The Data Male

The title is a play on words from the analogy of the supposed hierarchy structures of wolf packs with alpha males, beta males, and omega males where roughly speaking the alpha males lead the pack and get first choice of resources, the beta males are cooperative and share resources more equitably, and the omega (or some other greek letter) males are simultaneously rebellious and scorned.

In earlier posts, I have thought about the recent phenomena of the growing non-participation of working age adults, and men in particular.   The lack of participation span many areas including holding jobs, consuming products, and starting or maintaining families.   These may be inter-related, such as the choice not to participate in the work force will diminish the opportunity to consume or attract relationships.

I’ve read many explanations of this, including those that propose other greek letter designations of wolves with different qualities, as well as the relatively recent term known as MGTOW or men going on strike.   While the descriptive value of these new labels or terms is limited, the discussions under titles using these terms are interesting even if unconvincing.

The real motivation for coining a new term comes from a completely different concern and that is the recent coarsening of public dialog and the escalation of physical confrontation over ideas.   The frequent explanation is that it is fallout of the results of the recent US election where there is more division to demonize the various sides.   Initially, there was the focus on the influence of the alternative right (alt-right) on nudging Trump into an electoral win.   The highly energetic promotion of this characterization led to reactionary characterization of that side, with the extreme being called antifa, but more generally gets the mirror-image term of alt-left or more comically the ctrl-left.    All of this seems to me to be a misunderstanding or a simplification that overlooks the key factor why there is an increased need for side-taking.

I favor the analogy others have made where the current debate is similar to the earlier “gamergate” controversy and the more recent events occurring within Google, its staff, and its customers.   In particular, I’m referring to a renaissance of honesty in terms of expressing individual deep opinions and thoughts about a wide range of topics.

This unleashing of voices has been made possible by the social-media generation of the Internet.   Earlier Internet was concentrated on sharing of data, with an emphasis on linking of qualified data such as lab data, peer-reviewed theories, or closely edited journalism.

The emergence of social media grew quickly initially to share less weighty topics such as home videos or videos of various forms of play or recreation.   This mirrored the popularity of televised reality-TV shows.   There was an audience of the every-day experiences of others.  At the same time, the technologies removed the barrier of entry for creating and distributing new content.   A large portion of the population began spending time in watching what a large portion of people were up to.   This was for entertainment purposes that may have started with amusing episodes such as the embarrassing “fail” videos but later devolved into everyday slice-of-life experiences recorded on the ever-present camera phones.

Social media released an opportunity for people to communicate with each other.   Such an observation is hardly a revelation since that was the stated intention of the platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, or WordPress.    What is surprising is what was being communicated.

People started expressing their opinions, and often very honestly and true to their real internal feelings and world-view.   By the very interactive-nature of social media, the more controversial or surprising opinions garnered more interactions (views, likes, comments) and consequently these interactions drove the content to the topic of recommended content lists.   The result is what we aptly call viral-content.

Frequently, viral content has some element of controversy that drives its engagement.   The evolution of the engagement may vary but it usually includes iterations of attacking the opinion and of defending the opinion.   Meanwhile, there are many times more views than there are interactions.   Social media expose people to the existence of opinions that they either had not considered or had not thought were permissible.   The viral aspect of the discuss delivered a more powerful message of there being a very large portion of the population that agrees or disagrees: the opinion is not isolated to some isolated individual.

Discovering the popularity of previously suppressed opinions is powerful enough but social media amplifies the impact by making available the personas of the authors of the content or of the responses.   People can check for other content by the authors, or they can check their public pages in Facebook, LinkedIn, or similar sites.   For the vast majority of viewers who do not directly interact, they will weigh the new ideas with there impression of the person behind the idea.    An idea that may initially seem wrong or inappropriate gains legitimacy when finding that the author is someone with likable qualities.    Similarly, an idea that one agrees with will be undermined when finding the promoter to have unlikable qualities.    In any event, new ideas are shared widely, opinions change, and more importantly the acceptability of expressing the ideas change.

We are collectively talking about a vast number of opinions that would not have been permitted in any public conversation a few years prior.   People are being persuaded by previously suppressed opinions, and they are encouraged to express their own honest opinions that they previously would not dare to admit.

More abstractly, this expansion of honest discussion is changing people’s ideas about what it means to like and to be liked.   Previously, the majority of the population sought a middle-ground stand on topics in order to have the least potential to offend anyone.

The old goal of being liked (or at least tolerated) by the widest population possible is now under assault both by the desire to be liked by people one likes but just happens to have an unexpected opinion, and by the desire to finally express one’s own honest opinion that may disappoint others.

In the past, we had a broad consensus about what is acceptable to discuss, with the consequence that we had stable political debates the argued around the edges of broadly accepted middle.   That discussion has been replaced with a large number of isolated discussions, each with its own range of opinions, but these discussions have little to no overlap.

The flaw in social media concept is the reality of the limitations of human attention.  People only have a certain amount of time in their lives to spend on ideas.   In contrast to the era before social-media, a time where the discussion involved variations of a single coherent consensus, today’s discussions involve variations of isolated and incompatible discussions.   Social media fractured the political conversations and most acutely in large diverse nations like the USA.

Some are describing the current environment of late summer of 2017 as the start of a new Civil War at least in cultural terms, but this is misleading because there is no way to separate the different sides by State boundaries.  In each State of the United States, neighbors are divided, coworkers are divided, and families are divided.   Indeed, even consumers buying the same content are divided by why they are buying it.

This is a very precarious time where one may have simultaneous confidence in both knowing a large number of people share his opinion and that nearly everyone standing nearby disagrees with that opinion.

Social media separates the public sphere of free speech from the public of proximity of physical contact.   Social media empowers people to speak their opinions but offers nothing in terms of physical protection from people with proximity to escalate the argument to assault or battery.

While people appreciate the discussion of topics they now want to discuss, there is a growing alarm at the breadth of topics that others are discussing.   In particular, that alarm is in the realization that the adherents of those objectionable ideas are physically nearby.

Consider waiting in a check-out line at a grocery store realizing the person in front and behind you are intently looking at their smart phones, possibly looking up results of some search, where that search may be of an image search of the person of whom they just snapped a picture.

The first amendment to US constitution guarantees free speech, but for most people of common standing, this meant speaking in close proximity to people who would know the speaker.  While some people may be provoked by the speech, it is highly likely there will be people nearby who can help in defense.   Also, in most cases such speech would most likely be some variation of topics already discussed in the same community.   The audience of the speech would be familiar with the topics and with the members of the various competing viewpoints.   Here, I am referring to people who are known only locally to nearby family, friends, and neighbors.

The actual amendment applied to more broader public speech where public figures may be completely rejected in some areas.   My impression is that most people did not seek celebrity status of being known in distant areas.   For these people, the first amendment gave them some comfort to express dissenting views but those views were naturally constrained by the range of topics discussed locally.   People may independently learn of new ideas of more distant areas, but those ideas would not get much traction because it is unlikely they will find any local person who would share an interest in discussing that topic.

Social media disrupts the concept of free speech by enabling deeply engaging discussions of particular topics exclusively with distant people, where those ideas could be reviled by everyone physically nearby.   The deep discussions make people more bold about expressing ideas in public, putting him at risk of broad rejection and attack by nearly everyone nearby.

In the 18th century, there were public figures who expressed ideas over wide areas including many areas where those ideas were strongly rejected.   Such people were public figures, making the choice to change from a private individual living in a small community to a public figure accessible to the broader population.  This choice came from a combination of personal ambition and of sufficient wealth to finance travel or publication.

Social media platforms very suddenly changed the environment of speech by eliminating the cost barrier of entry into the public sphere and by elevating the appeal of public attention.   An easy interpretation of the first amendment’s application to the social-media age is that many people are choosing to convert their private person to a more public person.   A public person is honest about expressing his opinions or of potentially controversial ideas that may benefit him.

The huge number of people making this choice to become public figures.  The normal balance of society was maintained by there being a relatively small fraction of the population having a public status.   The old economics of the marketplace of ideas had regulating mechanisms to limit the population of public individuals.  In steady state, a new public figure would have the effect of retiring a previously public figure.   In any case, the vast majority of the population remained private by carefully embellishing a consensus discussion with the slightest hint of contradictory internal beliefs.

Even today, I believe a large portion of the population prefers to remain as a private citizen in terms of expressing opinions.   They seek out a relatively peaceful life with the comfort that they are living in neighborhoods or working in jobs where opinions stay close to a broad consensus middle-ground where one knows how to engage comfortably with little risk of exposing internal thoughts that they know they can’t defend very well.

The current problem is that social media has greatly expanded the capacity for public people.   A much larger portion of the population seeks to replace their private status with a public status and social media allows them to do with with little cost.   In addition, the social media has a higher carrying capacity for public people by allowing everyone access to a global audience.    A public person needs only a few hundred followers or subscribers.

Even with a threshold audience for public person being several tens of thousands, there is room for thousands of times more public figures than what was possible before social media.   Consequently, it is much more likely that a neighbor, a coworker, or a family member is a public figure with an audience of thousands over the globe.

Before social media, most people never met a public person unless they expressly made the effort to attend an event for that public person.   Now, we can meet public people in our daily lives.   More specifically, it is impractical for us to change our daily lives to avoid a public person we prefer not to see.

It is in this context, I can understand the recent discussions of regulating speech in social media.   This is taking many forms ranging from blocking content, restricting it from search or recommendation results, or by banning content creators.   Many have described such mechanisms as censorship and there is a debate about whether this should be considered an infringement of free speech rights.  In contrast, there is an argument that this is answering market demands: both by advertisers who want to avoid controversies that can harm their brand, and by customers who are alarmed by the local proximity to disagreeable opinions.

Because social media is automated to begin with, it is impractical to implement old-fashion censorship by human approval.   To accomplish the same goal, engineers have to develop new algorithms to automate the censorship.   Such algorithms are a combination of machine intelligence and of analytics of organic human interactions such as user reporting, like/dislike ratios, sentiment analysis of content or of comments, etc.   In any event, the algorithms need development by software engineers especially in the area of data science.

While the data science field is open to all, it is dominated by male developers (or scientists, if you prefer).   These men are the alpha males of the social media age, at least in the sense of having control over the allocation of the resource of access to social media.   These workers are mostly invisible to the public.   Even within the organizations where they work, they may not be easily identified because of the abstract distance between the mechanics of an algorithm and the impact it has on what is available on the platform.   As a result, the alpha label doesn’t really work.   For example, this status is unlikely to convey any advantage in the dating market.   Some may be more successful than others, but that success is unlikely tied to their power in controlling access to the social-media resources.

As a result, I call these new dominant males “data males” because they have a combination of traits of the alpha males by controlling access to resources through their algorithm-development skills and of the beta males having no advantage in terms of mating.

Data males are not just limited to those that control the social-media platforms.   Data males include the ones who manipulate their behaviors to adapt to the new algorithms to regain access to their markets.   These are like the near-outcasts of the pack, often punished for disobedience.   I’ve heard this variously described as omega, sigma, or some other greek letter.   Here, I give them the same data-male label if they happen to be men.  My impression that the most successful at outsmarting algorithms are also more likely to be male than female, but I admit that both occupations have a substantial female presence.

The alpha male is successful because he is visibly recognized as controlling access to resources.   The data male is the man while has invisible control such as the data scientists employed by social media platforms, or he is the man who works around those algorithms to get access to those resources without giving away the fact that he has that power.   Data males have leadership positions without full alpha recognition of that leadership.

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