Feeding into the feedback

The newspaper is a product made fresh every day, but its feedback loop is quite slow. Meaning that it is not easy for the editor to tell what the sentiment or mood of the reader is. One objective way is through the sale of copies. A particular banner headline on Tuesday results in an increase over the number of copies sold on Monday.

That would indicate that the reader is more interested in the content of that Tuesday story. However, it is not so easy. The majority of newspaper sales is through subscription (home delivery) and so the sample size of retail sales is low. The other problem is that newspapers, especially broadsheets such as this one, are quite structured. They have sections in which stories must sit. The front page, and especially its top half, is sacred and reserved for “serious” material, which is necessarily mostly boring.

And so even if the paper features a sensational or salacious celebrity report with the ability to set the newsstand on fire, it must usually remain in the entertainment or sports section inside and all but invisible outside.

This is not the case with the tabloids, of course. They run the best stuff on the front page and so tabloid editors are good judges of what sells and what is interesting. But again, their limitation is that they can only tell you whether Celebrity X is more interesting than Celebrity Y or whether a sex scandal is more appealing to readers than a financial scam.

A longer-term way in which a newspaper editor can tell the mood and sentiment is through skewing the organ towards a particular ideology. Meaning, load the stories with opinion passing off as reportage (like TV news does). This may show results over the course of a few months or so. The growth in readership (usually measured annually in a sort of census) or circulation will then indicate what the public mood is. Naturally such an experiment could also backfire and readers might leave, because they prefer their papers non-ideological.

For these reasons, as I said, the feedback loop received by the newspaper person is slow. This is not the same for television news. TV news is measured through something called television rating points, commonly called TRPs. The measuring agency sets up a few thousand devices connected to set-top boxes in homes across the country. These record what was watched and when. The aggregated data is then extrapolated for the country and there is a rating that shows how many people are likely to have watched something.

This rating is made public weekly and so the feedback loop is much shorter. The TV news producer will have a good idea of whether story A, which was broadcast on Monday, was viewed more than story B on Tuesday. The content can then be sharpened and focused. Stuff that doesn’t appear to interest the viewer can be discarded and only that which “sells” retained. The danger, from the journalistic point of view, is that the content becomes skewed away from material that might be important but serious. However, the benefit of more viewers is material from the revenue point of view and will result in higher TRPs and more advertising. For this reason TV journalists have a better idea of mood and sentiment than newspaper journalists, on the issues that they choose to cover.

 

 
The feedback loop is even shorter for social media, and is close to instantaneous. What is popular, what is “trending” and what tends to be circulated and “go viral” is public information.

This has advantages and the most obvious of these are the democratisation of media, with every individual having the ability to reach the world. And also transparency in the sense that everyone knows what is popular and therefore, at least to some extent, relevant. Social media is one of the great developments of our society in that sense.

The danger is also manifest. It is that as a society we discard what is boring and serious in favour of what is entertaining or emotive. The boring and serious material might be more important in the longer term and in fact even vital, but it gets discounted because we have “voted” in some fashion for what is currently popular and “viral”.

In societies where the basics are sorted, meaning that everyone has access to food, shelter, education, healthcare and rule of law, it may be less important for the serious material to be thus demoted. There is no need to discuss food and shelter and education and healthcare and rule of law if it is already available for the most part.

In societies where these conditions are not prevalent, such as India and our neighbourhood, it becomes dangerous for us to be distracted endlessly. The question is what can be done about this. The answer is nothing. The democratisation of social media carries with it the understanding that its users will be responsible. For this reason it is less regulated than print or television media, if indeed it has any regulation at all.

Our ability to connect with one another and the world is accelerating and getting better honed. The ability of algorithms to detect not just what is popular but also what is likely to be popular is already superb and getting better.

The genie is out of the bottle. One reaction to what has happened when one looks at it in this fashion is horror. The other is fascination because we are living through such an amazing time to observe the human being and how we operate, and what our mood and sentiment is.

And we operate with the knowledge that what is happening to us, whether one sees it with fascination or horror or both, we are doing to ourselves collectively and together. 


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