It’s really problematic that most people get their news via algorithmic news feeds.
On August 3, 2018, Facebook went down for 45 minutes. That’s a little baby outage compared to the one this week, when, on October 4, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp were down for more than five hours. Three years ago, the 45-minute Facebook break was enough to get people to go read news elsewhere, Chartbeat‘s Josh Schwartz wrote for us at the time.
So what happened this time around? For a whopping five-hours-plus, people read news, according to data Chartbeat gave us this week. (And they went to Twitter; Chartbeat saw Twitter traffic up 72%. If Bad Art Friend had been published on the same day as the Facebook outage, Twitter would have literally exploded, presumably.)
This is interesting: the Associated Press are no longer going to name people involved in minor crimes. I have to agree with their rationale.
These minor stories, which only cover an arrest, have long lives on the internet. AP’s broad distribution network can make it difficult for the suspects named in such items to later gain employment or just move on in their lives.
Broadly speaking, when evaluating such stories, we should consider first whether the story is worthy of our news report, and if distributing it is indeed useful to our members and customers. If the answer is yes, in keeping with AP’s commitment to fairness, we now will no longer name suspects in brief stories about minor crimes in which there is little chance AP will provide coverage beyond the initial arrest.
Digital mediation, decentralisation, and context collapse
Is social media 'real life'? A recent Op-Ed in The New York Times certainly things so:
An argument about Twitter — or any part of the internet — as “real life” is frequently an argument about what voices “matter” in our national conversation. Not just which arguments are in the bounds of acceptable public discourse, but also which ideas are considered as legitimate for mass adoption. It is a conversation about the politics of the possible. That conversation has many gatekeepers — politicians, the press, institutions of all kinds. And frequently they lack creativity.
Charlie Warzel (The New York Times)
I've certainly been a proponent over the years for the view that digital interactions are no less 'real' than analogue ones. Yes, you're reading a book when you do so on an e-reader. That's right, you're meeting someone when doing so over video conference. And correct, engaging in a Twitter thread counts as a conversation.
Now that everyone's interacting via digital devices during the pandemic, things that some parts of the population refused to count as 'normal' have at least been normalised. It's been great to see so much IRL mobilisation due to protests that started online, for example with the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag.
With this very welcome normalisation, however, I'm not sure there's a general understanding about how digital spaces mediate our interactions. Offline, our conversations are mediated by the context in which we find ourselves: we speak differently at home, on the street, and in the pub. Meanwhile, online, we experience context collapse as we take our smartphones everywhere.
We forget that we interact in algorithmically-curated environments that favour certain kinds of interactions over others. Sometimes these algorithms can be fairly blunt instruments, for example when 'Dominic Cummings' didn't trend on Twitter despite him being all over the news. Why? Because of anti-porn filters.
Other times, things are quite subtle. I've spoken on numerous occasions why I don't use Facebook products. Part of the reason for this is that I don't trust their privacy practices or algorithms. For example, a recent study showed that Instagram (which, of course, is owned by Facebook) actively encourages users to show some skin.
While Instagram claims that the newsfeed is organized according to what a given user “cares about most”, the company’s patent explains that it could actually be ranked according to what it thinks all users care about. Whether or not users see the pictures posted by the accounts they follow depends not only on their past behavior, but also on what Instagram believes is most engaging for other users of the platform.
Judith Duportail, Nicolas Kayser-Bril, Kira Schacht and Édouard Richard (Algorithm Watch)
The problem with social networks as news platforms is that they are not neutral spaces. Perhaps the easiest way to get quickly to the nub of the issue is to ask how they are funded. The answer is clear and unequivocal: through advertising. The two biggest social networks, Twitter and Facebook (which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp), are effectively “services with shareholders.” Your interactions with other people, with media, and with adverts, are what provide shareholder value. Lest we forget, CEOs of publicly-listed companies have a legal obligation to provide shareholder value. In an advertising-fueled online world this means continually increasing the number of eyeballs looking at (and fingers clicking on) content.
Doug Belshaw (Connected learning Alliance)
Herein lies the difficulty. We can't rely on platforms backed by venture capital as they end up incentivised to do the wrong kinds of things. Equally, no-one is going to want to use a platform provided by a government.
This is why really do still believe that decentralisation is the answer here. Local moderation by people you know and/or trust that can happen on an individual or instance level. Algorithmic curation for the benefit of users which can be turned on or off by the user. Scaling both vertically and horizontally.
At the moment it's not the tech that's holding people back from such decentralisation but rather two things. The first is the mental model of decentralisation. I think that's easy to overcome, as back in 2007 people didn't really 'get' Twitter, etc. The second one is much more difficult, and is around the dopamine hit you get from posting something on social media and becoming a minor celebrity. Although it's possible to replicate this in decentralised environments, I'm not sure we'd necessarily want to?
Slightly modified quotation-as-title by D.H. Lawrence. Header image byPrateek Katyal
My writing epiphany — which arrived decades into my writing career — was that even though there were days when the writing felt unbearably awful, and some when it felt like I was mainlining some kind of powdered genius and sweating it out through my fingertips, there was no relation between the way I felt about the words I was writing and their objective quality, assessed in the cold light of day at a safe distance from the day I wrote them. The biggest predictor of how I felt about my writing was how I felt about me. If I was stressed, underslept, insecure, sad, hungry or hungover, my writing felt terrible. If I was brimming over with joy, the writing felt brilliant.
Cory Doctorow (CBC)
Such great advice in here from the prolific Cory Doctorow. Not only is he a great writer, he's a great speaker, too. I think both come from practice and clarity of thought.
This is a site that specialises in important and interesting news that is updated regularly, but not on an hour-by-hour (or even daily) basis. A wonderful antidote to staring at your social media feed for updates!
There’s actually a mountain of compelling evidence that the single most important ingredient for healthy, high-performing teams is simple: it’s trust. When Google famously crunched the data on hundreds of high-performing teams, they were surprised to find that one variable mattered more than any other: “emotional safety.” Also known as: “psychological security.” Also known as: trust.
I used to work with Matt at Mozilla, and he's a pretty great person to work alongside. He's got a book coming out this year, and Laura (another former Mozilla colleague, but also a current co-op colleague!) drew my attention to this.
I Illustrated National Parks In America Based On Their Worst Review And I Hope They Will Make You Laugh (16 Pics)
I'm an illustrator and I have always had a personal goal to draw all 62 US National Parks, but I wanted to find a unique twist for the project. When I found that there are one-star reviews for every single park, the idea for Subpar Parks was born. For each park, I hand-letter a line from the one-star reviews alongside my illustration of each park as my way of putting a fun and beautiful twist on the negativity.
Amber Share (Bored Panda)
I love this, especially as the illustrations are so beautiful and the comments so banal.
We know, for instance, that smartphone use is associated with depression in teens. Smartphone use certainly could be the culprit, but it’s also possible the story is more complicated; perhaps the causal relationship works the other way around, and depression drives teenagers to spend more time on their devices. Or, perhaps other details about their life—say, their family background or level of physical activity—affect both their mental health and their screen time. In short: Human behavior is messy, and measuring that behavior is even messier.
Jane C. Hu (Slate)
This, via Ian O'Byrne, is a useful read for anyone who deals with kids, especially teenagers.
For months, writers have been showering us with multiple, ongoing series of articles, all focused on different dimensions of open organizational theory and practice. That's led to to a real embarrassment of riches—so many great pieces, so little time to catch them all.
So let's take moment to reflect. If you missed one (or several) now's your chance to catch up.
Bryan Behrenshausen (Opensource.com)
I've already shared some of the articles in this roundup, but I encourage you to check out the rest, and subscribe to opensource.com. It's a great source of information and guidance.
Capitalism has always transformed people into latent resources, whether as labor to exploit for making products or as consumers to devour those products. But now, online services make ordinary people enact both roles: Twitter or Instagram followers for conversion into scrap income for an influencer side hustle; Facebook likes transformed into News Feed-delivery refinements; Tinder swipes that avoid the nuisance of the casual encounters that previously fueled urban delight. Every profile pic becomes a passerby—no need for an encounter, even.
Ian Bogost (The Atlantic)
An amazing piece of writing, in which Ian Bogost not only surveys previous experiences with 'strangers' but applies it to the internet. As he points out, there is a huge convenience factor in not knowing who made your sandwich. I've pointed out before that capitalism is all about scale, and at the end of the day, caring doesn't scale, and scaling doesn't care.
We desire quality moments and to make quality memories. It's tempting to think that we can create quality time just by designating it so, such as via a vacation. That generally ends up backfiring due to our raised expectations being let down by reality. If we expect that our vacation is going to be perfect, any single mistake ruins the experience
In contrast, you are likely to get a positive surprise when you have low expectations, which is likely the case during a "normal day". It’s hard to match perfection, and easy to beat normal. Because of this, it's more likely quality moments come out of chance
If you can't engineer quality time, and it's more a matter of random events, it follows that you want to increase how often such events happen. You can't increase the probability, but you can increase the duration for such events to occur. Put another way, you want to increase quantity of time, and not engineer quality time.
Leon Lin (Avoid boring people)
There's a lot of other interesting-but-irrelevant things in this newsletter, so scroll to the bottom for the juicy bit. I've quoted the most pertinent point, which I definitely agree with. There's wisdom in Gramsci's quotation about having "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will".
The prodigal tech bro doesn’t want structural change. He is reassurance, not revolution. He’s invested in the status quo, if we can only restore the founders’ purity of intent. Sure, we got some things wrong, he says, but that’s because we were over-optimistic / moved too fast / have a growth mindset. Just put the engineers back in charge / refocus on the original mission / get marketing out of the c-suite. Government “needs to step up”, but just enough to level the playing field / tweak the incentives. Because the prodigal techbro is a moderate, centrist, regular guy. Dammit, he’s a Democrat. Those others who said years ago what he’s telling you right now? They’re troublemakers, disgruntled outsiders obsessed with scandal and grievance. He gets why you ignored them. Hey, he did, too. He knows you want to fix this stuff. But it’s complicated. It needs nuance. He knows you’ll listen to him. Dude, he’s just like you…
Maria Farrell (The Conversationalist)
Now that we're experiencing something of a 'techlash' it's unsurprising that those who created surveillance capitalism have had a 'road to Damascus' experience. That doesn't mean, as Maria Farrell points out, that we should all of a sudden consider them to be moral authorities.
Benedict Evans recently posted his annual 'macro trends' slide deck. It's incredibly insightful, and work of (minimalist) art. This article's title comes from his conclusion, and you can see below which of the 128 slides jumped out at me from deck:
For me, what the deck as a whole does is place some of the issues I've been thinking about in a wider context.
My team is building a federated social network for educators, so I'm particularly tuned-in to conversations about the effect social media is having on society. A post by Harold Jarche where he writes about his experience of Twitter as a rage machine caught my attention, especially the part where he talks about how people are happy to comment based on the 'preview' presented to them in embedded tweets:
Research on the self-perception of knowledge shows how viewing previews without going to the original article gives an inflated sense of understanding on the subject, “audiences who only read article previews are overly confident in their knowledge, especially individuals who are motivated to experience strong emotions and, thus, tend to form strong opinions.” Social media have created a worldwide Dunning-Kruger effect. Our collective self-perception of knowledge acquired through social media is greater than it actually is.
I think our experiment with general-purpose social networks is slowly coming to an end, or at least will do over the next decade. What I mean is that, while we'll still have places where you can broadcast anything to anyone, the digital environments we'll spend more time will be what Venkatesh Rao calls the 'cozyweb':
Unlike the main public internet, which runs on the (human) protocol of “users” clicking on links on public pages/apps maintained by “publishers”, the cozyweb works on the (human) protocol of everybody cutting-and-pasting bits of text, images, URLs, and screenshots across live streams. Much of this content is poorly addressable, poorly searchable, and very vulnerable to bitrot. It lives in a high-gatekeeping slum-like space comprising slacks, messaging apps, private groups, storage services like dropbox, and of course, email.
That's on a personal level. I should imagine organisational spaces will be a bit more organised. Back to Jarche:
We need safe communities to take time for reflection, consideration, and testing out ideas without getting harassed. Professional social networks and communities of practices help us make sense of the world outside the workplace. They also enable each of us to bring to bear much more knowledge and insight that we could do on our own.
...or to use Rao's diagram which is so-awful-it's-useful:
Of course, blockchain/crypto could come along and solve all of our problems. Except it won't. Humans are humans (are humans).
Ever since Eli Parisier's TED talk urging us to beware online "filter bubbles" people have been wringing their hands about ensuring we have 'balance' in our networks.
Interestingly, some recent research by the Reuters Institute at Oxford University, paints a slightly different picture. The researcher, Dr Richard Fletcher begins by investigating how people access the news.
Fletcher draws a distinction between different types of personalisation:
Self-selected personalisation refers to the personalisations that we voluntarily do to ourselves, and this is particularly important when it comes to news use. People have always made decisions in order to personalise their news use. They make decisions about what newspapers to buy, what TV channels to watch, and at the same time which ones they would avoid
Academics call this selective exposure. We know that it's influenced by a range of different things such as people's interest levels in news, their political beliefs and so on. This is something that has pretty much always been true.
Pre-selected personalisation is the personalisation that is done to people, sometimes by algorithms, sometimes without their knowledge. And this relates directly to the idea of filter bubbles because algorithms are possibly making choices on behalf of people and they may not be aware of it.
The reason this distinction is particularly important is because we should avoid comparing pre-selected personalisation and its effects with a world where people do not do any kind of personalisation to themselves. We can't assume that offline, or when people are self-selecting news online, they're doing it in a completely random way. People are always engaging in personalisation to some extent and if we want to understand the extent of pre-selected personalisation, we have to compare it with the realistic alternative, not hypothetical ideals.
Dr Richard Fletcher
Read the article for the details, but the takeaways for me were twofold. First, that we might be blaming social media for wider and deeper divisons within society, and second, that teaching people to search for information (rather than stumble across it via feeds) might be the best strategy:
People who use search engines for news on average use more news sources than people who don't. More importantly, they're more likely to use sources from both the left and the right. People who rely mainly on self-selection tend to have fairly imbalanced news diets. They either have more right-leaning or more left-leaning sources. People who use search engines tend to have a more even split between the two.
Dr Richard Fletcher
Useful as it is, what I think this research misses out is the 'black box' algorithms that seek to keep people engaged and consuming content. YouTube is the poster child for this. As Jarche comments:
We are left in a state of constant doubt as conspiratorial content becomes easier to access on platforms like YouTube than accessing solid scientific information in a journal, much of which is behind a pay-wall and inaccessible to the general public.
This isn't an easy problem to solve.
We might like to pretend that human beings are rational agents, but this isn't actually true. Let's take something like climate change. We're not arguing about the facts here, we're arguing about politics. Adrian Bardon, writing in Fast Company, writes:
In theory, resolving factual disputes should be relatively easy: Just present evidence of a strong expert consensus. This approach succeeds most of the time, when the issue is, say, the atomic weight of hydrogen.
But things don’t work that way when the scientific consensus presents a picture that threatens someone’s ideological worldview. In practice, it turns out that one’s political, religious, or ethnic identity quite effectively predicts one’s willingness to accept expertise on any given politicized issue.
This is pretty obvious when we stop to think about it for a moment; beliefs are bound up with identity, and that's not something that's so easy to change.
In ideologically charged situations, one’s prejudices end up affecting one’s factual beliefs. Insofar as you define yourself in terms of your cultural affiliations, information that threatens your belief system—say, information about the negative effects of industrial production on the environment—can threaten your sense of identity itself. If it’s part of your ideological community’s worldview that unnatural things are unhealthful, factual information about a scientific consensus on vaccine or GM food safety feels like a personal attack.
So how do we change people's minds when they're objectively wrong?Brian Resnick, writing for Vox, suggests the best approach might be 'deep canvassing':
Giving grace. Listening to a political opponent’s concerns. Finding common humanity. In 2020, these seem like radical propositions. But when it comes to changing minds, they work.
The new research shows that if you want to change someone’s mind, you need to have patience with them, ask them to reflect on their life, and listen. It’s not about calling people out or labeling them fill-in-the-blank-phobic. Which makes it feel like a big departure from a lot of the current political dialogue.
This approach, it seems, works:
So it seems there is some hope to fixing the world's problems. It's just that the solutions point towards doing the hard work of talking to people and not just treating them as containers for opinions to shoot down at a distance.
Philosopher and intrepid walker Friedrich Nietzsche is well known for today's quotation-as-title. Fellow philosopher Immanuel Kant was a keen walker, too, along with Henry David Thoreau. There's just something about big walks and big thoughts.
I spent a good part of yesterday walking about 30km because I woke wanting to see the sea. It has a calming effect on me, and my wife was at work with the car. Forty-thousand steps later, I'd not only succeeded in my mission and taken the photo that accompanies this post, but managed to think about all kinds of things that definitely wouldn't have entered my mind had I stayed at home.
I want to focus the majority of this article on a single piece of writing by Craig Mod, whose walk across Japan I followed by SMS. Instead of sharing the details of his 620 mile, six-week trek via social media, he instead updated a server which then sent text messages (with photographs, so technically MMS) to everyone who'd signed up to receive them. Readers could reply, but he didn't receive these until he'd finished the walk and they'd been automatically curated into a book and sent to him.
Writing in WIRED, Mod talks of his "glorious, almost-disconnected walk" which was part experiment, part protest:
I have configured servers, written code, built web pages, helped design products used by millions of people. I am firmly in the camp that believes technology is generally bending the world in a positive direction. Yet, for me, Twitter foments neurosis, Facebook sadness, Google News a sense of foreboding. Instagram turns me covetous. All of them make me want to do it—whatever “it” may be—for the likes, the comments. I can’t help but feel that I am the worst version of myself, being performative on a very short, very depressing timeline. A timeline of seconds.
So, a month ago, when I started walking, I decided to conduct an experiment. Maybe even a protest. I wanted to test hypotheses. Our smartphones are incredible machines, and to throw them away entirely feels foolhardy. The idea was not to totally disconnect, but to test rational, metered uses of technology. I wanted to experience the walk as the walk, in all of its inevitably boring walkiness. To bask in serendipitous surrealism, not just as steps between reloading my streams. I wanted to experience time.
I love this, it's so inspiring. The most number of consecutive days I've walked is only two, so I can't even really imagine what it must be like to walk for weeks at a time. It's a form of meditation, I suppose, and a way to re-centre oneself.
The longness of an activity is important. Hours or even days don’t really cut it when it comes to long. “Long” begins with weeks. Weeks of day-after-day long walking days, 30- or 40-kilometer days. Days that leave you wilted and aware of all the neglect your joints and muscles have endured during the last decade of sedentary YouTubing.
In the context of a walk like this, “boredom” is a goal, the antipode of mindless connectivity, constant stimulation, anger and dissatisfaction. I put “boredom” in quotes because the boredom I’m talking about fosters a heightened sense of presence. To be “bored” is to be free of distraction.
I find that when I walk for any period of time, certain songs start going through my head. Yesterday, for example, my brain put on repeat the song Good Enough by Dodgy from their album Free Peace Sweet. The time before it was We Can Do It from Jamiroquai's latest album Automaton. I'm not sure where it comes from, although the beat does have something to do with my pace.
Walking by oneself seems to do something to the human brain akin to unlocking the subconscious. That's why I'm not alone in calling it a 'meditative' activity. While I enjoy walking with others, the brain seems to start working a different way when you're by yourself being propelled by your own two legs.
It's easy to feel like we're not 'keeping up' with work, with family and friends, and with the news. The truth is, however, that the most important person to 'keep up' with is yourself. Having a strong sense of self, I believe, is the best way to live a life with meaning.
It might sound 'boring' to go for a long walk, but as Alain de Botton notes in The News: a user's manual, getting out of our routine is sometimes exactly what we need:
What we colloquially call 'feeling bored' is just the mind, acting out of a self-preserving reflex, ejecting information it has despaired of knowing where to place.
Alain de Botton
I'm not going to tell you what I thought about during my walk today as, outside of the rich (inner and outer) context in which the thinking took place, whatever I write would probably sound banal.
To me, however, the thoughts I had today will, like all of the thoughts I've had while doing some serious walking, help me organise my future actions. Perhaps that's what Nietzsche meant when he said that only thoughts conceived while walking have any value.
Also check out:
One step ahead: how walking opens new horizons(The Guardian) — "Walking provides just enough diversion to occupy the conscious mind, but sets our subconscious free to roam. Trivial thoughts mingle with important ones, memories sharpen, ideas and insights drift to the surface."
A Philosophy of Walking(Frédéric Gros) — "a bestseller in France, leading thinker Frédéric Gros charts the many different ways we get from A to B—the pilgrimage, the promenade, the protest march, the nature ramble—and reveals what they say about us."
What 10,000 Steps Will Really Get You(The Atlantic) — "While basic guidelines can be helpful when they’re accurate, human health is far too complicated to be reduced to a long chain of numerical imperatives. For some people, these rules can even do more harm than good."
David Byrne, a talented musician and author of one of my favourite books, has started a great new project:
I imagine, like a lot of you who look back over the past year, it seems like the world is going to Hell. I wake up in the morning, look at the paper, and go, "Oh no!" Often I’m depressed for half the day. It doesn’t matter how you voted on Brexit, the French elections or the U.S. election—many of us of all persuasions and party affiliations feel remarkably similar.
As a kind of remedy and possibly as a kind of therapy, I started collecting good news that reminded me, “Hey, there’s actually some positive stuff going on!” Almost all of these initiatives are local, they come from cities or small regions who have taken it upon themselves to try something that might offer a better alternative than what exits. Hope is often local. Change begins in communities.
The website will include material that falls into some pre-defined categories:
These bits of good news tend to fall into a few categories:
I'm looking forward to following his progress. I'd prefer an RSS feed, but you can follow along on social media or (like me) sign up by email.