While half the world went mad for the MyIdol app this week, making surprisingly realistic mini-me avatars of themselves to splash all over social media, Brooklyn creative studio 4REAL quietly released its own doppelgänger app—except this one's for websites, not people. Clone Zone is an art project that seeks to "explore how easily 'fact' can be manipulated with the help of social media and how this effects modern journalism," according to the artist statement from 4REAL's Analisa Teachworth and Slava Balasanov, who also makes music as Slava. Using the Clone Zone tool is very easy: you just enter the URL of the site you want to clone and your cloned page appears. It appears to be exactly the same as the original, except everything can be edited so you can create your own version—in all the right, authentic-feeling fonts.
I had a go this morning and have to say it was a lot of fun shoehorning an X-Files-esque "story" into The New York Times (see the screenshot above), but it also made me think about how little we truly read these days. If something looks, at a glance, authentic, then it is taken as such. Headlines are skimmed and shared almost immediately after being published, no doubt fueled by our anxious desire to fill our feeds with interesting tidbits other people will retweet or favorite. Behind the scenes, publications and corporations know that the headline is their battleground: everyone is fighting for a smidgeon of attention, hence the proliferation of "click-bait" articles that don't even care if you read them or not. In the rush to earn revenue off the back of site traffic, it can seem like the "click" is the only thing that counts.
"We wanted to give users the agency to create their own click-bait and hoax content to the detriment of the algorithms that propagate it," continue Teachworth and Balasanov in their statement. Now here's where things get really interesting. Everyone knows that algorithms are what companies like Google and Facebook use to organize how they serve up their data to the public—but nobody outside of those corporations really knows how they work, and that's intentional. If you can control how information is served, alongside encouraging click-bait practices, then you can control people's attention. And if you can control people's attention, then they're more suggestible and less likely to step out of line. But what if we all flooded our timelines with links to cloned websites full of radical message—if they got enough hits, the algorithm might be forced to serve those pages higher up the search rankings. Maybe we could bend the algorithm to serve the people, instead of profit.
Before I get too deep into conspiracy theory territory, here's 4REAL's Teachworth and Balasanov to give us the lowdown on how Clone Zone works, if it's legal, and how we can all get a little more savvy when it comes to consuming information online.
How does Clone Zone work? Clone Zone relies on the basic mechanics of the internet. You download a site, and once it's sitting in your browser, you can do whatever you want with it. Before you had to be a programmer to really take advantage of that, but recent web developments have made it easier to build interfaces for non-programmers. Clone Zone lets users grab any website and enables them to easily edit any text and images within. After that they can save the clone and share it on social media.
Why did you feel driven to make it? This quote by Brian Eno: "News is understood to be a creation of our attention and interests (rather than 'the truth') and news shows are redesigned as 'thinktanks,' where four interesting minds from different disciplines are asked the question, 'So what do YOU think happened today?'" Not really, but it might as well be :)
What are the legal implications of Clone Zone? We brought Clone Zone up to a lawyer and she was like, "don't do it." It's definitely crossing some boundaries. We are not making money off of it; it is an artwork. Most clones will also fall under the "parody" category, so there is some leeway there, but we would probably need an expensive lawyer to argue that.
Is that something you considered? We thought about it in terms of trying to make the app profitable, but it would be hard for those reasons.
It feels like the algorithm has become one of the most powerful things shaping our world, yet it is purposefully hidden. Can you unpack the problems it poses? We think a big problem is that it's not working for the users—it's working for the company that owns/creates it. It is not at all interested in what we as users want or need—or in the bettering of humanity, for that matter. Its only interest is profit and growth. In some ways we are already living in a matrix with machines manipulating us into clicking and liking all sorts of absurd things on our feeds. We hope that eventually we'll be able to have some conscious and active control over it—at least to fine tune it a little bit. It's starting to happen to some degree in some feed aggregators, but something like Facebook is very totalitarian about it.
Are you optimistic about the future of online journalism? Hm…it's hard to answer that question. As a whole, not really, but there will always be individuals who will uphold the values of journalism and do work that is worthwhile. It is going to be more and more difficult both to write and research content, as well as decipher it as a reader.
And finally, how can we all become more savvy about the way we consume information online? We think the first thing is to realize that the news/information you are exposed to is a product of your environment. There is so much information out there, and it's all readily available, but it's too much for any one person to process, so we just grab onto whatever is right there and forget the rest. Whatever gets placed in front of our face, that's what we take. We need to go out and seek out information actively. Even the New York Times can lie—remember Chalabi and the Iraq war?