I first wrote this as a comment to a Veritasium video that analyzes the perils of a recommendation-based approach to content distribution. In attempting to link to that comment on Twitter, I found myself unable to do so because Twitter or Youtube or both don’t seem to give a shit about preserving user intent. Well, fuck you both, this is my website, and that comment is hosted below.
In the 1990s, before Internet use exploded, there were no large-scale Internet content distributors that value ‘engagement’ above all else, because there weren’t enough users to sustain an advertising-based business model (a state that I hold in much higher regard now than I did back then). There was still plenty of worthwhile stuff to find, but you had to know how to find it. It’s not hard to do, but it does require some effort: typing into a search field, bookmarking things, making lists, setting reminders… and the hardest one of all (then and now): remembering to search in the first place. All of these are critical skills that need to be USED to get the most out of the Internet. Just like muscles, without use you get atrophy.
As the Internet gained users, it became increasingly crowded with corporations, which largely fueled that expansion. In the same way that YouTube and pretty much every commercial web presence wants to increase engagement (because eyeballs are currency if you’re counting advertising impressions), corporations in general tend to value growth and shareholder value over everything else. They figured out a long time ago that reducing friction usually yields more customers. That’s not always a bad thing; for example a hand tool that’s easier to use because it has a molded hand grip is just more effective than one without a hand grip. Ease-of-use is an important part of the overall cost / benefit analysis, for both consumers and producers.
The trick is that the cost / benefit continuum extends in both directions. It is optimistic (but naive) to think about that continuum in one direction: “people are probably willing to sustain a higher cost to receive a greater benefit” while not also thinking of the other direction where people are willing to pay a lower cost to receive less benefit. Sure, lots of people have the ability to exclusively watch movies or shows that they select themselves (e.g. DVDs), but a huge number of people would rather watch something they didn’t select if it means they don’t have to work for it. It is almost certain that they won’t be watching precisely what they want to watch all the time, but hey – just think of all that effort saved! “I make choices constantly at work (school, whatever), and now at the end of a long day, I just want to relax and be spoon-fed!”.
Probably the most familiar example of how that trade-off plays out is called ‘television’, and it sucks (IMO) for the very reason that allowed media corporations to grow their empires: they traveled too far down the stupid side of the cost / benefit continuum and destroyed their own ecosystem in the process, while also ‘earning’ absurd amounts of money. There’s a very blurry line between making products and services more accessible in ways that empower people (“molded hand grip”) versus accidentally or on purpose participating in a race to the bottom that yields local, short term gains (“more viewers for ME!”) at the cost of negative global or long-term effects (“I just reinforced mindless consumer behaviors!”). Historical note: TV wasn’t always like that. In the early days when there were only a handful of networks, there was some consideration for the greater good that factored into, say, content programming decisions. That all evaporated with the rise of consumerism and much greater competition in the form of an explosion of TV / video outlets.
One of my favorite things about the Internet is that I get to decide how I use it, where I go, what I produce, and what I consume. To me, it is the polar opposite of TV or any other feed-based outlet. These themes of self-direction and choice were widely shared among early Internet users, and it’s not a coincidence that those same people are also willing to take the more difficult and less convenient path if it unlocks the reward they want – because they had to on the early Internet (auto-play wouldn’t arrive for decades). Yet these days I see so many people – well-meaning, honest, good people – behaving as though they don’t have any choice, and even aligning their own goals with the goals of the very corporations that put them in an unfavorable position. I see this as a direct projection of the world-view that has shaped at least the US economy and culture for the last ~50 years or so, so… ya know… “f*ck you very much, corporate America!”. (side note: yes, I’m absolutely a Youtube Red subscriber).
In closing, a few final thoughts:
- Support the creators you care about with currency that is actual money, not ‘engagement’ or any other non-money currency.
- If you are a creator, think about how you can directly earn currency-money yourself, if you aren’t already. It’s not supposed to be easy. If it seems easy, you are probably getting jacked.
- The biggest scam on the whole Internet is how people were led to believe that something is free if they don’t pay for it in currency-money. Nothing is free when businesses are involved. They’re also very good at hiding the value of whatever kind of non-money currency is being extracted from users, which is terrible because users then have no way to even make a value judgement by asking themselves “is this cost-benefit trade-off worthwhile for me?”, so now the whole idea that you CAN and SHOULD make that choice is starting to disappear.
- For a thorough and lucid exploration of these and related concepts, I can’t recommend the documentary “The Century of the Self” highly enough. I mean this so sincerely that I’m not even going to link to it :)