Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Opinion of Others

All media are driven by the opinion of others. Factual news is expensive to acquire, unreliable in its supply, and tends towards the dull but worthy. Opinion, on the other hand, is inexhaustible, cheap and reliably contentious. In a variation on the City speculators' mantra, there is always a "greater fool" who will respond to Richard Littlejohn or George Monbiot (I plead guilty on numerous counts, m'lud). We turn gratefully from pictures and testimony of suffering in Gaza to verbal bunfights between Israeli spokesmen and TV news anchors, where the likelihood of a mind being changed is precisely zero (and, surprisingly, not likely to be helped by Mia Farrow and other slebs).

The first newspapers, which were gazettes of court announcements, were of limited interest compared to illustrated chapbooks detailing Catholic atrocities or tracts promising the imminence of God's Kingdom. Though literate snark soon came to the fore (The Spectator was launched in 1711), most newspapers continued to rely on adverts as much as editorial to pique interest until nineteenth century mass-literacy led to the "human interest story" and a realisation of the power of mobilised opinion to sway elected legislatures. The long twentieth century, from the launch of Tit-Bits in 1881 to the Web 2.0 media-moment in 2004, was distinguished by gossip, the privileged opinions of the high and mighty, and messages from "our sponsors".

The Internet has supposedly democratised opinion, providing a variety of platforms for "everyone" to have their say, but this just means a vast increase in content (gossip, opinion, ads) and thus an even greater value accorded to aggregators amd filters, which is what Tit-Bits was and arguably Addison and Steele's imaginary spectator was too. Plus ├ža change. Though some services claim that you, the consumer, are now able to act as your own aggregator (choosing who to follow, specifying your interests etc), the trope of "content overload" obviously serves the purposes of those who would "pre-curate" your content stream based on algorithms that analyse your history and relationships. Of course, such algorithmic precision is a myth, which even some services are happy to admit.

The churn in technologies and corporate providers obscures the persistence of opinion as the major driver of media. Thus incumbent providers, like the press, lift up their skirts and screech at the thought of Facebook manipulating a user's stream, while music nostalgists bemoan the death of the album (curation by Big Music) under the onslaught of streaming service playlists (dominated by sleb curation, which is the new face of Big Music). The success of Twitter, which is a pretty ropey piece of technology, is down to the simple fact that it provides raw, instant opinion, the slebbier the better (accept it: Rihanna is a better football pundit than you are).

Search engine results can be thought of as a type of playlist, dynamically curated by an algorithm that aggregates and orders relevant pages based on the "opinion" of other pages. The plea by Google that they should not be held responsible for the opinion of others (which has predictably found favour with the House of Lords) depends on a belief that the algorithm is an accurate reflection of that aggregated opinion (impossible to know) and not subject to any manipulation or systemic bias (clearly untrue). The myth of the Internet is that everyone has an opinion (because property is universal) and that the expression of that opinion should be free and unrestricted (because the state should not limit your rights in your property).

The key change that occurred a decade ago was that we moved from a culture in which being a passive consumer of the opinion of privileged others was deemed sufficient to one in which we must now all express an opinion as well, whether on Gaza or a friend's new cardigan. But that opinion does not need to be a reasoned analysis (we don't seriously seek to dethrone the aristocracy of pundits, merely to vote them up or down by the weight of our comments). A simple preference will do, either through a binary "like" or a top 10 ordering (the modern "listicle" is simply a way to teach us correct practice). Creating lists, and curating them on an ongoing basis, has become a social obligation: performative opinionising as a way of defining who we are. By their public playlists ye shall know them.

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