A reflection on the modern human relationship with technology, connection, and value
A few months ago I got a new phone.
Within an hour of turning it on and syncing my email and social channels it began to light up with all of the signals of the modern world.
Alerts, notifications, recommendations, warnings, and reports all demanded my attention.
“What,” I thought, “am I supposed to do with all of this?”
This isn’t a Luddite treatise on how technology is ruining our lives. Far from it, I’ve seen how technological advances can bring out the best in humans?—?our ideas, thoughts, and actions. I’ve personally had the opportunity to connect to people that I might not otherwise know, and it’s changed my life for the better.
There isn’t an inherent good vs. evil narrative to technology?—?instead, it simply reflects both the best and worst of what humans have to offer. That isn’t to say that the various applications and platforms we’ve created on the web are neutral, far from it they are by their very nature both dangerous and empowering to us because they reflect the confirmation bias, history, and curiosity of their creators and/or collaborators.
But what’s missing from the conversation is a deeper and rarely talked about difference in the way we’ve developed an ecosystem for how we pull information vs. how it is pushed to us.
The pull of information
A friend said something quite lovely to me tonight. We were talking about creativity, learning to look into our lives in a meaningful way, and how we’ve both experienced the challenge of connecting to others without negatively affecting our own sense of self.
I paused, and it made think for a moment about how I select the information that comes into my life.
I am very much a pull person?—?constantly looking for information that answers questions that my head and heart have.
Most people are surprised to hear how little I read/take in?—?a set of 5 or so regular blogs, a couple of books (usually physical copy), 5-10 brainy weirdo phrases that I search for regularly, and the occasional Netflix show make up the bulk of my media consumption.
Additionally there’s the research I do?—?both personal and professional?—?that sends me to search engines, social networks, friends, family, and acquaintances. That might be as informal as asking someone “hey do you know a good mechanic” or a more professionally related search query like “finding internal data to use when creating a content strategy.”
The push of information
The information that is pushed to me, by contrast, is massive.
It’s probably less than most people, but with the web and physical world combined it’s at least hundreds and probably thousands of messages per day, a great deal of which are advertorial (interestingly, if you do a search there doesn’t appear to be a current, reliable study to answer the question “how many ads do we see each day”).
Another interesting fact: the way information is pushed to us is almost always positioned as a positive thing.
“Good news, we’ve made it easier to see restaurants you like with our new mobile app,” Yelp says.
Or when Amazon suggests other gear you may need / want when purchasing a tablet.
This isn’t anything new?—?these “helpful hints” have been around for decades, and existed well before the web became a significant part of our daily lives.
What has changed is the way we are told to understand what those helpful hints actually do.
For shorthand, you might call the language around notifications, alerts, and recommendations advertising about advertising, and it’s prevalent on any consumer facing or B2B website, as well as social networks that supposedly “give us what we want” and “help us to connect to each other.”
Probably the easiest to access and most revealing example comes from the biggest proponent of “helping people.”
Words like “inspiration” and “discovery” and “self-expression” are common across all major social networks, and just about any app, product or service, that claims to make your life better and change the world.
But this isn’t exactly what they are doing, and we all know it.
One way we know this is because they are products, and while products can be inspirational and spur creativity, at a certain level of size and revenue you’ll inevitably see companies/brands start to use other, different words and phrases… ones that investors, analysts, and market makers prefer to hear, like “maximize growth” and “scaling up.”
This is part of why people are so upset about the reveal of Facebook’s recent “study” that altered content that close to 700,000 people saw for a 1-week period based on negative and positive sentiment (I say study in quotations because so far it appears they did not hold to a particularly rigorous ethical framework that something like a university study might have been required to).
The information that people see on their news feeds and notifications page is pushed. Facebook may suggest that it’s information you’d want to see anyway and that it is there to help inspire and support you, but that’s hard to argue when they have a deep, undeniable interest in making us a product that they can easily sell to advertisers.
Another way you can tell it’s not really about inspiration, or discovery, is the way ads, suggestions, and recommendations follow us around the internet.
The most sophisticated ad networks?—?which, by the way, is what social networks have become by virtue of it being their main source of revenue by a huge margin?—?suggest that what they do is try to be there exactly when a person is looking or ready for a specific product or service…but the reality is that they are weighted towards getting us ready to buy things even when we aren’t ready or in the mood for them.
“Hey you looked at this thing last week and although we don’t really have a specific idea why other than it’s loosely connected to these other things you looked at we decided you should see this notification that might help us better understand how to sell to you.”
Of course it isn’t all bad?—?Amazon, for example, is pretty good at pushing alerts to me for things that I might actually want, and getting recommendations based on friends or similar users on a service like Goodreads is something I actually like.
But these pushes of information are intimately tied to a value on me as a user, and to how I might be persuaded or in some cases manipulated into buying products or services.
This isn’t anything new or even awesomely troubling, except when they are positioning that information push as inherently about helping us discover things, connect to people, or become a better human.
When that happens you can be sure you are a product on the shelf that can be moved around in whatever way is convenient to the bottom line…just one of the many reasons you should think carefully about what you pull in vs. what is pushed to you.
This post previously ran on Medium.
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.
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