Monday 23 March, 2020

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Black humour

I watched Boris Johnson’s live press conference from Downing Street yesterday and found myself marvelling at the dark irony of a man who has behaved with grotesque irresponsibility throughout his entire adult life railing against citizens who were behaving irresponsibly by not obeying injunctions about social distancing.


CV takes on a new meaning

Dave Winer (whom God preserve) has decided to start calling the disease CV on his blog. Smart move, and saves typing. I’ve never maintained a proper CV, really, and hope that I don’t acquire this new type either.


Podcasting comes into its own

It’s the second draft of history, in a way. And it’s not radio, for all kinds of reasons — one of which is that it has higher cognitive bandwidth because mostly it’s coming through your headphones and getting more of your attention. The New York Times‘s The Daily is playing a blinder at the moment. The interview with Governor Cuomo, for example, is one of the best things I’ve heard in months. Or the episode in which they spoke to an Italian doctor who’s having to triage patient care at the heart of his country’s crisis.


Why we need Wikipedia more than ever

Great article in Slate’s Future Tense series on how Wikipedia is addressing the information and knowledge challenges posed by the pandemic. Sample:

In the midst of the fast-paced editing, some Wikipedians are thinking about the role that the project is playing during this crisis. Last week, William Beutler made a persuasive case on his blog, the Wikipedian, that there should be a dedicated space on Wikipedia’s front page for coronavirus news that would easily catch readers’ attention. “Like it or not, Wikipedia is in a unique position to point information-hungry citizens around the world to better information than they can find almost anywhere else,” Beutler wrote. On Monday Wikipedia updated its front page with the new coronavirus news feature in line with Beutler’s suggestion. But the debate between editors about the proposal was contentious. Highlighting news about the pandemic arguably goes against another of the site’s content policies: Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and “not a newspaper.” Then again, that distinction raises tricky questions, like, what’s the difference between a journalist and an encyclopedist who are both chronicling a pandemic in real time?

Rather than going down that particular rabbit hole, however, it’s probably better to highlight how the information about the coronavirus on Wikipedia is truly serving the reading public, or as some volunteer editors jokingly put it, “the customer.” Personally, I appreciate English Wikipedia’s category table, which neatly organizes English Wikipedia’s 200-plus articles about the subject. These pages are neatly grouped by subtopics, like the financial impact of the coronavirus or its effect on tourism. Overall, the way the Wikipedians have been organizing the information and summarizing it reminds me of a high school history textbook—except that this one is being written in real time, with thousands of authors making thousands of changes.

Wikipedia is one of the wonders of the world. Whenever I run into people who are sniffy about it because of a mistake they found on it, my response is: so why haven’t you corrected it? And to people who tell me how wonderful it is I say: so when did you last make a donation to help it keep going?


Quarantine Diary – Day 2


Sunday 16 February, 2020

Reports of social media’s influence on (UK) voters may be exaggerated

This morning’s Observer column:

While it would obviously be ridiculous to deny that social media played some role in these political upheavals [Brexit and Trump’s election], it would be foolish to assign it the critical role. Apart from anything else, putting social media centre stage ignores what had been happening to democratic electorates during decades of globalisation, neoliberal economic policy, rising inequality and austerity. But because the rise of Facebook et al was one of the biggest changes over the last two decades, the temptation to see them as the place to look for explanations seems to have been well-nigh irresistible.

Fortunately, it was resisted by researchers at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford when they set out to understand where UK voters got their news during the 2019 general election. They tracked the online news consumption of 1,711 people aged 18-65 across mobile and desktop devices throughout the campaign and also surveyed a subset of 752 panellists before and after the vote. What the researchers were seeking to understand was the relative importance for voters of offline and online news and their attitudes to the media and politics more widely.

Their findings make intriguing reading, not least because they challenge some of the anecdotal conventional wisdom about the predominance of social media…

Read on


In the boxing business, only the promoter wins every fight

Same applies on social media.

Both of these sites are owned by the same jokester. Heads he wins, tails he wins. ‘Engagement’ is all.

“Are you glad to see Conway gone?” asked Liberal Society at the end of its post.

“Will you miss seeing Conway on TV?” asked Conservative 101.

The stories read like they were stamped out of the same content machine because they were. Using domain registration records and Google Analytics and AdSense IDs, BuzzFeed News determined that both sites are owned by American News LLC of Miami.

That company also operates another liberal site, Democratic Review, as well as American News, a conservative site that drew attention after the election when it posted a false article claiming that Denzel Washington endorsed Trump. It also operates GodToday.com, a site that publishes religious clickbait.

Source


What the composition of the Johnson Cabinet actually portends

Insightful analysis by James Butler in the LRB:

It’s the move to control and centralisation that is most significant, and gives us the clearest sign of what to expect from the government over the next five years: personalised authority, a tussle over economic intervention intended to reshape the nation, hostility to legal and journalistic accountability, and a host of convenient public enemies as villainous Brussels recedes from view. The new appointees, and the new priorities, inaugurate a new mode of British Conservatism – and any opposition that fails to grasp that, and its internal weaknesses, may find it takes longer than five years to defeat it.


In praise of bloggers

From a “Blogging in an expert society” by Ken Smith:

At least there are certain mistakes that bloggers don’t often make:

  • They usually don’t pull rank.

  • They usually don’t insist that a problem can be solved only by a certain kind of expert or talked about only in one kind of language.

  • They tend to think that people’s experience has something to offer.

  • They assume that tradition or dogma should be challenged by people reflecting on their experiences.

  • They get riled up, but down deep they like to hear more voices, not fewer. They want their turn to speak, not the only turn. They get really impatient, but down deep they want democracy.

(HT to Dave Winer)

What comes after Spotify?

Shortly after I wrote Building vs. Streaming in popped an email from Drew Austin, who was musing about what happens when a new product/service fills a void and thereby leads to the decline of whatever filled it beforehand.

Here’s the money quote:

The increasingly-maligned model of VC-funded, loss-leading hypergrowth in the pursuit of market dominance, understood another way, is a quest to create voids that matter, voids that will hurt if we let them emerge by rejecting the product currently filling them (the fissures of a post-WeWork world are at least perceptible now). In the early ‘00s, when Blockbuster died out, it was clear that something better was replacing it (there’s a nostalgic counterargument that I’m tempted to indulge, but let’s just accept this). Today, it’s more common to watch something decline without a replacement that’s clearly better. It’s easy to understand why physical media led to file-sharing and then streaming, but what comes after Netflix and Spotify? Does anyone think it’s likely to be another improvement? I don’t, and the companies’ Facebook-like pursuit of absolute ubiquity is why. Unlike the immediately-filled Blockbuster void, I fear the Spotify void. I already got rid of all my CDs. The residue of buildings and cities determines what gets built on top of them, and if we’re conscientious, we’ll build with a more distant future in mind.

Building vs. Streaming

Every Saturday morning for as long as I can remember, BBC Radio 3 has had a programme at 9am called “Building a Library”, in which a group of experts review recordings of classical music with a view to recommending the one(s) that the listener should contemplate adding to his or her ‘library’. The implicit model is that the music comes on a disc, which made complete sense in the pre-streaming era. The fact that the channel is still running the programme suggests that lovers of classical music still buy discs, which I guess really marks them out nowadays from lovers of pop, rap, etc., most of whom probably get their music from streaming sources. In which case a ‘library’ is now a playlist, I guess.

When the medium is the message

A couple of weeks ago my Observer column was about podcasting and the pioneering role that Dave Winer played in its evolution. Since Dave often includes a short podcast on his daily blog, I thought I should include an audio version of that particular column. Here it is:

(It’s only five minutes long, but the embed player doesn’t seem to realise that.)

Podcasting: will it succumb to the Wu cycle?

This morning’s Observer column:

I’ve just been listening to what I think of as the first real podcast. The speaker is Dave Winer, the software genius whom I wrote about in October. He pioneered blogging and played a key role in the evolution of the RSS site-syndication technology that enabled users and applications to access updates to websites in a standardised, computer-readable format.

And the date of this podcast? 11 June, 2004 – 15 years ago; which rather puts into context the contemporary excitement about this supposedly new medium that is now – if you believe the hype – taking the world by storm. With digital technology it always pays to remember that it’s older than you think.

When he started doing it, Winer called it “audioblogging” and if you listen to his early experiments you can see why. They’re relaxed, friendly, digressive, unpretentious and insightful – in other words an accurate reflection of the man himself and of his blog. He thought of them as “morning coffee notes” – audio meditations about what was on his mind first thing in the morning…

Read on

Why the blogosphere matters

This morning’s Observer column:

Last Monday was a significant anniversary in the evolution of the web. It was 25 years to the day since the first serious blog appeared. It was called Scripting News and the url was (and remains) at scripting.com. Its author is a software wizard named Dave Winer, who’s updated it every day since 1994. And despite its wide readership, it has never run ads. This may be partly because Dave doesn’t need the money (he sold his company to Symantec in 1987 for a substantial sum) but it’s mainly because he didn’t want to compete for the attention of his readers. “I see running ads on my blog,” he once wrote, “as picking up loose change that’s fallen out of peoples’ pockets. I want to hit a home run. I’m swinging for the fences. Not picking up litter.”

When some innovators cash out big, as Winer did, they more or less retire – play golf, buy a yacht and generally hang out in luxury. Not so Dave. He has a long string of innovations to his name, including outliner and blogging software, RSS syndication, the outline processor markup language OPML and podcasting, of which he was a pioneer.

And his daily blog at scripting.com continues to be a must-read for anyone interested in the intersection between technology and politics. Winer has a quirky, perceptive, liberal and sometimes contrarian take on just about anything that appears on his radar. He is the nearest thing the web has to an international treasure.

He’s also a reminder of the importance of blogging, a phenomenon that has been overshadowed as social media exploded and sucked much of the oxygen out of our information environment…

Read on

The dark underbelly of social media

My Observer review of Behind the Screen, Sarah T. Roberts’s remarkable exploration of the exploitative world of content ‘moderation’.

The best metaphor for the net is to think of it as a mirror held up to human nature. All human life really is there. There’s no ideology, fetish, behaviour, obsession, perversion, eccentricity or fad that doesn’t find expression somewhere online. And while much of what we see reflected back to us is uplifting, banal, intriguing, harmless or fascinating, some of it is truly awful, for the simple reason that human nature is not only infinitely diverse but also sometimes unspeakably cruel.

In the early days of the internet and, later, the web, this didn’t matter so much. But once cyberspace was captured by a few giant platforms, particularly Google, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, then it became problematic. The business models of these platforms depended on encouraging people to upload content to them in digital torrents. “Broadcast yourself”, remember, was once the motto of YouTube.

And people did – as they slit the throats of hostages in the deserts of Arabia, raped three-year-old girls, shot an old man in the street, firebombed the villages of ethnic minorities or hanged themselves on camera…

All of which posed a problem for the social media brands, which liked to present themselves as facilitators of creativity, connectivity and good clean fun, an image threatened by the tide of crud that was coming at them. So they started employing people to filter and manage it. They were called “moderators” and for a long time they were kept firmly under wraps, so that nobody knew about them.

That cloak of invisibility began to fray as journalists and scholars started to probe this dark underbelly of social media…

Read on