Scratched in the Wall of a Cell in the Prison of Ideas

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If you want to know the future of online media, imagine a boot stomping a human face…forever.

Valleywag does some excellent commentary on the big cash influx into web content distributor Buzzfeed.

I’m just going to pull some key quotes which ought to concern you:

Already, most of BuzzFeed’s revenue is derived from BuzzFeed Creative, the company’s 75-person unit dedicated to creating for brands custom video and list-style advertising content that looks similar to its own editorial content.

It is not a content company—it is an attention company.

Social media accounts for 75 percent of BuzzFeed’s referral traffic, according to the company.

Here is what really gets me though – the seething contempt moguls like Marc Andreessen have for a media that actually does its job and acts as an amplifier of truth about power structures that permit the people impacted by those power structures to better understand them and make more informed choices about them.

This is the future kids. We all helped make it happen when we decided to let social media decide what was important to us. We ceded our better judgment to an algorithm created by a 19 year old who has the best interests of his company at heart as he codes away our intuition. Look what we get now – we get “listicles”, pop-science, pop-philosophy from twats like Malcolm Gladwell, and all the flavours of political news we need to confirm our biases. The Facebook “prison of ideas” is becoming very real and the bad news is that it’s a Panopticon – we can’t see what the jailers are doing in there but they can see everything we are doing and sharing and liking and what we are surfing for when we aren’t on Facebook. They incorporate all of this into their mathematical model of who I am as a consumer but we all know they tweak it. I mean who the fuck is really giving “likes” to brands of shaving cream? How come all this shaving cream shit is all over my feed? Because you can PAY to get into that feed, you can buy your way into being that “glitch” in the algorithm. Gaming how Facebook handles posts is a huge part of the strategy at these media outlets.

Valleywag columnist Sam Biddle once wrote – “We know more about how fucking PRISM works than Facebook’s news algorithms…”

Consider this – pre-2012 at Fangoria.com I could count on a blog posting I made to get five to seven thousand hits. Some did better than others (15,000 was the highest I recall) but that was probably my average. Then there was a period where I was busy with my day job and wasn’t paying much attention to the numbers anymore. The next time I poked around there had been a dramatic decline across the board. Almost no posts were breaking 500 to 1000 hits. Most floundered in the hundreds. I scratched my head for a long time wondering what had happened and it was only recently that I realized that 2012 is when Facebook moved to start charging pages to reach their followers, you had to pay to get on the feeds of people who had “liked” your page for the first time. The drop in traffic almost certainly represented the decline in Facebook presence.

That’s how important social media reach has become to media companies looking to attract eyes to their content. There is a bubble being created where things that don’t push the right buttons on the social media algorithm and don’t get paid to play start to become invisible. This is no commentary on their relevance – much of this content is highly relevant and well crafted – but rather how their relevance is gauged by a machine and found to be wanting before real human beings get a chance to interact with it. This should concern you, that our worlds are getting smaller and smaller and more filled with novelty chosen for us by marketing companies that claim their math knows my wants. Dissenting views, critical commentary, tough questions, these are some of the things we begin to lose when we start to close down the hatches and let social media choose our destiny.

Let me put this another way – nothing great was ever written with keyword density in mind. I’ve been out there trying to freelance stuff online and shit like “SEO” and “keyword density” is all the rage. What does this mean? This means you choose search keywords to pepper your article with, 4% density being a good target last time I checked. So 4% of your article is handed over to the machine so that you are feeding it the right search terms, so you can lure those hits. The quality of the article? Not nearly as important as using the magic words which put eyes on screens. That’s the lesson the people paying for these articles learn really quickly and so they want SEO text and they want it fast and super-cheap. This, of course, creates a feedback loop which rewards the kind of people who can play the keyword game and is utterly neutral to the quality of the work produced. Good writer but can’t (or won’t) do SEO? No work for you. Then people wonder why so much of what they read online is garbage.

When people talk about the dumbing down of online outlets this is basically what is happening. It’s a race to the click-finger of the lowest common denominator and social media makes it worse by manipulating your feed algorithmically. It wants to give you more of what you like and more and more of what it thinks you like based on criteria you can’t even examine much less participate in creating. There is a certain distortion of reality that occurs in this space – everything can quickly become self-reinforcing. You’ll get the perspectives that tell you what you like to hear all day long.

I get there are advantages to this – we all, as human beings in the media age, have to filter content somehow. We can’t drink from the firehose and hope to quench a thirst. Giving people tools to filter their content by their own criteria makes better sense to me though than relying on the good intentions of an inscrutable billionaire. Democratizing this should be the priority of a social media that truly seeks to “socialize” the media. The reality is, control of that filter is where one of the greatest battles over the future of online media is taking place. Judging by this news about Buzzfeed, the battle may have already been decided.

 


Comments

Scratched in the Wall of a Cell in the Prison of Ideas — 2 Comments

  1. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
    IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

    Too many social media users are under the illusion that oppression is self-expression. How many people do genuine RESEARCH anymore when they want to learn new things? We’ve reached such a sorry state that the act of GOOGLING is considered proactive, relative to swallowing prefab newsfeeds.

    “Sharing” Facebook posts & tweets is essentially snowballing. Wipe the cybercum off your breath, people. Buy pens & notepads. Go to the library and do some real fucking research. EXPERIENCE the moments of your life rather than tweeting them or retweeting others’.

    And speak in English or some other native tongue. Not that Twitter Newspeak.

  2. A Buzzfeed article is currently fueling one of the most wrongheaded petitions I’ve ever witnessed.

    “Make Octavia Butler the WFA Statue Instead of Lovecraft” because he was “an avowed racist and a terrible wordsmith,” and “It’s time to stop co-signing his bigotry and move sci-fi/fantasy out of the past.” [https://www.change.org/p/the-world-fantasy-award-make-octavia-butler-the-wfa-statue-instead-of-lovecraft]

    A guy that’s too lazy to look up the definition of “cyclopean” has whipped up over 1200 people to sign this thing.

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