How a Google Maps update lead to the promotion of fringe views

Google Maps got a small update on Thurs­day. A zoomed-out view now shows a globe instead of the old, less accu­rate, Mer­ca­tor pro­jec­tion. They announced it in a tweet:

A few tech pub­li­ca­tions noticed, and wrote arti­cles about it, treat­ing it as the use­ful but ulti­mate­ly rel­a­tive­ly unim­por­tant fea­ture that it is. Mashable’s Zoom­ing out on Google Maps now shows you a globe is a typ­i­cal exam­ple.

Some peo­ple on Twit­ter found humour in the idea, mak­ing quips about this update offend­ing flat Earth believ­ers, a tiny group of kooks who believe (or pre­tend to believe, I don’t know) that Earth is flat and grav­i­ty doesn’t exist. It’s a belief that’s eas­i­ly refut­ed and falls apart very quick­ly.

This gave ad-fund­ed pub­lish­ers their oppor­tu­ni­ty to get some atten­tion mon­ey: a sim­ple prod­uct update isn’t a sto­ry, but a man­u­fac­tured con­tro­ver­sy is. So pub­lish­ers like Metro wad­ed in with sto­ries like Google Maps has made a big change that’s going to anger Flat Earth­ers. The sto­ry may have its tongue slight­ly in its cheek, but it reprints the views of the flat Earth­ers at length.

Text from the Metro article explaining flat-Earth views
Metro help­ful­ly evan­ge­lise the views of flat-Earth­ers

In their sto­ry Sor­ry flat-Earth­ers, Google Maps now zooms out to a globe CNET even emailed a mem­ber of the Flat Earth Soci­ety for com­ment. New Zealand’s New­sHub went fur­ther by choos­ing the head­line Google seems to wade into flat Earth con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry debate when, of course, there is no debate.

The result is that a man­u­fac­tured con­tro­ver­sy about a minor prod­uct update has giv­en false equiv­a­len­cy to the fringe views of a small band of crack­pots so every­one can get a few pen­nies in adver­tis­ing rev­enue. This is the atten­tion econ­o­my in action, and it’s rot­ten.

On Time Better Spent and the Advertising Industry

I pub­lish an occa­sion­al newslet­ter called The Thought­ful Net, a curat­ed col­lec­tion of good writ­ing about tech­nol­o­gy and its effect on cul­ture (among oth­er things). So when I start­ed read­ing The Death of Don Drap­er, an arti­cle by Ian Leslie on the impact of algo­rithms on the adver­tis­ing indus­try, I was all set to include it—for pas­sages like this:

The ad indus­try, run by peo­ple who pride them­selves on cre­ativ­i­ty, is being dis­placed by the ad busi­ness, which prides itself on effi­cien­cy. Clients are spend­ing less on the kind of enter­tain­ing, seduc­tive, fame-gen­er­at­ing cam­paigns in which ad agen­cies spe­cialise, and more on the ads that flash and wink on your smart­phone screen.

I read through it excit­ed­ly until almost the end, when—sadly—I came across the inclu­sion of one of my least favourite tropes:

We stoop over our phones when we should be doing almost any­thing else.

This idea that time spent ‘stooped’ (I can’t be the only one infer­ring that as a neg­a­tive word, can I?) over our phones is time bet­ter spent else­where is snooty and judge­men­tal. I’ve writ­ten before about peo­ple ‘star­ing at their screens’, and what a non­sense phrase that is, and ‘time bet­ter spent’ is equal­ly grat­ing to me.

Peo­ple use their phones for all sorts of things. A lot, if not most of that, is extreme­ly impor­tant, if not vital, to the per­son doing it. I thought Maya Indi­ra Ganesh put this very well in On Time Well Spent and Ethics:

The dig­i­tal ecosys­tem gen­er­al­ly, and some social media plat­forms, host both pub­lic and inti­mate economies of care and work that make get­ting off near impos­si­ble. Migrants main­tain fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships across dis­tance; entre­pre­neurs set up and man­age busi­ness­es; mil­lions are employed by dig­i­tal apps and plat­forms; activists ampli­fy their caus­es; mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple find com­mu­ni­ty. Not spend­ing time on these plat­forms is not a choice for many peo­ple.

I’d sug­gest that if the adver­tis­ing indus­try doesn’t under­stand this, it’s per­haps under­stand­able that the adver­tis­ing indus­try is dimin­ish­ing.

I got a bit more sad when I read a lit­tle fur­ther and found this:

A com­pre­hen­sive US study, spon­sored by the Nation­al Insti­tute of Men­tal Health, iden­ti­fied a strong asso­ci­a­tion between social media use and depres­sion.

Leslie doesn’t link to his sources, unfor­tu­nate­ly, but I’m fair­ly sure he’s talk­ing about the work of Jean Twenge (Have Smart­phones Destroyed a Gen­er­a­tion?) whose work has been, if not debunked, then heav­i­ly crit­i­cised for lazi­ness, cor­re­la­tion, and cher­ry-pick­ing (No, Smart­phones are Not Destroy­ing a Gen­er­a­tion and Yes, Smart­phones Are Destroy­ing a Gen­er­a­tion, But Not of Kids, amongst oth­ers).

Ian Leslie is a writer who also works as a strate­gist in the adver­tis­ing indus­try.

This doesn’t dis­count him from hold­ing an opin­ion, but it does speak of a cer­tain bias. It’s a shame that as some­one who works in the adver­tis­ing indus­try, he doesn’t think a lit­tle more high­ly of peo­ple, and of their being more than pow­er­less zom­bies.

Any­way, I rec­om­mend you read the arti­cle to make up your own mind, even if I can’t rec­om­mend it as the great piece it promised to be.