On Audience Capture

When I first started writing the Weekly Thing the email service showed me two reports that I knew I didn’t want to see. The first was who opened the email, when, where, on what device, and how often. That was a clear violation of privacy. What business do I have knowing what you do in your mailbox? None. The second report was which links got clicked on the most. This caused me grave concern right away. I felt certain that knowing what links people clicked on would influence the content I wrote about each week. Even if I could somehow convince myself that I wouldn’t be influenced, how could I possibly prove that I wasn’t? Thankfully the service allowed me to turn off both of these capabilities.

The thing I was worried about was audience capture. Particularly with a project like the Weekly Thing, where I’m exploring the topics that are interesting to me and sharing that journey with others, audience capture has the potential to impact me as the author in ways that could change my journey and where my exploration took me.

[Audience capture] involves the gradual and unwitting replacement of a person’s identity with one custom-made for the audience. — The Perils of Audience Capture

I do many things to limit the amount of advertising I’m exposed to. I pay for ad free versions of services if I can. I run an ad blocker. Frankly I just limit the amount of advertising supported content that I’m exposed to. I also work hard to limit algorithmic promotion of content. Some of that is about protecting my privacy, but more important to me is protecting my liberty.

When I think of my liberty I’m considering the ability to act as I please, without constraint and on my own discretion. That last part is the one that I worry about in regard to advertising, or algorithms prompting me with information. It is also the primary concern about audience capture.

Captured by Analytics

The mechanics of audience capture on the web tend to start with analytics. We have analytics for nearly everything. All social media platforms show you analytics on your profile like the number of followers you have, as well as analytics on each item you share in the form of views, likes, shares, and more. I believe services have weaponized this, making analytics as addiction, and the same features open the door for getting captured by your audience.

This bit from the Waking Up podcast is what got my head spinning on this topic in the first place.

[27:01] “If I’m alert to anything, it is to not getting captured by my audience. If ever I were to find myself not wanting to say something for fear of how the audience will respond even though I think it’s true and important, that’s the thing I know I can’t do. There’s obviously a problem of audience capture in the podcasting and alternative media space. This is true wether one is getting support directly by subscription or donation, and it’s also true if you are running ads. And in several cases the evidence of audience capture is absolutely clear. There are people who’ve done 50 episodes more or less in a row on the same topic as though they had lost interest in every other thing on Earth. What’s going on there? There is some training signal coming from the audience, and almost certainly a bad economic incentive that is capturing that podcast host.” — Sam Harris, On Disappointing My Audience

That whole bit from Harris is compelling, but I bolded the key component that I think we need to be mindful of. The same way that we can train an algorithm given a data set and a target, we can also train people by giving them a training signal from the audience. That training signal is the stream of analytics.

I think you could take this further. Something akin to a principle or rule:

The more detailed metrics you have on an audience, the more likely you are captured by that audience.

The metrics provide a mirage of insight and influence. It “feels like” you are learning more about the audience, but you may be modifying yourself to fit the pattern of what you see in the data. Your audience engages a lot with this one topic? It seems far too likely that more of that will start appearing in front of you. In reality all of this data bends and shapes the creator to fit into the mold of their audience.

The opposite is also true. The fewer metrics you have, the less likely you are captured by your audience. I publish the Weekly Thing using Buttondown and I have no tracking of open rates or any links that people click on. Since I have no way of knowing what links people click on, I have no way of being captured going forward. I know that the next set of links I select are for sure not driven by what I think people will click on, since I don’t even know what people click on!

In general, as a creator, I think we need to be very cautious about what data we collect, and how we plan to use that. Don’t collect data unless you know how you are going to put it into action.

We all have an audience now

Audience capture is an interesting concept for people that publish things. Bloggers, podcasters, newsletter writers all have obvious audiences. But it no longer stops there does it? Thanks to social media services we all have an audience, in fact many audiences. You have a set of followers on Facebook, or Twitter, or LinkedIn. Those services give you many metrics about how your “followers” engage with the content you share. This is a perfect setup to be captured.

Much has been written about how social media damages discourse and how people do all of this performative dunking. Typically that is connected with the idea of eroding civility, or not knowing the person as a person but as just an avatar. But some of that performance could obviously be for your audience as well. And if the likes pile in the right way, the vicious cycle will continue. You become what your audience rewards. If you are in a room full of barbarians, be mindful of what they will reward!

As we ponder the challenges of social media, perhaps it is worth considering if we really need another audience — and if so, how will this audience influence us and impact our identity.

Captured Media

Audience capture is easy to personify in the form of a person, particularly an individual creating something. Clearly the activities of thousands of people in the audience can have impact on that one creator. However, I don’t see any reason that an audience can’t capture a brand or a company.

A company doesn’t have liberty or free will. So the capture of a company or brand is very different. In fact, many brands may want to be captured. That may be their ultimate goal. And for some there may be no downside to that. Harley Davidson is probably a better company if they are captured by their audience. They may call that customer obsessed!

But take a moment to think of media. Is media bias accurate? Or is it more accurate to say media is captured by their audience? This is a bit of a chicken and egg question, and perhaps the end result doesn’t really matter. But as we think of modern media organizations they tend to obsess about data. They have a never ending “training set” of data on what their audience likes. The smartest thing as a company may be to feed more content into that known topic. Repeat. More engagement. And magically audience capture.

Where this lands us may be no different than media bias, but it speaks to a totally different cure.

Media bias says that the actors in the media are intentionally biased to one perspective or another. Certainly true for some, but I don’t believe true for all. And I don’t know how you can fix that. Likely you just give up and say everything is biased. But if we frame this different and suggest that modern media has gotten itself trapped, captured by their audience, then the answer is pretty simple. Ditch the analytics. Stop telling the creators what the audience engages in. Starve them of that feedback loop and the capture will die away.

Kids with audiences

The last area of audience capture that I’ve been thinking about scares me the most. Most teenagers use some form of social media. They are acutely aware of their follower counts, likes, retweets, and whatever other feedback loops these platforms have. They have an audience, and that training set of data is coming right at them. Now, lets consider two things about this point in someone’s life:

  1. Most teenagers are working as hard as they can to fit in. To be part of the group. They may not be aware of audience capture, but they are seeking to be captured in the most desperate way.
  2. These same teenagers do not have a strong sense of self. They are in the act of defining that. Liberty, free will — these are new thoughts and they are building their identity as they go.

Adding an audience to a child that is still developing their own identity will forever alter that persons identity.

Yes, you could argue that there is nothing new here, this is just part of growing up and forming your identity. To an extent that is true. You maybe had an audience in Chemistry class that you performed for. You might have had a club that you connected with that was a form of audience. But not really. In-person groups are totally different. They are not an audience, they are friends and acquaintances. There is no training set here. You don’t get a data feed of likes and engagement scores at the end of the event. The performative behavior for an audience that social media enables is completely different.

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Thinking more concretely about audience capture highlights for me the importance of collecting very little data, and on platforms that you cannot opt out of it, try to avoid it at all costs. Want to know a shameful secret of mine? I take note of how many likes and retweets my content gets on Twitter. I’m not proud of it. I don’t know that it has changed what I write about, but I also don’t know that it hasn’t. That notifications section on Twitter is one of the things that makes me want to disengage from that platform.

I know there are certain topics that I blog about and mention in the Weekly Thing that are not popular. Some folks don’t like one topic or another. I know that because they have told me directly, not through analytics. That is fine, but I’m going to keep writing about whatever I want because I’m not selling a product to get maximum engagement. I’m sharing my journey of learning. And where that goes is only up to me. Liberty!

So ask yourself, are you captured? What audiences do you have? How are you protecting your liberty?

Jamie Thingelstad @jthingelstad

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