Clicks vs. Satisfaction
How media went for the click and forgot about you
Newspapers have always battled each other for better circulation. In the late 1800s an effective tactic was to run popular cartoons. New York World owner Joseph Pulitzer trampled his competitor, the New York Journal, in this way by running The Yellow Kid — a comic strip about an inarticulate street urchin whose adventures are laced with flippant social commentary.
People bought the paper to be titillated by his stories, not to get the news. One critic called it “Yellow Kid journalism”, which evolved into the term “yellow journalism” — a broader put-down for any content that’s eye-catching, possibly baseless and often sensationalised.
The yellow and the new
In that pre-digital era, editors largely controlled the news products and services from beginning to end, from original reporting, all the way to audience experience and editorial selection.
Now, large online media platforms are “crowdsourcing” which stories get the best spot on the front page, based on how often their users click on them. Media wants to be the biggest, so whatever content generates the most clicks will be pushed onto our screens. Pulitzer unknowingly started an arms race that has thus far culminated in Facebook’s Newsfeed.
Technology and social media firms are increasingly playing a role in filtering and delivering news and content, using algorithms powered by data on click-through rate, page views and unique user insights.
Many media platforms are trying hard to use digital techniques to grab the eyes and time of increasingly overloaded consumers.
Falling into a yellow trap
With the everlasting hunt for more eyeballs, we’re seeing media following the clicks, even if it means a loss of editorial control. Over the last decade, ad-driven business models have turned page views into digital dollars. But as Dan Kennedy, journalism professor at Northeastern University, said, companies really have little control over what’s shown to users, and it may be more likely readers will end up with something rather trivial than a thought-provoking piece.
“The web, through social and search, provides so many one-and-dones as to be almost laughable — but countable” — Ken Doctor
Many critics have already been lashing out at media companies who are falling into ‘crap trap’ journalism, aimed at winning audiences at the expense of substance. Like editor Tim Murphy:
“Here is the worry. If the audience is constantly presented the sugar and not the protein or greens, there is a risk that an obesity crisis of information develops. People are left dulled and de-energised.”
Tim is not the only one questioning the food that’s being served. Medium founder Ev Williams believes that too often media companies produce what he describes as tantamount to junk food. Ev talks about us still being stuck in some very naïve thinking, with the idea that people consuming media means that’s what they want — “it’s like, well, we put junk food in front of them and they ate that, so that must be what they want.”
We’re transfixed by greasy ‘Yellow Kid’ stuff and missing out on important information or challenging viewpoints. Last April, Jim VandeHei, a founder of Politico, said news media firms have deluded themselves into thinking that the better play was to go for the biggest top line audience, using web tricks to draw them in. These include misleading but clicky headlines, feel-good lists, sexy photos and exploding watermelons.
In other words, clickbait. David Fisher joked at the Auckland Writers’ Festival panel on the media that instead of clickbait, he uses the term “Content Readers Appreciate.” CRAp, basically.
To be or not to be the biggest click generator, that’s the question for most media companies today.
The current frontier
“And because of the attention economy, every product will only get more persuasive over time. Facebook must become more persuasive if it wants to compete with YouTube. YouTube must become more persuasive if it wants to compete with Facebook” — Tristan Harris
The biggest tech companies are now looking beyond the click, and see time spent as their go-to metric.
The king of time spent is without doubt Facebook. Facebook’s claim to fame is its Newsfeed feature, which is now 10 years old, and described as easily the most significant invention in the history of the social web. Facebook’s Newsfeed is basically an algorithmic recommendation designed to keep you scrolling. A bottomless bowl of sugary content snacks.
And the effects of recommender systems like the News Feed are powerful. Over 80 percent of viewing time on Netflix and YouTube today originate from personalised recommendations. In fact, your entire Netflix page is tailored to keep you there, and binge watch.
Next to time spent, the ‘most shared’ metric is emerging. Media platforms like BuzzFeed focus on recommending the most shared content to reach even more people — and drive itself to ‘go viral’. The result is a social feedback loop with a media organisation attached to it. A perfect black mirror.
And media platforms make sure they get their clickbait title right, with A/B testing several headers and eventually pushing the one that draws most people in.
Many media and technology companies currently measure the success of content recommendation in clicks and dwell time. For an advertising business to grow in the current media world, the audience simply needs to always get bigger and more addicted. The user’s own aspirations are fundamentally irrelevant.
In this Medium blog post, Joshua Topolsky, a Bloomberg digital journalist, shares his view on the ‘biggest audience’ delusion:
“The truth is that the best and most important things the media, let’s say specifically the news media, has ever made, were not made to reach the most people — they were made to reach the right people. Because human beings exist, and we are not content consumption machines.”
We humans are being exploited by the attention economy, which showers profits on companies that seize more and more of our time. We need to stop focusing on time spent, and start thinking about time well spent. Tristan Harris calls upon the need to have new ratings, new criteria and design standards. There is a way to design based not on addiction, but on impact.
Even if your recommendations are based on algorithms, they are still programmed by humans and thus reflect underlying values. Nikki Usher, a George Washington University professor of new media, says algorithms are not necessarily any less concealed than the processes media organisations (used to) use to determine top stories.
“Algorithm is a scary word, but people forget algorithms are designed by people” — Nikki Usher
Basically, people should design them differently, with different and wider goals in mind. Algorithms need to look beyond clicks and dwell-time, and focus on satisfaction of users. Tim Murphy describes it “as a third way between clickbait and earnestness.”
For this third way we need to design algorithms and user experiences focused on true people satisfaction, instead of bluntly generating the most clicks and time sucked from people’s lives. Ev Williams agrees that media companies shouldn’t be looking for addiction these days. The drive towards satisfaction is really about recommending people one or two of what they think are the most important things on a daily basis. Recommender systems should be aligned to our goals and aspirations, not against them.
The wish list for recommender systems
Recommendation systems should reflect who you could become, not who you’ve been. They must weigh exploration over exploitation.
Recommendations should be transparent. A recommendation that is explained is more valuable to the user than a black box.
People must have a choice in the kind of recommendations they receive. Discovery is not just based on how much you click, share or binge.
As the recommender system becomes our window to the world, regaining trust is essential. We need recommendations that create meaningful paths. Recommendations should help infer our future, allowing us to go further.
This new generation of recommender systems might require companies to re-evaluate their business models, so success no longer only depends only on claiming users clicks and time, but goes closer to really valuable purchases. A powerful way to make up for lost advertising dollars is to make your best content available at a premium and to find other quality products to sell your audience. Reports, events or maybe related books? The most profitable area of publishing — education — never relied on advertising-based models in the first place. Similarly, Netflix generates more revenue than YouTube and Spotify makes way more from subscriptions than from their ads. As long as advertising only generates a few dollars per user, per year, many alternate revenue streams around premium content could replace this petty valuation of our scarce attention.
As quality content business increasingly trade up from the quick sand of churnalism and inflated page views, we’ll be there to help shape a long term business strategy built on deep customer satisfaction and great content.
Let’s all work on shifting the current recommendation paradigm to go beyond the clicks and addiction tactics. Let’s create enjoyable and rewarding media experiences, helping individuals learn and discover more about themselves, and the world, in the process.