How I Learned to Ignore the Worst of the Internet

How I Learned to Ignore the Worst of the Internet

Your attention is valuable—possibly one of the most valuable things you have. I don’t mean valuable in the sense that giving your attention to articles such as this one contributes, in a financial sense, to the well-being of online publishers and freelance journalists (though I am grateful that you’re here.)

No, I mean that your attention is valuable in that human consciousness—your consciousness—is a profound miracle. You are a collection of atoms that is capable of thought, and which can also decide what to think about. The things that you pay attention to shape, in a tangible way, what you think about and, ultimately, how you interact with the world.

It’s important, then, to be intentional when deciding what to pay attention to. And part of deciding what to pay attention to is deciding what to ignore. A recent episode of Never Post, an extremely good podcast about the internet that you should definitely subscribe to, featured a conversation about this. The podcaster Hans Buetow interviewed academic Stephan Lewandowsky, co-author of the paper Critical Ignoring as a Core Competence for Digital Citizens. From the abstract:

Low-quality and misleading information online can hijack people’s attention, often by evoking curiosity, outrage, or anger. Resisting certain types of information and actors online requires people to adopt new mental habits that help them avoid being tempted by attention-grabbing and potentially harmful content. We argue that digital information literacy must include the competence of critical ignoring—choosing what to ignore and where to invest one’s limited attentional capacities.

There’s something intuitive about this, especially if you were raised in a culture that threw cliches at you like “knowledge is power.” Isn’t paying attention to as many things as possible—and knowing as many things as possible—better? On the podcast, Lewandowsky says there’s a limit to how many things you can pay attention to in a meaningful way. “It’s only by ignoring things that you can actually focus on other stuff and process it to the point where you actually understand it,” he says.

What does this mean, specifically? That depends on your values and on the things you want to know about—but let’s use this election year as an example. In the months to come, there is going to be an absolute onslaught of articles and videos demanding your attention, only some of them worthwhile. Part of being an engaged and capable citizen, in our current online ecosystem, is deciding which articles and videos to ignore.

Create a system for figuring out what to ignore

I have developed my own personal rules for figuring out how to do this. I’ve found that any article about politics that contains combat-based verbs—where the supposedly good person “blasts”, “eviserates”, or “decimates” the supposedly bad person—isn’t likely to include a useful summary of the policy issue at hand.

I try to instead read articles that discuss how different choices government makes could impact people. I feel the same way about articles that talk about “how voters will react” to something—such articles rarely do much to explain the more substantive policy issues at stake.

I am not saying that you should apply the same rules, and ignore the same things, as I do—we all have different interests, after all. I’m just saying that part of navigating the online world is deciding what to ignore, and that we could all benefit from practicing this skill. Maybe for you, that means ignoring everything making people mad on social media, or articles that seem more interested in invoking than understanding.

To quote Lewandowsky again:

…to acquire knowledge, you gotta be able to focus on something. And if you are so overwhelmed with information that you can’t pay any proper attention to anything, well, then you’re not gathering knowledge. You’re just gathering random noise.

There’s a lot of noise out there, and it’s only going to get louder. We all need to get better at ignoring things.

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