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Nov. 9, 2011, 12:30 p.m.

How social guilt can change our media consumption habits — or just make us lie about them

Frictionless sharing sounds good — but sometimes you’ll go out of your way to put a little friction (or a little white lie) back in.

You know that saying, “Dance like no one’s watching”? Easier said than done.

Measuring media consumption, a visual brainstorm

In my story about Ethan Zuckerman’s proposed nutritional labels for news, I touched on social guilt, the idea that you might make changes to your media diet — consciously or subconsciously — if you know people are watching. Consider Spotify, the free music service that now requires a Facebook account to use. Only the most savvy users figure out how to turn off “frictionless sharing,” which lets Facebook broadcast your listening habits to all of your friends.

Spotify was a topic of discussion this weekend at the Mozilla Festival in London, where Zuckerman’s team at the MIT Media Lab and the Center for Civic Media gathered to brainstorm about visualizing media consumption, à la nutritional labels. Research assistant J. Nathan Matias reflected in a blog post:

A man in the group said he listens to more Kelly Clarkson than any other artist. Worried about his reputation, he now streams a bunch of Bon Jovi tracks to restore faith in his manhood to his social network. His example shows how peer pressure can shape our media consumption. We can easily imagine that a teenage girl might more eagerly share her Kelly Clarkson listening habits to approving friends.

On Sunday I attended the annual Music Hack Day in Cambridge, where really talented programmers showed off their inventions after 24 hours of coding. One of them was called BetterTaste (no link, but here’s a list of the hacks), which effectively hijacks Spotify’s sharing features. So while you’re blasting Maroon 5, Spotify can fraudulently inform your friends you’re listening to Bon Iver. No one is the wiser.

It seems like an awful lot of energy expended on hiding.

Discussion of peer pressure led the group to wonder if a system that tracks your media diet should share it at all. Reading the news is a very private activity which can betray our interests, passions, and current obsessions. Social network companies are always trying to get us to share these activities, under the (perhaps false) assumption that we are what we consume. There was general agreement that social pressure is a powerful way to change behavior, whereas having basic (private) metrics of our behavior would only influence a small percentage of people (those who are interested enough to track consumption in the first place, perhaps).

Those who are inclined to track their consumption in the first place are likely to feel guilt without anyone watching. My Rescue Time stats reflect that I spend way too much time in TweetDeck, which, in my defense, is real-time crack. (“Way too much time” is my conclusion, not Rescue Time’s. Someone else might reach a totally different conclusion.) I minimize and close TweetDeck more often now. Maybe that makes me more productive.

Matias writes not everyone in the group was opposed to social sharing. In aggregate, enough data about our media habits could map out our collective consciousness, he writes. It could force us see how tiny our universe of opinions can be. It could help us break the filter bubble. Could media tracking even be useful for the content producers, helping inform news organizations what to cover?

Many of us loved the idea of tracking our diet to set goals and improve over time. Others were more interested in social discovery: tracking how our media consumption relates to our friends, finding new friends with similar interests, measuring the knowledge diversity within an organisation, or discovering transnational solidarity through common interests. Many of the proposed technologies require the ability to compare different media diets. Many people liked the idea of source mapping their news — either tracking what topics we get from which format, or discovering who funds the media we consume. Differences in literary forms came up, bringing to mind our interest at the Center for Civic Media in “Civic Fictions” and participatory fan cultures. Finally, we were reminded that the dichotomy of consumers and producers no longer applies on the Web. A tool for measuring media consumption should also account for a range of media production from “likes” to blog posts and video uploads.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is known to argue that sharing makes the world a more understanding place. “We think that as it becomes easier to connect and share across the social graph, people—as well as companies, governments and other organizations—will share more information about what is happening with them,” he wrote in March 2009. “As this happens, the world will become more open and people will have a better understanding of everything that is going on around them.”

Maybe so, but I suspect people are more likely to cheat in this world of open sharing. Sharing what we want to like, and not what we like, may be no more valuable than sharing nothing at all.

Photo by J. Nathan Matias used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 9, 2011, 12:30 p.m.
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