‘An epistemic crisis’

Today’s ‘The Interface’ at The Verge opened with a line that jumped out at me:

One result of a world in which everyone has more or less equal access to publishing tools has been what’s sometimes called an epistemic crisis: a scenario in which large groups of people muddle along with very different understandings of reality, undermining the ability of elected officials to govern.

I think this can be expanded to include many spheres of modern life. Entrenched ideas based on shaky foundations become more entrenched on social media, reinforced by powerful feedback mechanisms and amplification loops as a result of a business model that feeds on anxiety, parasitic engagement, and present shock. What do we end up with? From The Verge’s piece:

BuzzFeed is maintaining a list of debunked coronavirus claims, relating to its origin, potential treatments, and faked government communications about it. Some of the claims are highly susceptible to being shared by credulous parents. Canada keeps being falsely implicated. And Axios reported that “nearly 13,000 posts across Twitter, public Facebook pages, and Reddit between January 24 and January 27 have propagated conspiracy theories about the virus, including that it may be a bioweapon or a depopulation method.”

The coronavirus outbreak is a classic example. People are worried and frightened, but facts are in short supply. Fear creates engagement. The algorithm wants people to be more worried and frightened, because that creates more engagement. People become more like the machine when they spend time in an emotive, fact-sparse environment like that – they become part of the machine itself, often doing what it wants whether they are conscious of it or not. We’ve all been swept up in the drama of some collective event playing out online before, haven’t we? Sometimes it’s positive and this feeling of being part of a huge movement can feel good, but sometimes it’s a whirlpool of anxiety and FUD. We become less of an individual human being and more of a mob/machine component.

I suspect part of the answer is just to spend less time online. The more time you spend jacked in, the more it becomes your reality – and the more worried you probably feel about anything and everything.

If you visit the #coronavirus hashtag on Twitter right now, it’s an absolute shambles of made-up statistics, conspiracy theories, memes, and scaremongering. There are also genuine human expressions of fear and concern, and real news/facts to be found, but if it’s 75% bullshit to 25% reality then I think we are witnessing the point where trending hashtags have lost their usefulness. Maybe we passed that point a long time ago.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t care about the coronavirus outbreak, or that we should remain ignorant about it, but using social media to stay informed in times like this strikes me as counterproductive at best.

‘Why your Instagram isn’t growing’

I noticed an interesting new post on PetaPixel about Instagram, which starts with the premise that ‘it isn’t you, it’s Instagram’. It also makes it blindingly clear that Instagram has absolutely nothing to do with photography, if you hadn’t already figured that out, and everything to do with consumerism and the attention economy:

There are so many people on Instagram, and the organic, chronological order news feed is sadly a thing of the past. These two things alone mean the beginning of the end for any social media platform, because they mean that the platform is prioritizing advertisers over users…

And:

The average user spends around 53 minutes a day on Instagram; are you getting a return on your time investment into that platform? Are you making an hour’s wage daily from Instagram? If not, then I say leave the app behind and focus your time on something else.

Nicholas Carr wrote that digital content is often not as engaging as the enclosing medium or interface, and that – in many cases – the content itself becomes irrelevant. Scrolling through Instagram is all about staying in the machine zone of no-time, not about appreciating photography. (Don’t believe me? How long do you spend looking at the photos in your feed?) He also wrote that ‘Instagram shows us what a world without art looks like’.

Final thought: is it better to reach a small number of people with something of genuine value, or a large number of people who don’t care with trivia?

The blandness of LinkedIn

(Necessary context: I originally wanted to post this entire rant on LinkedIn as a text post, but the character count was much too high, so I’m posting it in full here instead. Maybe I should have optimised my content a bit more for the platform 😉)

I’m probably about to upset some of you.

I’ve noticed something about LinkedIn.

Everyone writes posts that looks like this.

Have you noticed it? Short, staccato paragraphs.

Presumably this is something to do with optimising content for engagement.

Or maybe it’s just because we all have such short attention spans these days.

Either way, I find it incredibly annoying. These posts all look like clones of each other, with a similar tone and often similar content. I have started to unfollow people who write like this. It’s turning me off LinkedIn faster than I’ve been turned off Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (which, let me tell you, is saying something). LinkedIn already has enough annoyances and user-hostile features – why add to them?

The more we optimise ourselves and our content for the machine world, the more machine-like we become. I get it – it’s difficult to be human online, especially when we have brands to build. There’s intense pressure and everyone else seems to be optimising everything they do to serve the demands of volume, speed, and fake authenticity. But this is what the platform wants, and the platform doesn’t care about you – it cares only about devouring attention and turning it into value for advertisers. ‘Engagement’ is fundamentally adversarial because attention is a finite resource.

Please be considerate when you demand the attention of people who have chosen to read what you write. Please be a human being, not a content-optimising drone who only posts stuff that is calibrated to get the most views, likes and comments. When everyone adopts the same hacks to game whatever algorithm is currently deemed to be important for the success of our personal brands, everything looks the same. Individuality is erased in a drab sameness that makes me want to slam my head against the nearest brick wall. If I read another top-10 listicle with a big, Pinterest-friendly header graphic (at just the right image aspect ratio, of course) with text in a ‘quirky’ font I think I will throw my iMac out of the window. Everything on the web is either terrifying or bland these days with nothing in between.

So let’s try to retain what humanity and individuality we can while the machine world still allows it. I’m not saying we should all completely ignore evidence about what is worth doing and what isn’t, because time is precious. But remember that social networks don’t want us to behave like free-thinking individuals – they want us to behave like an anxious mob, constantly following trends because we fear being left behind. When everyone on LinkedIn starts writing stuff in the same way, adopting the same vaguely entrepreneurial, upbeat tone (with the odd bit of ‘today I had a bad day and I’m about to tell you about it’ thrown in to show how authentic we all are), perhaps saying something different – even if it might result in lower engagement, or perhaps precisely because it might result in lower engagement – is the most human response left to us.