Hello, weekenders. This is Week-in-Review, where I give a heavy amount of analysis and/or rambling thoughts on one story while scouring the rest of the hundreds of stories that emerged on TechCrunch this week to surface my favorites for your reading pleasure.
Last week, I offered up some mildly interesting takes on how Waymo was shaping the future of autonomous vehicles inside of a virtual space rather than wholly on physical roads.
The big story
There are two internets. There’s the one where we click through interfaces and hit menu buttons and dive down predictable lines of inquiry and find predictable ends. And then there are ads. We don’t understand why we get what we get but we the content flows from platform to user with asymmetric information of the “how?”.
Advertising is the economic backbone of the free consumer web, but users are haplessly oblivious to where that generated content comes from and why. What intrigues me here is that a few days ago Instagram announced that it was further rolling out a test to hide like counts from users and that it has been further minimizing the prominence of follower counts on profiles.
It’s an (admittedly small) step in the evolution but it hinges a bit more on how internet giants have come to realize UX transparency can actually lead to some negatives.
There’s of course the ethical argument where you think about the responsibility that Facebook has not to make people feel shitty about themselves by offering a dopamine-hit conveyor belt as a platform, but a more fascinating idea is what a change like this opens up to the company in terms of returns and what it means for how platforms portray the nebulous idea of “engagement.”
One of the easy returns I bet Instagram finds as they expand this test is that by eliminating the conforming social pressures inherent to seeing what other users are enjoying, Instagram might paint a clearer picture of its users. Without giving users a groupthink crutch to influence their own decisions on what to click the heart button on, a web of content less-focused on stats might lead them to things that actually break into.
What’s the most interesting — that this change sort of lightly grazes across — is that we’ve spent the past few decades with the necessary evil of a web predicated on a cause and effect interface. We’ve had a decent idea of why we’re coming across some piece of content and the statistics of why are often user-facing. But do we need to know how the internet works? Do we need to know why we’re seeing anything?
We’ve been thrust fully into this world of algorithmic feeds and while we’re seeing variation across platforms, we’re seeing the potential and pitfalls of the various platforms. Instagram has flirted with serving users content more boldly outside of things they’ve specifically followed with the Explore feed, but the question is when that smartly-sourced content that will come to dominate a user’s central feed and be their main touchpoint with the platform.
We’ve also seen the dangers of algorithmic content where the “why” is invisible to users, YouTube’s platform has grown immensely based off ad-like invisibly sourced “watch next” suggestions, but can social platforms pull this off as well or are the fundamentals of today’s algorithmic feeds based around user actions and follows going to stay true down the road?