Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

I watched The Social Dilemma last night. I took the problem that it warned of to be the following:

  1. Social media and similar online services make their money by selling your attention to advertisers
  2. These companies put vast optimization effort into manipulating you, to extract more attention
  3. This means your behavior and attention is probably very shaped by these forces (which you can perhaps confirm by noting your own readiness to scroll through stuff on your phone)

This seems broadly plausible and bad, but I wonder if it isn’t quite that bad.

I heard the film as suggesting that your behavior and thoughts in general are being twisted by these forces. But lets distinguish between a system where huge resources are going into keeping you scrolling say—at which point an advertiser will pay for their shot at persuading you—and a system where those resources are going into manipulating you directly to do the things that the advertiser would like. In the first case, maybe you look at your phone too much, but there isn’t a clear pressure on your opinions or behavior besides pro phone. In the second case, maybe you end up with whatever opinions and actions someone paid the most for (this all supposing the system works). Let’s call these distorted-looking and distorted-acting.

While watching I interpreted the film suggesting the sort of broad manipulation that would come with distorted-acting, but thinking about it afterwards, isn’t the kind of optimization going on with social media actually distorted-looking? (Followed by whatever optimization the advertisers do to get you to do what they want, which I guess is of a kind with what they have always done, so at least not a new experimental horror.) I actually don’t really know. And maybe it isn’t a bright distinction.

Maybe optimization for you clicking on ads should be a different category (i.e. ‘distorted-clicking’). This seems close to distorted-looking, in that it isn’t directly seeking to manipulate your behavior outside of your phone session, but a big step closer to distorted-acting, since you have been set off toward whatever you have ultimately been targeted to buy.

I was at first thinking that distorted-looking was safer than distorted-acting. But distorted-looking forces probably do also distort your opinions and actions. For instance, as the film suggested, you are likely to look more if you get interested in something that there is a lot of content on, or something that upsets you and traps your attention.

I could imagine distorted-looking actually being worse than distorted-acting: when your opinion can be bought, the change in it is presumably what someone would want. Whereas when your opinion is manipulated as a weird side effect of someone trying to get you to look more, then it could be any random thing, which might be terrible.(Or would there be such weird side effects in both cases anyway?)


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For me the reason I finally adopted Zvi’s position (that social networks with ads are basically evil and out to get you) is: 1) they optimize to take your time and my time is very precious to me, and 2) they install hooks (TAPs) in my mind that interrupt me and send me to their website (if I’m using it habitually).

This is a complicated game, because they are three players: you, the customer paying for the advertisement, and the ad agency -- in this case the social network. Each of them is an agent with separate goals: you want some utility from reading the web, the customer wants to increase sales, the ad agency wants to extract money from the customer. Things that don't make sense from your perspective may point to a conflict of interest between the remaining two players.

For example, if the customer is willing to pay for the number of ads you see (because they don't know better, or because this is the only thing they can verify somehow), it makes sense for the ad agency to show you more ads even if it meant that you will be less impressed with them, because they are paid for the former and don't really care about the latter.

Honestly, I have no idea how the customers evaluate whether it is true when Facebook tells them "we have shown your ad to 100 000 people". Do they trust the numbers blindly? Do they have some way to check... for example by creating a few fake profiles, checking whether the ad was displayed to any of them, and doing some statistical reasoning? No idea. Perhaps understanding what they measure could shed some light on what is the maneuvering space for Facebook for goodharting their measures.

The idea is that the ad agency does not optimize for the impact of the ads on you. They optimize for the customers' belief in the impact of the ads on you. That is sometimes easier achieved by cheating the customer.