We’re constantly told that anything is possible on the web.
Brands / platforms spend massive amounts of money trying to convince us that our digital lives are copies of what we do in the physical world.
Facebook, for example, bills itself as a place for inspiration…
While creativity and self-expression are foundations for the human experience, there’s just one problem:
The world we inhabit online is still mostly binary.
If you geek out on gender, race, class, or social sciences you’re probably already familiar with the term, but even if you’re not, it’s worth noting that the core definition is numerical— and, up until now, it has been the defining feature of programming underlying the web:
In the most practical sense, when something is binary on the web it refers to duality, or a pair of ideas, options, or answers…
Do you like or dislike something? Are you happy or sad? Are you hungry or not? Will you click on this, yes or no? What’s your favorite book?
That last question is the obvious red herring— but as it turns out, all of the questions are non-binary.
The reason for this is actually fairly straightforward: creativity and human intelligence by their very nature require a variety of ideas and options.
We can be both angry and delighted by something, a little bit hungry but not enough to eat, and we can have 5 favorite things for very different reasons.
However, because we, the users, are subject to a binary web it means we’re limited in our ability to replicate uniquely human concepts like discovery and inspiration (this is starting to change, more on that later).
Binary’s effect on platforms and content.
As the most powerful social network, Facebook is no stranger to binaries.
The strongest signal on the platform is the “Like,” which wields great power, but, as they’re finding out, is a signifier that can become noise instead of signal, and that has a lot to do with binary thinking that is part of Facebook’s structure.
Two recent events do a good job of highlighting the extent of the problem:
Dissatisfied users migrated en mass from Facebook to Ello, prompted in part by transgender and gay/lesbian user concerns around being forced to use a real name (among the binaries: real or fake? male or female? gay or straight?
Ferguson initially barely registered on Facebook, despite the intensity of events on the ground and its trending on other platforms.
You’re X or you’re Y.
A topic is important or not important… and there’s just no room in between.
This has strong implications for the content that people see because of algorithms and filters, and for how we relate to each other, as evidenced via research from the Pew Center around how people consume news on social media…
Of course Facebook is a popular target for criticism, but the problem exists across the entire social web.
Twitter, for example, is binary in a different way, via its follow unfollow paradigm.
Right now, the primary way you have of understanding and relating to content is by following or unfollowing someone. A secondary option is the topical list, but that might not be very helpful either if you click on your “People who think about science” list and find someone is currently thinking about and sharing things around what’s happening in Ferguson.
And most other social platforms follow a topical and/or follow/unfollow model, too, including Pinterest, Medium, Quora, and LinkedIn.
On all of these networks if you think I’m a complete jerk you can also block and report me for spam, but none of these things really deal with the core problem: you don’t have to agree, like, or follow everything an entity does to have a meaningful relationship with one of their thoughts or actions.
The same goes in the other direction: you can be skeptical about someone’s words or actions and still find some value in other things they say or do, or you can feel positive, negative, and neutral all at once.
So what’s changing in the structure of the web, and how do we combat the binary problem in the meantime?
Interestingly, after 10 years of building a binary web Facebook is now (maybe) putting resources into doing just the opposite.
This is apparent in how the platform is beginning to ask for non-binary information…
Along with Facebook’s efforts to reshape how the platform works for teenagers, it represents a crucial shift in the social web.
Others are working on the same thing?—?most notably Google, whose AI property DeepMind is working on mimicking the memory/creativity of the human brain, and Wolfram Alpha, whose knowledge engine can actually show you things like what someone with color blindness sees…
What this all boils down to is that insight about how people create, relate, and discover is not binary, and while most people see observations and insights as interchangeable, the two are actually radically different:
- 12% of users take X action is an observation
- 12% of users take X action because of their tendency to Y is an insight (and you’d better be prepared to validate that last part)
The latter is, of course, infinitely more valuable and intriguing whether you’re a company, brand, or individual.
And that’s why we’re in the business of insights here at ArCompany.
Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Joe is a product/ops guy working with the ArCompany team on content, growth, and analytics. He digs media, design, startups, data, rocanroll, anything science-y, and thinking about how to become a better human.