Inequality in the attention economy has its benefits
Congress puts antitrust, broadband, and common carrier regulations on the table last week. My deep dive explores inequality in the attention economy.
Tech policy from an outsider every Monday morning.
News, notes & quotes
A peak of the legislative season is among us. Lots of bills dropped last week.
Rep. Cicilline just filed a spat of competition and antitrust bills on non-discrimination, interoperability/data portability, mergers, and line of business restrictions. I’ll have more thoughts on this later, in the meantime, check out Neil Chilson’s Twitter thread:
I am also tracking the new NY antitrust bill. Relatedly, ITIF just released a report on the 2017 Economic Census data, finding that “just 4 percent of U.S. industries are highly concentrated, and the share of industries with low levels of concentration grew by around 25 percent from 2002 to 2017.”
Colorado passed a comprehensive privacy bill, SB21-190. In lieu of the federal government, many states have taken action. Husch Blackwell has a nice state privacy law tracker if you want to take a peek. Speaking of state privacy laws, here are “Five Subtle Ambiguities in Virginia’s New Privacy Law.”
A federal privacy bill looks increasingly unlikely, according to Alexandra Levine in Politico. On the other hand, Senator Blumenthal said hearings are coming soon. Tomorrow, the 15th, there will be a Senate antitrust subcommittee hearing on home technologies.
Here’s an echo from the past. According to reporting from The Hill, "Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost (R) on Tuesday filed a lawsuit asking the court to declare Google a public utility, which would subject the Silicon Valley giant to government regulation. Yost’s complaint, filed in Delaware County Court, alleges Google has used its dominance as a search engine to prioritize its own products over 'organic search results' in a way that 'intentionally disadvantages competitors.’” Here is the complaint.
Senator Wicker has also dropped a bill, the PRO-SPEECH Act, which “Blocks or otherwise prevents a user or entity from accessing any lawful content, application, service, or device that does not interfere with the internet platform’s functionality or pose a data privacy or data security risk to a user.” To me, the PRO-SPEECH Act is the first legislative attempt at the federal level for a common carriage provision for platforms.
Both the suit from the Ohio AG and PRO-SPEECH come as a direct result of Justice Thomas’ recent opinion in Biden v. Knight First Amendment Institute, which called for common carrier regulation. My colleague Caden has the legal rundown.
If the Wicker bill gets enacted, platforms would have to open up their content aperture, allowing more to pass through. The rule seems rooted in logic: More content means more engagement and more engagement means more value. But too much content, especially if it is false information, can drive users from the platform.
Research from CGO’s own Prithvijit Mukherjee and Lucas Rentschler undercuts the notion that misinformation is good for the bottom line and that more content means more engagement. User engagement on social media is significantly lower when misinformation is permitted in an experimental game. All of the metrics that matter took a dive in the presence of misinformation like posting and connecting with friends. I have a Twitter thread on our work.
In related social media news, the report on the January 6th Capitol attack came out. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter weren’t exactly exonerated. Instead, the Capitol Police, DHS, and the FBI were all excoriated. In late December 2020, it seems, capitol security officials were tracking threats of violence on Jan. 6, but no warning was issued, nor were any steps taken to prepare for the protests. Who knows what would have happened had Facebook and others shut down these groups, but the normal intelligence apparatus failed.
The Digital Equity Act was reintroduced. Find the bill text here. Also in this space, Pew dropped some new broadband survey data. Mike Conlow put it in context, saying, “They aren’t saying they don’t want broadband in the home. They’re saying they would not derive enough utility from it to justify the cost given other options. It is likely that these respondents would be broadband subscribers at a lower price, or if they were more able to derive benefits from the service.” Conlow is right about the utility but probably mistaken about the likelihood of more signups. Vox’s Rani Molla reported on the data as well.
By way of John Eggerton, a new report from ACA Connects and consulting firm Cartesian estimates that $179 billion in government subsidies would be needed to build out universal, "future-proof" (at least 100/100 Mbps) broadband, much higher than any current bill.
The ACLU is decaying from the inside. From the NYT, I learned that "In August 2017, officials in Charlottesville, Va., rescinded a permit for far-right groups to rally downtown in support of a statue to the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Officials instead relocated the demonstration to outside the city’s core. The A.C.L.U. of Virginia argued [when Charlottesville, Va. rescinded a permit for far-right groups to rally downtown, it ] violated the free speech rights of the far-right groups and won, preserving the right for the group to parade downtown...Revulsion swelled within the A.C.L.U., and many assailed its executive director, Anthony Romero, and legal director, Mr. Cole, as privileged and clueless. The A.C.L.U. unfurled new guidelines that suggested lawyers should balance taking a free speech case representing right-wing groups whose 'values are contrary to our values' against the potential such a case might give 'offense to marginalized groups.’”
NASA is sending missions to Venus for the first time in more than 30 years. In other space news, Relativity Space has raised $650 million to help fund its plans to build a fully reusable, 3D-printed rocket to compete with SpaceX.
Senator Bernie Sanders went after the space corporatists lately. I appreciate the hustle, but he’s wrong, as I explored in my April op-ed in NRO, “For far too long, Congress has moved beyond mere goal-setting to dictate in legislative text what the agency should decide itself. Some members care too much about keeping jobs in their district through NASA contracts and not enough about truly advancing innovation in space. This mentality led to the development of the Space Launch System (SLS), which continues to be an albatross for NASA.”
Extra: A map of SpaceX Starlink gateways. Gateways are used to connect orbiting satellites to the core Starlink network/Internet.
Google was fined $270 million in France for unfair advertising practices. Details at CNN. Here is the official statement by the French competition authority and the key graf for me: "The Autorité noted that Google granted preferential treatment to its proprietary technologies offered under the Google Ad Manager brand, both with regard to the operation of the DFP ad server (which allows publishers of sites and applications to sell their advertising space), and its SSP AdX sales platform (which organises the auction process allowing publishers to sell their “impressions” or advertising inventories to advertisers) to the detriment of its competitors and publishers.” I have long thought that most of the other cases against Google were thin, except for this part of the ad market. It could have legs in the U.S.
Quantian did the math: "If you loaded up a carrier pigeon with 1 TB micro SD cards and had it fly from NYC to Chicago, it would have a bandwidth of 85 gigabits per second, nearly 10x faster than a high speed fiber optic cable.”
Jeff Kaufman explains why he works on ads, “The thing is, I think advertising is positive, and I think my individual contribution is positive. I'm open to being convinced on this: if I'm causing harm through my work I would like to know about it.” He also has a nice description of the change Chrome just made:
The idea is, build browser APIs that will allow this kind of well-targeted advertising without sending your browsing history to advertisers, and then get rid of third-party cookies.
One of these proposed APIs is TURTLEDOVE. It lets an advertiser tell your browser "remember that I know this user is interested in cars" and then later "show this ad to users I said were interested in cars." Because the browser stores this information, and is very careful in how it handles bidding, reporting, and showing the ad, it doesn't let the advertisers learn what sites you visit or sites learn what ads you see.
I've been figuring out how ads can use TURTLEDOVE, helping build an open-source plain-JS implementation of the API for testing and experimentation, and suggesting ways the API could be better (#119, #146, #149, #158, #161, #164). I think this is a lot of why I've been blogging less lately: writing up these ideas draws from a similar place.
Advertising is how we fund a web where you can freely browse from site to site, and my main work is helping figure out how to move ads onto less-powerful more-private APIs. While I think the vast majority of my altruistic impact is through donations, I don't think my work in advertising is something harmful to offset.
Paul Graham’s writing is always worth it for the stories. The most recent, “A project of one’s own” has this nugget, "In Andy Hertzfeld's book on the Macintosh, he describes how they'd come back into the office after dinner and work late into the night. People who've never experienced the thrill of working on a project they're excited about can't distinguish this kind of working long hours from the kind that happens in sweatshops and boiler rooms, but they're at opposite ends of the spectrum. That's why it's a mistake to insist dogmatically on "work/life balance." Indeed, the mere expression "work/life" embodies a mistake: it assumes work and life are distinct. For those to whom the word "work" automatically implies the dutiful plodding kind, they are. But for the skaters, the relationship between work and life would be better represented by a dash than a slash. I wouldn't want to work on anything I didn't want to take over my life.”
Getting better: "We sometimes tend to equate or match the magnitude of a cause and its effect: a thinking shortcut called the major-event/major-cause heuristic. It’s also called the proportionality bias, where we assume that effects are proportional to their causes – we show a bias to think large events are caused by large actions, and small effects have small causes. It helps us make quick judgments when we don’t know enough details.”
This older interview with Evgeny Morozov is worth a reread, “[S]olutionism is part of our normal problem-solving apparatus. But clearly something has changed. I open the book by talking about the proliferation of sensors anywhere and everywhere, the portability of smart phones, the ubiquity of social networks, et cetera. A new problem-solving infrastructure is here…And so citizens are being asked to do things they previously didn’t have to do or didn’t have to worry about. So in that sense, I understand the current state of solutionism through the prism of the kind of problem-solving approaches that overtake governance.”
The interview fits nicely with “Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World,” featuring Herbert Simon: “Within the common culture, one cannot carry on a twentieth-century conversation about energy with a physicist or engineer. Similarly, it is increasingly difficult to carry on a twentieth-century conversation about information with a social scientist who belongs to the humanistic rather than scientific subculture of his discipline.” And “Information processing is at the heart of executive activity, indeed at the heart of all social interaction. More and more we are finding occasion to use terms like ‘information,’ ‘thinking,’ ‘memory,’ and ‘decision making’ with twentieth-century scientific precision. The language of the scientific culture occupies more and more of the domain previously reserved to the common culture.”
Jonathan Rauch, the author of the soon-to-be-published The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth is having a conversation Nadine Strossen at Politics and Prose about the new book, which will be livestreamed on Thursday, June 24 at 6 PM ET. Jonathan Rauch reaches back to the parallel eighteenth-century developments of liberal democracy and science to explain what he calls the “Constitution of Knowledge,” how our social system turns disagreement into truth.
I don’t know who wrote these, probably one of my grad school colleagues, but here are notes on Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy on my website.
Inequality in the attention economy
I’ve always appreciated Matt Yglesias’ commentary on tech, but I think he needs a dose of provincialism.
In “All news is bad news,” Yglesias constructs a theory about the world that is, I’d say, right in the broad strokes but misses the dual nature of information. As he wrote,
If I could sum my thesis up, most people like to blame “the media” for things, and most media people like to blame big tech for things. There is truth to all of that, but on another level, the problem is the audience.
The internet has made the media landscape much more competitive. That’s been bad for the profitability of the media sector, but it has also hyper-empowered the audience and given readers the ability to become far more informed than ever before…
And then what Facebook has done is put tremendous brainpower to work at further empowering the audience and even more efficiently delivering what you want. Leaders over there seem paralyzed between wanting to promise that they are making changes to improve their product, and grumbling beneath their breath that the real reason bad stuff happens on social media is that it’s full of human beings who are bad. I basically agree with the executives about that — it’s not “the algorithm” (which literally just recommends you things your friends engage with) that creates bad outcomes, it’s the users.
But there are lots of products like that. The NRA used to say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” That’s clearly true — the vast majority of gun owners aren’t murdering anyone. But the evidence is really clear that widespread gun ownership leads to more murders and more suicides. In the same way, I think that empowering readers turns out to be much more socially and even interpersonally destructive than you might think.
It is true that the Internet has made the media landscape much more competitive, giving readers the ability to become far more informed than ever before. And it is true that Facebook and Google and Twitter have all put tremendous brainpower to work empowering the audience. Yes, the audience is more powerful than ever before.
Still, the audience is a fickle construction, especially for news. Newspapers haven’t traditionally written for the average American, but for high socioeconomic status audiences. Earlier in the tech revolution, it was hoped that social media, blogs, and other online communication tools would make the entire news enterprise more democratic since these outlets would be producing content prepared by audiences for audiences.
But it is clear now that online audiences aren’t normies. 70 percent of U.S. social media users either never or rarely post or even share posts about political and social issues. According to Pew, only 9 percent say they often post or share. Even more importantly, Pew found that moderates of all stripes, including self-described conservative or moderate Democrats and liberal or moderate Republicans, are more reluctant to post than either liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans. In short, the people that are posting and commenting are far more partisan than the average.
Inequality is present all over the net. For a couple of years now, I’ve been collecting research on exactly this point:
“About 2 percent of those who start discussion threads attract about 50 percent of the replies,” said study author Itai Himelboim, assistant professor in the UGA Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. “So although we have this wide range and diversity of sources, only a few of them are actually attracting attention.” [source]
“From Jan 2015 to Feb 2017, the most prolific 0.01% and 0.1% of Reddit commenters wrote 3% and 12% of all comments respectively.” [source]
“The 90-9-1 rule is a rule of thumb for internet communities: 90% of people lurk, 9% contribute a little, 1% do most of the work. It is true on Reddit, where 25% of the most popular subreddits are administered by four people; on Wikipedia (77% is written by 1% of users!) & others.” [source]
“10 percent of Twitter users create 80 percent of tweets, study finds.” [source]
So, what gets perceived as the audience then is a really small, vocal minority. In turn, this vocal minority tends to skews an individual’s local perception of the global environment, making it seem as though an idea is far more commonplace than it is. Lerman, Yan, and Wu call this feature of social networks the “majority illusion.” For a longer treatment of this topic, check out my 2016 Medium article or Mark Manson’s recent post.
Still, Yglesias sees this as a detriment,
Unfortunately, readers in practice tend to put their newfound hyper-empowerment to bad use. People would rather read a local news story out of a mid-sized suburb of a city they don’t live in that proves them right about racism/wokeness/whatever than read a local news story about a budget debate taking place in their own city council.
But there’s a plus side. At least people are paying attention to issues of race. All too often, I’m reminded of this 2018 Pew poll: “Eight-in-ten blacks say social media help shed light on rarely discussed issues; the same share of whites say these sites distract from more important issues.”
All of the evidence suggests that social media has created inequality in the attention economy, stoking trollish behavior, empowering more radical voices, and skewing our perception of the world. At the same time, however, it has brought attention to issues that were invisible but need to be aired. So yes, inequality exists in the attention economy, but that’s partly a good thing.