Day 12: Tuesday
Cleverness has your way with words. I could mean no one has your way with words (which is likely taken as a compliment but, taken literally is just a truism) or I could mean a large bearded man, a legend, a king has a way with words that is similar to your way with words. I’ll let you decide, Tim.
I wanted to follow up a bit on my fake news letter, and not only because I just enjoyed a wonderful cup of Indian Nimbu tea (which isn’t really relevant, but I’ve started drinking tea again and have a strong desire to continue advertising that fact to you). Specifically, I wanted to bring into question how you get your information. Being historically loose, a while back information would come by word of mouth, written letters, and, if noteworthy enough, a newspaper. Because of the distribution costs, the ‘local’ paper tended toward a monopoly, which made sense for their business model; selling ads meant they wanted the most readers, and being a trustworthy source that got the paper on the doorstep in a timely manner, covering what needed to be known in the day ensured that. Fast forward, you have TV producers vying to be the source of truth through morning and nightly news casts. Then, in the age of the internet, company’s began to reproduce the content they had on paper in little bits so everyone could read. Now-a-days, a TON of people get their news by scrolling through a feed of paid placement, shared content, and created content (Facebook, in case you hadn’t guessed or clicked on my link, Tim…). But before there was Facebook, Google dominated (and still does) by being a different kind of source. Rather than being a push, where the user is passive in the receiving of information, Google requires the user to be an active participant, pulling the information (quick aside, that’s why their ads do so well; it’s why Amazon paid so much to become the place people ended up when they needed to buy something and why ultimately they have become the (trusted) starting place [even more so than search engines] for all things intended for purchase.)
How does this all relate to fake news, you ask? A few different ways. First, in today’s world, when distribution costs are 0 because of the internet, the newspaper monopolies of old suddenly are competing with everyone globally — a content creator in London, Hong Kong, a tiny little farm town, and you, Tim, are all competing for the eye-space of the same readers.
In a pull world, the incentives align to be the best source of truth, the source that someone can go to reliably time and time again. They’d bookmark you, or in the case of Amazon, this would bear itself out by how people start their shopping. In a push world, however, incentives are different; because the ads are being sold and pushed directly to you, it’s competing for eye-space not by being the best, but by drawing in your attention. It means you have click-bait headlines, and news which is polarizing in order to get a reaction. If you strongly agree, great! Share it as truth (whether it’s real news or fake news, confirmation bias often provides nice blinders). If you strongly disagree? Great! Share again, but this time with commentary about how wrong it is. For the content producer (and Facebook as a source where people go to get information pushed to them), the incentives are to gain the most attention, sustaining that for longer and longer periods of time. Facebook doesn’t have an opinion on what is “right” or on what “should” have that attention; so long as it’s on their platform, they are making money, be it a photo album from vacation to Italy, a link to some quotations, or some clickbait about this Awesome Blog That Writes About Crazy Topics You Won’t Believe!!! But while Facebook isn’t incentivized to have an opinion on what you focus attention on, it has created the platform which enables others to polarize, much of which is getting attention in recent news about filter bubbles and fake content.
One quick note before signing off an already lengthy letter. There is a bunch of talk about the bad that could and does come of this (people reading, believing, and sharing things that aren’t true but that shape their opinion; people reading only things they agree with because they are surrounded by people like them, and thus beginning to think another point of view unfathomable; etc.). On the bright side, living in a world where distribution costs are 0, it means theoretically all those people focusing their attention on Facebook could be reading articles about the New York Times and their wonderful journalism…or they could be reading some quickly written letter to my brother-in-law. And it also means that they could be reading about something that wouldn’t otherwise be covered — a niche like a post about quiche, or perhaps a deeper dive at social issues that wouldn’t otherwise be covered because they are taboo, difficult to read about, or those covering them simply do not understand the issues.