Escaping the Cascade
How the web kills your individuality and creativity
On the surface, social media seems like the perfect system to differentiate yourself. You can customise your profiles to best reflect your personality, and showcase your unique experiences on Instagram and your unique points of view on Twitter.
But underneath all the superficial posturing, social media, and the wider online ecosystem, is quietly making you just like everyone else, and in so doing it’s eroding both your individuality and your creativity.
To understand how it’s doing this, and how you might save yourself, we must first consider the way information flows on the internet.
You may have heard the phrase, "the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer." It describes how money affords opportunities to make even more money. For example, the more assets you own, the more returns you can gain from those assets.
Any process like this, in which an advantage yields more of the same advantage, is known as a “preferential attachment.” When preferential attachments are strong, they typically result in Pareto distributions in which a small number of beneficiaries reap the vast majority of benefits. So, if the rich get richer, then very soon a small number of people will have the vast majority of wealth.
Preferential attachments occur not just with people and money, but also with ideas and attention; books on bestseller lists become more visible to consumers, causing them to sell even more. Widely cited academic papers are widely seen, becoming even more widely cited.
The web is particularly susceptible to preferential attachments of information due to its networked nature (which makes exponential growth much easier). One example you'll know well is virality: each time an idea is shared, it gains new potential sharers, making it even more likely to be shared. But there are other, more obscure preferential attachments that cause popular ideas to become even more popular.
Many of these result from human behaviour:
Social proof, the tendency for people to evaluate the world based on other people's evaluations, can create information cascades where people judge what is important to discuss based on what others find important to discuss.
Normative influence, whereby people do what everyone else is doing in order to be socially accepted, can create groupthink where people discuss what everyone else is discussing regardless of how important they think it is.
And the focusing illusion, a quirk of the mind that causes the object of one’s attention to appear more significant than it actually is, can result in the very act of discussing an issue to cause one to overvalue its discussion-worthiness.
These three phenomena all contribute to availability cascades in which an issue that's being widely discussed online comes to appear more plausible and important, leading to it being discussed even more.
To make matters worse, these human peculiarities are reinforced by online algorithms—including search algorithms, "trending" algorithms, and recommendation algorithms—all of which rate content based on user engagement, and in so doing, make what's popular even more popular.
The result of all these human and algorithmic preferential attachments is an extreme Pareto distribution of ideas. In other words, just as "the rich get richer" causes a small number of people to hold the vast majority of wealth, so the web causes a small number of ideas to hold the vast majority of attention.
The top books on bestseller lists become the books everyone reads. The top social media posts become the posts everyone engages with. The top trending topics become the topics everyone discusses.
The web can thus be understood as a kind of microscope that magnifies a few small ideas so they fill the entirety of our vision. And since we're all looking through the same microscope, the skewed reality it portrays becomes our shared reality.
Most of what you see online has been seen by countless other people, and since everyone is being fed the same small range of inputs, they're being conditioned by the same stimuli, resulting in the same small range of outputs (thoughts). Even if everyone is not thinking the same things, they're very often thinking about the same things.
The reason this is a problem is that it makes you more and more like the average human. And that causes your brain to become clichéd, costing you your creativity and individuality.
It also makes you easier to manipulate. By becoming more like the average human, you become more like the model that online manipulators (algorithms, marketers, disinfo agents) are trained on. Your movements become easier to predict, your priorities become easier to set, your views becomes easier to sway with mass influence campaigns, and your browsing habits become easier to lock into feedback loops.
All in all, viewing the web as intended causes you to lose your uniqueness and become more average, more predictable, and more manipulable.
Perhaps the web is not a microscope but a blender, taking a set of unique humans and liquidizing them into a homogenous, infinitely malleable gloop.
In which case, how do you stop your personality from being puréed?
The simplest way is to stop behaving like everyone else. Don't let your agenda be set by preferential attachments: viral memes, front page news stories, widely cited papers, trending Twitter topics, recommended YouTube videos, top Google search results, TikTok fads, Amazon bestsellers.
Instead, wander the web's backstreets. Read ignored texts. Examine the news stories in the bottom corners of the page. Watch last decade’s podcasts. Click on the 20th search result. Regularly break your own browsing habits to shake the algorithms off your tail. Occasionally, switch off your phone, spend whole days in the real world. Go to the library, plumb the past for forgotten ideas. Step outside the zeitgeist so you can see it with fresh eyes.
A fresh set of eyes will show you what few others see, reigniting your creativity. It'll also show you that the things everyone is fiercely discussing online are often not all that important, and people are only discussing them because everyone else is.
Then, after your course is no longer set by the current, you can start to make up your own mind about what matters, set your own agenda, forge your own path, and finally be reunited with the person the web has been keeping you from: yourself.