The Upvote Incentive

One helpful way to view our relationship with the modern media apparatus is to imagine it has three main components: the stories sold to us by the media, our collective response to those stories, and our innate need to protest the apparatus itself. We who follow the news and care about the world find ourselves increasingly overwhelmed and disillusioned by the way news is presented. The ways we process that information, and the tools the media apparatus gives us to respond and protest never feels like enough to sate our anxiety.

It might be helpful, therefore, to take a deeper, philosophical look at the cycles we find ourselves trapped in, and in the process, uncover ways we might finally break free.

Upvote Worthy Stories

The media responds to politicians responding to the media's coverage of them.. and the cycle goes on and on...
The most popular issues of the day (the 'stories with legs,' as journos say) are narratives granted a wider audience and a louder voice. These stories earn that right by lingering in the public consciousness and fueling our perception of what's important and what keeps the world turning. 'Stories with legs' eclipse other, less compelling news stories by virtue of their 'newsworthiness.'

They often contain the following elements:

Appeals to Vanity
Appeals to Immortality
Viral qualities

As a consequence of our fascination with stories like this, we perceive a world rampant with horror, scandal, and unknowable mystery. These viral stories keep the public in a constant state of worry. Follow-up articles, too, divulge heretofore unknown facts or elements, thereby adding to the mystery and keeping the public guessing, speculating, and more importantly, interested. Marketable scandals and hot button issues, as framed in the media, play out like a season of the X-Files. The role of the news media, thereby, is to mold real life events into narratives that are indistinguishable from popular entertainment.

How much of this is really necessary? Are these the stories we should be paying attention to? One answer is that news, first and foremost, is a business. Lofty values like public service and altruism come a distant second to the mainstream media's obligation to its own continued financial success, so it often deliberately obfuscates facts (most commonly through misleading headlines), creating mysteries and scandals where there aren't any in order to sell clicks. This keeps them in business.

The media safeguards its protection of viral stories - even stories the public is tired of hearing about - by professing its allegiance to public thirst. If there is repeated objection to a story, the media simply tells us it's what the public responds to, and it's usually right. What we often don't hear is that the media's obligation to the institution of journalism is at odds with the public's desire to be entertained. That institution, unfortunately, is losing the battle for relevance as a result.

The media coddles the public by broadcasting the most infuriating voices - those loud, angry and articulate voices telling us the world is flat. Modern news organizations make every effort to give any narrow, extreme, fringe opinion as broad a platform as possible when framing issues. This generates controversy. We become addicted to those stories which fluster us and cause us anxiety. The media recognizes that, even if threads pointing to controversy are tenuous.

Just as these 'stories with legs' frame the way we see the world, online discussions about these stories (and the popularity contests they inspire) also frame the way we see ourselves.  The same systems that help editors determine which stories to highlight also help users (and websites and algorithms) determine which responses deserve to be highlighted the most. This is either done through forum moderation or a system of incentives that has revolutionized online discussion.

The online space has given us a way to respond to the stories we're fed. We form communities springing up around our collective responses, and we establish rules for moderating these discussions.

Upvote Worthy Reactions

"Dear sir, I humbly request that you remove me from the Internet. I have said all there is to say. Good day!
In online communities (including message boards, comments sections, and user feedback areas), certain user comments are tagged as superior, thereby permanently giving them - and the users who post them - prominence. These 'tags' are incentives bestowed like virtual currency, in the form of kudos, or 'likes,' or retweets, or any manner of upvote. This virtual currency can be hoarded and displayed by its users as a way of demonstrating popularity and likability. One example is HuffPo's message board system, where some users are given specific titles and brands (such as 'Super User') and bestowed awards depending on the weight of their contribution to any given discussion. Another prominent example is Reddit's famous 'karma,' where many users seek to accumulate as many upvotes as possible, keeping their karma in the black.

Message boards gave birth to upvote culture many years ago, but social media has evolved it to a thing of beauty. Message boards are unique to the online space, in that they create a slate onto which a relatively organized series of public responses flow in, but in social media spaces, comments, contributions and 'upvote currency' are accumulated in a more fluid, communal, and less analytic way. Upvote culture has created an expectation that when presented with information, our responses must be well crafted and thoughtful. But the flow of information has sped up to where we aren't just expected to be thoughtful. We're expected to be as slick as copywriters and as well packaged as network pundits.

Upvoting is a powerful tool. It has largely eradicated the need to wade through garbage to reach gold. By clicking on news stories, we can decide which ones others have access to in the same way we 'vote on' our peers' comments. Upvoting illuminates the best stories and the best responses to those stories, and buries the least helpful ones. Youtube's recent conversion to an upvote-centric comment system changed the whole tone of that community. The ugly, illiterate bigots and trolls of the world do not benefit from a well implemented upvote apparatus. Yelp and Amazon even have invaluable systems whereby the most helpful reviews come first. I appreciate seeing the most poorly worded, offensive and nonsensical responses relegated to the trash heap or down-voted into oblivion. It is for this that I feel all online discussion can and should be moderated in this manner.

While certain types of comments are more liable to provoke a positive collective response, each community creates its own incentives for 'what is useful.' Sites like Twitter, Reddit and Facebook have all capitalized successfully on this collective determination about whose 'take' on the latest news item is the most 'useful.' Unfortunately, 'useful' can just as easily mean funny, entertaining, or even brutally cruel.

Unfortunately, much of what we read as well as what we say, from the headlines of the day to the comments down at the bottom, is devolving into a simple need to entertain and be entertained. Online communities and message boards, places where comments are organized and displayed, are turning into the same slick joke and meme factories that the news itself is becoming. Users have begun marketing themselves in their communities with the same packaged, entertainment-centric slant as that of the media itself. We are all becoming little media satellites, instead of delving into our own raw experiences and contributing our individual voices. We are homogenizing and commercializing our individual brand identities, because to do otherwise in the increasingly rapid information age is to lose oneself in the shuffle and never be heard.

This is potentially damaging, because in the process of simply trying to be the most entertaining voice over the din, we may be training ourselves to avoid long form solutions. We may even begin to tune out contributions from others that aren't entertaining or clever, and cognitive dissonance may prevent us from even realizing it.

As a another consequence of this phenomenon, some online user spaces are no longer discussions. They are instead sequences of glib, declarative, cynical in jokes and memes meant to make others laugh or applaud. The pressure to come up with a witticism topping the one before it segues a conversation through an exhausting series of increasingly off topic non sequitor one-liners. This contest for upvotes and acclaim and the accumulations of virtual currency has gamified discussion. It has gamified conversation and gamified interaction, to where the aim of the conversation is to 'win the internet' with the cleverest retort rather than advance the discussion or - god forbid - listen to what others have to say or challenge our own views.

Information culture is truly obsessed with compartmentalization and marketability of all our responses, and peoples' responses to us, to where we are less inclined to really listen to one another. In the quest to be the funniest, the wittiest, the one with the most kudos and upvotes, we've trained ourselves to react quickly rather than thoughtfully. We've trained ourselves to be clever rather than substantial. We don't exercise the listening muscle enough and we don't give listening its proper place in any meaningful discussion as a result. Our cute, witty, declarative statements are meant to be heard and applauded, but we've stopped listening. At its worst, upvote culture diminishes listening and critical thinking for sake of what is funny, what is popular, and what is clever.

I'm not saying we should eradicate comedy and entertainment from our news or discussions, but we need to temper our desire to be entertained with our need to stay informed and educated. Unfortunately, much of our reward based comment systems discourage serious, long term thinking. Humor is generally valued over contribution, marketability is applauded over salience. Even sites like Reddit, which is rife with substantial, profound discussion about a wide range of issues, can't always escape its (somewhat deserved) reputation for a place where certain specific biases abound.

As we consume the news of the day, we must pay special mind to the need for pluralism. There was a period of time, during the Bush years, when I immersed myself in liberal sites to stave off the frustration I felt about the war in Iraq and the the 'War on Terror.' I demanded satisfaction, a reprieve from my frustration, and these sites provided me with a kind of daily, short term salve against the malaise. Unfortunately, exposing myself to just one point of view, day after day, was not helpful to my long term assessment of world politics. It was only later, when I began to diversify my exposure to the news, that my myopia dissipated and I began to lose my sense of loss and urgency. I became, in essence, less addicted to the news, by extracting myself from the 24 hour news cycle and diversifying my sources. The media's campaign to win over my heart and mind failed about as miserably as our campaign in the Middle East to accomplish the same.

It is a particularly dangerous world in which news stories are indistinguishable from ad campaigns, and where witty comments are indistinguishable from ad copy. Just as news organizations are in competition with each other, we are all in competition with one another to act as individual news outlets. This pressure (to 'win the internet') to market ourselves as individuals to our peers in very much the same way as news organizations market themselves to us - it's a cycle that needs to stop. I've begun to feel a sense of protest not just against these trends in social media and elsewhere, but against the very filter itself - the news media, the methods by which news is packaged and disseminated in the information age.

I've begun to barricade my mind against the way we receive information in the mainstream media, and the formats we are provided with to respond to this information. Be it Facebook, or Reddit, or HuffPo, or Yahoo, we must protest and question any modern media architecture that we haven't built ourselves. We can thereby barricade ourselves from getting swept up in media cycles designed to omit permanent solutions or a sense of finite accomplishment to any of the pressing issues of the day.

Upvote Worthy Protest

Protest zones often defeat the purpose of protest.
In this day and age, crafting a protest message against the worst instincts of upvote culture from within the media apparatus is often futile. Revolutionary movements, in order to be effective, should be information campaigns of their own. They should be barricades against the numbing flow of information that has trained us to only hear the loudest, slickest, glibbest, funniest and most vacuous contributions to any discussion.

Barricades, as it turns out, are effective protest tools against this steady stream of mind numbing information. Since before the time of the French Revolution, barricades have been an effective way for protesters and revolutionaries to be seen and heard, not by virtue of their loudness, but by way of their interruption of processes that keep us in a state of complacency. These barricades have long disrupted the flow of goods, services, and transportation, and the same can be said for the flow of data. Effective barricading also forces opposing sides to share space and mingle, even when the mood is tense, which often results in fraternization and familiarity that would not ordinarily take place.

Protest methodology has evolved in the last fifteen years, so it's no surprise that virulent protests like Occupy and Anonymous - both barricades in physical and virtual space - have managed to hold the public's attention for more than a news cycle. Occupy Wall Street was an aberrational, viral movement, one that stubbornly refused to market itself to adhere to the protest architecture available to it. What kept it alive for so long was the way Occupy acted as a steadfast barricade. It's message kept getting lost, but its disruptive presence endured. Once the media apparatus locked onto Occupy, the movement found itself struggling to explain itself on the media's terms, and it failed. The movement was ultimately taken down by the public's need for Occupy to be marketed to them like any other product. Stephen Colbert's mocking interview with two (admittedly infuriating) Occupy protesters typified this disconnect between what the movement sought out to become and what the public's built in expectations required it to be.

Anonymous, on the other hand, is a more slippery creature, not easily defined or identified by way of its very nature. It remains a viable source of protest for reasons evident in its very name. Anonymous's barricades are virtual rather than physical, and its disruption of the true space we inhabit - the virtual space, the message boards, the websites, the comments sections - is a vastly more modern protest than clogging the physical streets of major urban areas. It's tougher to eradicate. It's tougher to pigeonhole. It's also, in a way, an anti-media message.

Adbusters is another anti-media entity, but unlike Anonymous, Adbusters effectively employs the tools and resources of the advertising industry to protest against the media apparatus itself. Adbusters shows us that the strength of the message no longer matters so much as where you place the message, and how deeply entrenched your barricades are. You must diversify where you get your news, refuse to let one media outlet or one community of users impact your view of the world. If the righteousness of your cause was enough to propel it through the body politic, we would never have to market anything. We could just pronounce how important something is and watch it catch fire. But that's not the world, especially not now.

So, whether you're absorbing a 'story with legs' in the mainstream media, or participating the collective, competitive rush of comments and reactions that follow, or even barricading yourself against the entire apparatus, you must stay mindful of how those systems act as filters between you and the world. There is much good to be had from a steadfast community of users. The stories, and our comments to those stories, are not to be discounted. We need our virtual communities, but we must remain mindful and barricade ourselves against the expectations of the media apparatus and its communities. We must stay aware of how the gamification of discussion itself can potentially devolve meaningful discussions into vapid contests for ratings, upvotes and hearty slaps on the back.


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