Gay dating and hookup apps and the hidden cost of ‘distraction capitalism’

Essy Knopf distraction capitalism
Reading time: 7 minutes

Gay dating and hookup apps dangle the promise of in-person interactions, yet no one wants to meet—because of distraction capitalism.

What I’m referring to here is an entire industry dedicated to keeping consumers distracted in the name of profit.

Those responsible for pulling our strings are called “the attention merchants”. And the bad news is, every time you and I get taken in, we lose. Here’s how.

The allure of distraction capitalism

Countless battles are waged daily for our attention by the attention merchants, and one of the first staging grounds is the living room. 

As a child, Saturday morning cartoons were my ambrosia, the accompanying advertisements always managing to instill in me a hunger for the latest tawdry Happy Meal toy.

Eventually, I outgrew these shows, graduating to watching soap operas instead. Specifically, the NBC series Passions

Checking in with the slow-churning serial every day after school, I’d reassure myself that I wasn’t there for the melodrama. No—I was watching ironically.

“Hate-watching” wasn’t common parlance at the time, but in hindsight, it describes this ritual perfectly.

Trysts with current affairs programs followed. Many of these shows trafficked shameless in scandal and outrage. 

Part of me lived for the exposés of crooks and ne’er-do-wells, as much as another part lived to denounce them.

I would watch victims tearfully recount how they had been mistreated, exploited, or abused. The viewers’ sympathy having been solicited, the reporter would then embark on a crusade for justice.

Clad in business attire and sporting a wireless microphone, this feisty individual would pursue the accused across parking lots, reciting laundry lists of misdemeanors while demanding answers and apologies. 

The alleged perpetrator would dart into a doorway or duck into a car, trying to make a quick escape. If we were lucky, the encounter would lead to a scuffle with the camera crew and maybe even an accidental injury.

These confrontations of course designed to appeal to the viewer’s emotions, and it was the contrived drama of it all that made watching them such a guilty pleasure. 

Yet my high school English curriculum had brought with it a certain awareness of the media’s manipulations. 

And so my adolescent self usually came away from these shows feeling glutted, maybe even a touch queasy, like I’d just eaten a whole bag of caramel popcorn in one sitting.

The effect was similar to that evoked by the gossip magazines I’d glimpse in racks while waiting in supermarket lines with my mother.

What drew my attention weren’t just the unflattering, doctored shots of celebrities looking either livid, sick, or sleep-deprived. Nor was it the chance to get a glimpse behind the showbiz curtain.

In my hard-nosed way, I was hoping to interrogate these publications’ very slippery relationship with the truth. The fact I engaged with them at all meant the victory, by default, went to said publications.

In the early ‘00s, the object of my fascinated disgust became reality TV, a medium that shamelessly massaged both the truth and viewer’s emotions for maximum effect. 

No surprise that when I finally moved out of my family’s home, I refused to buy a TV set. Who were these broadcasters to think they could determine what I watched and when?

What right did they think they had to expose me to shouty calls to action and appeals to open my wallet?

Often, walking into a room in which a TV was blaring, I’d catch myself shouting right back, offering a snarky retort for the benefit of those present.

Yet just as often as not, I’d surrender, plonking down on a couch, only to stir minutes—sometimes hours—later from a fugue state, stricken by the realization that for all my cynicism, I had succumbed.

Distraction capitalism at work

TV shows and advertisements, gossip magazines, and reality TV are just some of the cultural phenomena designed to capture our attention through constant intrusion, often without our consent.

But according to The Attention Merchants author Tim Wu,

the competition is fierce that the race will naturally run to the bottom; attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative, whatever stimulus may more likely engage what cognitive scientists call our “automatic” attention as opposed to our “controlled” attention, the kind we direct with intent.

This is probably why, for all my skepticism about Passions and current affair programs, I still found myself watching them, primal emotions somehow managing to bypass my intellectual defenses.

The attention industry is an almost omnipresent fact of daily life. Yet its merchants are constantly trying to outpace what Wu calls the “disenchantment effect”—that is, our becoming desensitized to their methods.

Merchants respond to our adaptation with adaptations of their own. They either “up the dosage”, going to even greater extremes, or they introduce a novel stimulus, “a distortion for the sake of spectacle, calibrated to harvest the most attention”.

Hence the soap opera’s endless stream of dramatic turns, the trotting out of fresh scandals, or social media’s endless stream of dopamine-triggering notifications.

Essy Knopf distraction capitalism

How distraction capitalism adapts

The shift towards an online world has seen viewers faced with more choices than ever, resulting in a mad scramble by attention merchants not just to find new revenue streams, but to keep us transfixed.

Many news publications for example now require paid subscriptions. And, in a bid to draw viewers, some have shifted away from traditional broadsheet style towards the kind of “gossipy, superficial, and click-driven” tone one might expect from a tabloid.

Working in digital news, I have glimpsed firsthand a kind of desperation that can sometimes indeed result in Wu’s deplored “race to the bottom”. 

Sometimes this may take the obvious form of clickbait. Other times it’s gratuitous “breaking” coverage that spills over into multiple news cycles, producing more anxiety-provoking commentary and speculation than concrete information.

This desperation is by no means new; as the old journalism expression goes, “if it bleeds, it leads”. The media attention merchants have long known that reportage on scandal, catastrophe, death, and disaster is sure to secure an audience. 

But the shift away from traditional media has certainly led to an intensification in tactics, such as the adoption of more intrusive methods like news apps using push notifications.

Under such conditions, public interest—traditionally the driving factor behind reportage—can become eclipsed by a desire for private profit.

Netflix: a case study in distraction capitalism

Where commercial broadcast television previously employed advertising, “over-the-top” media providers like Netflix have, as in the case of some news outlets, relied upon subscription services.

But Netflix has also adjusted to changing viewing habits by employing “bingeable” programming. They do this by releasing new seasons of TV shows all at once or acquiring old series en masse.

Where traditional TV may shape stories around ad breaks, streaming programming may eschew this structure in favor of one geared towards binge viewing, with one episode often bleeding seamlessly into another.

All of this seems designed to produce an effect New York Times journalist James Poniewozik calls “The Suck”, “that narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours”.

This style of bingeable programming is an ongoing experiment, backed by Netflix’s comprehensive access to viewer behavioral data

Operating behind a one-way mirror, the company’s data scientists observe trends and gather insights. This knowledge is then used to inform their programming model, and to keep viewers hooked.

This is not a development exclusive to Netflix, but one broadly employed by modern attention merchants in what Shoshana Zuboff has called The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. (My take on the risk surveillance capitalism poses in the context of dating apps here).

When distraction becomes the ultimate goal

Author Tim Wu warns that for all the means now at the attention merchants’ disposal, it can still be an imprecise game. 

Technologies that enable more control over our choices than ever also “open us up to a stream of instinctive selections, and tiny rewards, the sum of which may be no reward at all”, resulting in a state of “distracted wandering”. 

Dating apps are just one example of this. As with social media, we may find ourselves regularly checking in with no express goal beyond securing the reward of a notification, a “like”, or a message. 

In some cases, this reward-seeking behavior can even spill over into addiction (I’m thinking here of operant conditioning). 

The allure is intensified in the case of platforms like Instagram, which democratize fame and promote self-aggrandizement. The result? “A chaotic mutual admiration society, full of enterprising Narcissi” who reward and reinforce each other’s behavior.

However purposeless our use of the attention merchant’s platforms might be, our very presence there is nevertheless regarded as a victory. Our continued reliance is, after all, “far better than being ignored”. 

Any usage after all results in surplus behavioral data that can be used by the service provider, or sold to third parties in what Zuboff calls the behavioral futures market.

None of this would be possible of course were it not for our always-connected culture, itself the product of technologies such as the smartphone, which renders social media check-ins, sharing, and selfies a mere reflex.

The attention economies as a result are now deeply embedded in daily life; normalized to the point that we often aren’t aware when merchants “nudge, coax, tune, and herd” us, to use Zuboff’s terms.

It is in the absence of such self-awareness, Wu says, that we inevitably find ourselves “in thrall to our various media and devices”.

Reclaiming peace of mind

Attention merchants profit from our involuntary behavior; from distraction and addiction, from funneling our desire for connection, validation, and information, into hypervigilant checking, comparing, competing, and performing for a horde of fellow digital voyeurs.

Involuntary behavior is the opposite of mindfulness, a quality widely accepted as being conducive to wellbeing. The degree to which the merchants exert influence over us can thus prove proportional to our health. 

Yet the media and technologies described here as noted are an inescapable part of modern life. 

Extricating ourselves from their hold requires fighting years worth of conditioning by the ever-hungry attention merchants, which more often than not feels like a fool’s errand.

We can begin by regularly “unplugging” and holding a “digital Sabbath”: a window of time such as a weekend in which to put down our devices and resist the urge to engage in checking emails, social media, Netflix, and the news.

It is only through such abstinence from the stimulation to which we have become so accustomed that we can achieve self-awareness about unhealthy attentional habits.  

We don’t need to suffer “fragmentary awareness” and the incessant interruptions of attention merchants. 

Rather, we should work to reclaim the concentration and focus that’s key not just to our productivity—but our happiness as well.

Takeaways

  • Recognize the attention industry at work.
  • Avoid involuntary distraction and addiction.
  • Reclaim mindfulness by “unplugging”.

Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Here’s how to be a better social justice warrior online

Essy Knopf social justice warriors
Reading time: 9 minutes

The term “social justice warriors” should mean advocates for progressive causes. Internet trolls however have tried to paint SJWs as social media “slacktivists” and political correctness police.

There may be an element of truth to this. We may not all be keyboard warriors ready to hold every wrongdoer to account, but many of us still use these platforms for activism, consciousness-raising, and community organization.

Social media in particular has empowered many marginalized individuals to challenge dominant narratives perpetuated by mass media and the oppressive systems they serve.1234

But when we threaten the status quo, we also threaten the privileged few it has long served. Given trolls themselves are typically members of these empowered groups—White males with a “certain degree of economic privilege”5—it’s no wonder they can be such tough critics.

Whether we are calling out ableism on Twitter or criticizing microaggressions on YouTube (here’s a handy guide to SJW terminology), it’s important that we always hold ourselves to a higher standard. 

By this, I mean that we remember our goal is as much interrupting oppression as it is inspiring individual change.

As social justice warriors, we can help others navigate the process of revising their beliefs and behaviors—but only if we act in a way that does not first alienate or create a toxic “us” vs. “them” mentality.

Social justice warriors are kind

When confronted with injustice and oppression, SJWs naturally feel compelled to speak out. The problem starts when we believe that our capacity for critical thinking gives us a license to simply be critical

If we lean into this belief, we adopt a holier-than-thou attitude. We task ourselves with fighting our many “enemies”, rather than seeing them as potential allies and stakeholders in the change we desire.678

Furthermore, being publicly called out over one’s conduct, whether online or offline usually entails some loss of face

For me, being corrected over something I have said on the grounds of it being incorrect and/or offensive has—at the very minimum—evoked embarrassment and defensiveness.

There have also been instances where I have found myself on the receiving end of a global attack on my privileges, my conduct, or my character.

These kinds of attacks have the potential to activate what Brené Brown terms “shame tapes”: “the messages of self-doubt and self-criticism that we [all] carry around in our heads”.9

Brown describes shame as the belief that our actions or inactions make us unworthy of love, belonging, or connection. So corrosive is this belief that it can erase our capacity to change.

When it doesn’t lead people to flee, it can cause them to double down, or to go into attack mode.

Where it comes to online advocacy and activism, controversy with civility certainly is possible, and necessary. 

Yet no matter how abominable the other person’s point of view or egregious their conduct, we as social justice warriors must remember that another’s capacity to grow can only be tapped so long as they feel respected and safe enough to concede there is room for improvement.

If we are courteous and kind, we create a low-threat environment in which these self-protective mechanisms are not necessary, and transformation is possible.

If we want to achieve any mutual understanding and/or consensus, it behooves us to build bridges, not walls—to borrow the words of Pope Francis.10

Anger over others’ wrongful behavior can be justified, but rarely is anger alone a motivator to change. For us to move forward as a society, we must be willing to forgive.

By forgiveness, I am not suggesting we overlook individual responsibility or accountability. Nor am I proposing we permit or enable oppression.

Rather, I am reminding readers that—to quote Desmund Tutu—”every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed. Within every hopeless situation and every seemingly hopeless person lies the possibility of transformation”.11

SJWs are humble 

Wise social justice warriors know that when we appoint ourselves the arbitrator of right and wrong, we fail to admit to our fallibility. We forget that we too at some point have been wrong.

For example, derogatory terms regarding people with disabilities are so ingrained in Australian slang that to call something “r******d” or “s*****c” often does not warrant a second thought.

It was only once I was diagnosed with a disability that I came to truly understand how hurtful and oppressive such terms could be.

In the years since I have encountered people for whom the use of these terms was also a product of habit rather than outright maliciousness. Offensive as they have since become for me, I have had to remind myself that I once was no different. 

Social justice warriors know that language can be oppressive. A humble SJW however understands that penalizing others over perceived technicalities or semantics does not facilitate dialogue.

Practicing humility also means being willing to front up to our own mistakes, before we expect others to admit to their own. It also means acknowledging we can choose how we react to those of others.

In the words of Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness”.12

When we lash out at those who trigger our emotions, we are also missing a valuable opportunity for personal growth.

If taking personal responsibility for our feelings feels impossible, then perhaps it is best we take a step back, reflect, practice self-compassion, and seek the professional support and healing we need.

Remember: feeling aggrieved or believing ourselves to be on the right side of history does not grant us a hall pass to punish, humiliate, antagonize, or bully.

SJWs are curious

Effective social justice warriors know that consciousness-raising does not follow a hypodermic needle model. We don’t simply “inject” information into our audience and expect our lessons to somehow stick.

Rather than brutalizing others with our beliefs, we should aim instead to sensitize them, through rapport- and relationship-building. 

Online, this may be difficult. Exchanges tend to be fleeting and sometimes ill-considered. Who here hasn’t once shot from the hip, firing off a furious email or direct message into the ether?

Digital environments remove many of the inhibitions that stop us from otherwise engaging in antisocial behaviors, resulting in a phenomenon known as the Online Disinhibition Effect.

We can see this effect at play when we try to set “wrongdoers” right online, imposing viewpoints and forcing confrontations. As noted already, these behaviors do not nurture empathy. Rather, they feed conflict.

Shifting worldviews requires that we and our dialogue partners unpack the thinking behind them. 

Broadminded SJWs recognize that worldviews are a product of valid life experiences and values—values which are not always self-selected but are imposed by “cultural norms, policies, laws, and public opinion”.13

With time and patience, and by getting curious and asking questions, we may be able to help others uncover discrepancies between our dialogue partners’ thoughts and values, generate cognitive dissonance, and, hopefully, action.

essy knopf social justice warriors

SJWs are empathetic

By modeling openness, we create an environment in which empathy can flourish. And to reiterate: unless a baseline of empathy has been first established, a stranger may not be willing to hear all you have to say.

Combining the qualities mentioned above—kindness, mindfulness, humility, and curiosity—can thus increase our chances drastically.

“We should look upon others with respect,” wrote Baháʼí leader ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

“When attempting to explain and demonstrate, we should speak as if we are investigating the truth. [We] should speak with the utmost kindliness, lowliness, and humility, for such speech exerteth influence and educateth the souls.”14

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s words are echoed by Buddhist spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh, who counsels us to employ “loving speech”.

By speaking in a way that inspires hope, forgiveness, and compassion, and by treating all who cross our paths with understanding and generosity of spirit—whatever their beliefs—we can move towards reconciliation and resolution.15

Nhat Hanh suggests that before trying to change others, we should instead practice “deep listening”: 

“Even if [the other person] says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion. Because you know that listening like that, you give that person a chance to suffer less. If you want to help him to correct his perception, you wait for another time. For now, you don’t interrupt. You don’t argue. If you do, he loses his chance. You just listen with compassion and help him to suffer less. One hour like that can bring transformation and healing.”16

SJWs pick their battles

A wise SJW seeks to clarify intent and meaning, rather than condemning others outright. Automatically presuming bad intent on behalf of our dialogue partner is a one-way ticket to nowhere.

That said, attention-seekers who have no time for respectful dialogue and are only interested in winning debates are best avoided. 

Likewise, when confronted by hate speech, the most judicious course of action usually involves blocking and reporting the perpetrators.

As per the aphorism “don’t feed the trolls”, we should avoid such toxic and ultimately futile exchanges, and consider instead engaging in self-care.

To that point, social justice warriors should recognize that some settings are not naturally conducive to meaningful or purposeful dialogue. 

For example, when we are interacting with strangers on Twitter, we have no reason to believe our point of view will be acknowledged, respected, and given careful consideration. 

Anonymity and the absence of the usual social checks and balances mean that exchanges of opinion on social media can quickly devolve into mud-slinging matches.

And given social media platforms abound with bots and trolls, we may have no way of knowing whether the views put forth in response even belong to a real person. 

Which begs the question: what is your goal in initiating or continuing an interaction online? What do you hope to achieve by challenging and contending? 

And more importantly, is there a basis for which you can cultivate awareness and change, or would your energies best be spent elsewhere?

For many of us, our first glimpse of social justice activism was a social media post. Yet so long as we choose to engage at the level of a Twitter argument—which, let’s face it, are rarely productive—we won’t be any closer to creating the better world we dream of.

This is not to say that calling out perceived oppressions in some situations can’t be a valuable practice. But doing so can potentially lead us to categorize and even demonize someone on the basis of some privileged facet of their identity.

Intersectionality teaches us that each individual comprises multiple “potentially conflicting, overlapping identities, loyalties, and allegiances”,17 all of which interact in different ways with power structures and cultural interpretations.18

Given our various identities operate in tandem, it is impossible to focus on one, to the exclusion of all others.19

Judging someone on the basis of a perceived privileged identity thus is reductive and presumptuous, especially when we know often know next to nothing about an online dialogue partner.

Social justice warriors practice self-reflection

Social media platforms, as we all know by now, rely upon algorithms to filter content, biasing what users see in their social media feeds according to what they have previously engaged with.20

This has resulted in an “echo chamber” effect, in which social media users are presented with information that confirms existing biases while ensuring the only contact they have is with others they perceive to be fundamentally similar.

This echo chamber effect has been credited with ushering in an era of post-truth politics, fueling tribalism, fanning the fires of culture wars, and contributing to the extremely polarized state of modern politics in the U.S.

The lack of transparency around how these algorithms operate unfortunately means that our ability to reach many people—especially those of opposing political views—is often limited.

Even more problematic is the fact that these algorithms may lead us into believing our chamber reflects an “essential” conception of reality, rather than one shaped by our values and opinions.

Not being exposed to anything that deviates from this perceived reality can have the effect of reinforcing existing worldviews. We may become less and less aware of our own biases and prejudices and prone to invalidating “the cognitions and realities of those who are different”.21

As aspiring changemakers, we can’t afford to be dogmatic. Rather, we must be willing to step out of our ideological echo chambers, reflect on our own biases, and be open to taking other perspectives.

Only when we do this can we truly “dialogue across difference”2223 and forge the relationships that are so crucial to change.

In the words of pioneering American social worker Jane Addams: “Social advance depends as much upon the process through which it is secured as upon the result itself”.24