Confirmation Bias and the Feedback Loop of Algorithms

Algorithms are bad for media (and society)

I read a post from Boston University this week on how data is transforming what we read and watch – and I assume listen – throughout media. The changing landscape of media isn’t anything new, but this does seem to be an unintended consequence of having terabytes of data at our fingertips.

In the early days of the internet, as revenue streams started to decrease in traditional media, newsrooms had to cut staff in order for organizations to remain profitable. Inevitably this meant that newsrooms were creating less content. But it wasn’t just that they were creating less content.

They had to make hard decisions around the content they did create. The content they created had to reach the largest audience possible in order to sell advertising and subscriptions.

When I got my first job at a newspaper in 2001 one of the long-time employees would frequently bemoan that we no longer covered family reunions. That kind of coverage went away, and in some way its loss likely played a role in the rise of social media.

Flash forward to today, as Google and Facebook continue to eat up most of the incremental digital advertising dollars, revenue losses are still impacting traditional media. But now, to make things more difficult, another threat has been identified.

Algorithms.

The backbone of search and social media, is changing what, and how content, is being created. And they change. A lot.

Already in 2019 Google has tweaked its algorithm seven times. That’s in addition to 15 times in 2018. Facebook has only made four changes so far in 2019.

No matter how much they claim it’s not true or insist they are immune to it, every newsroom is impacted by these changes. In order for a newsroom to survive in 2019 they have to be. Content is no longer created in a vacuum with the tools of distribution only belonging to a few.

The type of content written, the way it’s written, where it’s distributed – all of it is affected by an algorithm. Some newsrooms, as the Boston University article points out, are even using algorithms to write content.

Algorithms have become a necessary evil. The shear volume content created every day makes it so. Without them the chance of your content getting found on the internet is slim-to-none. With them newsrooms are reluctantly giving over more control to outside forces and, by extension, run the risk of allowing for more confirmation bias.

Personally, I think confirmation bias will have the most devastating long-term impact on media and society at large. When asked I know most news consumers will say they want a center-of-the-road, fact-based, well-sourced story. Unfortunately what users want and what they actually engage with are frequently two different things. It’s why your newsfeed is made up of stories from the political edges of news sites and not Associated Press and Reuters.

media bias chart - ad fontes media
Souce: Ad Fontes Media Bias Chart Vision 4.0

In all but the most rare cases, in order for a piece of content to get found it has to produce some kind of engagement. In media engagement is one of those terms that isn’t anything, but can refer to whatever you want it to in order prove your point of view.

Engagement can be page views, shares, likes, tweets, follows, time on page, anything. It’s whatever you want it to be so you can say, “Hey, someone interacted with this content is some way, which means it’s great!”

In turn, the more engagement you get, the more your content gets found. This creates a self-sustaining feedback loop.

The hard part is getting that feedback loop started. You have to find that initial engagement. Unfortunately, thanks to algorithms, the easiest way to get the feedback loop started is to push content away from the center to either extreme of the political landscape.

The algorithms reward this engagement by pushing the content higher up, even to those users who consider themselves moderate. All that we end up seeing is content from the edges, giving us the impression that the world must be this way, and pushing us away from the other side.

This week’s links

I’ve grown tired of hearing Silicon Valley tech/media CEOs talk about how there are changing the world, while at the same time insisting nothing is there fault, but this week on the Recode Decode podcast Kara Swisher spoke with Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, which is an interesting conversation. He discussed the idea around quarantining subreddits instead of banning them and Reddit as a social media/media/technology company.

You can listen here.

Remember when Mic was the next great media brand that would rule the world? Mashable has a good article on its fall that you can read here.

Finally, Vulture did a story around Apple’s podcast strategy.

It’s scorching hot outside and I’m not hating it

I don’t hate the heat, and I kind of feel guilty about it, Netflix will be just fine, the worst kept secret in media

The eastern United States, from South Carolina to Maine, and parts of the Midwest, are dealing with heat advisories and excessive heat warnings this weekend as heat indexes rise over 100 degrees. While this isn’t the most pleasant weather, I for one am not hating the heat. Thanks to my Raynaud’s phenomenon, I’m cold around 90% of the time, and right now walking outside feels like a dream.

Heck, I’ve even considered wearing shorts. Outside. To a location other than a pool.

That’s a wild concept for someone who hasn’t worn shorts for reasons other than sleeping or cutting grass (and only because I wore them the night before while sleeping) in years. Yes, the humidity still sucks, but the warmth of the sun feels stupendous.

I do realize that I’m outside of the norm on this one. Thankfully it looks like the heatwave will break by Tuesday.

My love of the heat does come with some guilt. I love the heat, and extreme heat is becoming more common. The problem is that these things are true because of the damage we’ve done to our planet.

My wife and I used to say that when the kids graduate from high school we’re moving south so I can be warm. But, as the average temperatures continue to climb, the next 20 years in the area we live in now will look more like the areas we would have considered moving to when we graduated college (almost) 20 years ago.

Map: Climate Impact Lab, 1981-2010 Historical Temperatures.
Map: Climate Impact Lab, 2020-2039. Projected temperatures with moderate emissions and median probability.

At some point the leaders of our country will have to put aside their petty differences and start to legislate serious change. Our nation has a history of coming together and doing what’s right when pushed to the brink, hopefully history repeats itself.

The sky is falling! (for Netflix)

After its most recent price increase, and the impending end to several content streaming deals, for the first time in eight years Netflix had a quarterly loss in U.S. subscribers. Predictably media pundits have declared this the end for Netflix and streaming.

Just as they did eight years ago.

I remember because I made the argument wrote on my now-defunct former blog that, despite the loss in subscribers and some negative press, the price increase was good for the company. At the time, the increase injected much needed cash that would allow Netflix to produce more original content.

I’ll make the same argument now. Or at least a similar one.

Note that I recognize that my argument doesn’t consider Netflix’s own projections for the quarter of 5 million new subscribers worldwide. A projection that they missed.

Netflix has just over 60 million U.S. subscribers. During the quarter they lost less than 0.5% of these subscribers, about 160,000. It’s safe to assume that they still have around 60 million U.S. subscribers.

If we assume that the price increase lead to a monthly yield of $2 per subscriber, that’s an additional $120 million dollars a month, $1.44 billion annually. What’s more is that this new revenue comes with little to no expense. It all drops straight to the bottom-line.

The price of Netflix’s standard package is now $13 a month. Which puts it above Disney+ ($7), Starz ($8), and Showtime ($11). It’s still below HBO ($15), and will offer a large, more diverse, lineup than any of those.

I’m certain that during this next quarter Netflix will again see U.S. subscriptions grow. It will continue to invest more money into creating or buying original content, and will be just fine. They’ve proven again and again that they know how to navigate these waters.

The worst kept secret in local media

Ken Doctor, who writes for and runs Newsonomics.org, and writes on niemanlab.org, has been writing about a possible GateHouse/Gannett merger since reports about Alden Global Capital’s bid to take over Gannett. Now, as Ken wrote this week, and has been reported by several sources, it appears as though the merger is going to happen. It sounds like it’s a matter of when, not if.

Unfortunately for the employees and their respective local communities, this is not a merger meant to spur innovation, creativity, or increase local news. This is a merger of financial necessity. All it merger does is buy the new company a few years to try and figure it out.

As Ken notes:

Simply put, these companies’ leaders think a megamerger buys two or three years — “until we figure it out.” The “it” is that long-hoped-for chimera of successful digital transformation. Gannett and GateHouse, like all their industry brethren, look at ever-bleaker numbers every quarter; the biggest motivation here is really survival, which in business terms means the ability to maintain some degree of profitability somewhere into the early 2020s.

Source: Newsonomics: It’s looking like Gannett will be acquired by GateHouse — creating a newspaper megachain like the U.S. has never seen

For those in the industry tough times and end-of-days projections are nothing new – people have been talking about the end since at least the mid-90s – I get the feeling this could be different. This merger will represent 1 in 6 newspapers in the country. Putting a lot at risk if they don’t figure it out. On the bright side here, as I noted above, Americans tend to come up with the best solutions when pushed to the brink.

The appetite for local news and professionally sourced content has not dissipated, it’s increased. It’s the means of distribution that have changed, thus decimating the methods through which newspapers could monetize content and pay workers.

I’m not sure what the solution is (although I’m certain the megamerger will not find it), but I’m sure those involved with local journalism left in the wake of this merger will. It won’t come with 30% profit margins and 75% market penetration, and it probably won’t gain national prominence, but many will (and probably already have) figure it out on the local level.

Weekend Media Threads, July 13, 2019

I wanted to be what when I grew up? Time to pivot Weekend Media Threads.

No matter how old I get I’m always asking myself the same question, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” When I was in elementary school or younger I recall considering three options: a Catholic priest, an Air Force pilot, or a football player. Looking back at the three now and thinking of the person I’ve become, two of those are absolutely hilarious.

This could have been me.

Sometime in middle school my interests changes and I wanted to be a comic book artist. Or a comic strip writer/artist. I guess that’s kind of the same thing. In high school my love for the arts evolved beyond just comics and I wanted to be an ‘artist.’

When I began my college career, the style of artist I wanted to become was a photographer. More specifically, I wanted to be a war photographer.

I could have been so pretentious.

However, this was just prior to the digital age and everything was still being done on film. I quickly realized that having photography as a major was, let’s say, cost prohibitive. So I went down the hall to the computer lab and learned to be a graphic designer. I eventually received my bachelor’s degree in the arts with a focus on graphic design from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.

Flash forward 18 years and now I’m working in digital media operations. Overseeing website builds, app development, content distribution, online advertising yield, etc. You can argue that this is adjacent to graphic design by way of user experience and interface, but in reality I haven’t been a designer – or ‘artist’ – in well over a decade.

What’s even more amazing is that in high school I would have told you that there is no way I would ever work on a computer, let alone in a field called ‘digital media.’

Gasp! I was an artist!

I was all about ‘traditional’ art forms. Computers were nothing more than a fad.

During one Christmas gathering I even argued with my aunt Peggy about it. She suggested I should consider computers as part of my career path.

The nerve of her!

I insisted I would never become victim to such technology. I would be a traditional artist forever.

Forever!

Turns out she was right.

To be fair, at that point in my life I hadn’t experienced the internet. It’s not that I’m so old that the internet didn’t exist as a consumer product at the time. It’s more that in the mid-90’s the internet wasn’t available like it is today. Not to mention computers were still very expensive, and wasn’t something my family could afford.

Just check out this sweet rig you could get for $1,995. 850MB hard drive with 8MB of RAM – this will be the last computer you need!

Borrowed from the Fuzzy Notepad blog.

For comparison, this is the equivalent of buying a for $3,350 today. Here are some Alienware options you can buy today for around that price.

You might be asking, what is the point of all this in my Weekend Media Threads post? What does this have to do with media? Basically I’m trying to work out what I want my blog to be when it grows up.

I enjoy doing commentary on media, but I want it to become something more. Personally, the blogs or newsletters I enjoy most are the ones that have some kind of personal bent to them. For example, John Dick, the CEO and founder of CivicScience, sends a weekly email newsletter that generally starts with some personal story before he talks about what they are seeing via their poll data each week. It’s something I look forward to on Saturday morning.

That’s the direction I want to take this blog. In addition to being more interesting, I think it will be a cathartic experience for me. Maybe I’ll learn to let my personality and personal opinions out a bit more.

So my intention is for this post to be my pivot point. Maybe I’ll come up with a better title each week, start with something more personal, then throw in some interesting links or commentary about the week in media – depending on time.

In between my weekend posts I’m going to try and do some shorter posts during the week when I find something interesting and want to share and comment.

If you enjoy my blog, or have suggestions, please leave a comment, DM me on Twitter, connect with me on LinkedIn, or contact me however you know how and let me know. I would love to hear from folks.

This week’s links

Digiday: ‘Newsletters as puzzle pieces’: How The Economist uses email to reduce subscriber churn

‘Hard to justify investing resources’: Publishers still cautious on IGTV efforts with lack of ads

CNN: Billionaires are saving journalism. Yes, that’s right

MediaPost: The News Project Powers ‘CalMatters’ Relaunch

Weekend Media Threads, July 6, 2019

MAD Magazine is all but dead, so is Thud, Amazon owns everything, but can Walmart challenge them?

MAD Magazine announce this week that it will will discontinue publishing new content this fall. They’ll continue to publish special editions with classic content, but there will be no new content. At this point a print media icon shutting down isn’t news, it something that occurs regularly at this point.

This particular end is of personal interest to me, however. I was a huge fan of MAD. I have a framed copy of a random issue hanging in my foyer, and keep a copy signed by my eight grade classmates in a memory box. I haven’t read the magazine regularly in well over 20 years, but I have checked in occasionally to see how the magazine is holding up.

When I did pick up a copy, what I found was what you see in MAD’s print cousins: less pages, smaller format, confusing layout, no sense of continuity, etc. I also found that I outgrew most of the humor a long time ago. Although, while the humor no longer struck a chord with me, the artwork has remained top notch, a fact that will remain through the final issue I’m sure. MAD’s artists have always been second-to-none.

I even checked in to its website on rare occasions, and started following them on various social sites. Unfortunately what I found there was a sad version of the once-great magazine. MAD and its staff of artists and writers, like many traditional media outlets, never figured out how to thrive in our modern media landscape. Unlike most media outlets, from my perspective, it didn’t feel like they even tried. Like they decided they would ride and die with a dying print presence.

With its irreverent humor, political takes, and stylized art could have positioned itself to become a unique online satire website. Instead, MAD’s web presence feels like a box to check someone checks once a week instead of a destination for users to experience new content.

The fact that Cracked will outlive MAD it terms of societal relevancy, seems like an awful joke to my 12-year-old self. I assume most of the people who visit Cracked.com have no clue its history in magazine publishing and how it was the only satire magazine to really compete with MAD. In Cracked’s Wikipedia entry they reference a joke that I always found to be true:

and it [Cracked] “spent nearly half a century with a fan base primarily comprised of people who got to the store after Mad sold out.”

MAD was always more popular and socially relevant. Yet over the past two decades MAD continued its decline into obscurity while Cracked magazine folded and it reinvented itself into a successful website.

Somewhere I imagine Sylvester P. Smythe standing over Alfred E. Neuman laughing.

Thud!

Not that building a satire/comedy brand is easy, just ask Elon Musk.

Before I read that linked article I had never heard of Thud, or at least I don’t remember hearing about it. Thud is a satire brand that was envisioned to consist of more than just a website. Announced in March of 2014, Thud would create fake brands, products, and museum installations that would exist in real world.

The reason I, and I’m guessing most people, never heard of it is because it got off to a rough start and never found an audience. Which was a result of its “quirky and limited” marketing:

Thud’s quirky and limited approach to marketing meant that few people discovered its projects. Of its initial send-ups, two out of the three that include social media components have fewer than 150 followers combined across their Twitter and Instagram pages. The most successful project, DNA Friend, has around 2,000 followers across both platforms.

I looked through some of the brands they did create and they just scream of trying too hard. I’m all for quirky, and love satire, but nothing hear strikes me a something that is needed. And apparently most people agree.

Amazon owns everything

I came across this list from BuzzFeed News on businesses owned by Amazon (of course named with more SEO value than I wrote above). According to the article, “Amazon will make up an estimated 38% of the U.S. e-commerce market this year.” According to Shopify, the e-commerce market in the U.S. is $561 billion. Amazon’s e-commerce business will bring in $213 billion in 2019. To match this you would need to combine the e-commerce markets of Canada ($44b), Germany ($77b), and the U.S. ($93b).

That’s incredible.

What’s even more incredible is the number of individual businesses that Amazon owns that makes up its empire. They even own a wind farm.

Can anyone challenge Amazon?

One of Amazon’s main competitors in e-commerce is Walmart. Actually with just 4.7 percent of the market, it might not be fair to call they a competitor. At least not yet.

Walmart has moved aggressively into the e-commerce space over the past few years in order to position themselves as a competitor. More than you can save for most retailers. Although its currently behind the curve, credit Walmart for recognizing the future and quickly carving out a path to get there. At least they understand what they need to do.

But can they do it?

As with any traditional brand that aggressively moves into the digital world, it will be tough. A fact that is detailed in this Recode article on Walmart’s internal conflict in regards to its race against Amazon.

It’s not easy for a company to move into a new space. There is a huge amount of risk. It’s uncomfortable, unnerving and, when you’re in catch-up mode, can be a money-losing proposition in the short-term causes. Which can cause internal strife. A reality, according to Recode, that Walmart is now fully entrenched in.

According to sources in the article, Walmart’s e-commerce division lost $1 billion on revenues of between $21 and $22 billion (just five percent of Walmart’s U.S. business). And folks on the profitable side of the business are getting nervous.

From Recode:

This is the reality Lore [Jet.com founder, which Walmart bought in 2016] is still struggling to get Walmart’s entire executive team and board to accept, though sources say McMillon [Walmart CEO] also acknowledges it: E-commerce in the US is becoming a “winner take all” industry. Or, at a minimum, a “winner take most” market.

Amazon is a very real existential threat to Walmart’s entire future if the retailer does not significantly close this gap — and fast. If Walmart falls further behind Amazon or doesn’t make up ground, we’re increasingly likely to face a future where Amazon is even more the de facto online store for everyone, with little legitimate competition or compelling alternatives on the market.

It’s a fascinating look at the internal workings of large-scale change at any organization.

Weekend Media Threads, June 29, 2019

Facebook is getting into banking and crypto currency, what could go wrong? Roku continues to dominate the streaming device race.

I can’t believe it’s the last weekend of June already. Between a new job, travel, vacation, and trying to balance the new reality of my personal and professional worlds, it’s been a lightning-fast couple of weeks. On the bright side, despite how quickly the weeks have gone, it’s been a great month. I’ve had a lot of new experiences and have met some fantastic people along the way.

But it was quick.

How quick?

So quick that my arch nemesis, Facebook, announced plans to launch a crypto currency, Libra, and I’ve yet to mention it anywhere. Not even a tweet about it with some snarky comment. Facebook is planning to destroy our banking industry and here I am trying to balance life. I dropped the ball on this one.

But yes, Facebook is in fact planning to launch its own digital currency sometime in quarter 1 of 2020. The idea that Facebook will launch its own digital currency isn’t really new news. This is something that has been discussed and speculated on for at least a year. However, the company detailed its plans in an announcement on June 18, 2019.

In addition to the currently, the announcement detailed plans for Calibra, a new Facebook subsidiary. Calibra will provide financial services that will allow people access and participate in the Libra network. The offerings will include a digital wallet for Libra, available in Messenger, WhatsApp, as well as a standalone app.

As the BBC points out, this is not the first time Facebook has attempted a digital currency. Facebook launched Credits in 2009, and subsequently abandoned the project in 2012. Credits seemed to have failed because it was confusing, restrictive, and well ahead of its time.

Libra is much less restrictive. Facebook’s intention is for Libra to be a global currency in the same vein as Bitcoin, and not restricted to its own platform, as was Credits. Libra is also backed by 28 founding partners including Visa and Mastercard.

If you judge this at face-value, Libra appears to have a lot going for it. A non-profit subsidiary to administer the currency and business partners in banking, tech and other sectors.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that this bus is being driven by Facebook. No matter what shade of lipstick you put on it, what non-profit has oversight, and how many business partners are backing it, not one person in the world should trust Facebook. And if you still trust Facebook, you haven’t been paying attention.

Facebook has had a hand in decimating journalism, the proliferation of fake news, election fraud, and multiple privacy issues that they’ve either ignored or addressed with the maturity of a 12-year-old. Actually I take that back. My son is 12 and I think he would at least be more empathetic than Facebook has been.

The company has proven time after time that it cannot be trusted with your privacy, why in the world should we trust them to create and run a digital currency and international banking system?

The answer is we shouldn’t, but the reality is that we will. And it will be successful – at least until its first major scandal or hack and the European Union steps in (you don’t actually think the U.S. will crack down on any of the Silicon Valley darlings, do you?). The odd thing is that I don’t think it will be the Facebook platform or Messenger that makes it successful. Facebook’s core users are less likely to use a crypto. They skew older and were raised by a fiscally conservative generation (at least from a banking standpoint). Most of them will smartly steer clear of the risk.

It will be What’s App and Instagram that will drive the success of Libra. Both have significantly younger user bases that are accustomed to purchasing digital currency to buy digital goods. As an example, an entire generation has been raised on Xbox, PlayStation, and Steam where it’s commonplace to buy platform-specific digital currently in order buy games and in-game items. Wouldn’t it be great if you could buy a platform agnostic digital currency instead of having your funds locked within a single platform?

Seems like a relatively mundane pain point to solve, right? Why not create a little convince for folks in order to build a user base and attach millions of banking accounts to Facebook’s flawed privacy system?

What will this convince get us? With Facebook’s culture and business practice of moving fast and breaking things, they do just that. Given how that has played in journalism and elections, and the lack of accountability Facebook has shown, we could be in for a very bumpy ride.

I’m sure the banking system will be just fine though.

Roku Continues to Dominate

FierceVideo reported this week that according to Strategy Analytics Roku accounted for 30% of all U.S. sales of streaming devices in quarter 1 of 2019. Amazon was number two during the quarter, accounting for 12%. This now gives Roku 41 million streaming devices that are in use in the U.S., good for more than 15% of the market and a 36% lead over number two Sony.

It’s amazing that despite Roku being one of the first movers in the OTT market – and with massive competitors Amazon, Apple, Samsung, and Sony – that they continue to be the leaders in the streaming TV space. It’s not as though they are sitting on a lead and playing defense either. They continue to grow at an astounding pace, faster than any competitor.