Some thoughts on fear vs belonging in digital life

I’ve been thinking of the power of attention to shape our lives. What we attend to sets the public agenda in terms of what we collectively think is important … in politics, society, culture, the market. However, I think the more insidious power of attention is very personal.

Indeed, we attend to what is most relevant to us. Our minds are optimization machines, winnowing and filtering stimuli from the environment. What remains are the mental representations that form the basis for our worldview and understanding of the world and our lives.

So what we allow in as relevant shapes our personal agenda – the hierarchy of what we value and what we think is important. We then use this hierarchy as a « frame » for our life choices – who we vote for, our choice of partner, whether we have children, how much stuff we buy, etc.

So what we allow in as relevant shapes our personal agenda – the hierarchy of what we value and what we think is important. We then use this hierarchy as a « frame » for our life choices – who we vote for, our choice of partner, whether we have children, how much stuff we buy, etc.

Add to this the power of suggestion of our peers and influencers – accelerated through the constant and repetitive stimuli of digital and social and you have a powerful reinforcement machine, suggesting how we should prioritize different parts of our lives.

Indeed, the strength, repetition and ubiquity of the persuasive stimuli on social can be overwhelming. It can seem almost absurd or unthinkable to not jump on a bandwagon or to hold values that differ from the mainstream culture that pulls us along its swift current.

Our challenge is to stop and do a reality check. To ask ourselves – what am I being asked to buy into? How does it ACTUALLY relate to me, my life, my friends, my family, my neighbourhood? To really answer these questions you need to disconnect and clear your mind.

But clearing your mind is not an easy thing to do. Some of the powerful stimuli are deeply engrained, like an addiction… fear of missing out, fear of being left out or left behind. Fear of neglecting oneself. The keyword here is fear, not love or joy… fear.

So many of the things we are pushed toward buying, voting for, imitating in our appearance, behaviour or attitudes are driven by fear. When you look under the hood of an influencer appeal that you dress, talk or believe a certain way you often find… fear. Not reason or peace.

To me, this is one of the greatest challenges of our society, because fear leads to loneliness and loneliness leads to pain and harm. We need to break the grip of image, brand and appearance on our individual and collective psyche. It won’t be easy.

It’s important to take a step back from the noise of digital culture & ask what really matters. Reset that personal agenda and re-evaluate what actually matters to us, individually and collectively. When we look at examples from surveys or literature the answers are pretty clear.

A sense of connection to others, a feeling of real belonging and of being supported and loved. Not for who we are, but just for … being. A feeling of having served others. Having enough to eat, comfy clothes to wear. Being surrounded by people we trust and who trust us.

These are some of the fundamental things that we hear from people who are lonely or afraid. Who are anxious. And that’s most of us, in this Age of Digital Loneliness & Wanting. I suggest we each take a quiet moment to rekindle that feeling of connection, of reality and of duty.

I also feel that this is a big part of the strategic responsibility of my profession of Public Relations and Communications Management. When we talk about serving the « public interest », I feel this is probably a big part of what we should be thinking about.

Rather than triggering people’s fears or anxieties & then selling them relief through a vote, purchase or affiliation to a movement, perhaps we should ask ourselves how our comms may enhance a feeling of peace, calm, willingness to serve & help others. Anti-selfishness, really.

Anti-selfishness is addictive and contagious, but in a good way. It is a caring approach to life and caring is generative. To care generates good thoughts, a desire to do good and to pursue the Good. This in turn generates a feeling of calm, belonging and satisfaction.

Wouldn’t it be great to live in a society where we trust each other, have each other’s backs and aren’t constantly in fear of missing out? I think so. Let’s build it together – as citizens in our personal as well as in our professional lives.

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