Escaping the (dying) Threads of distraction
What we’re losing by endlessly scrolling in MENA and worldwide
“We are definitely focusing on kindness and making this a friendly place,” said Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, after releasing Threads onto the world: a new attention harvester, with newer data scraping tools. But aside from being a new outlet for endless scrolling , what does Threads mean for those in the MENA region?
Although Meta’s leadership is touting Threads as a fresh start that will make the internet a better place, it’s not wise to take their word for it. As we established in an earlier article, there isn’t a concrete answer to the question “Does this piece of tech make the world a better place?”. Not because the tech isn’t there, but because of a harder question: What even is a “better” world, and how do we get there?
How does this affect the way we think about the world around us?
We’ll come back to these questions later on in this article. But for now, Let’s look at how we got here.
The cage-fight for attention.
Earlier this month, there were some news speculating about a potential fight between two billionaire moguls. In the red corner you had Meta’s CEO and Jiu-Jitsu champion, Mark Zuckerberg, and In the blue corner you had Elon Musk, owner of Twitter, SpaceX, Tesla, and other companies. Before the fight there was some trash talk from Elon, but then Zuckerberg responded with a K.O.: an even more data-hungry Twitter competitor!
If I were a sci-fi writer, I would slowly nod my head and say that even though the fight was canceled, this whole debacle was just a great metaphor for how they’re fighting over our attention and data. But thankfully, we live in a time where real life is putting metaphors out of their jobs, which makes my job a bit easier.
Now let’s talk about the attention economy, and why it’s valuable enough to make two middle-aged men get into a cage fight over it.
The “attention economy”, and where we stand in the MENA region.
techQualia’s social scientist Yomna Hashem has done an enviable job of explaining how exactly your small bits of data, like your Google searches or YouTube likes or what have you, can be extremely valuable to some businesses and governments. You can check out her write-up in this article. But the important thing to stress here is that you’re the product, your time and attention is being auctioned to the highest bidder every time you load a web page. Whether you decide to call it “the attention economy” or “social media marketing”, both of them mean the same thing. The value captured is your attention while staring at a piece of content on a screen, which includes all social media platforms like Threads, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.
From a business point of view, it’s a gold mine. Never before have advertising screens been so close to our brains, both literally and metaphorically. Social media marketing has reached $1.7 billion dollars in the MENA region, accounting for about 57% of digital ad-spending in the region, which is at $3.64 billion dollars. This number includes everything from sponsored posts, to sponsored stories, sponsored reels, ads before videos, ads embedded in the video itself, ads that appear mystically in your dreams, and so on.
If you think there’s too many ads now, you’re right. If the US market is anything to go by, the average consumer is now bombarded with anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 ads per day. So, about 3-7 ads per minute every single day.
Now that we have a general feeling about how big this economy around us is, let’s look at what is actually generating all this money.
How the machine works.
Have you ever seen an ad online and thought “Hey, I’ve just been talking about this, are they listening to my mic?” Well, the truth is actually a bit more disturbing than that, because they don’t need to spy on your conversations to know what you’re thinking.
Think about what you do when you wake up everyday? You probably check WhatsApp , or Facebook (owned by Meta), Then on your break from work you scroll through Threads or Instagram (owned by Meta). Every waking moment, they’re tracking and processing hundreds of datastreams, making it very easy to know what you're thinking of. This complex process is done using recommender systems.
Recommender systems (as the name suggests) are algorithms that try to suggest new “content” to the user based on their previous behavior. At their simplest level, these algorithms work with matrices such as this one, where every row is an item (movie, post etc.) and every column is a user. Then through some matrix operations, the algorithm can then predict the most similar products. (You can check out this article for more.)
But as social media platforms grew to billions of users, with trillions of posts, there was a shift towards deep learning, meaning we could no longer explain why the algorithm made a specific decision. Now we just have these huge monoliths on the other side of the screen that understand the behavioral patterns behind billions of people, they know things about you that even your closest friends don’t, and they’re adapting to your usage in real time. It’s not your fault you’re scrolling for too long on Threads, or TikTok, or what have you; your brain is facing a super computer the size of a building that improves itself exponentially every few years. It’s not a fair fight.
This might not seem like a big deal at first, you’re just making a linear motion with your thumb to look at more cat videos, but small actions can still have large scale impact, like how driving your car contributes to climate change.
Think of it this way, you’re on a road trip, and the algorithm wants to keep you on the road for the longest time possible, so what does it suggest? Beautiful scenery? No. It suggests crashes, because you stare at them the longest, and on average, they increase car sales.
Although the research within the MENA region is limited, Social media recommender systems have been linked to political extremism. This is because extremist content often garners a lot of engagement, which causes it to be recommended to more people, which causes more engagement, and so on. This could lead to large-scale extremist movements, like the one that happened after the 2020 US elections.
There’s also the issue of filter bubbles (or echo chambers as some might call them). which happens when the algorithm only shows you things that align with your ideologies, leading you slowly away from the conversation and into a closed room where everyone is saying the same thing. A perfect machine for sorting consumers into bins, but also for promoting our inherent tribalist tendencies.
But what should we do about it? You might ask. I think a good place to start is what Aza Raskins (featured on Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma”) had to say on “your undivided attention” podcast.
“we didn't need the right to privacy to be written into law until
mass-produced cameras came onto the market, right? And Brandeis had to
essentially from scratch, invent the right to privacy. It's not in the original constitution.
And of course, to fast forward just a little bit, the attention economy, we are still
in the process of figuring out how to write into law that which the attention
economy and the engagement economy takes from us. So when you invent a
new technology, you uncover a new class of responsibility”
Now that we have a basic idea of how these systems can harm us, let’s try to answer the question, what does the attention economy take from us? Starting from the small things.
How the attention Economy makes you less creative/productive.
I want you to pause and think about the last time you’ve been bored. Now, what did you do? You probably pulled out your phone and started scrolling through Threads, or Instagram. Well, even though these tidbits of content can inspire us sometimes, endless scrolling can be harmful.
(According to 85% of Egyptian moms, scrolling through your phone is the leading cause behind 90% of diseases!)
But seriously, This is actually really bad for our creativity, not only in the artistic sense, but also in how we solve our everyday problems. In this BBC article, boredom is cited as an essential catalyst for creativity. From Agatha Christie to JK Rowling. It’s very clear, inspiration only strikes if you set the stage for it, as author Neil Geiman put it:
“You have to let yourself get so bored that your mind has nothing better to do than tell itself a story.”
But why should I care? I’m not an artist! You might say. Well, Let’s think back to two of the most popular stories in science. Newton’s apple, and Archimedes’ bathtub. Now, what do they have in common? In both cases there was a big problem plaguing the mind of a scientist, and they couldn’t crack it while focused, but then later, during a time when their brains seemed to be wandering around their garden. The apple fell, and the water overflowed, and suddenly the solution popped out of thin air. In the case of Newton, after observing an apple fall from a tree, it led to him discovering gravity. As for Archimedes, it led to him running naked on the streets, shouting “EUREKA” and also discovering buoyancy, which was then used to determine the purity of a golden crown.
But couldn’t these moments have been just a coincidence? You might ask. Well, a study published in the British journal of Psychology suggests that being bored at work makes you more creative. So, I encourage you (after finishing this article of course) to go sit in a random corner and be bored for a while. Don’t let your phone steal those moments from you. Maybe think about how we can make the world a better place. If someone asks what you’re doing, say you’re mimicking Newton.
The larger regulatory questions, and how we make a better world.
Initially, I was planning to fill this section with some of the most disturbing scandals caused by Meta (Collecting sensitive user data, political scandals, etc), but it was literally too long. The company has over a decade of fines, media scrutiny, regulatory scrutiny, and more. If you want to read more about it, I highly recommend this article, which covers the recent leaks.
Threads is not a new way of making the world a better or kinder place, it’s just a new data-mining scheme that needs strong regulations to keep it from harming people. And Meta knows that these regulations are going to interfere with their business. This is most likely why Threads has not yet been released in the EU.
Now with the release of the Egyptian charter of responsible AI, and the launch of the new AI institute in Saudi-Arabia, there’s momentum towards making technology more beneficial to people. Although at this moment we’re still at the stage of formalities and general pledges, we should expect more specific procedures in the upcoming days.
So, even though I might not know what exactly is a better world, I believe regulating the use of AI is a good step in the right direction. Maybe one day we could have these systems competing to improve our well being and creativity, instead of just fracking our brains for more attention.
I also encourage you, my reader, to check out more of our articles about AI, and also listen to the “your undivided attention” podcast to get a better sense of how technology is affecting your life. Who knows, you could be the next person to have a “Eureka” moment that makes the world a better place.