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On Facebook, we like what other people have already liked before us. Shutterstock
Marian-Andrei Rizoiu, University of Technology Sydney

This is the first article in a series looking at the attention economy and how online content gets in front of your eyeballs.


You may have read about – or already seen, depending on where you are – the latest tweak to Facebook’s interface: the disappearance of the likes counter.

Like Instagram (which it owns), Facebook is experimenting with hiding the number of likes that posts receive for users in some areas (Australia for Facebook, and Canada for Instagram).

In the new design, the number of likes is no longer shown. But with a simple click you can see who liked the post and even count them.

It seems like Facebook is going to a lot of trouble to hide a seemingly innocuous signal, especially when it is relatively easy to retrieve.

Facebook prototypes hiding like counts.

Facebook’s goal is reportedly to make people comfortable expressing themselves and to increase the quality of the content they share.

There are also claims about ameliorating user insecurity when posting, perceived liberty of expression, and circumventing the herd mentality.

But are there any scientific grounds for this change?

The MusicLab model

In 2006, US researchers Matthew Salganik, Peter Dodds and Duncan Watts set out to investigate the intriguing disconnect between quality and popularity observed in cultural markets.

They created the MusicLab experiments, in which users were presented with a choice of songs from unknown bands. Users would listen online and could choose to download songs they liked.

The users were divided into two groups: for one group, the songs were shown at random with no other information; for the other group, songs were ordered according to a social signal – the number of times each had already been downloaded – and this number was shown next to them.


Read more: Users (and their bias) are key to fighting fake news on Facebook – AI isn’t smart enough yet


A song’s number of downloads is a measure of its popularity, akin to the number of likes for Facebook posts.

The results were fascinating: when the number of downloads was shown, the song market would evolve to be highly unequal (with one song becoming vastly more popular than all the others) and unpredictable (the winning song would not be the same if the experiment were repeated).

Based on these results, Australian researchers proposed the first model (dubbed the MusicLab model) to explain how content becomes popular in cultural markets, why a few things get all the popularity and most get nothing, and (most important for us) why showing the number of downloads is so detrimental.

They theorised that the consumption of an online product (such as a song) is a two-step process: first the user clicks on it based on its appeal, then they download it based on its quality.

As it turns out, a song’s appeal is largely determined by its current popularity. If other people like something, we tend to think it’s worth taking a look at.

So how often a song will be downloaded in future depends on its current appeal, which in turn depends on its current number of downloads.

This leads to the well-known result that future popularity of a product or idea is highly dependent on its past popularity. This is also known as the “rich get richer” effect.

What does this have to do with Facebook likes?

The parallel between Facebook and the MusicLab experiment is straightforward: the songs correspond to posts, whereas downloads correspond to likes.

For a market of products such as songs, the MusicLab model implies that showing popularity means fewer cultural products of varying quality are consumed overall, and some high-quality products may go unnoticed.

But the effects are even more severe for a market of ideas, such as Facebook. The “rich get richer” effect compounds over time like interest on a mortgage. The total popularity of one idea can increase exponentially and quickly dominate the entire market.

As a result, the first idea on the market has more time to grow and has increased chances of dominating regardless of its quality (a strong first-mover advantage).


Read more: We made deceptive robots to see why fake news spreads, and found a weakness


This first-mover advantage partially explains why fake news items so often dominate their debunking, and why it is so hard to replace wrong and detrimental beliefs with correct or healthier alternatives that arrive later in the game.

Despite what is sometimes claimed, the “marketplace of ideas” is no guarantee that high-quality content will become popular.

Other lines of research suggest that while quality ideas do make it to the top, it is next to impossible to predict early which ones. In other words, quality appears disconnected from popularity.

Is there any way the game can be fixed?

This seems to paint a bleak picture of online society, in which misinformation, populist ideas, and unhealthy teen challenges can freely flow through online media and capture the public’s attention.

However, the other group in the MusicLab experiment – the group who were not shown a popularity indicator – can give us hope for a solution, or at least some improvement.

The researchers reported that hiding the number of downloads led to a much fairer and more predictable market, in which popularity is more evenly distributed among a greater number of competitors and more closely correlated to quality.

So it appears that Facebook’s decision to hide the number of likes on posts could be better for everyone.

In addition to limiting pressure on post creators and reducing their levels of anxiety and envy, it might also help to create a fairer information exchange environment.

And if posters spend less time on optimising post timing and other tricks for gaming the system, we might even notice an increase in content quality.The Conversation

Marian-Andrei Rizoiu, Lecturer in Computer Science, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Sergio Brodsky, Sessional Lecturer, Marketing, RMIT University

Noisy, ugly and dirty. Advertising has polluted cities, annoyed consumers, and jeopardised its own existence. Beyond a mass-media cacophony, brand communications’ significant carbon footprint and runaway consumption are certainly contributing to what economists call market failure.

In the UK, for instance, advertising produces 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year. That’s equivalent to heating 364,000 UK homes for a year, according to CarbonTrack.

In this sense, should messages such as a City of Melbourne campaign inviting people to cycle more even be allowed? On the one hand, it is better to communicate a solution (cycling) to the issue than not. On the other, if the communication contributes to the problem more than the solution, what’s the point of it?

Jerry Seinfeld’s 2014 infamous line at the Clio awards called out the advertising sector to its face:

I think spending your life trying to dupe innocent people out of hard-won earnings to buy useless, low-quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy.

Jerry Seinfeld’s speech about advertising at the 2014 Clio Awards.

Still, contrary to that sentiment, marketers and their brands can (and should) move away from being part of the problem to becoming part of the solution for sustainable development and the industry’s own sustainability.

Offering A New Outlook

The urbanisation megatrend wholly underpins other forces shaping the way we live, now and in the future. Although cities occupy only 2% of Earth’s landmass, that is where 75% of energy consumption occurs. Advertising growth is also concentrated in big cities.

Because of increased demand for ever more comfortable lifestyles, urban infrastructures have been feeling “growing pains” for decades now. Whether it’s energy, education, health, waste management or safety, cities’ services are struggling to keep up with their larger and “hungrier” populations.

The strategic opportunity here is to reframe brand communications from the promotion of conspicuous consumption to becoming a regenerative force in the economy of cities. That means using brands’ touch points as more than mere messengers, but rather delivering public utility services. I’ve coined it Urban Brand-Utility.

For example, Domino’s Pizza’s Paving for Pizza program fixes potholes, cracks and bumps said to be responsible for “irreversible damage” to pizzas during the drive home.

This may sound silly, but the US National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission estimates that simply to maintain the nation’s highways, roads and bridges requires investment by all levels of government of US$185 billion a year for the next 50 years. Today, the US invests about US$68 billion a year.

The Paving for Pizza program fixes potholes that Domino’s says ‘can cause irreversible damage to your pizza during the drive home’. Domino’s Pizza

According to Bill Scherer, mayor of Bartonville, Texas: “This unique, innovative partnership allowed the town of Bartonville to accomplish more potholes repairs.” Eric Norenberg, city manager of Milford, Delaware, said: “We appreciated the extra Paving for Pizza funds to stretch our street repair budget as we addressed more potholes than usual.”

In Moscow, major Russian real estate developers approached Sberbank to collaborate on better infrastructure planning in residential areas. People’s opinions on local needs fuelled targeted campaigns, promoting loans for small businesses. The “Neighbourhoods” campaign generated nine times as many small-business responses as traditional bank loan advertising.

The ‘Neighbourhoods’ campaign sought people’s opinions on local neighbourhood needs.

In other words, people had their needs met. And neighbourhoods become more attractive as a result. The city increases tax collection from the new businesses being set up, which also reduces the costs of having to deal with derelict areas.

A Shift To Serving Citizen-Consumers

If we could see ourselves as citizen-consumers, as opposed to individual shoppers in the market, every dollar spent would enable business to tackle the issues that matter most.

Here’s a hypothetical situation. Let’s assume Domino’s Paving for Pizza program is taken to its full potential, generating a large surplus to the City of Bartonville by minimising the costs of repairing potholes. Rather than treating this as a one-off campaign, smart mayors would try to create a virtuous cycle, where the city retains 50% of the surplus, 25% is returned to the advertiser, and 25% goes to the agency and media owner – a value only unlocked by repeating the approach.

This way, marketing budgets are effectively turned into investment funds. The returns are in the form of brand cut-through, happier customers, social impact and more effective city management, as shown in the model below.

In a circular economy, products and services go beyond an end user’s finite life cycle. Similarly, Urban Brand-Utility looks at brand communications as closed loops by designing a system bigger than fixed campaign periods, target audiences and business-as-usual KPIs.

Brands with some level of foresight will be able to broaden their audiences from customers to citizens and their revenue model from sales to the creation of shared value. These will be game-changers for profit and prosperity.

Markets, choice and competition are not just a consumer’s best friend, but their civic representation. After all, as one of the tribunes asks the crowd in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: “What is the city but the people?”

Sergio Brodsky, Sessional Lecturer, Marketing, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Inspiring stories of social activism, such as the Civil Rights movement and the fight against climate change, abound in history. And it is generally thought that the new social media era has helped cases of activism to succeed. But our research has revealed some major threats, which activists need to understand if they are to be successful in getting their message across to the masses.

 

Social activism refers to a broad range of activities which are beneficial to society or particular interest groups. Social activists operate in groups to voice, educate and agitate for change, targeting global crises.

 

Take, for example, environmental groups such as Greenpeace which aim to curb climate change by targeting governments and major manufacturers with poor environmental records. Or the anti-sweatshop movement, which started with a group of activists in the 19th century organising boycotts aimed at improving the conditions of workers in manufacturing places with low wages, poor working conditions and child labour.

 

Online social activism

These days the voices of dissent have increasingly been carried via the evolving medium of the internet. From #Metoo, #TimesUp and #WeStrike to #NeverAgain and #BlackLivesMatter, social activists wield the power of the internet to pressure powerful organisations.

 

The group 350.org, for example, is made up of climate change activists. The group uses online campaigns and grassroots organising to oppose new coal, oil and gas projects. Its aim is to get society moving closer to clean energy solutions that work for all.

 

Online activism allows activists to organise events with high levels of engagement, focus and network strength. On the one hand, researchers suggest that the anonymity offered by online communication provides the possibility of expressing the views of marginalised minority groups that might otherwise be punished or sanctioned. Online activities reinforce collective identity by reducing attention to differences that exist within the group (such as education, social class, and ethnicity).

 

The online threats

But other research argues that while this modern form of activism may increase participation in online activities, it might merely create the impression of activism. Or it may even have negative consequences, such as creating social stereotypes including those about feminists and environmentalists or getting social activists arrested as is the case in authoritarian countries.

 

The aim of our research was to develop insights that would obtain better outcomes from online activism, targeting some of society’s most important issues. During our study, we collected data from three YouTube cases of online activism. Our findings suggest that online activism delivers a temporary shock to the organisational elites, help organise collective actions and amplify the conditions for movements to form.

 

The elites fight back

But these initial outcomes provoke the elites into action, resulting in counter measures – such as increased surveillance to track activists. For example, some governmental authorities intensified internet filtering, blocked access to several websites and decreased the speed of the internet connection to slow down social activism. These measures prompted self-censorship among activists and a loss of interest among the public in relation to the cause and contributed to the ultimate decline of social activism over time.

 

Our study challenged the optimistic hype around online activism in enabling grassroots social movements by suggesting there is a complex relationship between activists and those groups they are targeting, which makes the outcomes very difficult to predict. As different parties with different interests intervene, they either encourage or inhibit activism.

 

While encouraging actions can take the form of support (such as the thousands of women around the world who posted on social media sharing their stories under #metoo), inhibiting actions may come in the form of information asymmetry (strategies such as filtering and surveillance) from elites.

 

Inhibiting strategies are not limited to authoritarian organisations. Senior managers may also monitor email correspondence of staff, set up structures and hierarchies for access to organisational information, and use information provided by secretive companies to check the status of their employees (for example, blacklisting workers perceived as trouble-makers).

 

Less emotion and more strategic patience

Online activists should understand that the dynamics of reaching collective action might not necessarily be the result of critical thinking, lifelong learning or other dimensions of civic engagement. Journalist Nicholas Kristoff has talked about how the anti-sweatshop movement “risks harming the impoverished workers it is hoping to help” by causing mass job redundancies. Similarly, our main message is that online activism could prompt reactions that will result in unintended and long lasting consequences for the activists involved.

 

A common and frequently used approach that risks these types of consequences is to share emotive information through social media. While this is used to inform and capture people’s attention and mobilise as many people as possible, our study suggests that more thought should be put into the consequences of information sharing and what information is most appropriate to be shared.

 

Activists may need to spend more time and energy to create and share information that is less emotive and help people learn about the underlying causes of problem. For example, the activism videos we have researched and commonly see on the internet are essentially reactive and emotive.

 

The ConversationInstead of focusing on the problem and the need for change, activists can share information that explains why and how the current situation has been created and what can be learned for the future. Online activism in such manner can gradually lead to the development of people who are capable of generating new knowledge and wisdom to respond to changing social environments. However, that requires strategic patience and that is often a scarce resource among activists desperate for change.

 

Author: Shahla Ghobadi, Assistant Professor, Software, Design, Social Activism, University of Manchester

Main image: Sign displaying the #metoo and #timesup message at the Women’s March in San Francisco in January, 2018. Shutterstock/SundryPhotography

Shahla Ghobadi, University of Manchester


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Olaf Werder, University of Sydney In a world of mass communication and social media, people seem prepared to share their opinion on almost any subject.

When it comes to remembering a conversation you were involved in, in most cases the deciding factor is the contribution you made to that conversation, according to British journalist Catherine Blyth in her 2008 advice book The Art of Conversation.

But today when people talk, online and offline, any real dialogue seems to have given way to parallel monologues, paired with an inability to actively listen.

Healthy advice

A brief trip into my own discipline of health communication illustrates the dilemma. The core argument of what makes health promotion work is that the promoter must first find the barriers as to why people don’t live healthier. The promoter then converts those into convincing campaigns.

Yet, health promoters still have difficulties explaining why seemingly reasonable people still deliberately disregard or dismiss their messages. In Australia alone, the federal Department of Health says smoking still kills an estimated 15,000 people a year.

So, how do we explain that people wilfully choose to harm their future health by ignoring sound health marketing? Researchers call this phenomenon health resistance. It is basically a lack of motivation to comply with someone else’s ideas of good and bad.

And since every form of communication starts with someone’s own worldview, which has to pass through the filter of a possibly very different worldview of others, these rebellious reactions are not surprising. In politics and social issues (debates of marriage equality, climate change, race and religion, etc), we witness an increasingly dire split and hardening of positions. But the attempt to focus on perfecting one’s own arguments has equally led to an impasse in advancing public health.

Communication skills

The study of communication has its origins in rhetoric and public speaking skills of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Rhetoric teaches the art of using persuasive tools. However the idea of resolving disagreement through measured agreeable discussion, known as the dialectic method, played an equal role to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

With this in mind, it is interesting to see how our outlooks of communication have changed in modern times. Back in 1922, the American writer and reporter Walter Lippmann still called communication:
[…] a central and constitutive place in the study of social relations.
This opinion was echoed by his contemporary, philosopher John Dewey, who argued that:
[…] communication can by itself create a community.
This early definition was close to the spirit of the dialectic method. It was also in line with the root of the word “communication”, which comes from the Latin communicare (to share or to make common) and communis (belonging to all). Both terms are also related to the word “community”.

The rise of mass media

The rise of electronic communication technologies and mass media after World War II shifted the focus onto a more scientific interest of how best to disseminate information. This was famously symbolised by the communication loop model of Claude Elwood Shannon and Warren Weaver.

A growing interest in the information processing capacity of communication ultimately led to a detachment from the art of debate.

Persuasion and media effects concepts moved centre stage. Those areas were especially useful for purposeful or strategic communication that were needed in political campaigning, marketing and public relations. Those fields, not coincidentally, grew in importance at the same time.

US communication scholar William Eadie noted that by the 1980s communication in the United States had been separated from the study of speech and rhetoric. It was more associated primarily with learning journalism and media production, while the latter became subcategories of English.

The dawn of the information age intensified the focus on creating messages further by providing people with unfiltered, instant access to media and removing communicators from real audiences.

Whereas the idea of the internet as a democratic source of information and active engagement was noble, the web algorithms that filtered what someone was exposed to along their interests created an echo chamber of one’s own held opinions. It effectively reduced communicative competency to engage in human dialogue.

If we look at the current public and political dialogue in many countries, it seems bleak. The fallout from the US presidential campaign and the UK’s Brexit vote are just two examples.

But we know from psychology that humans have a natural drive toward belonging and contribution (being heard) and finding expressions of their creativity (being inspired). This explains social movements, the fan culture in sports and participatory management.

Getting the message through

One way to arrive at practising a slower and more compassionate communication style is to borrow ideas from the Slow Movement. We can step away from instant responses and replace the idea of conversations as a competition, with a win-win mentality.

The field of health communication attempts this in the form of community-involved and -led health campaigns, creating ownership, mutual voice and togetherness in the process.

On an individual level, we need to balance impersonal with personal communication, seek out and engage with opposing opinions on purpose, and try understanding the background for someone’s position by actively listening.

This goes beyond the freedom of speech idea. It forms an attempt to find common ground when talking to each other, which is not coincidentally also a definition of the term “community”. The Conversation

Besides the obvious effects in building connections, it has direct health implications, working against isolation, antagonism and stress.

Olaf Werder, Lecturer in Health Communication, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
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