Agency & Attention in the Blogging Project

The attention economy held sway over students’ choices of content and explanations of significance in the Exit Tweets. Students’ agency was never fully constrained, but tastemakers, the community of participation, and habits of attention formed by social media shaped their decisions. On Twitter, students’ agency was a complex mixture of external influences and personal choice. The blogging project tells a very different story.

When asked to produce accurate and engaging historical narratives, students appropriated the tactics of the attention economy to garner the attention of their peers and the public. They adroitly mimicked the attention-grabbing strategies employed by content creators on social media platforms like BuzzFeed and YouTube. In doing so, they claimed the tools used to seize their attention for themselves and in turn employed those tools to exercise power over audience members’ attention. While their efforts to capture and maintain attention were not always successful, students nonetheless demonstrated their awareness of and agency within the attention economy when they produced their own historical content.

Students’ Use of the Attention Economy

Students knew it would take effort to get their peers (and potentially a wider audience) to pay attention to historical material. Blog post authors explicitly acknowledged this in their posts. They promised readers they would do their best to make “dry and boring” material more vivid. For their creative post, one group created an immersive online game about Kublai Khan specifically to avoid any suspicion that their project was stereotypically dull. “We chose to go a different route with our second blog,” they wrote, “Who wants to read academic papers all the time, anyway?”

To distinguish their posts and draw peers’ attention, students crafted connections between familiar and unfamiliar material, created of a sense of unexpectedness, and employed media, humor, and pop culture references in their blog posts. They realistically expected these tools of the attention economy to work. Whether fully aware of it or not, curiosity, unexpectedness, and media frequently exercised power over their individual attention during class meetings, lectures, and discussions. Students intuited the same patterns might hold for the blog posts they produced in the course.

Breeding Familiarity Through Curiosity and Identity

Manufacturing Curiosity

Have you ever wondered how expressions of love in past civilizations were like? (Renette Lee, “What do ya sphinx of Egyptian Love Poetry?,” Feb 14, 2017)

Ever wondered how China became such a powerful and influential civilisation? (Bazilah Bahar, “Wave of China,” February 24, 2017.)

Ever wondered how Romans lived their lives back in the day? (Joselin Leong, “Class Conflict in Ancient Rome,” February 26, 2017.)

Ever wondered about the sexual lives of the Greek people? (Kimberley Chang, “Fifty Shades of Greece,” April 2, 2017.)

Have you ever wondered how the alphabet came about? (Sacha Armstrong, “Word on the Word,” February 26, 2017.)

For most readers, the answer is likely a strong “no.” Yet whether or not readers actually considered these questions before reading the post was beside the point. The purpose was to inspire curiosity. A reader might not have wondered where the alphabet came from before, but after reading the question, there was a good chance they would like to know.

The tactic mimics much of the content on BuzzFeed. A quick search for “have you ever wondered” on the site returns articles and quizzes that complete the query with, “What kind of bubble tea are you?,” “Which character in ‘Pirates of Penzance’ are you!?,” and “What it takes to sleep in space?” Curiosity, even manufactured curiosity, is a powerful draw.

Evoking Identity

Students also recognized the strong pull of content that evoked conceptions of identity and community. As noted above, this pull isn’t exclusive to the attention economy; it’s a significant theme in students’ understandings of historical significance too. Scholars of historical significance and participatory cultures observe, however, that identity and community mean different things to different readers and writer. “We” is a flexible term that can include or exclude depending on the context.

“We” was a flexible term for the students in Singapore, too. The pronoun was sometimes vague (like the “we” in students’ tweets about “the present day” or “today’s society”) and sometimes thoroughly exclusive. At least some of that exclusivity was the result of their “imagined audience,” that is, who students envisioned they were writing their posts for. The group with the narrowest sense of an imagined audience addressed peers within the class specifically: “Whenever we speak about gender roles and issues during class discussion, we commonly, and almost instantly focus on how women were treated unfairly due to gender stereotypes. What about the males?” The group took a realistic approach; they knew their classmates were their most likely audience and so they constructed a “we” that addressed these reliable readers.

Other students expanded their sense of communal identity, but only as far as the nation-state. They sought to familiarize readers with unfamiliar content by referencing buildings, political parties, or artifacts in Singapore specifically. In a post entitled, “Even when not in Rome, do as the Romans do,” for example, the authors referenced familiar landmarks in Singapore as context for their post on Roman architecture:

We might stare in awe at some of the beautifully designed historical buildings in Singapore without realizing that we are looking at a mirror image of another civilization. Did you know that the Old Supreme Court, the Fullerton Hotel and City Hall are strongly influenced by the Roman architecture of 5th century CE? (Shruti Tiwari, “Even when not in Rome, do as the Romans do,” April 2, 2017.)

Residents of Singapore could easily envision these buildings, but the images were less familiar to foreigners or recently-arrived visitors. The group helpfully provided links and images to assist readers who were not residents of Singapore, but images alone could not communicate the layers of context or affective impact of the Old Supreme Court, Fullerton Hotel, and City Hall. Consequently, “we” included only people who could understand the architecture of Rome based on a holistic understanding of the structural, political, and emotional connotations of prominent buildings in Singapore.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a few groups opted for universal conceptions of collective identity. Their posts referenced common human experiences that were accessible to their peers and fellow citizens, but also to a broader, more ambiguous imagined audience. “Humans are compulsive organizers,” began a post entitled, “That Strange Annoying Tooth and the Virtue You Wish You Had.” The author continued:

We love compartmentalizing things, drawing differences and setting boundaries. We also love to know what our place in society is, where we fit in and what we should do with the people around us. We love asking questions, seeking truths and solving puzzles, but rarely do we find answers to them. Some of us speak to the Gods, others look to Google! Yet still, humanity continues its search. (Valencia Quah, “That Strange Annoying Tooth and the Virtue You Wish You Had: Wisdom,” February 26, 2017.)

The writers are clear: “we” comprises “humanity.” And not just humanity in the present. The post explores wisdom literature as an essential part of all humans’ search for answers to their weightiest questions. Their tactic for drawing attention involved demystifying the texts of a long-past civilization by evoking the existential pursuits of the human species.

Signaling Unexpectedness

All three conceptions of “we” (class-only, nation-state, and universal) suggest students’ attentiveness to an audience (imagined or actual) and to that audience’s attention. In addition to manufacturing curiosity and engaging the audience through appeals to identity, students sought to grasp audience attention through the use of surprising or novel information. They depended on their audience’s brains to do what humans so often do: attend suddenly and entirely to the most unfamiliar thing in our vicinity.

It was tricky to surprise blog post readers because the civilizations that existed between 3500 BCE and 1500 CE are rarely part of public conversations or academic coursework. A reader might have a passing familiarity with Rome, Greece, China or Korea, but odds are the Mali Empire, Gupta-era India, and Achaemenid Persia were new to them. When virtually all topics are novel, the unexpected becomes overly familiar.

It was difficult to genuinely surprise readers, but students could signal that a reader should be surprised by the information presented. Students indicated that readers were encountering something unexpected by debunking ostensibly common perceptions about a topic.

Contrary to popular belief that women played a one-dimensional role in ancient Vietnam, Vietnamese women played roles in politics, the economy, and marriage which greatly impacted the Vietnamese culture. (Jing Yi Tan, “Vietnam: Role of Women,” April 4, 2017.)

One might think that males back then would have more freedom when it comes to gender rights, but upon closer look, the males did not have it any easier either. (Leah Yang, “Masculinity in Medieval Europe,” February 26, 2017.)

Contrary to popular belief, noblewomen in Medieval Europe (400-1500 C.E.) were powerful, capable, and held important responsibilities of various forms. (Germaine Khor, “Beside Every (Noble)Man Is A (Noble)Woman,” February 26, 2017.)

It’s possible students thought their readers possessed incorrect information; students may also have used these statements to resolve their own misunderstandings. However, students more likely were employing a common strategy for capturing attention by calling attention to something ostensibly “contrary to popular belief.”

In the attention economy, an astonished reaction is as useful as an authentic experience of surprise. The result is the same: a reader turns their attention to the thing perceived as unexpected. My students strategically played on their readers’ tendency to notice the signals that something was unexpected. Students credited their audience with possessing prior knowledge (whether that was true or not) and then crafted their language to indicate something was different than popular conceptions or their audience’s experience. The tactic potentially captured readers’ attention and then kept it when audience members discovered the information was at least new, albeit not precisely unexpected.

Catching & Keeping Attention with Pop Culture, Media, and Humor

References to pop culture in post titles, eye-catching media, and playful humor also gave students the opening they needed to claim their readers’ time and mental energy. Examining the number of comments peers left on each post is a useful way to gauge the effectiveness of these strategies. Five of the seven posts that received 20 or more comments from classmates included a pop culture reference in the title (demonstrated in Table 5).

Table 5. Student blog posts with more than 20 comments.

TitlePost 1 or 2Comment Count
Vietnam: Role of Women228
The Real Lion King127
Beauties not beast126
Socrates, Y U No Escape123
If I were a rich man…223
Interview with a queen220
Cause Baby Now We Got Bad Blood220

“The Real Lion King” and “Beauties not beast” allude to the Disney films The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast; “Cause Baby Now We Got Bad Blood” lifts the title of a 2014 song by Taylor Swift. “Socrates, Y U No Escape” alludes to a then-common meme and “If I were a rich man…” references the musical Fiddler on the Roof, an old reference, but familiar enough to capture peers’ attention.

However, a pop culture reference in the title was not a sure-fire way to gain attention and feedback from peers. Other posts took a similar approach but were less successful. The posts listed in Table 6, including “(Greek) Night at the Museum,” “The Maat is Strong in this One,” “50 Shades of Greece,” and “Mermaids: Ancient and Ambivalent,” were not exactly ignored, but received fewer comments.

Table 6. Posts with pop culture references but fewer comments than Table 5 entries.

TitlePost 1 or 2Comment Count
Mermaids: Ancient and Ambivalent113
The Maat is Strong112
Greek Night at the museum210
50 Shades of Greece210

Media: Assumed vs. Actual Effectiveness

Students stacked their chances of attracting readers by including media. They hoped the presence of videos, images, and music would boost engagement with their posts. One group directly acknowledged the attention economy, proclaiming, “Don’t like reading long texts? No Problem! Take a look at our video!!!” Other post authors, such as the creators of an Instagram-based travelogue from a fictional visitor to Islamic Spain, asserted that media would make their post “a relatable experience.” Some creative students even backed their posts with music so the media would help the “blog come together” for readers.

In some cases, embedding media in the post indeed attracted readers. One commenter on “Vietnam: Role of Women” praised the post author’s choice of images: “Frankly what got my attention was your thumbnail image. It is a photo that draws attention to your post straightaway.” The music, too, was well received. A commenter on “An Open Letter to My Sisters in Islam” expressed enthusiasm about the music that auto-played for visitors to the post: “The poems and letters, together with the background music really made it seem like i stepped into a history museum!”

Even so, the comment count on other posts complicates students’ perceptions of the effectiveness of media. Some forms of media more consistently attracted audience attention than others. In the second, media-heavy posts, the ten posts with the most comments included four posts with videos, two posts presented on Instagram, one online magazine, one BuzzFeed article, one blog with music, and one piece of creative fiction with music. (Detailed in Table 7.) The weight given to videos and Instagram feeds, might just be a product of the total number of posts that included these forms of media (12 and 15 posts, respectively). It could also indicate that students generally preferred visual media to creative writing and music.

Table 7. Ten Post 2’s with the most comments by count and social/creative media type

Post TitlePost #Comment CountMedia
Vietnam: Role of Women228Instagram
If I were a rich man…223Video
Interview with a queen220Magazine
Cause Baby Now We Got Bad Blood220Video
An open letter to my sisters in Islam216Creative Fiction/Music
Shiva, Love Him or Hate Him215Blog/Music
Magic, Amulets, Spells214BuzzFeed article
Lights, Camera, Action214Instagram
Dirty Thirty214Video/Dramatized script
Show some skin AH!213Video

Humor: The Speed of a Falling Apple Given that Gilgamesh Has 3 Goats

So… what’s Mesopotato? Err, Misosoupteamama. Cough. Sorry. Mesopotamia! What in the world is that?

Ask 10 Singaporean students and 9 will give you a typical student’s empty stare; the blank stare that you give your mathematics teacher when he asks you to find the speed of the falling apple given that Gilgamesh has 3 goats. (yang yilin, “i am the goddess and the goddess is me,” February 24, 2017.)

Humor played a role in expressing self-identity and creating community bonds in the exit tweets, but was far more pronounced in the blog posts. Students used playful, funny commentary or images to attract or hold their readers’ attention. Some of it played to reader’s basest instincts. In “The Ancient Greek Peace-Seekers,” the post authors created a comic based on Peace, a comedic play by the Greek playwright, Aristophanes. The play itself is full of bodily (often excretory) humor to begin with, but the authors took it a step further by transforming the dung beetle in the play into a “poop beetle” in their comic.

Referential humor abounded, too, like the students who prefaced their video post with the statement, “Also, no humans or animals were harmed in the making of this video :D.” As was the case with media, students frequently assumed humor would attract readers to their post by preventing a “dry and boring” presentation: “To briefly view the fun and hilarious interactions, do search for the hashtag #ITAHSP on Twitter as well!” But the effectiveness of humor for attracting an audience was unclear. For the three cited here (“I am the goddess…,” “Ancient Greek Peace-Seekers,” and “If the Apostles Had Smartphones”), the average number of comments was 10 — just slightly below the overall average of 10.72 comments per post.

Through their use of familiar and unexpected references as well as pop culture, media, and humor, students demonstrated not only their remarkable creativity but also shrewd awareness of tactics common to the attention economy. They explicitly expressed their assumptions that specific strategies (such as including media) would attract attention and shrewdly employed attention-grabbing tactics, like signalling unexpectedness even in the absence of genuine surprise. While these strategies were not always as effective as students hoped, their efforts nonetheless suggest that students, as producers of historical, web-based content, exercised immense agency within the attention economy.