Archive for the 'Media ecology' Category

The one-world selfie

[link] Friday, May 23rd, 2014

This is amazing. And sweet. And touching. To celebrate Earth Day NASA asked people to send in pictures of where they were on that day. They received 36,000 images from over 100 countries, and assembled them into a gigantic (3.2 Gigapixel) zoomable image of the planet.

It’s the only home we’ve got. Such a pity that we’re heating it up. In the end, it will fix itself. And in the process maybe fix us too.

How people spend their time online

[link] Wednesday, May 21st, 2014


Sobering chart. Some interesting aspects: note how important email still is, despite all the talk about social networking. Note that online newspapers and magazines together only add up to the same time consumption as blogs or internet radio.


Why Snapchat is interesting

[link] Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

As usual, danah boyd nails it:

Snapchat offers a different proposition. Everyone gets hung up on how the disappearance of images may (or may not) afford a new kind of privacy. Adults fret about how teens might be using this affordance to share inappropriate (read: sexy) pictures, projecting their own bad habits onto youth. But this is isn’t what makes Snapchat utterly intriguing. What makes Snapchat matter has to do with how it treats attention.

When someone sends you an image/video via Snapchat, they choose how long you get to view the image/video. The underlying message is simple: You’ve got 7 seconds. PAY ATTENTION. And when people do choose to open a Snap, they actually stop what they’re doing and look.

In a digital world where everyone’s flicking through headshots, images, and text without processing any of it, Snapchat asks you to stand still and pay attention to the gift that someone in your network just gave you. As a result, I watch teens choose not to open a Snap the moment they get it because they want to wait for the moment when they can appreciate whatever is behind that closed door. And when they do, I watch them tune out everything else and just concentrate on what’s in front of them. Rather than serving as yet-another distraction, Snapchat invites focus.

Furthermore, in an ecosystem where people “favorite” or “like” content that is inherently unlikeable just to acknowledge that they’ve consumed it, Snapchat simply notifies the creator when the receiver opens it up. This is such a subtle but beautiful way of embedding recognition into the system. Sometimes, a direct response is necessary. Sometimes, we need nothing more than a simple nod, a way of signaling acknowledgement. And that’s precisely why the small little “opened” note will bring a smile to someone’s face even if the recipient never said a word.

Snapchat is a reminder that constraints have a social purpose, that there is beauty in simplicity, and that the ephemeral is valuable. There aren’t many services out there that fundamentally question the default logic of social media and, for that, I think that we all need to pay attention to and acknowledge Snapchat’s moves in this ecosystem.

My idea of a perfect blog post. It’s insightful, thought-provoking and beautifully written.

Targeted ads

[link] Monday, March 24th, 2014

From Frederic Filloux

Over the recent years, the advertising community managed to find a new gun to shoot itself in the foot. It's called targeted ads. Everyone has ugly anecdotes about those. Typically, the stories go like this: You do a web search for an item and quickly find it. In the following months you're deluged by ads for the product you bought. The annoyance prompts many to opt for AdBlocking systems – I did (except for sites I'm in charge of), with no regret nor guilt.

To put it mildly, there is room for improvement, here.

Yep. For some reason, even reputable outfits like John Lewis tend to be particularly annoying in this respect.

Finished that ebook yet? Hang on…

[link] Sunday, February 9th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

A few weeks ago I bought a copy of The Second Machine Age by two MIT researchers, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, who are two of the most insightful commentators currently writing about the likely impact on employment of advanced robotics, machine learning and big-data analytics. Since I already own more physical books than my house and office can hold, I tend now to buy the Kindle version of texts that are relevant to my work, and so it was with the Brynjolfsson and McAfee volume.

Yesterday, I received a cheery email from Amazon. “Hello John Naughton,” it read. “An updated version of your past Kindle purchase of The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson is now available. The updated version contains the following changes: Improved formatting for readability. Significant editorial changes have been made. You can receive the improved versions of all your books by opting in to receive book updates automatically.”

Note the phrase, “significant editorial changes have been made”…

Read on

No ads, no games, no gimmicks. Just phenomenal growth

[link] Monday, January 27th, 2014

Whatsapp is an astonishing phenomenon. 430m active users and 18bn messages sent per day, which is pretty close to global SMS volumes (20bn or thereabouts, and maybe lower). All with just 25 engineers.

(HT to Ben Evans.)

Streaming kicks in

[link] Saturday, January 4th, 2014

So the next phase begins. This Billboard report confirms that we’re on track to reach David Bowie’s prophetic insight (made in 2002) that one day music would be like water — available everywhere by turning a tap.

For the first time since the iTunes store opened its doors, the U.S. music industry finished the year with a decrease in digital music sales.

While the digital track sales decline had been expected due to weaker sales in the first three quarters, the digital album downturn comes as more of a surprise as the album bundle had started out the year with a strong first quarter.

Overall for the full year 2013, digital track sales fell 5.7% from 1.34 billion units to 1.26 billion units while digital album sales fell 0.1% to 117.6 million units from the previous year’s total of 117.7 million, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

While industry executives initially refused to attribute the early signs this year of digital sales weakness to the consumer’s growing appetite for streaming, in the second half of the year many were conceding that ad-supported and paid subscription services were indeed cannibalizing digital sales.

What GDP doesn’t compute

[link] Sunday, November 24th, 2013

This morning’s Observer column.

Deciding that the health of a nation’s economy can be measured by a single number is as daft as thinking that a single measure of “intelligence” (the IQ) can sum up an individual’s capability and potential. As Howard Gardner pointed out many years ago, there are many different kinds of intelligence, and each person occupies a different point in that multi-dimensional space. Similarly, the health of an economy needs to be measured along several axes. But we seem to be stuck with GDP because that’s the only thing economists know how to calibrate.

To the measure’s age-old contradictions, the internet has now added a really puzzling one. The world of traditional “production”, in which industries and businesses produced goods and services and in the process created value that could be measured and included in GDP, has been augmented by a parallel universe in which there is a great deal of activity, most of which is invisible to the bean-counters who compute GDP.

Take Twitter…

Read on…

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.