David Carr, the New York Times' outspoken and devilishly frank media reporter, sat down for a talk with Eli Pariser, author of "The Filter Bubble" and the founder of MoveOn.org and Upworthy, a site that has raised a lot of eyebrows and moved a lot of mice over the past six months.
The talk centered on a topic of ubiquitous interest around SXSW Interactive (and in the board rooms of every company that deals with consumer technology in any way, shape or form), the question of algorithms. Algorithms are the equations that bring you Facebook stories, the long strings of math that Netflix uses to great recommendatory effect, the weird things that will increasingly drive the content we see on our web browsers, our phones, our cars and will then inevitably ping around our minds, too.
"We're gonna talk algorithms," Carr said to begin the drill-down. "Frankly, I don't even know what the fuck those are. What is an algorithm? How do you care and feed an algorithm?"
"It's an editorial opinion, encoded into an equation," Pariser said. "A piece of software that's trying to figure out what's good -- things that will keep people on [a] site, clicking on ads, whatever it might be. We're talking about it today because these little pieces of code are a lot more powerful now than the most powerful editors in media."
Pariser described Upworthy as an experiment in leveraging the editorial properties of viral content -- the clickworthiness of a musical cat, for instance -- leveraging the things that make things go viral, most often eye-catching headlines and tailored social media postings, in order to drive more people to consume content he calls important. (It's also the stated goal of Ezra Klein's brand-new venture, Vox.com.) "If you spent weeks writing an amazing investigative piece that, in the end, was on page A17 and buried on the site and that nobody read," he said, "that doesn't accomplish the civic mission the piece was intended to accomplish."
It's a problem, this wide river of popular content diverting all meaningful water from the still-worthwhile creeks of smaller outlets, that was most recently highlighted in music by Forgotify, a Website that highlights the millions of tracks that have never gotten played amidst Spotify's tens of millions.
But the problem that Pariser addressed was also one of interest. "I think media consumers, 'newsaholics,' [are being] served really well. But: Microsoft just did a study on the user behavior of a million Internet Explorer users. The question was, what percentage of them viewed more than ten news articles over the course of three months? The answer was 4% [of users] in over a million," said Pariser, making a point that could be paraphrased into one of Steve Jobs' enduring lessons, that the consumer doesn't know what they want until they see it, and that the things they're seeing aren't being presented in a fashion that makes them want it.
The question of how to point consumers of media towards the things they love or would find heartbreakingly important when they have no prevailing idea or interest in them is the "big'un" question of our adolescent information age, and one that every media company in every industry must find a solution to, or perish. That Upworthy has gone from its founding in March, 2012 to a height of 80 million unique visitors in November, 2013, suggests Pariser may at least have a point about presentation and the leveraging of those confusing math equations.
Pariser has the final word: "There's no purity in doing the beautiful thing that doesn't reach anyone."