How the marketplace of ideas went rogue | Eli Pariser


I’ve been thinking a lot recently about this
idea of the marketplace of ideas. And in civics class we learned that this is
the way that the truth kind of comes to the top, that the best ideas displace the worst
ideas. But I think it’s a better metaphor than it
intends to be, in the sense that marketplaces, as any economist will tell you, are not necessarily
the place where the best product comes to the top. There are all sorts of dynamics that determine
who wins and, in fact, if you follow disruption theory, which is in vogue in Silicon Valley,
it’s all about how actually a worse product can beat a better product in the marketplace. We have a marketplace of ideas in the bad
sense of that term, not the good sense of that term, where what wins in the marketplace
may not be fair, it may not be right and certainly it may not be true, but it’s based on this
very reductive set of rules of supply and demand. We’re all trying to grapple right now with
what that means when there are less kind of institutional gatekeepers who are holding
in check which ideas are competing with which other ones. But it turns out there are ideas that are
very appealing and very contagious that are either completely untrue or that are appealing
to our worst instincts about each other. Nobody wants some random person off the internet
to do their brain surgery, right? Experts have a place in our society and journalism
is a form of expertise. And I think that’s gotten obscured by a couple
of things. One is that journalism is often presented
right alongside opinion content and that’s actually really confusing to people. And so I think audiences have come to see
that some of this content actually isn’t expertly developed content or it isn’t developed according
to this specific expert process, and some of it is. And they think: ‘I can’t tell the difference
so I’m going to downgrade my assessment of the whole profession.’ The trust that we’ve put in a lot of these
institutions I think legitimately has been misplaced or it’s been, you know, I think
there are ways in which big media institutions have not truly had the interest of their readers
or viewers at heart. You have to acknowledge that in order to get
to winning back that trust — and I don’t think there’s any way to do that other than
to actually root your concerns in the concerns of the people you’re serving which is a challenging
job to do, especially in a dwindling advertising market, but which I think is the only way
back to making people feel like this person is actually serving me. And I think that’s reinforced by the business
model, you know, there’s a reason that surgery isn’t paid for by advertisements. There’s an article that’s famous in startup
circles that describes what really matters in a startup’s culture. And the premise is: You can have whatever
set of values on the wall, but at the end of the day it’s who gets fired and who gets
hired and who gets promoted, that’s about 90 percent of what people observe to decide
how actually to behave here. And so if I have a big poster that says ‘We’re
going to act with integrity’ — but people who don’t act with integrity aren’t getting
fired. Then it doesn’t matter, right? So I think this is actually a really good
analogy for why these social spaces are so confusing because essentially what we have
on Facebook and on Twitter is a system where the same things that get you promoted also
get you fired. In other words, being sensational, being conflict-oriented,
rallying a tribe to your side — all of these are the things that elevate you as someone
who’s on Facebook or someone who’s on Twitter. It’s a thing that drives engagement. It’s a thing that rewards you up to a point
and then all of a sudden you’re banned from the platform if you’re Alex Jones or if you’re
someone who’s just a little bit too incendiary. I think what these platforms need to do, because
there’s no such thing as neutral, and because the values that get you promoted are really
out of sync with the values that get you fired or demoted, the only thing that these platforms
can do is state their principles and be consistent about them, both in terms of who gets to be
heard by lots of people and who doesn’t get to be heard at all. And I think that’s a challenging position
for them because some people will disagree with whatever values they state. If Twitter decides that respectful conversation
is one of their top values that’s going to privilege some kinds of conversation over
other kinds of conversation. It’s going to be better for some users than
others. But at least it’s a transparent principle
that we can all understand, that can be used to decide what the physics of this system
are. And right now I think we have this very confusing
set of conflicting signals where things are totally out of whack.

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