One of the highlights of my day is having lunch with my True Ventures colleagues. We sit around the table, enjoy food, and talk about a lot of topics. I don’t talk as much as I listen. That’s where I first heard about Taylor Swift’s new single, the new Royal Baby, and pretty much everything else happening in the world outside venture capital and technology.
Lately, everyone seems to be focused on dissecting the latest episodes of Game Of Thrones. I haven’t watched a single episode. I don’t like stuff that is too gory, and I’m not that into fantasy. I am also one of the few in Silicon Valley who doesn’t care very much about Star Wars or Indiana Jones and the like. Though, I do like futuristic science fiction — especially when it has a less dystopian view than our current media outlets! In our latest lunch hours at the office, I feel a little out of the loop. I have even less to contribute than usual.
Conversations are vital to us as human beings. They define the relationships we have with each other and with the subjects we discuss. Bob Lefsetz, who writes the always-excellent Lefsetz Letter, in a recent missive on the topic of conversations — also prompted by an unfashionable ignorance of Game of Thrones—frames everything perfectly.
I’m not about to dig in, but I do feel left out. Doesn’t bother me, but how many topics do we all have in common these days? … But that’s the world we live in today. We’re looking for points of nexus, where we can weigh in, be part of the conversation……People want to be part of the conversation. The key is to deliver product they’re interested in. We’ve learned what appeals most is edgy stuff, unrestrained by censors, that has deeper meaning, that affects your emotions, and that it takes years to reach everybody, I didn’t hear of anybody doing GOT binges until this year, the final year, when the hysteria has reached fever pitch
His comments reminded me of a recent study I came across, which is tangentially related to Bob’s observations. Samuel P. L. Veissière and ￼Moriah Stendel, two researchers from McGill University in Canada, argue that our collective smartphone addiction is not an antisocial phenomenon, but part of humans’ social disposition to connect and engage with others. “Specifically,” they write, “we argue that mobile technology addiction is driven by the human urge to connect with people, and the related necessity to be seen, heard, thought about, guided, and monitored by others, that reaches deep in our social brains and far in our evolutionary past.”
They further contend that “seeking news and information, to put it simply, are ways to learn from others, and to stay updated on culturally relevant events and people.” Just as I do at the lunch gathering. To me, that is the crucial point — and one that isn’t very well understood by the platforms that exercise greater control our connectedness.
Most major platforms, including Facebook (and its properties, WhatsApp and Instagram), Twitter, and Snapchat, have managed to reduce the need to converse to a rudimentary algorithm that is broadly determined by engagement, whose primary motive is to increase attention that can be monetized by some form of advertising.
Lefsetz is right when he points out that people like the edgy stuff. This explains why people share or retweet content that seems ludicrous. They engage with shock and awe, which in turn is given higher priority by algorithms, because the system only sees increased engagement. As a result, we have systems that essentially metastasize group conversational dynamics to a point where everything becomes a volatile cocktail of opinions and outrage.
Maybe it is time for platforms to rethink the idea of engagement, purely from the point of view of conversations and communication. In a weird sort of way, the Snapchat streaks are a perfect encapsulation of an engagement dynamic, which cannot be monetized but is just a non-verbal, non-textual conversation between a small subset of friends and meaningful only to them.
Maybe we need a fresh start to how we think of engagement. I personally like this definition proposed by Gideon Rosenblatt:
…engagement is the emerging nexus of contact—the interface—between humans and machines…At the most basic level, I’d like to propose to you that it’s individual parts coming together and working as a new whole. That might seem like an abstract way of thinking about the topic. But I think it’s useful for shifting perspective and seeing engagement in a bigger frame.
In other words, don’t just see engagement in binary outcomes like advertising or more rider usage — instead, think about the impact on the overall health of the entire ecosystem. It might be hard to do, but in the end, it would be the right way to think about the future. Or as design ethicist Erika Hall succinctly put it:
“Machines aren’t magical. AI just puts our aggregate biases on rails. It’s up to humans to articulate clear goals and keep known biases present and accounted for. De-biasing is debugging for critical thinking. It can be as simple as referring to a bias checklist with your team.”
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