You woke up this morning, sat up in bed and grabbed your device to … well … do just about anything. As soon as you opened it, you most likely ran into some form of content that was curated for you. Welcome to the Internet of you.
Do you know that your version of Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and many others are different than somebody else’s?
Your version of the Internet has become a tailored experience, just for you. This creates some rather dangerous problems. This is content curation’s dark side. It can warp your sense of reality. I know what you think if it’s so prevalent then why haven’t you noticed it? This is because it’s all done in the background.
What is curated content?
Curated content isn’t something that’s hiding in dark corners of the web tempting you to click on it. You run into it every day. This is content fed by algorithms with the goal of keeping your attention and keeping you engaged. All your favorite sites are doing it.
It is content fed by algorithms with the goal of keeping your attention and keeping you engaged.
Google shows you tailored results, YouTube plays related videos, Pandora plays similar songs, and news aggregators give you more of the news that’s “relevant” to you. Social networks prioritize posts and content to cause more of a reaction from you. Quite often this is negative content since sensationalism usually wins over substance. These are just a few examples, but this concept is not isolated to these applications.
Why would a company do this? The longer you are engaged, the more revenue they get. More people congregating on one application means its more attractive for other businesses to advertise or purchase analytical data.
Dan Rather had a pretty good explanation that summed up content delivery in the past. If you were interested in the sport’s page, you’d have to buy a newspaper with headlines on the front page. With each flip, you went through multiple pages of other headlines just to get to the sports page. It was exposing you to other news and happenings of the world. This is not how it is nowadays, what you are looking for is presented to you without having to look anywhere.
Other viewpoints are a good thing, but for some reason, we have forgotten about this and became more entrenched in our own views.
You can’t blame the Illuminati or the HAARP system for this one, this is good old-fashioned capitalism. We are digitally brainwashing ourselves with the features of modern applications.
Here is something to keep in mind, cults of the past needed leaders and a controlled message to build a following. Today, this has shifted entirely. Many of the applications you use on a daily basis are all that is needed to create a cult of sorts. We are encouraged to join groups with like-minded people all over the world further amplifying potential misconceptions and distorting our worldview into our own bubble. This gets even worse when people are manipulated into joining these groups through some sort of malicious ad campaign.
We are encouraged to join groups with like-minded people all over the world further amplifying potential misconceptions and distorting our worldview into our own bubble.
Nowadays you can brainwash yourself all by your lonesome without having to even take any interaction. Welcome to next generation brainwashing.
Why is this content bad?
I lump the negatives into three general categories.
- Unintended confirmation bias
- Downward spiral
Unintended Confirmation Bias
You get a steady stream of content confirming your beliefs, with little information to the contrary.
Curation may seem innocuous at first glance and even beneficial in the case of helping you discover similar music artists, but the effect overall is damaging. This curation creates bubbles and microcosms with the perception of them being broader than they are. You get a steady stream of content confirming your beliefs, with little information to the contrary.
Everyone is getting a different version of the web, only in their version more people are agreeing with them.
As a society, we are slowly enclosing ourselves into bubbles and using our digital devices to do it. To someone trapped in one of these content loops, it can seem like there is no hope. That can have a tremendous effect on a person’s wellbeing.
The problem isn’t big misconceptions either, daily feeding of supporting viewpoints can be just as bad. This is how an already polarized view can become even more so, and minimal negative bias toward something can become a crusade.
The Downward Spiral
How can someone believe the earth is flat?
Look no further than the flat-earther movement for evidence of the downward spiral. Before the content curation of modern applications and increase social media usage, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes the earth is flat. I mean, after all, we have f**king pictures, from space. But when you specialize content for people, seemingly ordinary people can end up having strange viewpoints. This is for several reasons.
- Professional looking, unscientific presentation
It’s easy to make presentations look professional and scientific even though the content is complete crap. (i.e., Just about every single conspiracy theory out there)
- Open to conspiracy theories and fringe concepts
If you are already open to conspiracy theories and other fringe concepts, and you get bombarded with similar content over and over again instead of sane legit material that stands up to scientific scrutiny, then you come to distrust provable, rational explanations.
- Respect over sanity
We are taught to respect people’s beliefs and opinions no matter how ridiculous they are. I think this is a big mistake and something we shouldn’t do. Now, I’m not talking about political viewpoints here or opinions on which direction to take the economy. What I’m talking about are things so blatantly irresponsible that it’s harmful. Like saying the earth is flat or that the Sandy Hook victims were child actors.
Here is video from a flat earth conference (which sold out by the way). If you watch this video, you see that some of the people came to their conclusion from watching related videos to conspiracy theories on YouTube.
How Average People Fall For The Flat-Earth Conspiracy
If you are entrenched in a viewpoint, then it can be somewhat effortless to get you to take some sort of action. This could take any form, but even the most innocuous could have consequences. In social media, this is manifested by clicking a link (Clickbait). People make money off of this, and ordinary people can be made to think ridiculous things. Just think of something like the Pizzagate conspiracy.
Here are some logistics to think about and how this manipulation can manifest.
Identify users susceptible to a particular message. Use advertising tools to identify similar users and purchase ads getting users to join groups with the message or controversial issue.
Identify users susceptible to a particular message. Use advertising tools to identify similar users and purchase ads getting users to join groups with the message or controversial issue. Once you have them in the group now, you have a captive audience to continue to deliver whatever message you want.
Who would have thought that in the great “information age” we would be more polarized, uninformed, and unsympathetic?
So What Now?
If you are looking for an easy button or some sort of opt-out, you won’t find it (as of right now that is). This is part of the problem, the web is now run on algorithms that operate as gatekeepers in the background. There is no screw it, I’m out button. For the most part, we are at the mercy of large tech companies to change the way they operate.
Some of the apps and websites you use may have preferences you can mess around with. These would be in privacy settings. You should definitely do that, but with many apps, they are just going to do.
Unfortunately, this means more work in a world where people already feel they don’t have enough time to do the things they want to do. Many people will just fall back in comfortably in their bubble. Always fact check, especially before reposting something and definitely before joining a group. Be sure that at the very least you aren’t being manipulated by a group or content. Don’t shy away from sites or news sources that have differing opinions than yours. Try to keep yourself honest.
Keep it analog. That’s right, curation algorithms can’t affect you in real life. I know, it’s tough for some of us who are introverted. But people can be entirely different in person than they are online.
Good luck and I hope you found this a bit eye-opening. I’m optimistic that things will change and be a bit more balanced at some point, but in the meantime, it’s up to us to keep ourselves honest.
Eli Priser’s Ted Talk, Beware online “filter bubbles” is a great summary of the problem.
How Average People Fall For The Flat-Earth Conspiracy