The spread

It's been more than fifteen years since hanging chads dominated discourse, but they made a big impression on me.

No one had any idea what hanging chads were, or how they should be interpreted, before the 2000 Presidential election - but as soon as it became clear which interpretation favored Bush, and which interpretation helped Gore, pundits assorted themselves along established party lines. It really showed me there was no over-arching ideology behind what columnists and talking heads were saying - everyone was just supporting their team.

It's really no different than sports - look at last year's discussions of DeflateGate, or recent commentary when the Yankees signed a closer with pending charges of domestic violence. If you love your team, you'll find a way to rationalize or dismiss disturbing details. There's a small percentage of undecideds, largely indifferent or uninformed - and all the arguments to persuade these folks for or against a position are really just sophisticated cheers for the home team.

In sports, gamblers have come up with a clever way of dividing issues right down the middle: the point spread. For each game, the house sets the point spread such that even if one team is much better than another, you'll still get maximum participation in betting, with approximately 50% siding with the better team (which has to not just win but overcome the spread) and 50% favoring the worse team (these people are essentially betting that their team is bad but not that bad).

Of course it's in the house's interest to set the spread accurately, to maximize the number of bettors - the house takes a percentage of each bet.

The media is now playing the same game, trying to maximize the number of clicks, shares, comments, and eyeballs - because that's largely how they're paid. This is why so many stories are framed so provocatively - to make it seem as much like a game as possible. We're all familiar with simple clickbait ("You'll never believe what happens next") but that's just the equivalent of sports highlights - everyone likes to see a great play.

The media's real bonanza comes when they can frame an issue to evenly divide us. Starbucks going with simple red cups for the holidays isn't noteworthy, but when some fringe character decides it's a sign of the War on Christmas, suddenly every mainstream media outlet is running a story, and people on your Facebook feed are debating a boycott.

The Paris attacks were a huge story to begin with, of course - there will always be a legitimate function for reporters to report facts, and for readers to seek details. But when a story passes from the reporting phase to the commentary, it's often framed as an matter of supporting a team. "Team Civilization vs ISIS" is (fortunately) not very controversial, and wouldn't generate many more clicks - but framing the issue in terms of gun control, or immigration policies, is sure to keep people frothing, clicking and commenting (even if neither issue has much bearing on the attacks).

No part of our discourse is immune to framing issues in terms of teams. In the ad-supported tech press, it's Apple vs. Android, or Silicon Valley VC's vs the rest of the world. In the weather, every storm or unseasonable hot or cold streak is evidence that human-induced climate change is fake, or real.

This goes beyond the journalistic practice of seeking balance for the sake of seeming objective. It's as calculated as setting the point spread to maximize betting - and far more cynical. This practice turns any issue into an opportunity for cheerleading and grandstanding. You're either with your team or against them - there's no room for nuance, learning, seeing merit in both sides.

I used to think that ad-supported media and social networks were both overwhelmingly positive things, that would inform the population and expose us to a diversity of well-reasoned opinion. But now that most every story is shoe-horned into familiar narratives, now that social networks act as echo-chambers to parrot the talking points of entrenched interests, I have to wonder - is anyone still undecided? Is anyone being persuaded by the mountains of comments, of shared stories advocating one side or another? Or is it all just preaching to the choir, or more accurately, pointing to your team and cheering?