Neurological Exploitation & Selfish Ignorance

I just finished reading Nicholas Carr's The Big Switch, which is required reading for every online publisher and marketer. Here is an interview of him by Greg Jarboe about the book

In the chapter The Great Unbundling Nick talked about the demise of newspapers, news organizations, and many traditional news containers. Some of those containers offered a packaging which allowed the creation of free premium content subsidized by profitable backfill content.

The same chapter also talks about what we use to replace these intermediaries - our clickstreams, RSS subscriptions, search, and personalization algorithms. Some offline studies in communications have proved that we are more likely to listen to information that reinforces our worldviews. In addition research has shown that we become more confident, biased, and extreme when we find others who reinforce our worldviews.

Consider the following about the future of online information quality

  • overtly biased information is more remarkable: and is thus likely to gain more comments, more links, more subscribers, and is easier to remember
  • shock testing: much like overtly biased information being remarkable, headlines can easily be tested for performance with little to no cost. I have created headlines that ranked #1 on social news sites when those headlines were only marginally related to the article I was promoting.
  • quality and bias are the same to algorithms: any sign of quality that search engines often ties directly into bias. Just because something has many links does not mean it is "of quality." Ranking a bunch of left wing nutball stuff and right wing nutball stuff is a way to claim you have result diversity, but it does not create or nurture business models for creating more rational and balanced information.
  • marketers track performance: Publishing largely consists of topic selection and publication format. But with so many ways to track performance, publishers are becoming marketers and affiliates who can track the performance of content based on links, pageviews, and earnings. And they can use all that feedback to further arbitrage profit centers while giving less coverage to important topics with limited commercial viability.
  • half truth: If a lie or half-truth is more profitable than the truth someone will sell that story. One of my affiliates went so far as declaring that I am a scammer to try to sell my ebook. What more might that person do to arbitrage my brand if they did not like me? How many affiliates typically emphasize the downsides of a product (unless they are using X is a scam as their sales strategy)?
  • your truth is confirmed: with millions of people publishing information online you will find someone who confirms your facts, even if they are not true. Any person who cites a falsehood makes it easier for others to discover (and believe in) the same lie.
  • everything can be discredited: just about anyone or anything which has risen to social significance has someone talking badly about it. We all make mistakes and the web has a memory longer than our lifespans.
  • similar language usage: people who have similar biases will tend to write information and seek out information using similar words
  • the fight for timing: with so many people competing for attention being first is often more important than being correct. Just yesterday it was claimed that a record label quit and uploaded their catalog to Pirate Bay, but that news was fabricated. Even if you are wrong those links and the page views do not disappear.
  • sound bytes: with so many people creating information more information is being consumed in smaller chunks lacking in context. If it long who has time to consume it?
  • the blend: the borders between content and advertising are blurring as ads get more interactive and we learn to ignore ads that look like traditional advertisements. Organizations like the US military created video games as recruiting tools aimed at 14 year old children.
  • personalization: through the channels we subscribe to, words we search for, and sites we visit search engines make it harder to get outside of our comfort zone by showing us what we already know and believe.
  • exploitation algorithms: Large online media companies know a lot about us, and where they lack information they can mathematically model us based on our interests and habits. Scientists are studying marketing on a neurological level. Google has a patent for targeting ads directly to our psychological flaws based on things like risk tolerance during game play and offers a nearly unmarked text link as an ad unit.

Couple the above with sharply increasing wealth disparity in the US and it makes the web look like a pretty bleak tool for fostering democracy and better understanding of ourselves and each other. How interactive should ads aimed at children get? Should relevancy algorithms give us what we like even if it is false? Is it ok if ads lie? Will marketing advances make us better, or will more people be given pharmaceutical drugs to cure them of their personality?

Might there be a business model in reminding people to slow down and look at things from another angle? When things really bother and frustrate me I try to consume information from someone from an alternate perspective to give myself greater balance. But many people are stuck in debt and do not have enough time to read a 200 to 500 page book unless it offers immediate profit potential.

Published: February 11, 2008 by Aaron Wall in publishing & media


February 12, 2008 - 8:30am

Hey Aaron,

I don't know if it's new policy, but there wasn't even a summary for this item in my Google Reader feed. Perhaps you could add a couple of descriptive lines, at least?

February 12, 2008 - 5:17pm

I will put a few lines in for the next post...the last two posts were hard for me to describe though.

February 12, 2008 - 10:16am

Hi Aaron,
I love to visit your site, but as eoin mentioned it would be appreciated if you can have full feed for the readers.

The detailed summary of the book gave me totally new prespective on looking at things and information.


February 12, 2008 - 5:17pm

Hi Vijay
I am having issues trying to figure out how to set up Drupal to do that. My iGoogle feed was screwed up so I took off the redirect to the full feed so it would update. And I toyed with it some more and it started updating, but it only gave partial feeds.

These last couple posts were hard to write meaningful descriptions for.

I will try to switch back to full feed again soon and see if I can get it to work with iGoogle.

February 12, 2008 - 10:43am

My son (in kindergarten) plays videogames and watches fansub anime -- we keep him completely away from commercial television except when we're visiting family. One of the reasons we like video games is that they don't have advertising in them. I hope it stays that way.

February 12, 2008 - 5:12pm

Microsoft owns Xbox and bought Massive, Inc. Massive targets ads in video games.

Google bought AdScape, a video game ad start up.

February 12, 2008 - 11:20am

Hi Aaron,

Fascinating post. I think it's an unfortunate truth that most people these days are so busy (or inefficient with their time) that even if they wanted to explore alternate viewpoints to their own belief systems they simply wouldn't have the time or energy to do so. It's less challenging to go back to the same biased news sources over and over again. And even if we did have more hours in the day, I suspect that most people would not change their information gathering habits anyway; it's rare the bird that has a real hunger for that often bitter pill of truth.

And, yes, the result will probably continue to be that the most outspoken and fundamentalist idealogues will gain traction and readership/viewership.

Thanks for mixing up the posts and keeping things interesting.


February 12, 2008 - 1:35pm

Hey Aaron great post and the idea you mentioned about reinforcing your own beliefs is called "echo chamber"

What the internet is missing today is what made it so great in the early 90s. The ability to discover new content and information. I honestly believe sites like stumble upon and digg should be used in such fashion.

There always be "sheeple" people who follow the crowd, and the internet or any other channel will not change that.

Keep blogging, keep linking to good content, and hopefully those few who decided to poke their head above the herd will hear your message.

February 12, 2008 - 5:11pm

But that is part of the issue. The stories that appeal to Digg users well enough to make the homepage are rarely what I would deem "useful content."

The selfish biased self-aggrandizing misinformation gets a lot of exposure because it is easy to vote for without thinking through. It causes a quick reaction and clicking the vote button is easy.

February 13, 2008 - 8:59am

One of the reasons we like video games is that they don't have advertising in them. I hope it stays that way.

Does your son play Need For Speed? If not, don't let him. The game revolves around brands of cars. Interesting how the actual content is improved when there are ads.

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