The ‘attention economy’ is something that has infiltrated modern-day internet: content producers clamor for attention on the content they put out. And they have a strategy to do that: create content with an original twist that appeals to emotions. Things that are funny, provocative, or romantic attract a lot more attention than things that are boring and objective.
Now, social network operators monetize emotional content: as this sort of content attracts more attention, they push that content to even more viewers, leading to channel growth.
Being bombarded with increasing amounts of provocative content, one unintentional effect is that viewers opinions and thoughts become more polarized.
OK. So far, nothing’s happened. Except for adolescents being grumpy jerks, which might be considered somewhat normal. But they’re not going to suddenly love authoritative news channels when they come of age. I doubt that ‘fake news’ presidential marketing campaigns do much to further the journalistic cause. But, if key citizens of the future are going to rely on social media, or even software robots, to generate and deliver news… and those social media providers, or software robots that select, generate, and push particular news items, favor polarizing, provocative content regardless of their veracity… then the freedom of information, and ultimately the balancing power holding abusive governments in check, is at stake in the not-too-distant future. At least, according to what Aviv Ovadya has to say.
Ovadya’s take goes a bit beyond just why polarizing algorithms are bad for us. He’s calling for online platforms to revamp those algorithms to be ‘truth-friendly’ instead of ‘popularity-friendly’, and calling for changes to society to encourage attitudes favoring truth instead of popularity. But that has a number of challenges.
For example, just how large is the truth market, anyway? I mean, if you’re a social media company competing with truth against polarizing content and don’t come out with a whistle-blowing story every day, what chance do you stand?
Or: “Responsible research and design” sounds nice on paper, but not in practice. I’m sorry. Whereas I sincerely hope that we can push ethical behavior into design, I suspect that for-profit businesses will push the limits of any responsible research and design framework as far as they can. And I doubt religious extremists – or any other overly activist group for that matter – will tone down their ideas on what ‘responsible’ might mean. So how do you fight that?
Ovadya may have some ideas on how to start addressing societal change towards a truth economy, but it’s going to take more than just ideas to keep the balancing forces around that hold organized government AND organized capitalism in check and accountable.