According to Marshall McLuhan, cool media are low in definition demanding high participation and an ability to perceive abstract patterning and simultaneous comprehension of all parts. In that vein, Wold Blog catalogues a low definition discourse linking media, technology and faith in a high definition culture.
In a long overdue interview, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized for the data misuse of more than 50 million user profiles. He also conceded, surprisingly, that some kind of regulation of Facebook may be necessary. There’s a lot of activity on the regulatory front after the revelations of the past few days. Legislators are investigating and pundits are floating remedies for our social media data privacy woes. In some ways, the crisis of new media harkens back to the first crisis of electronic media more than 100 years ago.
In the earliest days of radio, the hot, new medium was attracting enormous interest with eager new broadcasters jumping in as fast as they could build towers and plug in microphones. It soon became apparent that regulations would be necessary to avoid signal interference between broadcasters and create a fair marketplace. Up to that point, whoever had the biggest tower and most power would drown out all others. Chaos on the airwaves ensued. Radio had run headlong into the scientific reality of a finite electromagnetic spectrum.
The Radio Act of 1912, followed by the Radio Act of 1927, instituted a federal licensure regime over broadcast that holds to this day for the radio and television industries. The legal theory is summed up well by this portion of the Museum of Broadcast Communications web site: “The airwaves … because of their limited availability on the broadcast spectrum, are considered a finite public resource that is ‘owned’ and regulated by the Federal government on behalf of the American people.”
This finite resource is regulated based on how it is legally defined. Print media, on the other hand, does not require licensure to engage in, as ink and paper are legally viewed as infinite resources (reestablished in the modern era in Near v. Minnesota, 1931). The first amendment reigns supreme over print, which is why one should remember to never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.
Radio also rapidly transformed into a commercial medium—from an original business model of selling technology (RCA radio sets), to selling air-time and sponsorship to advertisers to access the listening audience. Programming adapted from attracting consumers to assembling a reliable mass audience to commodify. The model was in place when television came along, and held in place until the advent of directly consumable programming through VHS, DVD and the Internet streaming of today. Even so, broadcast still has a place in our media ecosystem, and this doctrine of the electromagnetic spectrum as public asset is embedded in the core mandate of the FCC and has been repeatedly upheld by the courts.
This old media precedent should inform our current new media predicament. Any regulation of Facebook needs to cut to the bone of contention: The ownership and control of user data. How we legally define this quantity must determine the nature of how we regulate any technology platform that seeks to harness it to a business model. Much like broadcast spectrum, user data is a finite value. While it grows over time with population and user base, it is not infinite. A human being will only ever produce X amount of finite data about themselves in a lifetime. User data is also not adequately defined as free speech. While the expressions of messages are speech, choice-driven data is a combination of factors—some would be defined as free speech (such as a Facebook “like” or Instagram post), and some of it is something else entirely (clicking on a link or taking a quiz is more like using the turn signal on a car than anything close to free expression). More importantly, is the collecting of those social data points into a database and platform that generates profit, free speech? Facebook would like people to believe that by virtue of their user agreement, they co-own this information but the history of mass media regulation indicates this does not have to be so. Several entrepreneurs that invested money in powerful radio transmitters prior to 1912 were not happy when the radio act shifted their access to the spectrum to a licensing platform. Radio monopolies were effectively annulled (at least, at the time).
This is the proposal: Make social media user data a licensable commodity that is considered the property of the people that originated it in the first place.
Regulate social media around the core engine of their business plans—access to the user data commodity, just as radio is regulated through access to the mass audience commodity of broadcast. It’s a deceptively simple idea, and likely will be incredibly challenging to realize. But it’s the right starting point.
I wholly agree with Mark Zuckerberg’s statement during his CNN interview: “I think the question is more what is the right regulation rather than ‘yes or no should we be regulated?’” This is encouraging to hear from him but I’m not sure he would like this proposal. It’s going to cost money—not a good look for shareholders. But considering the stock market slide they’ve been on in the past week, Facebook shareholders need to adopt long-term thinking.
If we are to effectively regulate social media (and Facebook), we must get the this right from the start. I submit that a licensing model and a legal definition of user data as a public asset is foundational to any workable regulatory system for social media.
In the early media tumult of the Trump administration, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni gave a lecture entitled “Media in the Age of Misinformation” for the March 21 Westminster Town Hall Forum in Minneapolis (a regular series sponsored by Westminster Presbyterian Church and aired by Minnesota Public Radio).
Bruni spoke emphatically as a journalist about the sad state of political discourse and the hyper polarized and increasingly dis-informed news audience. Echoing what many others have said on the topic, Bruni expressed dismay over the concurrent crises in journalism and democracy in America, pointing out the technological forces that gave them rise:
[Fake news and alternative facts] only matter and only have currency because our changed media landscape is the soil in which they grow. Fake news wouldn’t be able to lay down roots and alternative facts wouldn’t flower if there weren’t all these tiny, ideologically peculiar patches of land that Americans have created for themselves and fenced off from countervailing influences.
Bruni decidedly pointed a finger at human consumer behavior and the kind of information technology marketplace it has created: “Instead of taking advantage of the limitless variety these advances can make available, we use them to collapse our worlds into a single manner of feeling, a single mode of being, and often a single method of thinking. What is happening with culture is happening with the news. You pick what suits your taste, and in this case that means what validates and echoes and amplifies your existing beliefs and established biases.”
This is the bias of the medium. Your digital profile in social media is designed to deliver the most easily targetable market of one. There’s no desire for nuance, ambiguity, or dialectical tension. There’s very little use for the qualitative and subjective nature of a human being. You are a record in a database, and you keep updating your file with quantitative data with every like, emoji, share, click, comment, post, etc. “On Facebook, what they like and share today, shapes what they see tomorrow, which means more of the same.”
Bruni rightly identified the dangers of a media landscape (social media foremost) that is designed to give you more and more of what it thinks you want. But if that was the problem by itself, I’m confident we could in consumer-like fashion take steps to improve the situation by patronizing competitors that address this problem (ultimately this was Bruni’s call to action). But now the underlying commercial economy of social media, the very essence of what is tapped into to produce value, works against this.
“…where you’ll most quickly lose the ability to relate to or see the possible validity of someone else’s perspective, because that perspective is thriving in its own, separate cocoon. There’s no overlap between yours and theirs.” He concluded, “…democracy depends on this overlap.”
The Socio-Commercial Media Platform as a Controlling Matrix
The scene from 1999’s The Matrix that is the most memorable to me is when Neo takes the red pill, is expelled from his power producing pod covered in gelatinous goop, and rescued by the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar cruising the bleak “desert of the real.”
Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world? – Morpheus in The Matrix
The matrix is a computer-generated dream world built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into [a power source]. – Morpheus in The Matrix
One of the plot holes that was never fully satisfied was the description of the matrix as a shared collective reality constructed by the machines. Nothing is real in the matrix except the consciousness of other humans experiencing it. More to the point, the matrix is a singular virtual reality (referred to as “a harmony of mathematical precision”) that is designed to control and keep the human race blissfully unaware that their real function is to generate electricity for the machines after a war that made solar energy impossible.
Choice. The problem is choice. – Neo in The Matrix Reloaded
…nearly 99% of all test subjects accepted the [matrix] program, as long as they were given a choice…even if they were only aware of the choice at a near unconscious level. While this answer functioned, it was obviously fundamentally flawed…. – The Architect in The Matrix Reloaded
Of course, the problems with the integrity of this matrix become the heart of the story, begging obvious questions: Why bother allowing humans to have any conscious contact with one another? Why not firewall their minds in their own personalized mental matrix?
That would solve the central problem that fuels the conflict narrative in the film. It’s also essentially what social media platforms are doing to cultivate and harness the value of its users—cocooning them into their realities of their own making, and why resolving the political maladies we’re now confronting will require challenging the commercial economy that now underpins social media—namely Facebook.
Man on a Mission
Bruni noted in his talk that even the New York Times is tinkering with how it delivers its news in deference to this habit of filtering the world and picking and choosing information sources. He quoted a March 18, 2017 column by New York Times public editor, Liz Spayd, stressing the importance of maintaining a shared experience of the news in the midst of tailoring content for the reader: “Scholars of mass media long ago established the theory that part of a society’s bond comes from the shared experience of consuming the same news. We shape our worldview, our opinions — however different they are from one another — after reading about and watching many of the same things. We gain a sense of community, however false or fleeting.”
The sense of community has become of utmost importance to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who announced with great fanfare in a June interview that the company’s responsibility has “expanded,” Yet, what Mark Zuckerberg is now making the mission of the Facebook— to “Bring the world closer together” by building community—is simply not present in the source code of Facebook. It’s quite the opposite, in fact, now that the profit engine of the platform is the collection and sale of user profile data. It’s original mission to “make the world more open and connected” was the diplomatic and high-minded way to describe the platform as it was, and still is, designed.
Overall Bruni piercingly outlined the effects of how we are now mediating the news (and our democracy for that matter) but didn’t expose (or see) the underlying driver beneath the human behaviors: namely the commercialization of social software platforms and the mediation of news media across those platforms. This is made clear when he ends his talk by emphasizing the thought he’s put into what the news media needs to do to confront this environment, and placing the real hope for change in the hands of his audience, which he calls “consumers of news.” Essentially washing his hands of responsibility, he says that he can’t tell people what to consume or where to get it but he can warn them about the outcomes of fueling this increasing tribalism. He firmly believes the news media, driven by profit-motivations will respond to give consumers a better diet of news when the audience starts to seek healthy alternatives. Yet, that’s two dimensions of a three-dimensional problem. The consumer and the news media economy are now interacting within a platform with its own economic dynamic—one that has essentially swallowed the old media economy whole. Journalist and consumer alike find themselves within the belly of the new beast.
Facebook most recently celebrated their two-billion user milestone, corresponding with their new mission, by creating customized videos incorporating photos and user like/reaction data that users could “share” with their friends. It’s fascinating to break down the messages in this video:
“It all adds up.”
“Whether sharing a moment, being part of something, or giving some love.”
“Loves you’ve given: ###”
Right up front you get the core of Facebook’s user-side value creation: Proactive data contribution (sharing content), sociability (online group/event involvement) and the reactive data of processing and adjudicating other users’ content in the newsfeed (using reaction features, such as likes, loves, etc.). It even quantifies the number to make the user feel good.
“The little things become not so little.”
“Today you’re a part of 2 billion people on Facebook.”
“But it’s not really about the number.”
“It’s about what all of us can do together.”
While second part of the video seems to discount the importance of the first, the push toward online community doesn’t fundamentally change anything. None of those objectifying features have been eliminated or changed. Instead, new any community-building features will simply be additive (driving new categories of profitable data). Clearly Zuckerberg is convinced Facebook can create an online experience that can both drive meaningful community building and create even more dynamic data profiles for greater profit.
But online community does not equate with real community (even in VR), just like Facebook friends do not equate with real friends (nor online church with real church for that matter).
“Thanks for being here.”
“From all of us at Facebook.”
At several points over the hours and days that followed the custom video being created, Facebook prompted me to share it with my friends. Cleary that was the preferred behavior—exercise my agency thereby adding another entry in the database.
What’s in It for Facebook?
As it is defined as “social media,” it’s prudent to ask how our sociability is mediated, and to what end. Answering these questions will bring a better understand of why Facebook can never truly deliver on the promise to build a meaningful “global community that works for everyone.”
Let’s begin by noticing the obvious fact that nobody pays a fee to use social media. People are essentially granted free software and network storage to store and share words, images, videos and facilitate their network of human connections while increasingly consuming news and information within a single platform (as opposed to visiting a number of separate web sites). Nobody pays and no one needs to because, as Apple CEO Tim Cook pointed out in 2014 of free Internet service models like Google and Facebook, the user is the product.
At the heart of Facebook’s value generation is a database with an insatiable appetite for more data. The software, first designed simply to connect and open people up for online sociability (see Facebook’s first mission statement) has largely evolved to serve that appetite in the enormously successful effort to monetize the platform. Features are always developed to promote quantifiable user behaviors—the juicy stuff of consumer judgement that can drive more granular data profiles. The filtering and isolating bias of the platform emerges not from the client side (the users) but from the server side (the code and the database of users). Lest one forgets, the first iteration of Zuckerberg’s social software—Facemash—was simply a Harvard version of “Am I Hot or Not” that invited people to compare photos of students and competitively rate them.
Derek Schuurman, computer science professor at Redeemer University College in Ontario, notes that all technological artifacts have embedded values that can push human beings in less obvious directions. In his 2013 book, Shaping a Digital World, he quotes George Grant’s Technology and Justice from 1986 on the specific way computer technology does this:
It is clear that the ways computers can be used for storing and transmitting information can only be the ways that increase the tempo of the homogenizing process. Abstracting facts so they can be stored as information is achieved by classification, and it is the very nature of classifying to homogenize. Where classification rules, identities and differences can appear only in its terms.
Facebook comprises computer software, a database and networking technology as the means of social mediation. At the same time, its database primarily functions as a means to commodify human data, generating economic value by selling this data to interested clients (business, political entities, etc.). As a public company, this is its singular profit-orientation.
Today there two billion users of a computer platform that converts human subjectivity into a quantifiably objective and saleable product. The side effects, as noted by Frank Bruni, and which I contend are the strange fruits of this process, are the increasingly insular, polarized and tribal users, and an increasingly ineffectual democracy in America.
Schuurman notes that computers, and by extension databases, must convert user input into a form that can be catalogued, classified and stored: “That very process limits the range of possibilities for information that is stored…. Storing data in a computer requires quantification, and one issue with quantification is that it reduces things to ‘what can be counted, measured and weighed,’” (Charles Adams, as quoted in Schuurman).
The primary feature set of Facebook compels the classification and homogenizing of human relational communication. First, we establish a network of friends by “friending” others, or not doing so. We “follow” the activities of others, or can “unfollow.” While our newsfeeds are now curated by algorithms that simultaneously quantify and serve us paid messages, we can “like” or react in one of five preset ways (producing stunningly usable data for Facebook’s database clientele). Every click is a choice, and the choice making feeds the quantification process. Whether we proactively post our own content, or reactively make comment or “share” the content of others, every action is a human judgment producing more data.
The Profits of Hacking Pride & Envy
The human propensity to compare and judge others objectively over and above encountering others subjectively has deep existential and spiritual roots. In Repenting of Religion, Greg Boyd writes, “The one doing the judging is separating himself or herself from and placing himself or herself above the one being judged.” Perhaps for some, Facebook’s addictive nature lies in how it provides a platform, “to experience worth for oneself by detracting it from others.”
Boyd’s text draws heavily on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote in Ethics, “Judgment passed on another man always presupposes disunion with him.” In Cost of Discipleship Bonhoeffer takes this idea a step further: “When we judge other people, we confront them in a spirit of detachment, observing and reflecting as it were from the outside.” Think: Facemash.
This mode of human behavior does indeed drive the maladies that Bruni and so many others in the news business now decry. For example, Harvard law professor, researcher and author Cass Sunstein’s latest research shows that when people discuss contentious issues with like-minded people, their views become more homogeneous and amplified.
David Simas, assistant to President Obama in charge of 2016 campaign outreach, speaking to Divid Remnick for a November 28 article in the New Yorker (and cited by Bruni in his talk) pinned the sad state of political journalism and discourse in general on the rise of the Internet and the decline of institutions invested in binding people together rather than splintering them into interest groups, confirming Sunstein’s findings:
Until recently, religious institutions, academia, and media set out the parameters of acceptable discourse, and it ranged from the unthinkable to the radical to the acceptable to policy.
The continuum has changed [and through] social media, you can find people who agree with you, who validate these thoughts and opinions. This creates a whole new permission structure, a sense of social affirmation for what was once thought unthinkable.
This points to how socio-commercial media, without any specific political or cultural bias, shapes and directs user attitudes and behaviors.
“At Facebook’s scale, behavioral targeting doesn’t just reflect our behavior, it actually influences it,” writes columnist and software engineer Jon Evans for Techcrunch. “Over time, a service which was supposed to connect humanity is actually partitioning us into fractal disconnected bubbles.”
Everything about Facebook as a medium (and this is where we get to the heart of its embedded value system) reinforces, cultivates and corresponds to the pejorative tendency in human behavior in order to generate more data and profit. Through the lens of social database software, what we judge is either someone other than ourselves, or the content they mediate using the platform. It’s this very activity that generates value to Facebook and its shareholders.
For Zuckerberg, this is where mission must defer to a business plan that works against the kind of positive community he envisions. Evans continues: “This eventually constructs a small ‘in-group’ cluster of Facebook friends and topics that dominate your feed; and as you grow accustomed to interacting with them, this causes your behavior to change, and you interact with them even more, reinforcing their in-group status … and (relatively) isolating you from the rest of your friends, the out-group.”
Blissful Ignorance Proves Too Costly
At a pivotal moment in The Matrix, the character Cypher cuts a deal with agent Smith, playing Judas by offering up his captain Morpheus in exchange for re-entry into the matrix, his real existence too bleak and desperate to endure any longer.
Cypher: “You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.”
Agent Smith: “Then we have a deal?”
Cypher: “I don’t want to remember nothing. NOTHING. You understand? And I wanna be rich. You know, someone important. Like an actor.”
Unlike Cypher, Facebook users at present are in no position to get a better deal for the colonization of their relational lives, “engagement” on the platform and the commensurate societal side effects.
Clearly the “free” price of socio-commercial media is proving to be too costly for a vibrant democracy and most conducive to the plutocracy that has slowly replaced it.
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 now 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 recently 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. We’re talking about those that pay to access the data and advertising platform–Facebook’s real customers.
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 was 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 and social graphs 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.
…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 (making money hand over fist) 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.
Sen. 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
Paradoxically 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 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?
Facebook 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.
What 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.
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?
I use a TV clip in my Media and Popular Culture class from The Office. It’s a scene in a car with Michael and Dwight on an ill-fated business trip. They’re struggling to interpret the voice from Michael’s GPS navigation system giving them turn-by-turn directions. The result is hilarious:
I use the clip to make a general point that someone’s map of reality is not the actual territory. However, the scene more directly illustrates Marshall McLuhan’s fourth law of media: “Reversal.”
Three of the four laws of media (summarized here) are fairly easy to understand and observe. A new medium or technology “extends” some human sense or ability, while it “obsolesces” or pushes aside the old condition, and “retrieves” or recalls some old way of doing something within the new. Voice navigation GPS, for example, extends the visual sense of map reading to the auditory realm (we hear it). While it quite obviously obsolesces physical maps, one could also say it retrieves the idea of a flight navigator (WW2 bomber personnel included a navigator to read the maps and verbally guide the pilot to their target).
The concept of “reversal” has always been the most interesting to me among McLuhan’s tetrad, revealing what are often the unanticipated, negative effects of a medium.
“When pushed to the limits of its potential, the new form will tend to reverse what had been its original characteristics. What is the reversal potential of the new form?” – Marshall and Eric McLuhan, 1988.
The clip from The Office begins to give us some indication of what occurs when there is an overreliance on a single medium of information. Michael clearly ignores placing what he’s hearing in the spatial context around him. He discounts his own sense of sight and drives his car into the lake, over the loud protestations of Dwight who is desperately trying to interpret the GPS voice commands in combination with his visual sense of their surroundings.
What is fascinating is how far these reversal effects may reach with regard to human thought.
In The Glass Cage technology writer Nicholas Carr takes a close look at research into the reversal effects of GPS navigation technology. Carr cites 2013 research from György Buzaki and Edvárd Moser published in Nature Neuroscience that shows evidence for how the same neuronal mechanisms that help us comprehend spatial relationships may also be involved with how our brains process and make “associations among objects, events and other types of factual information.” The researchers speculate that this could constitute the core element in how people form memories.
Carr goes on to cite other research that indicates the deleterious effects of our reliance on GPS navigation are not dissimilar to what occurs with those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, where brain deterioration is observable when victims literally forget where they are. Véronique Bohbot, memory researcher from McGill University, argues that people must use it or lose it in terms of their brain’s navigational abilities. “Should the hippocampus begin to atrophy from lack of use in navigation, the result could be a general loss of memory and a growing risk of dementia,” according to Carr’s summation of Bohbot.
“The labors our obliging digital deities would have us see as mere drudgery may turn out to be vital for our fitness, happiness, and well-being.” – Nicholas Carr
With memory formation, and hence learning, clearly at stake, it’s not too much of a leap to see how this impacts another technological extension: the e-reader.
A 2013 article in Scientific American brings forth strong evidence that the act of reading taps into these all-important spatial circuits in the brain:
“Beyond treating individual letters as physical objects, the human brain may also perceive a text in its entirety as a kind of physical landscape. When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in which meaning is anchored to structure.” – Ferris Jabr
Much like the reversal inherent in GPS voice navigation, reading from an e-reader makes it more difficult to harness and develop these elements of the brain.
“Most screens, e-readers, smartphones and tablets interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds.” – Ferris Jabr
Research is suggesting that e-reader technology needs to develop further along the lines of cognitive mapping, lest we throw out the new technology altogether. As one of my colleagues mentioned recently, there is no substitute for being able to tap into thousands of book titles when you’re traveling—especially on extended journeys.
Far from dropping of a cliff, consumer research indicates hard copy books sales are resurgent—so much so that Amazon is dabbling in operating physical book stores. Like the resurgence in music recorded on vinyl records attributed to sound quality and the listening experience, people are responding to the physicality of the printed medium in ways not anticipated, leading to important ramifications for publishers, retailers, technology companies, and most importantly, readers.
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.
In 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.
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.
Back 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.