We live in a world completely consumed by information. Mario Vasilescu says society is in the middle of an information epidemic in which we suffer from Infobesity, Information Pollution, and how we are the victims of Information Warfare.
In this episode Fran Racioppi met Mario at the Betaworks office in New York City to discuss the epidemic, the importance of the information commons, and Mario’s keys to freedom, resilience and control of what information comes our way.
Mario is the founder of Readocracy, a knowledge management platform giving users credits for consuming real information, by real people, in real time. Our first amendment gives us the right to free speech; but shouldn’t we also have the right to choose what we are forced to consume?
Find out more about Mario at Readocracy.com and follow him on Instagram and Twitter at @1upm.
Listen to the podcast here
About Mario Vasilescu
I’m a robotics engineer turned product designer. I’m a multi-prize winner on digital innovation, and led digital strategy projects for national organizations in both Canada and France. Some of my most important lessons learned came from researching technology and gamification in the context of the future of work, at BPI’s Institute for Leadership think tank in Paris.
Readocracy: Co-Founder Mario
We live in a world completely consumed by information. It’s on our screens, our hands, and our ears. No matter which way we turn or where we go, someone or something is pushing us information to consume.
Mario Vasilescu says, “Society is in the middle of an information epidemic.” I met Mario a few months ago and since have been having some of the most interesting and enlightening conversations about information that I thought I’d never have. Mario was in New York so I asked him to take a few minutes out of his trip to sit down with me to talk about his thoughts on the cure for the information overload we’re all facing.
Mario explained how many of us suffer from infobesity, how we are all the subjects of information pollution, and how we are the victims of information warfare. We spoke about the importance of the information commons and his keys to freedom, resilience, and control. Mario is the Founder of Readocracy, a knowledge management platform giving users credit for consuming real information from real people in real-time. Our First Amendment gives us the right to free speech, but shouldn’t we also have the right to choose what we’re forced to consume?
Mario, welcome to The Jedburgh Podcast.
I’m excited to be here.
Pumped to be back in New York, you came all the way down from the great white North of Toronto to spend a couple of days. You were telling me about your vacation. I’m super jealous. It’s time to get to work.
It’s cool in the context of talking about information because Betaworks have been pioneers and have one of the most impressive trackers in terms of their impact on consumer media. I don’t know if people know that they had. If you read the story about how Twitter was founded and started, there’s this little line in there. They’ve played a part in that medium anchor. They helped create GIPHY. It’s the right place for us to be talking about information and media.
You and I have been talking about information, how we consume it, the development of thought leaders, and the effects on our health, our wellness, and our freedom. You’ve separated health and wellness. I want to get into both of those, but freedom came up in a conversation we had. You talked about having the freedom to choose what we consume, look at, and scroll through. You posed a couple of questions to me, and that got me thinking. That’s when we said, “When you come to New York, we’re talking about this.”
“Do we want a system of information consumption like the one that optimizes the impulsive, loud, divisive, and angry? Is there a way to have one that optimizes the informed, thoughtful, helpful, and calm, which we don’t have now? Can you imagine that world?” That was the question you asked and then said, “We don’t have to imagine it. We can do and have to do something about it.”
As you and many readers know, I’m a student of Objective Journalism. Now I’m dating myself because that seems to have been gone for a while. It’s how you tell the story, not the angle you take. We used to differentiate it. We used to say, “I’m a political commentator.” Now everyone says, “I’m a reporter.” Reporting and commentating are two different things. We are completely consumed in so many ways by shock jock journalism.
It used to be Howard Stern. They wouldn’t put his name on the building at BU because they said he was too extreme. He’s like nothing compared to what we see every day on cable news. We’re going to unpack this and get to the bottom of it. You said it was a race to the bottom. We’re in an information epidemic, the challenges that are here now. Define information epidemic for me. Why are you here? What is the crisis that we’re in?
When you say information crisis, people ask, “What are you talking about? I’m stressed and anxious by this flood of noise. I don’t know what to do about it.” It’s important for us to understand how and why we got here before we can even do something about it, like tackling it. The average person is like, “There’s something funny going on. It stresses me out. There is advertising everywhere. Things are targeting me and my data.” They understand these nebulous terms.
It’s an issue that, because it’s so poorly defined, people try to defend themselves in a vague manner. They’re like, “I’m not going to give you my data.” I was like, “Do you use Facebook?” They’re like, “Yes.” I don’t think we have a grasp here of the situation. It’s a race to the bottom. As a quick primer, when we started with advertising, it was context-based.
If you had a golf magazine and sold golf clubs or resort retreats, you throw an ad in there and assume it gets to the right people. You didn’t need to manipulate the people in their other habits, get more out of them, or create other environments for them. It was pretty straightforward. The rise of programmatic advertising relies on personalizing ads to you, injecting them where you are, and learning as much about you as possible.
From there, saying, “If I get somebody to engage more and more in this system, create an environment where they’re producing content and pulling other people in, I’m like a machine for attention and printing money.” It’s about monetization. The thing is that this system doesn’t care about quality. It cares about quantity. That’s when it becomes a race to the bottom.
We’re in a system that looks at volume-based metrics, number of likes, and number of comments. Even when you say they have those simple reactions, like a sad face or a happy face, these are still as close as you get to binary. It’s a quick reaction. We’re dealing with this system that looks for whatever gets the most reactions and drives the most comments. I don’t care if everyone is like, “This is so enlightening and fantastic,” or with even more comments, everybody being super angry and screaming at each other. Whatever the highest volume is, it is going to do best in terms of making money.
A few years ago, Facebook said, “We’re not doing that anymore. We’ve moved away from the number of views and likes. We’re focused on engagement, whatever gets the most comments and people reacting.” It was put under the guise of like, re not all volume based. It’s fine. We’re healthy. We’re trying to get discourse going.” This was a front for how you get people to react specifically. It’s not enough for them to look and keep looking, but how do you get them to like, “I need to go in here and start screaming at somebody?”
That’s still all over looking at. Every time I pull it up, I look at how many likes or views I get. You can go into the insights and the analytics and say, “What was my engagement?”
Even then, engagement is one of those terms that has lost all meaning. Engagement is a glorified version of the traditional metrics. That’s a part of the danger. A race to the bottom also means that the people sitting on the other side, the media companies, the publishers, are looking at these numbers, which are not necessarily telling them that this story got you the most views and reactions.
Within that, you should know that this story with fewer views and reactions has the highest percentage of high-quality discourse. People seem to take something powerful from it and the people who are most deeply focused on it. Most of the metrics and the decisions are not being made on that basis. What you end up with is whatever it took. Whatever it takes is a race to the bottom.
I want to ask you about information commons. You talked about this in a couple of the works that you put together. The collective information that we rely on is out there. To me, it’s about access. It used to be in libraries. I remember that as a kid, we got an Encyclopedia Britannica. It was like all the knowledge we could ever have. Every year, they publish a new version with the updated things that were going on in the world.
If you were big on Encyclopedia Britannica, they’re gone. There’s probably an online version, but now you can google it. Scholars and scientists were the ones who put out this information. That was what we listened to. Now, anybody can go on and put information out there on the internet, into the world that can easily be taken at face value with little checks and balances on what it is. You can upload in seconds.
We could see or take a picture of us saying something crazy, and all of a sudden, that hits the algorithm. Everybody started liking it, and in minutes, we got 1 million views. Talk about what that does health-verse, wellbeing, and wellness. Talk about this information commons and how those ties into your definition of health and wellness.
We think of the information commons, and what that means. It’s useful to go back to our ancestors. Imagine you are cave people in their little domain or territory. They got their tribe. There are 100 of them. The information that they share collectively let’s call that the information commons. Within that group, if you wanted to, you could get through everything you could ever know, the collective wisdom of that group, including what was passed down from the grandparents in your lifetime and probably a fraction of your lifetime. You would know everything to know if you wanted to spend your time that way.
The only people who could define that were your group, people that were close to you. It’s proximate information. You know where it came from directly or at most, it’s coming from somebody like a relative, a friend of a friend, or a grandparent friend. It’s pretty proximate. As we grew as a society, we had the evolution of remote media. It started with books and magnifying out. You end up in the system, which is flooded with information.Whatever is the highest volume is going to do the best in terms of making money. Click To Tweet
People who are contravening these commons where we can learn and pick up information are increasingly distant from that proximate distance. It’s not people you know or could have ever heard of. It’s this random high-pressure flow. That’s already a lot. At least then, to your point, for better or for worse, they are gatekeepers, and that ensures a level of quality control. There are limitations to this and pushback to this, which I agree with, but there was some quality control.
Now, we have a system where the internet best defines information commons. The internet is our collective conscience. It’s our collective mind, our hive mind, basically. We’ve created the system we’re all using to make decisions and inform ourselves. If you think back to the village, it was pretty high fidelity. The ratio of useful information and things you should know and are trustworthy was good.
Now, anybody can upload in a second, and the system incentivizes volume. The more you publish and the more reactions you get, no matter how terrible it is, the better you’ll do. It’s like, “I’m going to flood this space.” That produces a level of toxicity and pollution. Essentially you can think of this the same way we think of our environment. We were in a physical space. We have the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the soil that produces our food. You can poison that, and it’ll show up in your body.
We can think of the commons as the information environment we use to feed and shape our minds and make decisions. If that becomes polluted because everybody’s game is like, “How much can I put in here? How many reactions can I get?” there’s a terrible ratio of signal versus noise. Instead of getting quality information and being able to go about your life, make good decisions, and have coherent conversations with people, you’re out here with a polluted mind.
That’s where we have poor health individually and collectively because of a polluted information environment. The way the system works is optimized for pollution in our environment or our mental information on our environment. Wellness is the habits we have. Health is a static thing. It’s a state of being. Wellness is the habits you make progressively and continually to maintain or improve that health.
When it comes to our information environment, how do we deal with this spewing of toxic sludge into the collective space that we’re hooked on? That sludge is highly addictive, and we see that everyone gets conditioned to it. Individually, how do we manage that ourselves to have better habits, be more mindful of it, and help protect ourselves? What are the impacts of that in terms of how we talk to our family, and our neighbors, make decisions politically, do anything, and protect ourselves collectively? There’s also collective wellness that we need to think of.
Sources used to matter, too. We talked about journalism, the evolution of journalism, and where people get their news even when working in the government. You talk about intelligence and information collection as government entities. It’s still all coming back to the validity of your source. We used the term binary. We were probably more linear in thinking that we had the blinders on more. Your ability to gather information was more streamlined to the human intelligence aspect of things.
It’s not even like human sounds because humans are creating so much noise, but you didn’t have the mediums. Because you didn’t have the mediums, you didn’t have the distribution capability. When you didn’t have the distribution capability, if I wanted to get some crazy message out, I had to talk to someone. It was a lot of work. Somebody had to decide whether this person was lewd or not. I will put them on the TV and their story out there or not. There were these checks and balances along the way. Now, it seems like anybody can be a source, credible or not, but anyone can push any message.
This is one of the fundamental issues because the Boomer generation grew up believing that if you saw a piece of information somewhere, that seemed credible, through a screen or on a paper somewhere, it must have been vetted. It’s still an issue. It shouldn’t be how we think anymore because this assumption has been co-opted. That’s misinformation.
They’re out there exploiting the fact that people are like, “This site seems legit. It’s designed reasonably well. They have an official-looking stamp here or an official-looking author. This must be legit. I’m going to tell my whole family that the moon is about to hit the earth.” It’s almost a hack into the collective consciousness. We’ve been trained so long to think that there are gatekeepers and things surely wouldn’t get like massively distributed if they’re bogus, and that’s not true anymore.
It’s scary, the burden of proof used to be put on the journalistic entity. The burden of truth and proof is now put on the information consumer.
They’re not equipped. First, the burden of proof should not be on the consumer. This feels parallel to what’s happened with greenwashing and the entire climate change discussion. Somehow it got to the point where most of the discussion is that 95% of the responsibility is on the consumers. We would be better off if still, 95% of the discussion was the industrial polluters. Now, it feels like we’re in a similar situation where we need media literacy. The burden of truth and proof and not being deliberately inflammatory in this race to the bottom should still be on these industrial producers.
It’s an incredible parallel. We make the contrast between our physical environment and our information environment. There’s a loophole. An industrial polluter can make more money by being lax about how they’re treating a local river or what have you. Can you imagine that the way it worked was they directly get paid more by polluting the river more? That’s the system we’re in. It’s not the side thing. That’s the thing. That’s the ridiculous environment.
Despite the fact that it’s a problem that we’ve had this shift where we’re like, “There’s no way. It is what it is. Somebody with a huge following can do whatever they want. It’s fine.” If you go on radio or TV, there are still a lot of laws and regulatory bodies that are breathing down your neck. It doesn’t seem to matter in this specific context of the internet. When it comes to education, we have an incredibly outdated education system. This tangent can go on in a few other directions, but specifically, when it comes to media and information literacy, that should be table stakes. It should be something that is taught at the earliest ages.
I saw a friend who lives in Sweden, and they have a kid who’s in kindergarten. In kindergarten, one of the assignments they have in Sweden is to have the kids go and research ladybugs. They come together and define what they’ve understood a ladybug to be. The second and equally important part of the assignment is to assess all the places they learned about what a ladybug is and why they think it’s credible. Can you imagine being raised with that type of thinking instead? We don’t have that now.
I have a note here to talk about the effect on children. You went there. You say that in one way, I’m like, “That’s so scary.” In another way, I’m like, “Good.” At least now, from an early age, we are training and educating our children that you have to be conscious of the information you consume. I joked earlier and practiced journalism all day long in this job. I still stand there at night for the 6:00 and the 6:30 news in the kitchen while we’re making dinner, staring at the TV, going, “That’s true,” and having to be like, “Is it?” You default to that.
We’re conditioned to it. The idea of freedom is a contentious subject, especially in the states and in a lot of places. When we have this conversation, a necessary component is alerting people to what may be questionable. At the very least, it seems to have a track record of deliberately trying to inflame you. Whether it’s true or not, they use languages meant to amp you up in one way or another. We tend to have it in this context where if you label something on the path to censorship, what’s going to get totalitarian? You’re deciding what’s true, this and that.
It’s the opposite. When you talk about kids and people being equipped to have this context, you are the perfect prey if you go around with zero context. You think you have freedom, but you’re living in an illusion. People are constantly doing their best in this race to the bottom to pull you in a certain direction for their greedy money-making schemes. When you are equipped to have the context and things labeled for you, you can at least think about it yourself. Nobody’s telling you what to believe. They’re giving you the context.
That’s the ultimate freedom because you can think for yourself. That distinction is important. Too often, we have it the other way around where it’s like, “I’m not going to label anything for you. I’m going to let you operate and not inform you so that you’re the easiest prey possible, and that way, we’re good.” You’re like in a prison of your mind at that point. People are shifting the walls for you, and you have no idea.
Let’s talk about you. Your family’s Romanian. You come from a long line of a family dedicated to social impact. Your family immigrated from Romania and came to Canada as a way and a lot of reasons to escape communism. You described that your family felt communism was stifling these opinions and people’s ability to give diversified views on things. Talk to me about growing up in a family that supported that culture, growth, and knowledge and coming to Canada to get away from that.
It’s a big part of why we do what we do, and I’m glad you asked that. We heard these stories growing up of our grandparents and great-grandparents, who were incredible intellectuals, but at the same time, seemed to have a persistent motivation to make the world better. You grew up being taught this implicit lesson, “These are the people you should look up to. Be smart and change the world in a positive way, but don’t be selfish. If you get wealthy, it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to be like this.” There are good values and growing with integrity.
The main issue was that as we were growing up, it became evident that the world was rewarding the polar opposite. In Eastern Europe, especially during Communism and immediately post-Communism, there was a lot of corruption. You see that, and you’re like, “Apparently, it doesn’t matter if you’re truthful. Truth doesn’t matter.” You have that.Engagement is one of those terms that is lost. It is a glorified version of the traditional metrics. Click To Tweet
You come to North America. Whether it’s Canada or the US and increasingly anywhere, this media ecosystem that defines everything enables the exact same thing at a more distributed insidious level because it’s invisible gradually like tendrils that go into our life all the time. It’s the same thing. Is this a world that optimizes for calm and thoughtful perspectives, and people are positive, helpful, and smart? That seems like a radical exception most of the time when I’m going around. It’s a system that is optimized for the polar opposite.
My brother is my Co-Founder of Readocracy. We’ve always had this through the line of, “How do we help people who deserve to be elevated, put in the effort, and do their homework?” I mean that in a real sense, not like the talking point of, “I did my homework,” but not really. It’s digging into things, caring a lot, having a deep passion behind it, caring about people, being empathetic, and leaving a positive impact. We’re like, “How do we elevate those people? How do we create a system that allows those people to shine instead of what we have now, which is the opposite?”
I thought one of the main drivers for my parents to come to Canada was the education system and the broader sense of education. I was speaking to my mom about it a few years ago. She’s the one who specifically told me, “That was important, but we wanted you to be somewhere where you had the freedom to think without fear, not just express, but the self-censorship that happens when things get hyperpolarized and we’re not aware and things get scary.” This connection with your own mind, flexibility, and ability is important. That is a good compliment to them. How do we elevate people who are authentic and mean well?
What did your parents do?
On my mom’s side, I’m a fourth-generation engineer. A lot of engineers in the family did incredible things like help set up Romania’s electrical grid. On my dad’s side, there are a lot of classically trained visual artists. My grandfather is a poet. I’m a mix of art and engineering. You can grow up in a certain way that tells you, “Smart people are this and dumb people are that.” You end up again in this polarized worldview. This equipped me to respect people who span the spectrum. You can find value, fascinating perspectives, and good people and things that will enlighten you in unexpected ways pretty much anywhere.
In all of our interactions, I have gotten off the phone or the video calls we’ve had and always said, “He’s an engineer.” I’m looking over here at your notes. You’ve got everything in front of you. It’s all organized. Every interaction I’ve had with you and your team has always been so organized. The follow-up is great. You know that they’re on it. You brought your whole story up about where your parents came from, and the perspective that they had in that environment. It resonates every day and it shows. Good on them and you for continuing that.
Especially if we can live up to the military discipline, if we’ve lived up in your eyes, we’ve done what’s good.
The tagline of the show is, “How you prepare today to determine success tomorrow.” I tried it to so many people all over the world and in everything that I do, and there are so few who lived by that, but it makes such a difference. That’s what we talked about. You have these three lenses on information crisis and their infobesity, information pollution, and this information warfare concept. I want to get into those and define them a little bit more, but you said infobesity, we’ll start there.
You said, “We demand more and more information about our food, what’s in it, and where it comes from so that we can know how it will affect our bodies and how we should think about it.” We ask nothing of where our information comes from, the thing that shapes our minds. Intaking nonsense won’t make your skin greasy. We don’t see it in ourselves or others directly, rather we feel it. The impacts manifest primarily internally in our minds. There it is, as tangible as it gets anxiety, anger, tension, paranoia, and depression.
I have all these things every day when I’m on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, TikTok, you name it. My mood is often directly affected by the number of downloads we get, how we performed in the algorithm, and how many likes we had. It will then dictate how the next several hours go until we have the next post. If it does well, all of a sudden, I’m happy. What is infobesity? Why is it so dangerous? How did we get here?
I love talking about this because bring it back three lenses. When we talked about the information crisis, this is everywhere. It’s such a nebulous concept. Nobody ever feels like they can get a grasp on it. It’s like data. What does data mean? You had a conversation with Doug Philippone about defining data. What does it mean? What’s the definition? These terms lose all meaning. You see the lack of the ability to define it everywhere.
It’s not just in consumers and everyday conversations with your family. You see it when the government’s trying to do something about it. It seems like they’re incoherent. They can barely agree on what they’re even talking about. It’s important to try to bring it back to earth by relating it to other major issues we had in society, which we solved. More or less, we’ve got a grasp on that, despite the fact that at the time, similarly, it’s hugely nebulous. One of them is the idea of infobesity, which directly parallels what we had with the obesity epidemic.
Generally, everybody especially in the States or the rest of the world knows about the obesity epidemic. What we had several years ago were well-intentioned parents going into the grocery store and feeding their children sludge, not maliciously or because they were trying to be cheap. It’s fine. I don’t know any better. The ads were allowed to say it was great for you.
You had a situation where you were not equipped to be mindful. What happened? We fed our bodies with garbage. We fed our children in the garbage. We grew up in a culture that had no idea that we should think twice about the fact of how we’re feeding our bodies and making ourselves feel, how we look, and even how we feel and how we operate. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
We have essentially the same thing happening with our information diet. How do we feed our minds? What shapes our perspectives? How does it make us feel? You’ve got to feed your body and equip your body, but what’s up here? That shapes how you feel, your entire world, and how you’re going to spend your time on earth. It’s amazing because it’s the same way that we didn’t have ingredient labels. People weren’t educated to even think that there should be some ingredient labels that are transparent.
We can think about nutrition labels. In school, students started being taught of learning about nutrition and these different things. Laws were enacted. A burger chain could go and put out ads that said, “It is great for your children’s health to eat a three-kilogram burger every day.” I’m exaggerating a little bit, but they could do that and it would be legal. That’s not legal anymore. You have to put nutrition information.
When you go in there and you’re like, “That thing is 2,000 calories. I want it more than the 350-calorie salad.”
These things have an impact. It’s not that you shouldn’t eat junk food. It’s that you should be aware and that makes a world of difference. Everything should be in moderation. You can see the impact of this. It’s not to say that it’s solved. There are also certain aspects of wealth that come into play. Unfortunately, sometimes you can’t afford to eat well.
By and large, you have a situation where we’ve made a lot of progress because of this. Wherever you go, fast food chains, we’ve been conditioned now to instinctively see it. If I show you a picture of a burger or a salad, I don’t need to say anything. There are going to be 50 ideas that come to your mind pretty tangibly and strongly, without me saying a thing.
You know about the temptation and the responsibility. What do we do? Now the question is, “What about our information diet and how we feed our minds?” Before, where there were no consequences and rewards. It didn’t matter. You’ll know the context. If I present you with, “I’m giving you three hours, and here’s a bunch of celebrity tabloid bait.” It feels good, maybe. You feel like doing it. You’re going to lose track of time. You end up spending five hours if you do that.
If I show you some long-form content rapid over from leading thinkers from the last many years, you’re not going to have these ideas coming to you the same way you do with the salad and the burger. We’re not equipped yet. We need it sooner. We can’t wait twenty years. There’s not much of us left. If we keep up as we are now, we need something similar, something that, through education, standards, laws, and tools, we are conditioned to think in the same way. The responsibility shouldn’t be on the consumer, but so that we are equipped to be as mindful to make much better decisions and not have our minds get fat.
You said our relationship with information is pathological. Why the word pathological?The internet is our collective conscience. It's our collective mind, which we're all using to make decisions and inform ourselves. Click To Tweet
It’s like an illness. It’s like an addiction that we’re not aware of. There are a lot of people who would argue that our relationship with media is the new smoking in some cases or the entire environment. There should be labels on it. Certain producers do it deliberately. It’s no longer something that we can say is neutral. There are surveys that pretty quickly identify whether you’re being triggered for anxiety or depression. We’re doing studies with some research partners to try to specifically start digging into this because our information diets are making us sick in a lot of cases.
There is a connection when you think of everybody who you know or yourself who has elevated forms of anxiety, who is trending towards depression, has more and more arguments with people around them, and doesn’t know what to believe. It feels like they’re floating. There are all these impacts. The world around us is scary. It’s been scary for 100 years, and what’s different now? It’s the fact that it’s like a meme. You’re like in a fire hose. It’s like the matrix. We can’t avoid it. At that point, it becomes systemically unhealthy.
Some numbers that you threw out is that the average person spends seven hours a day at what you call this buffet, gorging themselves on this endless swipe of information.
It’s that design to make you gorge yourself. Can you imagine if you were at the buffet? You scoop onto your plate, and there was a system underneath it like immediately slowly lifted it without your realizing. It was tipping it a little bit into your plate as well. That’s what it feels like we’re at now.
You said in 2021, Americans spent thirteen hours a day.
During the pandemic, apparently it was thirteen hours a day with media.
One in five people suffers from information overload. I shared with you and the world that a lot of times, our performance on social media will affect my mood. I’m so invested in growing this thing and getting the show out there. We’ve come so far with zero. It takes a long time to train that algorithm, get your content out there, and get it to understand you. We’ll have these posts that get 15,000, 25,000, and 30,000 views of our videos. I’m like, “Yes.” You’ll put something out similar the next day, and it will get 50. It’s like, “No.”
It’s gotten to the point where you become so consumed with it. My daughter and my wife have been yelling at me, “Get off your phone. We have other things to do.” My son looks at me if I have my phone in my hand and says, “Daddy, get off your phone.” That’s the level at which we’ve gotten to. To me, that was an eye-opener. This just happened, so it’s relevant in my mind.
Coming in the drive down here, I kept thinking about you and this conversation as we’ve been planning. You’ve got to find a way to distance yourself from this. That tells me that it’s working. Now, I got to watch more. For your health, you have to go back to what got us here. Keep doing the right thing. It’s going to be okay.
By the way, there’s something fascinating there because the system is optimized for volume. We unknowingly become extensions of this volume system. You create your profile on whatever network and become obsessed with the number of likes, listens, or whatever it is. You think you’re doing it for yourself, but you’re like a cog in the machine. The top is saying, “That’s good. You’re driving more for us. We’re going to load this up on the context of whatever.”
It’s fascinating because in a volume that only cares about quantity, identifying your identity becomes, “How can I pull more attention and these simple metrics?” This is something that’s central to Readocracy. Think of this worldview. What if our influence online was not defined by the quantity of attention that we get but also primarily based on the quality of attention and information we give?
I would have a tremendous amount more views, which is frustrating.
That was what drove your identity. That’s a different shift in identity and motivation. We’re pigeonholed, pushed, and morphed into this whole volume poll aspect.
That’s been my frustration with this thing. I sit there, and we’ve produced amazing content. We’ve put it out there. We’ve done everything possible. Yet, if you don’t use the right hashtag and captions, they don’t go in the right place. If you don’t use the embedded music off of their thing, you get nothing. If you use all those things, it boosts you to the top.
As quickly as you get boosted to the top, it spits you out and cuts you off. We’ve gone in 15 minutes to 50,000 views of a single post and then nothing. It will stay at that number. Maybe you gain 5 or 10 more over the next ten days. I googled it in preparation for this. Why does it stop? It says that once engagement slows, even like a minor percentage, the algorithm boots it out.
There is also this issue of recency bias. We’ve heard different politicians. This is being weaponized in a lot of cases, but it’s this idea of flooding the zone and this idea of pollution. It’s this idea that we have finite attention with finite time and energy, but the information could become infinite. What ends up filtering through to our finite ability to perceive, if it’s mostly noise, becomes a problem.
When people are deliberately pushing more, what happens? We are in a situation to barely keep up. We all feel like we’re treading water. We’re barely staying alive in this flood. The only thing you can do is jump to the next thing quickly and everybody else is doing it. It’s scary because you can be totally responsible as a public figure, as a company, or as an individual. You’ll probably be okay, especially if you have the resources to keep flooding the zone. People will be forced to move on to the next thing and not have a chance to keep you accountable.
This is one of the disturbing things as well. We talked about society versus the individual. It applies equally to our ability to like, “I care about that.” Months later, you’re like, “Whatever happened to that? I could not keep up. I was swept away.” At a societal level, it’s what we’re doing when we’re able to coherently track an issue and do something about it.
One of these was information pollution. You compared information pollution to a wicked problem. I enjoy conversations about wicked problems because there’s no definitive answer. We’ve defined wicked problems as those that have no answer. The solutions are incomplete. They’re contradictory. There are changing requirements consistently that never get you to a spot where you’re going to say, “Here’s a concrete resolution, and everybody’s happy.”
Nobody’s going to be happy with this one, in those three lenses of how we make things easier for people to grasp, whether it’s individuals who are talking about it with their families, business leaders, or politicians. In the same way, we draw a parallel between how we feed our minds with how we fed our bodies and what we did about that. We look at the mental environment and information environment we feed ourselves with and live in versus the physical environment.
We’ve done a lot for the physical environment. When there was a hole over the ozone layer in Antarctica, it was horrifying. When these were new things, and we’re looking at the climate movement and coping with industrialization, gradually, we relied again on education, regulation on the polluters, educating the consumers in different ways, and all these different things. Now we have a bit of a better grasp. We have a long way to go, but at least we can talk about it and start mode mobilizing.
In the informational environment, we have the same thing. Is it normal that somebody with over 100,000 followers should have zero responsibility, but somebody who sets up a radio station has to go through 1 million hoops because of the responsibility the government feels it has to society and the citizens? They don’t get hurt inadvertently, or propaganda can’t be spread. We have to ask ourselves that. Somebody throwing plastic on the street can get a fine in certain places. That’s different from somebody who is pouring gallons of nuclear waste into a river. There are different laws for them.The more you publish and the more reactions you get, no matter how terrible it is, the better you'll do. That's where we have poor health individually and collectively because of polluted information. Click To Tweet
It’s the same way that an individual who’s super angry online and posting stuff like, “Whatever. What are you going to do about that?” The issue is the accounts that are able to scale this and have impunity. In the same way, we have that parallel, we can make it tangible with obesity and infobesity. We can make it much more tangible when we talk about, “There’s a direct parallel with the environment that we share with how we feed our minds and people who pollute that. We can’t sift through it, or it makes us feel sick.”
The third one is that there are more than three lenses, but one of the useful and more traditional ones is information warfare. Psychological psyops and the ability to manipulate an average series population, people in another country, or whoever you’re trying to manipulate is not a new concept. Online platforms and media are a form of information warfare, whether explicitly. It’s remarkable how social media platforms are like a back door into the collective mind of a population.
They started being checks and balances after things blew up through Facebook, Cambridge Analytica,, and whatnot. Similarly, you don’t have to be a foreign power trying to screw over another population. You can also be a media empire in this race to the bottom and feel no remorse as long as they’re making money by pushing a certain part of the population into being as engaged as possible, whatever it takes. You can be a business that feels like they can flood the zone to get people to have a certain view through these channels with maximum reach and none of the repercussions of gatekeeping or quality control that used to exist.
We’re seeing information warfare all over, and this isn’t a new theme. You’ve referenced that World War III is going to be this combination of information warfare. We talked in previous episodes about hybrid warfare. You see a lot about hybrid warfare where you have this mix of psychological operations or information operations versus conventional tactics.
In special operations, it’s been decades and more where we’ve had entire units called information operations and psychological operations. We used to drop leaflets. We dropped the leaflets as not far back as going in Afghanistan, going into Iraq. We were dropping leaflets out of airplanes with pictures saying, “The bombs are coming.” This is not a new concept, but what’s changed, as we spoke about earlier, is the ease of distribution and consumption.
Whereas before, if you go back to 2001 or 2003 to Iraq or Afghanistan, everybody didn’t have a cell phone. I didn’t have a cell phone. I was in the most developed country in the world at that period of time. When we’ve had conversations about Africa, I spend a lot of time in Africa. You talk about developing nations. You talk about the infrastructure grid that has gone into places like Africa.
Look at Starlink with Elon Musk and Facebook. Why did they term it Meta? Meta was this push to create a metaverse and a meta-universe in which the ability for anyone in the world to access the internet and information is there. They’re building satellites, weather balloons, and all this stuff. Anybody can access this stuff where previously they didn’t have it.
It’s the ability to use information warfare and look at events internationally in the US, Ukraine, and Russia. There is a massive information warfare campaign going on now. The Black Lives Matter movement here in the US and internationally was propagated so much the calls to action that people were putting out to go to certain places, the January 6 incident in DC, and the 2016 election.
We had Episode 13 with Jack Devine. Jack Divine was the former Head of the CIA Operations Director, and ran Clandestine Service and the war in Afghanistan in the ‘80s. He was the one responsible for it. He wrote a book called Spymasters Prism, which was all about Russia’s interference in the election, how they used the Twitter bots, and all these other information warfare to generate false narratives, misinformation, and disinformation and push that through. This is being used at this point extremely extensively, both here in the US for political agenda and social movement and internationally when we talk about the war in Europe, which we haven’t seen at this scale since World War II.
To your point, these are things that are not new. My concern, putting it in the context of the lenses, is the need for the average person to see it through that lens. We talk about education and things being mainstream enough for this to be table stakes of what somebody knows growing up. Everybody should know that people in Texas were manipulated by Russian and Macedonian misinformation operations.
We’re not even politically necessarily motivated half the time. They were there because it made money. It was a great way to inflame people and get them hooked on your content. Ended up getting Texans to tackle in the streets from for and against. Neither were American groups in terms of the Facebook groups themselves.
The Americans are real, and the fights are real in the street, but not motivated by it, the quality of information, or what the point was. In the same way, it’s important for us to think about, “How am I going to think of how I feed my mind in terms of my health? How am I going to think of how I treat the preciousness of our information commons in terms of pollution and our ability to think together, be together, and make good decisions? How am I going to protect myself and be vigilant and be aware that especially in an environment that’s a race to the bottom? The bad political actors, the attention monsters, are going to be out to get me as well.”
To that point of Boomers or even everybody who’s conditioned to see something and say, “This is legit. It seems legit. It must be legit,” that’s super dangerous in an environment which is so effortlessly manipulated. It can make you paranoid, especially if you’re not equipped to feel safe. You do need to be more vigilant when you’re online and taking information. Most people are not. Unfortunately, they are lackadaisical in their approach to what they consume and what they pass on.
I want to ask you about Brandolini’s law because I’m extremely focused on high quality content and so much goes into every one of these episodes, conversations, and posts. We don’t put anything out on any platform, unless it’s thought through. We understand the direction it’s going, the emotion we’re trying to evoke, and what we’re trying to drive. Nothing we do is haphazard. Yet every once in a while, someone will post something in response, a comment that’s completely outlandish and nasty.
We had a phenomenal conversation about mental health with an author whose name is Diane Conn. I mentioned her name because it’s an excellent episode. I enjoyed the conversation so much and she wrote a book called Holding Hands. This is a woman who has been extremely successful as a film producer. She wrote this book, a compilation of pictures that she’s taken of people holding hands throughout her life, throughout their lives. She was extremely shaped by the loss of her mother to suicide as a young girl and struggled with depression.
In order to listen to the episode, it would take an hour and 15 minutes. We post the first release post about it. Within minutes, you didn’t have time to listen to the episode, but somebody posts something about, “This is garbage. This is the problem with modern art. Create trash and make yourself feel good.” I then spent about an hour and a half in complete disarray, whatever I was doing at that moment. It was about dinner time.
I’m getting yelled at by my wife. We had a fight because she was telling me, “Disregard it.” I’m like, “You can’t disregard it. What do I do?” I don’t even know what to do. I’m googling, “How do I respond to a negative comment on this post?” I’m insulted and feel bad because Diane was phenomenal. Her story was so impactful. I’m so excited about it. The first comment that we get is some knucklehead’s idiocy without even having listened to it.
I now lost, including the argument with my wife. That permeated for several hours after the resolution. It took hours to figure out what I had to do and how I had to correct it. Eventually, I figured I’m going to respond to this guy, thank him for listening, and say that I’m sure he appreciated the conversation about her losing her mother to suicide and mental health. He’ll take that away from the episode. He did not respond to my comment. Talk about Brandolini’s law. I didn’t define it here for you in my vignette, but this is real.
You gave a perfect example of it. Brandolini’s law is also known as the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle, which I love. Honestly, if we could solve this, we would pretty much be in a world that’s closer to a utopia and what we want. Brandolini’s law, Bullshit Asymmetry Principle, essentially says that for every bit of mistruth or ridiculousness that is posted online, everybody’s being deliberately inflammatory. Throwing a grenade in an online conversation or putting something online takes at least twice as much energy to go, cover up after that, repair it, explain to people, and clean it up.
By definition, you’re always behind. This isn’t necessarily part of the law. It is forcing you to move forward because of the sheer volume. A system that, by design, produces a lot of volume because that’s all they care about. Nobody has the time. This is in the back of my mind. I didn’t want to jump the gun here, but you don’t have time to clean up after this idea of people being able to get away with anything, as long as they flood the zone and move fast enough.
You can look at it as Brandolini’s law or remember the old quote that is, “A lie travels twice around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” There’s a Romanian proverb that is along the lines of, “A madman throws water into the water and then three wise men have to sit there and struggle to explain.” You created amazing content and had an amazing guest, something meaningful. Because we’re in an environment that was always designed for views and not filtering for quality, somebody was able to go in there and, on a whim, say something toxic.
Further is damaging besides being offensive and hurtful, hurts you probably in this algorithm as well, and makes other people who are interested look at and be like, “Did this person listen to this?” Maybe they think that person knew what they were talking about. It’s so toxic. This is why when we think about how we can fix the internet and make a more civil discourse and create a society that is optimized for calm and thoughtfulness and what have you, it comes down to systems like this.We have an incredibly outdated education system. Click To Tweet
What if people could only react to posts on Facebook if they had consumed enough of the media first? Twitter started doing this, but all they’re doing is if you check the link. If you try to share a link and they see that you never clicked it, a little pop-up appears saying, “It looks like you didn’t read that, are you sure you want to share it?”
They don’t know if you read it. They want to know if you at least click the link, bare minimum. Imagine it was taking into account that they hit at least the 45-minute mark of the podcast and you’re allowed to listen up to 1.5 speed, that comment would have never happened. If the person did still want to make that comment at that point, it probably would have been a lot more nuanced.
That might have been part of my comment back. We engage in conversations of all kinds on this show and we don’t shy from either side. It goes back to my point of being objective in the conversations that we have. Looking back at your comments on engagement in a situation like this, the algorithm now views this as engagement. This thing went up. Somebody commented on it. This guy commented back. A buddy of mine, who’s also involved in the show, made comments on it. My producer did. Now, you’ve got all these people. The algorithm is like, “Everybody loves this content. Keep pushing it.”
Imagine that you did not have the same level of integrity and goal of producing content. Your goal was like, “How do we get the most popular? How do we game the algorithm?” I’m going to make something that is crap, is going to rile people up, be highly controversial, and would warrant a comment like this, but it’s going to be well-produced, with the right tone, the right balance, and you’re going to crush it. They’re going to outperform your problem.
We started having success with it. That’s what’s kept me up at it. I do the work and the research. I look it up. I look at everybody else. I see what they’re doing. I go on TikTok and Instagram. I look at what other shows are doing. I’m like, “This is garbage,” and you have 500,000 views.
It’s funny. There are a lot of people, especially in the US, who are critical maybe of some of the privacy regulations, including what’s being passed. If you get to the nitty-gritty of situations like this, you start to appreciate how great it is. It’s going to need to be improved over time. Part of what GDPR released is an improvement in the regulation that forced the world to start having those cookie pop-ups and letting you know, “You’re being tracked. Are you sure you’re okay with that?” People will be responsible for the chaos that causes society.
If you’re above a certain size, it’s going to start mattering. It won’t matter if it’s one commenter. Over time, people need to be verified. What if you find out that account is affiliated with somebody who in aggregate, has 200,000 followers, has 50 accounts, and they’re out here like sewing chaos for their own? That shouldn’t be possible. We’re in this free for all now where you can do that.
Do you think the policy is antiquated on this? You referenced the government regulation. You and I spoke about anybody from all over the world can go on Facebook and Instagram and look at anything. You’re no longer geographically segregated. The rules don’t exist around what you can and can’t consume. You talked about radio. AM/FM radio and even satellite radio are still geographically centralized. It’s funny. I was doing some metrics earlier. We’re apparently popular in Estonia and Saudi Arabia.
Anybody can listen to us in Estonia and Saudi Arabia on the topic of entrepreneurism. You can’t listen to WABC. When you look at reach and what’s it crafted for when the FCC policy was created, it was crafted so that you couldn’t put out this type of information to the masses. Yet where the policy doesn’t exist now is in the platforms that go to the most amount of people, and it does exist. What are you going to get on WABC and the 8 million people who live here in New York? I can go to 1 billion people across the world.
That’s cool that you get Estonia. They have some cool things going on with entrepreneurship, with the future of the internet. That’s a good sign. It’s nebulous. What do you do with all this, and how do you combat it on policy? There are two sides to it. One thing we need to talk about, which I’m sure a lot of readers jumped to this, is a necessary topic of conversation. People get the freedom of speech. When does this become censorship?
The most important thing that people should internalize and read up on is freedom of speech versus freedom of reach. There is a big difference. You should be allowed to say whatever you want, but that doesn’t mean that everybody else should be forced to listen. It’s common sense. Society breaks down when you eliminate some of the physical checks and balances.
What would it take in real life before we had all this free-flowing? Is anything possible to reach a billion people in two minutes? I’m exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea. If you walked into a football stadium and you wanted to grab the megaphone and project whatever you felt like saying to the whole crowd, do you think you would be able to do that easily? No. You would have to get permission. You would have to convince some people. You would have to vet what you’re about to say.
The idea of going in and reaching 40,000 or 100,000 people at a stadium because you felt like it, you pulled the strings right and were able to cause chaos would never fly. The system falls apart when you have that. We need a policy that stops pretending that the internet is this special place that is divorced from reality. The internet is reality. The internet drives reality more than what we would consider reality itself.
We need to start applying the laws as if that were true while acknowledging and being mindful of fact that a lot of times, people scream censorship. What’s a good indicator? Some of the biggest trolls are the ones who care the most about censorship, and that should tell you something. There are legitimate concerns about censorship, and free speech is essential. The key ingredient is transparency. If you look at what goes on in China, the system there is dangerous because they are profiling you. They’re collecting tons of data on you. Where does it go? Who can see it? Nobody can see it.
You can’t see what’s covered on you. You don’t know how you, as an individual, are presented. You can’t complain about it. By the way, if you do, have fun with that. There’s a big difference between that and any system, which is transparent, open source, or a public blockchain and is immutable on a ledger. Everybody can see, and you can see how it is being presented. You can complain about things. They’re in the public log, and everybody sees them. There isn’t some central body who’s opaquely deciding things. These are big differences.
That’s how a lot of these mechanism and laws can be produced as the central distinction that moves them away from being creepy totalitarian systems to things that allow us to function as a society. We’re not like manipulated left, right, and center by people who don’t care about us functioning coherently. The only other thing I wanted to say around a policy is that we tend to focus a lot at these super high levels or ground levels, like media literacy. It’s that stuff that is conceptual but ground level.
What we need is something in between at the user interface level. It could benefit strongly from standards, which may not be necessarily enforced by law. That would be too much probably. At the very least, it’s educating people and creating a campaign to say, “It’s not normal that all the platforms encourage you to share without thinking.” It’s not good that you can react so impulsively. These are not good for information pollution. They’re not good for your own emotions. They’re not for people who are trying to produce quality content. They’re not good for quality discourse.
Why do these things exist? These platforms have been a game of volume. It has campaigns or standards that are popularized around the user interface to say, “You want to tweet more than once a day. For all the additional tweets, we’re going to ask that you paste a context link for why you’re saying what you’re saying, a little extra paragraph about where you’re coming from, or anything along those lines that introduce friction, or even like arriving on the platform.”
People have this debate about Twitter. Twitter is in the news a lot now. You have this discussion of, “What is Twitter good for?” Is it the world’s water cooler where all the most essential journalism and news is discussed and disseminated? As many people will argue with you, is it like an amazing water cooler for memes and takes, and its whole point is entertainment? You shouldn’t be taking it seriously for like news. There are people who can make strong perspectives and arguments on either side of that.
What if, at the beginning of the user interface, you’re forced to pick as a user? It’s like speaking of mindfulness. You show u,p and a thing at the top says, “What’s it going to be? Are you looking to learn and get information that’s supposed to be educational first and foremost? Are you here to be entertained?” The best entertainment is educational. The best educational stuff is entertaining. It goes both ways, but being forced to choose is an act of mindfulness.
It’s also an act of freedom. You brought up your fundamental inherent right and the right to free speech. It is a fundamental and inherent right that every single person deserves and has, and nothing should be impeded upon that. That subsequent definition of freedom comes down to the right to choose and understand the context that something is being pushed on me.
Do I have a choice in what I’m being consumed? What you brought up is a good point here. When is that point in which we exercise that freedom to say, “This is entertainment, and nothing outside of this should be construed?” If that’s the context that we put it in, okay. What is out there that is still going to allow us to consume information that we want to consume if our choice, for example, is, “I want to understand objectively what happened in the world?”Nobody's telling you what to believe. They're at least just giving you the context. That's the ultimate freedom because you can think for yourself. Click To Tweet
Those outlets now may be few and far between, and distribution is limited because access has been so easy now to these “entertainment.” If you go back to 2002 or 2003, I was an undergrad at Boston University. Bill O’Reilly is a graduate of the graduate school at School Communications that came to BU. He spoke, and I went and listened. He made a point that I’ll never forget, and I talk about it all the time.
He said, “I’m a political commentator. If you watch me, you have to understand that this is entertainment.” he disclosed that. That is so important that that differentiation was made. Where we’ve gone a little bit haywire here is that it is hard, even for me, to do exactly what you and Bill O’Reilly talked about. Let’s make that differentiation that this platform right here is entertainment.
That is so important. First of all, make that decision of what their goal is so that they don’t go in there, spend an hour, and be like, “Where did my time go?” and not being fully conscious of the fact that this was all junk. It was the equivalent of McDonald’s, but moderation and understanding what you’re going in with not going out to buy salad. You’re like feasting on your second burger and not even realizing you did it. That’s the danger.
I mentioned smoking and cigarettes earlier. There are labels that exist on the packages now. The same obligations should exist legally. If you have a certain following on TV, on the radio, or on the internet, you should have to have these labels. It’s important because there have been multiple trials where people are sued. In Canada, you had it with Rebel News. Tucker Carlson had to deal with this. He was pushed to the limit in court.
They’re forced to say, “Nobody should have taken this seriously. We masquerade as news, but it’s entertainment. Therefore, we shouldn’t be held accountable.” They usually get away with it. Bill O’Reilly says that to a class or a presentation, that’s great. That’s useless if it isn’t presented at the beginning of every episode because people are coming by. Fly-by visitors are people who aren’t educated to think that this is what’s out there and being monetized in this way.
They’re not going to think it’s entertainment. You should have to choose at the beginning to have labels like that. If, down the line, you’ve caused mayhem and somebody comes after you and they’re in their legal right to do so, you shouldn’t be able to weasel out of it at the end by saying, “You should have known. I didn’t explicitly say it, but you should have known.” If that’s your angle, it should be in a nice big label. This is going to give you a mental impairment in terms of thinking this is the news and it’s entertainment.
You had labeled three considerations to change, freedom, resilience, and control. We talked about a lot of freedom. You talked a little bit about control in terms of empowerment and giving a choice. Define what empowerment would look like in a world in which you had control over what you were consuming.
It’s pretty easy to imagine. We’re not used to it. We’re living in this world where we’re conditioned to think that the internet and social media is supposed to be like this. There’s no other way versus the opposite. “Is this the natural state of the internet? Is it the image of Facebook and Google?” It’s easy to imagine. You’re in these platforms where you have a feed that comes flying at you. You don’t know what the algorithm is. It’s in there to optimize, push in a certain direction, and gets you engaged more.
What if you were asked, “How much time do you want to spend? Is there anything that you know is agitating you, and would you like us to calm it down? We’ll limit it. You tell us how many posts in a week we should keep it to. What do you want to level up on? What do you know is good for you and makes you happy, and is the best for you? Can you tell us so that we can try to focus on that?”
That’s scratching the surface. There is a lot of stuff you could do here once you have that information and that context. When you’re looking in the feed, like, “This is picked because it’s supposed to make me happy in a healthy way. I’m at item 205 in this thing that I can possibly look for, but I should not waste a lot of time on.”
Everything should be in moderation. There should be a limit. It’s not the algorithm Dave defined, trying to keep you there. The next thing you know, two hours have passed, and it’s like, “That’s great.” One example is in the idea of empowerment and the context of friendship. I’m trying to remember who first told me about this, but I love the idea of thinking of your best friends. People are good friends. Are these people who call you out sometimes and say, “I don’t know about that. Maybe you should reel this back. I’ve noticed this. You maybe should reel it back. I love you.”
That or is it the people who are sick of friends, say yes to everything, and feed you more? They’re like, “You’re leading in this problematic direction. That’s all right. I’m such a big fan of more.” They’re pushing you more. That’s where we’re at. When you see these algorithms and apps through that lens, it’s scary and creepy because that’s what it is. If you were to make a persona out of it or treat it as if the app or the algorithm was a person, it would be creepy. They would be like a pusher who doesn’t care about what’s good for you. They’re pushing stuff on you for what they care about. They’re like a drug dealer. That’s one way of looking at it.
Even the popups you can get on Instagram and the other apps that will tell you, “Heads up. You’ve been here an hour.” It can be like, “Keep going.” There’s no friction to that. First of all, it starts becoming invisible over time. You’re like, “I don’t even see the pop-up anymore.” On Readocracy, what we’re incorporating into our app is that a pop-up appears. You’re forced to choose how much extra time you want to spend at the moment. There would be a meaningful quote that is meant to make you think about your time on earth and how you’re going to choose to spend your time.
At that point in time, that’s an honest decision. It’s not an honest bit of friction where you got a quick pop-up, “You spent the time. Do you want to go right back in? All right. Here you go.” It’s a sycophantic, “Don’t worry about it, keep going,” type of thing. There’s a big difference there. One of the values here is adaptability. You need to be equipped to choose for yourself so that you can start constructing a flow, a feed, and habits that are best for you, not what some advertiser or platform wants. You should be in control of yourself. We don’t have a system that does that now.
With Readocracy, we are trying to do that. One of the things that I’m probably the most excited about Readocracy, even as an idea beyond what it’ll be like to use it, is being able to burst people’s click bubbles. Can you imagine going into a feed and not only being asked, “What’s good for you? What’s bad for you? What do you want to try to do here? Let’s label things for you.” It has a ratio where 10% of what you see, 5% being deliberately picked to be the polar opposite of what you tend to be into.
It’s in a variety of perspectives like, “You tend to consume more artsy, creative stuff. Here’s something rational and science-based that will take you out of your thinking for a moment. You tend to be in this political affiliation. Here’s something from a credible source on the other side and being labeled as an opportunity.” We talk about freedom and the context of control. In the same way, these algorithms feed you whatever it takes to make you spend more time. They should be putting on a platter for you the opposite. “What can I do to help expand your thinking?” That would be a fantastic feed. That would be an algorithm that’s good for you, not for them.
Let’s talk about Readocracy. Readocracy has been your way of fighting back. Your brother’s the co-founder. That’s how you and I came to meet several months ago, and we’re incorporating it into a couple of different things. We’re incorporating it into the leadership development program that I’m running at Analytics. You, me, and Graham are going to roll this thing out and start doing some learning-based knowledge stuff for our readers here. I’m super excited about that. Talk about Readocracy. What’s the platform? What’s it doing?
Readocracy is exactly like our way of fighting back. I mentioned where our family comes from. It comes from what we’re trying to do. This is our systemic way of trying to do something that can scale that the everyday person, the everyday company, and the everyday media company touches all aspects of work media education in a lightweight way and makes how you inform yourself matter. Now, it doesn’t matter.
There’s that example. You spent three hours on a celebrity tablet clickbait or a bunch of amazing long-form content. Nobody’s there to reward you. There is no consequence. You got no metrics. You have your own guilt to rely on in terms of your decisions. Even then, like food, we don’t have the metrics. We don’t have much guilt anyways. It becomes pretty dangerous.
The idea of Readocracy is to make how you inform yourself matter, and being well-informed matters. We’ve made technology that essentially can tell if you’ve consumed a piece of content, and we’ll give you credit for consuming it. It matters what you consume. We’re plugged into multiple third-party databases that track misinformation and polarization. If you’re consuming stuff that is hyperpolarized or no one consistent source of misinformation, you can sort it to your account, but you won’t get the credits towards that subject. We’re not the arbiters of truth. I mentioned transparency, so being able to check on that is important.
You go around spending the time you would normally spend on all the articles you read and YouTube videos you watch. You can add books to it, podcasts, papers, at least hours you spend like thirteen hours a day with media. At the very least, on a normal day, it’s like three hours. It’s taking that and turning it into something without you having to do almost any work. First of all, you can take the best of it and turn it into essentially an intellectual portfolio that lets you prove to the world how committed and credible you are on any subject.Some of the biggest trolls are the ones who care the most about censorship. Click To Tweet
It’s a development of thought leadership and also saying like, “I’m more than my degree or my last job. I’m not narrow. I’m committed and up-to-date.” You get this fantastic page that is a knowledge profile. It’s designed so that it embeds everywhere you are. At every touch point, you can show the world that you’re committed, smart, and always learning. It embeds in LinkedIn to upgrade your LinkedIn. It can upgrade your resume if you want, Twitter profile presentations, you name it.
You get this thing that is quantifying, data-driven, verified, presenting all your learning and your notes that you feel comfortable sharing in a way that like you barely have to change your habits at all. Privately, it is a different way of making how you inform yourself count. We quantify it so that nobody else can see it, except you. You get insights that are like a Fitbit or a WHOOP for your information diet.
Out of the consumption that you’re doing, you can start seeing hidden patterns of influence and the mood that’s coming out. How might it be affecting your mood? How is your political bias shifting? How is your cultural bias shifting? What are the authors or subjects? How are things clustering? How are you giving the type of focus you give? You see it being presented to you. It makes how you inform yourself count in a variety of ways. You have the psychological component. It’s been fascinating how many of our users come back to us and say, “I change how and what I consume,” not even because of the credits you get.
Readocracy gives these credits on these subjects you consume. Your credits are rising, and you start ranking up. Knowing that those insights are there is like knowing that you’re going to be forced to look in the mirror. Nobody else can see it. It’s just for you. Knowing that’s there in the back of your mind, it’s the same way as having like a step tracker or doing calorie counting. You’re going to change your behavior.
That’s been interesting to see how consistently that affects people. The other way of making how we inform ourselves matter is you have to go get a degree or certificate to make being informed matter. All these hours we spend on our own time are worthless. In terms of tangible output, they’re valuable, but not anything to present. Making that presentable equates to your respect in society. It equates to helping boost your economic mobility. That’s how Readocracy is making highly informed yourself matter.
Lastly, we, as media partners, are starting to do comment sections where you can only access them if you’ve done the required reading or viewing. Comment sections, Twitter threads, Discord, or Slack where the top-ranked person replying isn’t the person who got the most likes. It might be, but it also equally takes into account how well-informed the person is on the subject they’re talking about. Can you imagine the internet like that?
It’s a breath of fresh air. The people leaving terrible, useless comments get filtered out, and sanity is returned. These are the ways at a systemic level Readocracy is doing. It stands for reading times meritocracy and sustaining democracy like a functioning world. That’s Readocracy in a nutshell, whether you use it individually or as an organization that wants to invest in your people, or as a media company that feels like it should matter that your readers are getting value out of your content. You want the right people to engage who care.
I like the individual aspect of it, too. When you look at it organizationally or as a team, it’s the ability to share and create collections. When you create collections, you can create a bank of thought leaders, which then drives discussion and discourse. That’s where it starts to have an aggregating effect across the organization. Not only are you focused on individual leaders and how do I, as a chief people officer, work with these individuals on the development of their own skills through knowledge-based learning. How do I now share that and build that across leadership and a management team? We are baselining our common set of knowledge and upskilling everybody in a platform that is much more dynamic than a standard learning management system.
The main difference is acknowledging and accepting the fact that we’re in a knowledge economy where identity is important, and people are increasingly atomized. We’re not operating 40 or 50 years ago where a company is the be all and end all. People are little cogs in the machine. Increasingly, people have agency and identity. In a lot of ways, what happened with journalism is a parallel to what we’re seeing with knowledge workers. You had journalists who were high profile, being, “You’re not going to recognize me. You’re not going to meet a proper platform. You’re going to pay me right. I’m going to go set up a newsletter and make my money on sub stack or whatever it might be.”
Now, it’s going the other way. When they do rejoin the big publishing, whatever’s left in terms of media, they’re given a bigger platform. They are featured, like one of our feature thinkers. They’ll accept that you have a dedicated newsletter on the side within the confines of the silo. You can do that. It’s the same thing with knowledge workers. Over 80% of knowledge workers are open to becoming freelancers. People are job-hopping every two years. How do you create a system which doesn’t say, “You’re going to learn here? I’m going to tell you what you should learn. If you leave, what you learn here is going to transport with you to the rest of your career.” That’s it.
We don’t care about that. Having a system that is flipped upside down and says, “We’re investing in how you look and your brand. You decide what learning is. We’re going to mix in with it. I’m going to work together here.” That’s a different notion of learning. In an organization, I’m learning about the knowledge economy in general, when we mix individual professionals and organizations that bring them together.
Are we at the bottom? Is there further to fall?
I’m optimistic because we’re probably near the bottom. There are enough mainstream awareness and enough people chipping away at the problem. There are enough good benchmarks starting to happen around regulation. I’m hopeful that gradually, we’re going to start moving up in a good direction. I am worried about what would be possible in terms of the big topics that have been captivating everybody when we talk about the metaverse and everything crypto and deciding what the future of the internet is going to be.
Web3 is not a new term. It has existed for a while. It meant the future of the internet, things that are healthier, and different ideas for it. When you ask, “Are we at the bottom?” my concern is that people come forward saying, “We’re going to have better internet. This is it. We’ve got the solution.” They convince enough people to buy into a vision and an infrastructure that is just papered over a convoluted version of the same crap in a different way that can be exploited.
When you look at Facebook investing heavily in virtual reality in the idea of the metaverse, a wonderful outcome of this would be them saying, “Our whole thing was connecting people. That’s what we claimed our mission was. It’s about connecting community and families. We’re going to use virtual reality to help a grandma in Romania connect with her grandson as if they’re both sitting in a cafe in Paris feeling high fidelity and how magical that would be. We’re bringing people together, friends across the world in this beautiful world.” That’s awesome. You can charge me for that. I make lots of money.
Meta can sit there and be like, “We’ve decided that we made our whole value as a company on advertising and stealing people’s eyeballs and polarizing the world.” They’re not sitting and necessarily saying that exactly. There was a deliberate point, but they accepted it. We’re going to use virtual reality as the ultimate evolution of attention to real estate.
When you can capture people because they’re in headsets and in spaces and can’t escape, we can track eyeballs because it’s built into the device. There’s a dystopian place we can go to, which would get a lot creepier. It’s a matter of whether we’re going to accept it. In the beginning, I posed it to you and to everybody, “Are we going to accept that this is the reality we have or that it can get that much uglier and that it’s necessary?” This is a natural evolution of the internet. It’s ugly. It can only be some shade of ugly or can it be a lot better? It can. How are we going to make that possible? I’m optimistic that we’re moving in the right direction.
As we close out, the Jedburghs had to do three things, these core foundational tasks. You could call them habits if you want. They had to do three things every day in order to be successful. They had to be able to shoot, move, and communicate. If they did these three things with the utmost precision, their energy, their focus could be focused on other things, more complex challenges that came their way. What are the three things that you do as core foundational tasks every day to be successful in your world?
I make sure that I maintain my curiosity. I’m fearful of losing this as I get older, but I try to invest in things that make me think at 90-degree angles, orthogonally about problems so that I’m equipped to see problems differently and have that advantage. It also brings delight to my life. That’s one thing. It helps me operate at a different level.
The second thing is maintaining my calm, whether that’s practicing mindfulness as much as possible. Even with Readocracy, we’re trying to build and incorporate that into every aspect, including my media diet, which is important to me. Lastly is physically how I take care of my health as a founder. This is always an uphill battle that I am not going to pretend I’m excellent at.
At the very least, as a good Canadian, I play hockey twice a week. That’s important to me. Getting that physical exercise has a meaningful impact on how I operate the rest of the week. It gives me the clarity of my thought and the energy I have. Going beyond that, I’m trying to get daily exercise in, but at least something more extended. Those are the three things that are important to me, but number one would be how you maintain, elevate, prioritize curiosity, and sparks of thought at the forefront of things.
I’ve never heard the term, to think at 90-degree angles. Maintain curiosity, think at 90-degree angles, maintain your calm, take care of yourself, and play hockey. Curiosity is one of our nine characteristics as defined by Special Operations Forces for elite performance. Emotional strength is another. Your second one ties closely into emotional strength. How do we maintain our common chaos? We talked about these nine, drive, resiliency, adaptability, humility, integrity, curiosity, team ability, effective intelligence, and emotional strength.
In order to be a high performer, you have to exhibit all nine of these, never at one time. It depends on the situation you’re in. As a founder, you take care of yourself. That is the ultimate exercise, mentally, emotionally, and physically of having a balance of these nine, especially when you’ve taken on a tall order. We talk about social impact, the drivers that influence social impact, and information in the media. How people consume information sits at the top of that list.
At the end of these episodes, I take what I sum up as 1 or 2 of these that define my guest. You took one from me in curiosity. I like emotional strength but I had a curiosity for you. When we deal with information, finding new solutions, and challenges to complex situations that sit in our world, it comes down to curiosity. We have to be willing to ask the hard questions, challenge the status quo, and see things in a different light at that 90-degree angle in order to find a solution that is innovative and long-lasting. That’s important.
The other one that I had for you here was integrity and doing what’s right. How do we create an environment that allows us our basic rights and freedom to express our opinion, and speak our minds? There is integrity around doing what’s right to understand what is being fed to us, and how we consume information.
Freedom and integrity are closely aligned because it’s about doing what’s right. If you do what’s right, you can be free. Your mind is free. Your body is free. Emotionally, you’re free if you do what’s right. How do we create an information environment that allows us to exercise that freedom with integrity? That’s the question that you’ve posed to me as we’ve got to know each other over the last few months. I look forward to continuing to work with you. Thanks for taking some time out of your trip here in New York to sit down with me. I’m thankful to have had this conversation and enjoy the rest of your trip.
Thank you so much for having me. This is awesome. I love the conversation. I’m glad we could connect while I’m here in New York.
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