Skeptical Sharing, or Measure Twice, Share Once

My resolution this New Year was to eschew sharing artificially sweetened links from sites that rely on creating "viral" stories to make their nut.

So, no Buzzfeed, no Upworthy, no knock offs like Viralnova.

But the meteoric success of  Upworthy has unleashed a viral tide of more than just links- you can nearly chart the 'Upworthification' of the commercial internet in real time, as the herd stampedes in unison, goaded by the advertising windfall of their new clickbait overlord.

The format is so cloyingly simple you'd be hard pressed to tell the real thing from the output of this Upworthy Headline Generator, thrown together by a former Buzzfeed employee (Buzzfeed also compared Upworthy to an internet chain letter in an article powered by that most ancient of environmentally friendly fuels, smoldering jealousy).

But stuff like This Teenager Took A Stand for Nachos and You Won't Believe What Happened Next are just the obvious tip of the 'thank you for not sharing' iceberg- easily spotted, easily avoided.  A less obvious but extremely common tactic mostly employed by 'legitimate' sites is running a misleading headline that appeals to a social prejudice, like this one from the staid Psychology Today:

Why Is Narcissism Increasing Among Young Americans?

You start off knowing the sources demographics skew older, made clear by the fact that they still put out a magazine, of all the quaint things.  And "kids today are lazy, self-involved and no good!" has been a popular lament since the dawn of the written word.  As Socrates once said,
Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.

So I'm pretty sure I know what's up when this link floats down my timeline, but I clicked just to make sure.

It starts off with wasting space defining terms.  It doesn't quite quite sink to the level of "Websters Dictionary defines 'narcissism' as...." but it skirts closer to that verge than any author with a PhD should.  Shortly thereafter...yep, there it is- "Kids today are no good, and should also get off my lawn, and also hippies and their filthy SELF ESTEEM are to blame for everything!"

Some of the speculation has centered on the misguided “self-esteem” movement that began to take shape in the 1980s.[4.]  Parents, teachers, and others involved with children were advised to build up children’s self-esteem through frequent praise.  Many parents, especially, began telling their children how beautiful, smart, and generally wonderful they are, or began bragging about their kids to others in front of them. 
Because obviously things were SO MUCH BETTER back in the author's day, when everyone told kids to STFU and slapped them around to keep them in their place.

Then we get to the 'misleading' part:

Over the years, these questionnaires have been administered to many samples of COLLEGE STUDENTS, and analyses that bring all of the data together reveal that the average narcissism score has been steadily increasing and the average empathy score has been steadily decreasing ever since the questionnaires were developed [3.] 

emphasis mine.

Now, I was assured that YOUNG AMERICANS were suffering this epidemic of narcisissm.
Turns out that to whatever extent this is a real thing it's affecting college students, which are a very particular subset of "young Americans".

Pressed for an explanation other than "KIDZ TODAY ARE TEH SUX!", the author posits this theory (which conveniently dovetails with the subject of his recent book):

Another possible culprit, which makes even more sense to me, is the increased pressure on children and adolescents to achieve, where achievement is defined as beating others in competitions.[5.]  When achievement is defined as getting the best grades in school, getting into the best college, winning individual sporting competitions, and the like, then the focus of thought is on the self and others are seen as obstacles, or as people you must defeat, or as people you must manipulate to serve your ends.  If the purpose of a child’s life is to build a strong résumé, as many parents seem to believe, then, of course, the child is going to grow up “looking out for number one” and not have much time or concern for others.  In these conditions young people might volunteer for causes that will look good on a résumé, but not take time to help others purely out of compassion, where it will not show up on a résumé.

Huh.  You don't say.
And what did you say the subjects of this survey were?
Oh, college students?
Who you'd expect to be pursuing the best grades in school and attempting to get into the best possible school?
Those people?


Hey, while we're pulling theories out of our ass to explain why maybe college students have to be more selfish and competitive if they want to get into college these days, I've got one:

As tuitions skyrocket, federal loans dwindle and predatory private lenders invade the market college is increasingly the province of the financially well off.  An increase in the narcissism of college students would seem to have a farily simple explanation- a pool of students with fewer 'regular' people and more scions of wealth and privilege = a student body more subject to narcissism.

Which is probably a load of horseshit, but a class-based conclusion makes more sense to me than the shallow maundering of our PhD pundit.

My point is this:

Be skeptical of what you share.
 The impulse is to share something you run across that confirms your prejudices or expectations, i/e Kids Today Suck, My Generation Ruled.   You run across something that sounds like it's interesting or worthwhile, maybe you give it a quick scan, or it's from a source you trust, so you pass it along. I'm as prone to this as anyone, although I'm trying to improve.  Sharing is terrific- much of my amusement/enlightenment on any given day comes from perusing stuff people have shared on FB or Twitter.

And it almost doesn't what the signal to noise ratio is- I'm capable of being a discerning consumer.  With the narcissism link I was 99% sure it was just a variation on You Damn Kids With Your Smartphones And Hippity-Hop Music! and could easily have not clicked it.

But if we all spent a bit more energy vetting our shares, *everyone* would benefit.  Better sharing makes for a better internet generally, a better Facebook, a better Twitter.  Bringing an editing eye to the stuff you pass on has a ripple effect, improving the feeds of all your friends.

Start with the easy part, cutting out Upworth and Buzzfeed, and then maybe work on the stealthier forms of clickbait.  It's like a social media Neighborhood Watch- everyone looking our for everyone else's feed.

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