Monday Musings (How I'd Change the Internet)


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Hi friends,

The next Write of Passage cohort starts in less than a month, and enrollment opens next Monday. If you’re keen to learn more, click here and I’ll send you information about it.

Here's what I want to share this week:

  1. The Ultimate Guide to Writing Online: My comprehensive guide to writing for the way the world is, rather than how it used to be. You’ll learn to develop ideas, write better, and build an online audience.
  2. The Write of Passage Podcast: A bunch of short riffs about online writing. If you’re looking for a place to start, I recommend this episode on how the Simpsons was written. (Listen here: Apple | Spotify)
  3. News in the Age of Abundance: My long-form piece about the news industry. How did the Internet change news? Why is there such a negativity bias? And how can we become better information consumers? Read the essay here.
  4. Time Bias vs. Space Bias: Today's Musings was inspired by a YouTube video I made on how the Internet traps us in the present moment. By understanding the technologies that shape our lives we become better consumers.

How I'd Change the Internet

I spend most of my day on the Internet. I write on the Internet, work on the Internet, listen to podcasts I download through the Internet, and whenever I want to learn – I read things on the Internet. As crazy as my life would have sounded to people thirty years ago, it's increasingly the norm these days.

I've always liked Winston Churchill's line: "First we shape our tools, then our tools shape us."

If I could change anything about the Internet, I'd remove the recency bias that dominates our lives. Almost all social media feeds prioritize things created recently. The recency bias makes us news obsessed and traps us in a Never-Ending Now.

What are the effects of a strong recency bias?

— —

Wikipedia vs. Google News

The design of a platform unconsciously pulls users towards pre-ordained outcomes.

Wikipedia increases the likelihood you'll learn about something important, but delightfully random. Last night, I read about the philosophy of Michel de Montaigne, a French writer who oozed wisdom and invented the essay genre in the 16th century. Opening Wikipedia will probably make you smarter. At the very least, it’ll take you to some eccentric places. Just look at the home page (shown below).

Google News is the opposite. While Wikipedia sorts by relevance, Google News sorts by recency. When I opened it this morning, I learned about a mass stabbing, the British Prime Minister race, a hurricane, and the latest Donald Trump drama.

Wikipedia is a calmer and more erudite experience, whereas Google News drops you into the day's turmoil. By continuously promoting things published recently, we've created an Internet much more like Google News than Wikipedia. As a result, our society is news-obsessed. This inflates the importance of politics and has people more on edge than they need to be.

— —

The Bias of Information

The structure of Google News is part of a broader shift from a Space Bias to a Time Bias.

Due to costs of publishing and transporting information, the average person in the 18th century was more likely to read something written in a prior decade than something from another continent. Somebody born in Paris would've consumed very different information from somebody in New York City. But by our standards, people in both places consumed a lot of old information. This is a Space Bias.

Today, things have changed. I scroll my Twitter feed and see people posting from Singapore, Australia, India, England, and America. Instead of consuming information based on where I live, the information I consume is based on today's happenings. Most of what I see was published in the past 48 hours. Time has replaced space as the governing force of our information environment. We live in a Time Bias.

The less we consume information published recently, the higher quality that information tends to be.

Time serves as a filter for quality. Junk gets blocked and the good stuff makes it through. If you're reading something from the 19th century, it's probably pretty good (even if it's harder to read).

The choice is yours. If you want to consume recently published information, be my guest. I still do it all the time. The problem is that people don't see how much our lives are shaped by this Time Bias, given how much we're on the Internet.

As every software designer knows, default settings are powerful. People don't have the capacity to question every decision from first principles. If you want to permanently change behavior, change the defaults.

If the Internet wasn't so oriented around the current moment, people would be calmer and more intelligent. So if I could change anything about the Internet, I'd dial down its recency bias.

Photo of the Week

Marshall McLuhan is the father of media theory and years ago I met his grandson in Toronto.

McLuhan's central message was we should study the tools we use to communicate more than the content we create with those tools. Each medium of communication has unseen (but profound) influences on our thoughts and actions. When our methods of communication change, so does society — this is the meaning of McLuhan's famous dictum: "The medium is the message."

Here are some examples:

  • Martin Luther’s 95 theses and the Protestant Reformation wouldn’t have happened without the printing press. Less commonly known is how the printing press propelled Europe towards the scientific revolution by increasing the number of ideas available to ordinary people.
  • Internet access leads to declining trust in government. One study of social change after the arrival of 3G networks found “an increase in Internet access reduces government approval and increases the perception of corruption in government,” so long as the Internet is not censored. Once the monopoly on information disappears, so goes people’s trust in authority.

People who spend a lot of time on Twitter are more likely to follow in the wake of intellectual trends. Designers on Instagram are more likely adopt today's design trends. It's unconscious influences all the way down.

To improve your media diet, don't focus on who to follow – focus on the platforms you use in the first place. The more they emphasize evergreen ideas, the more likely you are to learn from them.

Have a creative week,

David Perell Logo 2x

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