Path Dependency and News Discovery Algorithms

Many news organizations are increasingly filling websites with news about topics that readers have read before by taking advantage of user behavior data. These methods may have the opposite intended result of news discovery. Further, they may end up undercutting the value proposition of the media industry itself via a process economists call lock-in. 1

How does lock-in work? A product or service becomes is the most widely used, not because of its better value over other similar products or services. It is made more readily available as a result of a supply-side choice – i.e., a supplier decides it is the most readily available option for consumers. The industry has generally accepted the product or service as a standard.

Here’s an example of lock-in: imagine if vanilla ice cream were sold in 90% of restaurants, but chocolate ice cream was only available at 30% of restaurants. Vanilla would become the most eaten ice cream choice because of a supply-side decision. Eventually, supplying chocolate ice cream would become so expensive due to a perceived lack of demand that less and less restaurants would offer it until no restaurants offered it. News discovery is like adding more and more supply-side vanilla ice cream to restaurant menus until we no longer hear about any other kind of ice cream.

In academic circles, lock-in has well-known negative affects. As you read these, consider if they sound familiar to any news organizations you read:

  • It creates a perception of popularity, which many people incorrectly equate to value
  • It creates barriers for suppliers to offer other options, because (over time) other options become more expensive to offer.
  • It can eventually create monopolies, which have a host of additional negative effects on competitive, free-market economies

As long as media organizations act in ways that limit the spread of information, they are undercutting their own market value.

1 Lock-in is a certain type of path dependency; I am using a definition of lock-in that does not include the other types, although they may very well have a part to play here. “Path dependence in its loosest sense means that current and future states, actions, or decisions depend upon the path of previous states, actions, or decisions.”  — See here for more:

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