Category Archives: Technology

Enough with the social media articles

From yesterday’s online New York Times comes a story titled “As Social Media Swirl Around It, Supreme Court Sticks to Its Analog Ways:”

The Web is ready, too. On Thursday, after the justices once again did not issue rulings in any of the biggest cases, news organizations blared the “news” to their followers. “BREAKING NEWS: No major decisions from Supreme Court today,” the Yahoo News site announced on its Twitter feed. Another Twitter user wryly observed: “Clearly all Supreme Court judges were unpopular kids in high school and, excited by all the attention now, are gonna drag this out.”

A year ago, in the minutes before the court announced its decision on President Obama’s health care law, Twitter users posted more than 13,000 messages a minute about the court. (By comparison, there were 160,000 a minute at the height of the presidential debate in Denver last year.)

And then today, another story headlined “A Panda Escapes From the Zoo, and Social Media Swoop In With the Net:”

To help find Rusty, a raccoon-size mammal with a striped tail and moon-shaped face, the zoo turned to social media, and suddenly half of official Washington broke from Serious Events to tune in to the saga of the runaway panda.

On Twitter and Facebook, the hunt for 11-month-old Rusty, whom the zoo acquired three weeks ago as a partner to a female panda named Shama, exploded in a mix of concern, humor and, this being Washington, the goring of political oxen.

“Rusty the Red Panda eats shoots and leaves,” Jake Tapper, CNN’s chief Washington correspondent, filed to Twitter.

Doug Stafford, a senior aide to Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, called the escape a cautionary tale. “If we don’t use drones to spy on everyone, the pandas will win,” he wrote.

The zoo announced Rusty’s disappearance to its thousands of Twitter followers in a message at 11:51 a.m, which was retweeted nearly 3,000 times in an hour.

At midday, mentions of “Rusty” on Twitter nearly equaled those of “Obama.” ABC News started a blog with “live coverage” of the search.

“Please help us find Rusty,” the zoo pleaded on Twitter, explaining that he was last seen at 6 p.m. on Sunday and might be nearby “hiding in a tree.”

On its Facebook page, the zoo said keepers were combing the Asia Trail habitat, whereRusty and Shama live between the Japanese giant salamander and the small-clawed otter, since 8 a.m. But in an ominous note, the zoo said it was possible Rusty had been stolen.

Look, I get it. The New York Times has discovered social media, and it is on it. But please, please — stop with the constant stories devoted to people who…tweet. Or who post the occasional snarky Facebook post.

This is not news. This is actually rather mundane, and is best replaced by an article on almost anything else.

And yes, I realize I have just made the problem worse.

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The shorter version

FastCompany describes a new ad campaign aimed — quite literally — at abused children:

Alongside the International Day Against Child Abuse, agency Grey Group España launched an outdoor campaign that uses lenticular printing to mask the poster’s message from adults. People over 5 feet 7 inches tall (reportedly the average height of an adult) would see one ad of a sad but otherwise unhurt child with the message “Sometimes child abuse is only visible to the child suffering it.” For those under 4 feet 3 inches (the average height of children under 10), the child’s face appears bloody and bruised, and the text, “If somebody hurts you, phone us and we’ll help you,” becomes visible.

Running from terror in Boston

Journalists in the Pulitzer World Room during Pulitzer Prize announcements. Monday, April 15, 2013.

On the third floor of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism is the Pulitzer World Room, a mid-sized chamber that could easily double as a church sanctuary. Today, at around 2:30 PM, I arrived there to cover the official announcement of the Pulitzer Prize winners that was scheduled to take place at 3 PM.

After setting up with my computer, camera, and obligatory coffee, I began scanning TweetDeck, trying to find which hashtag was associated with the event and generally catching up on news. At around 2:51 PM, I ran across this tweet:

At the time, it seemed out of place in my newsfeed, but it quickly became apparent just how relevant it was. Within minutes, a torrent of reports began flooding my computer screen in 140-character increments.

As it turns out, few places are more depressing than Twitter in the aftermath of a tragedy. What remains for most sentient human beings an unalloyed catastrophe that is mourned in solidarity with its victims requires all of thirty seconds on Twitter to devolve into a circus of self-righteous finger-wagging.

Of which I, like so many others, played my part. And yet there were so many aspects of today’s perfect Twitter storm that were so enraging in their lack of imagination and their utter predictability that it all felt, somehow, as if it were too much to handle at once.

I am from Boston (Everett, more precisely), and — like all Bostonians — have walked down Boylston Street far too many times to remember. Patriots’ Day is really, in the end, about two things: morning baseball and the Boston Marathon. Drinking plays a large role in both, and that is that.

And so part of my disbelief at the initial reports stemmed directly from the fact that a bombing in my hometown seemed so surreal, so otherworldly, so impossible, that it couldn’t have actually happened. I tried getting through to my parents and my little sister and kept bumping up against voicemail messages, endlessly ringing phones, and the even more ominous technical messages informing me the call could not be connected “at this time.” Eventually, I discovered none of them had even been in Massachusetts that day, let alone at home in Boston. But the horror remained.

There is a natural coming together after a tragedy. But even within this organic human impulse are concentric circles, ever-widening (or ever-narrowing, depending on the perspective) to include various scopes of “there”-ness. On September 11th, all Americans felt like New Yorkers. And all New Yorkers felt as if they had been at Ground Zero.

In reality, some people actually were there. Then, these geographical distinctions seemed not to matter. But today, there appeared to be a self-sorting taking place: the Bostonians versus the non-Bostonians, the true mourners versus the politicizers, those who demonstrated online “tact” versus the opportunists, and so on.

And yet we were all opportunists. If nothing else, today reminded me of how enormously petty people can be, as an actual human calamity was subsumed online under a wave of concern trolling and one-upsmanship. I don’t mean to pick on any one person in particular — because there truly was an enormous number of people doing this today — but it just so happened that one particular tweeter was especially prolific in this regard:

Again, my point is not to pick on Morrison, with whom I’ve briefly interacted on Twitter in the past without incident (is there such a thing as a Twitter incident? a Twitcident?). She’s just the one particular user handle I remember from a long day of staring at my computer screen. I normally find her quite interesting, which is why I follow her in the first place.

But tweets like the above, in which boundaries are quickly drawn and stakes are claimed to some online/virtual form of legitimacy or sensitivity are just…ridiculous. Similarly maddening (and yet entirely predictable) is the knee-jerk scouring for the nearest maniac to provide a useful unhinged quote:

Why do these people even matter? Coverage is exactly what they want, but it is not at all clear what they have achieved to deserve it.

One final complaint: the obsession with the word “terrorism.” Everyone seemed to be holding his or her breath, waiting for the magic “T word” to escape President Obama’s lips during his press conference: after he didn’t, the conversation on TV turned to why not, and the conversation on Twitter turned to castigating the conversation on TV. This entire succession itself played out like a tired TV sitcom, with all the characters playing to typecast without the faintest trace of irony. Indeed, as Nate Silver succinctly put it:

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Are online paywalls too little, too late?

Courtesy of LUMA Partners.
Courtesy of LUMA Partners LLC.

Michael Wolff thinks so:

Without a dramatic turnaround in advertising income, there are only two strategies – neither mutually exclusive – for the continued existence of newspapers, in digital or any other form:

• Having established the paywall model, the goal, in a race against time, is to extend it to a greater and greater part of the user base. Like the paywall itself, this is unchartered territory. Rupert Murdoch’s more absolute paywalls having worked significantly less well than the New York Times’ porous wall. The Times, however, counting on its brand power and on the gradual change in consumer behavior, is trying to up the ante, recently cutting its free take from 20 to ten articles.

• Re-orient the cost basis of the business, still largely modeled on advertising income, to the much smaller subscription revenue base. That is, fire a lot of people.

This is, actually, good news, if not necessarily for shareholders or for many employees. Some newspapers can continue to exist, albeit as vastly smaller and less profitable businesses.

I have a few points in response. First, Wolff characterizes newspapers’ plummeting revenue in the following terms: “A digital advertising environment on the web – one even more pronounced in mobile – that relentlessly increases the amount of advertising space available and lowers the value of all space overall.”

Wolff is mostly right, for now. But that’s only because advertisers have yet to figure out what’s valuable. I worked in online advertising for two years (including one year for a behavioral targeting firm), and I can say with some confidence that we still don’t have adequate metrics to measure advertising success online — hence the degradation of online real estate. But soon enough, the advertising landscape will have to revert to form.

Why? Well, because advertisers don’t like paying for something that provides no value. It’s astonishing just how little advertisers still know about their own data in 2013 — that is, the audiences on their own web sites, the customers buying their products, and so on. The problem is even worse when it comes to connecting with new audiences, also known as advertising. Not only do the companies themselves not understand the data, but many of the online advertising firms that these companies have hired know little about what they’re selling as well. (Take a look at the above headache-inducing graphic of the online media landscape to understand why.) Continue reading Are online paywalls too little, too late?

Now featured on The First Casualty: my mistakes

An example comparison of different versions of the same post.
An example comparison of different versions of the same post.

One of the oft-noted pitfalls of online journalism — whether conducted by online-only publications or by traditional print/media outfits that have migrated online — is the lack of transparency over changes made to posts and articles after they’ve already been published. Many, for example, have observed The New York Times change headlines and even article text after posting them online, even after people have read the original version.

It is, in fact, this problem of unmarked revisions that gave rise to the truly stellar site, which explains: “For better or worse, readers can now view ‘the making of the sausage’ that historically was discreetly tucked away from view with dead-tree editions.” The site scrapes the articles appearing on home pages of news organizations (currently The New York Times, CNN, Politico, and BBC) and archives each iteration of the ones that change after publication, so visitors can see what was revised.

Well, a few years ago, a developer named Scott Carpenter, responding to a “manifesto” written by Scott Rosenberg in which he called for news organizations to build a Wikipedia-style public revision history, built just such a plugin for WordPress blogs.

Fast forward to yesterday. Blog post revisions have been an ongoing internal question for me: I try not to change a post after publishing it if at all possible, but obviously I have to break this rule for a variety of reasons from time to time. If it’s something small, such as a grammatical error or a typo, I change it as soon as I see it, without noting the correction. If it’s significant, I usually add the word CORRECTION or UPDATE to the bottom of the post, to note the change. Inevitably, there are gray areas.

But I have yet to come up with a red-line rule on when to note a correction and when not to. Nor have I settled on a hard-and-fast point at which a post becomes “non-updatable.” (Generally, once I’ve written a subsequent post, I don’t update previous ones. But even on that, I’m not sure I’ve followed this rule 100% of the time: I’ve been blogging for over three years and am closing in on 700 posts, so I haven’t kept close track.)

Enter Scott Carpenter’s handy plugin. (Thanks, Scott!) I just read about it for the first time yesterday, and I immediately realized it would work perfectly for my purposes. Now, on all posts going forward and on every one that’s already been posted since the beginning of the blog, every published revision is publicly viewable. To take a look, go to any single post’s perma-linked page (just click on the post headline from the home page), scroll to the bottom of the post, and you’ll see a list of all post revisions, complete with links. If you click on an older version of a post, it will load it — and you can even scroll to the bottom again to see a side-by-side comparison of what has changed since then.

If you notice any problems or bugs, please let me know!


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Petition of the Day

Google Reader is going away, and the Internet is not happy.
Google Reader is going away, and the Internet is not happy.

New York Magazine reports:

In Google’s official announcement of the end of Reader, which it plans to mothball in July, it said the product had a “devoted following who will be very sad to see it go.” But usage had declined, and the company says it wants to focus more energy on fewer products. Reader’s popularity came not just from its innovative tools but from its social aspect, Wired’s Mat Honan points out. “Reader gave users the ability to friend, follow and share stories with others. It let readers share stories with each other, and comment on them too.” But the company removed that function in 2011, replacing it with an option to share on G+. “That was effectively the end of the Reader community.” Now Reader itself follows. But boy was Google right about that devoted following.

The White House petition can be found here. As is clear from the numerical figures in the above screenshot, the aspirations appear slightly excessive.

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The urban blight that is SimCity

This was too easy, really. (Courtesy of
This was too easy, really. (Courtesy of

To much fanfare, Electronic Arts (and Maxis) released the latest iteration of its storied franchise on Tuesday, titled simply SimCity. One feature that got a lot of attention prior to the launch day was its “always-on” Internet-connected mode: to prevent piracy, the game was intentionally designed to prohibit playing offline.

And the result?

Good luck trying to move into the new SimCity.

Ever since the city management game launched on Tuesday, countless gamers have found themselves battling error messages and random disconnections that prevent them from experiencing what SimCity was supposed to deliver in the first place — fun. In response, publisher Electronic Arts says it’s working around the clock to try to fix the problems and add more servers so people can play without worry.

Now, an allegedly disgruntled EA employee has sent an open letter to his company, railing against its DRM debacle:

What you’ve demonstrated with this launch is that our corporate management does not believe in our core values. They are for the unwashed masses, not for the important people who forced this anti-consumer DRM onto the Sim City team. This DRM scheme is not about the consumers or even about piracy. It’s about covering your own asses. It allows you to hand-wave weak sales or bad reviews and blame outside factors like pirates or server failures in the event the game struggles. You are protecting your own jobs at the expense of consumers. I think this violates the Act With Integrity value I’m looking at on my own coffee mug right now.

On behalf of your other employees, I’d like to ask you to fix this.  Allow the Sim City team to patch the game to run offline. If Create Quality and Innovation is still a core value that you believe in, then this shouldn’t be a hard decision. Games that gamers can’t play because of server overload or ISP issues are NOT quality. Be Bold by giving the consumers what they want and take accountability for the mistake.

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The Facebook engagement debate

Courtesy of comScore whitepaper from July 26, 2011.
Courtesy of comScore whitepaper from July 26, 2011.

Nick Bilton of The New York Times recently noted that, at some point following the implementation of Facebook’s “Sponsored Posts” feature, his non-sponsored posts started receiving far less exposure than before:

Early last year, soon after Facebook instituted a feature that let people subscribe to others’ feeds without being friends, I quickly amassed a healthy “subscriber” list of about 25,000 people…

Since then, my subscribers have grown to number 400,000. Yet now, when I share my column, something different happens. Guess how many people like and reshare the links I post?

If your answer was over two digits, you’re wrong.

From the four columns I shared in January, I have averaged 30 likes and two shares a post. Some attract as few as 11 likes. Photo interaction has plummeted, too. A year ago, pictures would receive thousands of likes each; now, they average 100. I checked the feeds of other tech bloggers, including MG Siegler of TechCrunch and reporters from The New York Times, and the same drop has occurred.

What changed? I recently tried a little experiment. I paid Facebook $7 to promote my column to my friends using the company’s sponsored advertising tool.

To my surprise, I saw a 1,000 percent increase in the interaction on a link I posted, which had 130 likes and 30 reshares in just a few hours. It seems as if Facebook is not only promoting my links on news feeds when I pay for them, but also possibly suppressing the ones I do not pay for.

Following this article, Reuters’ Anthony De Rosa spoke to a Facebook rep and then posted a short list of three misconceptions that he implied Bilton — and/or others like him — had disseminated. Among them:

Misconception #1: Sponsored/Promoted Content is replacing organic content on Facebook I spoke to Vadim Lavrusik, Facebook’s journalism program manager. Here’s what he told me:

“One important thing to understand is that when someone promotes a post in feed and pays to promote it, the stuff that’s getting distribution organically still gets distribution, it doesn’t get replaced from feed. It may get a lower placement, but it doesn’t get replaced. And the placement of the sponsored post or promoted post is also based on the quality of that post (so promoted content still has a quality algorithm attached to it.) If the promoted post isn’t that good, it gets lower placement, but it will get more distribution either way because it’s being paid for, but it’s still takes quality into account.

The claim that I’ve seen explains it as if these paid posts replace organic posts, which isn’t the case. The News Feed algorithm is separate from the advertising algorithm in that we don’t replace the most engaging posts in News Feed with sponsored ones.”

This seems like a distinction without a difference. One can hardly blame Lavrusik for trying to disguise his employer’s tactics with this line of defense, but it’s not very convincing.

Why not? Well, first of all, he states that “when someone promotes a post in feed and pays to promote it, the stuff that’s getting distribution organically still gets distribution, it doesn’t get replaced from feed. It may get a lower placement, but it doesn’t get replaced.” But for all intents and purposes, being bumped to a lower placement is the exact same thing as getting replaced. Lavrusik knows this, of course, but it’s not in his — or Facebook’s — interest to acknowledge it.

Courtesy of Chitika.

Facebook’s News Feed is infinite: when you scroll down, it loads more posts. In other words, there’s no real estate scarcity going on here. As long as you keep scrolling, Facebook will keep loading. But much like Google’s search rankings, everyone knows that it’s generally the first listings that get by far the most attention. For example, this study demonstrates that just under 95% of all Google clicks come from the first page of search results. All subsequent results pages combined represent barely over 5% of click-throughs.

I’d venture a guess that the Facebook News Feed has a similar-looking curve. Of course, its average time-on-site is going to be a lot higher than Google’s, but the same laws apply — the farther down the page something is, the less likely it is that a user will see it. Sponsored Posts, by definition, push non-sponsored posts farther down the page. Ergo, they are less likely to be seen. So even if it’s technically true, when Lavrusik says a non-sponsored post “doesn’t get replaced,” he’s not saying anything meaningful at all.

My second disagreement with De Rosa on this point has to do with his conclusion:

There’s a few things that make Nick an edge case, someone who uses and experiences Facebook slightly differently than the broader membership. He was one of the privileged few who were “recommended” members to follow, which allowed him to gain a lot of followers early on. Most members have to scratch and claw to get noticed, a recommended user list gives you an opportunity to catapult your following in a less organic fashion. Just like on Twitter, it creates an inauthentic illusion of “influence,” and as much as I loathe that word and the next one I am going to use, “engagement,” the quality of that “engagement” goes down as your artificial following grows.

I also noticed that Nick tends to post a lot of links, instead of photo posts, which tend to get a lot more “likes” “shares” and comments. If they’re not getting that kind of (ugh) “engagement,” then they’re in turn showing up lower organically in your follower’s newsfeed. This is a feature, not a bug.

But as Bilton himself mentioned:

From the four columns I shared in January, I have averaged 30 likes and two shares a post. Some attract as few as 11 likes. Photo interaction has plummeted, too. A year ago, pictures would receive thousands of likes each; now, they average 100. I checked the feeds of other tech bloggers, including MG Siegler of TechCrunch and reporters from The New York Times, and the same drop has occurred.

In other words, Bilton is not comparing apples and oranges. He’s comparing similar posts from before and after Facebook’s methodology change. So De Rosa’s comment on the fact that user engagement differs by the type of content doesn’t apply here.

Anecdotally, I’m a fairly standard Facebook user: I have around 700 friends and I don’t believe I have any subscribers. (To be honest, I can’t remember whether I ever set up my profile to allow it.) And I’ve noticed very similar patterns to Bilton’s regarding engagement on my own posts. I can’t speak for Nick Bilton, but I’m quite sure I’m not an edge case.

Just to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with Facebook’s strategy here. Especially now that it’s public, its responsibility is to make money for its shareholders, and the implementation of Sponsored Posts makes a lot of sense on certain levels. Vadim Lavrusik’s defense is similarly understandable: he works for Facebook, so his slick reasoning is to be expected. But that doesn’t mean any of us should be remotely convinced by it.

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