If we should redistribute wealth, we should redistribute attention on social media

(This is the second in a (possibly two part) series on using ideas from economics in the service of progressive political ideas. The first is about money and what it can teach us about social constructs, and is here.)

Social media sites are attention markets: sites where attention is traded. Given this, we should treat them as we treat other markets: as subject to redistribution, to combat the unfairness markets of necessity engender.

So we should redistribute attention: at the start of a given month or year, a number of followers of somebody well-followed on social media should be given to less well followed people.

We should do so for the same reason we think we should redistribute wealth: because allowing the current distribution of wealth to be determined entirely by the past distribution of wealth and the laws of moving wealth (trade, gift, etc.) lead to societies that strike us as unfair. In such societies, whether someone is wealthy or not is pretty much a question of whether or not their parents were wealthy, which is unmeritocratic. And whether or not someone gets a say in (for example) political matters of importance is also pretty much a question of whether or not their parents were wealthy, which silences many voices.

Attention on social media is unequally distributed, because determined entirely by the past distribution of attention and the laws of moving attention around. And this is equally unfair. It is unmeritocratic: of two equally worthy — indeed, two identical — posts, one can succeed and the other fail based entirely on how many followers the respective posters have (you’ve probably seen this happen; I have, anyway). And it silences: certain voices are heard again and again while other equally important voices are heard not at all.

Let’s begin with a story to show this. Alex and Beth have the same number of followers on twitter (I’m going to use twitter throughout as my example. I think my conclusions in fact don’t carry over to all other social networks (reddit is a good example, since it doesn’t really have a follower system), although they probably do for some.) Then Alex finds a great cat video on reddit, posts it on twitter, and it goes viral. She gets 1000 new followers on account of it. Beth finds no such video, doesn’t go viral, and keeps the same number of followers.

Alex and Beth are equally adept political analysts, but have — let’s say — opposing affiliations: their tweets are the same quality, but with a different message. They post. Alex, with her greater audience, gets retweeted a decent amount, and those retweets bring her more followers, and this cycle repeats itself: her tweets get more attention which leads her subsequent tweets to get even more attention. Beth, with the same quality tweets, doesn’t get retweeted more, and so her audience remains the same. Attention begets attention, which is to say that it is is subject to what sociologists call the Matthew Effect.

Hard work, progressivists think, in unredistributed markets, isn’t reflected in the allocation of wealth. Bad luck, rich parents, medical misfortune can bring it about that two people with the same qualities, who work equally hard, do not receive the same rewards for their work. If the above story of Alex and Beth rings true, the same holds of social media. Alex, owing to her initial lucky find of the cat video, gets a lot of undeserved attention; the attention she commands isn’t proportional to her ability, and attention distribution is profoundly conservative: just as wealth is predominantly begot by the wealth in the savings and investments of the rich, as opposed to coming as income from current labour they perform, so attention is primarily begot by the attention a person previously received, as opposed to being the result of their current posting labour. And while sometimes wealth is the result of hard work, and attention that of hard tweeting, many times it won’t be. People will linger in obscurity for years tweeting gold to no one; mediocre opinions by well-followed people rebound and rebound.

(Here’s an aside. It can be hard to take any of this seriously: who cares about tweets, you might think? It’s inherently an unserious, frivolous thing not worth of — pun intended — attention. This is a real risk, I think — call it the bathetic fallacy: that any serious thinking about these sorts of things is inherently difficult because the conclusions just sound petty and unimportant. I think the bathetic fallacy should be resisted, needless to say: although not as important as income equality, that voices are promoted above others not in line with their merit should worry us in roughly the same way, if not to the same degree, as the fact that voices are promoted not in line with their merit in politics.)

If we all love watching Wilt Chamberlain, Nozick says, we should be allowed to give him our money to see him in action, and that money shouldn’t be taken back from him and redistributed. Should we say something similar about our attention and our favourite twitter account?

Well, it seems that there are at least two obvious possible things to say. We could say that the current system, whereby the current attention one commands is a function of the past attention one commanded and the rules that transfer attention, is the right one (I’ve phrased this explicitly nodding to Robert Nozick who formulates the rule for determining the just allocation of wealth in a society in a time in a similar way). All we should care about is that the current allocation of attention has been arrived at in a fair way: that no one has been forced to follow or retweet someone else, for example. If that leads to situations that might strike one as unfair, too bad. Them’s the rules, and trying to cause fairness involves violating internet citizens’ rights to follow whom they want to follow.

The other thing to say is that no, because this system is unfair, it should be changed. Because it’s to some extent a matter of luck and not merit that Alex has more followers, and thus commands more attention, than Beth, we should have in place mechanisms to help the unlucky, just as we have unemployment insurance to help the economically unlucky.

It’s fun, if you have a weird sense of fun, to think about how this might go. Here’s one way: we group members of a social media community in terms of similarity. Thus I would belong to the similarity class of: philosophers, dril fans, animal video likers, and maybe some other things. And we would assign to people different bands, like tax bands (although not like income tax, more like inheritance tax), and then, at the end of the social media year (which should maybe be like four months, because, as is well known, life comes at you fast on social media), followers are taken away from you, the number depending on your band, and given to someone in the same similarity class but belonging to a lower band.

That person’s voice then gets amplified while yours gets slightly diminished. You, if they want to not to constantly lose followers in this way, must produce good tweets: you can’t rest on your laurels. Similarly, the other person’s — let’s assume — good tweets now have a better chance of getting heard. That’s how we could redistribute attention.

I think this is a super interesting suggestion. What would happen? Would, as tax dislikers think, it disincentivise people to produce good tweets? (again, you might think it would incentivise them to produce better tweets. Really, what it would, or should, mean is that the metric of success as concerns followers concerns not their absolute number but rather the increase since the last redistribution.) What about this possibly serious problem: what if you, a follower, get redistributed to me only to realize that, despite indeed being a philosophical dril and animal video liker, I also post quite a lot about the vagaries of gmail, a topic you find very boring? Or, even worse: what if your significant other or just a friend gets redistributed away from you? Followers aren’t fungible, and that would probably cause a lot of problems. Or what if you, a low-follower-band person, found in the followers redistributed to you a bunch of reply-guys or people who retweet, every day, all the tweets they posted yesterday?

Honestly, I have no idea. Maybe there are enough downsides that it should only be approached with care. It would be cool to try it out, though (with willing volunteers), and I think progressivists should find the logic appealing.

Next I want to consider a sort of meta-point that arises from these reflections. I’ve treated social media as if it were an attention market, subject to the problems of markets, and proposed the sort of mechanism progressivists propose to deal with such problems. This is — as far as I’m aware — not a very common argumentative strategy (if it is, and somebody has already made this argument, please let me know. I researched but didn’t find anything.) It’s much more common for (a species of) right-leaning people than for left-leaning people to see markets everywhere. The question is: is this good? Should progressivists seek to see markets in places where markets aren’t obvious? I think yes.

As just said, a paradigm move of more right-of-centre people is to try to subject, or even just to think, of things that don’t seem subject to market forces as so subject. Progressivists don’t seem to go in for such thinking so much.

But I think this is a mistake. If not everywhere, progressivists should see economies where economies aren’t manifest. The important thing is that, having done so, they treat them like economies.

Let me illustrate this point with something close to the topic of this post: clickbait. In particular, focus on what I’ll call hate-clickbait: those articles that you read and share knowing that you and those with whom you share them will hate them.

There’s something obviously superficially puzzling about this: it’s puzzling why publishers would publish shit, and it’s puzzling why I would seek out and share such shit. People making shoes don’t (set out to) make really shitty shoes, and, if they did, I wouldn’t go and buy them and show my friends.

Here’s how I like to think about it: clickbait is something an attentional perpetual motion machine, or perhaps an attentional ponzi scheme that works as so. Media company wants to get eyeballs on ads. They can do this by creating solid content that their readership will enjoy. Their readers will then pay for the content by tolerating the ads on their site. There’s an exchange: attention for content.

But, well, media has its issues, economically speaking. Decent content costs. So here’s what clickbait offers: not decent content, but a machine that enables the reader to make their own content, and thus to receive attention. People consume clickbait because, having done so, they can screengrab it and post something scathing, and because — for reasons I’m not entirely sure about — that sort of scathing commentary content does well, there’s a decent chance they will get retweets and favourites and follows, or, more generally, attention.

In a healthy media market, attention is exchanged for content; in the unhealthy media market we inhabit, attention is exchanged for the promise of the reader in turn receiving attention. The product, the content, has fallen out of the equation.

This is arguably very bad. It drastically lowers the quality of (I use this term with reticence) ‘the discourse’. It propagates worthless voices, and uses up the time of people who would otherwise have good contributions to make.

And, and here is one of the important morals, it’s arguable that this badness arises precisely because we’ve failed to realize that what we’re dealing with is essentially a market, an attentional market, and were we so to realize, the problem we be fixed. While we shouldn’t treat things that aren’t like markets like markets, we go wrong if we treat markets like non-markets.

If we paid for content, it’s arguable that clickbait would be forced to disappear. The reason we read shit and then make fun of it is because we don’t realize that it is costing us some of something of which we have a finite supply, our attention, and that we are giving it to someone who doesn’t deserve it. But if instead we had to pay for content, there’s no way we would read clickbait. We would, you know, read (and pay for) stuff worth reading.

It’s not like this is even some pipe dream: what got me thinking about this post was the Brave browser and its associated basic attention token (see e.g. here for more info). The idea here is that we get paid for watching adverts and we can then use that money to pay who we want for content. What is hidden in the current model is made explicit: and I bet its being made explicit would change our behaviour for the better.

Progressive people feel a sort of ickiness about markets. They think, not without reason, markets are bad; they don’t want to think of their world as populated with homo economicuses trading in markets for attention or friendship or love. And so they tend not to think about them.

But, if there are more markets than we think, it’s imperative that progressivists treat them as such. Because we have a way to deal with markets: we subject them to redistribution, so that those unfairly treated by them, from the large unfairness of having a tree fall on you rendering you unable to work for six months to the minuscule unfairness of having a tweet fail to go viral, receive some support. So we should, whenever we find something that looks like a market, subject it to redistribution, in the hope of fairness, rather than rejecting the idea out of hand that it is a market.

Novella "Coming From Nothing" at @zer0books (bitly.com/cfnextract). Academic philosophy at: http://mipmckeever.weebly.com/