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May 7th, 2021
The nature of the news has changed drastically since the advent of the internet. Formerly esteemed and reputable institutions of information have been sucked into the race-to-the-bottom that is the click-advertising business model. This is almost old news. In order to get as many eyeballs and clicks on ads as possible, then the news has to be eye-catching. But, what if nothing particularly eye-catching happens on a given day, what is a large corporation with a responsibility to make income supposed to do? This question is at the heart of the poisoning that news organizations have been self-administering. The answer is to make everything eye-catching, and the best way to get someone’s attention is with something negative.
If asked to look at two screens, one a sea of smilie faces with one frown face, the other a sea of frown faces with one smilie face, we are much much quicker to pick out the single frown face than we are the single smilie face. We are hardwired to have a penchant for noticing the negative. This probably has a very understandable evolutionary origin: being able to spot the one predator in an otherwise idyllic environment is far more important than seeing the one positive thing when the situation is awful. In this way the natural world generally selects for pessimism. And so, pessimism sells, because it’s what people pay attention to, and if people are paying attention, then they are more likely to click on that arbitrary advertisement that likely has nothing to do with the content being consumed. The ironic thing is that clicking on an advertisement directs someone’s attention away from the original content. One would think that if the content were so enthralling then a person wouldn’t get distracted by an advertisement, but the business model is counting on someone being distracted from their content. Seems a bit backwards. In the days of newspapers, it’s a bit different to run an ad. In that context it’s really a notification or a reminder that something exists, but in the age of screens, one click and it’s like the entire newspaper disappears.
Faceless corporations aside, what is the individual wishing to be informed to do? With this layer of poor incentive skewing information into strange pockets of rage and idealism, where does the average person look for a sound perspective on what’s going on in the world?
The answer at first seems like a lot of work: it’s to be your own journalist and triangulate what’s going on across many sources. Of course this is what the news is supposed to be. Individually, few of us have the time to go hunt down sources for any given event or newsworthy item. But we do have the tools now. During the age of the newspaper, that was the source. Perhaps the TV to. But notice, even with these technologies it wasn’t uncommon to read a couple different newspapers, or check a few different news stations to see what the similarities or different takes on any given issue are. The internet age only magnifies this capabilities. Instead of a couple news papers or a few new stations, we can now curate tools to deliver hundreds and thousands of sources. The key is to realize that curating this set of sources is the only thing the requires any effort. Take for instance Twitter: some people hate it, some people love it. The difference is feed-curation. Those who enjoy it and find it useful and informative have gone through the trouble to tailor who they follow, seeking out individually wise voices on a variety of topics so that when an event occurs, there’s a small pantheon of trusted opinions to scroll through.
Notice also the difference regarding incentives. The click-advertising incentive is non-existent for this sort of pantheon of opinion. A great deal of accounts on twitter are motivated by a sense of trust shared with their audience, and that’s it. Perhaps there’s a product or a book or a service attached to such a person that they plug, but it’s very likely to be on brand. Not always, but when authenticity is important for trust, it becomes a metric for filtering the sources one pays attention to. The advent of click-advertising took authenticity off the table for many if not all of the large new organizations. In an age where no single source can be trusted, the key is to be a little promiscuous with one’s sources. Promiscuous, and picky.