A few days ago, I noticed people sharing a few random articles from Atlas Obscura. I noticed a few of their tweets rising to the top of my Twitter feed as well. As I drove to work, I caught a part of an NPR story with one of the lead curators from Atlas Obscura as well. Why all of this buzz for a site that’s been around for awhile? Why was this suddenly becoming viral? I had a hunch this wasn’t entirely organic, so I visited the website. Sure enough, they are selling a book.
Those Facebook posts? Sponsored. But because they referenced posts that my friends had shared, I missed the fact that these were advertisements. Those tweets? Sponsored as well. As for the buzz generated by podcasts and radio interviews, I have a hunch it was intentional and connected to a marketing team.
For all the talk of the democracy of sharing information online, the truth is that it can often feel less like a democracy and more like a plutocracy or an oligarchy. I noticed this a couple of years ago with my Facebook page. Page views plummeted. Posts that might have once gone viral had four or five likes. Despite having 7,000+ followers, I had much better luck when I posted something to my 200 Facebook friends. If I want to reach a larger audience, I have to put out an advertisement. Facebook Pages has become a pay-for-play system and it’s a game I generally don’t want to play.
I mention this because I think it’s important for students to understand these economic systems that shape the media they consume. Students often assume that viral ideas are an organic phenomenon. But that’s not always true. Often, there’s an entire PR team manipulating systems to get ideas to a targeted audience.
It’s not always bad, either. If we want students to be makers and entrepreneurs, they need to know how these systems work. If you make something you are proud of, there is no shame in trying to market your work to a specific audience. At the same time, if we want them to be wise curators and great researchers, we want them to think critically about the system itself. A few questions I might use to generate this discussion include:
What is the danger in a pay-for-play content delivery system?
What does it mean that an economics-based algorithm is shaping what you see? How does this impact your worldview?
How is this system different from the past? What opportunities does this create? What risks does this create?
How can someone who wants to share great content still get it out of they don’t have the money to pay for sponsored posts?
I use the following set of questions sporadically through our lessons as a way of thinking critically about technology and our world.
- You now have instant access to video, audio and photography. What does that mean in terms of telling your story?
- What does it mean to be a citizen journalist in a world where you have a full studio at the palm of your hands?
- How do people change when they’re on video?
- What do you think of the culture of surveillance?
- What are more powerful: words or images?
- What is the danger in trying to “capture” life?
- Why is it important to record and express life on multimedia?
- Are there people, places or ideas that should not be “captured” on camera?
- How do images shape your view of concepts? Are pictures more accurate than words? What are the dangers in photo-editing software and our ability to believe what we see?
- Is a “made-up” picture less real than what you actually saw (especially if your mind is able to misrepresent it as well)?
- Does the use of digital photography make people less careful about the pictures they choose to take?
- How is technology changing our memories?
- Does the constant barrage of media create a culture of entertainment?
- How is technology changing the way we communicate?
- What is the difference between synchronous and asynchronous communication? How is communication changing as we the lines blur between the two of these?
- Are we more connected or more lonely?
- What does it mean to be physically present while also connected digitally? How does that change our perception of reality?
- Are we addicted to our devices? Or is it just a natural human desire to connect with others?
- Are you more authentic online or off-line?
- What are the pros and cons of branding?
- In recent years, the new celebrities are social media stars (YouTube, Instagram, etc.). How does the celebrity culture of social media shape the way young kids develop their sense of self online?
- Do you find yourself presenting a better version of yourself online?
- In what ways do you create a digital identity for yourself? What are some of the dangers in being transparent? What are some of the dangers in being anonymous?
- Are we becoming more image-conscious?
- Are social media platforms making us narcissistic?
- Are we losing what it means to be human? Or is this simply an evolution in what it means to be human?
- What is the danger is adding numbers / metrics to online communication? How does this change the way we value people?
- If social media platforms are funded by advertising, are any of them really “free?”
- Social media platforms are designed to distract you. How do you hit a place of focus, flow, and deep work in a world of constant distractions?
- What are the pros and cons of relevance-based sorting? How does this impact the way you view your world?
- How do the structures of social media sites shape the way I view the world?
- Are we becoming desensitized to advertising?
- How is the relevance-based news feed in social media changing our perception of time?
- Who owns your data?
- Are the echo chambers of social media really all that new?
- Is privacy dead?
- Have we turned social interactions into a commodity?
- How does the constant obsession with “new” cause us to mistake novelty for importance?
- What are the costs of editing a person’s words and chopping it up?
- Does the free availability of media create better content or worse content?
- Should reality be augmented?
- Does Augmented Reality add a layer of tech on top of our physical reality or is it more about adding an element of physical reality to our devices?
- How is augmented reality reshaping our view of reality? How will it reshape it in the future?
- What are the economic forces at work with AR apps like Pokemon Go?
- How will virtual reality reshape our view of reality?
- What will virtual reality look like in your lifetime? What do you imagine yourself doing with virtual reality in the future?
- Will virtual reality entertainment (gaming, sports, movies) make regular reality seem less appealing? What will the larger social implications be?
- How does auto-fill change the way we think?
- What are the dangers in allowing a computer or an algorithm organize our thoughts?
- What is the moral philosophy of AI? Who gets to decide how to program it?
- How will artificial intelligence shape careers in the future? What will matter in a world where AI can replace many of the tasks we are doing.
I used to call these questions “tech criticism questions,” but that always had a negative connotation. I want students to embrace technology and to love it, but also to think about the nature of technology. I want them to think beyond simply “how does this work?” and into the deeper questions about how technology is shaping our connected world.