The Postman Has Gone Rogue

Our mental model of information distribution needs updating. Many of us still consider distribution a neutral, unbiased action -- you take something from one place to another without modifying its contents, and you don't add or eliminate information as it goes, except as needed (cancelling a stamp on a letter, or adding delivery metadata to an email).

Yet, with the majority of Americans indicating that Facebook is a major source of news, and with Google the dominant search engine, distribution is no longer so simple or reliable. The distributors have learned a new game -- insert themselves and their algorithms between the sender and the recipient, and use those algorithms to redirect or sell the resulting distribution ride-alongs to advertisers, based on user identities, demographics, and psychographics.

The algorithms have a primary purpose. It is not to get the right information into the right hands at the right time, even for Google. It is to make users click on as many ads as possible. This requires cultivating behaviors that are addictive -- Kara Swisher calls Twitter "an attention slot machine." The analogy is apt. Facebook is attention roulette. We all roll the dice and hope for something interesting, infuriating, or confirmatory to appear, jonesing for an emotional high of some sort. If we don't get it, we reload the page, refresh the newsfeed, until the endorphin hit comes.

This has proven a very lucrative game, worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Yet, this game works against both information providers and readers, making it difficult or impossible for information providers to directly form and address an audience, while placing readers in the hands of commercial entities they have no way of swaying through the power of the purse (except perhaps by boycotting advertising, but  in this microtargeted realm, such an effort is akin to a war on gnats).

In short, the postman has gone rogue. Instead of a trustworthy delivery system for information, we have an unreliable, unaccountable, and untethered delivery system dominated by algorithms designed to generate the most clicks on the most ads possible. We're gambling with everything now -- including the truth.