This past week I met a budding young professional in the lobby of one Philadelphia’s new coworking spaces. He was a recent college grad, and an intern at some philanthropic endeavor, which was providing him experience (read: little to no money). Ironically, the group wanted him to attract grants and sponsorships—which struck me as a 21st century version of Tom Sawyer!
I asked about his career aspirations, and he described a variety of opportunities, generally grouped under the rubric “making the world a better place”. One was a media program that would promote middle-of-the-road political opinion, avoiding the polarization of left- and right-wing commentary.
We talked about the pernicious trends toward more extreme viewpoints in electronic media, and how the center seems to have disappeared. I brought my perspective, which goes back to the pre-net, pre-cable TV days of three broadcast networks, the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine (which mandated broadcasting opposing points of view), and one or two newspapers in a city. In that era TV networks couldn’t help but make money, since there was so little competition for attention. Since they owned American’s attention, network news programs tended to avoid extremes of liberal or conservative views (although they did skew moderately liberal.)
Over time, there were more and more competition for viewers’ attention. Cable turned six channels into eighty, two hundred; the internet brought thousands of websites; and then with smartphones instant access to thousands of YouTube channels, Facebook and Instagram Feeds, podcasts—information as avalanche. In this Darwinian competition for attention the winner is—the item that gives the greatest Dopamine hit! Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that acts as a neurotransmitter. With stimulus, it sends a signal, which can be pleasure, rage, fear, etc. Humans crave Dopamine, much like an addictive drug. E-marketing research has shown that the more sensational the headline (that matches a person’s world view), the more likely the person will pay attention, comment, and probably forward to other like-minded people. More Dopamine hits leads to more attention, and ad revenue.
As you’re bombarded with messages, you begin to make choices of which messages get your attention, and which don’t. Messages that match the ones you usually read go into your information feed, which in turn narrows the types of messages received. In a short time, someone who might have been moderately conservative or liberal finds themselves bombarded with (and responding to) more extreme views—and liking it!
My challenge to the young man: how will your middle-of-the-road political opinion project meet mankind’s voracious appetite for Dopamine? Answer that question, and you might stand a chance of bringing sanity back to political discourse.