Who do you trust to manage your attention?

Because now that the news cycle has surfaced Cambridge Analytica issue – that’s the real thesis question.

Let me explain.

How the Newsfeed manages your attention

I really can’t understate just how powerful amplified engagement really is. When you overlay the like/share verbs on top of a network of individuals who all have something in common, or who procure people who have something in common, you get some pretty strong effects. Don’t believe me? Just check out the clothing in your drawers and the items in your fridge. You, my friend, are an outcome of considerable social contagion effects.

Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm shelters you from a power law distribution of content that the people, and publishers, you are connected to produce. Chances are good that 5% of those that you’re connected to share a massive volume material. And chances are also fairly good that you’re not that close to those people – that your psycho-emotional distance to most of them – is low.

In order to increase their time spent metric, and for other reasons, Facebook started to let more and more publishers into the newsfeed. When information, like news, intersects with a network, the network will polarize. There’s an entire debate about the term ‘fake news’ or ‘false news’. Different groups of people tend to cluster around beliefs, so even the term ‘fake’ or ‘false’ becomes contested. There’s quite a lot of outrage about that recently – both with the idea that such communities should even exist, and that such communities have been targeted by silicon valley.

Facebook has always wanted you to spend more time paying attention to it. So, it manages your attention to achieve that outcome. There is no normative commentary on this goal. It is what it is and it’s consistent within a paradigm that converts the features you share with a firm into revenue.

It’s intensely amusing that much of the outrage surrounds the fact that marketing is so effective. Why yes, Bud Light drinkers watching NASCAR, indeed, marketing is very effective.

Much of the product management rhetoric, in the early days at Facebook, as directed at the users. You may remember statements bemoaning people friending people who weren’t really their friends. Friend counts were social currency and folks weren’t quite discerning with who they friended. There were also statements that some people didn’t know what was good to share, and what wasn’t. I post, therefore I am.

On the other side, many lament that they don’t get the guaranteed reach that they paid for or are entitled to by sharing the content on the Facebook platform. Once upon a time, brands paid for fans in order to earn increased reach and as a way for CMO’s at Fortune 5000 companies to brag. Many brands, instead of finding valuable things to say to their fans, chose product quotas instead. This drove disengagement, which was contrary to Facebook’s objectives, so they changed the deal.

The most prolific of Facebook posters complain that they don’t get guaranteed reach. If a major event happens in their life, and they share it to Facebook, there is no guarantee that it’ll reach everybody in their network. This, in turn, reduces the utility of the newsfeed to creators.

So here’s a whole bundle of problems that reinforce and overlap here. Facebook, for a decade, didn’t have any negative verbs. There was no dislike button. And this was intentional to generate sharing. And some people were good at it in that they produced content that an audience larger than their personal social network enjoyed. And others were bad at it. And a lot of people didn’t create lists. And even more people didn’t quite know how to manage it. And Facebook needed to make money. And they had a lot of data that marketers wanted. And they had a centralized distribution network.

These forces produced a glut of content. And deflation in the ad market. And heightened polarization among self-referential groups of people. And Macedonian teenagers figured out how to make money from that network. And in response to that glut of content and dysfunction and nastiness, they started managing your attention via the newsfeed.

Why is it important

Your attention budget is around 16 or 17 hours a day. Time is a non-renewable resource and it’s precious. There’s a glut of content out there, all of varying quality. Your attention matters.

How you spend that limited attention shapes many of your experiences, and those experiences go a long way in shaping who you are. Think of it, if so much of what you say and do has is based on what you know and how your preference functions are shaped, then it’s a major concern.

Who would you trust with decisions about what you’re to become next year, the year after, and ten years from now?

Maybe the answer is Facebook. Maybe you should trust Facebook to figure it out? I don’t know. It’s a pretty gnarly problem.

When are we at now

In some ways, it’s 2000 all over again. Some have migrated to gated communities governed by similar, rickety, structures we all tried during the Online Community Of Interest (OCOI) era pre-newsfeed. Lots of benevolent dictator / moderators. Same old spammers who infiltrate, scrape, and hit you spam. If it’s not relevant to you, it’s spam. We’ve been here before. We’re there again.

Slack, which is really an evolution of dalnet/mirc with a web interface, is one such environment. Much of the old #measure / #msure and tech communities have migrated behind closed doors. I don’t know everything that I’m missing out there, but I know for sure that many people are missing a lot of what’s going on. Discord is another place. And forum software, truly the coral of the Internet, hasn’t gone away.

In other ways, it’s still 2015. Facebook is a large percentage of the Internet and sucks up massive amounts of humanities attention and effort. A lot of people still use Facebook as though it’s a news reader. Or a gaming platform. Or as an email service. Or as a publishing tool.

What tools do you have at your disposal?

In terms of one-to-one communication, you have the instant message, the SMS, the MMS, the DM, the letter, the phone call, and the email – among others.

In terms of many-to-many communication, you have the publisher website, the comment section, and the forum — among others.

In terms of many-to-one communication, you fundamentally have in the mailbox.

In terms of one-to-many communication, have the mass email (sort of) and the newsfeed (sort of), and the blog (sort of). In part because reach isn’t guaranteed with any of them. (Google blocks subscriptions, newsfeeds are protected, and you have to know to visit this blog).

In terms of managing your own attention, you have the burn list, the ritual, the bookmark list, the subscription, and possibly your RSS reader. And you have Facebook, Twitter, Insta, Snap, among many others.

What tools could we have at our disposal?

This is where the optimism comes in.

Remember how AOL made you feel in 1999? They were the Internet. They had that AOL keyword thing going on which linked broadcast TV to the Internet. They had search. They had their own gated version of the Internet. You got mail. It was the end of history. AOL wins. Pack it up. It’s done.

Remember how Microsoft made you feel in 2004? They had .net down. They had antitrusted their way to browser dominance. They had the OS. The Internet was theirs and it was the end of history. Microsoft wins. Pack it up. It’s done.

Think of how Facebook makes you feel in 2018. In some places in the world, they are the Internet. They have so much data. And they use it effectively and affect the world at a macroeconomic level. Facebook wins. Pack it up. It’s done.

Our response to the concentration of power and influence each time an actor gets too big is to decentralize. It’s always been this way. Dilution is the solution.

I think the answer lays, once again, in decentralization.

The tools coming up in our immediate future will be ones that are decentralized and individual.

I trust myself with my attention. I’d like to trust a machine that I trust with much of my attention. I’d personally like to hire the machine and train it myself. I’d like it for its incentives to be aligned with my own incentives.

I’m not so sure several firms, mostly out of the valley, are deserving of my trust, in part because of the track record. I don’t think our incentives are aligned.

Now maybe you do trust them and that’s just fine. But the answer to that should come down to trust. Because it’s that important.

Who do you trust to manage your attention?

Edit: Updated Image on 16 Nov 2021