How tech companies have created a massive content problem
When you wake up in the morning and read the news, or start consuming content, where’s the first place you turn? According to Pew Research Center, about 66 percent of adults who use Facebook on a regular basis get their news there primarily -- nd 40 percent of adults, in total, rely on Facebook as a primary source of news. If you don’t check Facebook as a primary source, you probably use Google searches to find news and content -- or at least to supplement your primary channel.
For the most part, search engines, social media sites, and news aggregation platforms have worked wonders for society. They make it faster and easier than ever to read new information -- mostly for free -- and have only grown in popularity over the years. However, they’ve also created a massive problem -- and one that isn’t easy to fix.
The Algorithm Problem
In traditional journalism, individual reporters with a history of integrity and years of experience work to find stories to report on, and a central editor, with even more years of experience, decides which stories to include and how to promote them.
But with modern high-tech algorithms, there’s no central editor. Instead, almost anyone in the world can create content whenever and however they want, and the top stories are decided on by an automated algorithm. These algorithms have gotten good at giving users more of the content they want to read, but their automated nature has led to a handful of issues:
- Algorithms are exploitable. Once you figure out how an algorithm works -- even if you only understand the basics -- you can start exploiting it. Therefore, search engine optimization (SEO) is a popular tactic, and even after a crackdown by Facebook and other social media platforms, clickbait remains a persistent problem. Companies and individuals are clamoring to produce whatever content will rank highest, rather than the content that is most important, or most valuable to users. The Pareto principle, or 80-20 rule, has always applied to content quality; in other words, 20 percent of contributors produce 80 percent of the quality content. But in today’s algorithm-driven world, that 20 percent can get buried.
- Fake news is practically undetectable. In the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, Google, Facebook, and other big tech companies have made a more concentrated effort to crack down on "fake news" --the often-intentionally inaccurate stories that flood our newsfeeds in an effort to ruin or support someone’s reputation. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to stop the floods. Fake news stories are oftentimes alarming, surprising, or otherwise interesting to specific demographics, which means they spread fast; and once they spread fast, it’s hard to avoid seeing them highly ranked in newsfeed and search results algorithms. Report buttons and indications of disputed accuracy can only take you so far.
- People remain trapped in echo chambers. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, tech companies keep modern users trapped in echo chambers, where they’re constantly exposed to content that reinforces their pre-existing opinions, never exposed to content that challenges those opinions. Users are free to block, un-friend, and mute people they don’t agree with, and algorithms are specifically designed to give users more content like content they’ve already liked and commented on. The end result is a central space for learning new information that’s front-loaded with content that already aligns with your preconceived notions.
Between these three items, users are presented with less accurate content, less quality content, and more content that keeps them exclusively thinking within their already-existing thought patterns. It’s created a content crisis that persists for users, content producers, and even the tech companies responsible for it.
Toward a Solution
Fortunately, high-tech brands are working hard to try and resolve this problem, between fake content checks and algorithm improvements designed to provide a more diverse range of content for users. But no matter what they do, the problem will likely persist in some way; after all, content is created for and consumed by people, and technology can’t protect us from ourselves.
The problem will likely improve over the next several years, but it’s unlikely to disappear entirely; until then, it’s on content creators and consumers to do their part in making the web a better place. You can start by doing your own fact-checking on dubious articles, avoiding sharing exploitative content, and producing only the best content you can.
Anna Johansson is a freelance writer, researcher, and business consultant. A columnist for Entrepreneur.com, HuffingtonPost.com and more, Anna specializes in entrepreneurship, technology, and social media trends. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.