We are all trapped in the “Feed”

Every afternoon, during lunch, I open up YouTube, and I find myself marveling at the sheer dumbness of its recommendations. Despite having all this viewing data of mine, world’s second most popular search engine is dumb as a brick. It shows me propaganda channels from two ends of the political spectrum. It surfaces some inane celebrity videos. It dredges up the worst material for me — considering I usually like watch science videos, long conversations and interviews, and photography-focused educational videos.

YouTube, assumes that like its billion-plus audience I might be pleased with the lowest common denominator. And why pick on YouTube. It is the general state of the Internet. Another service which should now be able to understand the qualitative merits of a piece of information is Instagram. Instead of trying to surface new, exciting and artistic, it manages to surface the more predictable photos. If I like a few watch photos, it surfaces pictures of watches in my feed, even when they are not a primary interest. The algorithms lack a depth of understanding and context, despite knowing so much.

No matter where I go on the Internet, I feel like I am trapped in the “feed,” held down by algorithms that are like axes trying to make bespoke shirts out of silk. And no one illustrates it better than Facebook and Twitter, two more services that should know better, but they don’t. Fake news, unintelligent information and radically dumb statements are getting more attention than what matters. The likes, retweets, re-posts are nothing more than steroids for noise. Even when you are sarcastic in your retweets or re-shares, the system has the understanding of a one-year-old monkey baby: it is a vote on popularity.

Thumbs down, a feature that should have more adoption and utility, doesn’t work, because it doesn’t bring the dopamine rush of the like. I mean, to dislike something, you have to think. As a result, with every day that passes, the noise increases. What is essential, remains buried in the background, looking, seeking and praying for attention.

There are many reasons why feeds are closing in on us — the primary being that most of these companies have created systems that are mostly one size fits all solution, designed to serve the broadest set of users. Then they are layered with personalization algorithms that are rudimentary.

Whether it is Facebook or Twitter, they need to create a lowest common denominator, which keeps people hooked on their services. The more they are hooked, more opportunities to show them advertising and thus make more money. The entire system is designed to micro-dose us with dopamine, rewarding every action with another hit.

On top of that, there are fiscal pressures on algorithms. After all, those who encode these algorithms are human — flawed as you and me. They take orders from those who tell them to make these algorithms to bring in as much revenue as possible — to keep growing and keeping the Wall Street happy.

Whether we like or not, for now, advertising is the only accepted currency of the web. The modern Internet, thanks to the duopoly of Facebook and Google, has become an advertising-monetized attention economy. The core tenet of this philosophy: “most” attention is “more” valuable.

It is no different than the old media — most prominent magazines (Vogue, People, Time) got the highest CPM. Whatever was the biggest TV network got a premium for its audience size. And the biggest audience translates into the highest possible chance of return on advertising dollars – and as a result, it is hardly surprising that big spending ad-companies keeping going back to the big two.

Lost in the mists of Internet time, is the fact that it was Wired magazine’s HotWired came up with the idea of using banners for advertising. Wired was looking for something simple and expedient — something the advertising industry would be able to grok. In the old media world, more reach you had, more you could charge. You could argue that the “ad-banner” was Internet’s first deadly sin. As the web grew, no one searched for better ways to pay for information on the Internet. Instead, folks spent most of their creative energies to increase advertising dollars and built a big ecosystem around it. And Google and Facebook have created the best ad-delivery platforms, more significant than any TV network or magazine in the past.

Like old media before, today’s platforms at the core were designed to focus on the “most” and not the best. For instance, Google’s page rank system rewarded pages with most links. More popular you were, more you were rewarded. It is now forgotten, but search engine optimization (SEO) and manipulation was a way to get on the front page of Google. Since Google’s front page was the oil well of attention, no one was surprised when headlines were written for the attention of Google crawler.

Many have forgotten, but services like Digg helped popularize the idea of what I call intellectual spam. Headlines, followed by vapid content, meant to attract the likes. Against such a backdrop, a decade ago, we all assumed that the rise of the personal web, shaped by individual data would result in signals that will help us dampen the noise. We thought that our systems would get smarter, learning from our behavior, and we would be able to separate signal from noise. And this would allow us to focus our attention on the meaningful and essential.

Unfortunately, the reality of capitalism and turned that dream into a big giant popularity contest, shaped by crude tools – likes, hearts, retweets, and re-shares. We have created systems that boost noise and weaken signals. Every time I tune into news and all I see is noise rising to the top. Whether it is YouTube or Instagram — all you see are memes that are candy-colored candy, mean to keep us hooked.

The question then is who will save us from the feed? It has to be someone whose principal business is not monetizing their customers by selling their data and advertising. For now, I think Apple is one of the companies which can do something about this. Apple News is a credible application, but it needs to embrace the web and become more open. But I will take what I can get – at least it is not showing me some dumb videos and articles that only make my doctors richer!

May 26, 2018. San Francisco

Photo by Priscillia du Preez, via Unsplash

A letter from Om

Sign up & get it delivered to your inbox