Journalism Will Never Have a “Social Dilemma”

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The crux of Netflix’s recent documentary, The Social Dilemma, rests on one foundational message: the over-collection of personally identifiable information has provided social platforms with the power to manipulate our personalities, our highs and lows, and our core values. It’s just as addicting as nicotine, getting people addicted once tried.

Pop open the hood, and you’ll find this foundational message rests on what the documentary claims is the main goal of social platforms: for us to spend more and more time on their apps. They achieve this goal through nefarious algorithms, addictive designs, and sophisticated fear of missing out (FOMO) tactics. 

It’s worth noting that Facebook publicly contested these claims, by clarifying their strategy is about value, not addiction, that the sources in the documentary hadn’t worked for a social media platform for years, and that they couldn’t have a true picture of today’s landscape.

When you look outside of social platforms, on the open web and news websites where people engage with journalism, you could argue that every site out there is also fighting social networks for the same precious time and attention. 

The difference is that journalism is never going to have a “social dilemma.”

Nobody is Mining and Manipulating Information About You on the Open Web

When you visit The Independent or CNBC, nobody knows your identity. News sites can’t see any personally identifiable information about you. They don’t know your name, age, gender, friends, or hobbies, which means there is no identity to manipulate. 

Consciousness and Democracy Powered by Editorial Teams (Versus Social Media)

Whether or not we like the viewpoints suggested for us on sites by editorial teams on the open web, they’re created and curated by humans, free of government control, and free of machine control. This is in direct contrast with social media platforms, where the feed is powered by machines with the goal of optimizing for us—people—to addict us and capture more of our attention, and ultimately, our consciousness.

An editorial team’s job is not only to create and suggest content free of machine control, but also to filter out the noise—they’re qualified to make decisions about what information should “make it to the top,” and what information matters regarding the country’s economic situation, sports, entertainment, trade, commerce and more. 

Editorial teams are the connection between information and the people, and democracy is a system based on the principle of rule, “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Exposing people to a range of opinions and educating people on those opinions is key to our future. That’s why the open web matters— it supports our basic right to be educated, keep our consciousness safe, and to not be manipulated. 

Empty Calories are Bad for You

Journalism by definition has serendipity rooted inside it through editorial voice. You’ll stumble upon new ideas and different points of view on news sites, unlike a social media feed which is essentially an AI-fueled machine designed to be your own echo chamber.

Every news organization in the world would love to get another minute of attention from users who visited to read more, view more, interact, or sign up for a newsletter. When you give more of your attention to them—if you do spend more time on the NYTimes website or on CNBC—it’ll end up being a meaningful time. You’ll probably learn something you didn’t know, or hear a new opinion about something you care about. Social media platforms feed off the need for social approval and interaction to influence your actions. This doesn’t exist on news sites.

Consuming content on social media sites is like consuming “empty calories,” whereas time spent consuming content founded in the ethics of journalism is like a well-balanced meal. It’s not easy to choose broccoli over white sugar, but we know what’s good for us when we see it. Go broccoli. 

There is No Dilemma

We need to admit that we’ve lost control, and like the American Rapper Nelly song “Dilemma” says: 

“No matter what I do 

All I think about is you” 

We’re hooked, and we can’t stop thinking about social networks.

While the world is going through one of the biggest crises of all time, a global pandemic, there is one good thing that’s come from it, and that usually happens during times like these. We’re all forced to re-think, businesses and people alike, whether or not we’re doing everything we can to do better, and to ask ourselves if there’s anything we can do differently. 

The path we’re on will lead to civil war and depressed communities unless we do something about it; journalism and the open web are critical to democracy, our education, and peace. We need local news, national news, vertical sites, and the open web to stay strong. I’m optimistic that it will thrive because we appreciate it, and because it has to.  

This is also a good time to think about our “time,” meaning how we spend it, and the importance of the open web, ruled by people, not machines. 

I have no dilemma, I vote for the open web and journalism.  

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