Curiosity is our product

A few weeks ago I facil­i­tat­ed a dis­cus­sion on ‘advo­ca­cy in a post-truth era’ at the Euro­pean Dig­i­tal Rights Initiative’s annu­al gen­er­al assem­bly. And last night I was part of a dis­cus­sion on fake news at a behav­iour design meet­up in Ams­ter­dam. This was a good occa­sion to pull togeth­er some of my notes and fig­ure out what I think is true about the ‘fake news’ phe­nom­e­non.

There is plen­ty of good writ­ing out there explor­ing the his­to­ry and cur­rent state of post-truth polit­i­cal cul­ture.

Kellyanne Conway’s “alter­na­tive facts” and Michael Gove’s “I think peo­ple have had enough of experts” are just two exam­ples of the right’s appro­pri­a­tion of what I would call epis­te­mo­log­i­cal rel­a­tivism. Post-mod­ernism was fun while it worked to advance our left­ist agen­da. But now that the tables are turned we’re not enjoy­ing it quite as much any­more, are we?

Part of the fact-free pol­i­tics play­book goes back at least as far as big tobacco’s efforts to dis­cred­it the anti-smok­ing lob­by. “Doubt is our prod­uct” still applies to mod­ern day reac­tionary move­ments such as cli­mate change deniers and anti-vax­ers.

The dou­ble wham­my of news indus­try com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion and inter­net plat­form con­sol­i­da­tion has cre­at­ed fer­tile ground for coor­di­nat­ed efforts by var­i­ous groups to turn the sow­ing of doubt all the way up to eleven.

There is Russia’s “fire­hose of false­hood” which sends a high vol­ume of mes­sages across a wide range of chan­nels with total dis­re­gard for truth or even con­sis­ten­cy in a rapid, con­tin­u­ous and repet­i­tive fash­ion. They seem to be hav­ing fun desta­bil­is­ing west­ern democ­ra­cies — includ­ing the Nether­lands — with­out any appar­ent end-goal in mind.

And then there is the out­rage mar­ket­ing lever­aged by trolls both minor and major. Piss­ing off main­stream media builds an audi­ence on the fringes and in the under­ground. Jour­nal­ists are held hostage by fig­ures such as Milo because they depend on sto­ries that trig­ger strong emo­tions for dis­tri­b­u­tion, eye­balls, clicks and ulti­mate­ly rev­enue.

So, giv­en all of this, what is to be done? First some bad news. Facts, the weapon of choice for lib­er­als, don’t appear to work. This is empir­i­cal­ly evi­dent from recent events, but it also appears to be borne out by psy­chol­o­gy.

Facts are often more com­pli­cat­ed than the untruths they are sup­posed to counter. It is also eas­i­er to remem­ber a sim­ple lie than a com­pli­cat­ed truth. Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters fur­ther, facts tend to be bor­ing. Final­ly, and most inter­est­ing­ly, there is some­thing called the ‘back­fire effect’: we become more entrenched in our views when con­front­ed with con­tra­dict­ing facts, because they are threat­en­ing to our group iden­ti­ties.

More bad news. Giv­en the speed at which false­hoods spread through our net­works, fact-check­ing is use­less. Fact-check­ing is after-the-fact-check­ing. Worse, when media fact-check false­hoods on their front pages they are sim­ply pro­vid­ing even more air­time to them. From a strate­gic per­spec­tive, when you debunk, you allow your­self to be cap­tured by your opponent’s frame, and you’re also on the defen­sive. In Boy­di­an terms you are caught in their OODA loop, when you should be work­ing to take back the ini­tia­tive, and you should be offer­ing an alter­na­tive nar­ra­tive.

I am not hope­ful main­stream media will save us from these dynam­ics giv­en the real­i­ties of the busi­ness mod­els they oper­ate inside of. Jour­nal­ists inside of these organ­i­sa­tions are typ­i­cal­ly over­worked, just hold­ing on for dear life and churn­ing out sto­ries at a rapid clip. In short, there is no time to ori­ent and manoeu­vre. For bad-faith actors, they are sit­ting ducks.

What about lit­er­a­cy? If only peo­ple knew about chur­nal­ism, the atten­tion econ­o­my, and fil­ter bub­bles ‘they’ would become immune to the lies ped­dled by reac­tionar­ies and return to the lib­er­al fold. Per­son­al­ly I find these claims high­ly uncon­vinc­ing not to men­tion con­de­scend­ing.

My cur­rent work­ing the­o­ry is that we, all of us, buy into the sto­ries that acti­vate one or more of our group iden­ti­ties, regard­less of wether they are fact-based or out­right lies. This is called ‘moti­vat­ed rea­son­ing’. Since this is a fact of psy­chol­o­gy, we are all sus­cep­ti­ble to it, includ­ing lib­er­als who are sup­pos­ed­ly defend­ers of fact-based rea­son­ing.

Seri­ous­ly though, what about lit­er­a­cy? I’m sor­ry, no. There is evi­dence that sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­cy actu­al­ly increas­es polar­i­sa­tion. Moti­vat­ed rea­son­ing trumps fac­tu­al knowl­edge you may have. The same research shows how­ev­er that curios­i­ty in turn trumps moti­vat­ed rea­son­ing. The way I under­stand the dis­tinc­tion between lit­er­a­cy and curios­i­ty is that the for­mer is about knowl­edge while the lat­ter is about atti­tude. Moti­vat­ed rea­son­ing isn’t coun­ter­act­ed by know­ing stuff, but by want­i­ng to know stuff.

This is a mixed bag. Offer­ing facts is com­par­a­tive­ly easy. Spark­ing curios­i­ty requires sto­ry­telling which in turn requires imag­i­na­tion. If we’re pre­sent­ed with a fact we are not invit­ed to ask ques­tions. How­ev­er, if we are pre­sent­ed with ques­tions and those ques­tions are wrapped up in sto­ries that cre­ate emo­tion­al stakes, some of the views we hold might be desta­bilised.

In oth­er words, if doubt is the prod­uct ped­dled by our oppo­nents, then we should start traf­fick­ing in curios­i­ty.

Further reading

Work with me in Copenhagen (or where-ever)

Panorama of Copenhagen harbour

Now that I’m over three months into my stay in Copen­hagen I thought it would be good to post a short update. Here are the facts, bul­let-wise (with apolo­gies to Mr. Tufte):

  • I have been in Copen­hagen, Den­mark since July 1st 2007
  • Until now I have most­ly been work­ing on Playy­oo, doing inter­ac­tion and game design
  • I also pre­sent­ed on Play­ful IAs at the Euro IA Sum­mit in Barcelona
  • No lat­er than July 1st 2008, I will return to Utrecht, the Nether­lands
  • Yes, I intend to con­tin­ue free­lanc­ing when I get back (I offi­cial­ly left on Octo­ber 1st 2007)
  • I am avail­able for free­lance inter­ac­tion design gigs that involve social media, mobile tech­nol­o­gy and/or gam­ing
  • You can also invite me to speak at your event or com­pa­ny, par­tic­u­lar­ly on the top­ic of apply­ing game design prin­ci­ples to the user expe­ri­ence of prod­ucts and ser­vices

Oh and of course, if you hap­pen to be in Copen­hagen, don’t hes­i­tate to drop me a line when you feel like going out for some drinks!

The toy-like nature of social media

A Barbie doll

I’ve been mean­ing to write about this for quite a while: I think a lot of social media are like toys. I think what we see with peo­ple (adults!) using them is a lot like the open-end­ed play we know from play­ground games in school. A lot of these games are about explor­ing (the pos­si­bil­i­ties of) social rela­tion­ships in a ‘safe’ con­text. Social media offer this same poten­tial. In play­ground games there is a nat­ur­al under­stand­ing that what hap­pens with­in the mag­ic cir­cle of the game is not real­ly real (but the notion is blurred.) A lot of dis­cus­sion about the vir­tu­al­i­ty of rela­tion­ships in social media does not acknowl­edge the exis­tence of such a thing: Either the rela­tion­ship you have with some­one is real (he’s a real friend, or even real fam­i­ly) or not, in which case the rela­tion­ship is often seen as val­ue-less. I’d argue that a lot of peo­ple use social media to explore the poten­tial of a rela­tion­ship in a more or less safe way, to lat­er either tran­si­tion it into real­ness or not (note that I do not mean it needs to be tak­en offline into meat-space to make it real!)

I think social media are so com­pelling to so many peo­ple for this rea­son. They allow them to play with the very stuff social rela­tions are made of. I think this fas­ci­na­tion is uni­ver­sal and vir­tu­al­ly time­less. At the same time I think the notion of using social play as the stuff of enter­tain­ment has seen a tremen­dous rise over the past decade. (I tend to illus­trate this point with the rise of real­i­ty TV.)

If you think of the design of social soft­ware as the design of a toy (in con­trast to think­ing of it as a game) you can design for open-end­ed play. Mean­ing there is no need for a quan­tifi­able end-state where one per­son (or a num­ber of peo­ple) are said to be the win­ner. You can how­ev­er cre­ate mul­ti­ple feed­back mech­a­nisms that com­mu­ni­cate poten­tial goals to be pur­sued to the play­er. Amy Jo Kim has a worth­while pre­sen­ta­tion on the kind of game mechan­ics to use in such a case (and also in the more game-like case.)

Final­ly, two things to think about and design for:

  1. Play in social media hap­pens accord­ing to rules encod­ed in the soft­ware, but also very much fol­low­ing exter­nal rules that play­ers agree upon amongst them­selves.
  2. You will have peo­ple gam­ing te game. Mean­ing, there will be play­ers who are inter­est­ed in cre­at­ing new exter­nal rules for social inter­ac­tions. Think of the alter­na­tive rules play­ers enforce in games of street soc­cer, for instance.

Update: Just thought this small quote of Michal Migurs­ki defend­ing the recent Twit­ter Blocks nice­ly com­ple­ments my argu­ment:

There are plen­ty of but-use­less things in the world that serve as emo­tion­al bond­ing points, amuse­ments, attrac­tions, and macguffins. Prac­ti­cal­ly all of social media falls under this cat­e­go­ry for me, a form of medi­at­ed play that requires a sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief in ratio­nal pur­pose to suc­ceed.”