The New Self-Help

The Only Way to Resist the Attention Economy

Quitting Facebook isn’t the answer

Jenny Odell
Forge
Published in
7 min readJun 19, 2019

This story is part of The New Self-Help: 21 Books for a Better You in the 21st Century.

We live in an age where there are many systemic abuses that should be refused. I propose that one great place to start is the abuse of our attention. Attention undergirds every other kind of meaningful refusal: It allows us to reach Thoreau’s higher perspective, and forms the basis of a disciplined collective attention that we see in successful strikes and boycotts whose laser-like focus withstood all the attempts to disassemble them. But in today’s mediascape, it’s hard to imagine what refusal looks like on the level of attention. For example, when I mention to anyone that I’m thinking about “resisting the attention economy,” their first response is, “Cool, so, like, quitting Facebook?” (usually followed by musings on the impossibility of leaving Facebook).

Let’s consider that option for a moment. If Facebook is such a big part of the attention economy problem, then surely quitting it is an appropriate “fuck you” to the whole thing. To me, though, this is fighting the battle on the wrong plane. In her 2012 paper, “Media refusal and conspicuous non-consumption: The performative and political dimensions of Facebook abstention,” Laura Portwood-Stacer interviews people who quit Facebook for political reasons and finds that the meaning of these isolated actions is often lost on the Facebook friends left behind. Facebook abstention, like telling someone you grew up in a house with no TV, can all too easily appear to be taste- or class-related. Portwood-Stacer’s interviews also show that “the personal or political decision not to participate in Facebook may be interpreted [by friends] as a social decision not to interact with them,” or worse, as “holier-than-thou internet asceticism.” Most important, the decision to leave Facebook involves its own kind of “margin”:

It may be that refusal is only available as a tactic to people who already possess a great deal of social capital, people whose social standing will endure without Facebook and people whose livelihoods don’t require them to be constantly plugged in and reachable. . . These are people who have what [Kathleen] Noonan…

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Jenny Odell
Forge
Writer for

artist and author of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Melville House) // www.jennyodell.com