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Is social media about paying attention … or getting it?

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge social media fan. From their earliest days, our social networks seemed like powerful and important tools for building networks, sharing information, learning, and collaborating.

And they still are. Don’t get me wrong — I still believe in the power of these tools from that perspective.

But something dark has been poisoning that promise. I’ve been struggling to figure out exactly what bothers me abut these social tools for a while now. The anonymous toxicity, the thinly veiled violence and inhumanity … they’re all huge parts of my issues with these platforms. In these many ways, our social networks have made our lives worse, not better. But their power to help us learn, collaborate, and grow is still undeniable.

So what’s the real issue? I’ve been trying to answer that question for longer than I care to admit.

Then I watched this.

It’s a TED talk from actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and it blew my mind. In 13 minutes, he gave brilliant life to the problem I’ve been struggling to identify.

The short version is this: We’ve confused paying attention with getting attention.

“The more I go after that powerful feeling of paying attention, the happier I am,” Gordon-Levitt says. “But the more I go after that powerful feeling of getting attention, the unhappier I am.

“I don’t think that social media or smartphones or any technology is problematic in and of itself. But if we’re going to talk about the perils of creativity becoming a means to get attention, then we have to talk about the attention-driven business model of today’s big social media companies. It trains you to want that attention, to crave it, to get stressed out when you’re not getting enough of it.

“… If your creativity is driven by a desire to get attention, you’re never going to be creatively fulfilled.”

Doing important work, learning new skills, and building meaningful networks are taking a backseat to our desire to be noticed. Likes and follows and retweets have become our currency. Attention trumps creativity and innovation.

That’s the problem with social media today. We’ve lost our way. We need to find it again.

“This, to me, is the beauty of the Internet,” Gordon-Levitt says. “If we can just stop competing for attention, then the Internet becomes a great place to find collaborators.”

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: The key word in “social media” is “social.” It’s about “we,” not “me.” It’s about building networks that help us learn, and do, and grow. It’s not about what you can do for me. It’s about what we can do together. Until we relearn that, our social networks will only get more toxic.

The potential to do great things in these networks is huge. So is the potential to do great harm.

Which way we go will say an awful lot about us.

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