Following on from Can you talk more about this current business model (backed by the addictive filtering) is a problem…
A minor nitpick here but they collect it not to feed us more of the same content but to know how to direct us onto a the path that is easiest for them to generate revenue from. This need-to-direct-us into the easiest path often does (as you say) lead to more of the same content. But the same content is the side effect, not the goal. The goal is to get users onto the ‘rich veins’ of content (rich for the provider, not the consumer). If someone starts far from any of the easy paths then it’s not about giving that person more of the same but giving them the content that will most efficiently put them on the easy path.
It’s a subtle distinction but I feel the true goal here is important to keep in mind. The goal is not to create echo chambers or similar content, it’s to have maximum efficiency of lock-in and attention, and that happens within just a few thick branches of the content tree, so users end being pushed there by algorithms because that’s what the algorithm is tuned for. Tribalism is a side effect.
What you are calling ‘tribalism’ I would call ‘efficient lock-in of attention’ which just happens to give rise to a few very strong and common modes of consumption. Mass lock in of attention at scale with efficiency happens to create tribes. But the tribes are just a side effect. If it had been more efficient to spread people over the whole spectrum then we’d see that happening and we’d be bemoaning ‘decision failure due to extreme fractionalisation of opinions’ or something like that.
I’m being really pedantic, but I think these platforms maybe don’t directly aim to increase exposure of consumers to advertisers, they mostly want to maximise advertiser revenue, and the best way to do that is via increased exposure of consumers to advertisers. The goal is advertiser-oriented, not consumer-oriented. Consumers being exposed to ads is a side effect of the true goal which is to earn advertiser money.
Put it this way - if they could double their revenue by halving the number of ads shown to consumers then they would. The platforms don’t care how many ads consumers see. They just care that however many it happens to be is maximally profitable. And the correlation between ‘consumer time exposed to ads’ and ‘income’ is obviously very tight, but do not mix this correlation with the true goal.
My point is, consumers are not the consideration. Platforms do not try to maximise consumer exposure to ads, they try to maximise their profit from ads, which usually comes from higher exposure.
The distinctions are important because we can’t really unravel the problem without being clear what it is, what are side effects, where the wiggle room to negotiate is, where efficiency and inefficiency really lives, and where the power grows and dies.
I would reframe this: “As people are removed by the platform from the diversity of thoughts and opinions…”
It’s the platforms doing it, not the people.
The platform chooses what people see specifically to make them behave in a way that seems like their own behavior but it is not. That behavior is manipulated by the platform and belongs to the platform. It’s gradual. The user is under the influence. We can’t blame the users in this.
As The Social Dilemma says “It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product.”
There’s a distinction made in ‘Finite and Infinite Games’ by James Carse between ‘culture’ and ‘society’. Culture is the infinite game version and society is the finite game version of the same phenomenon. Culture progresses, expands, pushes the limits, embraces, welcomes, shares. Society is hierarchical, win/lose, team based, rules based, comparison based.
So I agree with the use of ‘lucky enough to live somewhere with culture’, but I feel that social media / tribalism / echo chambers is a purely societal phenomenon and culture is not really so significant. Maybe I’m reaching too far on this, but I do recommend the book because it frames these two people-group-think-things of ‘culture’ and ‘society’ in a pretty interesting way.
The phrase ‘live somewhere’ reminds me a lot of the problems of gerrymandering. I think we are seeing the same thing happen here but instead of where you live the lines are drawn around what you care about.
Solutions for Consumers
One way to frame this is that these people are becoming part of a cult and they will need to be deprogrammed. We must do this with compassion. No point me writing more about deprogramming, just look online there’s plenty of stuff.
Another way to frame this is these people are addicted, like drug addicts, and they need rehabilitation. Again, this is a compassionate activity, not correcting a wrong, not removing bad behavior, not judging or criticizing. So much online about addiction rehab I won’t write more.
Another way to frame this is a mental health issue. These people have suffered past mental trauma (we all have) and social media tribalism is the symptom of this trauma. The way to treat mental health is through counselling, again a compassionate activity.
Another way to frame this is biological legacy and to that I say we’re screwed. Haha no I’m kidding but I don’t know the answer to this one, biology is outside my normal thinking.
Solutions for Businesses
From The Social Dilemma “I don’t think these guys set out to be evil. It’s just the business model that has a problem. … What I see is a bunch of [business] people who are trapped by a business model, an economic incentive, and shareholder pressure that makes it almost impossible to do something else.”
So number one, do not own shares in these companies. Do not make profit from attention slave drivers. How many degrees of separation is acceptable? I can’t answer that for you. You must decide.
We need to decide if the externalities of consumers being in a network like youtube or facebook or twitter are ok, or whether those externalities (positive and negative) should start to be internalised.
We need to decide if regulation is a good approach and how that might work.
My feeling on how to achieve this, be it business-initiated or government-mandated (disclaimer this is totally opinion, not based on any research or data or anything like that, might not end up in a positive reality!)
businesses that show any information which can be ordered chronologically must do the chronological ordering by default, and if they want alternative orderings they must offer them only as non-default alternatives. If a company removes a special ordering algorithm the people who have selected that ordering must be returned to the default chronological order so they can choose their new alternative. There are of course loopholes and exceptions, but the intention here is: do not mess with the order of posts to manipulate people without their consent.
all advertising must be explicit. I’m thinking 3px red #F00 border around it with text above saying “This is an ad”. If an article is paid for by the subject of the article it’s an ad and that fact must be explicit. There will be loopholes and exceptions but the intention is people must know when they are being advertised to. I’m aiming at low hanging fruit here like deceptive ‘Download’ buttons on sourceforge.
enforce hard delete (ie removal of content), not soft delete (ie database column ‘isDeleted’). Backups copies must also be removed within 12? months. This complicates backup process to be sure, but so does medical / financial / nuclear etc regulation. It’s for a reason.
only people that have explicitly signed up for the service can be tagged in photos etc. This is both backend and frontend. If people have not signed up, the assumption is they do not want a profile within your service and you should not have one for them.
That’s the small-fry stuff. I think business on the whole is by design parasitic and it’s difficult to avoid that. I’ve never been a business person, never will, so I’m probably the wrong person to ask on this stuff. But I’d also say an MBA consultant is definitely the wrong person to ask! So in the end my advice above is really just me being open to wrongness rather than trying to express rightness.
I think smart people generally do have answers and we should listen to them, but I don’t consider myself one of those smart people and generally prefer to see a few good rules that allow maximum freedom; I prefer not to set rules and the above ‘rules’ are intended more as a guideline than a strict boundary. People need protection but they also need freedom and the trust that they can be their best selves. I believe people will rise to that.
My number one feeling from the tribalism I see is “the cause and the solution both come from compassion”, the cause is a lack of it, the solution is an abundance of it. It’s worth asking “how can we cultivate compassion”, really an interesting question once we take it seriously. I guess now we know compassion doesn’t come from ‘like’ buttons.
edit: this post is just addressing the current situation (motivated by The Social Dilemma topic). Safe Network and tribalism is perhaps a different story, but I haven’t written about it in this post.