Monday, December 30, 2013

The Day the Social Web Became Self Aware

Viral Hoaxes, mob justice and errors in breaking news have become hallmarks of the social media era. The most recent event, the stoning of Justine Sacco in the Internet’s town square, seems to have struck a nerve with members of the media. While no one disputes that Sacco’s tweet was horrific (and reckless given her profession), the speed, size and ruthlessness of the mob seems to have startled a number of prominent journalists. In response came a series of soul-searching posts that analyzed how the social web had become capable of such violence.

Nick Bilton of the Times called on social media influencers who have large online followings to be thoughtful about what they share, rather than automatically fanning the flames of what’s going viral

Roxane Gay of Salon pointed out that by stripping Justine Sacco of her humanity, the social media mob that went after her embodied the very attitude it claimed to condemn

Luke O’Neil of Esquire criticized the business model of web publishers that incentivizes the forsaking of journalistic values in pursuit of increased traffic

As O’Neil points out, web publishers are beholden to a “business plan driven by the belief that big traffic absolves all sins.” Translation: It’s hard for media companies to toe the line between being a news organization and a traffic herder. The temptation to publish the next piece of viral content can compromise traditional journalistic values, for example: 

  • In the Sacco scenario, the mob is not a mob, it’s an asset capable of driving mass traffic
  • When news is breaking, looser standards for fact checking make business sense (Boston Marathon, Sandy Hook, Hurricane Sandy)
  • When a story has already gone viral, share first to siphon off a piece of the traffic, then ask questions second (rooftop break up, yearofelan, lesbian waitress, snow sphinx)
These examples attest to the fact that media companies will capitalize on sharable headlines, even at the expense of traditional journalistic values. The problem is that it makes business sense to do so. While it’s tempting to lay the blame at the doorstep of new Internet media companies, the truth is this is a systemic problem and until the system has different incentives, the trend will accelerate. Upworthy, BuzzFeed, Gawker and The Huffington Post are just the first movers showing everyone else how to play the game.

So where is this all going? The trajectory of the social web and how it impacts consumers has parallels to the rise and fall of Demand Media. In its earlier days, Demand provided a valuable service to consumers by assembling a content empire designed to answer the millions of queries that people type into Google every day. Yet upon closer examination, Demand’s business model was to win traffic from Google, not to provide an answer to people’s search queries. While those two goals seemed nearly synonymous with one another, the immense scale required for Demand to create a successful business magnified the subtle distinction. A few years later, Demand had become excellent at winning traffic from Google, but pretty bad at providing consumers useful information.

The social web seems be going through similar growing pains. Where Demand once created content optimized for the search platform, today a new crop of companies are creating content optimized for sharing (the social platform). At first glance, the business of aggregating, repackaging, creating and disseminating sharable content seems to be good for consumers, simply by virtue of filling up newsfeeds with enticing headlines. Yet, the scale required to build a business around sharable content has revealed that what is highly sharable is not always in the interest of consumers. In fact, what is sharable is not necessarily true, or ethical and sometimes can be downright dangerous.

The parallels continue: when Demand veered off course, Google tweaked its algorithm so that Demand’s content would no longer appear as prominently in search results. Just last month, Facebook announced a change to its edgerank algorithm that is expected to punish disreputable publishers. But that’s where the similarities end. Google’s control over search results is much more direct than Facebook’s control over what its one billion users share. Moreover, much of the web's sharing happens over Twitter and other social networks, not just Facebook. 

That’s why it was so commendable to see prominent journalists pause and reflect in the aftermath of Sacco. The media’s self-regulation is the first step in what must be a collaborative effort to minimize the sharing of content that does more harm than good. In the era of social media, all journalists are ombudsman charged with upholding the web’s credibility as a medium. As it turns out, Justine Sacco’s legacy is less the content of her tweet, but that her downfall marked the day the media became self-aware of its vital role on the social web.