One of the more frustrating things about turning into a cranky old editor (although to be honest I was That Guy when I was 25) has been watching a generation of young people embrace the notion that they don’t have to be savvy news consumers: that any news that is truly important will be circulated by their inner circles through social media. But after digesting the various takes on the Facebook emotional-manipulation experiment this week, which was arguably the biggest story of a slow week in a tech world, the unacknowledged reality that people who expect to discover the true world through search or their social feeds are subject to the whims of opaque corporations is really starting to trouble me.
Most people know that Facebook manipulates their News Feed, and a lot of that manipulation is not at all noteworthy (do you really need to see the 892nd picture of the toddler born to the girl who sat next to you in 10th grade biology?). Go ahead, wander over to Facebook and refresh your news feed eight or ten times in a row: you’ll get a different series of updates at the top of that feed nearly every time.
But when Facebook starts altering the content of your feed based on an emotional social graph it wishes to feed you, that makes a lot of people sit up and take notice. And in an era in which Facebook is one of the largest sources of referral traffic to traffic-starved online publishers struggling to break even in an era of digital pennies, the ramifications of those alterations have a clear impact on how you get your news and the type of news you get.
It’s like this guy doesn’t even know what his company is doing to a generation of digital news publishers.
You’re not just the product, you’re the subject
There are immense benefits from our modern shift to digital publishing; the speed, the global reach, the accountability, and the ability to incorporate text, video, images, and interactive graphics into a single report. But the vast amount of digital content now available means that distribution of that product to end users is controlled by a collection of third-party web companies that owe their relevance to their ability to aggregate and organize that content. I’m talking about Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, Yahoo and Bing (kind of), and a few others.
The public’s need to be informed is a secondary concern to these companies. Their foremost instinct is to keep their users engaged with their web sites, and they are clearly willing to manipulate the presentation of that content in order to surface the things that they believe will drive engagement.
Google is one of the world’s most valuable companies because its mission “to organize the world’s information and make it accessible” arrived at a time when the explosion in web content generated by the rise of digital publishing started to become unmanageable. But it often concludes that its own information is better than information provided by others that lack its reach, and it is cramming more and more paid advertisements into the top of its search results pages. In Europe, it’s not at all clear how Google will deal with the notion of “the right to be forgotten,” which no matter if you think it’s a good idea or a bad idea is going to change the number of links it surfaces. And while Google loves to tell everyone that its ranking systems are algorithmic-driven pure expressions of relevancy, there are people behind those systems who make conscious decisions about what to promote and what to demote based on criteria they rarely reveal.
Facebook’s ascension has much to do with the fact that it’s a central hub to the people you love, a digital way of staying in touch with family and friends in a way the modern offline world makes very difficult. But Facebook is even more of a black box than Google, and that’s particularly troubling given the spread of social media as a news distribution channel. News organizations with better reputations tend to have their content shared more often through social channels, according to a 2012 study, but if no one sees the story you shared because Facebook thought you’d prefer a list of celebrities that look like dogs, it doesn’t really matter.
By and large, these two companies control the relevancy of digital information in the 21st century in way that even if you believe them to be benevolent dictators should give you pause. We’ve paid a price for outsourcing our online content consumption decisions to companies run by decidedly outside-the-mainstream men like Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg; I’d pay money to listen to those dudes attempt to explain the concept of the soul. And what’s even more frustrating is that they actually have good reason to keep their decision-making processes a secret; if they told us how it all worked, thousands of charlatans would immediately game those systems as to make each company’s services a joke.
You are what you read
There might come a day when we look at Google and Facebook the same way we do Comcast and AT&T, the bogeymen we currently love to hate when it comes to identifying the powers that control our content experiences. Sure, the web companies surface a much wider variety of material than your basic cable company, but they still control what you see when you fire up their services in ways they are unwilling to explain fully.
The thing that gets me is that we’ve become such informed consumers in so many other areas of our lives. We buy organic vegetables, we obsess over miles-per-gallon in our prospective cars, and we demand that our artificially valuable gems weren’t touched by desperate violent gangs before they reach our fingers. Yet we assume that the information being presented to us by the content aggregators of our day is the information we really need to see.
We get this when it comes to our entertainment choices: there’s a reason you pay for HBO, you pay for content like Breaking Bad and Mad Men on cable channels like AMC, you pay for books, and you pay for magazines. And at some point, you’re probably going to have to pay for quality digital news or all you’re going to get is mass-market drivel that is manipulated to make you consume more of it. At the very least, you need to form a direct relationship with the free web sources you trust: subscribe to their newsletters, sign up for their direct feeds, or follow individual authors that you know you can rely upon for the information you need to survive and thrive in the information era.
File this away for claim chowder: by 2020, we’ll laugh at the notion that at one point we expected quality news and information organizations on the web to sustain themselves by competing for the attention of algorithms. Because if we haven’t figured that out, we’ll be living in a world in which those algorithms — which are written for the benefit of advertisers, not readers — completely control the presentation of news and information across our world.
And if I’m still trying to run a tech news site in that world…
Featured photo courtesy of Scholastic.