“Niche Marketing” (or The Algorithm of Closed Minds)

A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather, it is a question of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions!!!

Friedrich Nietzsche,  Critique of Religion and Philosophy, Walter A. Kaufmann, 1958, page 34

Is it necessary to say that this article is not about critical thinking and intellectual integrity (which Nietzsche, in a better moment, so eloquently described in the above-quotation)?  Rather, it is about the inverse–about people, tens-of-millions of people, who seldom, if ever, roamed the shelves of a public library in the quest for deeper, nuanced understanding of complex areas of knowledge.  It is about people of little or no intellectual curiosity–with pre-formed opinions (“prejudices”) — who seek confirmation not through evidence but through group-consensus.  It is about persons who might say, in all seriousness: “I’ll see it–when I believe it.”  It is about persons who, unwilling to engage in the responsible task of weighing and evaluating contrasting claims, prefer the regressive (and self–justifying) comfort of finding “like-minded” folks angry and upset about exactly the same kinds of “outrages” (often misreported or exaggerated).  Yes, exactly — because, thanks to the insidious application of algorithmic formulas, such persons can be found and linked-up almost instantly, from anywhere on the planet.

They call it niche-marketing, advanced niche-marketing — though it is as far beyond old targeted junk-mail as genetic engineering is beyond bloodletting.  In short, to use Foucault’s phrase, at any given moment, any given Internet user is an entirely “calculable person” — her tastes and preferences, likes-and-dislikes, “visits” to sundry websites, precise consumer history…all tabulated with totalistic precision down to the last iota.  The (warped) raison-d-etre of all this?  To drown you with info-and-ads that will further stimulate you, thereby engaging and enraging you to be even more fixed-in-your-outlook — uniquely misinformed but at the same time virtually identical to fellow members of the consumer-niche.

Let’s say you feel strongly that you are a “tri-sexual” (meaningless–but still, you feel that!).  You’re possibly confused–but instead of embarking on a sustained study of gender (and psychiatry?), you “google” various things and before you know it… wonderful algorithms are flooding you with info and contacts, other self-described tri-sexuals are recounting their stories, and you now are embedded in a subculture — a mutually-supportive group which, to the Silicon marketeers selling all this precise data, now makes you a precise-target (i.e., within a precisely-defined niche-market – at least insofar as certain entertainment products, “dating,” “lifestyle” habits, elective “surgery,” travel, etc., are concerned).

All levity aside, let’s choose another random example.  You feel that there is something sinister about Hillary Clinton.  Not that she has routinely accepted six-figure speaking fees – a practice former president Jimmy Carter once called “legalized bribery” — nor that she spearheaded the NATO destruction of Libya.  You don’t know anything about all that (and are just not interested).  You sense other things–maybe that “she wears the pants” in a dysfunctional marriage, in which poor Bill could only reclaim his god-given “manhood” by engaging in wanton adultery (and other sins).  The woman is dangerous, positively un-Christian, devilish!  That’s what you feel–and no power on earth is gonna force you to recant your precious beliefs!  But how to find confirmation of these strong, heartfelt suspicions?  Well, you could go to the public library and read various books about the woman and her career, books pro as well as con, books evaluating the specific episodes of her career.  But why bother?  Just “google” a few keywords — and you get precisely the info you’re seeking.  QAnon, satan-worship, rumors of a child molesting cult–it’s all there!–and delivered painlessly (and relentlessly) to your “inquiring mind” (to use the phrase once flattering to the readers of the tabloid National Enquirer).  Within hours, you have dozens of posts (and ads!) confirming everything you suspected!  What’s more, you’re no longer alone, but part of a shared subculture (read: niche-market — for Fox News, talk-radio, weapons, travel to “protests,” “political” donations, and more). 

Psychiatrists have often described the sad situation of a couple, totally isolated from outside viewpoints and contrasting lifestyles, who share mutually-reinforcing delusions (folie-a-deux).  Entirely out-of-touch with any broad spectrum of knowledge and understanding, such insular couples resemble cults.  It seems a tragic setback for human advancement that, with the dominance of Facebook and other algorithm-empowered marketing networks, the once-vaunted “information superhighway” has devolved into a sectarian, prejudice-magnifying, misinformation nightmare.  And all for one-and-only purpose: to precisely identify members of each niche-market, thereby seamlessly matching the exact people for the exact consumer-product involved.  Then, build up the “shared identity” — i.e., “sameness” of attitude, opinions, lifestyles — at the expense of promoting the humanistic ideals of critical thinking, evolving personal enlightenment, and well-informed, democratic citizenship.

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.