Today’s Internet is Optimized for Noise
Thanks to the internet, we now have more information at our fingertips than ever before.
In the last two years alone, more recorded information has been generated than in the entirety of human history; now more than 295 exabytes of digital data exist in the world (in bytes, that’s 295 followed by 18 zeros).
Since the earliest days of the consumer internet, companies have sought to organize it. Microsoft, Yahoo!, Google, and others built services to index the world’s information outbreak.
With the arrival of social media came exponential information growth. More than a billion new authors of original content have been organized by social relationships; and with those authors an explosion of memes, listicles and hashtags has resulted.
On Facebook, every day more than 2 billion photos, 6 billion Likes and 50 billion messages are shared. On Twitter, there are more than 500 million tweets per day, and on average, more than 5,700 tweets per second.
All these facts are mind-boggling to consider. But so is another.
Even as information has become more accessible, informed debate has not.
The Internet of Noise
Consider the giant avalanche of information you see on the internet every day. According to ComScore, smartphone usage is up nearly 400 percent over the last 4 years, and people spent more than 230 billion minutes on Facebook in 2014.
However, to fill the giant, always-on vacuum of the internet, social networks and app developers have optimized their services to encourage everyday people to produce an endless volume of content, and it comes at the expense of quality.
And noise isn’t just misinformation — some of the world’s leading social networks have become a cesspool of negativity and vitriol.
Instead of giving communities of people with relevant, valuable insights a chance to easily connect around ideas, many services are focused on delivering the lowest common denominator content to the biggest possible audience.
Today, all of us are incentivized to share things that are more entertaining and less insightful. Even as the internet produces more information every day, for the most part what is created is not informed conversation — it’s noise.
In spite of this, the internet remains the world’s most valuable tool. If you sort through enough of the noise, you generally find what you’re looking for. It’s a chore, but for most topics, you can still do it and it’s a big step forward from the pre-internet era.
But there’s one area where that’s not necessarily true — and it happens to be one of the most important of all.
Noise dilutes knowledge
Politics isn’t simply built on the sorting and exchange of information. It’s the principal endeavor of any society — how to organize itself. That means understanding process and discussing issues. These are the conversations that touch on values and principles, reason and emotion, logic and ideology.
In every period when the greatest social, economic and political progress has been achieved, it has been accompanied by the growth of new institutions that allowed leaders, pundits and academics to come together and participate in the debates of the time.
In seventeenth century London, it was the coffee shops that became the centerpiece of English political discussion.
In eighteenth century France, the salons of Paris articulated, organized and fought for revolution.
And during this entire period, it was the so-called ‘Republic of Letters’ that drove the spread of Enlightenment values on both sides of the Atlantic. Thinkers from Ben Franklin to Thomas Paine, writing long letters in many different cities, in many different languages, engaged in debates on all aspects of national and foreign policy. The letter writers and political clubs of 18th century Philadelphia became an essential mechanism of the new American political movement.
All these institutions provided space for leaders to come together during periods of profound political change, and to exchange knowledge, opinions and analysis. These leaders built communities with other people committed to progress — even with different political views — so that together they could move political discourse forward.
Today, the internet gives us incredible opportunities to bring people together to connect and debate on fundamental political issues.
But the enormous problem of noise remains — and it’s bigger than ever.
There is need for a new type of platform that encourages informed analysis and debate among expert communities, while making those conversations shareable to everyone.
Building for communities showcases insight
So how do we get there?
First, we must escape the notion that when it comes to online content, there is an either-or choice between brevity and quality.
Technology has changed the way we live. 60% of digital content is consumed on mobile and mobile is built for conversation. No one has time to read a 10,000 word think piece when a healthy exchange among experts will do the same job. Everything important in the world is a topic of infinite complexity — but everything complex can also be simplified. That means we should be able to say things that are both short and smart.
Second, influencers must lead.
The days when pushing your message online was a chore passed down to the office intern are long over. Today’s most effective political communicators from Senator Chuck Schumer to Senator John McCain understand that their voice must be heard in everything they share. Far from being the least important part of a communications strategy, being able to participate and connect with online communities is an integral part of sharing knowledge today.
Finally, technology leaders and entrepreneurs have an opportunity and a responsibility to build tools that support knowledge.
Yes, it’s easy to continue optimizing content for an era of clickbait; after all, it has paid best. But it’s possible to build tools designed to connect real experts in government, business and the media in a way that generates valuable insight for the rest of us. From our own experience developing Sidewire, a social communications platform, we know there is an appetite for expert political analysis and insight that helps sort fact from fiction and improve our understanding of the world around us.
Could we be cycling back toward an era where individuals with true relationships to news content, like journalists and their sources, have even greater relevance?
There is a world of people out there hungry for informed conversation and ready for political discourse they can learn from. Today, technology gives us the chance to serve that world; not drown it out. If we can more effectively connect expert conversation to the day’s most important issues, we can help people make more informed choices. And just maybe the internet will be a little less noisy, and a lot more useful.
Andy Bromberg is CEO of Sidewire. Tucker Bounds is President of Sidewire, former director of communications at Facebook and spokesperson for Senator John McCain.