I posted the above observation on my personal profile. Nobody was surprised, although some did try to justify it. “It’s because pictures get more engagement than video,” said one. “It’s because the gunman story was in the States and the kiwibird story was about New Zealand" (where I live), said another. But I think we all know the truth, don’t we?
The truth is that we are more likely to react to easy fluff than to material of substance. Cotton candy for the mind is less cognitively expensive; it takes less time to ingest, less time to process, and less time to respond to.
Fluffy content is the digital equivalent of fast food: a quick fix that tastes okay at the time and doesn’t require much thought. And -- just as with fast food -- we find it easier to respond to, clicking 24 times instead of two.
But when you only judge by the numbers, you can end up making decisions based on our short-term, lizard-brain behavior -- decisions that are not necessarily good for customers or for the organization. You can, for example, end up launching New Coke because the taste test told you it would succeed. You can end up dropping healthy lunch programs because kids prefer sugar.
News agencies have a similar problem when they measure how many times we go back for the fix. Quantitative analytics may confirm that we are hard-wired to push the lever and get the pellet, but it doesn’t measure whether we feel good or are more informed or can make more thoughtful decisions as a result.
Unfortunately, now that we have analytics, everything is based on them. The traffic sold to advertisers can be measured precisely, and revenues are now driven by our auto-response behavior. News companies are not only incentivized to encourage this aspect of our humanity, they are required to if they want to survive.
And the more we click mindlessly on Miley Cyrus or whatever the latest shocking bit of titillation is, the more this cycle gets reinforced. It’s not the news agencies’ fault; they’re just responding to our behavior and their financial imperatives. It’s not the advertisers’ fault; they’re spending money on the content that has the highest visibility. It’s not even our fault; at heart, we’re reasonably base creatures, and a picture of an attractive young woman doing surprising things in a skimpy outfit is highly likely to get our attention.
It’s not necessarily anybody’s fault. But it’s not ideal. Fast food is fine on rare occasion. But slow food is better: it tastes better (if you are acclimated to it) and it’s better for us. It just takes a little more conscious attention.
And Miley’s fine on rare occasion. But serious news is better. It tastes better (if you’re acclimated to it) and it’s better for us. It just takes a little more conscious attention -- and a little less of the analytics that prove we’re only interested in fluff.