In the recent edition of his (highly recommended and excellent) Roden newsletter, Craig Mod talks at length about the contracts we enter into with the media we consume. Not the impenetrable EULAs that we agree to without reading, but rather the manner in which that media treats us and our attention. He compares printed media, which through being physical has defined edges where it exists and stops existing with more elusive digital media which has the potential to be endless, trapping our attention in a manner that is not always healthy.
He calls them “Appholes”, an app that traps you in a hole by behaving like an asshole.
A simple heuristic for determining if something is an apphole: Any “free” app built around advertising models tends to become one. Especially if they’ve taken on a lot of venture capital, further exacerbated (and exasperated) if they’re a public company.
Instagram is a great example. The more you scroll, the more money they make. Keep this in mind the next time you find yourself scrolling mindlessly — take a second to consider the agreement you’ve entered into with the application. What’s keeping you there? Why are the algorithms showing you what they’e showing? What benefits are you accruing? For what are are you trading that time and mental energy?
This is not a particularly novel observation, but I did like that contrast with printed media held my attention. The notion of a media that is designed to have an end. You know when you read a book that at some point the experience of reading will finish and the book will be put down. A newspaper has a finite amount of words and will finish.
There’s an immediate flaw in this comparison which I’m sure all the media theorists will jump on which is that publications, while physically discrete, are part of a media ecosystem. There is nothing inherently “good” about books which can contain all manner of tripe, and who hasn’t binged on a stack of trashy comics or crime novels? A friend’s parent has been giving us their tabloid newspapers for lining the rabbit’s litter trays with and that shit is totally weaponised to hold you in a certain space and drag you deeper.
But I would definitely agree that the business model of online media platforms has taken this to a significantly more extreme place.
I was reminded of This is Your Phone on Feminism which I posted over the weekend, where some solutions are offered.
There are different ways to configure the financial and political ecosystems our phones dwell in and suck us into. We can pay the full cost of them while also reducing the gargantuan, irrational and once-in-a-millennium returns on capital Big Tech has made for the past twenty years. We can treat the services that run on them more like utilities, with revenue caps and universal service requirements, because that is how grown-up countries deal with life-critical public goods. We can wildly ramp up privacy and data-portability and competition rules, and we can start actually enforcing them. All this requires a change in mindset, what some would call a revolution.
In other words, give them some edges, or at least define the edges according to the needs of society rather than the needs of the investors. Because appholes do have quite clearly defined edges in order to funnel the user deeper and deeper. It is endless, sure, but so is a public library, practically speaking. The difference is the library is a broad canvas.
Surfing the web, following clicks from one website to another, is exploring a broad canvas. It’s interesting that exploring Wikipedia is very close to this experience. Wikipedia articles (excluding references) are a closed system that could be engineered to funnel you down, but they operate in a broad canvas manner taking you to the most random of subjects. YouTube, on the other hand, funnels you to things it thinks you will like, the same only more focussed, more aggressive, more furious.
The question is whether that’s what we want, because not having to consciously navigate a media-scape is much easier than just following your dopamine-hungry instincts. I suspect the answer is more nuanced, but we have to start somewhere.