Rewilding your attention

Clive Thompson on 2021-08-25

To find truly interesting ideas, step away from the algorithmic feeds of Big Tech.

“Wilderness”, by Dr. Matthias Ripp

Recently I read a terrific blog post by CJ Eller where he talks about the value of paying attention to offbeat things.

Eller was joining an online conversation about how people get caught up in the “status and celebrity game” when they’re trying to grow their audience. They become overly obsessed with following — and emulating, and envying— the content of people with massive audiences. The conversation started with this poignant essay by the author Ali Montag; she concludes that rabidly chasing followers endows your writing (and thinking!) with “inescapable mediocrity”. (It also tends to make you miserable, too, she points out).

Then Tom Critchlow joined in, tweeting about Ali’s essay, and he used a very memorable phrase …

“Rewild your attention” — that’s a wonderful way of putting it! (Or as CJ Eller titled his blog post, from which I got my title here: “Rewilding Your Attention”.)

Instead of crowding your attention with what’s already going viral on the intertubes, focus on the weird stuff. Hunt down the idiosyncratic posts and videos that people are publishing, oftentimes to tiny and niche audiences. It’s decidedly unviral culture — but it’s more likely to plant in your mind the seed of a rare, new idea.

I love the idea of “rewilding your attention”. It puts a name on something I’ve been trying to do for a while now: To stop clicking on the stuff big-tech algorithms push at me.

As Montag and Eller and Critchlow note, social behavior can influence our attention: What are the high-follower-count folks talking/posting/arguing about today? This isn’t always a bad thing. We’re social animals, so we’re necessarily (and often productively) intrigued by what others are chewing over. But as these three writers note, it’s also crucial to follow your own signal — to cultivate the stuff you’re obsessed with, even if few others are.