I’m going to start by talking about Facebook. And yes, like everyone else I’m going to complain.
These days, I feel like it consists of nothing but shares of barely-vetted political stories, clickbait outrage articles, and virtue-signalling groupthink. Even the “which Lord of the Rings character are you” quizzes have died out (I got Gandalf, by the way, obviously). Precious few people just talk about what they are doing, thinking, feeling, etc. In fact, the latest thing I’ve noticed is that if you actually want to SAY something and have it noticed against the background of article shares, you have to post it as a graphic or something with huge letters against a colored background.
That’s how much the signal-to-noise ratio has shifted – in order to make our individual voices heard above the background of other-people’s-opinions we shout at the top of our virtual lungs while holding up a giant sign. These days, time on Facebook feels like trying to catch up with an old friend while standing in between competing political protests.
Now I’m not the first one to point this out, and neither do I think these changes are limited to Facebook – it is just a good poster child to showcase the shift in online dialogue.
And now enough of that, for a moment.
As we’ve been breathing life back into my wife’s blog at Northwest Edible Life, I’ve been getting back to my old role of backend-administrator-and-traffic-analyst. In the eighteen months since we really paid attention to the blog, I’ve seen a couple of significant shifts in the nature of her blog traffic (and hold on, if you’re wondering where I’m going, this is going to connect up soon enough).
First off, the percentage of traffic coming from mobile devices is way up. In May of 2017, mobile (tablet and phone) traffic accounted for 66% of visitor sessions on Northwest Edible Life. Five years ago, in May of 2012, mobile traffic accounted for barely more than 25% of sessions and was, for a while, even scarcer than that. From one quarter to two thirds:
Secondly, the number of comments is way down. Now unfortunately it is a bit harder for me to get data on that – among other things we’ve changed some administrative details on the blog that have impacted comments. But, at the risk of mis-characterizing an observation as data, I’d say comment traffic may well be down by around half.
This morning, looking at some blog traffic data, several things hit me:
- More and more web browsing is done on mobile devices
- The environment in which much mobile web browsing is done isn’t necessarily the most conducive to careful analysis
- Typing long comments on a phone screen is, to put it mildly, a pain in the ass
- Simply forwarding on an article, post, etc. is, however, an easy way to stay “in the conversation”
Now by now this may be obvious by now, and maybe it was obvious to you months ago, but here’s what I’ve realized:
The changing demographic of web browsing from desktop to mobile is partially (and possibly significantly) responsible for the shifting nature of online dialogue.
Moreover what might the change in the demographics of those contributing to the discussion be, given the changing profile of web usage?
We’re fully into the realm of speculation here, but I can imagine that the “type” of person who still makes time to sit down with a full-size keyboard to read, consider, and comment is different from the type who gets their web fix in the breakroom or the playground or the checkout line. Feel free to speculate and indulge whatever stereotypes of web trolls you might have.
By raising the friction of joining the conversation, are also we pushing those comments to be more extreme? To only make it worth interacting when we’re so enraged, so passionate, that we’re willing to type two (or one) fingered on a feedback-less touchscreen?
Like many other longtime web denizens, I’ve noticed and oft lamented the perceived change in online dialogue. The rise of troll culture, the growth of groupthink, the self-reinforcement of “echo chamber” news, etc.
I’ve tended to think of this as a product of the growth and commercialization of the web and shifts in social dynamics in general, but perhaps there’s another ingredient to consider.