Media 2.0, the Limbic Brain, and the Rise of Stochastic Quality


Today I am sitting on a panel for a digital media event put on by Chrysalis Ventures and the University of Louisville. I've been thinking about what to say because, honestly, I'm ambivalent about many of the issues we will cover. In the process, I have come to a conclusion that I want to discuss – digital media promotes stochastic quality. Here is my attempt at explaining what that means.

It starts with two studies on rats. The first has to do with the pleasure centers of the brain. In 1954, electrodes were accidentally placed deep within the limbic system of some rats. What happened was surprising.

The American psychologist James Olds was studying the rat brain's alerting process, when he mistakenly placed the electrodes in a part of the limbic system, a group of structures deep within the brain that are generally believed to play a role in emotions. When the brain was wired so that the animal could stimulate this area by pressing a lever, Olds found that the rats would press the lever almost nonstop, as many as 5,000 times an hour. The animals would stimulate themselves to the exclusion of everything else except sleep. They would even endure tremendous pain and hardship for an opportunity to press the lever.

Things that fire that reward circuit can become very addicting.

The second study is a famous one conducted by Skinner in which rats were given food pellets when they pressed a lever. Some rats were given pellets at regular intervals (every press, or every 3rd press, etc.) while other rats were given the pellets at random intervals. Then the pellets were turned off and not dispensed under any condition. The rats that had been given pellets regularly quickly gave up and ceased pressing the lever. The rats on the random interval program kept pressing the lever supposedly even until their paws bled (although I couldn't find confirmation of this).

What I wonder is whether or not these two studies can be combined to explain the erratic ADD behavior of so many online media consumers. It first occurred to me the other day when I posted that I didn't find anything good while browsing YouTube, but I kept browsing because of the hope of finding something good. My brain wanted to be rewarded, but because the reward was intermittent (I had only seen one funny video that someone forwarded to me), I kept at it – not knowing how long it would be until I found something of quality.

Back up for a minute and think about what this means for a blog, a media outlet, or even a magazine. If you provide high quality all the time, users become *addicted*. (I'm not using it in a negative sense here, as mild addiction to things that produce positive results can actually be beneficial.) But if for some reason the quality of your content lapses, readers will quickly leave. If the rat behavior above can be extrapolated to our own brains, then the argument makes sense. It is also something I have seen happen with my own blog reading habits. Bloggers I used to read every day started writing about different things or changed formats and after a few weeks I quit reading them all together.

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So what happens if the quality of your writing (or music, video, photography, whatever) is stochastic, meaning, what if it is ultimately deterministic but has some random qualities? Users get the same reward as from other high quality media, but because you provide that reward at random intervals, they keep checking in, even when they don't like your content, because they are always looking for that "next hit." If quality is explained as a mixture of several variables that contain elements of personal preference, then it makes sense for digital media outlets to vary and mix these variables in ways that attract different people at different times. That way they can maximize the number of people that visit on a regular basis looking for quality content, but only have to deliver quality content to any given individual at some random interval. In theory, it sounds like a better solution than focusing on providing consistent high quality media to a small niche.

Again, this is something I see in my own web browsing habits. There are sites like cool tools where I don't care for 90% of the posts. But I go back regularly, always hoping for that eureka moment that occurs when I find something posted that I could really use.

The moral of this story is that quality media has very high barriers to entry and expensive resources for production, but mediocrity (or what we could call stochastic quality) has low barriers to entry and can produced with little effort – yet it is in some ways just as valuable to the consumer (from an attention allocation standpoint). Perhaps the answer for old media is not be be so consistently good. Or maybe I reached that conclusion because this argument is medi… well let's be nice and call it stochastic.