Saturday, March 12, 2011

Dubious Relevance

I've been attempting to better understand the situation in Japan, especially with the stricken Fukushima power plant. My initial impulse is that the media's "if it bleeds, it leads" ethic is leading to the coverage being a bit more breathlessly doom-and-gloom than might be warranted. I'm not in the camp of people who are so uncharitable as to believe that "the media" are hoping and praying for a spectacular nuclear disaster to drive eyeballs, but I also understand that dry monologues from experts that don't carry much urgency make for poor ratings.

Anyway, I started with some of the usual suspects, looking for things that might make good search terms to lead me to more detailed information. Slate, although it's really a commentary site, is one such, so I hopped over there to see what they had to say, and I found a link to an AP video. "Nuclear plant explosion releases radiation, raises meltdown fears following earthquake," the subtitle read. Nice. Let the breathlessness begin. But it was something in the sidebar that really caught my attention. There's always this little black-bordered box titled "Recommended For You," and it has some headlines in it. I don't often pay much attention to them, having the vague understanding that it all links to some advertising company somewhere, so that they can attempt to load tracking cookies on my computer. But I have, on occasion, been somewhat curious as to how the recommendation engine works.

That jumped out at me today, as one of the headlines was "High Gas Prices Make Me Want To Cry." I'm reading a story about a possible nuclear disaster, triggered by one of the most serious earthquakes ever recorded and the tsunami that it spawned, and someone is going to "recommend" that I read a whiny, self-pitying piece about the price of gasoline? (Well, I presume that it's whiny and self-pitying. After all, I didn't actually click on it to read it.) I understand that Americans are widely perceived as being shallow and self-absorbed, but it still struck me as odd that someone would, in effect, bet on that.

Perhaps it's simply proof that the recommendation engine is really just whatever people are willing to pay the most to have put in front of you, and that it's more or less apropos of nothing. They simply adopt the "Recommended For You" wording to give the audience the idea that the stories are relevant to them. Perhaps I'm being too literal-minded, and I should read "Recommended For You" as "Please Help Us Make A Worthwhile ROI On Our Advertising Budget."

Oh, well. I guess I'd better get back to sorting through the hype. After all, I still have a "nuclear disaster" to understand.

No comments: