The Piano Playing Cat Paradigm
What's the common point between Youtube's future tools for serendipity-based browsing, and the social browser RockMelt?
Both were presented to the public sometime last October, and both presentations humorously featured the infamous Youtube piano-playing-cat video as the archetypical example of the sort of content that we users like to discover and share out there.
Now that's just an example. What's a bit more striking than the piano-playing-cat reference is the overall pointlessness of the social sharing and content exploring featured in both presentations. If I were to judge from the kind of product pitch I come across every week, I would say that startups and big companies alike are currently devoting their energy to engineering the technological solutions for a world even more cluttered with useless garbage coming from your friends and from automated recommendations. Garbage that is "fun". Isn't that exciting?
“ Startups and big companies alike are currently devoting their energy to engineering the technological solutions for a world even more cluttered with useless garbage coming from your friends and from automated recommendations. Garbage that is "fun".
Think about your Facebook feed. Whoever you are, there's a good chance that it looks like an endless list of pointless notifications and status updates that take more time to read than they took to think out. Mine certainly does.
How much of it is genuine, fulfilling social interaction, and how much is meaningless button-clicking? How much of the shared content is stuff that you will be actually glad to have found? How much will you even remember by the next morning?
As of now Facebook users are spending over 11 billion hours on Facebook in a month
. If you think about it, that is a lot of human time. It takes 10 hours to complete a detailled digital painting. It takes 10,000 hours to code a new OS from scratch. It takes 10,000,000 hours to build a moon rocket. It probably took less than 100 hours to make to first version of the Facebook, which is the time an above-average user spends on the site over four or five months. Double that and you get the time you would need to, say, write a novel, or get a basic working knowledge of Japanese.
To make a gross approximation based on the average hourly wage in the US
, people's time on FB is worth $2,926 billion a year. That is more than the GDP of my country, which is the 5th highest out there.
Facebook has already eaten a large part of the lives of its users, purely and simply, with no returns whatsoever for them, not even social nor emotional ones. And it's not on its way to stop. I wouldn't want to sound dramatic, but let's face the obvious question: are friend-feeds and piano-playing-cat videos the best use of our time on earth? And I'm not talking about building rockets, or about money. I'm talking about the intellectual, cultural and social value that our interactions could generate during our time online if the network organization were adequate. I'm talking about how much more exciting our lives could become if our daily use of the Internet were to switch from a mere struggle against boredom to constructive sharing, discovering and building.
The Internet, today, is a major distraction. I feel that the time-eating, brain-numbing user-generated-content catalogue it has for the most part become is not really the best thing we could have made out of it. If the Internet made it as easy, from a psychological perspective, to spend an evening working productively on some awesome and highly-motivating personal project, than to spend an evening watching "great" Youtube videos
or beating your friends' score at Bejeweled
, I think you too would choose the first option every single time. You and everyone. If only because it would be overwhelmingly more "fun" and personally fulfilling. Not to mention, actually productive and materially beneficial on the long run.
Now I'm not saying that the entire Internet is a waste of users' time. There are many places of constructive exchange and productivity, even learning, on the Web. If I were to speak for myself, a lot of what I have learned to this day I taught it to myself on the net. I would go as far as saying that everything that I truly know comes from self-teaching, and that the Internet was in nearly every case the trigger and the ladder. Everything that went into the making of this article, for instance, is brought to you by the Internet. Up to my knowledge of English.
Bill Gates famously stated at the Techonomy conference last August that five years from now, the best education will come from the web.
And I think that's true. It's not just TED and the MIT OpenCourseWare, which are after all merely one-way and with little to no interactions between users, nor feedback. It's also peer-powered projects such as the mighty Wikipedia. And importantly, the myriad of creative communities out there, where people exchange inspiration, motivation, and technical knowledge regarding their content-production endeavors, and team up for the sake of still greater projects. Synergy is the key – a key both psychological and technical.
Right now we're living on a humanity-sized network where the most pointless activities are neighbors to the most exciting possibilities. The thing is, we humans are capable of the worst as well as the best. Enhanced interactions between larger and larger groups of individuals –and with the contents they generate– has had the obvious result of empowering every side of human activity –that is "collective intelligence effect". Including the regrettable sides. After language, books, and so on, the Internet is now the "new" paradigm of interpersonal communication, and these days, though it saddens me to say, it tends to be used rather for collective stupidity than collective intelligence.
But don't go believing that mutually wasting our friends' time and potential –as well as ours– is our natural way of interacting with others and with the world. It's not. Let me stress this one point : our use of the Internet is conditioned by its infrastructure. By the underlying logic of current social networks and browsing tools.
“ Our use of the Internet is conditioned by its infrastructure. By the underlying logic of current social networks and browsing tools.
And today this infrastructure seems to be implementing what I call the "piano-playing-cat paradigm". With its lack of semantic integration, its fragmentary nature and –most of all– its focus on viewcount-based popularity, it tends to favor content that is short, obvious, and that is "fun". Fun in the piano-playing-cat sense. Because this fun factor tends to attract users' attention, and attention is the Internet currency. Nicely done, Facebook.
And this is not just about what sort of content is being shared the most –though it is content that will, ultimately, define the user's worldview and intelligence. It's also about what possibilities users have to interact so as to synergetically produce new and exciting content. And so far? They've hardly had any. Wikis and 2001-type forums are still the "best" tools for collective building. How sad is that?
I have this vision of an open Web of incredible contents, structured as a human mind, where serendipity would induce guidance rather than confusion. A web where users would be inspired by each other, motivated by each other, educated by each other, and working together to achieve their personal dreams. A web where productivity would become the easiest and most enjoyable thing. A web where social interaction would be more real than ever, centered on genuine sharing rather than empty button-clicking. A web where our interests would move away from piano-playing-cats and to more fulfilling endeavors and content consumption.
A cognitive social web
Perhaps you will object to this vision, "That's unrealistic. If the Youtube-type fun factor has been privileged so far, it is simply because that's what users really seek. It attracts attention because it's the best at attracting attention. There's nothing you can do about that". Let me disagree. If there's one thing I understood from investigating developmental psychology, it's that the human brain is not wired to enjoy piano-playing-cat videos above everything else. Productivity, creativity and curiosity may well be the most powerful attention-capturing assets that we tool-makers will ever have at hand. And when attention is a currency, the cognitive social web is the 100-dollar- bill printer.
“ The human brain is not wired to enjoy piano-playing-cat videos above everything else. Productivity, creativity and curiosity may well be the most powerful attention-capturing assets that we tool-makers will ever have at hand.
We are currently knee-deep in the piano-playing-cat paradigm, and that's a bit too bad. Time to reverse the trend?