May 7 2014, 3:45pm CDT | by Forbes
The Los Angeles Times just updated the design of its online edition. One of the new features is called “sharelines,” and it’s basically summaries appearing at the top of articles that readers can click on to instantly tweet out. Even the editor’s super-succinct note introducing the changes begins with three of these talking points!
While this exercise in concise craftsmanship is informative and user-friendly, it’s also got disconcerting overtones. Seen in the larger context of technological development, it’s a wakeup call to examine how often we’re being asked to outsource labor at the expense of living up to our potential.
Look, the modification is easy to appreciate. Readers today share stories before they even read them! So, if a glance is all it takes to socially signal interest, placing sharelines at the very beginning of each piece makes lots of sense.
And, yes, this modification capitalizes on established habits rather than taxing us to step outside of our comfort zones and create new ones. Reader’s have grown accustomed to effortlessly clicking buttons to blast the titles of stories across social media, as well as pre-selected lines that journalists or editors highlight as evocative content.
I’m not proud to admit it, but I’ve even deliberately constructed sentences with an eye towards making them titillating to tweet. Much like SEO optimized headlines, this manipulation is hard to avoid in age of information abundance. At least that’s my go-to rationalization. How else could I sleep at night?
But with each new addition to the spectrum of possibilities for offering frictionless testimonials, readers are encouraged to believe that letting other people do their thinking is a normal and desirable occurrence. Why decide what’s worth saying when you can save time and energy by outsourcing that judgment?
With sharelines readers are confronted by code that’s designed to capitalize on inertia and encourage the spread of generic summary over thoughtful personal assessment. Beyond the bias of favoring description over critique, there’s also an element of deception in play. The externally created tweets look as if individuals authentically generated them. Because there’s no officially recognized violation of public trust occurring, faux expressions of considered reflection aren’t stamped as pre-packaged, ventriloquized goods.
Critics will say my concerns are overblown since the marketplace of ideas will sort things out. After all, nobody is forced to use sharelines. Every time you send one, you’re making a choice to be lazy. If the choice turns out to be a poor one, you’ll get negative feedback. People might ignore your bland feed. Maybe you’ll lose followers.
And, of course, plenty of opportunities still exist for readers to get actively involved with the stories they want to discuss. In many cases, you can still leave comments at the bottom of an online article. You even can have a productive dialog with folks on Twitter who end up reading something that your disseminated shareline brought to their attention.
While there’s truth to this rebuttal, broader trends suggest it is an incomplete account, and that important questions are getting lost in the shuffle. What values does code reinforce when it mediates how we think, act, and communicate? Are the algorithms and layouts (what nudge theorists call “choice architecture”) that we confront daily inspiring us to be independent and conscientious thinkers—folks who take time and put in effort before coming to conclusions about what matters and why? Or, are our intermediaries increasingly encouraging us to go on autopilot in situations where time is on our side, leaving the hard but morally and cognitively meaningful work to others?
When seen in isolation, the shareline update appears to be nothing more than a harmless tool for broadcasting what we’re reading, considering reading, or believe others should think we’re reading. But that’s how innovation transforms society without us appreciating the full extent of each change. Sadly, a little outsourcing here and there can go a long way.
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