Perils of biased attention

Man has always shown a certain level of attentional bias. Some parts of this bias are inherent to the way a human thinks, whereas other parts are affected by the surrounding sociocultural environment. The latter type is more susceptible to change of course, since societies and cultures change but the human mind essentially doesn't.

Information is nowadays ubiquitous, which means that we have much more options when sharing our attention. In addition there are a lot more ways to direct and control that attention. When attention is directed in a certain way, it also affects the way others try to draw that attention. I see modern technology currently shaping the way we direct our attention on three different layers.

1. Personal

People naturally pay the most attention to things that they are personally interested in. This may sometimes lead one to overlook something that would actually have significant value or broaden one's perspective. Nevertheless, this is of course very normal: people have different interests and that's it. However, technology is nowadays boosting this bias, which is well described by Eli Pariser in this speech:

The speech points out that what you see on Facebook and even on Google is individualized to meet your interests. This means that views you don't that easily look into don't even get the same possibility of being represented to you. In other words, when for example googling for something, you end up in an informational bubble: you see what you want to see, which probably makes the experience more pleasant and entertaining, but on the other hand may prevent you from seeing something that would be more beneficial. As a result personal viewpoints don't get challenged as easily, but rather become more narrow. Individualization of course often helps in finding results quickly, so it does have its meaningful purpose, but this should happen in a more transparent way and the user should have more control over the process.

2. Groups

Another source of attentional bias are social groups. People tend to spend time and socialize with like-minded people. As a result their current views may easily get stronger where as different ones may get ignored. This is once again of course quite natural, since people do have different interests.

The internet, however, has made the process of creating and finding these interest groups much easier. There are countless internet communities that deal with all sorts of things that may be socially questionable, just plain weird or politically radical. Once someone gets tilted in a certain direction, joining a related internet community is quick and easy. As a member of a community, those already existing views easily get stronger and stronger. What boosts this potential development further is the anonymous nature of the internet. People may write things they would never say out loud, but when the words are read, they might be interpreted as strongly as if they were in fact spoken words. Sometimes an internet troll might even throw in some seemingly absurd opinions that some take seriously and actually agree with.

So getting involved with like-minded people is easier than ever. On the other hand due to the freedom and ease of speech around the web, it has also become easier to disrupt the discussion and activity in such groups. Anyone from outside a community may easily go in and write some alternative views. Similarly, anyone from the community is also easily capable of searching for alternative views, which is why the internet probably hinders the most radical thoughts in general. Still, it may take a lot of effort and will to actually take an opposing stand in a different-minded group, and doing so will probably still feel unrewarding. The members of a community may likewise often feel that it's enough if they participate within their favourite community. Considering this, a certain way of radical thinking may easily grow if someone is unwilling to look at things from an objective perspective.

3. Content creators

There is the old phrase that states "there is no such thing as bad publicity". This is not entirely true, but does hold a valid thought: by default, all publicity is good for business. As such, even bad publicity is often for the good, as long as it's nothing really catastrophic. It doesn't matter that much if much of the attention is negative as long as there is a positive or even just neutral interest to go along with it.

In a certain sense, social media is currently making this more true than it has ever been. The reason for this is the user ability to "vote" for all kinds of content. In some cases voting basically means just rating the content, which is the practice for example in the internet movie database IMDb and used to be the practice on YouTube as well. This doesn't really cause any bias, since both good and bad votes are quite equally taken into account. However, it's a-whole-nother deal when the voting capability is restricted. One might argue that even the thumb up vs. thumb down practice is already a bit more prone to a certain level of bias, but taking the negative side away entirely is almost bound to give a delusion of excellence under certain conditions.

Social media is affecting the way we look at the world.

Probably the most significant "voting" method around the internet is currently the "like" button offered by Facebook. Just like its more recent Google equivalent the "+1" they both only express positive experience. Granted, the real purpose of them isn't really evaluating the content. The real reasons are gathering information about the users, giving the content providers a way to promote and distribute their content in order to make them want to integrate and spread the system, and to keep the whole system ticking by motivating the users with a neat experience. From the user point of view it isn't really about rating either, but rather sharing, so should there be a problem?

The symbiosis works brilliantly, but something may be sacrificed in the process. Even though this probably isn't a realistic example of Facebook users, let's consider a group of introverted fanatics as an illustration. When someone part of the group writes something that fits the group's agenda, it's probably going to be "liked" by most from the group. However, even though the majority of the people outside the group would consider it absolute nonsense, this wouldn't show anywhere. Now, when the same people see how many people have "liked" the writing, they may think the writing really tells the truth and really is outstanding in all aspects - which is what I refer to as a delusion of excellence.

So people don't see the net popularity of a specific content just by watching the "like" or "+1" figures, since the negatives aren't measured. This does affect the view people take on a specific content, but the main issue here might still be that of sharing the content. Accordingly, what's perhaps even more interesting is that writers and other content creators may try to adapt to this social peer-based distribution. For example, let's consider two writing styles from which to choose:
  1. Strong and simple statements, that are in principle justified but are essentially and maybe even deliberately one-sided.
  2. Analytical style that tries to consider all points of view, analyzes them and ponders what could possibly be the best possible outcome.
Think about these two for a while. Which do you think would be more popular when talking with some friends by dinner? How about which would gain more popularity in the social media terms: which would gain more "likes" or "+1"?

I believe this is something where social media differs from a traditional social situation. When you talk with someone and recommend an article to someone, you will probably describe what was good about it and what perhaps wasn't so. Pressing "like" on something is often much more shallow and thus less of a recommendation. In some cases sharing an article might actually be even the opposite with the purpose of just pointing out the absurdness or stupidity of an article. More common is probably the situation where someone faces an article, quickly sees that it basically has the same point of view as the reader has, and thus decides to "like" it. However, if the article would be more analytical, it would require more effort from the reader to actually go through and decide if he agrees on most of it. As a result the first one of the above styles could really appeal to some, but cause negative reactions in others, whereas the latter one would probably cause less reactions on both sides - and thus get less "likes".

A writer or content creator usually wants to have his content shared by as many as possible. So, if an analytical, more challenging article would get less distribution around the social network, a writer might be lead into simplification and making an article intentionally biased. A certain level of intentional provocativeness is by no means an entirely new thing in the media, since provocativeness happens to sell. But just like with the layers 1 and 2, the social media in its current form might be boosting this kind of behaviour. All of this might result in what Pariser referred to in his speech: information junk food.

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