Deborah Sanya, an 18-year-old Nigerian student who was kidnapped by Boko Haram in the mass raid on a school in Chibok back in mid-April, took a tremendous risk and bolted. Through the night, she and two friends ran and ran, eventually reaching safety in a village. When New Yorker reporter Alexis Okeowo spoke to Sanya at the end of April, she described how the young woman was fasting and eating, fasting and eating, all the while interspersing that with prayer.
What exactly is going on in the attention economy that people have little room (or desire) for sustained empathy?
At the time when Okeowo’s article came out, many in the world were riveted by the plight of the Nigerian schoolgirls: It was a story with terror and mystery and a need for world attention — immediately. The infamous #BringBackOurGirls campaign began online. People got mad. Op-eds appeared. World leaders indignantly spoke out.
Yet more than three months later, with most of the girls still in captivity, global cries to help them are intermittent at best. It’s hardly the first time a cause has hit the headlines, only to slide slowly into the shadows, like a cranky child quietly banished to her room after throwing a temper tantrum. Remember Kony 2012?
In addition to the big hits that live and die hard, there are countless issues people care about on and off at best. See: Syria; Israel-Palestine; a number of countries with intense war and suffering in Africa (the Central African Republic, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo); HIV/AIDS.
What exactly is going on in the attention economy that people have little room (or desire) for sustained empathy? Too many causes? Too far away? Certainly, the media bear blame; there’s limited space in newspapers, in magazines, and on the nightly news, and even on the boundless Internet, journalists are always looking for the next story. Still, this is insufficient to explain what makes people care one minute — and not the next. Something else is going on, and I asked several experts, including activists and academics, to explain what it is.