Social Media and Stupidity As An Externality

Posted on January 13, 2009
Filed Under Blogs, Crowd Stupidity |

I still get the paper edition of The Economist, and I almost never read it online. Yes, blasphemy I know. Here is the deal though - a paper magazine is a different experience than reading online. For me, it is a better experience because I can take it places where I don’t want to take my computer, I can read it in places without an internet connection, and I can read it in lots of different positions that are much more comfortable than sitting in front of a computer or scrolling on a small phone screen.

When people talk about paper media as if it’s going away because it is losing to online, I always wonder why they never think concerts are going away too. The same people who argue that reading online is simpler and more efficient than reading a paper periodical never seem to agree that listening to an mp3 should replace going to a concert. They think the latter is stupid, because a concert is about the experience. What they miss is that a paper publication is about the experience too. It is a way to focus on a set of stories away from the distractions of a constant email/twitter/im barrage. The real reason newspapers are dying is that our relationship with news has changed, not our relationship with paper publications.

My big problem with online media is that there is so much of it. That is why I don’t celebrate this grass roots publishing movement that has become religion to so many people. Yeah, yeah, Digg, Stumble, filters, aggregators, iGoogle. It’s all bullshit. Maybe it does a good job of recommending things if your tastes are mainstream, but if your interests are more esoteric, these tools probably fail you. Part of the problem with these tools though, is that they have to wade through so much crap that even good algorithms get overwhelmed by garbage. Too many times I have searched for information on a topic only to be lead to a dozen 101 level blog posts that all give the same generic bs crap about the topic. Usually it wasn’t written by an expert in the field, it was written by someone who understood how to game the system and get to the top of Google.

Economists talk about “externalities,” which are effects from a decision that impact people who had no part in the underlying decision. Pollution is an externality. And externalities are usually addressed through taxes.

I think stupidity is an externality. Stupid people create stupid content and then I have more crap to filter through to find the good stuff that I want. Social media just perpetuates this because it pushes popularity as the driving force in ranking systems. Amateurs are amateurs for a reason. They shouldn’t be pushed to the top of search results just because they are popular. It creates problems for those of us who rate the value of information on dimensions other than popularity.

What do I think should be done? I propose a content tax. If technology is going to lower the barriers to publishing, then I think the government should do what it can to raise them back to a respectable level. Plus, the government needs the revenue to help balance the budget. And anyway, all that indexing of your content that Google is doing is killing the environment.

Ok. Maybe this argument is a little tongue in cheek. But some of you will probably admit there is a kernel of truth to it. If you really believe that online media is all about conversations then make sure, before you hit that publish button, that you are contributing something useful to it. Otherwise, I will be sending you a bill for my time spent wading through your crap.


7 Responses to “Social Media and Stupidity As An Externality”

  1. Peggy Hoffman on January 13th, 2009 3:52 pm

    Got to this through a twitter from @JasonFalls hmmm … glad to get here because I was making a similar case at a meeting last Thursday. I was telling a group of PR prof that print isn’t dead. That I read the Washington Post in the “flesh”. I surmissed that many print pieces will go away (and re-emerge) but the ones who created an online personality to complement their print personality will remain because they are focused on connections and relationships. So perhaps not a tax just a way to for those of us who are on both to filter a bit more effectively.

  2. Jason Swartz on January 13th, 2009 6:24 pm

    Rob - fantastic post. I found you through a twitter post from Jason Falls, a partner of ours for Jim Beam.

    I really like what you said about some of the new publishing sites like Digg, Stumble and more to be geared toward those with mainstream interests. Beyond that, I think those sites definitely have their place with some audiences, but mainly they seem to be the go-to examples every time someone wants to sound smart on the topic of social media. In actuality, a lot of these sites are filled with crap from people that have learned how to “game the system,” as you’ve eloquently put it.

    Finally, your statement about making sure you contribute something of actual value before jumping into a conversation is right on - especially for businesses and their marketing teams. Those who don’t follow this rule are merely using social media channels in the same way they’ve been spamming traditional mediums for years.

  3. Nick Huhn on January 13th, 2009 7:02 pm

    I’m renewing my public library membership and recommend it as a way to avoid the hidden tax of the cacophony.

  4. JW on January 14th, 2009 12:34 am

    I agree there is a kernel of truth to it but think until the internet powers unite and create a “crap content” blacklist it won’t go away.

  5. kevin on January 14th, 2009 4:39 am

    Rob if they filtered out crap I would be in big trouble.

    You are right about the tactile experience and enjoyment of reading something you can take anywhere… What about a Kindle?

    Of course I wouldn’t want to take a Kindle into the restroom either.

  6. laurence haughton on January 15th, 2009 6:43 pm

    The real reason newspapers are dying is that they haven’t delivered a reasonable ROI to their ad clients for at least two decades and over the last decade clients have been defecting faster than new clients can be hoodwinked into buying the smoke and mirrors act.

    In short they are victims of the first immutable law of suckage: “By the time insiders recognize their business sucks, customers have thought that it sucks for a long, long time.”

  7. Jonathan Ruff on January 21st, 2009 11:17 pm

    I’m still a big magazine fan. I was thrilled a few weeks ago when had a sizable magazine subscription sale. I picked up five of my favorite mags for $40 for a year (Wired for a year for $5, about the same as I pay for one issue at the airport). I enjoy reading daily rapid-fire media online, about events for that particular day or week. I enjoy reading deeper / elaborated content in magazines or books. If it’s a larger issue or trend, that pertains to something on a weekly or monthly or yearly scale, I prefer magazines.

    I suppose my line is divided by time and research (that goes into the content).

  • About Rob

    Rob is co-founder of He likes value investing, the Rolling Stones, college basketball, artificial intelligence, economic history and people who think independently.