Facebook amid the new Dark Ages of the Internet

Preface: This post is full of links to material far superior to my own. The reader is encouraged to follow these rabbit trails to appraise more of the context underlying my assertions.

In 2008 Clay Shirky gave a much-vaunted talk (transcript available here) on his concept of cognitive surplus. In setting up the premise of his eventual book, Shirky described decades of watching television as a way to manage the excess of free time that came with the post-WWII American economy and culture.

And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV. We did that for decades. We watched I Love Lucy. We watched Gilligan’s Island. … We watched Desperate Housewives. Desperate Housewives essentially functioned as a kind of cognitive heat sink, dissipating thinking that might otherwise have built up and caused society to overheat. – Clay Shirky

It’s a novel description, and is not without critics. However, I think we are at the point where we can observe a shift in the “heat sink” or time cooling role (literally the “chill” time) of media platforms from television to social media (Facebook specifically). While there is a profound degree of difference in user activity between the two, the overall level of cognitive dissipation rather than surplus is becoming increasingly similar.

If you define this cognitive surplus in terms of an economic value alone, you can walk back to the one-dimensional value of TV’s audience commodification—that of audience attention cultivated by media companies and sold to advertisers. Yet this surplus was never simply dissipated. Rather, it was cultivated by parties willing to pay to send mass mediated messages to this growing pool of consumers. The sitcom and other content served to assemble the “factory in the living room.

The single most valuable commodity in the media environment is attention—that set of intellectual processes that converts raw data into something useful. – Ed Shane

Today Facebook has increasingly funneled excess audience attention and activity toward value generating “features” to cultivate a much higher value commodity for advertisers than television is capable of. It’s one reason why television is slowly moving away from a commercial platform to a paid content platform (see Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Apple, HBO and others entering the content business).

In many ways Facebook consumes and dissipates more than simply leisure time. It also colonizes formerly offline social and cultural activities (arts and culture, journalism, entertainment, civic and political engagement, personal relationships), shifting them to its controlled digital context where it can be cultivated and more thoroughly commodified.

Nearly ten years on from Shirky’s cognitive surplus hypothesis, the rosy promises of web 2.0 and user-generated content have given way to a social media reality where the dissipation (or depletion) of the cognitive surplus is far greater and more total.

While this may not be true for everyone, a subjective appraisal of most people’s Internet behavior seems to point in this direction. For many, being on the Internet new equals being on Facebook. Generating content equals sharing content on Facebook.

No doubt, Facebook provides features to encourage productive kinds of usage: notes, Instagram, Facebook live, groups, etc. but then controls the newsfeed algorithmically to better cultivate its mass user commodity. These features tend to shift the value generated by users toward its primary value of profitability. All other goals—the public good notwithstanding—are secondary. Any instance where profitability and the public good are at odds presents a dilemma.

We’ve seen lauded moves by Facebook to eliminate fake news and spam on the 1 billion-strong platform but only because of a backlash and the potential for the phenomenon to cause users to mistrust the platform as a whole. There’s been no talk of barring the mercenary and paid use of the platform as a political profiling and propaganda tool. Recent stories here and here discuss the data profiling techniques marketing and political analytics firms are employing that have been largely unknown to users. For example, would you willingly take a fun quiz posted to Facebook if you knew it was being used to develop a political and psychographic profile and subsequently target you with propaganda custom-made to influence you?

Not only can psychological profiles be created from your data, but your data can also be used the other way ‘round to search for specific profiles: all anxious fathers, all angry introverts, for example—or maybe even all undecided Democrats? Essentially, what Kosinski had invented was sort of a people search engine. – Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus.

In one sense, the cognitive surplus of Facebook’s user base is being offered up to a kind of dark market of big data analytics firms. Some may use it to sell you stuff. Some may use it to sway elections. The key here is that we’re not talking about the profiteering purveyors of fake news.

CEO and Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg recently released what he called a “manifesto.” Claiming that “Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community,” he rightly expressed dismay at the current global trends toward isolation and xenophobia. His answer is to make Facebook a positive force in unifying communities and weaving a stronger social fabric. It is an inspiring and hopeful piece of writing.

For the past decade, Facebook has focused on connecting friends and families. With that foundation, our next focus will be developing the social infrastructure for community—for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all. – Mark Zuckerberg

I have experienced the positive and empowering value that Facebook’s features provide. They allowed my family to share and gain community support during my son’s life-threatening illness and bone marrow transplant in a dramatic way. But I also encountered the data value-extraction process at work. The visibility of our posts were subject to the algorithmic gatekeepers, and topics mentioned in our posts inevitably shaped sponsored content for ourselves and others following our son’s support page. While Facebook was an amazing social networking tool for us, it was also frustrating to learn that our content and access to others on the network was controlled and exploited outside of our awareness.

Zuckerberg repeatedly mentions “Social fabric” in his treatise. This implies a social contract. The thing is, extracting financial value from social fabric is not without ramifications. For Facebook to meaningfully embrace its manifesto, Zuckerberg must be willing to shape the platform in a way that empowers citizens rather than further commodifies them without their awareness or consent. Every business has a right to make money—Facebook included. But when your “product” is the cumulative psychographic profiles of more than 1 billion people, how you make your money matters. There has to be an ethical framework beyond Pollyannaish rhetoric.

While regarded as a misnomer in many ways, the “Dark Ages” that followed the fall of the Roman Empire were characterized by a lack of writing, general illiteracy and the loss, for a time, of the ancient wisdom that had formerly been centralized and accessible in the empire. The medieval church filled this vacuum instituting power and control over people’s spiritual matters, and became increasingly corrupt as it found new ways to exploit people’s largely illiterate faith for profit. Similarly, social media has ushered in a kind of Dark Age following the wide open promise of the Internet’s early days and the post-2000 epiphany of social software. To be clear, the whole of the Internet is still there, but people’s experience of it has dramatically shifted to something that is biased toward commercial and partisan interests fostering a similar user illiteracy. Those interests are most concerned with commodifying a social media discourse that sorts, separates and quantifies people, not one that “brings humanity together” as Zuckerberg opines.

Zuckerberg writes at length about two critical topics that are directly impacted by the commodification of the Facebook’s users: An informed citizenry (read: strong journalism) and civic engagement (read: participating in democracy/voting).

…even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be…vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. – John Stuart Mill

This may be a gross oversimplification in judgement, but I don’t believe Facebook will ever create a situation where they can serve two masters equally—an advertising and market analytics marketplace generating profit for shareholders and a marketplace of ideas serving the public good. The very nature of democracy is bound in human deliberation and choice making. People sort out the available options for the betterment of themselves and society. This is also the very nature of the data extracted from users—profiles representing the sum of human choices. As the data is extracted and manipulated, the very nature of democratic discourse is influenced and altered. In one sense, the “social graph” is being gerrymandered and exploited.

Is this being done equally by all sides—political parties and other interests? Who knows? And that’s the point. This happens in the dark. There is no activity page a user can visit to see who is mining their cumulative data (posts, shares, likes, reactions, comments) on an ongoing basis. There are no required identifiers other than “sponsored posts” labelled on the newsfeed. Opt-ins or opt-outs and privacy settings are selectable to a point—but blindly so. The “free lunch” of the platform requires the user to remain illiterate of how their data is being commodified or for what purpose or interests. The social contract since Facebook’s IPO has rapidly evolved from tolerating simple ad inserts in the newsfeed to this vast and hidden data extraction marketplace.

If anything, Facebook’s transparency is only available to paid interests, made evident in this recent article in the NY Times.

“Facebook’s actions on media transparency are a positive step forward, particularly coming from one of the largest media players in the industry,” Mr. Pritchard said in an emailed statement. Procter & Gamble was “encouraged by the responsiveness and leadership Facebook is demonstrating, and we hope it builds more momentum to create a clean and productive digital media supply chain.”

According to the article, Facebook raked in $27.6 billion in revenue in 2016, increasing 50% over the prior year.

For Facebook to truly commit to its manifesto, they must re-think where to separate the profitability and public interest in the social media discourse. For a marketplace of ideas to truly flourish, there must be a free and open market. We don’t have that when a dark market serving paid political and profit interests is operating under the surface of our social fabric.

Perhaps Facebook needs a users’ bill of rights with an establishment clause of sorts: “[Facebook] shall make [or allow] no [user data feature] respecting an establishment of [private business or political party], or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” In other words, transparency with regard to all sponsored content and data mining.

If they truly wish to build an informed and civically engaged community, Facebook needs to literally encode this ethic into the platform itself, which requires some serious soul searching about its conflicting motivations.

The bias of code: Why Facebook’s trending topics scandal is beside the point

It’s fascinating that just a couple of months since posting about social media’s emerging bias, Facebook becomes embroiled in scandal related to political bias in it’s trending news curation process.

ZuckerbergSen. John Thune’s (R-S.D.) letter to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg pressed the company to “answer these serious allegations and hold those responsible to account if there has been political bias in the dissemination of trending news.” Ironically it is Thune that tried to legislate the “fairness doctrine” out of broadcast media in 2007 (an FCC policy that was never made law, and was dropped due to intense industry lobbying in 2011). With social media it seems political fairness in journalism has become Thune’s new touchstone issue.

Thune’s inconsistency reflects a real difference between the political economies of broadcast media and social media, especially concerning the production or curation of the news. Underscoring this are tandem paradoxes that this post will explore.

In the broadcast era, media producers generated revenue by monetizing the only quantifiable value they could—the size of the passive audience as cultivated by entertainment content. Paradoxically this single data factor (an index of the passive audience measured by the Nieslen ratings system) gave the audience a high degree of influence on the content by driving competition among commercial networks that resulted in a consistent improvement in the program content and news production (I realize some might argue with this point, but go with it for the moment).

In the social media era we have shifted from a passive audience platform to an active participatory system where a combination of networking and software cultivates content from users, generating increasingly valuable and granular data to advertisers. Commercial appeals can be targeted to individuals in real time based on their profile and immediate online activity (their posts, views, likes, shares, etc.).

Algorithms are where the real value lies. Algorithms define action. – Peter Sondergaard, SVP Gartner Research

Trending TopicsParadoxically this higher value generation results in less end user influence over the software platform. New features on Facebook are not developed so much to serve the user as they are designed to drive more “frictionless” data generation increasing value for paying customers and shareholders. The trending topics links are collected, for example, to provide more data generation opportunities. If you click on news about Prince’s death investigation, subsequent advertising latches on to that data to serve up highly related products and sponsored posts (more Prince-related miscellany).

So, contrary to Dallas Smythe’s “free lunch” of programming in the broadcast system vying for audience attention with the most popular content (what Smythe called the “consciousness industries”), the new bargain of social media is actually resulting in lower value to the user audience over time. Facebook is free but that doesn’t mean you don’t pay for it. Rather, its currency is your data (what you choose, what you share and where you go).

[Facebook] never bothered to reckon with the basic responsibilities that journalism entails, nor the ethical and epistemological challenges it presents—probably because they’re messy and inconvenient and might get in the way of optimizing engagement – Will Oremus, Slate

What is worrisome about the recent scandal is that it may push more people to prefer that Facebook’s news curation for trending topics shift completely away from human subjectivity toward the perceived objectivity of automated algorithms.

Algorithms hold a special station in the new technological temple because computers have become our favorite idols. – Ian Bogost, The Atlantic

This is becoming an increasingly critical issue as new research is demonstrating that many people’s experience of the Internet is becoming more and more defined by their use of social media platforms. For an growing number of people their entire Internet experience is occurring completely within Facebook.

This constitutes a new form of commercial capture. While the broadcast medium subjugates production of the public good of journalism to its ratings-driven commercial platform, Facebook is going much further by coding features that increasingly wall off its product (users) from the open Internet where it can’t effectively obtain profitable user data, and curating news content designed to generate more data from user engagement.

We may be exchanging the phantom specter of subjective political bias for an even more pervasive commercial bias of a social networking medium where algorithmic objectivity is predicated on the data collection potential in the dissemination of all news content.

Algorithms aren’t magic. They’re built by humans, they’re maintained and updated and overseen by humans, and they’re flawed like humans. Most importantly, they’re built to serve human ambitions, which are inherently subjective. – Will Oremus, Slate

For all the politicians and pundits that decry political bias and clamor for news objectivity, the form of objectivity promised by automation is entirely contingent on the subjective goals of the ones that code the software.

Flaws in data and algorithms can leave…us susceptible to an especially pernicious form of automation bias. – Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage

This begs the question: When it comes to news, is human ideology or automated greed a better master?

Getting a reaction: Facebook’s new bargain to sell your soul

FB Reaction ImageFacebook recently launched a new set of reaction buttons people can use to respond to posts from their friends and other items in their newsfeed. This diversification beyond the on-or-off, thumbs-up “like” signifier has been a long time in the making. And while it will likely be well received by users starved for more nuanced options (such as having to grapple with acknowledging sad news from a friend with thumbs up), their motivations are likely entirely to do with collecting better data, as Will Oremus in Slate recently deduced.

And while the algorithm-based shaping of my newsfeed in Facebook tends to frustrate me in its incessant data generation-collection and hidden fortification of my filter-bubble, its has also helped better reveal something about social media in particular that I’ve been contemplating recently: The particular bias of Facebook as a medium.

I focus on Facebook in this regard not because it is the end-all be-all of social media but more in the sense that it has become the most long-standing, widely used and institutionalized medium of the lot, so far. It is a brief history, spanning a short 12 years, that has seen Facebook transform from purely a social connection-driven network medium rooted in features of RSS and XML code to a data-gathering and profit-making platform that provides social connection in the bargain with the audience—much like television monetizes audience attention with ads. Facebook has assembled a new audience commodity that is less about passive audience attention and more about our active participation and data stream. One need not look any further than CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s rise to sixth place in the Forbes global wealth ranking ($47.9 Billion) to see the value this new method of audience commodification has generated.

InnisWhat has captured my attention has been exploring the emerging bias of the still nascent medium in the same vein as Harold Innis’ theories of the political economy of communication media in the mid 20th century. In Innis’ view, each communication medium carries a certain bias in terms of how it organizes and controls the information or content it carries, as well as how it allows for power structures in society to wield that medium to gain and maintain societal power (The Bias of Communication, 1951).

It’s helpful to consider the bias of broadcast television (the prior form of dominant media) in order to explore the emerging bias of social media.

For Neil Postman the bias of television was that it presented all of its content as entertainment. Before Postman, Dallas Smythe defined television’s entertainment programming as the compensation for paying attention (a product of free time and consciousness) to the accompanying advertising. Taken together, television can be said to have a commercial bias where the passive mass audience is cultivated and sold in time and quantity units—the commodification of human attention by media industries. The key metrics can only be measured en masse: Program ratings (Nielsen), audience demographics and subsequent consumer behavior.

Social media, and Facebook by extension, is different from television in two significant ways that are important in considering its emerging bias. First, the programming comprises content produced or shared peer-to-peer by the audience. Rather than only being a medium of content consumption, the personal computer-software-internet combination enables participatory media that generates commercial and non-commercial value outside the power or monetization of the traditional media industries.

“A few years ago, users of Internet services began to realize that when an online service is free, you’re not the customer. You’re the product.” – Tim Cook, Apple CEO in a Sept. 2015 open letter to customers on privacy.

Second, the audience generates a wide range of mass and individual data stemming from activity within social media networks, other Internet application use, participatory media, physical location and even offline activities (through mobile devices and the internet of things). Some of this data is collected in the background and some of it is freely volunteered by the participatory audience. Technology companies, rather than broadcast media, have cultivated and packaged this commodity for sale to advertisers.

Chart

To more clearly distinguish this using descriptive metaphors, television is a well—a source of content in a defined place and time that is drawn from and consumed by all. Social media is a river. Individuals wade into it, making use of the content that streams by while also producing ripples that shape the flow.

Returning to Innis’ framework, understanding this emerging bias helps reveal how these new media industries exert power over individuals through the new medium. Clearly the locus of societal power in this regard has shifted from broadcast networks to technology companies: Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, etc. Social media represents a new bargain between media industries and the audience: a renegotiation of the terms dictating what people get and what people give up. Facebook’s new reaction feature attempts to extract even more valuable data from a medium that commodifies the active audience’s mediated social relationships and content creation, something far more to their advantage than the prior generation’s cultivation of passive audience attention. The question now becomes, when is the price of admission too high?

Jon Stewart, Cable News and the Deadly Sins of News Media Gluttony

The first GOP debates of the 2016 election cycle aired about 12 hours ago (as of this writing) prompting much commentary, critique and Monday morning quarterbacking in the news and social media. Considering the FOX network’s moderating of the debate, and the recent retirement of Jon Stewart from his Daily Show comedy news program, I recall a shining moment of TV history that’s worth exploring.

some textIn 2004 the CNN show “Crossfire” invited Stewart on the program. If you recall, Crossfire was a program hosted by a conservative and liberal commentator that would interview opposing guests in a head to head debate format. I recently re-watched the Stewart clip and was once again transfixed by his arguments calling the news media to account for their sins. He was right then and he’s still right.

The problem left unaddressed by Stewart, however, is the systemic bias inherent in today’s news media. The underlying political economy of cable news (and all screen-based news today) since the dismantling of The Fairness Doctrine in 1987 has been driven by one factor: The Audience Commodity.

This sleepy media theory became a significant piece of my graduate school research and has been recast in the era of online media and big data. The premise is simple: Commercial media commodifies audience member attention (viewing) into units of value that are sold to advertisers. Concurrent with the end of The Fairness Doctrine was the increasing commercialization of cable television (away from merely subscriber-paid content). Broadcasters eventually discovered that partisan political commentary could drive more viewership than balanced news and commentary as stipulated under the old FCC regulatory fairness regime. More viewership meant more profits.

some textBack before the repeal of The Fairness Doctrine, the broadcasting industry lobbied heavily for years for its removal, seeing it as a burden to good journalism by being compelled to grant equal time for every opposing viewpoint. They even enlisted storied news anchor, Walter Cronkite to testify before congress:

It is only natural that station management should become timid, and newsmen should sidestep controversial subjects rather than face the annoyance of such criticism. – Walter Cronkite

While the news media industry had a strong journalistic argument in the 1960s and 70s, they failed to envision the effects of complete removal of the regulation coupled with a commercial basis for journalism. While news broadcasters are now truly free from the burden of special interests, they carry the heavier burden of shareholder profitability underneath the structures of large media conglomeration.

What Stewart missed in 2004 is this systemic and largely unseen bias of commercial media—a bias toward news programming that drives the most profits. It’s the same economics that drives the junk food and fast food industry in an age of epidemic obesity. People like it—love it, even if it’s slowly killing them. Partisan news commentary clearly drives ratings.

Journalism at it’s best, works squarely against this commodification to bring the audience the nutrients and vitamins that people need in their media diet. The trouble is, this drives no profits in the commercial media environment.

Stewart’s overall commentary is dead on with regard to the biasing effects of present system:

It’s not so much that it’s bad, as it’s hurting America. – Jon Stewart

We need journalism that makes us eat our vegetables. We need a reformed fairness doctrine that promotes a healthy media diet and produces a positive political discourse and citizenry, and we need a motivation for balanced journalism that either enhances profitability or operates apart from the overarching profit element. There’s no easy fix, but this is a troubling and persistent problem we need to tackle.

We face enormous challenges as a nation, but our current media conditioning is not unlike an overweight and sedentary couch potato trying to run a marathon. It won’t end well.

Church and the Overjustification Effect

My 2008 master’s project included a review of literature that delved extensively into criticisms of consumer-oriented church growth models. Most specifically this had to do with the film industry and its attempts to fuse movie marketing messages with church worship and teaching materials (a practice that still continues in various forms).

some textThe consumerist critique begs the question as to what aspects of consumer behavior are counterproductive to the goal of growing churches. While the potential avenues of inquiry to answer this question are many, I recently came across something from psychologist Barry Schwartz cited in Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here that prompted my thinking specific to intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and the “overjustification effect.”

[The] enthusiastic embrace of the view that self interest simply is what motivates human behavior has led us to create social structures that cater to self-interest. – Barry Schwartz

The seminal research by Lepper, Greene and Nisbett (1973) defined the overjustification effect as a phenomenon in which an individual’s more intrinsic interest in an activity decreases when they are induced to engage in the activity as a means to gain an extrinsic goal.

While research since Lepper et al. has scaled back the significance of earlier overjustification effect studies, a solid critique by Cameron, Banko and Pierce (2001) conceded that there was a negative effect on intrinsic motivation when the rewards were tangible, expected and only loosely associated with the performance level of the subject.

Christianity in its American form could be said to have always existed in tension between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Indeed, the extrinsic have been built into the narrative in the form of eternal punishment and eternal reward juxtaposed with more intrinsic qualities of a rightly ordered relationship with God and fellow humans facilitated by unmerited grace.

Yet, I would argue, local church adherence (in contrast with the Christian religion itself) has been less about other extrinsic rewards until the latter part of the 20th century. Since then, the development of more highly “produced” worship experiences—the coupling of productized music and teaching—has increasingly become the extrinsic motivation for church attendance (and ultimately financial support).

Human beings are unfinished Animals: what we can reasonably expect of people depends upon how our social institutions finish them. – Barry Schwartz

some textEntertainment—music, lighting effects, screen-based media, TED-style talks—comprise the prevailing extrinsic motivation on offer by many large evangelical churches today that have the means to deliver it. This occurs in a cultural context where entertainment is almost always formulated as a tangible commodity with either a direct economic value (tickets, subscriptions, retail) or indirect human attention value (television, Internet) (Smythe, 1977). This sets the stage (pardon the pun) for a situation where the perceived performance level required of the subject/consumer is mere attendance.

The risk, according to overjustification effect research, is that the receivers of these extrinsic rewards may have their more important intrinsic motivations dulled—even to the point of devaluing participation in deeper Christian formation and their faith community where intrinsic qualities must endure over time.

Certifiably Unreal

I find ads that insult the intelligence of their intended audience to be distasteful.

A new ad from the Certified Financial Planning Board of Standards features a formerly dreadlocked DJ pretending to be a financial planner. The CFP Board is a non-profit certifying and standards-setting organization that administers the CFP certification program and oversees more than 70,000 financial planning professionals in the U.S.

I’m a fan of the CFP designation. Having spent nearly 18 years on the corporate side of the financial planning industry, I think this message is an important one. Yet, the dancing-DJ-impersonating-a-planner premise strikes a sour note.

A television commercial is a re-presentation—a constructed message that never presents “reality.” In this case, it is very carefully constructed to fit in a 30 second timeslot and be maximally persuasive.

On the one hand, the CFP organization makes one think and raises a valid point about how anyone can claim to be a financial adviser. Their designation helps ensure a standard of quality and ethics in financial planning professionals that earn the right to be “certified.”

On the other hand, the fact that they refer to the adviser as really being a “DJ” is a half-truth. He’s also a professional actor with a pretty lengthy resume, according to the IMDB. To be sure, he can be both an actor and a DJ. And, he also could be a CFP-certified financial professional. Nothing about being a DJ and having dreadlocks precludes that.

some textIs it funny that everyday people were fooled by a well-groomed and scripted actor in a suit? Since he was doing an act, he also could have pretended to have a CFP designation, for that matter, as well as the SEC Series 7 designation required for brokers to sell securities. Give him the right script, and even experts would be fooled.

The concern is that while CFP Board has a laudable message to convey, this “reality” scenario was scripted and edited specifically to fool the subjects in the ad (I have my suspicions that they may have been actors as well, but there isn’t an IMDB for listing actors in television commercials). Nonetheless, just like any other “reality” TV show, what is presented is a carefully constructed message, far from reality.

Subsequently the message rings less true than it should. Rather than inspiring an honest epiphany in the consumer like the Pepsi Challenge did decades ago, this ad just makes the viewer feel dumb. I don’t think that’s funny.