Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
For many people, web browsers and phone screens have grown to become the main sources of information. To that end, there’s a constant and massive stream of media arriving on our screens. We live in a cutthroat attention economy.
As a result, every product will get more persuasive over time. Facebook must become more addictive to compete with YouTube. In return, YouTube must become more immersive if it wants to compete with Facebook. And we’re not just talking about “cheap” amusement like Candy Crush or cat videos; in their quest for our attention, these services also compete with studying, exercising, cooking and reading to our kids.
Media today threatens our fundamental agency. Maybe we are “choosing” to engage with these services, but we are choosing from persuasive menus driven by companies whose goals seemingly aren’t aligned to ours. As Tristan Harris further argues, there is “time spent” and “time well spent.”
Consider that the average teenager now spends more than 40 hours a week in front of a screen—almost three times as much as 10 years ago. Regardless of whether you think it’s all good or bad, hundreds of millions of young people are now spending almost 30 percent of their entire waking life in front of a digital screen. It’s hard to overstate the vast consequences—for the relational bonds of families, for our aspirations and anxieties, for our political beliefs, and ultimately for our understanding of reality itself.
Yet, for those who live with them day to day, these changes are almost invisible.
We’re at a point at which Google could actually change the outcome of the next US election, and nobody would be likely to ever notice it.
Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us.
Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
– Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1982)
Nowadays, online discovery is mostly managed by recommender systems, which are widely integrated into applications. Some well-known examples include Facebook’s News Feed, movie recommendations on Netflix and Amazon, and of course Google Search, which these days is mostly a recommendation engine, too.
Just recently, Instagram joined the recommendation club. They’ll be shifting their feed from a chronological list to an algorithmically driven one, ordered based on which posts they think you will like the most.
Choosing to create recommendation algorithms based on principles of attention and time spent makes perfect sense from the point of view of a company that’s concerned with making you stick around, say, in order to watch more ads. Jesse Weaser discusses in his recent Medium post how this approach has transformed the Internet into an “attention web,” with companies fighting tooth and nail to own every possible moment of your time.
When there’s a fight, people get hurt. Being introduced to platforms that want more and more of your time, at all costs, leads to receiving an increasingly narrow range of opinion and perspective, despite the breadth of information available online. It bulldozes your immediate attention, rather than focusing on your long-term satisfaction and benefits. It’s fundamentally misaligned with your interests, much like fast food and cigarettes.
For example, Facebook’s study in Science confirms that, according to their self-selected slice of a politically-engaged sub-population, their own algorithm suppresses diversity in the content people see on the platform.
By only being introduced to content algorithmically deemed “worth your attention,” these systems also heighten the risk of harmful “my side” bias. This ubiquitous bias is the conviction that your belief system and that of other in-group members is always correct and righteous, and that other peoples’ belief systems are always misguided and wrong-headed.
Ultimately, clickbait and churnalism will come under increasing scrutiny, just like the sugar, salt and fat in our diet.
We also know that, over the long term, users tend to be more satisfied with diverse recommendations, i.e. being exposed to a wider variety of content, which can prompt the experience of serendipity — discovering something we were not expecting. By showing content recommendations that are interesting for reasons beyond mere popularity, we can achieve higher goals, such as mental stimulation and intrinsic motivation.
To that end, discovering publishers’ or authors’ content shouldn’t only be triggered by popular demand or people’s past behavior. Content quality, human benefit and diversity are essential components as well.
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