Shit journalism, algorithms and voluntary slavery (or about “free” access to information)
First, before I get to the point, I’d like to thank two people I don’t know and have never met: Bartosz Filip Malinowski from the Bez/Schematu vlog and Magdalena Czubaszek from Krytyka Polityczna. I’ve never met them, but their columns/articles on algorithms and shit journalism respectively let me put my mind together and inspired me to write this column.
Social media exposure
I will not refer to the theses put forward in the articles (with some I agree, with others less so), but I will treat them as a springboard to describe a topic that has been bothering me for quite some time.
If you run any activity related to an online presence, blog/vlog/portal/Instagram account, etc. you are certainly exposed to one, and probably even both, of the biggest players in the Western Internet: Google and Facebook. They are probably the biggest sources of traffic to your website, podcast or vlog. Searches in the browser, referrals from Facebook or Instagram fanpages, YouTube, algorithms recommending content for users, etc. etc. They, next to the so-called direct, decide who will get to your work, and probably even more who will not. These two giants can decide your to be or not to be. I am in no way suggesting that it is intentional. Their task is to maximise profit, so they will direct traffic to places where readers or viewers are most likely to get hits. If your post, article or podcast falls into a currently “pushed” trend, you are lucky, if not, there is a chance that nobody will not reach for your work.
Algorithms have no feelings...
… or emotions, they only have parameters, which in many cases are currently shaped by machine learning – in short, from a certain point, people do not program them, they program themselves. Changing the algorithm can lead to the fact that one day 50, and maybe 90% of traffic from a given source (e.g. organic search or Facebook reach) will disappear from your website. These giants can kill your creativity or business if you have the misfortune to run it online with a single change of algorithm parameters. The best thing about it is that they don’t even know it – you’re just a microscopic component of global statistics, even though for you it could be your whole life. Not only do they not know it, but they don’t care, as an individual, you don’t exist to them.
As a publisher of filmfolly.com, I experienced these changes for years, I experienced a 70% cut in Google traffic and a 97% cut in Facebook reach, but don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining – this is reality that just is, it’s objective and either, wanting to do what you do, you live with it, or you change the industry, because you have no influence on it. Unless you make your own.
I will not go into how recommendation algorithms kill independent creativity, because Bartosz did it great on his vlog. It is enough to know that the algorithm does not choose valuable things, but those that are read/watched, so if you have not created something trending or have not subscribed to something trending, forget that someone will see it, no matter how valuable it was. However, it is worth dwelling on why their existence and operation entail a gradual degradation of the created content. The mechanism is extremely simple: if something is trending and the market can produce something that will be watched by hundreds of thousands, and millions of viewers globally, it will just do it. If something like this is a pathostream or a road accident, preferably with victims, then we have a recipe for “success”. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t necessarily have to be preying on misfortune. Let’s take a fresh example from the area of TV series: She-Hulk, broadcast on Disney+ . If this is a topic that the reader wants to see on his feed, then you have a guarantee that every little thing that appears in this series will be processed by countless portals in dozens of ways, leading to the fact that these entries will eventually be devoid of any content, as long as the title of the series, Marvel and a catchy teaser appeared in the key phrases. That’s how it works.
Worse, the entire sphere of journalism that produces these things is degrading along with the content. Clicks drive the type of content written, content drives clicks, someone has to create the content, the circle closes. With time, journalists are no longer needed only mass producers of news-like products, countless variants of which will soon be able to be produced by artificial intelligence such as ChatGPT or Bard. Who needs a valuable journalist who creates valuable materials if they are not readable?
What’s more, the modern algorithm-driven model of content consumption increasingly separates the author’s identity from the content he “produces”. How many people go to the main page of the portal today to find the text of their favorite author? This is the domain of Internet 1.0, when we read websites like newspapers in the 80s. Today we type a phrase, we get thousands of articles to choose from and we don’t care who wrote them.
Are we humans so hopeless, or are algorithms pushing us into the abyss of madness? This is a task for sociologists and psychologists, although it is certainly a kind of feedback loop. However, one could be tempted to try to answer the question of what lies at the basis of this qualitative quilting, but here one should look at the entire online ecosystem related to content production. And here the situation seems clear.
Anyone can go to any website and consume any type of news, article, column, essay or whatever one wants. We go to Google, enter a phrase that interests us and we get hundreds of materials right under our noses. No effort, no problem, one click away. And here comes the reflection. Does content creation cost money? By entering a film portal and reading an analysis of a film for 30,000 characters, am I consuming something that was created without cost or effort? Someone must have spent hours on this and was probably paid for it. How the hell am I getting this for free?
Well, of course, you don’t consume it for free. You pay for it with your privacy and exposure to advertising, for which publishers pay advertisers in the form of ad networks, media houses or directly clients. Sorry for the truism, but on average over 30% of the population doesn’t understand that the government gives away their own tax money, it’s sometimes useful to remember the basics: there is no free lunch.
A lofty ideal or a business model?
And here we come to the point. Virtually the entire ecosystem of “free” access to information in any form is funded by advertising revenue. The advertising networks whose units you see earn billions every day by providing you with more and more tailored advertising content and outdo each other in finding you in the most camouflaged corners of the network. This is not done by people sifting through countless pages, it is done by robots, algorithms. And they’re doing it better and smarter. This is why they brainwash us and journalism becomes shit journalism.
And here I will risk a certain thesis, which may be controversial, because it undermines the founding myth of the Internet. The democratic and free access to information is to blame for everything. A lofty ideal that has become the cornerstone of one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Even at the beginning of the 1990s, it was normal to subscribe to newspapers, weeklies and monthlies in order to read good quality news or articles. In other words, you paid for content whose specific title guaranteed quality. The ideal of universal access to information gave birth to an entire ecosystem and a gigantic business model whose only goal, only 30 years after the creation of the Internet, is not to provide us with high-quality information or to democratise access to it, but to push us through as many clicks and screens as we can make in a unit of time. Nobody cares if we read the content on the website we visit, as long as the network manages to show us the advertisement. The goal of the algorithm is not to please us, but to push us to another chance to display advertising material. As a result, content producers found themselves between a rock and a hard place: either you produce content that algorithms push the traffic on and you have a chance to display an ad and earn money, or you stay in a niche that cannot be scaled and you are lost. Spending has become a game of outsmarting the algorithm, with survival at stake.
But perhaps the most tragic thing about all this is that we surrendered ourselves to slavery at our own request. And whose is it? Algorithms! A few technological giants who use their technologies to do whatever they want with us. How many times have you found yourself spending another hour scrolling through Instagram or Facebook reels or falling into the hole of the YouTube bubble? And how much has it enriched you? We devote not only time to them, but we give them all of ourselves and like sheep to the slaughter we follow the next given link. This is the price we pay. And the only reason we’re agreeing to it is because we don’t pay it in hard cash every month. Would we behave the same way if every time we read an article, a push came from our bank that we had just lost a few pennies of our savings? Because this is what is happening, except that instead of money we pay with data about us, our habits, hobbies, friends, etc. Which would be better: pay a few dozen USD a year to get the highest quality and credible material from someone you trust, or give your time and privacy to someone who will turn them into dollars… for themselves? Like a slave.
Can we get out of this blind alley? The chances are slim. Neal Stephenson in his novel from a few years ago: Fall; or, Dodge in Hell prophesies that in the not so distant future we will face an inevitable phase in which we will no longer be able to control the information flowing to us other than by using people who will filter it for us in real time according to specific rules. Otherwise, we will be flooded with a wave of worthless, often untrue, and certainly eating up our precious time content with zero intellectual calories. In fact, it’s already happening.
Soon someone will probably write in the comment that all this gibberish is complaining about from another boomer, but I give you my word that just as I appreciate every, even the most skittish, reader of this portal, I would replace 90% to a large extent random people flowing in a wide stream from Google or Facebook algorithms with only 10% of those for whom the authors and filmfolly.com would become such an important part of their lives that they would be willing to pay a few bucks a month for unique content. Amen.