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Saturday, September 06, 2014

Natasha Lomas on the Shift from Social to Sociopathic Software

The lesson I personally draw from the Natasha Lomas piece in yesterday's TechCrunch is that when online social networks like facebook and twitter emerge into the rare sort of prevalence that makes them actually look reliably profitable (or that awful gawky artless term of art, monetizable) as few such efforts ever manage to be and even fewer for long, these social networks can then mature in roughly two ways (the second of which few seriously entertain yet, but I insist must): Either they will be transformed into sociopathic networks driven by for-profit algorithms that betray and usually alienate their initial user-base, or they could be nationalized instead as public goods driven by the people who will continue to use them in unpredictable and unreliable and often unprofitable ways.

Follow the link for the whole piece, There's Something Rotten in the State of Social Media, my excerpts follow:
Facebook forcing users to download a separate messaging app if they want to carry on IMing their friends. Twitter polluting its users’ carefully curated timelines with content they did not choose to read. Facebook manipulating the emotional cadence of content to figure out whether it can actively impact users’ emotions. Twitter flirting with the idea of adding even more algorithmically selected content into the timeline -- content that prioritizes what’s already popular, and thus mainstream, at the expense of non-mainstream interests, nuance and minority views. Meanwhile, studies suggest the majority of Facebook users are unaware that what they see in their newsfeed is not actually the sum total of their friends’ news, but rather an algorithmic skim -- biased for clickbait, stickiness and, of course, advertising... The overarching theme [is]... increasing external pressure to monetize these social services... Bottom line: who I choose not to follow is [a] core a part of why Twitter is so useful to me... Also... human time and attention span are finite, so any digital service that steers you away from the things you are actively interested in for its own profit-making ends is acting parasitically.... [A]nother theme here: increasing automation, and thus decreasing human (end-user) control. Automation... lowers costs over the long term because it’s autonomous... automation is linked intrinsically to monetization. Automation can also be granularly controlled via algorithmic levers... A business can clinically figure out how to maximize factors such as user engagement or ad views just by running a couple of new algorithmic recipes and comparing the results -- selecting whichever one maximizes its bottom line... they just optimize core algorithms for particular business outcomes: page views, stickiness, user engagement, and so on. And for the overarching business imperative: profit... But it’s not without cost... Slowly but surely the freedoms that initially drew us into these glittering social spaces are being withdrawn, as barred gates drop into place -- limiting our usage options, and controlling and constraining the social content we see. The walled gardens shrink, getting narrower in outlook as the logic of their underlying content-filtering algorithms becomes evident. The business advantage of limiting what users can do is that user behavior can be better channeled and predicted... Many people won’t even realize exactly how staged and contrived their digital social services have become, as they are encouraged to keep scrolling mindlessly through all the tasty looking, populist clickbait fired at their eyeballs. Yet the original promise of a free social space is reduced to...  a pace-optimizing profit-maximizing machine... Automation is also a type of enforcement. It has to be. It implies a lack of choice stemming from the lack of a human hand steering things. Control is taken away from humans and handed over to what are (for now) human written algorithms... Facebook and Twitter are indeed free at the point of use. And the hackneyed tech maxim runs that ‘if it’s free you’re the product’. And yes it follows that if you’re the product then you’re not an agent involved in the service but a unit opted in to being manipulated by the service. The service views you as a controllable commodity... in order to achieve its goal of greater profits. But there is a problem with that logic. Thing is, without us human users of these social services there would be no Facebook and no Twitter. Without millions and even billions of people freely producing and uploading content there would be no social media palaces at all... It can be difficult to decry social media’s inexorable shift towards algorithmically curated info-feeds on the grounds that these businesses need to drive usage to please their investors. After all that is how publicly traded companies operate... Twitter, as it (mostly) is now with users in the driving seat, is a service with a human soul. While Facebook, which long ago prioritized algorithmic logic over human choices, is just another mechanized process.


Alex said...

"Twitter, as it (mostly) is now with users in the driving seat, is a service with a human soul. While Facebook, which long ago prioritized algorithmic logic over human choices, is just another mechanized process."

This makes me feel better about my decision to keep Twitter and delete Facebook.

Dale Carrico said...

I made the same choice. The tide is probably turning, after which we'll probably need to choose again.