Hudson Hongo, culture editor at the science and technology website Gizmodo, told students a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of today’s online media world at an event hosted by the communication department on Tuesday night.
Hongo began by describing the concept of the “attention economy”—the idea that, in a world where information is abundant and mostly free, the most valuable resource is not information itself, but the attention of people who might consume it.
“It sets us up [so that] the news … has to compete in a field against every other kind of information, including gaming livestreams, or even a quiz asking which member of the Manson family you are,” Hongo said.
Hongo talked about how, with online media, journalists today have access to data about every story they write. He recounted how around 50,000 people read what he considers the best story he ever wrote, while 6 million people read his worst—a blog post about “the dress” from 2015.
“It does sort of show what this economy of attention is like, where something very stupid can often do very well in metric terms, but maybe it’s not the thing that you’re most proud of,” he said.
Hongo described how nowadays few people read physical newspapers or type the names of news websites into search engines to get their news—almost all traffic comes through Facebook or Google.
“If people are reading the news, it’s because Facebook or Google or Twitter have decided that their algorithms want to show the story to people,” Hongo said.
But problems can arise when these platforms strive to be as engaging as they possibly can, Hongo said. Facebook has been known to curate non-factual stories for people that fit their interests and preconceived notions, while Twitter has had serious problems with conflict, bullying, harassment, and hate speech, Hongo said.
“What makes Twitter interesting is the conflicts, the dunks, the owns that are on there,” Hongo said. “And if you ask a robot, ‘Hey, people love this stuff, how do I give them more of it?,’ the robot will say, ‘Okay, here’s more.’”
Hongo said he has recently taken an interest in times in which these algorithms work in wrong and bizarre ways. He told a story about last year Google discovered that many people who Googled movie titles also searched for fanfiction about those movies, so the company added a “Fanfiction” section among the subtopic tabs that would pop up at the top of users’ search results.
“If you know anything about fanfiction … you know that they get pretty steamy—so that’s like not a good idea,” Hongo said.
He said he discovered that even Googling children’s movies, such as The Grinch or Minions, would yield extremely explicit results in the fanfiction tab. When he talked to a Google spokesperson about the issue, Hongo said it became clear that the company had just added the function without putting thought into what the results might actually look like.
“It’s closer to stupid than evil,” Hongo said. “All of these things are basically operating in an automated way and then produce just terrible results for a lot of users.”
Hongo said that while there are many frivolous examples involving these algorithms, real problems do arise when they cause the spread of misinformation, violence, or harassment. They also make it even harder for struggling news organizations to survive, he said.
Hongo pointed out that there are things that can be done to rectify the situation—like calling out the companies who own these platforms and shaming them into doing better.
“We can ask to be better, and we have to,” Hongo said. “But they’re never going to be great, because they’re profit motive is fundamentally oppositional to a public good. It’s like, you can’t sell safe crack—it just doesn’t work.”
Hongo said that another possibility is for companies to decide to become less toxic on their own, such as when Facebook made the decision to deprioritize public content in users’ feeds.
“[That] could be successful, but I think it’s going to become pretty clear that that’s why people were going there, for the cyberbullying … [and] the misinformation that was supporting everything they already believed,” Hongo said. “People stop going to a website, then another even more f—ed up one shows up that people start going to instead.”
In closing, Hongo said that he still has hope in regard to the future of journalism, particularly in relation to the way the barriers for entry into the industry have been lowered. Hongo himself didn’t go to journalism school—in fact, he took one journalism class in high school and got an incomplete—but he was able to make it by just picking up skills along the way.
“This moment in particular is not the best time just because a lot of these new media companies are contracting,” Hongo said. “But in general, I think it’s a better system, where you don’t have to know the right people or have this super fancy degree to make a living doing writing. And I will say that my job is really fun.”
Featured Image by Samantha Karl / Heights Staff