Attention Must Be Paid! (Could I At Least Borrow Some?)

Posted on May 12, 2010


We are human and so we not only want attention, we need it. In prison, they put people into isolation to punish them, and apparently it works. Celebrities pursue attention relentlessly, until they get too much of it, and then they run away and pretend to hide. Web-based social gatherings attract millions, all clamoring to tell the world what they’re doing this very minute. “Angela is baking cookies!” “Mike has a headache!”

There is, I’m guessing, some comfortable amount of attention, just as there is a comfortable temperature range. Too little and we freeze to death. Too much and we burst into flames.

Over the past few years I’ve noticed the disparity in the attention-getting abilities of various people, starting with myself. I am not good at getting anyone to notice me. I don’t light up a room when I enter. In fact, it actually dims a bit. I could dress up like Captain America and bungee jump from the Washington Monument, and I doubt anyone would even point. The letters and essays I submit to our local newspaper spark no follow-up discussion at all, while those of others seem to set off wildfires that burn for days or weeks. When I try to get involved in online forums, my questions, comments, and replies are almost always met with dead silence. Most of the emails I send go unanswered, left to drift endlessly in Cyber-Limbo. Even at home I feel strangely invisible, except when someone needs a drive, or when it’s allowance day. In the movie Beetlejuice, when Juno scolds the Maitlands by saying, “It obviously doesn’t do any good to pull your heads off in front of people if they can’t see you,” I think, “Tell me about it.”

I have, of course, an emotional response to all of this: What’s wrong with me? Is it obvious that I’m a weirdo, even to my own family? To total strangers? In print? But my ever-curious mind also finds it interesting, even intriguing. How does it work, this process of getting attention, or not getting it? How does everyone know to ignore me? Do all of those online forum participants get together and decide not to answer my posts?  No. At least I don’t think so.

Yesterday, I did Internet searches by typing in, “Am I invisible?” and “Why doesn’t anyone notice me?” For each, I got thousands of results. And those are just the people who have momentarily given up. Most of the rest continue the desperate hunt, like crazed shoppers at a clearance sale, groping for any glimmer of limelight. It’s a new world of bloggers, web page hosts, and unsolicited reviewers who really want you to “click here to read more about me.”

Which brings us to my theory. Attention, I think, is a form of currency. And just as in the economies of most societies, a very tiny fraction of the group has somehow gathered most of the wealth. These are the obscenely affluent (celebrities, athletes, and other people I can’t identify, but who are known by just their first names), who have more attention than they know what to do with. They stare at us, month after month, from the covers of magazines. Their recent successes are trumpeted on the front pages of newspapers, thereby ensuring them even more success. They sell pictures of their newborns to weekly publications for millions of dollars, providing a healthy deposit on their next mansion or funding that weekend in Paris; these exclusives are paid for by the magazines’ advertisers, and ultimately, by their readers (who, it must be noted, are probably struggling to pay their mortgages and who flock daily to Facebook to see if anyone has commented on their photos of the family vacation to the local water park).

This leaves the majority of the population scrounging for any morsel of attention that may be lying around. Most find some, and trade it away for someone else’s morsel, an emotional barter system that serves, at least, to reassure its participants that they exist. And then there are those of us living at the poverty level, for whom, if attention were food, we would be dead.

What’s driving the system? Why can’t we spread the wealth? As with any currency, there’s just so much attention to go around. A few people are lucky to be born into a wealthy family and have the right kind of looks. That’s all it takes. Others got a big movie role, or are really good at hitting or kicking a ball, or did something to get themselves on television (and that can be almost anything these days). The middle class — the biggest chunk of people — have to work for the little attention they can find. And it’s just a sad fact of life that a few of us are going to be left holding the empty bag. Not such a big deal, once we understand what’s going on. It isn’t us. It isn’t even them. It just is.

Still, it would be nice to connect with some of my fellow Invisibles. We could compare notes, trade cookie recipes, pull our heads off for each other. Who knows? I just might be sparking a small wildfire here. Maybe I’ll hear from thousands, even millions, of people. More likely, it’ll be twelve. Or zero. But I’m okay with that. Even Captain America has a secret identity.