Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Why We Tune Out

The phrase "Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out" famously championed by Timothy Leary revolved around the idea of opening up to cultural changes and a new world. For the conventional elements of society, this was a call for openness, for a willingness to consider the possibilities of a counterculture. In our modern Silicon Valley, we're often faced with similar calls. "Imagine a world with a new kind of taxi... Imagine a world where you no longer use maps to plan a trip... Imagine a world where everyone shares the details of their private lives, their thoughts, and their locations... Imagine a world where anyone can get published and the whole world can read what they wrote, but that each thought was limited to 144 characters..." Every day our evolving technology asks us to tune in, turn on, and hop on for the ride.

But then there is what Hunter Thompson wrote about Leary in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
No more of the speed that fueled that 60's. That was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary's trip. He crashed around America selling "consciousness expansion" without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him seriously... All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure is ours too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped create... a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody... or at least some force - is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.
This is the other end of the the lollipop, the rest of the candy that we are forced to eat. Take Facebook as an example. We're told that Facebook brings us this all encompassing electronic world. We can keep up with our friends, keep up with the news and learn about our world. It's like a blend of television, the newspaper, your family photo album and more. And yet, it's not really any of those things.

I recently found myself logging into Facebook after a long time away from the service. After a number of visits to see what I discovered, my take-away was far different. These days my feed tends to look more like a ping pong game of political topics. First, some friend or family of a "conservative" ideology will serve up some political crap talking about how terrible the president is or how the gays are destroying, I don't know, values or something. Next up some "liberal" friends posting stuff about the people that think the federal government is taking over Texas. Then there's more of the political back and forth. Then a picture of someone in a bathing suit -- the friend of someone I used to know, but I really have no idea who they are. Then more politics. Then something about a puppy. Then more politics. Then a friend of somebody I used to know with a puppy. It's like they've built a "news" feed out of Two and a Half Men reruns. In short, it's unwatchable. Half an hour on Facebook and I haven't learned anything about anyone or anything. Oh, and I forgot to mention the ads. They're in there to keep some separation between the political ping pong, sort of like a net. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. The algorithm that is "tending" the light faces the same problem that network TV programmers face -- garbage in, garbage out. It's hard to curate when you're curating crap.

Linked In has followed a similar trajectory. Where once there was a tool for job prospecting, now there is this platform for brain teasers and Successories inspirations. If you look carefully on LinkedIn, you might notice some jobs posted or linked to by people in your feed, but it's easy to miss as they tend to look a whole lot like the sponsored posts and the somebody liked somebody else's link to a published press release.

Theoretically, these are the two great social media platforms. And they've evolved into being virtually unwatchable. Why? In part, it's because the things that feed engagement metrics are also consuming the other end. It's like the giant serpent eating it's tail. The things that often get republished, liked and linked are the spark plugs, pushing the ideology buttons with emotional click bait. And the algorithm feeds on it. You don't get long form journalism on Facebook. It's more like Headline News and Headline News hasn't been watchable for a decade and a half.

In the broadcast world, as network TV became unwatchable we moved to watching cable networks. Now many of us have exiting TV entirely. The great benefit of OTT programming is that you only have to watch content. There's no need to put up with the social engineering of "breaking news" clickbait.

Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn -- I still have accounts on all of these platforms. And yet, not one of these platforms provides me with content that I consume on a daily basis any longer. Blame it on the ads, the video, the layout, the algorithm -- social media jumped the shark for me some time ago. What's more, I don't think that this content is even worthy of a binge-watching, Netflix-does-Facebook experience. And when you consider some of the crap that you can sit through, binge watching on the iPad as you wander around the house, it's a sad commentary on our content.

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