Tag Archives: New York Times

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.

Enhanced by Zemanta

This is bad reporting.

Let’s assume you’re a normal person. And let’s propose a scenario in which, after years of gridlock between Republicans and Democrats in Washington, the GOP finally seems to be willing to give a little — now that they’ve definitively lost the last two presidential elections and polling appears to be mostly on the side of Democratic policies.

In such a situation, you’d probably welcome the prospect of a Republican thaw and assume it may help produce actual bipartisan legislation for once, no?

Well, no. Not if you’re the New York Times:

But the politics of one core dispute between Democrats and Republicans — what to do about Medicare — are changing. And some of those changes complicate President Obama’s agenda, even as he continues to flex his postelection muscle.

One shift is the shrinking magnitude of the Medicare spending problem — a consequence, at least for now, of a recent slowdown in the rise of health care costs. That diminishes the willingness of Congressional Democrats, and perhaps the administration, too, to accept the sort of Medicare curbs that Mr. Obama has indicated that he favors.

Another is a moderation in the public stance of Republican leaders. In recent weeks, they have advocated smaller changes to Medicare than the “premium support” or voucher plan that Mitt Romney advocated and that Mr. Obama denounced in last year’s presidential campaign.

As a result, Mr. Obama’s ability to deliver a bipartisan compromise on entitlement spending may be waning even as Republicans edge closer to one.

That’s right: Republican moderation is partly why President Obama may be unable to “deliver a bipartisan compromise.” If that sounds ridiculously counterintuitive, it’s because it is.

Yes, I realize the point of the article: that Obama and the Democrats now feel they have the upper hand, which might make them likelier to press their advantage while they have it — thus derailing the hope of a deal. (Never mind the fact that there is virtually no historical/empirical basis to support the notion that the Democrats have taken, or will ever take, advantage of whatever leverage they have.)

But this contorted logic only makes any sense in the context of the conventional wisdom that major media players like the New York Times help create. Mainstream journalists love to mock bloggy sites like Politico for their seeming giddiness in reporting on Washington insider politics, and yet this article — appearing in the Paper of Record, no less — is Beltway cynicism at its worst.

Maybe if the Times focused less on creating counter-incentives that don’t yet exist and exerted more effort instead on sensible reporting of actual political developments, we wouldn’t have so many of these manufactured crises in the first place.

A Big Data divide at the Times

David Brooks says Big Data matters, but perhaps not as much as people think:

Big data has trouble with big problems. If you are trying to figure out which e-mail produces the most campaign contributions, you can do a randomized control experiment. But let’s say you are trying to stimulate an economy in a recession. You don’t have an alternate society to use as a control group. For example, we’ve had huge debates over the best economic stimulus, with mountains of data, and as far as I know not a single major player in this debate has been persuaded by data to switch sides.

Paul Krugman takes a look and says, “Waittt a minute here:”

It would be lovely to live in a world in which the failure of interest rates to soar as predicted would lead Brian Riedl of Heritage and Niall Ferguson to concede that their anti-stimulus critiques of 2009 were based on a completely wrong model; in which the economic downturns that have followed austerity policies almost everywhere they have been applied would lead Alberto Alesina to concede that his work on expansionary austerity was probably flawed, and lead George Osborne to proclaim publicly that he led Britain down the wrong path. But such things very rarely happen, and the fact that they don’t happen has nothing to do with the limitations of data…

So yes, it has been disappointing to see so many people sticking to their positions on fiscal policy despite overwhelming evidence that those positions are wrong. But the fault lies not in our data, but in ourselves.

It’s a good point from Krugman, who’s also been quite busy dealing with other knuckleheads.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Why we need organizations like Wikileaks

Here’s why:

When the New York Times revealed the location of the U.S.’s top-secret drone base in Saudi Arabia today, after months of keeping the information quiet, the other most important news outlets in the country sheepishly admitted they’d known about it, too. Along with the Washington Post, which said it had “an informal arrangement” with the government for more than a year, the Associated Press added last night that it “first reported the construction of the base in June 2011 but withheld the exact location at the request of senior administration officials.” Asked why the Times acted now, the paper’s managing editor Dean Baquet told public editor Margaret Sullivan it was simple: John Brennan’s big day.

“It was central to the story because the architect of the base and drone program is nominated to head the C.I.A.,” Baquet explained. Brennan’s confirmation hearings start tomorrow, and the Times decided it was important to discuss his pivotal role in U.S. operations in Yemen, where dozens of suspected terrorists have been targeted by drones, beforehand.

Previously, the government worried that the Saudis “might shut it down because the citizenry would be very upset,” so when the location “was a footnote,” the Times complied, Baquet said. “We have to balance that concern with reporting the news.” (Fox News, too, appears to have published the Saudi Arabian base location briefly in 2011 before switching to the more general “Arabian Peninsula.”)

When the location was a footnote? As decided by whom: the White House? And I have to laugh at Baquet’s comment about “[balancing] that concern with reporting the news.” Forgive me for assuming that reporting on secretive government wartime activity conducted without the knowledge of its taxpaying citizens might be considered, without resorting to qualification or euphemism, damn newsworthy. Forgive me further for daring to presume that government “concern” is a stalling tactic as old as the media and the state themselves, and that the Times, which published the Pentagon Papers and the Wikileaks cables, must know a little something about that. Even the Times‘ normally decent public editor Margaret Sullivan scored an assist on the coverup this time:

One of its revelations is the location of a drone base in Saudi Arabia. The Times and other news organizations, including The Washington Post, had withheld the location of that base at the request of the C.I.A., but The Times decided to reveal it now because, according to the managing editor Dean Baquet, it was at the heart of this particular article and because examining Mr. Brennan’s role demanded it…

If it was ever appropriate to withhold the information, that time was over. The drone program needs as much sunlight as possible. This is another crucial step in the right direction.

No, a crucial step in the right direction would have been to publish that remarkable story back when the Times actually found out about it. Amazing that the newspaper had no problem helping to push us into war in Iraq with shoddy, factually incorrect reporting, but it now claims the mantle of journalistic responsibility in defense of delaying the reporting of relevant facts about our ever-expanding drone wars. Here’s the Washington Post‘s equally appalling take:

The Post learned Tuesday night that another news organization was planning to reveal the location of the base, effectively ending an informal arrangement among several news organizations that had been aware of the location for more than a year.

In China, of course, this would be called government censorship. But here in the United States, it’s just old-fashioned journalistic integrity. Glad we have that cleared up.

The future of journalism?

Screen Shot 2012-12-20 at 10.21.14 PM

Am I going too far? All the cool kids on the Internet (such as Jay Rosen) are buzzing about the New York Times‘ special multimedia feature, “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek:”

I’ve never seen a better design for any story online. It sets a new standard, in my opinion. Now in saying that I am NOT saying “there’s never been anything like it.” Nor am I saying: this is the future of journalism. Nor am I saying that everyone can do this. I’m saying only what I said: in my opinion, it sets a new standard in digital storytelling.

Rarely have I personally been so excited by anything the New York Times has done. But this is truly impressive: an old-media organization standing up to be counted in the twenty-first century. Obviously this level of graphical detail and interactive content is simply too time-intensive and costly to incorporate into most stories, but it absolutely raises the bar for future feature pieces by anyone online.

Hide your kids, hide your wife: Thomas Friedman is back and pontificating

ThomasFriedmanI just conducted a quick spot check, and was horrified to learn that — in the entire history of this blog — I have devoted only two posts to mocking New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. This is really too bad, as he deserves regular treatment of this sort on a monthly basis, at the very least. (Turns out, in fact, that my first post on Sir Thomas was actually my first-ever post on this blog, which I launched on December 12, 2010. Can I get a “happy two-year anniversary?”)

As you’ve probably guessed by now, Friedman has caught my attention again with his latest missive, which you really should go take several minutes to read. Let’s examine the opening line:

When you fly along the Mediterranean today, what do you see below?

Now be careful here. This may seem like a question with a remarkably obvious answer, but you only think this because you’re not Thomas Friedman. If you were, in fact, Thomas Friedman — God save us all — you’d know that, when life gives you lemons, it’s time to make lemonade.

Now you may be asking yourself, “But what does that have to do with not knowing where you are when you’re flying along the Mediterranean?” But again, as you know — starting to get the hang of this? — you’re not Thomas Friedman. In fact, if you were Thomas Friedman, you’d likely have written some tired cliche like “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” many times by now in your columns. And you would have known this axiom to be useful because both a cabdriver you once met in Amman and a flight attendant on Singapore Airlines have said it to you. And both of those people’s companies use solar panels. And so all of this is why it is not remarkably obvious to Thomas Friedman that all one needs to do to figure out what one sees below oneself when one is flying along the Mediterranean is to…look down.


If Syria and Egypt both unravel at once, this whole region will be destabilized. That’s why a billboard on the road to the Pyramids said it all: “God save Egypt.”

Oh. Yes, that explains it.

Having watched a young, veiled, Egyptian female reporter tear into a Muslim Brotherhood official the other day over the group’s recent autocratic and abusive behavior, I can assure you that the fight here is not between more religious and less religious Egyptians.

You can be forgiven for thinking that extrapolating one angry journalist’s question into a nationwide trend is a bit of a specious argument. Or that assuming any Egyptian veil-sporting female must be a card-carrying member of the Muslim Brotherhood is just downright stupid. But then, you’ve clearly forgotten who employs Thomas Friedman: the New York Times is notorious for its three-instances-make-a-trend approach to narrative-building, so the fact that Friedman has downsized to a mere one-instance-makes-a-trend paradigm is simply a reflection of his desire to conserve energy and save our planet. As we should be doing but aren’t, because we’re not China. (Yet. Maybe someday?)

Whenever anyone asked me what I saw in Tahrir Square during that original revolution, I told them I saw a tiger that had been living in a 5-by-8 cage for 60 years get released. And there are three things I can tell you about the tiger: 1) Tiger is never going back in that cage; 2) Do not try to ride tiger for your own narrow purposes or party because this tiger only serves Egypt as a whole; 3) Tiger only eats beef. He has been fed every dog food lie in the Arabic language for 60 years, so don’t try doing it again.

I am astonished that Friedman forgot to insert a Tiger/Tigris pun here. How could he have let this opportunity slip by? Sure, Egypt’s not Iraq, but Syria isn’t either and that never stopped Sir Thomas. By the way, why didn’t anyone else covering the Tahrir Square protests in 2011 notice a tiger escaping from his cage and making a beeline for the nearest beef steakhouse? Why did only Thomas Friedman see this? I’m starting to understand why he couldn’t see the Mediterranean below him earlier: while everyone else saw the sea, he was staring at a blue monkey playing the harmonica. A solar-powered harmonica.

Friedman closes:

God is not going to save Egypt. It will be saved only if the opposition here respects that the Muslim Brotherhood won the election fairly — and resists its excesses not with boycotts (or dreams of a coup) but with better ideas that win the public to the opposition’s side. And it will be saved only if Morsi respects that elections are not winner-take-all, especially in a society that is still defining its new identity, and stops grabbing authority and starts earning it. Otherwise, it will be all fall down.

I’m going out on a limb here, but I’d always thought a relatively secular, progressive, democratic government was a better idea than one that strong-arms the opposition and attempts to consolidate power by pushing through an unpopular constitution. So doesn’t that mean the Egyptian opposition has already taken Friedman’s advice to heart? And if so, why hasn’t the public been won to their side?

Maybe it’s because Egypt is more complicated than all that. But more likely, it’s because they haven’t yet learned to make lemonade.

Republican unity is a figment of the Times’ imagination

Contra the post immediately before this one, New York Times reporter Jennifer Steinhauer has a piece today talking up Speaker of the House John Boehner’s supposed “strong backing” in Congress’ lower chamber:

With a daunting fiscal crisis looming and conservatives outside the House torching him at every turn, Speaker John A. Boehner might be assumed to have a shaky hold on his gavel. Instead, it appears he is enjoying the broadest support of his tumultuous two-year speakership from House Republicans.

As Mr. Boehner digs in for a tense fiscal confrontation with President Obama, the strong embrace from a broad spectrum of the rank and file may empower him as he tries to strike a deal on spending cuts and tax increases that spares the country a recession, without costing Republicans too much in terms of political principle.

The problem is, nowhere in the article does Steinhauer present even a reasonable facsimile of evidence supporting her hypothesis. At one point she writes that “member after member spoke in support of” Boehner at a private House Republican meeting, and elsewhere quotes from a handful of post-election chastened Republicans who are now more willing to accept compromise in theory (if not in practice). These vignettes, paired with the observation that Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor have signed onto Boehner’s $800 billion proposal — a brief moment of agreement on an issue on which even Republicans in Steinhauer’s article admit they have virtually no leverage — constitute the near-totality of Steinhauer’s thesis.

Must be a slow news day over at the Grey Lady, so they decided to concoct some of their own.

Now searchable: the New York Times crosswords

Zachary M. Seward takes a lookaol at the appearance of “AOL” in the vaunted crossword puzzle over the years:

There are many ways to tell the story of AOL and its numerous reinventions, so here’s just one: The New York Times Crossword. With just a few letters, most of which are vowels, AOL is a common crutch of cruciverbalists. (See also: APE, EPEE, and BRIO.)

Below, I’ve compiled nearly every appearance of AOL in the Times crossword from 1997 to 2011, taking the company on a journey from “Prodigy competitor” (Jan. 14, 1997) to “Netcom competitor” (Mar. 29, 1998) to ”Juno rival” (Apr. 6, 2003) to “Gmail alternative” (June 5, 2007) to “Yahoo! competitor” (May 10, 2010)—oh, and finally, “Huffington Post buyer” (Apr. 17, 2011) and ”Company with Patch Media” (Oct. 9, 2011). There are many other gems in between.

Irony of the day

Today’s New York Times reports on Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to expand settlements by building 3,000 new housing units in the Palestinian land known as E1 (just east of Jerusalem proper). But the way reporter Isabel Kershner concluded the article suggests a certain wry sensibility about Israel’s endless self-delusion:

But beyond the tit-for-tat measures set off by the United Nations vote, analysts pointed to a trend of deteriorating relations between Israel and Europe in particular.

“That is because the top-level people making decisions here in recent years are completely insular and out of touch with the rest of the world, especially regarding the Palestinians and the settlements,” said Mark Heller, a foreign-policy analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “Self-righteousness may be good for domestic politics,” he said, but it is not a policy.”

At the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, 138 nations voted in favor of upgrading the status of the Palestinians and 41 abstained. The nine that voted against it were Israel, the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Panama and Palau.

Yes, Mr. Heller, key decision-makers in the 138 countries that voted in favor of Palestinian observer status at the United Nations are out of touch with the “rest of the world,” by which he means the nine countries that voted no. At this point, Israeli rhetoric has entered a self-parodic stage.