Archive for the 'Media ecology' Category

Instagram, Youtube and the astonishing stats of photo uploads

[link] Monday, November 11th, 2013

Benedict Evans has an interesting blog post about the way social media and user-generated content is changing. His statistics for photo-uploads are particularly intriguing. Excerpt:

Facebook’s latest disclosure is that 55m photos are shared a day on Instagram, and another 350m on Facebook itself.  But 350m a day are also shared on Snapchat, and 400m on Whatsapp. And we don’t know the numbers for Line, or WeChat, or the next half-dozen services to be launched that we haven’t seen yet. Meanwhile Instagram has 150m monthly active users but Whatsapp has 350m and there are close to a dozen others with more than Instagram. 

So as it turns out, Facebook did not solve the unbundling problem by buying Instagram – even in photos. It bought just one of many mobile social products, and not even the biggest. 

All of these new services are driven by the fact that smartphones have characteristics that remove most of the defensive barriers that Facebook has on the desktop:

The smartphone address book is a ready-made social graph that all apps can tap into

The photo library is open to all apps

Push notifications remove the need to check multiple sites

Home screen icons are easier to switch between than different websites

The fluidity with which you can move between these apps seems to be breeding very fluid use cases. The original analysis was that these were unbundling Facebook in a semi-coherent way – most obviously, Instagram was taking photos, a core Facebook use case, and moving them to a different, specialised app. But it doesn’t seem to be as clearly defined as that.

Interesting that Flickr is just an also-ran in this arena. But that may be because Flickr users see themselves more as photographers rather than online socialites.

Banish the trolls but online debate needs (a degree of) anonymity

[link] Sunday, August 25th, 2013

This morning’s Observer column.

So the proprietor of the Huffington Post has decided to ban anonymous commenting from the site, starting in mid-September. Speaking to reporters after a conference in Boston, Arianna Huffington said: “Trolls are just getting more and more aggressive and uglier and I just came from London where there are rape and death threats. I feel that freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they say and [are] not hiding behind anonymity. We need to evolve a platform to meet the needs of the grown-up internet.”

Quite so. I can see heads nodding in agreement. After all, much anonymous online commenting seems to be stupid, nasty, vicious and ignorant. And that’s just the stuff that isn’t tangential to the topic of the article being commented on. If people have to take responsibility for what they say in public, then they will surely behave better.

That seems like common sense. Whether it is supported by evidence is, however, uncertain because at the moment there isn’t much research, and what there is seems to be mostly anecdotal…

There are, it seems to me, two kinds of problems with online commenting in its current form. The first is bad or pathological behaviour — trolling etc. As I say in the column, there are ways of dealing with that. And there’s always Anil Dash’s method — see his terrific post “If your website’s full of assholes, it’s your fault”. The second problem is that of harnessing the possibilities of online discussion as a way of enlarging and enhancing the public sphere. Many comments are thoughtful, informed and pertinent, and yet are submerged in morasses of incivility and webs of incomprehensible infighting. Which leads to the thought that perhaps the problem is architectural. Maybe web sites are providing the wrong sort of virtual space. After all, as someone once said, if you provide a boxing ring, people will fight.

Mat Honan has an interesting thought about this. For too long, he says, comments have been stuck in overlooked back alleys where anyone can leave digital graffiti on online real estate.

We’ve bought into the fallacy of comments so completely that they remain nearly universal—and universally terrible. A lot of people have tried to fix them. Yet, as Digg CEO Andrew McLaughlin says, “everyone who runs a commenting system ends up killing themselves or shooting up a post office.” It’s hyperbole, sure, but trying to wrangle online conversations is a messy, frustrating, and typically thankless affair that involves more time than most people have. Even a dedicated team of moderators can hardly compete with legions of trolls and spambots. Nonetheless, lots of people are trying to make you read the comments again—because in those rare moments when comments are great, they are some of the best parts of the Internet.

The most talked-about new system is probably Branch, which moves discussions over to its site and lets publishers select the best threads to embed on their own pages. Want to weigh in? You’ll need to be invited by a discussion’s host or one of its participants. That barrier to entry cuts down on toxic drive-by commenting. When people have to be invited, they’re less likely to be jackasses.

Meanwhile, Gawker built an entirely new publishing platform based on commenting. Called Kinja, it lets authors and readers isolate thought-provoking discussions so every comment isn’t just vomited up chronologically. But Kinja isn’t only about bringing civility; it’s also about moving the story forward by treating an article as a starting point rather than a product. This doesn’t happen magically—it takes work. Writers must actually dive into discussions to surface interesting conversations.

Both of these systems treat discussions as independent acts instead of afterthoughts. “If you want quality conversation, you have to elevate it,” says Josh Miller, who cofounded Branch.

PS: After writing this I came on a lovely cartoon in the New Yorker. It shows Moses reading out the Tablets to the assembled Israelites. At the back, a chap has put up his hand. “Does it have a section at the bottom for comments?” he asks.

Why are so many British journalists so cowed by spooks?

[link] Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

Interesting to read this — in a German magazine.

It’s astonishing to see how many Britons blindly and uncritically trust the work of their intelligence service. Some still see the GCHQ as a club of amiable gentlemen in shabby tweed jackets who cracked the Nazis’ Enigma coding machine in World War II. The majority of people instinctively rally round their government on key issues of defense policy, sovereignty and home rule — even though the threat to the “national security” of the United Kingdom emanating from Edward Snowden is nothing more than an allegation at the moment. Those in power in Westminster have become used to journalists deferring to national interests when it comes to intelligence issues.

The spies expect preemptive subservience and discretion from the country’s press, and they often get what they want. There is no other explanation for the matter-of-factness with which government officials and GCHQ employees contacted Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger to demand the surrender or destruction of hard drives. What is surprising is the self-assurance that led the powerful to believe that none of this would ever come to light. According to the newspaper, after the hard drives had been destroyed in the Guardian’s basement, an intelligence agent joked: “We can call off the black helicopters.”

Those words reflect the government’s need for chummy proximity. Journalists must avoid such attempts at ingratiation from the powerful, even if it means that they are occasionally denied information and exclusive stories from intelligence sources.

Yep. It’s all part of British elites’ inability to get rid of Imperial afterglow. And it’s also why so many journalists are hostile to people like Glenn Greenwald and Wikileaks. They view them as uncredentialled interlopers on their precious professional turf.

What now for the WashPo?

[link] Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

I guess that most normal people, upon learning that Jeff Bezos has bought the Washington Post, will just shrug and move on. For folks in the universe that I inhabit, in contrast, it’s a really intriguing development. This is the first time that someone who really understands the digital world has acquired a leading newspaper. So this story is not just about the future of a single US paper. It may have useful lessons for the entire industry. The shrewdest comments on the development that I’ve seen so far come from the Reuters columnist, Jack Shafer. Here’s an extract:

In acquiring the Washington Post, Bezos enters a business that is not radically different from the ones he already owns. Reporters and editors like to think their literary arts are central to newspapering. But it’s better to think of a newspaper as a coordination problem that manufacturing and distribution solves daily: Copy, art, and advertising is beamed from newsroom to printing plant, bundled newspapers flow from the plant to trucks, are transferred to carriers, and are delivered to your front door. Nobody knows more about deadline deliveries and distribution than Bezos’s Amazon, which has spoiled several nations with its reliable service. I can’t imagine what plans Bezos has for the print edition of the paper—if I did, I’d be worth $25.2 billion—but I’m confident that he will maximize the value of the existing Post delivery system in novel ways. It would not surprise me to see him use the Post network of trucks and carriers to enter the local delivery business as a pilot project. Obviously, he’s learned a lot from same-day delivery he could share with the paper.

Although most of us think of Amazon as a retailer, the computer sector has long regarded it as a tech company, competing with IBM, Microsoft, Google, and others as a seller of “cloud” computing power through its Amazon Web Services subsidiary. It’s also a computer devices company, via its Kindle readers. The sort of computer resources and ingenuity Bezos can bring to the Post—or more properly the washingtonpost.com—rival that of almost every other regional purveyor of news, entertainment, communications, and advertising. Any competing web property, cable systems, mobile phone system, or broadcasting operation in the Washington area should be on notice: Bezos means to use this foothold to go after the most lucrative parts of your businesses in the one of the richest corners of the country. He’ll spend you to death.

LATER: Another good piece — this time from Emily Bell. Excerpt:

At the end of a week that saw the Boston Globe sold for $70m by the New York Times Company, to Red Sox owner John W Henry, it seems that the lock gates transferring newspapers from a gilded past, through an unsustainable present, to to an unknown future have creaked open. Newspapers are now restored to their former status as playthings of the rich, rather than market-driven profit centers.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is the transmission of west coast wealth to the crisis-torn content economy of old-fashioned east coast influence factories. The cultural divide between the thought processes of the engineering-oriented Silicon Valley and the words-based elites of the East, in politics and media, is vast. The low esteem in which each holds the other is often breathtaking to observe.

It was a “no contest” contest, an unfair fight, in which the new economy of the west coast understood how to build relationships with people, sell them what they wanted, charm the stock market – and do it at a scale and speed that could not be matched by analogue businesses.

This is what Bezos has been best at, and his enforcement of a cost-cutting regime has found Amazon on the wrong end of newspaper articles about its workplace practices. Bezos is more personally successful in Silicon Valley than most of his peers, with a fortune of $28bn, but from a background that has brushed more with the world outside Palo Alto. He was a Princeton computer science graduate rather than a Stanford PhD; he worked on Wall Street for a while before heading west and founding Amazon; he has made his vast fortune by shipping books, and tangible objects, atoms rather than bits and bytes. And he has successfully monetised the act of charging people for words on electronic devices, through the Kindle.

STILL LATER: A really good sceptical piece from John Cassidy of the New Yorker:

I have a nagging, if possibly unfounded, suspicion that his primary motivation in buying the Post is to protect Amazon’s interests in the political battle, which is sure to come, over the company’s monopolistic tendencies. Why do I suspect that? In part, because I am a skeptic. But also because it’s just about the only explanation that makes sense.

For the past fifteen years, Internet companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook have been rightly lionized as triumphs of American entrepreneurship. As the Web matures, though, they are gradually coming to be viewed in a different light, as quasi-monopolies that need at least a modicum of oversight. Because of the presence of network effects and other sources of increasing returns to scale, there is a natural tendency for successful online companies to increase market share and, eventually, to dominate a specific market. Google dominates search and, through You Tube, it also dominates online video. Facebook dominates social networking and, through Instagram, microblogging. And Amazon dominates online retailing.

Any monopoly position in the market comes with the capacity for abuse. And behind Bezos’s public image as a smiling geek there is a ruthless business strategist. In the book market, Amazon has followed the classic monopolist’s script of cutting prices to build up its market share and eliminate competition. Now that its competitors are struggling or gone, there is some evidence Amazon is raising prices, although the company denies this. In other areas, too, the online retailer has thrown its weight around like an old-fashioned monopolist. As Amazon expanded across the country, it has sought to avoid collecting and paying sales taxes on the goods that it sells, thus preserving an unfair price advantage over brick-and-mortar competitors. (For more on this, see the recent cover story in Fortune “AMAZON’S (NOT SO SECRET) WAR ON TAXES.”)

At this stage, one of the main threats to the fortunes of companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook comes not from potential competitors but, rather, from the political authorities that are gradually awakening to their market power. Google’s search business has faced antitrust investigations in the United States and Europe. The Justice Department’s competition arm is moving to regulate Apple’s iTunes store. And Facebook and other online companies are facing questions about how they protect the privacy of their users.

So far, Amazon has gotten off easy.

Jeff Bezos’s letter to Washington Post employees

[link] Monday, August 5th, 2013

This could be really interesting. Jeff Bezos has bought the Washington Post as a personal — not an Amazon — purchase. His letter to employees suggests that he understands what’s at stake. Sample:

The values of The Post do not need changing. The paper’s duty will remain to its readers and not to the private interests of its owners. We will continue to follow the truth wherever it leads, and we’ll work hard not to make mistakes. When we do, we will own up to them quickly and completely.

I won’t be leading The Washington Post day-to-day. I am happily living in “the other Washington” where I have a day job that I love. Besides that, The Post already has an excellent leadership team that knows much more about the news business than I do, and I’m extremely grateful to them for agreeing to stay on.

There will of course be change at The Post over the coming years. That’s essential and would have happened with or without new ownership. The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy. We will need to invent, which means we will need to experiment. Our touchstone will be readers, understanding what they care about – government, local leaders, restaurant openings, scout troops, businesses, charities, governors, sports – and working backwards from there. I’m excited and optimistic about the opportunity for invention…

Stirring stuff. But, as my mother used to say, fine words butter no parsnips. We’ll just have to see if he means it. And if he can stand the heat in the kitchen when the going gets rough. Which, given the pathological dysfunctionality of US politics, it will.

Do we want ISPs to be censors?

[link] Sunday, June 30th, 2013

This morning’s Observer column.

In a way, identifying and barring the truly horrible content is the easy part, at least in legal terms. If downloading or viewing certain kinds of online content is deemed illegal, then internet companies know where they stand, and they will obey the law. If a site contains illicit content, then Google et al will find ways of not pointing to it.

The problem is that this alone will not stop people who are willing to take the legal risk implicit in accessing illegitimate sites. The next logical step, therefore, is to make access impossible by forcing internet service providers to block them, using the same technology that the Chinese government employs to make sure that nobody in China learns anything about, say, Falun Gong.

Not surprisingly, nobody in the industry likes this idea. Apart from the extra costs it would impose, it also places companies in the uncomfortable position of deciding what their customers can read and view. And it would effectively put the UK in the same boat as China, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and other countries whose governments decide what citizens can access.

Nevertheless, the ISPs are feeling the heat from a government desperate to be seen to be “doing something” about porn…

Emergence and media feeding frenzies

[link] Friday, May 24th, 2013

Anyone who studies systems (and I started life as a systems engineer) knows that emergence is the most potent and mysterious property they have. One sees it in behaviour or properties exhibited by the whole system that cannot be inferred from studying its components in isolation. (For a metaphor, think of the pungent smell of ammonia, an emergent property of a system comprised of two odourless gases — nitrogen and hydrogen.)

What brings this to mind is the media frenzy that has accompanied the brutal killing of an off-duty soldier in a part of London. As Simon Jenkins points out in a fine column, what the killers seek is worldwide publicity for their rationalisations for hacking a British soldier to death. And that is precisely what the media have given them.

The first question in any war – terrorism is allegedly a war – is to ask what the enemy most wants you to do. The Woolwich killers wanted publicity for their crime, available nowadays at the click of a mobile phone. They got it in buckets. Any incident is now transmitted instantly round the globe by the nearest “citizen journalist”. The deranged of all causes and continents can step on stage and enjoy the freedom of cyberspace. Kill someone in the street and an obliging passerby will transmit the “message” to millions. The police, who have all but deserted the rougher parts of London, will grant you a full quarter hour for your press conference.

There is little a modern government can do to stem the initial publicity that terrorism craves. But it has considerable control over the subsequent response. When the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, pleaded for calm and for London to continue as normal, he was spitting into a hurricane. Terror could not have begged for more sensational attention than was granted it by Britain’s political community and media.

Where does the idea of emergence fit into this? Well, I’d bet that if one asked any individual journalist involved in covering this story — from the humblest reporter thanklessly knocking on doors in run-down council estates, to the editors of national newspapers and broadcast networks — they would agree that it’s crazy to acquiesce in the terrorists’ desire for publicity. But they’re all caught in a system that makes it impossible to do otherwise. So the crazed feeding frenzy is the emergent outcome.

The other interesting aspect of the story is the way in which right-wingers — e.g. former Home Secretary John ‘Lord’ Reid and the intelligence nerd Lord Carlile — immediately began talking up (on Newsnight on the evening of the murder) the need for a revival of the Communications Data Bill (aka Snoopers’ Charter). Gruesome news provides not only a way of burying bad news; it also enables politically-motivated folks to slip in repressive legislation under the radar.

Fragile systems

[link] Sunday, April 28th, 2013

This morning’s Observer column.

On Tuesday 23 April, a tweet from Associated Press (AP) revealed startling news. There had been explosions in the White House and Obama had been injured. The tweet was a hoax – the AP Twitter account had been hacked via a clever phishing exploit – but it briefly caused havoc. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 144 points between 10.07am and 10.09am, for example. Crude oil prices also briefly tumbled and the price of US Treasury bonds and gold futures spiked. Within minutes, AP disclosed that the tweet was erroneous and things returned to normal, with the Dow eventually rising 152 points for the day to close at 14,719.

Crisis over, then? Er, not quite. The story of the hoax AP tweet resurrects troubling thoughts about systems and fragility…

The ‘Gay Onslaught’

[link] Friday, April 19th, 2013

Wonderful speech by Maurice Williamson in the debate in the New Zealand parliament on the bill that would legalise same-sex marriages.

Wish more of our parliamentarians had the same sense of ironical style. I particularly like the bit about him roasting in hell for all eternity.

The Facebook pathogen

[link] Sunday, April 14th, 2013

This morning’s Observer column.

Infectious diseases, says the World Health Organisation, “are caused by pathogenic microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi; the diseases can be spread, directly or indirectly, from one person to another.” Quite so. Just like Facebook addiction, which also spreads from person to person and has now reached pandemic proportions, with more than a billion sufferers worldwide.

The Facebook pathogen doesn’t kill people, of course, for the good reason that dead people don’t buy stuff. But it does seem to affect victims’ brains. For example, it reduces normally articulate and sophisticated people to gibbering in the online equivalent of grunts. Likewise, it obliges them to coalesce all the varieties of human relationships into a simply binary pair: “friends” v everyone else…