Everyone has a right to write and discuss anything they wish, within the boundaries of human rights.
Publishing platforms, like Medium, work to organize content and suggest it to us. They want to show us something we like so we spend more time using the site. This is also true for Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and others.
The problem is that the recommendation algorithm does not take into account a person’s authority on the subject. In this context, a person’s authority is a scale that includes knowledge and experience around a certain topic.
I don’t mean to say that someone with a low authority on a subject shouldn’t write about it. I’m suggesting that a platforms needs to know an author’s authority and the quality of the content written before recommending it to other users.
I am also suggesting that the user should be able to audit why something was recommended by the platform.
In the end, there is a description of the concept of “blind judge”, a possible solution to the current state of social media.
This article does not go into the liability of pubishing platforms for hosting content that is fake or toxic in any way. That would be another subject altogeter.
This having been said, I look forward to know your thoughts.
Authorship and authority
@Medium‘s algorithm showed me an article by someone who has 20k Followers. That account was created in September!
Either this person is an amazing writer who made it to 20k followers in a heartbeat or something else. I figured it was someone with a decent following outside of @Medium so I spent some time searching for details.
I got nothing. The author’s profile links to an instagram page and a website under construction.
The site says the person writes for a honourable publication and I did confirm that. What I did not find was evidence that the author had a background around that subject, academic or otherwise. I also don’t know what variables were used by @Medium to suggest that article. Was it the volume of applause it got from my network?
Small side note, this could happen with @Medium, @Facebook or any other platform where this long form content can be published.
And it is also possible that this particular author does have authority to discuss and advise on the subject matter. The problem here is the lack of evidence.
Give me an honest signal!
What I was looking at were signals of some sort of recognition. There was a large numbers of followers. The profile mentioned a partnership with an important publication, to which I grant a good level quality.
This is what Seth Godin would call Signals, from an episode of his podcast Akimbo. In short, we look for signals to help us make up our mind. One of those signals can be the number of followers a person has on social media. If they are getting so much attention, it could be safe to say they provide valuable information. Their following could be the result of the work they do on some other context, some other medium. 1
Having a large number of followers is not an honest signal. We have seen fake news and some toxic people gather a large following. There are several ways to buy fake followers or you can put some money into a good online advertising campaign.
Instagram's fake signals
It’s not new that people buy followers, for Instagram, for Twitter, for YouTube channels. That is one way to have a fake signal.
Another is in the way content is selected to be posted on the timeline. Looking at some people’s Instagram feed makes it look like they live in a world of constant happiness, where everything is going their way and life is a long deserted beach or a quiet getaway in a luxurious hotel.
At first we can say that there is no harm done. On a second thought, we should consider what this distorted broadcast of reality is doing to us as a society. Everyone wants their niche fame and their awesome job. Those of us that for some reason are struggling with some bad times are also getting hit by this idea that everyone’s life is fantastic except ours.
Studies have been published to analyse the relationship between using online Social Networks and feelings of depression. One study found that Facebook may undermine feelings of well-being. 2
Yet there is also evidence on the contrary. 3
Conclusions: We did not find evidence supporting a relationship between SNS use and clinical depression. Counseling patients or parents regarding the risk of “Facebook Depression” may be premature.
It could be that the stage of life that we are in makes us more or less susceptible to this influence. Some people may be more vulnerable than others to the influence of Social Media.
One thing is true, followers and likes are used by algorithms to determine what is shown to us and we tend to skew that content to makes us look good.
The content and message we see will not determine our opinion, but it will determine what we think about. It’s the agenda setting theory of communication. 4
2018: it is now so cool to promote things that people are paying for things and then promoting those things as if they were paid to promote it. https://t.co/6I2gN5EfpZ— Rami Ismail (@tha_rami) December 18, 2018
The logic behind it is that being seen as someone who works with brands will get them a contract as an influencer. The extent to which they build this fake sponsored content means more effort than having the actual brand sponsorship.
Whichever the case, it is safe to conclude how unreliable these signals are. Even engagement can be faked through ads, fake accounts, or simply by asking friends and followers.
Track record and reputation
Looking at a person’s track record, experience and reputation is a safer alternative as a signal. We don’t need a full academic record or a full linkedIn profile. The signal can be something simpler like “this is what I learned working six months as a volunteer at this organisation”. It just can’t be “I am amazing and have written this! Look at all my followers which I bought on the internet!”
Readers need enough to be able to make up their minds about the question : “Is this person a reliable source on this subject?” Even if the answer is “no” they can read it and build an informed opinion.
How can we measure this? It’s not a metric that computers can calculate and even in Society we find plenty of cases in which a person’s authority on a subject is not consensual. Relying on the community to provide this information is also of little use, it can lead to the same problems we have seen before.
Instead of jumping to this problem and thinking about the solution, let’s ask instead:
Who should carry the burden of proof, the platform or the author?
My instinct tells me that if the author is pitching something for us to read, the author must come with evidence of authority.
If the platform is making that suggestion, which may influence our behaviour, then that burden of proof lies with them.
A platform can provide proof without disclosing the whole algorithm. A full disclosure would be giving up their competitive edge in making good recommendations. What they can disclose is the major variables at play in making that suggestion and the author’s rank of authority in the subject. This could come from having more information on their profile or by providing details on other sites that link to that article. 5
Make room for new comers
This Authority argument does have one caveat. It can pose a barrier for people who don’t have much to offer as evidence of authority. In rare cases, people with a low level of Authority on a subject may have something valuable to share. They may have come up with a deep insight that escaped even the brightest minds in that field.
The ideas I have described in this piece can be an obstacle for these newcomers. Why should they publish something to which they have little to show in terms of authority ?
And it’s also a loss for us, because new ideas come from healthy discussions and people need to be comfortable being wrong for that discussion to happen.
Adults are not comfortable being wrong or failing. 6
A third option, the blind judge
The problem with most platforms is that they choose content to recommend by volume and not by expertise. They measure how your network interacts with posts and recommend content based on that. Everyone has an equal vote. While this is good for democracy, it implies that everyone has the same grasp of every subject. In fact, for in-depth articles around a single topic this is not true.
We should make an effort to select who are the key people in a network who are consistent in providing good recommendations for specific fields of study. A bit like what happens in academia.
This idea is still rough and flawed, specially in how it could be implemented and how effective it can be.
It starts with the argument that, when a person knows their opinion or judgement is used for recommendations, it is already skewed by the burden of responsibility. The easy answer is to choose people as judges and not let them know they have that role.
Judges can be chosen per network and per subject. This way not everyone will have the same blind judges.
In this idea, the platform does the following:
- Develops an algorithm that determines a group of judges. This can be based on several criteria such as what the subject matter is, how close or far the judge is from the user’s network, and how connected in the platform the judge is.
- The judge’s reputation is measured by the success and failure of the articles that he or she finds to be worth of notice.
- Recommendations are made based on the signals provided by a number of judges, never just one.
- The recommendation is made based on sharing the content.
- The recommendation only counts if the person actually read the content.
- Authors who provided good content in a consistent way are awarded a measure of reputation that helps balance the ranking by the blind judges. This reputation rank should have different values for different topics and areas of study.
Nothing replaces critical thinking
Whichever the solution that is put forward to fix our broken system of authority, it will never replace the need for critical thinking. Today we need philosophy more than ever, we need to be able to ask questions and to not settle for quick answers.
Platforms can also nurture that critical thinking. For example, allowing us to switch between a filtered and unfiltered list of recommendations could makes us question and explore more.
In my day to day I am making an effort to apply some of these principles. When a friend shares something they have learned I ask why and how. If I don’t agree with a statement I will ask for arguments rather than block it out of the blue.
This is not meant to say that I am better or worse than anyone. The point I am trying to make is that we need to take responsibility and make critical thinking a part of our day.
It is also our fault that we reached the current mess we have on social media.
McCombs, M; Reynolds, A (2002). “News influence on our pictures of the world”. Media effects: Advances in theory and research. ↩︎
This happens with blogs that use trackbacks to link places on the web that have a link to that article. It’s a way for the community around that subject to keep itself honest. If you don’t agree with something that a blog published, and have proof of the contrary, you can publish a response. A link to your article shows up in the original piece. This practice was lost because it was also used for spam. ↩︎
I’m sorry but I am lacking a reference as to where I read this. It is something that I have observed when I teach: everyone in my post-grad class is afraid to get the answer wrong. Even after I explain that we are not there for right or wrong answers! ↩︎