Beyond the Algorithms – Don’t Look Now, But You Are What You Click: HyperKulture
ColumnDisgusted by overwhelming portions of salacious fare served up on the Internet? In today’s “click, monitor, push” information-marketing world, what we “see” is about more than algorithms—it’s about who we are.
I looked at a leaked photo and saw a naked celebrity. To be honest, while I didn’t realize what was on the other end of the hyperlink, there was probably enough information surrounding it that I should have known better. It was an impulse move (part curious, part prurient, part lazy) and I’m a little disgusted with myself for not thinking through my click. It’s not something I’m continuing to beat myself up about, but nevertheless, the event was indeed criminal and my choice was complicit. I’m sorry I did it.
I’m usually better than that when it comes to sensationalism and/or potential privacy breaches (of celebs or otherwise). I didn’t watch the Ray Rice wife-beating elevator video or the ISIL beheadings, I avoid “Read this Fucking Story!” headlines like the plague and I try to train a hypercritical eye on anything dubbed “trending.” I do this because at the end of the day, I know that in many ways I am what I click, and I do my best to exert at least a modicum of control over my intentions and actions when it comes to media consumption.
The consumption-equals-self concept (I think it began with “you are what you eat”) is not a new phenomenon, particularly in the media marketplace. I’m one of those before-and-after folk who, unlike the digital natives, came of age without an Internet, reading paper-based things and taking in what I could through a mere four or six channels on a rabbit-eared television set. Even then, though, I knew that my media interactions had implications beyond the ink stains on my fingers and my Sonny & Cher-strained eyeballs. I knew that my choices percolated up to sinister marketing meetings where decisions were made as to who I was (i.e., my demographic) and what I would be sold going forward.
In some ways, it seemed like a fair deal. I spoke with my choices. The powers that be listened and responded. Quid pro quo, right? (I confess that I secretly wished we were a Nielsen family.) But, still, there was something safely delayed about these transactions. It took time for Madison Avenue, the networks and the rest to understand my habits, construct customized offerings and deliver what I seemed to be willing to view. I assumed I’d eventually get more of what I thought I wanted, but the Mad Men and Media Merchants were somehow remote; there was some solace in the lack of immediacy.
Today’s media is a different beast. Think the above mindspace-commerce formula on steroids. Better still, on crack. As I busily click away, information is instantaneously gathered, crunched and fed back to me in the form of related content. If I click on naked celebs, violent videos, popular tripe and crap like that, then boom!—more naked celebs, violent videos, popular tripe and crap like that. Simple, even for us nerds who know nothing about how the intertubes do the voodoo they do.
Today, we are each in the business of creating sophisticated DIY echo chambers of information. There’s a one-to-one relationship between our surfing and its feedback, with virtually no play in the wheel. Liberal information for liberals. Conservative for conservatives. Shopping for shoppers. Not slowly but surely, but here and now, again and again, in real time until you buy or, as the case may be, buy in.
Smile for the Clickbait
Okay, so it’s no secret, nor is it surprising, that countless soulless algorithms are digesting my info and creating a customized and finely tuned online media environment just for me. And this isn’t always a bad thing. Aside from my Nielsen aspirations, I’m okay when options for that end table I’ve been valiantly surfing for or the first-edition Hemingway I’ve been staring at for months on eBay magically appear in my Facebook feed. And who needs to see those inane (not-my-bent) political ravings or overzealous (not-my-belief-system) religious messages. Not me. And through tech wizardry, I don’t have to, right? Huzzah!
But there’s more to it than that, isn’t there? If we stare a little cross-eyed at our newsfeeds (wherever they reside), we can see what amounts to a selfie—a homemade portrait that depicts something between an accurate view of who we are and some distorted caricature of our likeness. Beyond the algorithmic give and take, the scrolling image reflects something about us and our desires. It’s been said that, if nothing else, we can decide what we pay attention to. In the end, such choices amount to no small thing.
This is not to say that these choices are always easy ones. When the video surfaced of NFL running back Ray Rice assaulting his wife in an elevator, for example, I faced a decision: To click or not to click? No? Maybe, but consider that its going viral led to a much-needed culture storm that continues to reverberate beyond the football league; the phenomenon of millions of people watching that recorded crime translated into critical knowledge and a subsequent national uproar.
But managing my relationship with information is also critical. Can I understand an issue without joining an ugly horde of voyeurs? Can I develop an internal brain-muscle memory that tells me that when I look at something I’ll be participating in a media marketing measurement system that will not only blow back to my own info trough but to the world’s as well?
Consider the birth of widespread disintermediated information flow, which in large part came in the form of the website known as Digg. The site (and its once-ubiquitous share buttons) was a prototype for grander social media to come (Facebook, Twitter and the like) and a crucial turning point in the democratization of editorial decision-making. (Full disclosure: My brother was CEO at the time.) In its 2009 heyday, Digg boasted 45 million users.
It more or less worked like this: When you came across something on the Web that interested you, you could Digg it by clicking a button associated with the story. This acted essentially as a thumbs-up vote, which would then determine its rise or fall on the Digg homepage. This meant users chose what was top-priority news and what wasn’t. The upside was enormous: Events previously buried by jaded, ignorant or bought editorial gatekeepers could jump to the top of the pops.
As with most big ideas, however, there’s a double edge to this otherwise gallant swordplay. If the world is watching, say, the Arab Spring or a maybe an important political debate, and that activity is instantly measured and widely promoted based on its popularity, that’s a good thing. But what about mob rule? I remember when naked Paris Hilton photos rose to the top of the Web world (with Digg’s help, by the way). What else was happening on that day? I wonder.
In a world (go ahead, say it like the guy on the movie trailers—there’s a dubious air about all of this) where we clickers increasingly decide what’s news, what’s worth looking at and what’s not, we more or less get exactly what we deserve. We can debate all millennium about the advantages or disadvantages of such people power (mob rule?) or algorithm-based marketing (stalking?), but the truth is, in one form or another, these formulas have been in play since well before the penny press—and they’re here to stay. Bitching about it is kind of like cooking dinner and then complaining that the chef is a talentless hack who’s serving up a bunch of slop.
What’s important, then, is how what we see on our screens is up to us as a culture of users—which, of course, means it’s ultimately up to us as individuals. There’s black and white—I should not have opened the naked celeb link. It shouldn’t have taken much thought to know what I was doing and thus supporting. And then there’s nuance—I can follow certain stories (domestic violence vis-à-vis Ray Rice or Middle East policy vis-à-vis the ISIL insanity) without voting for the dissemination of grotesque and sometimes even criminal bits and bytes on the Web.
What’s required for navigating this, on a personal level, is taking a moment to reflect before we open a link. Why do we blindly click? Do we think about the blowback that will be mainlined not only into our own info-intake valves, but into our culture as a whole? All told, our impulses are too often sadly unmediated: Curious. (What’s everyone going on about?) Prurient. (“She’s kind of hot. What’s behind this curtain?”) Lazy. (Cool! Click!) Going forward, I’m going to try to do a better job of casting my brain-space ballot. And the next time I feel the urge to get all indignant about “information” that comes my way, I’ll keep this in mind: Often, we get just what we ask for.
Scott Adelson is EcoSalon’s Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at scott at adelson dot org and follow him @scottadelson on Twitter.
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