I remember like it was yesterday: this new ad service from Google, called AdSense, just announced a weird feature: bidding on keywords. It was probably mid 2000s, and the blogging ecosystem just started to explode. People were finding out they can “make money online”, a sequence of words just as weird, if not weirder, than “bidding on keywords”.
This was the beginning of a trend which culminated at the end of the last decade, and which now completely replaced what we used to call “information”, or “news”.
Optimization of content not for truth, but for the highest bidder, changed fundamentally the way we communicate. I still remember a few friends who made tons of money from MFAs. Oh, you don’t know what a MFA is? Well, dear Watson, it’s simple: it’s a site Made For AdSense. These were websites so “optimized” that a human could hardly find them usable. Most of them were just tons of high-paid keywords stuffed randomly in hundreds or thousands of hyper-linked pages. That was all. And, in the beginning, the algorithm was dumb enough to fall for them, and it fell for them for months.
But algorithms learn. AdSense became smarter and smarter. Soon, MFAs fell just as fast as they rose. The bidding became more “real”. If you would write on your blog constantly, and if you would “optimize” your content for the highest-paid keyword, you could’ve made a small fortune. Many did.
And, just when the blogging market got crowded, social media exploded. This was the cherry on top of an already killing sweet cake. Pairing ad bidding with user generated content skewed the picture completely. Now all that was left to compete for was the reader’s attention. You wouldn’t have to optimize for anything, that was the social media company job, as they were reselling your content to advertisers. And they did this silently, for years, almost concealing it (or at least not bragging about it) and they learned tremendously. They optimized their algorithms to unthinkable levels. Not only they can evaluate instantly how much a picture you post will generate, but they can even predict how much your content will be worth of. Because now they have something that blogs and AdSense didn’t have: demographics. Age, job, gender, friends, music you like, music you don’t like, movies, sports, anything, you gave for free and fed algorithms which had – and still have – a single job: maximizing profit for the social media company.
As social media grew in influence, “traditional media” was in distress. News outlets with big teams of experienced journalists were struggling. There was no more readership, because, well, the bulk of the attention was hijacked. People were finding more entertaining to spend time with each other and liking cats pictures, than to inform themselves. So “traditional media” caved in. They adopted clickbait. Those who didn’t, died.
And now, almost every piece of information that you see online is somehow engineered to harvest attention. It’s not crafted. It’s not the result of an individual trying to establish some form of truth. It’s engineered. It’s the result of a specific algorithm. It’s part of a long, fuzzy process which has only one goal: maximizing profit for the content producer.
The “truth” goal is secondary. And that’s how clickbait killed the news.
And How Can Clickbait Kill Us, You Asked?
Well, look around. What do you see? People afraid of each other. People afraid to die and ready to do whatever they’re told – in a carefully engineered way – it will save them. People giving in to emotional triggers (either to “save everybody”, like this was an actual possibility, or to reject reality and give in to conspiracy theories). People polarized in a continuous fight, fueling more and more content, engineered better and better to elicit emotional, irrational responses, in a vicious, never-ending circle leaving us all empty, vulnerable and sick. Mentally sick.
The algorithms won this round.
I know, there is this thing called “ego”, which is still resisting the idea. No, I’m not manipulated, I’m not influenced, I’m controlling my emotions, I know what I’m doing online. Well, do you? Or are you reinforcing some mental construct which gives you identity, predictability and safety? Aren’t you feeding the very same “ego” by taking sides, supporting campaigns (in one direction or the other, irrelevant) scolding people who think differently, accusing those who’re not wearing a mask that are killing their peers, or those who are taking vaccines mindlessly that they’re guinea pigs for some dubious genic therapy?
There is no middle ground anymore and your sensation of safety is at the mercy of the algorithms. You’re just as strong as the next post which will push you to comment, to like, to dislike or share, or post something in response.
Optimizing For Profit, Versus Tokenizing For Tribes
I wrote above that “almost every piece of information that you see online is somehow engineered to harvest attention”. Why “almost” and not “all”? Because, in life, we work with approximations and because, like it or not, everything changes. Yes, the overwhelming part of content production is now dominated by algorithms.
But there are exceptions. Or, to be more precise, there are some reactions to this. There are social media projects, or communities, which are decentralized, and that means, in short, that all participants are getting a piece of the cake. There isn’t an external actor which pays for attention, and for whom you’ll have to engineer the content to harvest the maximum profit. Or, at least, if this actor exists, his role is not that prominent.
Because the underlying value of this type of network is given by the “token” in which content producers are rewarded. There are already a few examples of this new, decentralized, social media community – Hive is the most popular so far (also my personal favorite).
The “clickbait” problem is solved in a few ways here.
First, the community has its own “money”. It doesn’t depend on outside injections of value.
Second, the reward potential is spread across all members of the network – you’re both a content producer, when you write, and an “advertiser”, when you vote, or allocate rewards. Here, a “like” doesn’t have just some emotional value, it also carries some tokens too.
And third, all members are incentivized to generate a different type of content, one that will appeal to a majority of the members of the tribe, and that majority changes all the time.
It’s a weird model, I know, but it’s real, it’s already happening.
Because these communities have different “money”, we optimize for different “truths”. As content producers, we may continue to try maximizing our profits, but since we have different tokens, we optimize in different ways. We may try “whales hunting”, catching the attention of big bag holders, hoping for a one-time huge vote, or we may try appealing to a broader, yet thinner audience, by targeting minnow alliances.
Whereas in centralized social media outlets we always optimize for a single truth, the one that enriches the social media platform owners, and only them.
It may seem that having multiple “truths” to optimize for is not a real solution. And yet, it has a tremendous benefit: it takes us out from the confinement of a dogma. It frees us to see multiple perspectives. It forces us to train our critical spirit, to think for ourselves, and not give in to carefully engineered content, eliciting emotional reactions from us without even noticing it.
It might be better to be part of a small, and maybe weird, tribe, than to be part of an invisible Matrix, automagically harvesting all our time, attention and content for the profits of a few, while giving back only emotional gratification, in a vicious, never-ending circle leaving us empty, vulnerable and sick. Mentally sick.