In centuries of continuous processing of information, manufacturers and distributors have too much power over information

2022-06-19 0 By

From business and tax documents to religious classics such as the Ten Commandments, lists are an ancient form.One of the earliest written records in Mesopotamia, more than 4,500 years ago, is a list of 120 officials from the city of Uruk.The form of ranking is much more recent, and even the Ancient Greeks did not have prizes for second and third place at the Olympics.Some books are famous for being bestsellers, but newspapers initially did not compare the sales of different books.From the end of the Victorian era, the list of books appearing in newspapers was a collection of the “best” books recommended by cultural authorities.Interest in quantifying popularity did not begin until the 1930s, and until then sales comparisons were the subject of trade journals.For the first time, widely publicized book lists claim to list popular preferences: The New York Times has produced best-seller lists since 1931, and Billboard magazine has published top songs since 1936.Probably since Clay Felker founded New York in the 1970s, magazine editors have included topics like “Ten Best Restaurants” in their cover stories.Since the 1990s, as competition from shrinking newsstand space has intensified and readers have felt pressed for time, lists have become indispensable, as editors have been able to shorten their attention spans and provide easily digestible information.Whether in online articles or in print, “lists” are so ubiquitous that people rarely discuss the phenomenon anymore.Media psychologist Stuart Fishof calls these lists “a rhythm that we don’t have time to keep up with, but still aspire to keep up with.”But the list is growing most rapidly in the publication’s online version.Derek Thompson, senior editor at the Atlantic, reports that the second click readers get after reading an article isn’t one of the featured new stories, but a list of the most popular stories that keeps popping up, even though that list may be at the bottom of the page.Thompson acknowledges that the cumulative advantage of even out-of-date articles can last for years, a boon for the Atlantic’s own rankings and advertising revenue.The influence of the Top 10 lists and rankings extends beyond newspapers and magazines to the entire Web.To be sure, Amazon, Apple’s iTunes, and other platform companies make a lot of money while selling relatively few works, which is Chris Anderson’s famous “long tail” distribution.In general, some books sold more than all the books on the best-seller list because many of them sold steadily, while some extremely popular books opened higher and lower quickly.Still, the focus on top-selling products amplifies the effect Salganick, Dodds and Watts point out, turning a small initial advantage into a big gain entirely due to the quality of the books themselves.The same goes for music and smartphone apps.As economist Matthew Jackson puts it, “The 11th app in the top 10 of the App Store is very different from the 10th.”When we look at the impact of algorithms on information, news and culture, the positive side of efficiency is indisputable.Even after the development of paywalls and the closure and reduction of some valuable publications, readers around the world still have free access to an unprecedented number of sources of information.Wikipedia may not be perfect, it may be far from the ideal reader-editor community, but it is far better than traditional encyclopedias at making fast connections to new sources.The Science citation Index enables researchers to understand their field far better than any expert in the era of printed literature.Plagiarism may be easier, but it’s also easier to catch.Social media can be just a waste of time, a “shadow” job for businesses that profit from user data, and a very effective way to share information and ideas quickly.People today regret the trend as much as those in the so-called golden age of culture from the 1890s to the 1950s.Nostalgia is mismatched.Yet the picture is even bleaker if we compare the present not with the sentimental past, but with the promise and potential of information technology.Search engine algorithms have evolved to the point where they use artificial intelligence techniques such as machine learning, posing a challenge for businesses and celebrities that pay SEO consultants to boost their rankings.Those who cannot afford such services may be at a disadvantage.Personalisation of content may not be the “filter bubble” that some critics fear, but it may take a special effort to see content that contradicts users’ views.The AD returns from user clicks seem more personalized, fostering a playful and sensational style that might be rejected by the print advertising department of the same publication.On top of that, the efficiency of social media algorithms shifted significant advertising revenue from publications to platform companies, with obvious effects in retrospect, but one that few editors and publishers seem to have foreseen before the web era.The new environment requires dedicated staff to monitor “reader engagement” and optimize search and social media content.This extra cost is a far cry from the “frictionless” world promised in 2005’s “The Way Forward”.Technophiles might retort that it is more efficient for news talent to move to sites such as Buzz and Vaux, which actually improve the content.But, as Wikipedia’s editors do, most authors still rely on other sources.Wikipedia has even banned editors from adding original content to articles.The only real effect of this new mobile-oriented information machine is that platform companies can generate higher revenues than ever and threaten the media on which they depend for the long term.In hundreds of years of continuous processing of information, manufacturers and distributors seem to have too much power over information.From the 1980s through the 2008 recession, progressive media commentators like Ben Bagdikian and Noam Chomsky argued that conglomerates and their Allies, corporate advertisers, posed a threat to democracy through oligopolies and so-called press censorship.At the same time, conservative commentators like publisher William Rusher and columnist Jonah Goldberg argued that a group of staunch liberals had raised objections to the values of ownership and the public.Yet these apparently contradictory views are in some ways consistent: Print advertising was once a lucrative business by today’s standards, built an audience and decided that earning money was more important than advancing a political agenda.Neither Google nor Facebook appeared in the index of The second edition of Bagdikian’s Media Monopoly, published in 2004.But the loss of advertising revenue — flowing into the pockets of platform companies that produce limited content — makes this old debate moot.As we’ve seen, digital startups’ concerns about advertising revenue are somewhat similar to those of traditional publications.Newspapers, magazines and websites face versions of the same challenge.The newspaper industry as we know it was born in the 1880s and 1890s, when newspaper moguls Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, Adolph Ochs, and magazine investor S.McClure and others realized that mass distribution and advertising could reinforce each other.With lower prices, more sales and more advertising revenue, newspapers can actually improve their quality.The model paid off during the Great Depression (Fortune was a good example, even though the newsstand price was a sky-high $1), World War II, the TV boom, 9/11, and even the First decade of the Web.The upshot is that media is combining the new future with digital publishing (a short-term solution at best), fewer people and publication frequencies, and higher subscription prices that bring in an older and wealthier readership.But the more efficient the news, the less feasible it seems.