Algorithms, performance, and on changing the world

Algorithms, performance, and on changing the world

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I’m sick and tired of our generation being called the TV generation. What do you expect? We watched Lee Harvey Oswald get his brains blown out all over. How could we change the channel after that? – Dennis Leary

When Andrew Scheer criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic it was, of course, easy for him. He had the luxury of waiting for the fallout of the programs the Liberals were forced to roll out quickly and he could wait until he could his two cents. Once the smoke cleared and the gaping holes in the programs designed to support Canadians appeared, it was easy to point them out. To be honest, that’s also his role as Leader of the Opposition: to play the flipside of the coin, critique decisions made, and to suggest other things to help the country to get back on its feet.

This is not to blame any party: had the Conservatives been in power, the opposite would also be true. We often forget that the Opposition’s job is to basically OPPOSE the government’s decisions. In fact, everyone was doing their jobs in the roles they had been given.

By the beginning of June with the lockdown in full swing, the hybrid schooling my kids were doing was draining me of all the energy I had. Of course, the older laptop they shared died a spectacular death in April, which meant both of the personal laptops the adults owned were recommissioned to tackle the insufferable, non-intuitive Google Classroom GUI and multiple meetings the teachers had set up. On top of that was a plethora of Zoom meetings for their extracurricular activities & friend hangouts. Sprout – the youngest – needed particular attention to keep her focused, often up to 6 hours a day. I basically just gave up on interacting online with my friends via Social Media and instead turned to binge watching pablum tv when I wasn’t helping the kids. I kissed my online relationships goodbye temporarily (I don’t keep facebook on my phone) and moved most of my interpersonal connections to text or Signal group chats.

Of course, I realized the less I engaged the more desperate the algorithm became as it tried to keep me on the platform. I usually went on facebook once or twice a day just to check my community groups (one because I admin it, one because it’s the neighbourhood group). The odd time I would scroll through my friendslist but it only took a few posts before a post I had already seen previously would come up – a trick I use to signal myself to close the browser. In the past it would take me multiple posts to get to that point but now when the algorithm didn’t know how to parse the minimal information I gave it, it just threw everything it had at me trying to keep me engaged. The more it tried the more I realized how little it had to offer me so as long as I didn’t post and/or comment, the less reason I had to go back to the platform more than once a day.

The second thing I noticed was more of a revelation than anything else (which I discussed in my previous post): so many things are going on in the world that Social amplifies it all, all the time. There is no shortage of horrors occurring daily and we can read all about it. In the past, the news cycle curated what we would see and the weight would be put on local, regional, and national stories: only the biggest of the international stories would be fed to us through the funnel of news curation. Of course, we can also argue that this slanted our view of the world depending on the news outlet and that the internet leveled the playing field where we can now read about ANYTHING, ANYWHERE. But conversely, the algorithms on Social Media (and also to some extent on news websites) continue this funneling of information based upon what kind of content either they want us to see, or what content we’ve indicated we engage with the most. In essence, the problem isn’t solved, it has just become bigger. Gone is the large-to-small focus on local->regional->national-international news and in comes bad news from all over the world. Enragement is engagement and we are more likely to share the most enraging things we come across perpetuating the cycle.

A good example of this is something horrific like a child abduction. We know that child abductions by strangers are really rare and locally they happen quite infrequently. But with Social we now hear more about these incidents a lot more often and from all over the world. The reason for this is because people are more likely to be horrified by – and therefore share posts of – harm coming to children. So if an abduction happens half way around the world it realistically does not indicate that these crimes are going up but by just reading about it our feeling of safety and security goes down. Realistically nothing has changed at all but we feel like it has.

I realized that this effect was also driving helplessness in people and that sharing posts on Social made them feel that they had some power and control when in fact they do not – all they are doing is continuing the cycle of hopelessness. This came to the forefront recently when a friend asked on Facebook that people in the US take him off their political posts. As he – rightly – pointed out: he has no control as to what happens in the US. He doesn’t live there, pay taxes there, or vote there. The multitude of horrors being fed to him daily wasn’t doing anything but make him anxious over something he had zero control over. This struck me because it was so obvious that aside from the larger issues plaguing the world, more current event knowledge IS NOT power: it’s a reduction in power, and an increase in helplessness. That helplessness spills over into every aspect of our lives, too. The fact that the horrors are never-ending given a wide enough world, we stay on Social Media because some new fresh horror will be along to replace the last one at any minute.

This is, naturally, not an argument for ignorance nor is it a call for us to ostrich ourselves in a blanket of ignorance. It’s a recognition that staying informed about issues should follow that large-to-small sphere of influence: keep informed about local issues primarily, and international issues lastly. I do need to know what is happening in the world, I just don’t need to know every horrible minute detail about it.

Thirdly, what I have found from going back to Social only periodically is that everyone thinks they are the Leader of the Opposition when it comes to important issues: you can position yourself to look good just by pointing out the obvious holes. This all comes down to the nature of Social being performative (to be fair, all of social interaction is somewhat performative). @awardsforgoodboys on Instagram has a great write up about this (although it works for people no matter their politics) that covers how I feel about most posts when I scroll through them today: the poignant & funny meme, the hot take on the poignant and funny meme, the rebuttal to the hot take on the poignant and funny meme ad infinitum. It all feels like it’s a part of a great opinion hamster wheel where people are jockeying for position with every post about who is the most enlightened on the issue du jour.

My question has recently become, “so what is the desired outcome here?” I think a lot about this in the context of awareness campaigns and their place in the Social Media landscape. If you’ve been on Social for any length of time you have encountered these “awareness” posts either by DM or by cut-and-paste post requests: post the colour of your bra! A cancer patient’s only wish..! But realistically we all know that cancer is bad and what does this sort of campaign do except for shaming people (“I bet that most of you don’t care enough to repost this!”)? These posts make us feel warm and fuzzy when we share them because it feels like we’ve done something but in reality, we haven’t. In the end, it doesn’t translate into more donations or research, it’s a feel-good action that goes nowhere. Many Social Media posts have become like this: how does sharing this make me look to other people?

So I’ve started to ask myself that question to the larger issue of Social posting: what is the desired outcome here? Does posting this change the world in any way? Is arguing the finer points of issues actually educating and changing things, or is it performative? Am I looking to educate or am I looking be MORE right on the issue by shaming people who haven’t reached “my” degree of enlightenment? Does all this virtue-signaling/shaming/arguing actually change anything? Am I just looking for back pats? Could my time and energy be better spent volunteering, learning, donating money and supporting people who are on the ground instead of fighting with someone’s racist Uncle Bob? Maybe that energy could be better spent in my own community?

That’s what makes the job of the LotO in a majority government so appealing: you can be right just by the very nature of pointing out the flaws in the other person or plan & the people who agree with you, you already know will agree with you. You have the luxury of performance, the luxury of not having to make the hard decisions on the fly, the luxury of not being held responsible if things go wrong. But what you don’t actually get to do is really change anything. It’s a performative role, one that makes you look good but one where there is little-to-no risk. Posting on Social media without action is very much like that: you can scream into your megaphone to your chosen audience and you can all sit around and pat each other’s backs all day long about how right you are when it comes to certain issues. Critiquing is easy, action is hard. But at the end of the day: it’s all shit for flowers without actually DOING something outside of screaming into the algorithm. The question we need to ask ourselves is: if I really care about change/this issue what can I do right now to support it in real terms with real outcomes? I guarantee you that one more Social Media share isn’t the answer.

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