Monday, October 28, 2013

The Future of Online Content

The rise of the internet has proven revolutionary in every aspect, but perhaps the largest of all of these is its effect on the dissemination of news information, the redefinition of journalism and the emergence of an amateur, shadow fourth estate. An amateur content creator and futurist myself, I'm going to try to take a stab at projecting what is likely to happen to online informational content in the next ten years.

First, the trends that are in place right now:

• Print newspapers are dying.
• Content farms have emerged to serve ads to people who search certain terms. Being useful to actual humans is an afterthought—if it is a thought at all.
• Certain news bloggers have become famous and trusted. Some have even managed to be trusted on news issues despite not claiming to be journalists.
• Blogging has been introduced into a number of traditional news franchises. For example, Nate Silver's statistical prediction site, FiveThirtyEight, was picked up first by the New York Times, then moved to ESPN.
• SEO exists as a consideration. Some sites appear to be sources of neutral information, but are commissioned content designed to drive traffic to a third party. Often, content is "spun" through software which paraphrases, changes word order, and alters paragraphs to avoid detection as duplicate content.

Projections through 2023:

CC 3.0 BY-SA Willi Heidelbach, from Wikimedia Commons

Dominance of freelance and quasi-freelance journalism. Journalism is already freelance heavy, and non-journalistic content produced for sites other than newspapers is already nearly completely freelance. Expect bloggers, vloggers, internet-famous twitterers, and others to take spots that previously would have been reserved for J-school grads. Of course, trained journos will still be needed, especially for the actual groundwork, major stories, and to staff the remaining major papers. [This article on freelancing gives a taste of what's coming to the workforce in general.]

The rise of spun content. While a major publication like Washington Post would never allow the all-but-plagiarized output of spinner algorithms, less ethical publications, link bait empires, and sites making revenue from gray-hat SEO will almost certainly start publishing spun news if they haven't already. It will be the burden of well-meaning smaller outlets to check their incoming freelance work for originality.
Buzzfeedization. Undisputed king of the link bait jungle, Buzzfeed provides listicles announcing the top five this, the top twenty that (although six is becoming hipper than five, and you can quote me). Iin the last couple of years, however, it has pushed its way to the news world, with notable coverage of the 2012 presidential campaigns. Buzzfeed's model puts news content, celebrity gossip, pop culture nostalgia, and "25 things only Vermonters know about" side-by-side, deinstitutionalizing the fourth estate and collocating it with the world of brain candy internet entertainment.

Buzzfeed and its ilk get much of their revenue from ads, and many of these sites operate within ad networks, as described here. Ad networks present a revenue stream and a link topography that further embeds the news into a landscape that prioritizes entertainment value.

Paywalled sites begin to collapse. The New York Times bucked conventional wisdom in [year] when it added a paid option to its online offerings. Realizing that internet offerings were more detrimental to broadsheet sales than they were beneficial in the form of online ads, the Gray Lady decided to block viewers who want to read more than a set number of articles per month without paying. It is unlikely that this model will continue for much longer, as free content is available to nearly everyone.
Solidification of meme structures. If you look up a how-to page on any normal household task (changing the oil in a car, say), you'll find that most of your hits give you instructions that are very similar. Because the task is simple, fairly uniform, and not at all novel, the general instructions haven't changed much over time, and don't vary from person to person much. On the internet, this effect is magnified to where even the verbiage is relatively identical. As content becomes reused more and more, uniformity becomes inevitable. Look for memes about how-to items, historical facts, popular science and psychology theories, and large-scale world events to become much more solidified, flattening out nuance and largely failing to question the wisdom of the crowd.
Some of this is already happening, as one can see from the historical treatment of Christopher Columbus. Of course, the traditional wisdom, inculcated over the course of centuries, is that Columbus fought the folk understanding of a flat earth to boldly sail west, and land, thinking he found India. There wasn't much said about his adventures afterwards, except perhaps that he was interested in bringing Jesus to the savages. Recently, however, there has been an uptick in skepticism regarding this view, and Ol' Chris has been recast as a profiteering opportunist, oppressor, and all around bad operator. The Oatmeal, a general-interest webcomic, illustrates (literally) the recently developed current opinion.

In this case, the memetic ossification of Columbus-as-villain is likely to be more accurate than the folk historical view, and the new meme structure is more robust than the old. There is no guarantee that this will hold for all other memes solidified in the various hiveminds of the internet, though, and much like the diversity of species in the natural world, those being pushed to extinction by artificial means far outnumber those being pushed out by their own lack of fitness.


The overarching "meta-trend" behind all these predictions is that it is going to become easier and easier to manufacture popular opinions by increasing the rate at which content is produced and limiting the number of brains involved in directing that production. The power of the media then becomes the power to change millions of minds at once, in subtle ways. This flash opinion creation changes traditional wisdom on the time frames of economics and politics, which in turn increases the volatility of culture. The revolutions of 2011 are likely just foreshocks.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The McFly Effect: Why Everything on Facebook Is Probably a Lie

A Facebook friend posted this image this morning.

Those of you in particular social media circles will feel a twinge of familiarity, as you probably saw something remarkably similar in the middle of last year, when the exact same image appeared, also doctored to the then current date. I, myself, am something of a BTTF aficionado, having watched the trilogy far too many times as a teen, and so when I saw the 2012 version, something struck me as a slightly off. I did a quick search on Snopes and found that I was right—the date had been altered.

Changing a seven-segment display is, like, Photoshop 101. No, it's Photoshop 97, the remedial class for people who totally missed the "how to turn on your computer" class in high school. There's no real reason to trust this image. But that's not how your brain works. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast and Slow identifies two parts of a mind: System 1, the instant-reaction, automatic computation part, and System 2, the slow-thinking solver of complex problems. The brain, he says, is a "machine for jumping to conclusions", where System 1 does most of the work, and enlists System 2 only when the going gets relatively rough. And System 1's default is to trust what it sees.

Unless System 2 is active, System 1 will take whatever it's given and run off. And our control over our own vigilance is spotty. Acts like self-control and vigilance require energy, and this energy can be spent over time, in a phenomenon known as "ego depletion". When mental energy is low, we're even more eager to believe everything we see and hear than usual. Facebook is a great ego sink, as people often use it to relax, procrastinate, or otherwise fill downtime. Facebook also offers people a litany of choices, and decision-making further depletes mental energy. So, you arrive at a place where most users have a means of sharing information, and show up at a time when they're most likely to believe it at face value. The perfect storm.

Because of the strange topography of social media content propagation, these ideas will bounce around the tubes like used swim diapers in a wave pool. And, the rule of 10,000 ensures there will always be someone there to pass it on.