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On being the subject of a media cycle
Concerning public attention
Things I have received from complete strangers the past few weeks: reports of their own dreams, amateur theories of consciousness, a self-published hardcover book on the history of technology sent to my office, several handwritten notes, and a few political screeds. Likely all the result of a recent media cycle over a scientific article I wrote. So it’s a good time to reflect on this question: What is a media cycle?
Luckily, I get to examine this from the perspective of a positive media cycle for the Overfitted Brain Hypothesis, a paper of mine on the evolved function of dreams. I’m pretty happy about all the attention because honestly I do feel that its one of those rare hypotheses that might actually even be correct. Of course when such cycles happen for some aspects of your work, but not others, it always feels weirdly disproportionate.1 For instance, here’s an abridged list of the links:
The Guardian, IFSL, Nature, Gizmodo, Medical News Today, The Washington Post, Eurekalert, Dazed, ScienceAlert, Technology Networks, Big Think, iHeart radio, Neuroscience News, Psychology Today, Inverse, Spokesman, The Boston Globe, etc.
There are plenty more. Some of my personal favorites include write-ups in Aviation Analysis and Martha Stewart Magazine. It also made its way to to places like Japanese Media and the biggest daily morning newspaper in Sweden. How about Slovenia? I even ended up explaining the hypothesis on a couple of radio stations.
Now, most of the above links are pretty much the same article, just repeated in different outlets with minor variations. Not that I mind! Obviously it’s great to see. But it’s interesting to ask why journalists do this. As in: why is there this sort of cycle at all? I’m literally wondering as a scientist why it always happens this way. Wouldn’t you want to differentiate yourself as much as possible as a writer and as an outlet and cover the things no one else is? Then there’s the null hypothesis: journalists all act independently from each other and you should rarely expect convergence. So why do these cycles work like this where everyone writes the same article?
The answer, I think, lies in fireflies.
Male fireflies blink to attract females. Journalists are the same way, although their blinking is social media posts and articles, and the attention they try to attract is that of viewers. One might assume that every firefly would use its own rhythm to attract a mate. But male fireflies’ light is more stimulating to females if they blink in synchrony, since blinking in unison creates a superstimuli of a large light that can be seen from a great distance, drawing the females in. Similarly, outlets and journalists synchronize in order to draw in readers, creating a gigantic beacon in the sky of social media. Yet all this seemingly coordinated activity isn’t a conspiracy. Fireflies don’t work from the top-down to align their synchronies, and journalists don’t either. It’s all done through individual fireflies noticing that others locally around them are blinking at a certain phase, and subtly adjusting their own signals to synchronize in order to benefit themselves.
Even if all these journalists are just copying one another for content, the effective result is the same as phase synchronization. And so the media cycle blinks out, one lighthouse beam circumlocution at a time.
The first time I experienced a media cycle was in 2017. Again, a coincidental series of events. My essay, Agent Above, Atom Below, triggered a lot of interest in the fQXI essay contest. Natalie Wolchover, who is probably one of the best living science writers, read it and decided to track me down at Columbia University. We got coffee. She published a profile in Quanta magazine describing me with the haunting adjective “large-limbed,”2 a profile that eventually got picked up by Wired.
The profile got so much attention that the well-followed blogger Scott Aaronson eventually wrote an attack on my ideas about understanding emergence formally and mathematically. His counterarguments were, in my opinion, rather uncharitable, and based mainly on proposing alternatives around how to do interventions, alternatives he hadn’t thought through and that end up making no sense once you do actually work through them. I eventually wrote a detailed reply, which you can read here. He never responded to this, and the media cycle ended. People still bring up what he originally said despite his proposal making no sense once you work through it. Ironically, I had already helped write one reply to a previous Scott Aaronson blogpost, which he had published himself on his own blog, regarding Integrated Information Theory.
Ever since then I try not to comment on the merits of new hypotheses outside of my own fields, since I know what it’s like on the receiving end. For trying to scientifically understand emergence, in the comments of Scott’s blog I received a number of pretty hostile remarks. I also got anonymous comments on my own (now defunct) blog telling me to “be careful” and other things of that nature, and some not-so-wonderful emails.
Who cares? It was four years ago. And it operated like a vaccine to shitty internet attention, which is a great thing to have in this day and age. I honestly haven’t thought about it in forever until I sat down to reflect on what it’s like to be caught up in this sort of thing.
But truly the worst thing about media cycles is not the negative attention they sometimes engender. It’s that they never happen for what you want. For example, my novel The Revelations is by far the best thing I’ve ever done. Worlds away really. It received some attention of course, but not dozens of articles in major outlets.3 This makes me feel like I’m presenting the public with various trinkets, but rather than grabbing up the crafted silver-and-emerald chain they go for the plain hair clip, ooo-ing and awww-ing.
It’s a hard truth to learn but what I’ve found is no one gets to choose. And it’s wrong to think you can. It’s all just fireflies blinking and sometimes they synchronize.
Another example: an essay from this very blog went to #1 on Hacker News, but the essay was randomly from weeks ago.
I have since chosen to mentally interpret it as “long-legged.”
To be fair almost no debut novel receives dozens of articles about it, although a slim minority do.