From context collapse to content collapse
January 14, 2020 12:21 PM   Subscribe

First, by leveling everything, social media also trivializes everything — freed of barriers, information, like water, pools at the lowest possible level. A presidential candidate’s policy announcement is given equal weight to a snapshot of your niece’s hamster and a video of the latest Kardashian contouring. Second, as all information consolidates on social media, we respond to it using the same small set of tools the platforms provide for us. Our responses become homogenized, too.
posted by Mrs Potato (41 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 


I don't mean to sound harsh, but given that this critique is clearly defined and well-worn at this point, I'm ready for some ideas about remedying the situation. Someone in the UX space must be thinking about introducing beneficial hierarchies, no?
posted by hilberseimer at 12:31 PM on January 14 [6 favorites]


i favorited this post
posted by lalochezia at 12:38 PM on January 14 [16 favorites]


"First, by leveling everything, social media also trivializes everything — freed of barriers, information, like water, pools at the lowest possible level. A presidential candidate’s policy announcement is given equal weight to a snapshot of your niece’s hamster and a video of the latest Kardashian contouring."

This isn't really a new idea, at all. Neil Postman was talking about exactly this with regards to TV news in Amusing Ourselves to Death back in the 80s. This is summarized the phrase "and now this" in TV news where you jump from weather to sports to national politics to world politics to the kicker of a cute hamster.
posted by jzb at 12:48 PM on January 14 [18 favorites]


> This isn't really a new idea, at all.

I think the novelty here is not of kind, but of scale. That still makes it worth pointing out, again and again.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 12:53 PM on January 14 [22 favorites]


The algorithms don’t make formal or qualitative distinctions; they judge everything by the same criteria.

Ehhhhhh. I mean I guess this is true insomuch as all of the formal and qualitative distinctions probably get made manually on a lot of platforms. But I wouldn't be surprised to see them coded into the algorithms of really big sites, like Facebook.
posted by ODiV at 1:01 PM on January 14


I disagree.

Traditional gate-kept ("hierarchical"?) media is the overwhelmingly prevalent source of information about government and politics for voters. The vast majority of voters pay little or no attention to the political content of social media, or use social media very rarely or not all.

The voters who do pay significant attention to political content on social media are either (a) activists and strong partisans who consume large amounts of hierarchical media as well and use social media for reinforcement or topic finding or (b) very marginally engaged people who, absent social media, wouldn't seek political information elsewhere, for whom something is probably better than nothing.
posted by MattD at 1:30 PM on January 14 [3 favorites]


I am constantly amazed, given its reputation, that Reddit functions as a better news source on my phone than Apple News. Reddit lets me flip over to a dedicated news page that gets me out of my usual stream of fluffy animals and lgbt memes, when I'd rather be informed than entertained, while Apple News is such a mishmash of news, opinion, celebrity gossip, that it's practically useless. I know in theory I can change some settings in the app, but by default, it really seems to want to do this flattening that the article is talking about, making everything the same importance.

And clearly if all content is flat, then there's the question of what you see first, and what you see most, and the motivations that lie behind presenting those items to you so prominently.

I don't really see that our responses become homogenized, though. Yes, liking and upvoting and all exist as tools, but if you're actually looking at these platforms, you can still find long discussions where discussion is warranted, calls to political action, links and resources...a lot more than simple likes and upvotes.
posted by mittens at 1:33 PM on January 14 [10 favorites]


This isn't really a new idea, at all. Neil Postman was talking about exactly this with regards to TV news in Amusing Ourselves to Death back in the 80s. This is summarized the phrase "and now this" in TV news where you jump from weather to sports to national politics to world politics to the kicker of a cute hamster.

I think one important distinction between social media and the TV News era is that TV News brought everything to the same level. National news stories were shown next to local human interest stories, and both were presented with equal importance even if one is much more important than the other. If you showed up on the news it was a Big Deal even if it was over something mundane. People would talk for years to come about how your cute hamster was on the news.

Today, nobody cares if you show up on social media. The picture of your hamster is right below a massive national news story, because social media doesn't differentiate between the two. The national news story and your hamster both have the same importance just like on the news shows of old, but this time the importance is zero.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 1:39 PM on January 14 [6 favorites]


There was a bird dive-bombing pedestrians on Market Street in SF and a small news crew out to document it. The crew asked me if I wanted to be on TV that night and I said that I adamantly did not. The next day, of course, several people told me they'd seen me on the local news.

Also, this was not news. It was just a bluejay doing what bluejays do.

The hell of it is that local news is important. It's where things that impact you directly can be reported. It's just a shame that it's so very very bad. The media landscape is very broken.
posted by sjswitzer at 1:48 PM on January 14 [4 favorites]


Traditional gate-kept ("hierarchical"?) media is the overwhelmingly prevalent source of information about government and politics for voters. The vast majority of voters pay little or no attention to the political content of social media, or use social media very rarely or not all.

I'm currently working with a research firm that studied this very question and that's not the case (I can't share the data because it's proprietary).
posted by 99_ at 1:51 PM on January 14 [23 favorites]


This is true of anything in which there are experts, too. The opinions of a medical doctor are given the same weight as those of an anti-vaxxer, from an algorithmic point of view. Everything is equally valid.
posted by joannemerriam at 1:53 PM on January 14 [8 favorites]


That's exactly what makes it so dangerous. Throw in native advertising, advertorials, user generated content on big name sites such as their own micro blogs (Forbes has no more articles just a bunch of bloggers pulled together), and you have a meaningless nihilism created around priorites. "Oh, is Australia burning, oh look Meghan wants out" leading to a jaded inaction fueled by disinformation and agenda bots.

I gave up trying to surf the news on my phone when all I'd see on top was 'entertainment' and it was impossible to bring up the business or world news on top no matter what the purported customization options were.

We're being dumbed down into marching morons deliberately.
posted by Mrs Potato at 1:59 PM on January 14 [3 favorites]


This kind of thing (and Postman, frankly) makes my head itch. Because it presupposes that there is a "right" way to absorb information (slowly, in ranked order of importance, carefully vetted by The Experts, I guess?)

News...information...transmission has always been messy, lopsided, incomplete, inaccurate, laughably propagandistic, or some combination of those things. Because it filters from one human to another and so on. In the "golden" era of pre-TV news, it was filtered through gatekeepers with a definite set of biases. When TV news came along...it was filtered through gatekeepers with a definite set of biases.

When the internet came along it organized around interests: scifi, porn, arts, tech, people who were really into 80s cartoons, and so on. Because otherwise, where would you start? But even those who could afford to/knew how to get online were privileged and had a definite set of biases, but they didn't own the medium, so there was more room for different biases.

I started on the internet with a few links to places a lot like metafilter (and metafilter) that pointed me to other places I bookmarked or didn't. According to my own biases and whether I found those places interesting/trustworthy/useful.

And then search engines and social media streamlined that, to an extent, with definite mixed results, Facebook is evil and Google is watching you and Twitter has an upsetting tolerance for Nazis, and so on. But at the same time, there are lot more people speaking than I ever had available to listen to, before. People of color, people with disabilities, trans people, people with entirely different life experiences than me, older, younger, and so on. If I am willing, I can follow those people and learn about them. And social media does reinforce that; if I follow one sci-fi author of color, it will recommend three more. All of them teaching me things I would never learn from someone with a journalism degree and a column in the NYT.

It's messy and confusing. When things are upsetting, we turn to Baby Yoda because Baby Yoda is not upsetting. Much as audiences watched Fred Astaire movies during the Depression. I feel like this is not a hard thing to understand.

freed of barriers, information, like water, pools at the lowest possible level.

How about this: freed of barriers, information, like water, spreads out to places it could not reach before.
posted by emjaybee at 2:01 PM on January 14 [19 favorites]


That goddamned like button.
posted by ipsative at 2:29 PM on January 14 [4 favorites]


I get that some (many?) people get their news from social media, but I also don't get it. Why? My The Face Book is 50% people selling guitar pedals and 50% friends posting pictures of themselves, their food and their cats. My twitter is mostly X-Men memes, gripes and cosplay.
How does news get into people's socials? Do you have to follow news sites?
posted by signal at 2:39 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


Pretty much all of my political information comes from comedy podcasts and facebook memes.
posted by poe at 3:11 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


Traditional gate-kept ("hierarchical"?) media is the overwhelmingly prevalent source of information about government and politics for voters. The vast majority of voters pay little or no attention to the political content of social media, or use social media very rarely or not all.
I'm currently working with a research firm that studied this very question and that's not the case (I can't share the data because it's proprietary).


I'm glad to get this rough idea, but I'm having a hard time working out precisely what this means, as this is more of a negation of a group of MattD's statements rather than a statement.

Is it possible for you to summarize what the research indicates the reality looks like without trespassing on your employer's privileges?
posted by wildblueyonder at 3:16 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


I get my news from live videos on facebook because the newspapers wantes to make Zuck and google levels of money, rather than merely oodles of money, and so they fired all the local reporters.

Only the non profit newsrooms seem to be hiring, but they do a better job, anyhow
posted by eustatic at 3:26 PM on January 14


Is it possible for you to summarize what the research indicates the reality looks like without trespassing on your employer's privileges?

Unforch, not really. And I should qualify that MattD's point about gate-keeping wasn't directly addressed. I can say social media is a significant channel, but the survey design wasn't explicitly trying to classify sources (who would be a 'gate-keeping' org vs. who would not, though that was addressed), so it could be eminently possible that social is just reproducing the same power structures in the way MattD is arguing, but from the data I saw, it is definitely observable that how people consume information and the outcomes in social are distinct from traditional channels.
posted by 99_ at 3:45 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


I miss the days when a person tweeted that they were pooping and that got people riled up.
posted by Splunge at 3:46 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


AM POOPING, FITE ME
posted by grumpybear69 at 3:50 PM on January 14 [3 favorites]


How does news get into people's socials?

I don't do a wide variety of socials, but on Facebook, I haven't been able to scroll a page since, well, forever that didn't have at least one political post, news article, tweet, meme, etc.

Used to be plastered with anti-Obama garbage until I "hid" all the conservatives I know. Now, I can't open up FB without seeing Orange Furious front and center. I get my news primarily from blogs. I don't generally trust Facebook to feed me content. I spend as much time debunking fake news as I do reading real news sometimes. There was a time that I was thankful that I wouldn't have to read about Sarah Palin every day...I've shifted now to Donny Small Hands. I can't wait for the day I don't have to read or see his orange face unless I actively seek it out, which will be never.
posted by Chuffy at 4:03 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


From the Guardian last month: How Apple News editors quietly influence UK's election reading:
The service has around 11 million users a month in the UK, according to Comscore data, and the number of people receiving its notifications is even larger, offering a level of direct access that even the BBC struggles to compete with.

While newspapers and TV channels have to fight to reach audiences, Apple News comes pre-installed on iPhones. And while traditional news outlets come under enormous scrutiny for their coverage, there has been little scrutiny of how journalists employed directly by Apple can influence which news is seen by around a sixth of the UK population.

Apple News staff will tell British news outlets what type of stories and topics they would like to promote each week, creating the potential that one of the world’s biggest hardware manufacturers is indirectly influencing the editorial output of British news organisations.
posted by verstegan at 4:35 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]


Turns out we need gatekeepers after all....
posted by photoslob at 4:47 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


First, by leveling everything, social media also trivializes everything — freed of barriers, information, like water, pools at the lowest possible level. A presidential candidate’s policy announcement is given equal weight to a snapshot of your niece’s hamster and a video of the latest Kardashian contouring.

I did a $.99 kindle unlimited for 3 months deal on Amazon. It has very much confirmed my belief in editors and gatekeepers.
posted by srboisvert at 7:10 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]



This isn't really a new idea, at all. Neil Postman was talking about exactly this with regards to TV news in Amusing Ourselves to Death back in the 80s.


My first reaction to reading Postman just before the turn of the millennium was to conclude that the Internet would reverse the trends he was talking about.

Yeah, I really was that naive. But also, this article does have a new point.
posted by ocschwar at 7:53 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]


I did a $.99 kindle unlimited for 3 months deal on Amazon. It has very much confirmed my belief in editors and gatekeepers.

Counterpoint: Greta Thunberg. Compare what she posts on social media, or recites before a microphone, and the complete and utter dog's breakfast that it gets turned into when the media report on it. Compare and contrast:

GT: we have to act within 12 years to avoid setting off catastrophic chain reactions that will play out over decades.
Media: GT says the world will end in 12 years.

GT: I won't let trolls shame me back into the shadows.
Media: GT says autism is a superpower.

Social media does trivialize everything, and it does condition us to be passive. But that's not the whole story here. The trivialization and Panem&circenses aspect of social media is there, and in some ways it's more intense than what came before, and yet... can you name any girl who became a household name in the 1980s, at age 16, without presenting a sexualized persona? That was purely the gatekeepers requiring that. GT proved that her peers don't require it. Greta Thunberg, Emma Gonzales, and others I hope to learn about soon, have found ways to use social media for things that forestall the downfall of civilization instead of hastening it, partly by shoving the older gatekeepers aside.
posted by ocschwar at 8:39 PM on January 14 [13 favorites]


Greta Thunberg, Emma Gonzales, and others I hope to learn about soon, have found ways to use social media

Cory Morningstar (@elleprovocateur rel="nofollow") has written about the Manufacturing of Thunberg at length (albeit not all of it equally persuasive).
posted by dmh at 10:22 PM on January 14


dmh: Wut? I tried to read that and all I saw was, Al Gore Al Gore algore algore algorealgorealgore. Is there more to it than that?
posted by sjswitzer at 10:48 PM on January 14 [3 favorites]


On further reading that is some very very dark propaganda that really doesn't need links.
posted by sjswitzer at 10:53 PM on January 14 [3 favorites]


Morningstar was previously seen getting agitated about the White Helmets, as part of the Russia-backed disinformation campaign to discredit their work in Syria. No doubt there are interesting discussions to be had about corporate and capitalist co-option of the fight against climate change, but I'm not really interested in hearing from alt-left conspiracy theorists on that.
posted by inire at 5:14 AM on January 15 [2 favorites]


Also, keep in mind that the trends for news consumption, as perceived and acted upon, in the United States, can be *very* different from many developing countries where the mobile phone is often the first and only device. Data from top African economies (Nigeria, SA, Kenya, etc) show that social is often the only source of news, especially local news. However, the challenge is that even if you don't want to know anything about the intricacies of the US congressional politics, the origins and ownership of the platforms mean that the same content is shoved down all our throats, prioritized over and above local news and content. So, this has made platforms like Twitter for instance critical in accessing local and relevant news on the ground. Many newspapers across the African continent have websites but Google has not permitted their entry into the News search engine for a variety of tech and non tech reasons. I've watched the quality of content degrade steadily over the past 5 years.

tl;dr - this is a bigger issue for peoples outside the USA than inside.
posted by Mrs Potato at 5:15 AM on January 15 [5 favorites]


Cory Morningstar is an excellent example of what we've come to expect in an age of content collapse. Lots of promises to expose the dark underpinnings of the green movement, but when you examine the actual argument, it's full of logical leaps and factual holes; there isn't enough information presented clearly enough to make the point she wants to make, so instead it's just "the green movement has nefarious powers behind it, and is thus bad," which is a pretty useless political stance which nonetheless gets shared endlessly and breathlessly as though her information were new and urgent. And it's shared alongside, I dunno, that meme of Greta eating butter, because they have the same value, the same message, apparently even hoping for the same outcome: Don't listen to this girl, whether it's because she's secretly a tool of capital, or because lulz.

Behind it is something anti-democratic, ahistorical, and cold--the idea that a movement of thousands could be secretly manipulated by a few shadowy leaders, even though the course of history tells us that mass movements are always getting out of hand, always exploding past the desires of anyone who would seek to control them. The forgetting that a mass movement is about people-plural, people en masse, rather than being about a figurehead. It's exactly the pattern we see in social media's reliance on picking particular famous politicians to hate, rather than critiquing the underlying political struggle. Memes are easy, stars are easy, tabloid-style journalism is easy, so that's what you get, and if there really are things to critique (I'm sure there is plenty to critique in the green movement), they get lost beneath the flood of easy stuff.
posted by mittens at 5:18 AM on January 15 [7 favorites]


Apologies for inserting Cory Morningstar into the discussion. I don't take their work seriously and I offered the link as a curiosity more than anything else.
posted by dmh at 6:57 AM on January 15


Pretty much all of my political information comes from comedy podcasts and facebook memes.

I pieced it together mostly from sugar packets.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 8:03 AM on January 15


Data from top African economies (Nigeria, SA, Kenya, etc) show that social is often the only source of news, especially local news.

A friend who works for an NGO and has spent a lot of time in around and working with African governments, was telling me about how widespread WhatsApp was as a platform both for distributing information and gathering consensus within closed groups - that is to say if you wanted any part of the deal making you had to be in the group. My question to him was who all is spying on these groups?
posted by From Bklyn at 10:32 AM on January 15 [2 favorites]


Apologies for inserting Cory Morningstar into the discussion.

Don't apologize. He's a perfect example for this thread. You posted a link after giving it only a superficial read (and let he who is without sin cast the first stone on that one..) because it was pertinent but there is not enough time in the day to read everything even when you ARE a critical and good faith reader.

Meanwhile, Morningstar's stock in trade is just credible enough to pass an initial read, so he can get past any gatekeepers, even though it's written in blatantly bad faith, at the direction of a paymaster (at this point, if your targets look like they were selected by Putin, fuck it, the shoe fits, and you're a Putin tool). And plenty of his readers are reading his pap in bad faith because lol-nothing-matterrs.

The challenge for the next decade will be to help the Thunbergs prevail over the Moningstars in our media landscape.
posted by ocschwar at 1:31 PM on January 15 [3 favorites]


From Bklyn

State Capture in Africa: Old Threats, New Packaging
Eds Meirotti, M & Masterson, G, EISA 2018 (papers presented at the 12th Annual Symposium). The state capture that has played out recently in South Africa, in conjunction with the transitional status of many African countries, raises the question of whether these countries, too, are experiencing some form of state capture and what lessons can be learned to safeguard transitional democracies in the region?

I recommend Nanjala Nyabola's chapter on state capture of media in Kenya and its impact on what stories get told and what stories don't get told
posted by Mrs Potato at 3:03 AM on January 16 [2 favorites]


I’m using an RSS reader (Unread) and I don’t generally have a problem with content collapse. Metafilter has its content and context. Same for any author or group I wish to follow. If I don’t feel informed, then I just drop the feed.

Facebook, when I use it, has the context of my family and friends and friends of friends (the rest I can ignore).

Only the Aliens who arrived from planet Nog would be confused. But I imagine in short order they would learn how to use their software to manage their push/pull networks too.

What am I missing?
Is ignorance an existential threat?
posted by xtian at 3:51 PM on January 16


What am I missing?


You're surrounded by people who live without context thanks to this media environment, and their ignorance and delusions will harm you one way or another despite your not wallowing with them.
posted by ocschwar at 11:11 AM on January 18


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