#407: Vengeance of the Friendly Algorithms

December 3rd, 2014

At the Newberry Library, the staid old temple to history located in an 1890s Spanish Romanesque manor north of Bughouse Square, two journalists talked about how Facebook and Google algorithms give different people different news.

“The friendly algorithms are keeping us away from things that might upset us,” said Owen Youngman, the Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “We don’t have the opportunity to work out the answers together to the vexing questions that are taxing society.”

It was the Dec. 2 edition of Conversations at the Newberry, an ongoing lecture series on topics ranging from Chicago in literature to Abraham Lincoln’s rhetoric to Shakespeare’s 450th birthday.

Tuesday’s talk was on the future, what future there might be, for the news.

“To me, the largest challenge modern journalism has today is how to attract and hold people’s attention in this environment long enough to get somewhat sophisticated messages on matters of great public importance,” Pulitzer Prize-winner and former Tribune Publishing President Jack Fuller told the mostly gray-headed room. “That is a challenge that as yet nobody has satisfactorily figured out.”

Despite some exciting work being done, most journalists aren’t being helpful in finding new ways to tell stories, Fuller said. They want to continue in the old, familiar and utterly failing way.

“I’m nostalgic too, but get over it,” he said.

Before we get into this tale of shoe leather and data analytics, a brief primer on traditional news:

  1. It’s not traditional, more a mid-20th Century blip. Newspapers used to divvy a town with partisan slants so harsh Fox News anchors would blush. As the papers went out of business or consolidated (Sun + Times = Sun-Times), the one or two surviving papers had to become all things to all people. They started appealing to balance.
  2. Advertising — both regular and classified ads — funded the whole thing. It was great for the newspapers, but imagine owning a ski shop. You buy an ad in the Trib knowing darn well maybe one in 10 people reading it is even mildly interested in skiing. As 1800s American businessman John Wanamaker said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”
  3. You’re only half paying attention right now.

How many browser windows do you have open? Have you checked your email? Looked at Twitter? The advertising bit got a bit long. Did you check your phone for texts?

“It’s actually not the fact that you just got an email or a text message that is the most distracting to you. The research will say it’s your breathless anticipation that you might get one,” Youngman said.

Now imagine this isn’t a silly blog post. Imagine this is Chicago Magazine’s analysis of how the Chicago Police Department is manipulating crime statistics. Or the Tribune’s remarkable deep dive into the school district’s bond financing.

Distraction is now socially problematic. tl;dr

Busting through that constant distraction means a story of social relevance now has to be bigger, louder and more emotion-wrenching than every text, tweet, meme, status, cat video, Star Wars trailer or clickbait listicle Google and Facebook are shoving in your face based on what past clicks, likes and searches say you want to see.

While being fair and equitable, well-researched and authoritative and balanced. With no money.

The failures of traditional media are well-documented, from plagiarism to bias to falsification to thin propaganda disguised as news.

But we’ve removed humans from the process of showing you what’s going on in the world, replacing them with friendly algorithms whose only job is to tell you what you want to hear.

“If your grandchildren or your nieces and nephews, all they have to eat is what they bring home Halloween night, they’re not as well-off as they think they are,” Youngman said.

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