Engagement Trap: Why Content Quality Matters

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This post is a reaction to the notion of “content trap” http://www.thecontenttrap.com/, avalanche of click-baiting links now spottable even in more respectable media outlets and the whole idea of focusing on capturing attention at the expense of neglecting the underlying content to the extreme. Here we will try to rectify some of the misconceptions and show that, not surprisingly, content is always important, no matter what medium it is communicated through.

As of late the ubiquity of different information channels, the ease with which information proliferates through them, and the abundance of the available information itself have made the attention of the potential recipients all the more valuable.

For a publisher of information this means competing with many other publishers over the scarce attention of their target audience. For consumers of the produced information on the other hand it often leads to being overwhelmed with the streams of data that try to reach them from all the possible directions.

This leads to a paradox: when information is more abundant it becomes harder, not easier to retrieve just the right kind of information that one may be looking for. And it is also harder to make sure that high quality information reaches its intended audience as now it may easily be drowned in a sea of irrelevant content. For producers it therefore becomes harder to be heard and noticed. For consumers of information it is now more difficult to concentrate their precious attention on the information that is really worth it and discern whether the content that reaches them is true or useful in the first place. Probably almost everybody can relate to this problem from their own personal experience of endless click-baiting Web links that pop-up on their radar every day.

The phenomenon when abundance of information leads to the degradation of its average quality and less efficient communication between its producers and consumers is not just limited to news sites or the Web. The exact same dynamic can be observed in the book publishing industry, TV, and academic setting. The rapid increase in the amount of information, the speed and ease with which it spreads all seem to be inherent in the modern technological civilization itself and inevitably lead to the aforementioned paradox.

What is even more interesting, is that this explosion of information did not even start with computers and Internet like some might be inclined to think. In fact, probably the first invention on the path to make information more abundant and accessible was the introduction of the first writing system long before the first computers appeared. Ever since then the present discussion remained relevant.

Nowadays many seem just to embrace the brave new world of online noise and distraction shortened to messages under 255 symbols each as something inevitable and even claim that what really matters is not content itself, but ‘engagement’, ‘clicks’ and ‘experience’, meaning how long somebody would pay attention to a given source of information and in what exact way. Content therefore becomes pushed into the background and is not considered to be as important compared to the manner or timing of its presentation. Somehow in this simplified view the attention and time spent by the target audience, and not the utility gained both by the producer and consumer of information become important.

Have we started valuing presentation more than content? Or appearance more than substance? Does clicking through a dozen of “10 things you cannot miss that change everything and whoever did it is a genius” or completing another “Financial management of big data mobile machine learning blockchain” course deliver a lot of utility for both the publisher and the consumers of the information? The answer to these questions is often a resounding “no”.

Those who claim that digital technologies and the Web radically change everything are really missing the point. The dynamic of making information and knowledge more accessible to ever broader audiences has been here already for thousands of years, and to suggest that somehow this particular moment of time at which we happen to live now is very different and special may be a bit arrogant and ignorant. In many ways it is indeed special, but we should not miss the obvious commonalities with the past and should always try to see things in a much longer perspective than our personal experience would normally allow. Surprisingly often things do not change all that much with the passage of time, they just tend to take on different forms and manifest themselves in new ways.

What really actually always has mattered and really still matters in the end, is the mutual utility derived from the engagement and information exchange. Be it a product bought after seeing a relevant ad, acquired knowledge, payment for a subscription or giving relevant or useful data back in return. The gained utility is the most important thing to note and understand when analyzing information exchange as opposed to just taking into account the expenditures incurred by one of the participating parties (such as attention and time spent). Of course, the really difficult and challenging problem now is how to measure this utility and optimize for its increase, but a more detailed discussion of this topic will be left outside of the scope of the present short post.

In fact one the greatest inventions on the Web: search engines, tries to address exactly the same problem of information quality and relevance. The sheer volume of utility derived by a search engine from routing users to the content that gives them most value and in turn routing advertisers to those users who may be slightly more interested in their products shows how real the problem of irrelevant low-quality information is and how valuable solving it can be.

Unsurprisingly content quality and relevance still mean and will probably always mean a lot, so the old traditional news sites, radio, TV, educational institutions and book publishers will not be out of business in any foreseeable future just yet as long as they continue to provide high quality content. Content matters in itself, not just some particular channel or a peculiar way in which it is communicated. Content can and should certainly be appealing and presented in an engaging manner friendly to the recipient, however, there is really no substitute for content’s quality. Just increasing the number of channels through which content is communicated will not automatically increase the gained utility from the information exchange as long as the target audience has already been reached, although it may indeed capture more attention. Similarly just the number of links in a social network does not matter as much as the total quality and utility of these links, i.e. the network itself.

While we are still searching for better ways to increase utility from interactions with the deluge of information surrounding us both as its producers and consumers, we probably can still provide a few basic hints on how to deal with the increased amount of low-quality content from the consumer’s point of view:

  • Try to focus on the information that you really need, avoid information sources that try to capture your attention all too obviously (for example, click-baiting links on news sites)
  • Consider valuing high quality information sources more and giving them preference
  • Use filtering and try to limit the background noise and irrelevant information, ‘blacklist’ bad sources and ‘whitelist’ the good ones based on your previous experience
  • Ask the question “What is the utility gained from giving my attention to this particular piece of information?”
  • Focus. Consider periodically shutting down access to sources of information and working with the already received information in isolation in order to reduce distractions and make sure that there is enough attention for the information that requires it most at a particular moment
  • If some piece of information is still relatively hard to find, try skimming through the available information sources quickly and study the sources deeper only when they seem to be really worth your attention

Hopefully these tips will help your manage your most precious resource: attention and the post itself will also make us think more about substance rather than appearance and the importance of content quality.

Illustration: Kish tablet image as provided by Ashmolean museum for Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kish_tablet