A recent supermarket brawl was powered by digital incentives
A brawl broke out in the Clapham branch of Asda last Friday, leading to the arrest of two men in their thirties and two women in their late teens. All four of the individuals were dressed in superhero costumes.
They stormed into the store, jumping onto shop display cabinets and shouting, before staff and security intervened. One of the ‘superhero’ men punched a female shop floor worker. A separate clip then showed a chaotic fight that seemed to be taking place in the stockroom.
Reports have emerged that the aim was to create viral content. The channels have since been deleted, but on Friday a TikTok account still existed that showed several similar (albeit less violent) clips involving misbehaviour by people in superhero costumes.
There have been a number of increasingly high-profile debates recently concerning Big Tech, notably worrying about the power of platforms to censor speech now that platforms controlled by private companies have to a great extent become the public square. But there’s less debate about these platforms’ core business model, in which we receive free access to communications infrastructure in exchange for our attention, and a willingness to allow others to make money from the data this attention creates.
Over the past two decades this has driven the emergence of an ‘attention economy’, which careers can be made out of competing for clicks. But over time the competition itself has shifted the tone of discourse to an ever more febrile key.
Those who grew up pre-internet, and remember the Before Times, wring their hands about ‘polarisation’ and ‘culture war’. But those fluent in the attention economy recognise that in practice there’s little difference between positive and negative attention. When attention garners the rewards, eyeballs are eyeballs.
Thus we find race-baiting activist group Black Hammer setting out a recruitment strategy based on saying outrageous things they don’t really mean, then leveraging the outrage clicks to siphon membership off more moderate competing groups.
Elsewhere, in ‘influencer’ land, it’s largely irrelevant whether Oli London genuinely identifies as Korean or not. The fact that he was sufficiently willing to act as if this is the case that he’s undergone cosmetic surgery, and in the process prompted heightened coverage (including, of course, this mention) has raised his profile.
Against that backdrop, ‘talent’ consists less in having a discernible real-world skill than in a facility for securing clicks. Those who lack wit, inventiveness, beauty, or interesting opinions, are thus incentivised to seek attention in the most direct possible form: staging public disorder for voyeuristic consumption online.
To put it more clearly, a logical consequence of the attention economy is talentless people treating antisocial behaviour as a business opportunity. This group judged the boundary wrong, and will likely receive some kind of sanction from the criminal justice system as a consequence. But while the incentive structures remain undisturbed, we can expect the attention economy to go on cannibalising the social contract.