Against trendism: how to defang the social media disinformation complex

John Ohno
4 min readApr 1, 2018

There’s an essential mistake that almost every social media platform makes — one inherited from marketing (where it makes some sense), and one that is mostly unexamined and unaccounted-for even in otherwise fairly socially-conscious projects like Mastodon and Diaspora. In almost every one of these systems, incentives exist that confuse popularity with value.

I call this ‘trendism’ — the belief that an already-trending topic deserves to be promoted.

In marketing, because the piece of information being spread is intended to sell a product, the spread of that information is, in fact, theoretically proportional to its value. In social media, the information being spread is not a piece of advertising, and while most of these systems have revenue models based on advertising, that advertising is generated on the fly based on the viewer’s browsing history and has nothing to do with the content of the piece of information being spread.

The thing is, ideas travel in packs. When we encounter one idea, we tend to see its nearest neighbours also. When we find out something new, our friends hear about it too. So, trending posts are rarely surprising: by the very nature of their popularity, they are already familiar in their essence to most of the people who are directed toward them.

The information content of a message, in Claude Shannon’s formulation, is proportional to its deviation from expectation — information is surprise…

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John Ohno

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net