Dirt: Context collapse
Unfuck the world.
On February 1st, 2021, there was a coup in Myanmar. A video documenting the events went viral, showing a woman who unwittingly recorded her regular exercise routine while black cars sped down the highway behind her. The stark contrast between foreground and background reminded me of context collapse, the result of work made for one audience crossing over into another one–or, every day on Twitter.
This original definition of context collapse feels inadequate to describe the dynamics of digital content in juxtaposition, because so much “content” is no longer made with an audience in mind–rather, it is made in service of an abstract resource called attention. “Attention collapse” is when content meant to capture one type of attention captures another type instead. I am thinking of this tweet:
Air raid sirens blare in the background of the footage from Kyiv for nine seconds before the camera suddenly cuts to an Applebee’s commercial. But it doesn’t cut entirely–“RUSSIA INVADES UKRAINE” stays in the upper left corner above a smaller still of Kyiv and the breaking news chyron at the bottom through the commercial: Chicken, beer, cowboy, burger, Zac Brown band.
The footage quickly went viral. Responses were…what you would expect. Applebee’s apologized.
The thing is, the news broadcast and the commercial were not made for two different audiences. They just weren’t supposed to be played so close together. Nobody, even the intended audience (us) wanted to see them that way. When we saw them like that, we felt deeply uncomfortable. Because the war footage and the Applebee’s footage require two different types of attention.
“Attention collapse” is happening all of the time but only certain disasters heighten our sensitivity to it. For example, it is no longer shocking to see pandemic updates next to a tweet about fashion week or to receive an Apple News alert about a protest while watching a TikTok about sharts. Certain types of “attention collapse” are already deftly managed–a homepage editor at a national newspaper whose job it is not to put the recipes too close to the refugees.
Compartmentalization can be a deeply cynical political weapon when our attention is only roused by disasters that feel close because they are happening to people that look like us or share our values. But compartmentalization is also an important coping mechanism, the brain’s way of processing all of the demands on its attention while still feeling a sense of control. Those that give themselves permission to look away from the sobering to the entertaining or commercial feel a greater sense of well-being.
The audience backlash to Russia’s attack alongside an Applebee’s commercial shows that the internet hasn’t completely inured us to having our attention violated, our personal compartments disrespected. We know how to pay the right kind of attention we’re just bad at it. — Daisy Alioto