Category Archives: 1

Whence the symptoms of social media?

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet/meteuphoric.

A thing I liked about The Social Dilemma was the evocative image of oneself being in an epic contest for one’s attention with a massive and sophisticated data-nourished machine, tended by teams of manipulation experts. The hopelessness of the usual strategies—like spur-of-the-moment deciding to ‘try to use social media less’—in the face of such power seems clear.

But another question I have is whether this basic story of our situation—that powerful forces are fluently manipulating our behavior—is true.

Some contrary observations from my own life:

  • The phenomenon of spending way too long doing apparently pointless things on my phone seems to be at least as often caused by things that are not massively honed to manipulate me. For instance, I recently play a lot of nonograms, a kind of visual logic puzzle that was invented by two people independently in the 80s and which I play in one of many somewhat awkward-to-use phone apps, I assume made by small teams mostly focused on making the app work smoothly. My sense is that if I didn’t have nonograms style games or social media or news to scroll through, then I would still often idly pick up my phone and draw, or read books, or learn Spanish, or memorize geographic facts, or scroll through just anything on offer to scroll through (I also do these kinds of things already). So my guess is that it is my phone’s responsiveness and portability and tendency to do complicated things if you press buttons on it, that makes it a risk for time consumption. Facebook’s efforts to grab my attention probably don’t hurt, but I don’t feel like they are most of the explanation for phone-overuse in my own life.
  • Notifications seem clumsy and costly. They do grab my attention pretty straightforwardly, but this strategy appears to have about the sophistication of going up to someone and tapping them on the shoulder continually, when you have a sufficiently valuable relationship that they can’t just break it off you annoy them too much. In that case it isn’t some genius manipulation technique, it’s just burning through the goodwill the services have gathered by being valuable in other ways. If I get unnecessary notifications, I am often annoyed and try to stop them or destroy the thing causing them.
  • I do often scroll through feeds for longer than I might have planned to, but the same goes for non-manipulatively-honed feeds. For instance when I do a Google Image search for skin infections, or open some random report and forget why I’m looking at it. So I think scrolling down things might be a pretty natural behavior for things that haven’t finished yet, and are interesting at all (but maybe not so interesting that one is, you know, awake..)[1]
  • A thing that feels attractive about Facebook is that one wants to look at things that other people are looking at. (Thus for instance reading books and blog posts that just came out over older, better ones.) Social media have this, but presumably not much more than newspapers did before, since a greater fraction of the world was looking at the same newspaper before.

In sum, I offer the alternate theory that various technology companies have combined:

  • pinging people
  • about things they are at least somewhat interested in
  • that everyone is looking at
  • situated in an indefinite scroll
  • on a responsive, detailed pocket button-box

…and that most of the attention-suck and influence that we see is about those things, not about the hidden algorithmic optimizing forces that Facebook might have.

(Part 1 of Social Dilemma review)

[1]: My boyfriend offers alternate theory, that my scrolling instinct comes from Facebook.

But what kinds of puppets are we?

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet/meteuphoric.

I watched The Social Dilemma last night. I took the problem that it warned of to be the following:

  1. Social media and similar online services make their money by selling your attention to advertisers
  2. These companies put vast optimization effort into manipulating you, to extract more attention
  3. This means your behavior and attention is probably very shaped by these forces (which you can perhaps confirm by noting your own readiness to scroll through stuff on your phone)

This seems broadly plausible and bad, but I wonder if it isn’t quite that bad.

I heard the film as suggesting that your behavior and thoughts in general are being twisted by these forces. But lets distinguish between a system where huge resources are going into keeping you scrolling say—at which point an advertiser will pay for their shot at persuading you—and a system where those resources are going into manipulating you directly to do the things that the advertiser would like. In the first case, maybe you look at your phone too much, but there isn’t a clear pressure on your opinions or behavior besides pro phone. In the second case, maybe you end up with whatever opinions and actions someone paid the most for (this all supposing the system works). Let’s call these distorted-looking and distorted-acting.

While watching I interpreted the film suggesting the sort of broad manipulation that would come with distorted-acting, but thinking about it afterwards, isn’t the kind of optimization going on with social media actually distorted-looking? (Followed by whatever optimization the advertisers do to get you to do what they want, which I guess is of a kind with what they have always done, so at least not a new experimental horror.) I actually don’t really know. And maybe it isn’t a bright distinction.

Maybe optimization for you clicking on ads should be a different category (i.e. ‘distorted-clicking’). This seems close to distorted-looking, in that it isn’t directly seeking to manipulate your behavior outside of your phone session, but a big step closer to distorted-acting, since you have been set off toward whatever you have ultimately been targeted to buy.

I was at first thinking that distorted-looking was safer than distorted-acting. But distorted-looking forces probably do also distort your opinions and actions. For instance, as the film suggested, you are likely to look more if you get interested in something that there is a lot of content on, or something that upsets you and traps your attention.

I could imagine distorted-looking actually being worse than distorted-acting: when your opinion can be bought, the change in it is presumably what someone would want. Whereas when your opinion is manipulated as a weird side effect of someone trying to get you to look more, then it could be any random thing, which might be terrible.(Or would there be such weird side effects in both cases anyway?)

Yet another world spirit sock puppet

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet/meteuphoric.

I have almost successfully made and made decent this here my new blog, in spite of little pre-existing familiarity with relevant tools beyond things like persistence in the face of adversity and Googling things. I don’t fully understand how it works, but it is a different and freer non-understanding than with WordPress or Tumblr. This blog is more mine to have mis-built and to go back and fix. It is like not understanding why your cake is still a liquid rather than like not understanding why your printer isn’t recognized by your computer.

My plan is to blog at now, and cross-post to my older blogs the subset of posts that fit there.

The main remaining thing is to add comments. If anyone has views about how those should be, er, tweet at me?

The bads of ads

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet/meteuphoric.

In London at the start of the year, perhaps there was more advertising than there usually is in my life, because I found its presence disgusting and upsetting. Could I not use public transport without having my mind intruded upon continually by trite performative questions?

London underground

Sometimes I fantasize about a future where stealing someone’s attention to suggest for the fourteenth time that they watch your awful-looking play is rightly looked upon as akin to picking their pocket.

Stepping back, advertising is widely found to be a distasteful activity. But I think it is helpful to distinguish the different unpleasant flavors potentially involved (and often not involved—there is good advertising):

  1. Mind manipulation: Advertising is famous for uncooperatively manipulating people’s beliefs and values in whatever way makes them more likely to pay money somehow. For instance, deceptively encouraging the belief that everyone uses a certain product, or trying to spark unwanted wants.Painting an ad
  2. Zero-sumness: To the extent advertising is aimed at raising the name recognition and thus market share of one product over its similar rivals, it is zero or negative sum: burning effort on both sides and the attention of the customer for no overall value.subiyanto-nestle-ad.jpgweir-coke-ad.jpg
  3. Theft of a precious thing: Attention is arguably one of the best things you have, and its protection arguably worthy of great effort. In cases where it is vulnerable—for instance because you are outside and so do not personally control everything you might look at or hear—advertising is the shameless snatching of it. This might be naively done, in the same way that a person may naively steal silverware assuming that it is theirs to take because nothing is stopping them.London underground
  4. Cultural poison: Culture and the common consciousness are an organic dance of the multitude of voices and experiences in society. In the name of advertising, huge amounts of effort and money flow into amplifying fake voices, designed to warp perceptions–and therefore the shared world–to ready them for exploitation. Advertising can be a large fraction of the voices a person hears. It can draw social creatures into its thin world. And in this way, it goes beyond manipulating the minds of those who listen to it. Through those minds it can warp the whole shared world, even for those who don’t listen firsthand. Advertising shifts your conception of what you can do, and what other people are doing, and what you should pay attention to. It presents role models, designed entirely for someone else’s profit. It saturates the central gathering places with inanity, as long as that might sell something.Outdoor ads over darkened figures
  5. Market failure: Ideally, whoever my attention is worth most to would get it, regardless of whether it was initially stolen. For instance, if I have better uses for my attention than advertising, hopefully I will pay more to have it back than the advertiser expects to make by advertising to me. So we will be able to make a trade, and I’ll get my attention back. In practice this is probably too complicated, since so many tiny transactions are needed. E.g. the best message for me to see, if I have to see a message, when sitting on a train, is probably something fairly different from what I do see. It is also probably worth me paying a small sum to each person who would advertise at me to just see a blank wall instead. But it is hard for them to collect that money from each person. And in cases where the advertiser was just a random attention thief and didn’t have some special right to my attention, if I were to pay one to leave me alone, another one might immediately replace them.1Underground ads over crowd
  6. Ugliness: At the object level, advertising is often clearly detracting from the beauty of a place.Ads overwhelming buildings

These aren’t necessarily distinct—to the extent ugliness is bad, say, one might expect that it is related to some market failure. But they are different reasons for disliking a thing-a person can hate something ugly while having no strong view on the perfection of ideal markets.

What would good and ethical advertising look like? Maybe I decide that I want to be advertised to now, and go to my preferred advertising venue. I see a series of beautiful messages about things that are actively helpful for me to know. I can downvote ads if I don’t like the picture of the world that they are feeding into my brain, or the apparent uncooperativeness of their message. I leave advertising time feeling inspired and happy.

Ads: we are building a new story

Pieces of time

My friend used to have two ‘days’ each day, with a nap between—in the afternoon, he would get up and plan his day with optimism, whatever happened a few hours before washed away. Another friend recently suggested to me thinking of the whole of your life as one long day, with death on the agenda very late this evening. I used to worry, when I was very young, that if I didn’t sleep, I would get stuck in yesterday forever, while everyone else moved on to the new day. Right now, indeed some people have moved on to Monday, but I’m still winding down Sunday because I had a bad headache and couldn’t sleep. Which is all to say, a ‘day’ does not just mean a 24 hour measure of time, in our minds. Among its further significance, we treat it as a modular unit: we expect things within it to be more continuous and intermingled with each other than they are with things outside of it. What happens later today is more of a going concern at present than something that happens after sleeping. The events of this morning are more part of a continuous chapter, expected to flavor the present, than what happened yesterday. The same is true to some extent for weeks, months and years (but not for fortnights or periods of 105 hours).

I think days are well treated as modular like this because sleeping really separates them in relevant ways. I notice two other kinds of natural modular time-chunks that seem worth thinking in terms of, but which I don’t have good names for:

  • Periods during which you are in one context and stream of thought (usually a minute to a few hours long). For instance the period of going for a walk, or the period between getting home and receiving a phone call that throws you into a new context and set of thoughts. During one such chunk, I can remember a lot about the series of thoughts so far, and build upon them. Whereas if I try to go back to them later, they are hard to bring back to life, especially the whole set of thoughts and feelings that I wandered around during a period, rather than just a single insight brought from it. Within chunks like this, my experience seems more continuous and intermingled with other experience within the chunk. Then I get an engaging message or decide to go out, and a new miniature chapter begins, with new feelings and thoughts. (Though I’m not sure how much other people’s thoughts depend on their surroundings, so maybe for others a change of context is less of a reset).
  • Similarly, longer periods of repeatedly being in particular places with particular people. These might be decades of settled marriage or a few days of being on a trip. For me they are often a month to a year. They are punctuated by moving, breaking up, changing jobs. They tend to have their own routines and systems and patterns of thought. For me, starting a new one is often marked by a similar optimism and ambition for a fresh start as mornings. And ending one shares with evenings a risk of sadness at wasted opportunity.

Both of these also end because of something like sleep—changes of context that break the continuity of thoughts or habits within the period, either because those things relied on the previous context as something like memory, or because the new context asks for a new activity that replaces the old one, and the old one needed the continuity to stay alive.