The internet is a fantastic medium. You can consume whatever kind of content you like. You can read articles, watch videos, listen to podcasts… Possibilities are endless, right? And every single bit of information seems to be reachable. The internet is not like television, you don’t passively watch a program, instead, you ask a giant database for information. You become active.
And that seems to be absolutely great. That means that we basically have an infinite source of knowledge in our pockets! That means that we regain power! We no longer have to believe other people, instead we can do our own research and get to our own conclusions! We have access to everything. Ressources are absolutely endless. You can double check information you forgot, you can learn new skills and you can even learn a new job!
The internet seems to be like the most perfect tool possible.
But doesn’t that seem too good to be true?
I used to think that it was easy to check if a piece of information was reliable or not. I used to think that the lack of research of some people was the reason why they kept being misinformed. I mean, as the user is active: if something is wrong with the output of a query, that necessarily means that the user made a mistake with the input, right? Well… It might be a little more complicated than that actually.
Welcome to the attention era!
Your own data is what makes big internet companies rich. That’s what they sell. They collect your data (not only your personal informations, but also your behaviour online, such as the pages you’re visiting, the kind of content you interact with and so on) and sell them to companies so they can sell targeted ads on social media or on Google.
So, as a result, they want to collect more and more data about you. That way they can figure out more precisely who you are, what kind of internet user you are and that kind of content you’re more likely to consume. The more precise the data, the more valuable these data are.
So how can they make sure to collect as much data as they can about you? Pretty simple: they want you to spend more time on their service. That’s why most social media now have algorithms to sort out the content you may like from all the accounts you follow, just to make sure that you enjoy what you see so that you stay more on these social media sites and so that you come back to these sites even more frequently.
That’s what people call the attention era. These companies capture your attention using complex algorithms, and they sell this attention and data to advertising companies.
Algorithms make us lazy
First downside of these algorithms is that these algorithms basically act like a more traditional media such as the television or a magazine: they curate content for us so they tend to make us lazy and passive!
Instead of asking directly a giant database for information, it’s just easier to have bots to curate information and content for us and to just passively go through this curated content that was specially provided to us!
And please, don’t pretend that it’s not true and that you’re still mainly active on the internet. You’re currently reading this article because it was recommended to you somehow, by curators or by an algorithm. Or maybe you clicked on a link to this article because you saw it while scrolling on your social media feed. Anyway, it’s very unlikely that you found it through a specific search on Google!
95% of the content we consume daily is consumed passively. We only become active for subjects that truly matter to us or that we are very curious about. And these don’t represent more than 5% of what we consume daily.
Algorithms show us what we want to see
Facebook and Instagram fight for our attention. Because it is what they sell! That’s why they started to release algorithms to curate the newsfeed for us: if they provide us content we like and interact with, we’re more focused on the platform!
From all the data they collect, they know what we like, which friends we like to follow, what we like to comment on and about… They know what we like! So how does the algorithm work? It gives us what we like and what we want to see!
And that’s the main issue!
That means that 95% of the content we passively consume is basically curated for instant approval. If you’re a vegan, you will see tons of content about animal suffering and about how better it is for you to follow a vegan diet. If you love meat and think vegans are stupid, you will see tons of content explaining how being vegan is unhealthy and how a high-protein diet can make you smarter and fitter. Which opinion is true? Maybe one of them, maybe both, maybe none. We can’t know, since we need to do some more specific research about it to find out.
But no one would do research about something they have already approved!
Algorithms just don’t challenge our brains. They just feed them with what they want to see and read. Algorithms are looking for direct approval and for predictability. They just want to capture your attention, they don’t want to make you leave the website for another one so you can do more research. They just want you to stay on the newsfeed and passively consume what you see.
Google and SEO make you believe what the majority believes
Even if Google is not using the same kind of algorithms as social media sites, we have to keep in mind that Google also fights for your attention!
When you ask something on Google, a bot tries to give you the most appropriate and relevant answers. And that’s done by analysing keywords, number of visits, the time spent on a website, the bounce rate and so on. But, to generalise: Google will give you first the most popular websites on the subject. And I said the most popular, not the most correct. That means that the websites provided were considered as relevant to the question you asked. Not that the websites contain correct information. On top of that, keep in mind that most websites pay expensive SEO experts to make sure they’re displayed on the first page of Google for specific queries (when was last time you went on the second page of Google?).
Google provides you what’s most popular and websites do everything they can to be ranked first on Google. See how absolutely no quality criteria are taken into account when Google tries to give you an answer to your query? Google gives you what everyone thought was best, or it gives you the website that its algorithm decided was best according to its very specific criteria because that’s what you’ll more likely enjoy.
These web platforms fight for your attention. Your attention is worth so much that they totally gave up on bringing value to their customers. They just do everything they can to get their attention. Even if that implies that they have to decrease the quality of the service.
The internet feeds us with what we want to see. Because that’s how they keep our attention. We love to see that we’re right and that we know everything. It’s comforting. The internet gives us comfort, and we give it our attention.
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