Fix Social Media?

Reprinted here from the WSJ.

Yes, there will be many alternatives to mass social media that make far more sense to users. The best regulation is competition, so oversight boards can just make sure there is transparency and open competition among platforms because all platforms will attempt to create moats to protect their user data networks. The end of WEB2.0 social media dominance is is when users get paid for data contributions that enhance the value of the network. In a word, blockchain.

There’s No Quick Fix for Social Media

January 20, 2023
By Suzanne Nossel

Social media is in crisis. Elon Musk’s Twitter is still afloat, but the engine is sputtering as users and advertisers consider jumping ship. The reputationally-challenged Meta, owner of Facebook and Instagram, is cutting costs to manage a stagnating core business and to fund a bet-the-farm investment in an unproven metaverse. Chinese-owned TikTok faces intensifying scrutiny on national security grounds.

Many view this moment of reckoning over social media with grim satisfaction. Advocates, politicians and activists have railed for years against the dark sides of online platforms—hate speech, vicious trolling, disinformation, bias against certain views and the incubation of extremist ideas. Social media has been blamed for everything from the demise of local news to the rise of autocracy worldwide.

Social media reflects and intensifies human nature, for good and for ill.

But the challenge of reining in what’s bad about social media has everything to do with what’s good about it. The platforms are an undeniable boon for free expression, public discourse, information sharing and human connection. Nearly three billion people use Meta’s platforms daily. The overwhelming majority log in to look at pictures and reels, to discover a news item that is generating buzz or to stay connected to more friends than they could possibly talk to regularly in real life. Human rights activists, journalists, dissidents and engaged citizens have found social media indispensable for documenting and exposing world-shaking events, mobilizing movements and holding governments accountable.

Social media reflects and intensifies human nature, for good and for ill. If you are intrigued by football, knitting or jazz, it feeds you streams of video, images and text that encourage those passions. If you are fascinated by authoritarianism or unproven medical procedures, the very same algorithms—at least when left to their own devices—steer that material your way. If people you know are rallying around a cause, you will be sent messages meant to bring you along, whether the aim is championing civil rights or overthrowing the government.

Studies show that incendiary content travels faster and farther online than more benign material and that we engage longer and harder with it. The bare algorithms thus favor vitriol and conspiracy theories over family photos and puppy videos. For the social-media companies, the clear financial incentive is to keep the ugly stuff alive.

The only viable approach, though painstaking and unsatisfying, is to mitigate harms through trial and error.

The great aim of reformers and regulators has been to figure out a way to separate what is enriching about social media from what is dangerous or destructive. [Most social media sites should enforce non-anonymity to reduce destructive behavior. At the same time they can create incentives to reward productive behaviors.] Despite years of bill-drafting by legislatures, code-writing in Silicon Valley and hand-wringing at tech conferences, no one has figured out quite how to do it.

Part of the problem is that many people come to this debate brandishing simple solutions: “free speech absolutism,” “zero tolerance,” “kill the algorithms” or “repeal Section 230” (Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which shields platforms from liability for users’ speech). None of these slogans offers a true or comprehensive fix, however. Mr. Musk thought he could protect free speech by dismantling content guardrails, but the resulting spike in hate and disinformation on Twitter alienated many users and advertisers. In response he has improvised frantically, resurrecting old rules and making up new ones that seem to satisfy no one.

The notion that there is a single solution to all or most of what ails social media is a fantasy. The only viable approach, though painstaking and unsatisfying, is to mitigate the harms of social media through trial and error, involving tech companies and Congress but also state governments, courts, researchers, civil-society organizations and even multilateral bodies. Experimentation is the only tenable strategy.

Well before Mr. Musk began his haphazard effort to reform Twitter, other major platforms set out to limit the harms associated with their services. In 2021, I was approached to join Meta’s Oversight Board, a now 22-person expert body charged with reviewing content decisions for Facebook and Instagram. As the CEO of PEN America, I had helped to document how unchecked disinformation and online harassment curtail free speech on social media. I knew that more had to be done to curb what some refer to as “lawful but awful” online content.

The Oversight Board is composed of scholars, journalists, activists and civic leaders and insulated from Meta’s corporate management by various financial and administrative safeguards. Critics worried that the board was just a publicity stunt, meant to shield Meta from well-warranted criticism and regulation. I was skeptical too. But I didn’t think profit-making companies could be trusted to oversee the sprawling digital town square and also knew that calling on governments around the world to micromanage online content would be treated by some as an invitation to silence dissent. I concluded that, while no panacea, the Oversight Board was worth a try.

The board remains an experiment. Its most valuable contribution has been to create a first-of-its-kind body of content-moderation jurisprudence. The board has opined on a range of hard questions. It found, for instance, that certain Facebook posts about Ethiopia’s civil war could be prohibited as incitements to violence but also decided that a Ukrainian’s post likening Russian soldiers to Nazis didn’t constitute hate speech. In each of the 37 decisions released so far, the board has issued a thorough opinion, citing international human-rights law and Meta’s own professed values. Those opinions are themselves an important step toward a comprehensible, reviewable scheme for moderating content with the public interest as a guide.

Ultimately, the value of Meta’s Oversight Board and similar mechanisms will hinge on getting social media platforms to expose their innermost workings to scrutiny and implement recommendations for lasting change. Meta deserves credit for allowing leery independent experts to nose into its business and offer critiques. Still, the board has sometimes had trouble getting its questions answered. In a step backward, the company has quietly gutted Crowdtangle, an analytics tool that the board and outside researchers have used to examine trends on the platform. The fact that Meta can close valuable windows into its operations at will underscores the need for regulation to guarantee transparency and public access to data.

Starting with a structural approach allows federal lawmakers to delay taking measures that raise First Amendment concerns.

Such openness is at the heart of two major pieces of legislation introduced in Congress last year. The Platform Accountability and Transparency Act would force platforms to disclose data to researchers, while the Digital Services Oversight and Safety Act would create a bureau at the Federal Trade Commission with broad authority and resources. But progress on the legislation has been slow, and President Biden has rightly called on Congress to get moving and begin to hold social media companies accountable.

The bills aim to address two prerequisites for promoting regulatory trial and error: ensuring access to data and building oversight capability. Only by prying open the black box of how social media operates—the workings of the algorithms and the paths and pace by which problematic content travels—can regulators do their job. As with many forms of business regulation—including for financial markets and pharmaceuticals—regulators can be effective only to the extent that they’re able to see what’s happening and get their questions answered.

Regulatory bodies also need to build muscle memory in dealing with companies. Though we have moved beyond the spectacle of the 2018 Senate hearing in which lawmakers asked Mark Zuckerberg how he made money running a free service, only trained, specialized and dedicated regulators—most of whom should be recruited from Silicon Valley—will be able to keep pace with the world’s most sophisticated engineers and coders. By starting with these structural approaches, federal lawmakers can delay entering the fraught terrain of content-specific measures that will raise First Amendment concerns.

The inherent difficulty of content-specific regulations is already apparent in laws emerging from the states. Those who believe conservative voices are unfairly suppressed by tech companies notched a victory when a split panel of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Texas law barring companies from excising posts based on political ideology. The Eleventh Circuit went the opposite way, upholding a challenge to a similar law championed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The platforms have vociferously opposed both measures as infringing on their own expressive rights and leeway to run their businesses.

This term the Supreme Court is expected to adjudicate the conflicting rulings on the Texas and Florida cases. Both laws have been temporarily stayed; their effects are untested in the marketplace. Depending on what the Supreme Court decides, we may learn whether companies are willing to operate with sharply limited discretion to remove posts flagged as disinformation, hate speech or trolling. The prospect looms of a complex geographic patchwork where posts could disappear as users cross state lines or where popular platforms are off-limits in certain states because they can’t or won’t comply with local rules. If Elon Musk’s efforts at Twitter are any indication, recasting content moderation with the aim of eliminating anticonservative bias is a messy proposition.

Regulatory experiments affecting content moderation should be adopted modestly, with the aim of evaluating and tweaking them before they’re reauthorized. There have been numerous calls, for example, to repeal Section 230 and make social-media companies legally liable for their users’ posts. Doing so would force the platforms to conduct legal review of posts before they go live, a change that would eliminate the immediacy and free-flowing nature of social media as we know it.

Virtually any proposed measure can be criticized for either muzzling too much valuable speech or not curbing enough malign content.

But that doesn’t mean Section 230 should be sacrosanct. Proposals to pare back or augment Section 230 to encourage platforms to moderate harmful content deserve careful consideration. Such changes need to be assessed for their impact not just on online abuses but also on free speech. The Supreme Court will hear two cases this term on the liability of platforms for amplifying terrorist content, and the decisions could open the door to overhauling Section 230.

While the U.S. lags behind, legislative experimentation with social media regulation is proceeding apace elsewhere. A 2018 German law imposes multimillion euro fines on large platforms that fail to swiftly remove “clearly illegal” content, including hate speech. Advocates for human rights and free expression have roundly criticized the law for its chilling effect on speech.

Far more ambitious regulations will soon make themselves felt across Europe. The EU’s Digital Services Act codifies “conditional liability” for platforms hosting content that they know is unlawful. The law, which targets Silicon Valley behemoths like Meta and Google, goes into full effect in spring 2024. It will force large providers to make data accessible for researchers and to disclose how their algorithms work, how content moderation decisions are made and how advertisers target users. [Transparency] The law relies heavily on “co-regulation,” with authorities overseeing new mechanisms involving academics, advocacy groups, smaller tech firms and other digital stakeholders. The set up acknowledges that regulators lack the necessary technical savvy and expertise to act alone.

A complementary EU law, the Digital Markets Act, goes into effect this May and targets so-called “gatekeepers”—the largest online services. The measure will impose new privacy restrictions, antimonopoly and product-bundling constraints, and obligations that make it easier for users to switch apps and services, bringing their accounts and data with them.

Taken together, these measures will fundamentally reshape how major platforms operate in Europe, with powerful ripple effects globally. Critics charge that the Digital Services Act will stifle free expression, forcing platforms to act as an arm of government censorship. Detractors maintain that the Digital Markets Act will slow down product development and hamper competition.

The new EU laws illustrate the Goldilocks dilemma of social media regulation—that virtually any proposed measure can be criticized for either muzzling too much valuable speech or not curbing enough malign content; for giving social-media companies carte blanche or stifling innovation; for regulating too much or not enough. Getting the balance right will require time, detailed and credible study of the actual effects of the measures, and a readiness to adjust, amend and reconsider.

Whatever the regulatory framework, content-moderation strategies need to be alive to fast-evolving threats and to avoid refighting the last war. In 2020, efforts to combat election disinformation focused heavily on the foreign interferences that had plagued the political process four years earlier. Mostly overlooked was the power of domestic digital movements to mobilize insurrection and seek to overturn election results.

There will be no silver bullet to render the digital arena safe, hospitable and edifying. We must commit instead to fine-tuning systems as they evolve. The end result will look like any complex regulatory regime—some self-regulation, some co-regulation and some top-down regulation, with variations across jurisdictions. This approach might seem unsatisfying in the face of urgent threats to democracy, public health and our collective sanity, but it would finally put us on a path to living responsibly with social media, pitfalls and all.

Ms. Nossel is the CEO of PEN America and the author of “Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All.”

Creativity and Community

This is the whole purpose [of art], to bring people that don’t agree into the same place where they can agree on their own shared humanity.

This Matt Taibbi interview with Tim Robbins is interesting for Robbins’s views on art and creativity. Emphases in BOLD.

Tim Robbins and the Lost Art of Finding Common Ground

The star of films like The Producer and Bull Durham opens up about two tough years of pandemic politics, and worries society is purposefully phasing out the common meeting space
Matt Taibbi
3 hr ago

After the Covid-19 crisis began, actor Tim Robbins was like everyone else in suddenly having both more time to think, and more unpleasant things to think about. Among other things, as a leader of The Actors’ Gang theater company, Robbins had to work through what living in a world of mandated long-term isolation might mean. What if people were no longer forced into contact with one another?

“I wondered,” he recalls now, “‘What happens when you eliminate the water cooler conversation?’”

Would we miss that “difficult conversation with someone who’s not one of your friends, but a coworker and a human being,” who’s “saying something that is not the way you see the world, but he’s right there and you have to hear it”? Robbins felt we might, because confronting a live human being forces people to use parts of their brain the Internet encourages them to bypass.

“When you eliminate that conversation, and everyone goes into isolation, and has their own little silos of thought, that’s incredibly dangerous for society. Because now you’re isolated to the point where you’ll no longer have any kind of discussion,” he says. Instead, he worries, “You’ll just have that little room you go into where everyone agrees with you, and we all say, ‘Fuck those other people.’”

Years later, the Oscar-winning actor known for left-liberal advocacy finds his thinking has shifted in significant ways. In part this is because the entertainment business remains mired in high-vigilance mode when it comes to pandemic restrictions, with an omerta still hovering over vaccine-related questions. Robbins himself was with the program early, which he now seems to regret. “I was guilty of everything that I came to understand was not healthy,” he says now. “I demonized people.”

However, he soon began to wonder why certain rules were being kept long after they lost real-world utility. For instance, deals struck in 2021 between studios and powerful unions like SAG-AFTRA, the Directors’ Guild of America, and Actors’ Equity barred the unvaccinated not just from working, but auditioning. This maybe, possibly made sense when the vaccines were thought to prevent transmission. But now?

“I get it. I understand the fear. I was there,” Robbins says. “But we’ve restricted people from working for too long.”

For decades Robbins occupied a unique role in American popular culture as a writer, director, and polarizing counterculture figure, like a taller, cheerier cross of Orson Welles and Peter Fonda. His acting reputation for a long time was inextricably (and unfairly, I always thought) tied to his status as a bugbear of the Gingrich/Bush Republican right. I knew without looking that Robbins had to be a central figure in Fox host Laura Ingraham’s 2006 best-selling insta-book about heathen lib entertainers who don’t know their place, Shut Up and Sing. Ingraham in fact described Robbins and former partner Susan Sarandon as “the leading stars of today’s Hollywood elite,” a compliment on the order of being called Mr. and Mrs. Satan. Ironically, Ingraham was mad at Robbins for talking about a “chill wind” of intellectual conformity that began blowing after 9/11, the same phenomenon she herself began railing against when it started to affect conservatives in recent years, and which Robbins is still criticizing now.

Though he’s won acclaim for serious films like Shawshank Redemption and Dead Man Walking, the Robbins filmography is also packed with performances where he goofs on himself by pitching in a garter belt (Bull Durham) or wearing absurd hair extensions (in Erik the Viking — I hope those were extensions)or by giving America maybe its best-ever a portrait of a Hollywood douchebag, a performance that almost had to be career-imperiling in its accuracy (The Player). Robbins always had strong views and was especially vocal during the Iraq period, but his politics never got in the way of helping deliver some of the generation’s most enjoyable films. He even had fun with his own lefty reputation when he played a PBS newscaster taking a break between pledge drives to throw down in the Anchorman brawl.

Nonetheless, he now finds himself mixed up in controversies that place him at least somewhat on the outs with the same Hollywood political culture where he was once a leading figure. Areas of contention include the mandates and the passage of AB 5, a piece of California legislation originally aimed at gig-worker corporations like Lyft and Uber that ultimately forced hundreds of businesses, including theater companies, to offer minimum wages and benefits many claim they can’t afford. It’s a repeat of a controversy from the mid-2010s, when the Actors’ Equity union beat back a lawsuit filed by the likes of Ed Harris and Ed Asner and overrode a 2-1 vote by thousands of its members, who wanted to retain the ability to play for peanuts in a city where exposure is worth more than a few extra bucks on a paycheck.

Robbins worries that in this slew of new shibboleths about everything from vaccines to regulation of cake decorators, music arrangers and theater companies, society is revealing troubling changes in its ideas about what art and creativity are for. He sees hostility to the idea of bringing people together both in the physical sense, as in opening the doors to a theater, but also in the figurative sense of making sure art and entertainment are for everyone, not just for people with correct opinions. With bookstores, museums, theaters, and even water coolers disappearing all over the country, America seems to have it in for common spaces, as if keeping people from talking to one another is someone’s intentional political goal.

“I almost feel like there are forces within our society that just want art to die,” Robbins says.

The interview you’re about to read isn’t a red-pilling story, since Robbins isn’t and won’t ever be anyone’s idea of a conservative. It is however a warning from someone with an extensive enough track record as a progressive activist that he ought at least to have earned a hearing if he now feels he has to say a few uncomfortable things. Mostly, he’s warning about a didactic meanness he senses creeping into both politics and art. This he felt especially during the Covid-19 period, when we drifted from mere health policy into a bizarre Freaks-style collective shaming reflex, stressing the moral and mental unworthiness of people who for whatever reason — there were many — refused official advice.

“I heard people saying, ‘If you didn’t take the vaccine and you get sick, you don’t have a right to a hospital bed,” he says. “It made me think about returning to a society where we care about each other. Your neighbor would be sick, and you’d bring over some soup. It didn’t matter what their politics were, you’re their fucking neighbor,” he says, shaking his head.

“I think we lost a lot of ourselves during this time.”

More below (interview edited for length and clarity):

Matt Taibbi: When Covid-19 arrived, what happened with The Actors’ Gang?

Tim Robbins: We had to shut down, obviously. We went on to a Zoom workshop kind of mode. As an organization, we decided that we weren’t going to lay anyone off or furlough anyone. A lot of arts organizations did. We kept everyone on staff and on health insurance. We found other ways to do our work online with our education programs. Then for our prison project, we started communicating by mail. We would send them packets every month with outlines of exercises they could do on their own. A lot of them would write, and send it back to us, because we wanted to keep the relationship going with the people that we were working with before the pandemic.

So that was great. It provided us an opportunity to hire more returning citizens, the ones that had done their time and were being paroled, which was another bizarre thing — you had guys that were in jail for 30 years that got out right during Covid, and went right back into isolation. Isn’t that insane? But overall, it was a difficult two years.

Matt Taibbi: As re-opening approached, what happened?

Tim Robbins: We were capable of opening last September, but there were still all of these restrictions. I had a problem with this idea of having a litmus test at the door for entry. I understood the health concerns, but I also understand that theater is a forum and it has to be open to everybody. If you start specifying reasons why people can’t be in a theater, I don’t think it’s a theater anymore. Not in the tradition of what it has always been historically, which is a forum where stories are told and disparate elements come together and figure it out.

That’s what it’s been for. People figure out their relationship with the gods, with society, with each other. But at the door, you don’t say you can’t come in, because you haven’t done this or that. I had a problem with that. So I waited until everyone could be allowed in the theater. We opened up with a show called Can’t Pay Don’t Pay in April last year.

I think a lot of theaters had a problem rebounding, because the audiences are either skittish about being in rooms with other people, or (laughs) they just don’t like theater that much anyway. The pandemic was a good excuse to not go!

But the most challenging thing has been dealing with the actors themselves, because there is this skittishness and fear, and it’s still in people. Unlike England — I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time last year in London, and they got back a lot sooner than we did. There was an attitude there, it’s that “keep calm and carry on” thing. You know, we got bombed last night, but we’re getting up today. When they reopened their theaters, they reopened them for everybody. They never excluded anybody. And when they got back to it, their West End was thriving, and continues to thrive today.

Maybe the reason we have problems is that some people are still skittish about being in a crowd with other people, but it could also be that maybe 30 to 40% of theater audiences were told they weren’t welcome. And maybe there’s something in that: when you’re told you’re not welcome, you might not necessarily want to go back.

Matt Taibbi: When you started to question these things, what was the reaction?

Tim Robbins: I totally understood it in the first year. I was compliant with everything. I locked down, I isolated, I was away from people for seven months. I bought into it. I demonized people. I was guilty of everything that I came to understand was not healthy. I was angry at people that weren’t wearing masks, and protesting about it in Orange County. Yet, a month later I was protesting for BLM in the streets with a mask on. A week after that, I kind of had to do a self-check on that. I knew there was a little bit of hypocrisy going on there.

I had a really good friend that died from it early on. I was angry. I was fearful, and I did everything I could to help stop the spread, but also I kept my eyes open and at my age, I think one of the most important things that I’ve been able to do is understand that I’m not right all the time, and I have to check myself and see where the hypocrisy lay. So I started having more questions.

Soon it’s a year on, and two years on, and people are still stuck with these restrictions despite the fact that we now know that the vaccine didn’t stop transmission and didn’t stop people from getting it. Once the CDC changes policy and says basically that both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated are capable of getting Covid, the restrictions don’t make sense anymore, particularly regarding employment.

And there were a lot of people in SAG-AFTRA and Actors’ Equity that were kept from auditioning for the past two and a half years, and really still are today. Their livelihoods are threatened. They can’t participate yet. There’s no rhyme or reason with it. I think people are holding on because there’s still a fear, but it’s too long now.

I’m not against the vaccine, I’m just of the belief that your health is determined by your relationship with your body and your mind. And if you believe that the vaccines have helped you, then all power to you. If for some reason you didn’t vaccinate and you made it through this, all power to you too. You shouldn’t be excluded from society for doing that. I am a hundred percent sure of that. I think that was a mistake. I think it was done out of fear. I forgive it, but to continue it at this point is irrational, in my opinion.

No one has stood up for people who might be immuno-compromised or couldn’t take the vaccine, or people that are just holistic and don’t take any kind of medicine at all. Or people — this is the most important one — people that have had Covid and have natural immunity.

The other thing is, where does this end? How many boosters do you have to get to remain eligible for work? How long do we extend this?

Matt Taibbi: You feel something important has been lost in the last few years. Can you elaborate?

Tim Robbins: These last few years, they’ve taught me so much, about what is right, what is wrong. There’s so much empowerment of people that feel that they are being incredibly virtuous and generous, yet are doing things that are not very kind to other people. I think we’ve lost ourselves during this time. Just a brief stroll through social media and you’ll find that out. (laughs) The internet has become like a bar that you go to, and you open the door, and everyone yells, “Fuck you! Get out!”

Matt Taibbi: (laughs) I’m vaguely familiar…

Tim Robbins: It’s amazing. It’s taught me a lot about human nature, about how easy it is for people to turn on other people, and that when people do things that are destructive to other people, they often think they’re being virtuous. It’s been that way throughout history.

That’s something I already knew as a writer. When you’re making a character, you try not to make it all black and white, good and evil. I really understood much more profoundly what happens with the turn, how people turn. You go from someone that is inclusive, altruistic, generous, empathetic, to a monster. Where you want to freeze people’s bank accounts because they disagree with you. That’s a dangerous thing. That’s a dangerous world that we’ve created. And I say ‘we,’ because I was part of that. I bought into that whole idea early on.

Matt Taibbi: There’s also been a phenomenon of bureaucratic mission creep. Could you talk about how that’s affected your industry?

Tim Robbins: Our union out here, Actors Equity, decided about five years ago to end an agreement that the union had with local theaters here that were under 99 seats. We had a thriving small theater scene in Los Angeles, and Actors Equity decided that they wanted to end that 99-seat agreement. Then they had a vote, and two-thirds of their membership voted to keep the agreement, but the AEA ended it regardless. Producers couldn’t make money off of productions. I think Actors’ Equity has a fantasy that if they close all the small theaters in Los Angeles, a bunch of mid-level theaters will rise up, and there will be more contracts…

On top of that, we had a bill pass called AB 5, which was intended to target gig workers like Uber and Lyft drivers. And Uber and Lyft were wealthy enough to lobby in Sacramento to get a carve-out from that legislation. What was left were small theaters and musicians. They said, “Listen, are you going to try to keep us from rehearsing, or just jamming?”

I almost feel like there are forces within our society that just want art to die. It’s now not only just the scolds from the right, like in the old days when the Moral Majority wanted art to die. Now it’s unions and people that are, again, claiming virtuous reasons for all of this. The truth is a lot of local theater has failed, and the pandemic helped put the nail in the coffin.

Small theater companies of people who just want a way in, in a business that’s so devoid of content. If you’re lucky, you get an audition for a walk-on in a sitcom, and how’s that feeding your artistic soul? So you had a huge amount of actors in Los Angeles that just wanted to do quality work, be in a play where they could get to say real lines by real authors. It was something they were volunteering for, that would keep their instrument sharp. And now they were being told they can’t do that.

Matt Taibbi: To what end, do you think?

Tim Robbins: Listen, Matt, if you told me 20 years ago that there would be no video stores where you could talk to a clerk and see what that person might be recommending, or no record stores where you could go see what’s new in music, or no bookstores in most towns, I would’ve told you you were crazy. But we’re here. This is part of a larger movement away from the gathering place.

Theaters are failing, and movie theaters are not doing so well. Any form of gathering place other than a bar has pretty much been hurting. You know, it’s no surprise to me how well sports have been doing during this whole period. Stadiums are packed because people need community.

I’ve always thought of baseball as a place where I can go and get away from the politics and just sit and high-five some dude that might have voted for someone I don’t like. That’s important.

Matt Taibbi: Art and movies used to play that role, too, but are they being discouraged in that function?

Tim Robbins: Yes. This is the whole purpose of theater, to bring people that don’t agree into the same place where they can agree on their own shared humanity.

That’s the other problem. It got incredibly politicized here. It wasn’t that way in London. What I felt there wasn’t the divide that there was here. I attended a couple of the marches that were happening in [early] 2021, which was when they were under their lockdown. There was a street presence of people who were coming out already, against mandates and passports. I went down and I talked to some of those people and I realized: it’s not a left-right thing there. These weren’t a bunch of National Front-type people. These were old hippies and homeopaths. I tweeted about it and I got this hellish response. I realized that we have been programmed in a different way in this country, to think that if someone doesn’t get the vaccine, they must be a Nazi.

Tim Robbins: I’m trying to understand why we’re in the situation we’re in, socially, with each other. That’s what concerns me the most. I believe that if the vaccine helps you, that’s great. But, I have kind of a hard line on freedom. You can’t over-regulate people’s lives. I don’t know what that makes me, what label that puts on me, but I am an absolutist on freedom.

I’ve done a lot of work in organizing and in protest movements and in building coalitions. Community building is always about an organizer walking into the room and knowing that the people in this room do not agree on everything. But I, as an organizer, have to find the linchpin, find the common thread. And when I find that, I’m going to build the movement around that.

What I’ve been seeing over the past few years has been the opposite of that. It’s going into a room and saying, “You don’t have the right to speak because you don’t agree with our way of thinking.” Or it’s, “You’re an idiot for thinking this or that. Shut up. Get your vaccination.”

You’re not going to build any movement that way. All you’ll do is alienate people. And whether it’s organizing around social justice or criminal justice reform or creating more equity — all legitimate important things that need to be done — organizers who know how to do it don’t create division. They don’t cancel people. Because once you’ve done that, you’ve lost those people forever. You’re not getting them back.

Matt Taibbi: Don’t art and movies try to do the same thing? You’re looking for the unifying theme, the thing everyone thinks is funny, or everybody enjoys? The linchpin that holds an audience together?

Tim Robbins: Trying to find the thing that unites us. Exactly. Right. You’re trying to find something that we all can laugh at or a shared feeling that we can all have.

Dead Man Walking was a real challenge because it was a dance we had to do. I didn’t want to make the movie just for people that were against the death penalty. I wanted to make it for everybody, and I wanted people to have a discussion about it. So we had to give dignity and screen time and respect to the people that had lost their family members, and were for the death penalty. And I thought we did it in a way that was respectful enough so that people, if they did not agree with getting rid of the death penalty, could still watch that film and see their shared humanity in the pain of the mother, of the pain of Sister Helen, in the pain of the killer himself.

That’s the difficult thing to do. But when you do that, then you create dialogue. Helen will tell you that that movie changed the picture for her. Beforehand, everywhere she went, 10 or 15 people showed up. Now she’s got a thousand people coming out, and they have a discussion about the death penalty. You know, we did a play version of it, and we were in 140 universities over the course of 10 years. There would be 30 young people getting together to do a play. And when the play would open, there would be symposiums from the law department, from the divinity school, from sociology departments. They would have discussions and meetings and debates, and the actors themselves would have to play parts that they didn’t necessarily agree with, and have to go into that mindset. And it created a fertile ground for discussion and for growth. People could respect each other and both sides of the opinion.

Throwing your doors open for the public means you throw them open to everybody. And once, no one even thought twice about that. It’s the decent thing to do. Then during the pandemic, I heard people saying, “If you didn’t take the vaccine and you get sick, you don’t have a right to a hospital bed.”

And I just started thinking, “What about all the junkies?” That’s the choice they made, too. It’s their own fucking vein. Are we kicking them out? No. You take care of them.

Matt Taibbi: Smokers, obese people who have diabetes…

Tim Robbins: You save their lives. Because they’re part of us. They may be troubled and they may be having to take these drugs for whatever emotional reasons they are, but what the hell man, you gotta take care of them.

And like you say, it could be that you apply that to obesity, you could apply that to any physical malady that has anything to do with something you put in your body. Well, that’s a choice that you made. Maybe a bad choice, but don’t worry about it. We got you. And then you have the choice as to whether you want to change your life or not.

That, for me, is a functioning society.

How To Fix Social Media (Facebook!)

How to Fix Social Media.

The Wall Street Journal has published a series of articles they call The Facebook Files. One article recently queried a dozen “experts” to discuss their ideas of how to fix social media. We at tuka have been focused on this challenge from the beginning, several years ago, and what these commentators reveal is a converging consensus that the problem with social media is scale and emotional triggering based on the speed of information flow. As Winston Churchill was said to quip, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Social media connections have just made this pathology worse.

Our take has always been summed up with one line: A global gossip network makes no sense. So large, centralized networks of 3 billion users make no sense (i.e, FB). Social networking is person-to-person sharing based on mutual trust. So smaller newworks focused on shared interests make sense. This is what tuka is. Technology can then be harnessed to coordinate these networks in ways that reduce the siloing effect so we can all end up sharing more information based on our trusted networks. So what is needed are policies that break down the network effects of scale to open up the social media space to thousands of competitors, all focused on different community interests. Then the interactions across networks help bring us together willingly.

The other problem we at tuka have cited is the centralization and control of information networks and the immense value they create. Data is gold, and we cannot have a handful of private companies own and control the personal data users create. This is akin to giving your labor away, or slavery. The required changes are to decentralize the network using blockchain technologies so that value created can be measured and distributed accordingly to users.

Several of the experts have accurately recognized the problem and what to do about it. The better ideas have been cut and pasted below.

….

Clay Shirky: Slow It Down and Make It Smaller

We know how to fix social media. We’ve always known. We were complaining about it when it got worse, so we remember what it was like when it was better. We need to make it smaller and slow it down.

The spread of social media vastly increased how many people any of us can reach with a single photo, video or bit of writing. When we look at who people connect to on social networks—mostly friends, unsurprisingly—the scale of immediate connections seems manageable. But the imperative to turn individual offerings, mostly shared with friends, into viral sensations creates an incentive for social media platforms, and especially Facebook, to amplify bits of content well beyond any friend group.

We’re all potential celebrities now, where anything we say could spread well beyond the group we said it to, an effect that the social media scholar Danah Boyd has called “context collapse.” And once we’re all potential celebrities, some people will respond to the incentives to reach that audience—hot takes, dangerous stunts, fake news, miracle cures, the whole panoply of lies and grift we now behold.

The faster content moves, the likelier it is to be borne on the winds of emotional reaction.

The inhuman scale at which the internet assembles audiences for casually produced material is made worse by the rising speed of viral content. As the behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman observed, human thinking comes in two flavors: fast and slow. Emotions are fast, and deliberation is slow.

The obvious corollary is that the faster content moves, the likelier it is to be borne on the winds of emotional reaction, with any deliberation coming after it has spread, if at all. The spread of smartphones and push notifications has created a whole ecosystem of URGENT! messages, things we are exhorted to amplify by passing them along: Like if you agree, share if you very much agree.

Social media is better, for individuals and for the social fabric, if the groups it assembles are smaller, and if the speed at which content moves through it is slower. Some of this is already happening, as people vote with their feet (well, fingers) to join various group chats, whether via SMS, Slack or Discord.

We know that scale and speed make people crazy. We’ve known this since before the web was invented. Users are increasingly aware that our largest social media platforms are harmful and that their addictive nature makes some sort of coordinated action imperative.

It’s just not clear where that action might come from. Self-regulation is ineffective, and the political arena is too polarized to agree on any such restrictions. There are only two remaining scenarios: regulation from the executive branch or a continuation of the status quo, with only minor changes. Neither of those responses is ideal, but given that even a global pandemic does not seem to have galvanized bipartisanship, it’s hard to see any other set of practical options.

Mr. Shirky is Vice Provost for Educational Technologies at New York University and the author of “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.”

….

Jaron Lanier: Topple the New Gods of Data

When we speak of social media, what are we talking about? Is it the broad idea of people connecting over the internet, keeping track of old friends, or sharing funny videos? Or is it the business model that has come to dominate those activities, as implemented by Facebook and a few other companies?

Tech companies have dominated the definition because of the phenomenon known as network effects: The more connected a system is, the more likely it is to produce winner-take-all outcomes. Facebook took all.

The domination is so great that we forget alternatives are possible. There is a wonderful new generation of researchers and critics concerned with problems like damage to teen girls and incitement of racist violence, and their work is indispensable. If all we had to talk about was the more general idea of possible forms of social media, then their work would be what’s needed to improve things.

Unfortunately, what we need to talk about is the dominant business model. This model spews out horrible incentives to make people meaner and crazier. Incentives run the world more than laws, regulations, critiques, or the ideas of researchers.

The current incentives are to “engage” people as much as possible, which means triggering the “lizard brain” and fight-or-flight responses. People have always been a little paranoid, xenophobic, racist, neurotically vain, irritable, selfish, and afraid. And yet putting people under the influence of engagement algorithms has managed to bring out even more of the worst of us.

The current incentives are to ‘engage’ people as much as possible, which means triggering the ‘lizard brain.’

Can we survive being under the ambient influence of behavior modification algorithms that make us stupider?

The business model that makes life worse is based on a particular ideology. This ideology holds that humans as we know ourselves are being replaced by something better that will be brought about by tech companies. Either we’ll become part of a giant collective organism run through algorithms, or artificial intelligence will soon be able to do most jobs, including running society, better than people. The overwhelming imperative is to create something like a universally Facebook-connected society or a giant artificial intelligence.

These “new gods” run on data, so as much data as possible must be gathered, and getting in the middle of human interactions is how you gather that data. If the process makes people crazy, that’s an acceptable price to pay.

The business model, not the algorithms, is also why people have to fear being put out of work by technology. If people were paid fairly for their contributions to algorithms and robots, then more tech would mean more jobs, but the ideology demands that people accept a creeping feeling of human obsolescence. After all, if data coming from people were valued, then it might seem like the big computation gods, like AI, were really just collaborations of people instead of new life forms. That would be a devastating blow to the tech ideology.

Facebook now proposes to change its name and to primarily pursue the “metaverse” instead of “social media,” but the only changes that fundamentally matter are in the business model, ideology, and resulting incentives.

Mr. Lanier is a computer scientist and the author, most recently, of “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.”

Clive Thompson: Online Communities That Actually Work

Are there any digital communities that aren’t plagued by trolling, posturing and terrible behavior? Sure there are. In fact, there are quite a lot of online hubs where strangers talk all day long in a very civil fashion. But these aren’t the sites that we typically think of as social media, like Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. No, I’m thinking of the countless discussion boards and Discord servers devoted to hobbies or passions like fly fishing, cuisine, art, long-distance cycling or niche videogames.

I visit places like this pretty often in reporting on how people use digital tools, and whenever I check one out, I’m often struck by how un-toxic they are. These days, we wonder a lot about why social networks go bad. But it’s equally illuminating to ask about the ones that work well. These communities share one characteristic: They’re small. Generally they have only a few hundred members, or maybe a couple thousand if they’re really popular.

And smallness makes all the difference. First, these groups have a sense of cohesion. The members have joined specifically to talk to people with whom they share an enthusiasm. That creates a type of social glue, a context and a mutual respect that can’t exist on a highly public site like Twitter, where anyone can crash any public conversation.

Smallness makes all the difference. These groups have a sense of cohesion.

Even more important, small groups typically have people who work to keep interactions civil. Sometimes this will be the forum organizer or an active, long-term participant. They’ll greet newcomers to make them feel welcome, draw out quiet people and defuse conflict when they see it emerge. Sometimes they’ll ban serious trolls. But what’s crucial is that these key members model good behavior, illustrating by example the community’s best standards. The internet thinkers Heather Gold, Kevin Marks and Deb Schultz put a name to this: “tummeling,” after the Yiddish “tummeler,” who keeps a party going.

None of these positive elements can exist in a massive, public social network, where millions of people can barge into each other’s spaces—as they do on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The single biggest problem facing social media is that our dominant networks are obsessed with scale. They want to utterly dominate their fields, so they can kill or absorb rivals and have the ad dollars to themselves. But scale breaks social relations.

Is there any way to mitigate this problem? I’ve never heard of any simple solution. Strong antitrust enforcement for the big networks would be useful, to encourage a greater array of rivals that truly compete with one another. But this likely wouldn’t fully solve the problem of scale, since many users crave scale too. Lusting after massive, global audiences, they will flock to whichever site offers the hugest. Many of the proposed remedies for social media, like increased moderation or modifications to legal liability, might help, but all leave intact the biggest problem of all: Bigness itself.

Mr. Thompson is a journalist who covers science and technology. He is the author, most recently, of “Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World.”

Does Facebook Really Make Sense?

An essay on social networks and regulation, published by Project Syndicate.

A Facelift for Facebook

One can agree with the explanation of the problem – centralized control of an increasingly valuable asset: information data. I’m not sure a real solution has been proposed yet. When I explain how platforms exploit the collection of users’ personal data for great material gain, I usually get a shoulder shrug. People still fail to appreciate that their data is as valuable as their labor, if not more so. They would not give away their labor for free, so why give away one’s valuable data for a free user page and some simple tools?

At a macro level, a social network like FB makes almost no sense, except as a data mining tool. FB thrives on little more than gossip networks and if one looks at the function of social gossip across time and cultures one realizes a global gossip network makes no sense from a human pov. All the negative effects and few of the positive. As Hill points out, Online Social Networks make sense for small assemblies of friends, families, and interest groups. This is the goal for OSNs of the future. FB “Groups” might resemble the type of content-focused social network that is valuable to users, but, of course, on FB these are exploited exclusively for FB or the administrator of the group. The users get free participation, but little of the value created. A small club of influencers is not the future of OSNs.

A digital license could impose some necessary public goods features, but for regulating audience size, the potential for abuse and centralized control probably outweighs the benefits. Better for the market to solve this problem with competition, but that will probably require some government policy that reduces or eliminates the existing natural monopolies due to network effects. (“Search” needs to be a public regulated utility, while Amazon needs to spin-off its vertical integration. I’m still of the opinion that large social networks like FB will be competed away.)

I would imagine the future would look like many social networks that are decentralized but coordinated in some way so that one doesn’t get siloed. And personal data must be under the control of users with the value of the social network created shared among them. For that one probably needs some kind of a decentralized blockchain solution. Most large, complex systems only become manageable through coordinated decentralization of control. Think representative democracy and Federalism.

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.

Imagination and Creativity

Nice article on Ray Bradbury.

In an interview with James Day, Bradbury said imagining, or “fantasizing” as he put it, was essential to survive and grow. The most important part of a child’s day was the time right before he went to sleep, when his imagination received the whole range of his mind, allowing him to dream himself into becoming something.

Imagination didn’t simply help the person who imagined. Imagination was a line of dominoes, which, once activated, would set off a chain reaction that could inspire who knows who or how many people.

Man requires art. …not only because art can address the problems politics can’t, such as problems of the soul (see Bradbury’s story “A Piece of Wood”), but also because art, in a real way, strips away the material to reveal the real.

At tuka, we fully agree that to create, share, and connect with others using our imaginations and our artistic expressions is to fully realize our potential and who we are as human beings.

All we need is the right playground…

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…