Information Distribution In The Age Of Algorithms – (Part 4 – The Power Of Charisma)

The Power Of Charisma

We now come to another point of concern I touched on earlier. That is the mass promotion of information based primarily on its popularity (as measured by content interaction). I do not have much concern when it comes to mass showcased content (for example, the general trending now section of a site showing what content is generally liked by most users across the entirety of the platform). Media has always been dictated by collective trends, and this is just a newer (and far more quickly adaptable) variant of this phenomenon. The problem with this methodology arises when the same type of phenomenon is broadly applied within a micro-targeted environment.

Or I should say, problems can arise. It all depends on what kind of niche content one is dealing with.

The social media business model is all about interaction. Something insiders (and increasingly psychologists) have labelled The Attention Economy (remember that?). These platforms and apps bread and butter rely on keeping their users engaged as long as possible, so they use every trick in the book to accomplish this (even psychological manipulation akin to that of a slot machine).

Is this Ethical?

Good luck getting a straight answer to that question.

One of these methods which are employed by platforms is called micro-targeting. It’s all based around the sum of your interactions with the platform. Based on both the information that you share and on your behaviour within the platform environment, the algorithm learns about your various preferences and begins tailoring your daily feed based on this information. This is based on every kind of behaviour, from the explicit (liked products or shared content) to the implicit (how long you lingered on an item before scrolling past).

Platforms take this data and compare it against the millions of samples already in their possession, focusing on serving up the content that is most broadly appealing across the given cohort. With the massive database they are working with, it’s almost impossible for a user to NOT fit into some widely cast net. No matter how individualistic one likes to think you are.

Which made for an interesting new twist to the term Trendy (or in online terms, what is trending now). While one still has trends that cross most demographic boundaries (what I call Macro Trends), there exists a new phenomenon. What I like to call Micro Trends. Such trends are generally limited to a fairly small demographic within the larger picture. However, these demographics can range in size from thousands and tens of thousands to millions and can encompass pretty much any subject matter you can think of. Though I label them Micro Trends, the size of some of them is hardly representative of the word.

As with any other human endeavour, where there is an opportunity there are opportunists. There is generally no shortage of the white noise present in any given popular online topic. However, some traits can help a person rise to the top of the pile.

While these topics have chatter in every form available, there is an inherent bias when it comes to the written word. It’s not exactly a bad thing. When given the choice between reading a fairly lengthy blog post or watching a video (of any length), most will opt for the path of least resistance. Despite my love of the written word, even I prefer getting most of my news in the form of short clips. It’s just the nature of the current paradigm.

To be successful in this format, one first has to have some level of public speaking ability. Whilst one is not necessarily talking live to an audience potentially bigger than any venue on earth could handle, you still have to keep them engaged. Which is where charisma comes in. Though it could be possible to teach this trait, it just comes naturally to some people.

Since social media is a toy and a time waster for a person’s free time, you have to give them a compelling reason to watch your content. If a person has the charisma of a 10th-grade biology teacher who hated teenagers and should have given up his career 20 years previous, you won’t do very well in the marketplace. However, if a person has the natural charm to enteral a crowd in combination with a passion of any sort, you will gain ground. You have the potential to become trendy, even if just for a localized demographic.

I happened across a nice example of this while out for coffee with friends recently. In the form of a YouTube channel run by a retired mechanic named Scotty Kilmer. He seems to know his stuff well and presents this material in an entertaining fashion. As such, he has become very popular (over 1 million seven hundred thousand subs) in his localized demographic.

This system generally has few implications in the realm of benign topics and material. However, problems can come up when the often complex realities of the real world meet the simplistic comprehension of the average layman. Take that not as an insult, but as an observation. Not everyone has the time or desire for in-depth insight into everything, so we make do with what we’ve got (I have a tax guy that I trust for a reason). And what we’ve got, is an ever-growing library of knowledge of every type imaginable. All at our fingertips, generally in whatever format we prefer (be it text or video). All continually updated and curated by millions of people from all different backgrounds.

The obvious downside of this being, it is contributed to and curated by people of all backgrounds. A million different opinions and viewpoints to satisfy a million different curiosities. Even if the material is less word of the gospel than universally agreed upon fact. Take Scotty Kilmer, the popular mechanic I made mention of earlier. Upon probing by a friend of mine with a bit of experience in the trade, I learned of some of Scotty’s not so well documented flaws. Ranging from seemingly unwarranted smearing of German makes (particularly Mercedes) to not knowing where the fuel pump is located on a Toyota Rav 4, all the way to recommending a highly dangerous fix to use on ones brake lines.

I am not an academic elitist. I don’t dismiss an individual’s right to an opinion, nor their right to publicly share it as they please. For me, democratized media is still better than the alternative reality of a decade or 2 previous (despite the flaws). However, where we as a society dropped the ball was in any manner of education regarding this medium beyond the very basic. People learn how to use operating systems, apps and other user interfaces, increasing the number of IoT connected devices that they own as the years march on. What we do NOT learn about, are long term implications (and the virtually unlimited lifespan) of pretty much any public facing interaction with the internet. Nor do we learn about the importance of cybersecurity not just for our own good, or the good of all in our interconnected online orbit, but also for the good of the whole of the internet itself. Few know that older (or simply unpatched) consumer hardware and IOT are a growing source of many online attacks (most notably DDoS attacks), with the most common source devices being old printers and routers. Devices that came out of the box 7 or 8 years ago, but then were forgotten. But whilst good cyber housekeeping and hygiene are important, far more pertinent to this paper is the mass oversight of what was once a common sense rule of thumb (albeit, targeting a different medium). An old adage that (somewhat ironically) lives on in memes one still sometimes sees on social media.

You can’t believe everything you see on TV.

I remember seeing the commercials when I was a kid. There was one with a giraffe, and if I recall, a house hippo. But whilst this would seem to be more important a safeguard to internalize than ever, it seems to have gotten lost in the transition. Filed away somewhere between an MSN chat and a Geocities website.

The concept that I am grappling with (or it seems, the lack thereof) is media literacy. The ability to critically analyze the information you are presented with for any biases or other factors of which may shift your viewpoint in a given direction (be it intentional or not). Though it is a global problem (on account the internet being a global phenomenon), there are variations to the degree of media literacy in people. One of the most obvious predictors in generational.

One can generally drop a pin in at around the millennial generation. From us and forward, people tend to be more aware of the shortfalls of the internet. Going backwards from the millennial’s however, the trend tends to be reversed the further away ones get back. I suspect this to be a product to the very different environments in which we all grew up. 4 different generations, ranging all the way from one that embraced this late in life, right to one that grew up with this technology embedded in modern existence.

Media literacy has never been a priority for society. It’s highly unhelpful to have the cogs TOO educated when just enough to keep the machines running is adequate to run an economy. In this new paradigm, however, learning of the pitfalls of the internet the hard way has meant that subsequent generations tend to view the internet with some skepticism. As opposed to the old, who consume media in exactly the same ways as they consumed the old media. Without any analysis whatsoever.

Though one big thing that has changed is the amount of reach they now have. Instead of being limited to the living room or the local coffee shop, they now have the ability to engage with anyone connected to them. Since the mean number of friends that the average Facebook user has is around 200, that is a whole lot of potential eyes.

In the realm of media literacy, fake news tends to be the focus. And for obvious reasons. After all, we are still grappling with the potential consequences of intentionally orchestrated fake news campaigns. However, there is one new phenomenon of the new media space (particularly in the video category) which is arguably even more slippery than even fake news. That is a segment of the space that I will call Academic YouTube. Not because many of them are in any way fitting of the word. More, because that is the label that many like to assign themselves.

This is a huge umbrella term, encompassing of all manner of content made available to help the public enrich their minds. While there can be good material to be found here, like every other area of the web (and life, really), the other stuff ranges from very light grey to black hole. It’s a cohort that tends to be difficult to analyze because of the sheer amount of nuance involved. Outside of the good stuff, you have the seemingly unknowingly misinformed. Along with those, you have those that SHOULD know they are playing with a flawed deck of cards, but apparently, don’t care. Since we can’t read minds, it’s hard to know who is truly misguided, and who is just playing the part.

We now come back to the concept of charisma. With the open mic show that online streaming platforms are, many will jump on camera to share, rant or otherwise discuss something they are passionate about. But only the most entertaining and engaging personalities will rise to the top. This dynamic is true for regular people, and this dynamic is also true for online intellectuals. Well, intellectuals.

While passion no doubt plays a pivotal role in determining people take the stances that they take on a variety of issues, the evolution of how fans can support content creators has also added a whole new layer of uncertainty to the situation. Digital payment processors like Patreon have not only made up for falling revenue shares for YouTube partners but have now more than ever before, begun to eclipse these earnings. Indeed, this can be a hard claim to back, with the choice to disclose the true amount of funding a creator is getting firmly in their hands. More to the point, however, are the questions in which financial commitments should raise. One of the selling points often parroted by these creators (layman or intellectual) is that they are independent. While most of the news commentators do this a lot (aligning under the banner of independent media), individuals often make this point too. Since the YouTube platform essentially serves as a firewall between creators and their ad revenue, they are supposedly not subordinate to any bosses or other hierarchy.
While this is in a sense true (they are not in a big corporations pocket, generally), one has to consider if the new
bosses are the financial supporters of the material. In the so-called Marketplace Of Ideas, these ones have obviously struck a chord with many. However, if the day comes when this seemingly correct way of thinking is ever exposed as being incorrect, would the supporters accept this? How can you tell if a paid commentator is being authentic with their beliefs when their lifestyle (or potentially even their livelihood) may well be tied up in communicating these beliefs?

When it comes to many of these instances, there is no way to tell. In a sense, you take it on faith that you are not being hoodwinked by a modern day charlatan. This may be an easy circle to square for many, but not for this overtly analytical critic of all that is.

You may notice that I said earlier that one must take it on faith they are not being deceived by a charlatan. This actually is a problem that comes in 2 layers, in terms of potential corrupting sources of funding. And only one of them involves the organic dollars of the crowdsourcing platforms.

It is incredibly easy for traditional lobbyists of traditionally elite benefiting ideas to fund creators which are singing the right tune. They have always done this. However, YouTube is just the path to reaching the latest generations.

And so we come to yet another generational divide brought on by innovation.

In order to reach the powerful voting blocks of both the Baby Boomers and Gen X, Television, radio and print were (and really, still are) the way to go. If not through advertising, than in buying up enough of a stake in these organizations so as to have a say in what makes it to the newsroom floor. However, since the Millennial and Z generations are killing traditional media forms such as print, a new way to target this demographic (and growing voting block) had to be found. And though these kids don’t seem to read much nor watch much television, a huge number of then use YouTube. And not only do they use YouTube, but they also willingly seek out educational content exploring all manner of different ideas. Some of these ideas are beneficial for the status of the elites. Some of these ideas are harmful to the status of the elites. However, all it takes is a small investment to ensure that the ideas that YOU want to spread, go far and wide. All you have to do is work with the voices that are already on the scene, doing the work for you. As these channels grow in popularity, the fans spread the message even further. Considering that each Facebook user has about 200 friends, no advertising campaign could hope to come even CLOSE to that amount of market penetration. Much like the days of AM radio, if you throw funding to 100 seedlings, one of these shows is bound to gain traction and become influential to your target audience. The same is true for cable news. And the same is true for YouTube.

Ideas are big money. Or more accurately, trending ideas are big money.

All of this may come off as a tad conspiratorial. Given that the burden of proof is almost impossible to meet, it’s not unfounded criticism. However, such is just another aspect of the world we live in. With new technology and means of mass communication comes a new means of deceiving people. After all, such opportunities don’t disappear with time, they just evolve.

Such is why I decided to leave this piece ambiguous, politically or otherwise. I know what this looks like to me. I have more than a few examples that I am familiar with. However, since your micro-targeted existence likely differs from mine, I want you to be able to identify these problems in your own context. Free of bias, be it your or mine.

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