(This is a follow-up post to No Algorithms.)
Joshua Emmons made the point I was trying to make, but more explicitly:
Brent is making a subtle point here:
1. Algorithms weigh signal.
2. In the domain of engagement, outrage and anger mask all other signals.
3. These signals are fatiguing. As Outrage: 5 is normalized, Outrage: 10 is now required to move the needle.
1. and 2. mean it’s not the algorithm’s fault. There’s no way to write an engagement algorithm that doesn’t select for outrage and anger. But 3. means anything that incorporates such an algorithm actually makes us worse people.
This is key: it’s not the motivation — selling ads — that turns algorithms bad. (But, yes, selling ads makes a company pretty keen on these types of algorithms.)
This may not be true of music, movies, and other things, but when it comes to news, outrage and anger swamp everything else.
It’s also not an issue of UI. If there’s any way, implicit or explicit or both, of signaling engagement, it will tend toward rewarding outrage and anger. And this gets even worse, not better, if you add data from what your friends and peers like.
Maybe, though, I could do better. I kind of think not, because I think the problem is a bug in human nature. But let’s say I believed I could do better.
For one thing: how much better does it have to be? I think an algorithm that radicalizes far fewer people than it might otherwise is not a good call. Better is still harmful.
So here’s the thing I keep coming back to: I think of NetNewsWire as almost a kind of ideal public utility. As such, it should be completely trustworthy — you should never wonder if it’s leading you down some path or other you didn’t intend or foresee.
There are plenty of other apps in the world — every app is part of an ecosystem — and this one doesn’t have to solve what I think may be an unsolvable problem. I’ll leave that to other people.
Instead, it should be one place for news that you can absolutely trust. Articles come in, and NetNewsWire sorts by time, and that’s it. That’s solid.