This is a complex story. A story where the line between good and evil is blurred. A story where what may have originally been well-intended was warped and ended up having an impact far beyond what could have been originally thought possible.
This is the story of Web 2.0, and of social media and digitized news, which have recently come together into a mess of controversy and lack of foresight and are now tumbling down the hill of self-destruction — or worse, irreparable damage to society itself.
There is already ongoing discussion of how Web 3.0 will look, having everybody’s online presence associated with an all-permeating virtual identity on the blockchain, which would bring accountability to transactions and more importantly decentralize the content of the web, allowed users to be compensated for the content they generate (e.g. Steemit). That all sounds promising…
What’s missing, is the fact that the conventional methods through which we access and navigate content on the web — that is, news and information published by media companies, rather than individual users on social platforms — are fundamentally broken.
Before we move on to Web 3.0, we need to fix what we already have.
There is a very clear reason why the methods of navigating the web for the purpose of being informed are broken — it’s the one thing they all have in common, and it’s the reason they have not “fixed themselves” to date. That is, the financial priorities of those platforms involved.
The biggest names in tech have built their brands on a simple product — Google with Pagerank, and Facebook with a social graph for connecting users. But what made them into the behemoths they are today should not be taken for granted as an inherent quality of their respective products. These platforms, by capitalizing early on the newly opened opportunities of making sense of the sprawling and messy informational landscape of the web, were able to gain large numbers of users at an exponential rate. But users themselves do not sustain a business (which — as it’s easy to forget — is exactly what those platforms are). In order to sustain their business, they needed to monetize, and the easiest way to do so was through ads.
By leveraging users’ activity data to serve them ads that they are more likely to click on, these Web 2.0 pioneers managed to grow their revenues and started expanding their operations, tightening their grasp on the flow of information in our society as a whole.
Facebook did this well; so well, in fact, that it kept growing and expanding until it became top-heavy with features which are now becoming difficult to maintain — not from a financial perspective nor a user adoption perspective, but from a quality perspective and an accountability perspective. Since then, other social platforms have adopted similar ad-based revenue models, and have, as a result been subject to the same repercussions regarding quality and accountability.
Such was the first step towards the disintegration of online information ecosystem.
After newspapers started going out of fashion in the early 2000s, news publishers had to find ways to adapt in order to sustain their operations. They found that people were less willing to pay for subscriptions to digital content, and so had to adjust their revenue model. That meant that they had to go the route of most other websites and rely on advertisements to sustain a positive cash flow. The problem is that ads on the web are much cheaper than ads in a physical newspaper. That, combined with few (or no) paid subscribers, meant that publications had to find a new way to drive new readers to their content.
“Audiences drove the change, preferring to refresh their social feeds and apps instead of visiting website home pages. As social networks grew, visits to websites in some ways became unnecessary detours, leading to the weakened traffic numbers for news sites. Sales staffs at media companies struggled to explain to clients why they should buy ads for a fragmented audience rather than go to robust social networks instead.” — John Herrman
That’s when they started to realize that in order to sustain business, they needed to start promoting their own content with ads, just so they could drive readership to their website (i.e. they had to pay for ads to drive higher click-rate on the ads which they are being paid from). As such, they needed to publish content that is most likely to receive clicks (just as an ad is supposed to do). The problem here is, the purpose of news was always to inform, not merely to drive clicks. This is where the conflict between financial motivations and quality of content starts to arise. When content is published for the sake of clicks and not to inform, clickbait becomes more and more abundant, reporting becomes more and more sensationalized, and eventually the perceptions of society become skewed.
And where best to publish ads than those platforms on which they thrive — social media platforms.
The situation we have described until now has, on the one side, a social media industry evolving into the largest marketing solution in history, and on the other side, a struggling media industry as a result of the shift to the digital format. When combined, we have an ecosystem of information which rewards quantity of engagement over quality of content. To make matters worse, the very mechanics of modern social media are meant to exploit the news content for its own benefit, by altering the order in which it appears in users’ feeds (see Facebook’s opaque newsfeed algorithm) to maximize user interaction (learning about the user to improve targeted advertising), thereby further skewing the intake of information on the part of users and further driving the need for more and more divisive, sensationalized content on the part of publishers.
Note that all of this is notwithstanding issues of data privacy and political interference, all of which are external threats made possible by the current structure of the social media industry (a sub-issue, if you will).
If this is not a dire situation, I don’t know what is.
Up to now, there still hasn’t been a feasible alternative implemented to sustain the news industry in a way that will not result in the diminution of the integrity of published information. By simply separating the mechanism of making money from the motivation for writing and reporting, the issue can be solved. But the undertaking of such a task, or the willingness thereof, is apparently easier said than done.
There are some efforts underway toward solving this problem via different approaches, one of which is an initiative started by group of researchers and engineers, including myself, called The Inflo Project. The goal is to at once revise the way in which we navigate information in a social platform while also restructuring the monetization system to remunerate publishers in a way that does not force them to compromise the quality of their content (i.e. no ads).