When the mirror cracks
To seek attention is normal — but it can spin out of control and become a destructive addiction that hurts people
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.’