First Monday

Fickle focus: Distraction, affect and the production of value in social media by Susanna Paasonen

The uses of social media can be seen as driven by a search for affective intensity translating as moments of paying attention, no matter how brief these instances may be. In the framework of attention economy, attention has been discussed as a valuable commodity whereas distraction, involving both pleasurable entertainment and dissatisfactory disorientation, has been associated with cognitive overload and the erosive lack of focus. By discussing clickbait sites and Facebook in particular, this paper inquires after the value of distractions in and for social media. Understanding distraction, like attention, as both affective and cognitive, this article explores its role in the affective capitalism of clicks, likes, and shares. Rather than conceptualizing attention and distraction as mutually opposing, I argue for conceptualizing them as the two sides of the same coin, namely as rhythmic patterns in the affective fabric particular to the contemporary landscape of ubiquitous networked connectivity.


The value of distraction
The political economy of attention management
Sticky attractions
Pushing back memories, classifying affect
Affective modulation
Conclusion: Affective ambivalence




Distractify launched in 2013 as ‘the cure of the common Internet’. The social media startup generates and distributes viral content similarly to competing media platforms such as Upworthy, Buzzfeed, BoredPanda, and ViralNova. All these clickbait sites trade in spreadable media with the aim of capturing users’ attention and inspiring them to further share and circulate the content provided (see Jenkins, et al., 2013). In a 2013 Business Insider interview, Distractify’s CEO, Quinn Hu, explained the site’s rationale: “The idea is to bring people closer through a shared experience ... to make people feel an emotion that’s universal. ‘There’s no agenda outside of that,’ Hu says” (Dickey, 2013). Hu’s simply stated, supposedly agenda-less desire, actually points to the complex entanglement of distraction, attention, affect, and value production in social media.

In what follows, I examine these entanglements by moving from the definitions and diagnoses of distraction to the attempts at its management through mindfulness and digital detoxes, and from the affective management practiced on social media platforms to the complexities that all this involves in terms of user experience and the values attached to it. Addressing the attractions of distraction and the problem of deflated attention as matters of affective modulation integral to contemporary social media platforms, this article then examines how distraction, operating along a continuum with attention as a form of affective modulation, connects to, and fuels, the creation of value.



The value of distraction

Value, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, refers to importance, worth and usefulness; to material and monetary worth; to principles of behavior and judgments over what is important. On the one hand, the value of distraction is about the generation of monetary value — for example, the value of Distractify as a start-up or that of Facebook as its main engine of traffic. On the other hand, there is also a sense of value for users — the target audience of, and affective laborers in, social media — in the form of intensifications of experience, the clustering of interest, sharp titillations of distraction, the potential pleasures of sharing, and the social interactions that it may engender. Dean (2010) has argued that the uses of social media are driven by a search for affective intensity — for things to stick rather than slide by and for sensations to cluster rather than fade away. This promise of momentary intensity is nevertheless contingent and often fails to deliver. When things fail to tickle or distract, they are unlikely to grab attention, possibly resulting in the bored distraction of “digital disaffect” (Petit, 2015). Distraction, therefore, involves a contradictory mixture of both pleasurable entertainment and dissatisfactory states of disorientation as attention fails to come into focus. It is both affective and cognitive, both desired and undesired, both chosen and difficult for an individual to control, and constantly on the move. I argue that this ambiguity is where much of its attraction and irksome force lie.

When browsing through Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Tinder, Facebook, Mashable, Twitter, Distractify, or whatever it is that currently tickles one’s fancy, individual attention quickly and constantly shifts. In fact, the attraction of much social media derives precisely from its power to distract, a point that Distractify’s name explicitly encapsulates. Distraction is a topic of recent art projects, such as Douglas Coupland’s “I miss my pre-Internet brain” (see figure below) which comments on the shortening of attention spans and the externalization of memory to search functions. It is also a regular concern in journalistic accounts — of which there have been several within the past two years in the Guardian alone — and in a plethora of viral, entertaining and distracting online memes that comment on distraction, from the graphic “If I had a dollar for every time I got distracted, I wish I had a puppy” and its many variations, to images of Doge and Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear and Woody remarking on the distractions of networked media. Such meta-level commentary indicates the high recognizability and ubiquity of the condition addressed.


Distraction meta-commentary
Distraction meta-commentary
Distraction meta-commentary
Distraction meta-commentary
Figures 1–4: Distraction meta-commentary.


Diagnoses of distraction as a pervasive mode specific to late industrial societies and media-saturated cultures have been voiced for well over a century, from accounts of cinema and radio as generating both distraction and novel modes of experience (Kracauer, 1995; Benjamin, 2006) to television feeding the shortening of attention spans (Postman, 1985). Discussion of the accelerating speeds of media, culture, and society has continued to abound (e.g., Wajcman, 2015), as have academic and journalistic accounts of the erosion and poverty of attention in a culture characterized by “information overload” (Veel, 2011; Andrejevic, 2013), “terminal” (Anderson, 2009) and “chronic” (Hassan, 2012) distraction, “digital dementia” (O’Gorman, 2015; Hassan, 2014), and “mass amnesia sustained by the culture of global capitalism” [1]. As different as such examinations are in their scope, context, and empirical evidence, they all conceptualize the interconnections of media and ways of perceiving and experiencing the world. And media, needless to say, is joined at the hip to capitalism, its organization of labor, and its forms of value production.

Crary (1999) noted that both attention and inattention are markedly modern notions, connected to proper productivity within capitalism as that which fuels constant transformations, uncertainty, and senses of unpredictability and, by doing so, simultaneously eroding the possibilities of focused attention that its forms of work require. In other words, capitalism generates attention, distraction, and constant modulation between them through its accelerated speeds of circulation and sensory stimulus. Distraction and attention may then intermesh to the degree that they are virtually impossible to tell apart and “cannot be thought outside of a continuum in which the two ceaselessly flow into one another, as part of a social field in which the same imperatives and forces incite one and the other” [2].

Rather than mutually opposing concepts, attention and distraction are better understood as variation in the intensities and zones of perception and experience. As such, attention and distraction, coupled to the novel perceptual speeds and the accelerated circulation of sensory stimulus within capitalism, require constant adaptability in an “ongoing and perpetually modulating process” that “would never pause in order for individual subjectivity to accommodate and ‘catch up’ with it” [3]. Such mutability and fast speed require both perpetual affective attunement and personal flexibility on the part of individuals. Through their affective entry into intensities and zones of attention and distraction, users further contribute to contemporary formations of “rationalized and instrumental flexibility where the individual worker ... is expected to correspond with and synchronize to the unpredictable and fast-flowing economic logic of neoliberal globalization” [4].



The political economy of attention management

Like attraction and distraction, work and play continuously leak into one another in the uses of networked media. Social media services and applications are used as distraction from work tasks managed on the same smart devices. Not only do notifications of new e-mail, messages and posts constantly call for attention during other engagements, but the active desire for jolts of interest, amusement, and diversion also drives users’ restless motions across multiple screens and applications (also Dean, 2010). The seduction of perpetual splitting and shifting of attention is such that a number of applications have been developed for shutting down online access for limited periods of time in order to ensure sufficient focus and work efficiency (Gregg, 2015). The names of these apps — including ‘Freedom,’ ‘Anti-Social,’ ‘Leech-Block,’ and ‘RescueTime’ — promise freedom from social media that otherwise snags away our time and focus with its compellingly distracting force. Developed and marketed for the purposes of attention management, these apps can be viewed equally as distraction management. They become understandable in the context of the accelerated rhythms and speeds addressed by Crary and the restless, meandering forms of attention that they fuel (also Wajcman, 2015).

There is also a blossoming market for meditation, mindfulness, and happiness apps promising personal tools for coping with the fast rhythms and routines of increasingly networked everyday life. MoodKit, for example, offers to help “boost your mood,” “discover unhealthy thought patterns,” and “change stress-inducing thoughts” [5]. Calm features “guided meditations, nature sounds, and a step-by-step guide to finding that all-too-elusive peace of mind ... when the fast-paced world gets a bit too much“ [6]. Mindfulness exercises, which have decisively entered the market of management tools, are introduced to the employees of tech companies while off-line retreats are offered to their executives for restoring work productivity (also Levy, 2016). Companies such as the Digital Detox (n.d.) offer off-the-grid experiences of “growth, reflection, mindfulness, creativity, community and (dis)connection.” With no access to smart devices, customers can also engage in other detox activities from yoga and mindfulness exercises to organic meals and hiking, all under the slogan “disconnect to reconnect.” The Digital Detox offers a controlled break from ubiquitous connectivity where work penetrates leisure and promises its customers “insight into personal lifestyle techniques and practices that keep them grounded and connected even in the most stressed, overwhelming and technologically driven times” (Digital Detox Retreats, n.d.).

The rhythms of work and leisure, tied in with ubiquitous online connectivity, near-instantaneous communications, and the ready availability of data are beyond the powers of an individual to influence, modulate, or control. The option of not operating within them — of simply opting out — remains inaccessible, if not impossible, for most professionals inside and outside of the tech industry. It has nevertheless become the responsibility of the individual worker to develop skills and techniques required for coping and holding on [7]. The demand for such life skills is understandably ample. Companies like Digital Detox, just like the developers of mindfulness, happiness, and work efficiency apps, unavoidably draw their circle of profitability from the same distractions with which they are promising to help their customers cope.

As our perception is constantly split and our experience fragmented between different screens, apps, devices, platforms, and impulses, the aspiration to capture attention has become increasingly manifest as an essential component of value production. As debated in the framework of attention economy, attention has grown into a scarce resource in a media environment characterized by the excess of available content. In fact, attention itself has taken the shape of valuable, immaterial commodity (e.g., Goldhaber, 1997; Webster, 2014; Crogan and Kinsley, 2012). According to a common user horizon of expectation, “there will always be something online more informative, surprising, funny, diverting, impressive than anything in one’s immediate actual circumstances” [8]. The challenge for the individual user is to find such captivating nuggets of data. For those aiming to make their digital content seen, the challenge is to somehow capture users’ restless attention by grabbing them by the eyeballs. For their part, clickbait sites are specialized in delivering endless streams of such captivating nuggets. These aims are already most familiar from tabloid press and multi-channel television, the notable and obvious difference being that in social media it is the task of users to further set the nuggets into circulation and to coin ones of their own.

The capturing of attention has been, for the past decade and more, a key focus and goal in the social media economy of clicks, visits, likes, and shares. Contemporary diagnoses of distraction indicate concerns over user attention growing ever more elusive a commodity and therefore also increasingly difficult to grab and to monetize. These concerns have also been supported by research findings building on neuropsychology (see O’Gorman, 2015). A 2015 Microsoft research report on online marketing found that the attention spans of Canadians had decreased to eight seconds while the taste for novelty was growing and long-term focus eroding. At the same time, the report noted an increase in short bursts of high attention. Or, as its foreword enthused: “If there’s no need to stay tuned in, why not move onto the next new and exciting thing for another hit of dopamine?” [9]. The report concluded with tips targeted at online advertisers who need to “be clear, personal, relevant, and get to the point;” “Defy expectations, keep it moving, and use simplicity to focus on your message;” “Embed calls to action, be interactive, continue experiences onto other screens, and use sequential messaging” [10].

The report provides highly concrete guidelines for creating value out of the rhythms of user experience as it oscillates between attention and distraction, or somewhere in-between as gradations of fickle focus — that which Terranova [11] discussed as the distracted perception characteristic of network culture. One of the proposed strategies involved grabbing attention by feeding people’s fascination for novelty: “When consumers are looking for something to care about at every moment, rapid fire tactics like branded content, native advertising and generally useful, entertaining, and shareable content are best” [12]. In addition to providing so-called sticky content for social — and optimally viral — circulation, advertisers are told to aim for clarity and catch users by standing out. Since attention is a commodity, user “preference for higher levels of stimulation” [13] is obviously something to be both fuelled and monetized.



Sticky attractions

The Microsoft marketing report speaks of a broader landscape where media audiences are seen as “frenetic, self-concerned, attention-challenged, and willing to allow advertisers to track them in response to being rewarded or treated as special” [14]. Such trackability is built in social media services’ terms of use and their principles of value generation, as is the pursuit of stickiness as appeal that brings the reorientation of perception to a temporary halt by providing enough distracting stimulus to almost call it attention. In other words, the stickiness of sites and circulated content is due to their ability to make people pay momentary attention and engage [15]. Following Ahmed [16], stickiness is a matter of affective value that accumulates through the circulation of objects and signs. The more spreadable media circulates and the more people comment on it, the higher the affective value it may accrue. Understood in this vein, stickiness is a question of appeal, investment, and circulation that results in the generation of affective, monetary, social, and/or political value. And distractions can certainly be highly sticky as such. The lifespan of memes, which in the best case go viral, would be just one example of this. As individual, somehow ‘off’ images or videos, or as variations on a set theme with absurd enough an angle (Shifman, 2014; Phillips, 2015), memes are primarily circulated in social media as potentially sticky content that creates value for the circulating platforms in question while delivering their users’ continuums of distraction and attention, pleasure and dissatisfaction, cultural resistance and diversion conforming to hegemonic scripts (Vickery, 2014). The stickiest of memes, from Grumpy Cat to Doge, increase value by becoming international, even as globally recognizable brands that feed into a range of material products consumed off-line as coffee mugs, fridge magnets, and t-shirts.

Coté and Pybus (2007) associated the stickiness of social media platforms with users’ immaterial labor and the economic principle of creating value out of affect. A similar dynamic was already deployed in 1990s e-commerce that built largely on the affective investments that users made and the affective value that they generated across online platforms and their social formations [17]. As exchanges, posts and connections layer up in social media, their combined stickiness creates value for the site or app through advertising income [18]. Another major source of value involves the massive archives of data of social connections, consumer and lifestyle preferences, travels and visits, interests, values, and beliefs that user movements generate. While these fantastic databases of consumer preference — as really, really big data — remain to be fully capitalized, the value created on the stickiest of services is considerable. The most recent estimate of Facebook’s stock market value as circa US$250 billion, for example, can be seen to correlate with the value of their key asset, a database of 1.65 billion users.

The users of social media may obviously not identify their activities as work — immaterial, affective or other — given the degree to which these engagements facilitate diversions from work obligations. The attractions of social media are tied in with a quest for intensification of experience. Writing on play, Sicart pointed out how the pleasures it generates “are not always submissive to enjoyment, happiness, or positive traits” [19]. The same applies to social media, which may involve the management of self-presentation, the pursuits of marketing, the tortuous dynamics of trolling or romancing, the heated waves of polarized political debate, or aggressive, collective displays of resentment towards a public figure (Paasonen, 2015). The appeal of social media owes to the intermeshing of positive and negative affective strands that constantly layer into an ambivalent, constantly mutable, and possibly sticky tapestry of value.



Pushing back memories, classifying affect

Social media and clickbait sites cater for fast sensations and affective jolts and foreground quick, near-immediate affective exchanges between users. These temporalities focus on the present — for example, in the form of status updates descriptive of that which users are doing or thinking at this very minute [20]. This present sense bleeds into the immediate future as anticipation of future events, updates, and fascinating nuggets of data: distraction, after all, involves both the present and things almost within reach. At the same time, sites such as Facebook facilitate and generate both personal and massive collective archives of posts, images, and comments. In other words, the temporalities of social media constantly move and stretch from the current moment to the future and the more or less recent past.

Facebook also literally feeds back past events to its users, hence making visible some of the tenacity of the data recorded. Users are invited to create summaries of their Facebook year in review, to look back on their top images and posts of the year, to watch and share automatically generated videos of their interaction with friends, and to put past events into recirculation with invitations such as, “we care about you and the memories that you share here. We though that you’d like to look back at this post from seven years ago.” Invitations to look back and share past posts, links, and shared pictures, or to celebrate the anniversaries of Facebook friendships, appear uninvited in newsfeeds and, should the user choose to use the app ‘On This Day,’ they can be reviewed as a daily digest. By re-invoking past events and posts that people may have forgotten, the app frames all user activities as memories in the making which, once preserved in the database, become eternally accessible for reminiscence. Such automated pushing back of past user actions aims to increase the affective stickiness of the objects (and signs) suggestive of social ties, intimacies, moments, places, and settings as ones that have mattered, and that continue to matter — and generate further clicks as indexes of attention — once they are put back in circulation.

The re-emergence of things otherwise buried in accumulating archives of posts, events, and uploaded photos is an issue of algorithmic serendipity. As Karppi [21] has shown, Facebook aims to cater “happy accidents” that people may not know to expect and for which they do not need to actively search. In his essay on distraction for the New Yorker, Anderson (2009) similarly wrote of randomness as a defining feature of the Internet as it “dispenses its never-ending little shots of positivity — a life-changing e-mail here, a funny YouTube video there — in gloriously unpredictable cycles.” The feedback loop of serendipitously re-evoked Facebook memories aims precisely at such affective modulation, or amplification [22], in the positive register.

At the same time, these algorithmically modulated accidents cannot only be happy ones. The post from seven years ago that Facebook invited me to look back at when composing this passage, for example, was written during a breakup with a long-term partner — possibly not a life-event that I would care to affectively reconnect with, celebrate, and share with others on an annual basis. While tools are offered for managing the retrospective visibility of severed intimate relations, the automated pushing back of memories does, by necessity, generate affective ambiguity.

In February 2016, Facebook introduced a more diverse range of reaction options in addition to the perennial ‘Like’ button, through which users can also articulate sensations of ‘Love,’ ‘Haha,’ ‘Wow,’ ‘Sad’ or ‘Angry.’ According to Facebook Product Manager Sammi Krug,

We’ve been listening to people and know that there should be more ways to easily and quickly express how something you see in News Feed makes you feel. That’s why today we are launching Reactions, an extension of the Like button, to give you more ways to share your reaction to a post in a quick and easy way.

Our goal with News Feed is to show you the stories that matter most to you. Initially, just as we do when someone likes a post, if someone uses a Reaction, we will infer they want to see more of that type of post. In the beginning, it won’t matter if someone likes, “wows” or “sads” a post — we will initially use any Reaction similar to a Like to infer that you want to see more of that type of content. Over time we hope to learn how the different Reactions should be weighted differently by News Feed to do a better job of showing everyone the stories they most want to see. [23]

As Krug pointed out, the uses of these reaction options translate as markers of attention. At first, no distinction is to be drawn between the different options deployed when considering their attention value, yet the eventual purpose is to modulate users’ newsfeeds towards showing more posts to which they are predicted to have a positive response. Furthermore, the aim is to identify more granularity in users’ engagements with commercial content. Krug [24] further stated: “We see this as an opportunity for businesses and publishers to better understand how people are responding to their content on Facebook.”

Facebook’s emoji buttons aim to qualify the affective dynamics of online exchanges and, by rendering them into clearly categorizable and analyzable data, to pin down their constant oscillation and circulation. The key goal is to harness these analyzable affective qualities for value production both by helping commercial parties to fine-tune their advertising and PR campaigns and by filtering posts in users’ newsfeeds towards content that they are likely to find sticky in a positive vein. Smith IV [25] was quick to point out that: “For every little inch of emotional nuance we gain from these buttons, Facebook gains a mile in the ways it can manipulate and keep tabs on us.” By feeding users more of that which they assumedly ‘like,’ ‘love,’ or ‘haha,’ from Distractify’s diverting links to animated GIFs and sponsored posts, Facebook is likely to generate more of the same and, by doing so, paradoxically pave way for flattened affect by manipulating and homogenizing the accessible content: “Facebook’s main interest is to grab your attention and keep you scrolling and clicking. It’s meant to keep you more engaged, but more often than not, you end up just searching endlessly for something interesting” (Smith IV, 2016; cf., Petit, 2015).



Affective modulation

While ‘manipulation’ may strike some as a harsh characterization, the term is more than accurate in this context. As the much-publicized incident of Facebook’s emotion manipulation study of 2012 made evident, affective management is very much inherent to the platform — and, arguably, to social media more generally. The study, conducted by a team consisting of a Facebook staff member, a Cornell psychology professor, and a graduate student, involved experiments with 689,003 users and analysis of some three million posts consisting of 122 million words. The team, in collaboration with Facebook, tweaked the algorithms selecting the content visible in users’ news feeds and manipulated them to show more or less positive or negative posts. The overall aim was to assess how this manipulation affected the users’ emotional states, which they would verbally express in their own updates and which the team could then analyze. On publication, the study (Kramer, et al., 2014) garnered unfavorable attention as it was conducted without the users’ informed consent. Contrary to the research group’s claims, such deployments of user data were not at the time covered by Facebook’s terms of use.

The hypothesis of the study was that “emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness” [26]. The use of the term mood, used elsewhere in the study, would have been more apt in the conclusion, given that the study only roughly divided emotions into either negative or positive qualities of experience. As is the case with Facebook’s emojis that transfer affective intensities into data, a notable and crucial amount of nuance and ambivalence was effaced in this broad categorization. The finding, in a nutshell, was that emotions, or moods, did catch on, spread, and stick, even if the manipulation was conducted on a somewhat modest scale.

Briefly discussing the Facebook emotional manipulation event, Coyne [27] identifies it as exemplary of broader “digital mood modification” central to the contemporary landscape of smart devices, applications, and platforms. Such affect management in social media is inseparable from the imperative to both distract and attract user attention — the difference of which, as I have argued, is one best understood as an issue of degree. It is hardly breaking news that the quest for attention is at the heart of the political economy of social media. This is already exemplified by Facebook’s pattern of feeding back past memories as ones that matter and by Microsoft’s research on advertising strategies catering to distracted, fickle user attention. In the context of clickbait sites, the harvesting of attention is explicitly about affective modulation, as in Distractify’s Hu’s promotional aim to “make people feel an emotion that’s universal.” On shock sites [28], the explicitly disgusting, disturbing, or offensive is set to lure user attention. In contrast, the affective management of clickbait sites largely revolves around the amusing, surprising, uplifting, sentimental, and otherwise touching within the positive registers of affect. Shelter dogs helped towards adoption, cats exhibiting idiosyncratic habits, artists coining innovative designs, amateur baking projects gone wrong, last wishes honored, lists of beautiful places around the world, test and quizzes on a range of themes are most visibly the stuff that clickbait sites are made of.

In a well-known incident of 2013, BuzzFeed’s book editor, Isaac Fitzgerald, announced that negative reviews would not be published (see Garfield, 2013). The logic was that BuzzFeed caters satisfaction. It aims to please, and this aim to please forecloses anything other than positive engagements with literature. In a variation of the old maxim of remaining quiet unless you have something nice to say, if you don’t like what you read, do not review it — or at least do not publish the review. The steady accumulation of positive reviews and uplifting clicks in which the click site Upworthy so famously and successfully specializes provide distractions from the grinding routines of the school, family, and the office. Grusin (2010) saw social media as aiming to minimize negative affect: through the Facebook ‘Like’ button, one could for a long time only express positive affect while the inexhaustible mass of cat videos available at any given moment promises similarly pleasing sensations. In a world where good news seems to be hard to find, such distractions and the affective modulations they afford may be experienced as valuable, as they divert attention away from the constant flows of insecurity, fear, and sorrow connected to the news coverage of austerity politics, global terrorism, and climate change alike. At the same time, the distractions of social media are bound to escape one-sided positive affective management — and their allure may just as well draw on their disturbing qualities.



Conclusion: Affective ambivalence

Distractify aims to generate emotion, BuzzFeed and Upworthy try to optimize positive affect, and Facebook to explicitly modulate it. Such attempts at the “transmission of affect” (Brennan, 2004) are nevertheless bound to be volatile and disjointed. Positive or negative words written in a Facebook post — of, say, loving or hating a song, a politician, or a specific dish — do not translate as, or speak of, how or what we feel, let alone what the affective intensities driving us might be. Such dynamics are grounded in a much more complex nexus of personal histories, life-events, surroundings, and encounters, many of which do not find their expression in language at all. Clicking ‘Like,’ ‘Love,’ ‘Wow,’ or ‘Haha’ on a post provides the platform with clear-cut and easily analyzable data on our user engagements, yet much of our experience remains permanently inaccessible to such attempts (also Jarrett, 2014).

As a rich body of social media scholarship has shown, that which people disclose and share, with whom and how, results from specific, often clearly articulated strategies and decisions concerning audience management and self-presentation (e.g., Light, 2014; Zhao, et al., 2013; Ellison and boyd, 2013). Social media updates, likes, emojis, and comments are far from being transparent or immediate expressions of personal feeling. Rather, they are knowingly crafted displays of, and invitations for, certain forms of interaction. The modes that these interactions take can be studied and commodified by mining the massive archives of user data and modulated and monetized by filtering the content available to users. All this, does not, however, afford access to the inner nuances of experience, social attachments, emotional investments, or affective intensities.

The power and value of distraction is a matter of affective modulation as momentary intensifications of experience where attention shifts and refocuses. Attempts at affective modulation are therefore also attempts at attention management. The extraction of value from distraction, attention, and distracted attention takes many shapes and forms, some more contorted than others. As noted, this may involve digital detox retreats, mindfulness exercises, and apps intended to help individuals cope with the dictates of constant accessibility and speedy communication. Value is equally extracted by grabbing user attention through marketing campaigns and by fostering stickiness through affective attachments in order to increase the tempo and volume of clicks, likes, and shares. Such forms of value creation tap into the modulations of affect, from the feeding back and repackaging of previous user activities as memories to be cherished, revisited, and re-circulated, to attempts at manipulating the forms and tones that future encounters and connections may take. Much of this modulation has to do with an imperative of positivity, as long encapsulated in the Facebook ‘Like’ button and clickbait sites’ foregrounding of uplifting posts.

Contra the positivity imperative, the affective economy of social media is centrally one of diverting pleasures but not necessarily one of sheer fun. Pleasures, as intensities of feeling, may be elusive, strained and dark, ambiguous and paradoxical — and this may be where much of their appeal lies. Attempts to amp up positive affect within a certain imperative of happiness do away with the constant entanglement of different, and often indistinct, affective intensities that in fact make social media appealing. Affect, as the capacity to affect and be affected, becomes sensible as intensities that push us and emerge in our constant engagements with the world, the people, objects, environments, and symbols within it (see Massumi, 2015). Emotions, again, point to more clear-cut, or at least more identifiable, states grounded in our embodied life histories (Ahmed, 2004). Both affect and emotion are understandably more complex than can be accounted for in the binary register of the positive and the negative, as deployed in Facebook’s affective manipulation study, or be confined in the six currently available Facebook emoji buttons used to chart user feelings about online content.

Attempts at mapping and modulating user experience make evident the forms of algorithmic affective governance that social media involve (e.g., Karppi, 2014; Dijck, 2014). Such governance, while involving human intention in setting the parameters, takes nonhuman forms in curating the shapes that our sociability may take, what we can see and in what kinds of constellations — basically, how we can relate to one another on social media platforms and how these interactions are optimized for the purposes of value generation. They make it possible to grasp the degree to which sociability in social media is never merely human-born but a complex assemblage, or composite, of algorithms, information architecture, databases, links, and files, as well as the all too human investments of money, interest, curiosity, and care. End of article


About the author

Susanna Paasonen is professor of Media Studies at University of Turku, Finland. With an interest in studies of affect, sexuality, and media theory, she is most recently the author of Carnal resonance: Affect and online pornography (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011) as well as co-editor of Networked affect (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2015). Her current book-length projects explore the hashtag #NSFW as well as the dynamics of boredom, distraction, and anxiety connected to networked media.
E-mail: suspaa [at] utu [dot] fi



Warmest thanks to Tarleton Gillespie, Kylie Jarrett, Michael Petit, and Dylan Wittkower for their exceedingly helpful comments and suggestions when developing this paper.



1. Crary, 2013, p. 34.

2. Crary, 1999, p. 15.

3. Crary, 1999, p. 30; cf., Bogard, 2000.

4. Hassan, 2012, p. 63.

5. Johnson, 2015, n.p.

6. Johnson, 2015, n.p.

7. Hassan, 2012, pp. 81, 121.

8. Crary, 2013, p. 59.

9. Microsoft Canada, 2015, p. 2.

10. Microsoft Canada, 2015, p. 47.

11. Terranova, 2004, pp. 19, 140.

12. Microsoft Canada, 2015, p. 24.

13. Hayles, 2007, p. 189.

14. Turow, 2005, p. 103.

15. Also Hassan, 2012, p. 1.

16. Ahmed, 2004, p. 45.

17. Jarrett, 2003, p. 341.

18. Selling audiences to advertisers being the operating principle of almost all commercial media; see Gehl, 2011, p. 1,239; Dijck, 2013.

19. Sicart, 2014, p. 3.

20. See Gehl, 2011, p. 1,234.

21. Karppi, 2015, p. 225.

22. Massumi, 2015, p. 31.

23. Krug, 2016, n.p.

24. Krug, 2016, n.p.

25. Smith IV, 2016, n.p.

26. Kramer, et al., 2014, p. 8,788.

27. Coyne, 2016, pp. 1–2.

28. See Paasonen, 2011, pp. 209–215.



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Editorial history

Received 5 September 2016; accepted 6 September 2016.

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Fickle focus: Distraction, affect and the production of value in social media
by Susanna Paasonen.
First Monday, Volume 21, Number 10 - 3 October 2016