When the mir­ror cracks

To seek at­ten­tion is nor­mal — but it can spin out of con­trol and be­come a de­struc­tive ad­dic­tion that hurts peo­ple

Sunday Times - - Stinsight - Illustration: Car­los Amato By CLAIRE KEETON

When a 39-year-old woman walked into YouTube’s head­quar­ters in Cal­i­for­nia last month, she wanted re­venge on the web­site for “fil­ter­ing” her videos, in­clud­ing a fit­ness work­out.

Peo­ple fled as Nasim Na­jafi Agh­dam pulled out a gun and shot three peo­ple, then her­self.

This is not the only bizarre crime in­volv­ing a pub­lic dis­play of at­ten­tion­seek­ing anger. So­cial me­dia gen­er­ates at­ten­tion-seek­ing and some peo­ple, like Agh­dam, be­come ob­sessed with “views” and “likes” from anony­mous fol­low­ers, some­times to the detri­ment of them­selves and oth­ers.

The need for on­line pop­u­lar­ity shapes al­ter egos, of­ten warped, whose de­mands can su­per­sede those of peo­ple’s real lives and friends.

“There are rel­a­tively few pros to this run­away at­ten­tion-seek­ing be­cause, un­like in real in­ter­ac­tions and re­la­tion­ships, there are rarely any ac­tual re­la­tional ben­e­fits of at­ten­tion-seek­ing on­line,” says Pro­fes­sor Mark Leary, a psy­chol­o­gist at Duke Univer­sity in the US, who has stud­ied the need to be­long.

“The pri­mary con is that peo­ple in­vest time in an on­line per­sona that doesn’t ac­tu­ally mat­ter very much.”

But to­day peo­ple have a gi­gan­tic au­di­ence com­pared with when they were lim­ited by face-to-face con­tact. In rare cases, peo­ple with men­tal health con­di­tions who feel re­jected be­come danger­ous in de­mand­ing mass at­ten­tion.

A study led by Leary found that in 13 out of 15 school shoot­ings in the US, the shoot­ers had ex­pe­ri­enced re­jec­tion of the bul­ly­ing, ro­man­tic or gen­eral os­tracism sort.

In South Africa Face­book, In­sta­gram and Twit­ter have 27.8 mil­lion users com­bined. YouTube has 1.3 bil­lion glob­ally.

Self-pro­mo­tion and nar­cis­sism are not only widely ac­cepted but re­warded in the 21st cen­tury. Take Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, for ex­am­ple. Closer to home, an ex­am­ple of a dif­fer­ent kind of ex­hi­bi­tion­ist is dancer Zodwa Wa­bantu, who is far from the first at­trac­tive woman to ex­ploit her as­sets for fame and money. Ex­cept now women like Wa­bantu do this on­line, and their fol­low­ers are le­gion.

At­ten­tion-seek­ing and nar­cis­sism are in­creas­ingly com­mon among mil­len­ni­als, say US psy­chol­o­gists Jean Twenge and W Keith Camp­bell in their book, The Nar­cis­sism Epi­demic: Liv­ing in the Age of En­ti­tle­ment.

South African band Gold­fish mock this trend in their new hit One Mil­lion Views (which has had al­most three mil­lion views to date) about a nar­cis­sis­tic and unin­spired DJ.

“I’ve got one mil­lion views! I’ve got my own branded shoes/ I’ve got one mil­lion views! Premixed is all I use,” the cho­rus goes.

Peo­ple are en­thralled by their screens: just look at how many peo­ple are on their phones at any pub­lic event or in any pub­lic space. On the top of Ta­ble Moun­tain, for ex­am­ple, many tourists pay more at­ten­tion to post­ing the per­fect selfie than to the sun­set over the sea.

Neu­ro­sci­en­tists have shown that en­gag­ing on so­cial me­dia gives users a chem­i­cal hit, but, as with recre­ational drugs, the feel­ing doesn’t last.

Dontcha love the imag­i­nary me?

Cape Town clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist Nomfundo Walaza says: “Some peo­ple do not even think when they share or post on so­cial me­dia. It’s like a feed­ing frenzy.”

This cy­cle of chas­ing at­ten­tion on­line runs the risk of in­creas­ing anx­i­ety and dis­sat­is­fac­tion, par­tic­u­larly if a per­son’s on­line pro­file is unau­then­tic.

Jo­han­nes­burg psy­chol­o­gist Liane Lurie says: “When ‘likes’ or thumbs-up are based on a glossy, fab­ri­cated ver­sion of a per­son’s life then vir­tual ap­proval rings hol­low.

“But those edited pic­tures de­pict­ing hap­pi­ness, thin­ness, wealth and ad­ven­ture be­come the medium against which some com­pare their own lives. This can make peo­ple feel inad­e­quate when they mis­take cy­berspace for the real world.”

Peo­ple are un­com­fort­able with vul­ner­a­bil­ity on­line, says au­thor and pub­lisher Melinda Ferguson. “Few peo­ple post how they re­ally feel. When I’ve tried to say that I’m hav­ing a hard day, some wellmean­ing peo­ple have re­sponded: ‘Are you OK? Don’t re­lapse, don’t drink.’ I’ve been clean for 18 years!

“It’s kind of in­sane how we’ve changed our real-life iden­ti­ties to vir­tual iden­ti­ties,” she says. “Ei­ther you get on the at­ten­tion­mag­net bus or you be­come in­vis­i­ble and in a way dead.”

Ferguson says she goes to bed look­ing at Face­book and she’s on it the mo­ment she wakes up. “Some­times it feels like if peo­ple haven’t re­sponded to me, it’s like I don’t ex­ist. In­vis­i­bil­ity is one of my deep­est fears.”

Vir­tual at­ten­tion has pros and cons, says Cassey Cham­bers of the South African De­pres­sion and Anx­i­ety Group.

“It is eas­ier to find your com­mu­nity and feel part of a shared ex­pe­ri­ence, hobby or in­ter­est on­line. But on­line trolls who judge and ridicule peo­ple with a frag­ile sense of self-es­teem can cause harm. So­cial me­dia be­comes an­other source of re­jec­tion for peo­ple who feel ig­nored or bul­lied, ag­gra­vat­ing feel­ings of de­pres­sion or iso­la­tion.”

In evo­lu­tion­ary terms, seek­ing at­ten­tion is in­tended to stave off iso­la­tion, to be­long to a tribe to sur­vive. Leary says: “Set­ting aside those with cer­tain se­vere psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems, ev­ery­one is highly mo­ti­vated to be val­ued and ac­cepted by at least some other peo­ple.”

Pri­ori­tis­ing friends and fans in the vir­tual world does, how­ever, take a toll on the liv­ing and breath­ing world as it is time-con­sum­ing to cu­rate a pro­file and re­spond to masses of mes­sages.

“The What­sApp has re­placed the phone call and an emoji has taken the place of per­sonal touch or ac­tual words of ex­pres­sion,” says Lurie.

When peo­ple pur­sue at­ten­tion above all else, the con­se­quences can be dev­as­tat­ing. A ma­tric stu­dent in Krugers­dorp, who killed a fel­low stu­dent with a sword and wounded three more, said he had wanted to do some­thing with “im­pres­sive con­se­quences”.

That was 10 years ago and at­ten­tion­seek­ing in South African schools is typ­i­cally less bru­tal than this, but it can nev­er­the­less be da­m­ag­ing.

Lawyer Sarah Hoff­man says: “An ex­am­ple of this is a stu­dent who cre­ated a fake Face­book ac­count . . . to get back at his ex-girl­friend. He then posted in­ti­mate photographs of her, tag­ging var­i­ous mem­bers of their class.”

A 13-year-old girl at­tempted sui­cide af­ter naked pho­tos of her were posted on so­cial me­dia by a boy who had hounded her for the pic­tures, promis­ing not to share them.

Lurie says: “When you feel the world will not lis­ten to you in per­son, the risk of so­cial me­dia be­ing used to in­flict harm or to shock oth­ers be­comes real and danger­ous. Cy­ber­bul­ly­ing serves as one very cur­rent ex­am­ple, as does the vi­ral shar­ing of vi­o­lent im­ages we would rather not see.”

YouTube star Lo­gan Paul got more than five mil­lion views in Fe­bru­ary af­ter up­load­ing an of­fen­sive video, jok­ing about a dead body he found in a Ja­panese for­est known for sui­cides.

Ego­ma­nia’s deadly virus

Thriller writer Leo Bene­dic­tus made a psy­cho­pathic at­ten­tion-seeker the pro­tag­o­nist of his lat­est novel, Con­sent. He be­lieves that in­stant ac­cess any time, any­where to a mass au­di­ence — at­ten­tion­seek­ing on a global scale — is driv­ing spree killings and ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

“In the past the dan­ger was lim­ited be­cause there was sim­ply less at­ten­tion avail­able for vi­o­lent be­hav­iour,” says Bene­dic­tus. “In 1970, some­one who fan­ta­sised about mak­ing the whole world no­tice them had very lit­tle chance of do­ing so.”

Bene­dic­tus sug­gests that we should pay less pub­lic at­ten­tion to “crimes of at­ten­tion”, thus rob­bing the per­pe­tra­tors of their re­ward.

This is a chal­lenge in a world where so­cial me­dia has in­creas­ing reach and where on­line rank­ings mat­ter so much to peo­ple. The app Peeple was de­signed specif­i­cally for peo­ple to rank each other pro­fes­sion­ally and per­son­ally.

Af­ter an out­cry about its in­va­sion of pri­vacy, Peeple was modified so only in­di­vid­u­als who join and con­sent can be ranked. The sys­tem also changed from a five-star rat­ing to “rec­om­men­da­tions”.

The con­cept of scor­ing in­di­vid­u­als out of five has dis­turb­ing res­o­nance with a dystopian so­ci­ety por­trayed in an episode of the an­ar­chic TV se­ries Black Mir­ror. In that fu­ture imag­ined world, peo­ple seek pos­i­tive at­ten­tion from ev­ery­one in ev­ery en­counter. Their pop­u­lar­ity rat­ing con­trols their lives, from book­ing flights to re­ceiv­ing cancer treat­ment to where they are al­lowed to live.

For now, at least our five-star ratings are largely lim­ited to in­flu­enc­ing our ac­cess to Uber and that per­fect Airbnb get­away in the Mal­dives.

‘Some­times it feels like if peo­ple haven’t re­sponded to me, it’s like I don’t ex­ist. In­vis­i­bil­ity is one of my deep­est fears.’

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