Collective Memory and Culture

This is an interesting explanation of how digital networks affect culture.  Comments in RED.

How We’ll Forget John Lennon

Kevin Berger

A few years ago a student walked into the office of Cesar A. Hidalgo, director of the Collective Learning group at the MIT Media Lab. Hidalgo was listening to music and asked the student if she recognized the song. She wasn’t sure. “Is it Coldplay?” she asked. It was “Imagine” by John Lennon. Hidalgo took it in stride that his student didn’t recognize the song. As he explains in our interview below, he realized the song wasn’t from her generation. What struck Hidalgo, though, was the incident echoed a question that had long intrigued him, which was how music and movies and all the other things that once shone in popular culture faded like evening from public memory.

Hidalgo is among the premier data miners of the world’s collective history. With his MIT colleagues, he developed Pantheon, a dataset that ranks historical figures by popularity from 4000 B.C. to 2010. Aristotle and Plato snag the top spots. Jesus is third. It’s a highly addictive platform that allows you to search people, places, and occupations with a variety of parameters. Most famous tennis player of all time? That’s right, Frenchman Rene Lacoste, born in 1904. (Roger Federer places 20th.) Rankings are drawn from, essentially, Wikipedia biographies, notably ones in more than 25 different languages, and Wikipedia page views.

Medium Is the Message: “As a new medium takes over, the type of information being produced changes dramatically,” says Cesar Hidalgo. “Printing was not good for actors but good for playwrights. TV was not good for playwrights but very good for sports.” 

 In December 2018, Hidalgo and colleagues published a Nature paper that put his crafty data-mining talents to work on another question: How do people and products drift out of the cultural picture? They traced the fade-out of songs, movies, sports stars, patents, and scientific publications. They drew on data from sources such as Billboard, Spotify, IMDB, Wikipedia, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the American Physical Society, which has gathered information on physics articles from 1896 to 2016. Hidalgo’s team then designed mathematical models to calculate the rate of decline of the songs, people, and scientific papers.

The report, “The universal decay of collective memory and attention,” concludes that people and things are kept alive through “oral communication” from about five to 30 years. They then pass into written and online records, where they experience a slower, longer decline. The paper argues that people and things that make the rounds at the water cooler have a higher probability of settling into physical records. “Changes in communication technologies, such as the rise of the printing press, radio and television,” it says, affect our degree of attention, and all of our cultural products, from songs to scientific papers, “follow a universal decay function.”

Last week I caught up with Hidalgo to talk about his Nature paper. But I also wanted to push him to talk about what he saw between the mathematical lines, to wear the social scientist’s hat and reflect on the consequences of decay in collective memory.

How do you define “collective memory?”

The easiest definition would be those pieces of knowledge or information that are shared by a large number of people.

Why does collective memory decay matter?

If you think about it, culture and memory are the only things we have. We treasure cultural memory because we use that knowledge to build and produce everything we have around us. That knowledge is going to help us build the future and solve the problems we have yet to solve. If aliens come here and wave a magic wand and make everyone forget everything—our cars, buildings, bridges, airplanes, our power systems, and so forth, we would collapse as a society immediately.

The relative power of scientists has diminished as we exited the printing era and went into this more performance-based era.

In your mind, what is a classic example of collective memory decay?

I thought everybody knew “Imagine” by John Lennon. I’m almost 40 and my student was probably 20. But I realized “Imagine” is not as popular in her generation as it was in mine, and it was probably less popular in my generation than in the generation before. People have a finite capacity to remember things. There’s great competition for the content out there, and the number of people who know or remember something decays over time. There’s another example, of Elvis Presley memorabilia. People had bought Elvis memorabilia for years and it was collecting huge prices. Then all of a sudden the prices started to collapse. What happened is the people who collected Elvis memorabilia started to die. Their families were stuck with all of this Elvis stuff and trying to sell it. But all of the people who were buyers were also dying.

You write collective memory also reflects changes in communication technologies, such as the rise of the printing press, radio, and TV. How so?

Take print. Changing the world from an oral tradition to a written tradition provided a much better medium for data. A lot of people have linked the revolution in the sciences and astronomy to the rise of printing because astronomical tables, for instance, could be copied in a reliable way. Before printing, astronomical tables were hand-copied, which introduced errors that diminished the quality of the data. With printing, people had more reliable forms of data. We see very clearly from our data that with the rise of printing you get the rise of astronomers, mathematicians, and scientists. You also see a rise in composers because printing helps the transmission of sheet music. So when you look at people we remember most from the time when print first arose, you see ones from the arts and sciences.

What did the mediums that came next mean for science?

The new mediums of radio and TV were much more adaptive for entertainment than science, that’s for sure. The people who belong to the sciences, as a fraction of the people who became famous, diminished enormously during the 20th century. The new mediums were not good for the nuances that science demands. For good reason, scientists need to qualify their statements narrowly and be careful when they talk about causality. They need to be specific about the methods they use and the data they collect. All of those extensive nuances are hard to communicate in mediums that are good for entertainment and good for performance. So the relative power of scientists, or their position in society, have diminished as we exited the printing era and went into this more performance-based era.

At the same time, scientists and the general scientific community have not been great at adapting their ideas to new mediums. Scientists are the first ones to bring down another scientist who tries to popularize content in a way that would not be traditional. So scientists are their own worst enemies in this battle. They have lagged behind in their ability to learn how to use these mediums. Sometimes they focus too much on the content without paying attention on how to adapt it to the medium that will best help it get out.

What does your analysis tell us we didn’t know before about the decay of collective memory?

We began by looking at how popular something is today based on how long ago it became popular in the first place. The expectation is collective memory decays over time in a smooth pattern, that the more time goes by, the more things become forgotten. But what we found when we looked at cultural products—movies, songs, sports figures, patents, and science papers—was that decay is not smooth but has two defined regimes.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Then there’s the second regime in which it has a much longer tail, when the decay is smoother, and the attention is less. [This implies that artistic innovation, which departs from the popular, will take longer and a more focused, or niche, audience to catch on; its durability and network dissemination determining how successful it is.] 

I’m surprised how the U.S., a country with people doing so many things, can become so monothematic on such a vast scale.

When we started to think about decay, we realized we could take two concepts from anthropology—“communicative memory” and “cultural memory.” Communicative memory arises from talking about things. Donald Trump is very much in our communicative memory now. You walk down the street and find people talking about Trump—Trump and tariffs, Trump and the trade war. But there’s going to be a point, 20 years in the future, in which he’s not going to be talked about every day. He’s going to exit from communicative memory and be part of cultural memory. And that’s the memory we sustain through records. Although the average amount of years that something remains in communicative memory varies—athletes last longer than songs, movies, and science papers, sometimes for a couple of decades—we found this same overall decay pattern in multiple cultural domains.

In your forthcoming paper, “How the medium shapes the message,” you refer to the late cultural critic Neil Postman who argued that the popular rise of TV led to a new reign of entertainment, which dumbed us down, because entertainment was best suited for TV. Is that what you found?

We found evidence in that favor, yes. Because the fraction of people who belong to the sciences, as a fraction of all of the people that become famous, diminishes enormously during the 20th century. It would completely agree with that observation.

Do you agree with Postman that we’re all “amusing ourselves to death?”

I don’t think we’re amusing ourselves to death. I’m not like that much of a pessimist. I do think life is also about enjoying the ride, not just about doing important things. And new mediums like TikTok, a kind of Twitter for videos, are great for creative expression. People are doing amazing little performance skits on TikTok. The entertainment and artistic components of every new medium are not bad per se, but every medium can be hijacked by extreme people who know how to craft entertaining messages, especially when they want to advance a certain agenda.

What type of information is best suited for the Internet?

It’s hard to think of the Internet as a medium. It’s more of a platform in which Facebook, Twitter, email, and TikTok are different mediums. They each send their own type of message. A picture that does well on Instagram doesn’t necessarily shine on Twitter, where people are expecting something else. The behavior and the engagements are different. Twitter, for example, is about being controversial. You know, one way to get chewed up on Twitter is to try to be in the center! I use Twitter a little, but not that much. I find that it’s a little bit hostile. I’m a family type of guy, so I use Facebook. In Facebook, at least in my circle, you put more detail into comments and are a little bit more thoughtful.

Now people like Elon Musk are in the center of culture. Young people now look up to entrepreneurs the way we used to look up to musicians.

Is collective memory decaying more rapidly because communication technologies are so much faster?

I would love to know that but I can’t. Some people would say collective memory decays based not on calendar time but the speed at which new content is being produced. We forget Elvis because the Beatles came up and we forget the Beatles because Led Zeppelin came and we forget Led Zeppelin because Metallica came up, and so forth. But things become very dear to a generation and people will not forget about them just because new content came in. So decay would be something characteristic of humans, not the volume of content. To separate those two things, we would need to look at content from very different time frames. At the moment, we don’t have the richness of data that we would need to answer that question.

Still, don’t you think the speed at which online information is tearing through our brains has got to be leaving some path of destruction in collective memory?

I don’t know. I grew up in Chile, which of course is small compared to the United States. I came to the U.S. for the first time in 1996. And one of the things that still surprises me is how monothematic American culture can be. In 1996 it was all about O.J. Simpson. Everybody talked about O.J. Simpson. He was everywhere on TV. Just like Trump today, he consumed the entire bandwidth. I’m surprised how a country with so many people, and with people doing so many different things, can nevertheless become so monothematic on such a vast scale. Today we have so much more content than in 1996 because of the rise of the Internet and the ability of people to create content. But look at the percentage of all conversations and online communications that are consumed by Trump. So in that context, I don’t think content is being replaced so easily. I don’t see that much of a rise in diversity. [This indicates the winner-take-all nature of network and popularity metrics. Content creators become famous for being famous.] 

That’s really interesting. Because one of the common criticisms of the current information glut is we have no shared cultural center. Everybody has their own narrow interest and we have no shared cultural bond, no John Lennon.

Is that a collective memory phenomenon or is it because nowadays the guys in the middle of the culture are different guys? Different people come into the center of culture because of the type of mediums that are available. There have been musicians for thousands of years, and for most of that history, musicians have not been wealthy. It was only when there was a medium that allowed them to sell their music—vinyl, magnetic tapes, and discs—that they were able to make money. I think that generated a golden era of pop music in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. And that’s associative to a communication technology that was dominant at that time. Radio and discs were a way to distribute those popular idols’ musical performances. When that technology was replaced by simple forms of copying, like the ability to copy files on the Internet, all that went away. [This explains why the music industry of physical media, with its high-profit margins, is not coming back.] Now people like Elon Musk are in the center of culture. He’s not John Lennon. It’s a very different type of leadership, a different type of model for young people. But Musk’s first job was an online payment start-up. And I think a lot of young people now look up to entrepreneurs the way we used to look up to musicians.

Did you come away from your study with insights into what may or may not cause something to stick in collective memory?

I read a very good book recently called The Formula by Albert-Laszlo Barabas. He says you can equate quality and popularity in situations in which performance is clearly measurable. But in cases in which performance is not clearly measurable, you cannot equate popularity with quality. If you look at tennis players, you find tennis players who win tournaments and difficult games are more popular. So quality and fame are closely correlated in a field in which performance is measured as tightly as professional tennis players. As you move to things that are less quantifiable in terms of performance, like modern art [or music or books], your networks are going to be more important in determining popularity. [This is why we need a human social network that curates and filters subjective content.]

How should we think about quality in media content?

Well, I would say that collective memory decay is an important way to measure and think about quality. If you publish some clickbait that is popular in the beginning, that gets a lot of views in the first couple of days, but a year later, nobody looks at it, you have a good metric. The same is true if you publish a more thoughtful piece that might not be as popular in the beginning because it didn’t work as clickbait—it required more engagement from the readers—but keeps on building readers over time. So the differences in longevity are important metrics for quality. [So unless we have a dynamic social network that can curate subjective contents and filter it into its proper consumer niche, quality becomes an ignored step-child to the popularity of art.]

That goes back to a paper I did when I was an undergrad about the decay functions of attendance of movies. There were some movies that had a lot of box office revenue in the first week but then decayed really fast. And there were other movies that decayed more slowly. We created a model in which people would talk to each other [this is what happens with an OSN] and communicate information of the quality of the movie. And that model only had one parameter, which was how good was the movie was. So the quality of the movie would increase or decrease the probability that people would go watch it. We could then look at the curves and infer how good the movie was, based not on the total area it was shown, or on the total revenue, but on the shape of the curve. That was interesting because there were movies that were really bad like Tomb Raider, which at first was a box office success. But if you put it on our model, you would see that it was just hype, people watched it, hated the movie, and the curve decayed really fast.

Cultural innovation and quality depend on human curation of content and word of mouth through a social network.

Q: How Can a Musician Make Money?

Q: What do musicians do?
A: Create and share their art!
Q: How does a musician make money?
A: Money?

Hint: It’s all about the data.

Read more…

Streaming and Skimming

The argument here is really about product flow vs. art. According to Spotify, the quality of artistic expression is not what’s important to listeners, it’s all about the product flow. An oversupply of crap is still, well, crap. Spotify needs data, not music. They want to use musicians to mine their data network value to justify their share price.

Streaming services as distribution networks are not friends to artists.

Spotify CEO To Musicians: “You Can’t Record Music Every Three Or Four Years And Think That’s Going To Be Enough”

Why Do Old People Hate New Music?

They don’t. They just don’t hear it enough in the right context!

This is the problem tuka is trying to solve: to recreate that music sharing network you had when you were in high school and college!

The Conversation.

Why do old people hate new music?

    by Frank T. McAndrew

When I was a teenager, my dad wasn’t terribly interested in the music I liked. To him, it just sounded like “a lot of noise,” while he regularly referred to the music he listened to as “beautiful.”

This attitude persisted throughout his life. Even when he was in his 80s, he once turned to me during a TV commercial featuring a 50-year-old Beatles tune and said, “You know, I just don’t like today’s music.”

It turns out that my father isn’t alone.

As I’ve grown older, I’ll often hear people my age say things like “they just don’t make good music like they used to.”

Why does this happen?

Luckily, my background as a psychologist has given me some insights into this puzzle.

We know that musical tastes begin to crystallize as early as age 13 or 14. By the time we’re in our early 20s, these tastes get locked into place pretty firmly.

In fact, studies have found that by the time we turn 33, most of us have stopped listening to new music. Meanwhile, popular songs released when you’re in your early teens are likely to remain quite popular among your age group for the rest of your life.

There could be a biological explanation for this. There’s evidence that the brain’s ability to make subtle distinctions between different chords, rhythms and melodies gets worse with age. So to older people, newer, less familiar songs might all “sound the same.”

But I believe there are some simpler reasons for older people’s aversion to newer music. One of the most researched laws of social psychology is something called the “mere exposure effect.” In a nutshell, it means that the more we’re exposed to something, the more we tend to like it.

This happens with people we know, the advertisements we see and, yes, the songs we listen to.

When you’re in your early teens, you probably spend a fair amount of time listening to music or watching music videos. Your favorite songs and artists become familiar, comforting parts of your routine.

For many people over 30, job and family obligations increase, so there’s less time to spend discovering new music. Instead, many will simply listen to old, familiar favorites from that period of their lives when they had more free time.

Of course, those teen years weren’t necessarily carefree. They’re famously confusing, which is why so many TV shows and movies – from “Glee” to “Love, Simon” to “Eighth Grade” – revolve around the high school turmoil.

Psychology research has shown that the emotions that we experience as teens seem more intense than those that comes later. We also know that intense emotions are associated with stronger memories and preferences. All of this might explain why the songs we listen to during this period become so memorable and beloved.

So there’s nothing wrong with your parents because they don’t like your music. In a way, it’s all part of the natural order of things.

At the same time, I can say from personal experience that I developed a fondness for the music I heard my own children play when they were teenagers. So it’s certainly not impossible to get your parents on board with Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X.

How Facebook has Changed Us – For the Worse.

likenolike

This excerpt from an article in Guardian…

…Facebook is something that too often spoils things.

This is particularly true of the way we enjoy other people’s creativity. A recent article on the music website the Quietus by the writer Jazz Monroe nails the essential point. “When we submit to a profound experience of art, it’s a rare reprieve from the everyday torrent of triviality and distraction,” he wrote. “Likewise, when you finish a great book, there’s supposed to be a moment when you reflect on it. But it’s so easy to just check your phone, or tweet some earnest statement about it.”

read more…

How Facebook Robbed Us of Our Sense of Self.

Why We’re Jaded with Facebook

likenolike

Facebook has been under constant fire for more than a year now and seems unable to answer its critics. Under such criticism the company’s executive team has promised to make user privacy its primary concern, until the next revelation exposes its duplicity. Now it seems every other week another article is written demanding that Facebook be broken up or regulated by government oversight.

We might wonder what exactly is wrong with Facebook and why can’t they fix it?

The answers are in the faulty logic of Facebook as a social network that connects the world and the financial business model required to fund that mission. Both efforts are fighting a natural contradiction when it comes to real reasons people use Facebook.

Let’s address the social aspect first. Facebook started as a on-campus online gossip network at Harvard University. This is the secret of its appeal – people like to gossip about others within their network of peers. The behavior went viral and expanded from Harvard to Yale and Princeton and other Ivys. Then it spread to universities across the country. Nobody really is as concerned with social status as young people between the ages of 13 and 21.

But then Facebook decided its gossip model should go public and proudly marked its rapid growth of the social network across the globe – to the tune of more than 2 billion users. We even got a movie out of it. But let’s consider the logic of such a global gossip network because, frankly, it makes no sense.

Gossip serves a very useful social and evolutionary purpose, despite it being popularly dismissed as “small talk” or “idle talk,” or even malicious or “nosy.” Robin Dunbar (he of Dunbar’s Number = 150) explains how gossip helps us maintain social relationships in groups and also helps community members sanction free riders or those who break established social norms (“Gossip in Evolutionary Perspective”). In this way, gossip provides a means of gaining information about individuals, cementing social bonds, and engaging in indirect aggression; helping people learn about how to live in their cultural society. Gossip anecdotes communicate rules in narrative form, such as by describing how someone else came to grief by violating social norms.

Certainly there appears to be something about gossip that is innate: our entertainment world is pretty much driven commercially by celebrity gossip. But we don’t know these people!

Dunbar actually extended his research to online social networks, specifically using Facebook as a test case of whether network technology relaxes the constraints that limit the size of offline social relationships (link). What he found was that the 150 number still holds for any meaningful social networks. In other words, the human brain is developed enough to maintain 150 social connections, after which the connections fall to the level of casual acquaintances. According to surveys, this is the experience of most Facebook users. Facebook “friends” are not really friends in the vernacular meaning of the word.

So, a network that connects us to roughly 2 billion users across the globe doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the benefits of gossip. Rather, a gossip network that extends to people we have no personal relationship with tends to reinforce the negative aspects of gossip, i.e., meanness and rudeness. We can observe that celebrity gossip tends to focus on caricatures that emphasize the extremes of hero worship and cruel pettiness. In similar fashion, Facebook is very useful for small friendship networks that cohere around common interests or personal relationships, and the limits on that tend to approximate around 150 people.

The second reason Facebook is failing as a social network relates to its ad-driven revenue model. If I am using Facebook as a way to connect to my friends, I certainly resent a third party advertiser trying to insert itself into the middle of that communication channel (just imagine advertisers interrupting in the middle of your phone call!). How many of us were turned away from Facebook about 2+ years ago when our feeds were suddenly flooded with advertisements for things we had no interest in? The network data Facebook is selling to advertisers is weak, not robust. We know what our friends like, if they are friends, and Facebook algorithms do a poor job of approximating that. “Like” clicks are not really likes and digital advertisers know it.

The problem here is that Facebook ad rates are a function of the number of users FB claims to reach and the flow of network information across those user nodes, even if it’s Candy Crush games or humorous cat tricks. Facebook cannot really evaluate the subjective value of the information flow, so it merely sells it all in targeted user bundles. This does not serve end users (or advertisers) very well and the attrition rate is evidence of general user dissatisfaction. I would guess that most users stick with Facebook for the positive value they receive from far-flung friend networks and the lack of a viable alternative. But then we end up ignoring most of the white noise on our feeds, threatening the financial viability of FB’s revenue model.

So where does this lead?

Frankly, I would argue Facebook’s longevity under its current business model is challenging. Gossip makes sense and can be tolerated in small community groups, while wider social networks make sense if they are somewhat limited to common interests. Facebook “Groups” seem to exhibit some of these qualities, so perhaps that is a direction FB can move towards. But the problem then is that it is a much less valuable Facebook under its ad revenue model. Market competitions and alternative OSNs may eat into FB’s global network, forcing FB to adapt to a smaller footprint. That is likely to be a difficult financial adjustment for a company of FB’s size and reach. But technology cuts both ways and today’s Facebook may just be tomorrow’s obsolescence. Personally, I would prefer a social network that delivers more meaningful connections to other people and allows me to filter out a lot of the white noise. That can’t happen as long as the network servers make money off white noise.

 

Data Land Grab

FB-vs-Google

‘Good for the world’? Facebook emails reveal what really drives the site

As we can read from this article and Facebook’s internal management debates, Web 2.0 (of which the GAFA companies are the archetypes) is built on a data land grab. It’s rather similar to the actual land grab that the European powers battled over for the New World, then with the colonization of Africa and Asia.

Data is now a valuable resource that has been priced up there with land and capital. Naturally, the tech oligopolies and their startup wannabes all want to grab as much as possible. And who are they grabbing it from? The network users of course.

Web 3.0 is all about democratizing the value and monetization of personal networked data. It’s about decentralized ownership and control, much like the desire to own and control the fruits of one’s labor that ended slavery. Web 3.0 is the future, because Web 2.0 is unsustainable.