2010s Identity Politics as Hostile AI

There’s an interesting post mortem on the rise and fall of the clickbait liberalism site Mic.com, that attracted an alleged 65 million unique visitors on the strength of Woketastic personal stories like “5 Powerful Reasons I’m a (Male) Feminist,” “An Open Letter to the Pope From a Gay Man,” and “An Open Letter to Abercrombie and Fitch from a Formerly Homeless Kid.”

While the article would like to attribute the site’s fall in traffic to the insincerity of Mic’s owners interest in social justice (they weren’t interested in really being outraged over injustice, just in monetizing other people’s outrage), what struck me most was this section:

This Facebook-driven success was no accident. Every time Mic had a hit, it would distill that success into a formula and then replicate it until it was dead. Successful “frameworks,” or headlines, that went through this process included “Science Proves TK,” “In One Perfect Tweet TK,” “TK Reveals the One Brutal Truth About TK,” and “TK Celebrity Just Said TK Thing About TK Issue. Here’s why that’s important.” At one point, according to an early staffer who has since left, news writers had to follow a formula with bolded sections, which ensured their stories didn’t leave readers with any questions: The intro. The problem. The context. The takeaway.

Successful businesses very often involve routinizing and developing detailed procedures for tasks; a friend who bought a diner with her husband told me yesterday that she has needed to write out twelve step directions for preparing and serving a fruit cup. But the success of Mic.com was due to algorithms built on top of algorithms. Facebook targets which links are visible to users based on complex and opaque rules, so it wasn’t just the character of the 2010s American population that was receptive to Mic.com’s specific brand of SJW outrage clickbait, but Facebook’s rules for which articles to share with which users and when. These rules, in turn, are calibrated to keep users engaged in Facebook as much as possible and provide the largest and most receptive audience for its advertisers, as befits a modern tech giant in a two-sided market.
The Fake News we want is, no doubt, as always the Fake News we get; it’s not like Hearst newspapers a hundred years ago were selling God’s honest truth all the time.

And it’s obvious and unremarkable at one level that the Great a-Woke-ening of the 2010s was driven in large part by the rise of social media, that affected revered Old Media like the New York Times as much as cynical startups like Mic.com:

But there is something unsettling about realizing how quickly the feedback loop of successful formula, to algorithm targeting that formula, to shared and universalized cultural change now operates. We’ve been accustomed to fearing the arrival of the Global Emergent Superintelligence of the Internet as Skynet scrambling remote-controlled bombers to nuke the pesky meatheads.
Maybe when the hostile AI arrives, it will be not with a bang but with a pageview.

8 thoughts on “2010s Identity Politics as Hostile AI

  1. You’re on fire right now ST. The utility of proceduralization is hidden from most people, even as they increasingly benefit from it. A large part of my job is proceduralizing things to make them more efficient, so I think about it all the time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This routinization is a long term trend: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_McDonaldization_of_Society

    As for the media situation you discuss, there are two competing narratives. The first is the Glenn Reynolds and the “Army of Davids” – the little guys, bloggers, and citizen journalists, who are now giving people what they want and challenging the (corrupt) dominance of old media. Their core story is epitomized by the firing of Dan Rather for faking the papers on GW Bush.

    The second is the Cass Sunstein who recently wrote “Republic” on this topic, and those of the same progressive bent, arguing that media fragmentation is not a good market response to peoples’ divergent interests and viewpoints, but rather a bad response that has created media echo chambers where left and right don’t interact. Further, the loss of the mainstream media’s ability to control the dominant narrative on what is newsworthy and culturally important has snowballed. Their core typical story is the problem with Fake News, and how with no curation or editing, a fake news piece about Pope Francis supporting Trump made the rounds. It was totally untrue.

    Both sides have a point.


  3. It’s hard to tell based on the graph what exactly is going on but it seems to me like the impetus for the big spike is the trayvon martin fiasco, or am I missing something?


  4. “The intro. The problem. The context. The takeaway.”

    This is similar to the way McKinsey trains its consultants to write. It’s structure is: Situation -> Complication -> Resolution.


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