that a third brand of journalist or influencer steps up and essentially tells everyone to calm the fuck down. These influencers and thought leaders tend to be political moderates who publish their content independently so they aren’t beholden to the corrupt economics of the attention game.
These moderate, “let’s take a minute and calm down” voices then launch the third and final viral wave caused by the Significant Event, the Anti-Reactionary Viral Wave. And because the Anti-Reactionary Viral Wave is so measured and cautious to be accurate and fair, it accomplishes what no other viral wave could: it bores people. Sure, it educates them to the point where they finally calm down, but it’s fucking boring.
The truth is, hearing a historian discuss Russian history for three hours on a podcast is enough to show millions of people that they don’t actually care about the war as much as they thought they did. Because there’s very little to feel outraged about here.
Thus, their attention moves on to whatever else is shiny and exciting—tonight’s basketball game, whether the stock market is going to crash next week, their kid’s piano recital…
…until the next Significant Event occurs and they are thrown down the proverbial stairs all over again.
And not only do they go through the viral waves again and again and again, but like a magic trick that continues to put audiences at the edge of their seats, show after show after show, they will continue to be shocked and surprised and scared each time, in the same amount and measure.
And what’s most wondrous of all, is that with each Significant Event hip checking the previous one out of the attention spotlight, they will actually forget that most of these Significant Events happened in the first place.
Which is a shame, because if they remembered all of the Significant Events they had forgotten in recent years, they would perhaps realize that many were actually not that “significant” at all.
And worse, when something truly significant does happen, it blends in seamlessly with the continuing shitstream that is information in the social media age.
Until next month,
P.S. If you struggle with managing your attention, challenging some of your previous assumptions, or not getting emotionally strangled by the news in the world today, check out some of the online courses I’ve put together on challenging beliefs, managing emotions, and choosing better sources of information. You can learn more about them at the link below.
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