Facebook, My News Editor

05paper3A decade ago, while debating capitalism and socialism in an Orkut forum, I shared a journal article of Murray Rothbard. This evoked response to this effect: “I don’t care about what some guy on the internet says about economic depressions.” It did not occur to them that Murray Rothbard was one of the greatest polymaths ever lived, and that they were adolescents who did not know what they were talking about. When journalists like Manu Joseph claim that the internet disseminates rubbish, I feel quite the same way. They do not know what they are talking about. When journalists see nostalgia as a business model, a bit of iconoclasm is in order. Let me evaluate those claims.

“Friends, as most of us know, are people on Facebook who usually share information. Among the things they post on their newsfeeds are, in fact, news. And columns, too, thankfully. An increasing number of people are now doing many things primarily on Facebook, including consuming journalism. And what they are most influenced by is what their friends have shared. As a result their hopes and convictions find easy confirmations, and are seldom challenged on their newsfeeds. The world might be fragmenting, but within the fragments there is an eerie, almost indestructible, uniformity of minds. Facebook did not create this, but it has facilitated, and will do so more effectively in the future.”

Are these arguments even new? Hundreds of years ago, when the print culture was taking off, the narrow minded Luddites without sufficient imagination raised the same arguments. They believed that The Bible and the works of Aristotle would be printed and read throughout the continent. When people read the same texts, there would be “an eerie uniformity of minds”, or so they believed. Of course, this was not what happened. The body of literary output, before and since then isn’t even comparable. It was not just that the people did not read the same texts over and over. Their belief in earlier texts was shaken when they compared the ancient texts with more credible, modern works of literature. This would not have happened without the printing press. Over five centuries later, the ancients sound stupid. Why didn’t they see the obvious? People aren’t good at comprehending or anticipating change, especially when they are dull and have a vested interest in preserving the “good old ways”.

When I was a child, the only English language publications my parents subscribed to were The Hindu and The Indian Express and The Reader’s Digest and India Today. The internet wasn’t around. These newspapers and magazines were the only source of news and analysis. There was a certain uniformity in consumption of news and analysis. Even now, the range of political and philosophical positions debated in the public sphere in India is quite narrow. It was much worse when I was a child, or even in my early teens. The contemporary events were analyzed by journalists, by mediocre minds. When they debased the ideas of their superiors, there was no one to call them on this. The journalists couldn’t interpret the world quite the same way the public intellectuals or the academic bloggers do. They were blinded by envy and ignorance. A lot of them did not even read books. Even today, I cannot think of a single Indian journalist who knows elementary economics—Or the fundamentals of any social science, for that matter.

There was not much access to the non-fiction classics of the west before early 2000s. Before the blogging revolution, the brightest academic minds couldn’t publicize their thoughts on contemporary events. The internet changed everything.  News, when seen through the prism of social sciences, did not make any sense to me. The journalists never made much sense to me, but the internet made them look naked.

An academic who has been thinking about the internet for the past quarter of a century would not have missed the parallels with the arguments of the Luddites at the outset of print culture. Fifteen years ago, I had to be content reading such third-world ignoramuses who wrote for the Indian newspapers and magazines against tight deadlines. Now, to understand the internet I read Tyler Cowen, Clay Shirky, Chris Anderson, Paul Graham, David Weinberger or Sherry Turkle. Why? They know what they are talking about. They aren’t writing to make a quick buck.

When the brightest intellectuals discuss contemporary events on their blogs, they see many aspects the journalists would have missed. They see many aspects other intellectuals had missed. They continually challenge each other. In the pursuit of the truth, they push themselves hard. Do you see uniformity of opinions here? I do not.  

“Facebook is now an ally of mainstream journalism as any good distributor of content would be, but it is also an efficient medium for disseminating rubbish.”

True enough. Way too many people write on the internet. The median blogger is, in all likelihood, a moron. This is inevitable. But, India has 99,660 publications according to a recent estimate. The media allows way too many people to write. The median journalist is also, in all likelihood, a moron. If you judge the media and the blogosphere according to the performance of the median journalist or the median blogger, there is no substantive difference. As a reader, I do not see much difference between writers that live with mild mental retardation and the writers that live with borderline intellectual functioning. So, why do I read blogs? The best bloggers are geniuses. Here, I am not using the term “genius” loosely. The best bloggers are more informed than any newspaper columnist. If the best bloggers are geniuses, why should I worry about the incompetence of the large majority of incompetent bloggers? 

True enough, rare as they are, the western capitalistic democracies have very good journalists and columnists. I sift through newspaper and magazine archives. I read them. Of course, bright academics and public intellectuals do write for the mainstream press, but they are not merely bright intellectuals, they are also politically correct, clever “politicians”. When compared to the best bloggers, they are not so good. The newspapers and magazines do not turn over their editorial page to truly iconoclastic thinkers. To speak for myself, I do not write carefully constructed prose for a middle-aged harlot to botch it up.

For instance, Manu Joseph writes for the New York Times, but not one of my favorite western bloggers have a regular column at the New York Times. The mainstream media does not cater to elite insiders. His views are well within the mainstream because he is not a particularly well-read writer, or an extraordinary thinker. But, every single blog post of the best academic bloggers reflect a lifetime of scholarship. It is not surprising that their views might offend the readers of the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. I cannot recall a single blog post on Econlog, or Overcoming Bias that disappointed me. On the internet, anyone can contribute to world literature, but the internet also allows the geniuses to publish. It is the geniuses who push humanity forward. Time is very, very, valuable.

“Facebook is most dangerous when a major conflict divides society, as did Israel’s attack on Gaza. Facebook users, in the passions of their ideologies, found, in their newsfeed of course, news and visuals that endorsed their emotions. They attached credibility to these stories because they were posted by their friends, and propagated them without enduring the inconvenience of verifying them. For that they would have had to take the trouble to go to the website of a respectable news organisation.” 

The journalists are not more credible than the best bloggers. To begin with, the talented academic bloggers would find the cheap rhetorical tactics of third-world journalists beneath them. I was never disappointed reading a journal article or book the best bloggers recommended. I do not trust the Indian literary critics. No Indian journalist has sound judgment in such matters. No news organization is “respectable”, in any meaningful sense of that term. Verifying facts ain’t easy. No Indian journalist knows how to interpret studies because they do not know social statistics. News is worthless if you do not know how to interpret what you read. Most people who read the newspapers cannot interpret news. But, it is the processors that matter, not the hunters and the gatherers. The talented bloggers are better processors.

Could any journalist have written any of these blog posts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). I doubt. So, should a reader form his opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by reading the lesser “eminentoes” that write for The Times Of India or The Hindustan Times? Or, should he read what the brightest minds on earth have to say on this? For once, I leave the answer to you.

“Over the past few weeks, many were fooled by a story that was originally the work of a satirical website — that all of Earth would be enveloped in total darkness for six days in December because of a solar storm.”

But, the supposedly respectable newspapers and magazines have always fooled the readers. This is not necessarily because they were trying to purposefully fool the readers, but because they are duds. While working against tight deadlines, even a bright mind might just give up. Journalists do not see how they are distorting reality because they do not see how their cognitive biases deceive them. Even if you point this out, they wouldn’t recognize this, because they are not introspectivist enough. . They do not have ethical standards not because the advertisers corrupt them, but because they are barbarians, and do not have any values to begin with. They did not grow up reading books.  Morons cannot have moral values. Much as they rant about falling journalistic standards, the journalists haven’t even identified the problem. But, on the blogosphere, the brightest minds analyze contemporary issues. The brightest minds on earth are not journalists for the same reason the copy editors in news organizations are not the most grammatically skilled people around.

“Facebook, like most smart people and entities, has a mild disregard for what humans might achieve when left to their own devices. So it intervenes in the composition of newsfeeds to make them interesting. It does this through a secret, evolving algorithm that decides, on the basis of personal histories, what people might be interested in seeing when they are inside Facebook. Such a seductive newsfeed not only makes it easier for the users to shift to online journalism but also lures them to bypass the digital versions of conventional media. Already, for a vast section of the youth, the very idea of a newspaper’s homepage is nostalgic. They are not foraging for news, they are being fed, and fed what they like.”

This is the philosophy of a middle-aged Luddite in its full glory. There were not many talented fellows among the published writers before the internet. There aren’t many talented fellows among the writers who publish on the internet today. Talent is innate, and scarce. The internet has not changed this. So, what has changed? Unlike newspapers and magazines, the internet allows the obscure geniuses to publish. A typical blog post or essay does not fit the format of a newspaper or magazine piece. The traditional publishing outlets, especially in poor countries, were never good filters. 

Much of published literature was always mindless pap. The internet hasn’t changed it. But, this is irrelevant. The problem was never that there are way too many writers. But, it was always challenging to find the diamonds in the rough. But, too much “rubbish” being published on the internet does not make it harder to find those precious diamonds in the rough. Quite the contrary.

In the past, when there were tens of thousands of publications, perhaps filtering meant subscribing to, at most, a handful of them. In those times, perhaps filtering meant reading what the literary critics or friends consider to be good. These weren’t good filters. How do I filter? I read what the best academic bloggers and writers link to. I peruse the footnotes religiously. I subscribe to their blogs. I follow the most thoughtful thinkers on Twitter. I create lists on Twitter and Facebook. On Facebook, I add them to my “close friends” list. I receive instant updates when they share insightful essays. 

The social media is a great filter. But, human minds resent the algorithm-driven filters of the social media because human brain isn’t good at comprehending probabilistic statistics. But, in many contexts they act as if they do comprehend probabilistic statistics because they are instinctively shrewd. But, while reading newspapers they do not act quite the same way. They prefer a “wise editor” for the same reason they pray for a benevolent dictator. It is not Facebook or Twitter, but the supposedly “wise editor” who does not have much respect for what human beings would have chosen to read if they were left to themselves. It is the supposedly “wise editor” who lumps too many unrelated essays together, nudging the reader toward consuming them mindlessly .

Facebook, Google, Twitter, Gmail and YouTube impels us to compromise on the margins to optimize in more substantive ways. When I Google “Neurodiversity”, I might not see some of the best pages that Google does not display on the first few pages. But, this is a small price to pay for macro-scale optimization. It is better to use Google than to grope in the dark. I would rather not read some of the best content than avoid Google altogether. This is what Facebook and Twitter feeds do too. The social media saves time. It cuts “searching costs”. I can barely influence what the media publishes, but I actively influence what Google and my Twitter and Facebook newsfeeds shows me. If you are able to make fine distinctions, you cannot afford not to filter. This is what being a discerning reader is about.

For long, the journalists argued that a lot of nonsense is being published on the internet. The solution is of course, learning how to filter. The social media is one of the greatest filtering tools. Now they claim that filtering creates uniformity. These two claims cancel out each other. But, does this even occur to them? 

“Most of the stories that become popular on Facebook are, naturally, free. Newsfeed functions like a supernewspaper of free content from various parts of the world. There is a popular view that most of the world will not pay for online journalism as they have been habituated to paying nothing for journalism. But it is inevitable that in the future high-quality journalism will not remain free. Great journalism then will become niche and expensive, and very rarely found on Newsfeed.”

The journalists have been saying this for at least two decades. But, this has not materialized, and probably won’t. This is not true of other forms of literature, like academic non-fiction or literary fiction. They have long found a niche. So, why did the truthful journalists fail to find their sweet niche? As Clay Shirky put it, Nostalgia cannot be  a business model.

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