The human cost of conspiracy theories

Hadley Freeman, writing for The Guardian, about Leonard Pozner, a father who lost his son Noah in the Sandy Hook massacre:

Pozner says that, if he hadn’t lost Noah, he might well have believed the pizzagate conspiracy: “I would not have been as immediately dismissive of it, that’s for sure. History books will refer to this period as a time of mass delusion. We weren’t prepared for the internet. We thought the internet would bring all these wonderful things, such as research, medicine, science, an accelerated society of good. But all we did was hold up a mirror to society and we saw how angry, sick and hateful humans can be.”

So what can we do, I ask, now that more of us are realising we can’t just ignore these people?

“It’s too late, and things have gone too far. The whole Amazon is on fire. When I was dealing with these people in 2014 and 15, you could utilise their stories and turn them around. I don’t know if you can even do that now,” he says. “Lawmakers don’t know how to deal with this. Police don’t know how to police the internet, they haven’t been trained, they just tell you to turn off the computer. And people who do police the internet, they are looking for credit card scams worth millions of dollars. For 4Chan trolls, this is their playground.”

He pauses for a moment: “I used to be able to change the channel when stories about these kinds of people were on. I now don’t have the luxury to do that, and when I lost Noah, I woke up and realised that people who spread these stories are more interested in propagating fear than getting at the truth. And the human cost of that is phenomenal.”

I can’t imagine the horror of losing a child, but the idea that Pozner is is now taunted for it and accused of “faking it” is even further beyond comprehension.

The memes of Trump’s presidency (so far)

Kaitlyn Tiffany has written up an indispensable guide for The Verge:

In The New Republic, two weeks after the inauguration, Jeet Heer outlined the broader case for making jokes about the Trump administration: “Jokes, even political jokes, aren’t about persuasion, but rather psychological comfort in the face of difficult or painful situations.”

 100 days into Trump’s presidency, it looks like he’s right. We’ve already got enough memorable, pervasive memes to fill the world’s scariest children’s book. Each one was born from something horrible — cruel or grossly stupid — and each one was a tiny, dumb, tasteless victory against despair.

 

Facebook organic reach continues to plunge

Facebook has publicly stated that organic reach on its pages for businesses and publications will decline as time goes on. For many large publishers, organic reach has been approaching 1% for a long time (that is, the number of people who see a post from a Facebook page on their personal News Feed is 1% of the people who Like that page).

Now comes a new report from Kurt Gessler at the Chicago Tribune that illustrates just how far organic reach has dropped:

Starting in January of this year, we at the Chicago Tribune started to anecdotally see a fairly significant change in our post reach.

We weren’t seeing a huge difference in post consumption or daily average reach, but we were just seeing more misses than hits. At the Tribune, we have a fairly stable and predictable audience. We had around a half million fans at the end of March and have seen slow but steady growth in the last year. Most Facebook posts fell into the 25,000 to 50,000 reach range — with a few big successes and few spectacular failures each day, usually based on the quality of the content or the quality and creativity of the share.

But starting earlier this year, we started to see far more misses. And not reaches in the low 20,000’s but 4,000 reach or 6,000 reach. Digital Editor Randi Shaffer was one of the first to notice […]

In December of 2016, we had only 8 posts with 10,000 reach or less. In January of 2017, that had grown to 80. In February, 159. And in March, a ridiculous 242 posts were seen by fewer than 10,000 people. And while late 2016 saw record lows in that lowest quartile, that 242 is far above any prior month in our dataset. And we were seeing a steady decrease in that 25,001 to 50,000 quartile. That had gone from 248 in January 2016 to 141 in March 2017.

What did this mean? In baseball terms, we were hitting far fewer doubles and we were striking out 1 every 3 times at the plate. Four months earlier, we struck out 1 of every 90 at-bats.

Gessler speculates on reasons for this change, the most plausible of which is Facebook’s algorithm. Usage of Facebook’s app as a whole could be declining, but it seems unlikely based on mobile usage statistics.

Either way, it’s a difficult time to rely on Facebook if you’re a publisher. According to a recent report from The Verge, Facebook’s Instant Articles experiment seems to not be panning out as they’d hoped, from a subscription/revenue perspective.

Media has always been a side interest for Facebook, and not essential to its core function. But I hope for the sake of a well-informed citizenry that they continue tweaking their algorithms to surface content, including news, that is relevant, interesting, and true for all users.

See also: Why Facebook’s tips for spotting fake news don’t really work very well.

Twitter changes default profile photo to person instead of egg

Harry McCracken, writing for Fast Company, describing how Twitter changed its default profile image to be a person instead of an egg:

A lot has changed since the Twitter egg debuted almost seven years ago. For one thing, the company’s design philosophy has evolved. Quirky is out; straightforward is in. Nowadays, “the playfulness of Twitter is in the content our users are creating, versus how much the brand steps forward in the UI,” says product designer Jen Cotton.

More significantly, the egg has taken on cultural associations that nobody could have anticipated in 2010. Rather than suggesting the promise of new life, it’s become universal shorthand for Twitter’s least desirable accounts: trolls (and bots) engaged in various forms of harassment and spam, created by people so eager to wreak anonymous havoc that they can’t be bothered to upload a portrait image […]

Starting today, however, the egg is history. Twitter is dumping the tarnished icon for a new default profile picture–a blobby silhouette of a person’s head and shoulders, intentionally designed to represent a human without being concrete about gender, race, or any other characteristic. Everyone who’s been an egg until now, whatever their rationale, will automatically switch over.

Twitter also has a blog post explaining how they arrived at the new profile image:

[P]eople have come to associate the circle head with masculinity, and because of this association, we felt that it was important to explore alternate head shapes. We reviewed many variations of our figure, altering both the head and shoulders to feel more inclusive to all genders. When the shoulders were wider, the image felt overly masculine, so we decreased the width of the shoulders and adjusted the height of the figure. As a result of these iterations, we ended with a more gender-balanced figure. We chose grays because they feel temporary, generic, and universal. With that, we included a higher contrast color combination to make this image accessible for those with visual impairments. Because of its coloring, the new profile photo also gives less prominence to accounts with a default profile photo.

It’s unfortunate that Twitter’s slowness to deal with its harassment problem has led to bizarre associations with Twitter Eggs. Maybe changing to the new default profile photo will prevent memes from sprouting up (“Twitter Default Person” just doesn’t have the same bite as “Twitter Egg”) but the same underlying issues will remain until Twitter does more to take on trolls.

Turns out, the internet can be used for good too

The other day, I re-blogged an article in The New Yorker about “how clickbait is killing criticism.” I was pretty skeptical of that piece, pointing out that in place of the old definition of “criticism” there’s now a whole new world of content out there that things like “clickbait” have enabled.

In a recent piece for The New York Times, Farhad Manjoo makes a similar point:

In the last few years, and with greater intensity in the last 12 months, people started paying for online content. They are doing so at an accelerating pace, and on a dependable, recurring schedule, often through subscriptions. And they’re paying for everything.

You’ve already heard about the rise of subscription-based media platforms — things like Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, HBO, Spotify and Apple Music. But people are also paying for smaller-audience and less-mainstream-friendly content. They are subscribing to podcasters, comedians, zany YouTube stars, novelists and comic book artists. They are even paying for news.

It’s difficult to overstate how big a deal this is. More than 20 years after it first caught mainstream attention and began to destroy everything about how we finance culture, the digital economy is finally beginning to coalesce around a sustainable way of supporting content. If subscriptions keep taking off, it won’t just mean that some of your favorite creators will survive the internet. It could also make for a profound shift in the way we find and support new cultural talent. It could lead to a wider variety of artists and art, and forge closer connections between the people who make art and those who enjoy it.

Some interesting stats on Patreon are also disclosed: $100 million has been paid towards artists thus far, and in 2016, there were 35 artists making more than $150K each.

The nightmare of the Peggy Couch from West Elm

I don’t usually blog about furniture here, but this post by Anna Hezel at The Awl about the Peggy Couch from West Elm really got to me:

Around when the throw pillows finally arrived, the couch began to disintegrate in small ways. We would scooch across a cushion at the wrong angle, and a button would pop off, leaving a fraying hole behind. We would lean back slightly too far, and all of the cushions would shift forward and over the edge of the couch in unison. As soon as one button had fallen off of our couch, it was like a spigot had been turned, allowing all of the other buttons to fall off, too. I emailed customer service and asked if this was normal. They sent me a button-repair kit, indicating that this probably happens a lot. The kit was backordered, so it arrived two full months later and contained a wooden dowel, two buttons, and some directions that didn’t make sense. One direction was to “Hold the cushion properly and make sure the pointed end of the stick is all the way through, until you can see both ends of the stick on each side of the cushion.” I tried in earnest to follow the directions, but the wooden dowel would not fit into the buttonholes, and the entire exercise left me with fewer buttons than I started with.

Every component of this story is nuts, from the fleet of disaffected Peggy purchasers out there trying to warn people against this couch to the awful repair kit that West Elm sends out for people having problems. Most importantly: West Elm says the couch is supposed to last 1-3 years with light use. That is an insultingly short period of time, and not a meaningful upgrade from, say, an IKEA couch. In fact, it may actually be worse despite being more expensive.

I have friends who have had bad experiences at West Elm. After reading this article and taking that into account, I can’t imagine wanting to shop there for any expensive furniture. Instead, if you really want something that’s a big improvement over Craigslist/IKEA, I’d recommend a store like Room and Board. IKEA’s high end has also improved significantly over the years, and may be worth investigating.

Update: The Peggy Couch has now apparently been removed from West Elm’s site:

The stupefying odds

A spectacular data visualization by The Pudding shows how difficult it is for a band to break out and make it big:

The vast majority of bands never do make it. Acts break up, give up or decide they have other things they want to do with their lives.

For every Chance the Rapper there are thousands of rappers that never play a show with more than a couple hundred people. For every Lake Street Dive, there are hundreds of promising bands that break up because they lost on their members.

To see the NYC concert trajectory of different bands, below you can search for any of the 3,000 bands that played a show in 2013, and at least one more show from 2014 to 2016. Perhaps some of them are on their way to making it, and it just hasn’t happened yet.

What the world could look like without Net Neutrality

Kevin Collier from Vocativ speculates on how Trump’s regime could change the internet as we know it:

To start, internet providers not burdened by net neutrality could begin by offering deals and exclusives for their content. Comcast, consistently rated one of the most hated companies in America, is owned by NBCUniversal. NBC owns streaming rights the Olympics through 2032. Without the FCC’s rules, NBC could choose to only allow Comcast subscribers unfettered access to the games. People who used Spectrum to get online, for instance, would maybe have to pay for a special Olympic pass. Or if NBCUniversal wanted to get really nasty, it could bar anyone but Comcast subscribers from viewing their Olympic stream, period, daring customers of other providers to switch to Comcast […]

Internet providers could also squeeze websites, instead of consumers directly. Verizon could start a bidding war for streaming video services, for instance. Since YouTube is owned by Google and has a lot more money than Vimeo, YouTube could pay Verizon for faster or even exclusive service. YouTube would have an effective monopoly on streaming video for Verizon companies.

The Twitter Resistance

Kaitlyn Tiffany, writing for The Verge about how official social media accounts are going “underground” in light of government suppression:

Three people who claim to be employees of the National Park Service’s Mount Rainier Park in Washington have taken up where the official NPS and EPA Twitter accounts have been forced to leave off. Last night, they tweeted dozens of times from the handle @AltNatParkSer, promoting climate change facts and the upcoming Scientists’ March on Washington, interspersing jokes like “Parks and Rekt” and “can’t wait for President Trump to call us FAKE NEWS.” The spirit of rebellion is catching: this account has amassed over 300,000 followers overnight, paired with thousands of messages of support from people on Twitter eager to see someone, anyone take a stand against Trump’s despotic new policies.

 

The Odyssey empire

Over at BackChannel, Jane Porter has an interesting story about Odyssey and how it entices college students to churn out thousands of pieces for almost no money:

“These types of networks have petered out because it is resource intensive to work with contributors,” says Claire Wardle, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

That’s where Odyssey believes it has developed a secret sauce with its Invisible Hand. Despite the ominous name, it’s a workflow tool that organizes stories by subject matter and content, ranking their newsworthiness, topic, and popularity. Stories that come in are ordered and organized from most relevant to least depending on a range of factors, and then funneled to the editor focused on the pertinent topic, such as sports or politics.

First, the algorithm feeds stories to community editors—locally based individuals who are not paid for their job—to be edited. Then they’re sent off to content strategists — the company’s name for its in-house editors, who are all responsible for managing 20 communities each comprised of around 12 to 25 writers. That means a content strategist is editing anywhere between 240 to 500 stories per week. The Invisible Hand is what keeps these editors from losing their minds, managing their workflow so they don’t waste time sifting through stories to determine what their priority should be.

Theoretically, Odyssey’s model provides a nifty way to scale content production. In reality, as the piece gets into, it’s a lot harder to make people contribute high-quality content in perpetuity unless you’re paying them handsomely.

The Vine archive

Sarah Perez writing for TechCrunch:

Twitter just can’t seem to let go of Vine. The company announced last fall it would close the video-sharing community site and its accompanying mobile applications, which it then did just days ago. But it also has taken several steps to ensure that the content created in Vine would not be lost, by offering tools to export videos, both online and in its app. Today, in another move to preserve Vine content, Twitter has launched an online archive of Vine videos — basically a static website containing all the posts made from 2013 through 2016.

The archive is live now and I dig the clean organization. Vine was an incredible place for light, fun, memorable creativity — often by people of color. I was really sad to hear the service would be shutting down, but glad to hear it’ll be preserved in some form.

Also, below is my favorite Vine of all time. Check it out and read the oral history of it.

 

The Amazing Hour

Over at The Atlantic, James Hamblin suggests having an “amazing hour” before bed, devoid of screentime, to aid in getting a good night’s sleep. Some ways to use that time might include:

  • Packing your lunch for the next day
  • Writing letters to friends/family/celebrities
  • Read a book/magazine
  • Staring at a fake plastic phone and pretend you’re looking at a real phone

I should try this. But I probably won’t.

Building Slack Threads

Very interesting behind-the-scenes piece by Harry McCracken for Fast Company, on Slack’s new Threads feature:

Threads aren’t just a major new Slack feature. They’re also a case study in how its designers approach product development. The company has never operated under the guiding principle that Mark Zuckerberg once famously summed up as “move fast and break things.” Instead, it has thrived in part because it aspires to offer tools that feel fully baked from the get-go. Its fit and finish resemble those of the slickest consumer apps, in a world in which many business-centric tools still don’t feel like they were designed for use by human beings.

Even by Slack standards, threaded conversations got extra TLC, because their impact is so great and so many people had been asking for them for so long. “Threads are so close to the heart of what Slack is that they might be an escalated case,” says Joshua Goldenberg, head of design.

The key decisions: Allowing threads to only be one reply deep, and placing them on the right-hand “flex pane.”

A look inside the Fake News business

Scott Shane profiles Cameron Harris for The New York Times:

In a raucous election year defined by made-up stories, Mr. Harris was a home-grown, self-taught practitioner, a boutique operator with no ties to Russian spy agencies or Macedonian fabrication factories. As Mr. Trump takes office this week, the beneficiary of at least a modest electoral boost from a flood of fakery, Mr. Harris and his ersatz-news website, ChristianTimesNewspaper.com, make for an illuminating tale.

Harris rode the wave of fake news’ popularity on social media to significant revenue, creating a website that was at one point valued at over $100K. Unlike Jestin Coler, another well-profiled fake newser who helped propagate many anti-Hillary Clinton stories, Harris is actually a Trump supporter.

In 2016, fake election news had a significant presence on social media, generating significantly more engagement than news from mainstream outlets.

While misleading websites exist on both the right and left, analyses have shown that those on the right can be misleading at a higher rate. 

The “Liberal Tears” mug is a scam

Tolulope Edionwe, writing for The Outline: 

The mug links were everywhere. People tweeted pictures of the mug, screencaps of their receipts, and links to the page to buy the mug. Its omnipresence started to feel weird. It seemed like every single MAGA cap owner on Twitter was buying these cups. This is a real craze, I thought. How many of these things were being sold? So I decided to find out, and that’s when things got interesting.

Short version: the company that purports to sell the mug has horrible reviews with a bad track record for actually delivering products, and has apparently used very sketchy, spammy methods to get word of the mug out on the internet.

As tech evolves, so do the scams. Reading the above article, I was reminded of a particularly good Reply All episode in which exploring a “lost and found” website led to something much more sinister. Listen to it below:

I’m making a cello EP

Since I just can’t seem to get enough of owing people Kickstarter rewards, I’ve decided to launch a new project: a professionally recorded cello EP. Much like my previous large-scale Kickstarter project, I have never attempted a project of this scale before in this particular medium. The good news is that this time, the recordings are almost done. They just cost a sizable chunk of change and it would be amazing if people could contribute to the Kickstarter and “pre-purchase” the EP to help me make up the cost.

You can donate to the project here. Thank you so much to all who have already contributed!
While my Kickstarter goal of $1000 was fulfilled in less than 5 hours, I was originally quite unsure of what the response would be like. Several of my previous Kickstarters have also been successful,  but they’ve all had something to do with stuff people know me by, whether it be film or podcasting. This was my first project where people might not have had any frame of reference for what I was producing. I was grateful that so many took a chance on this one, and I am hopeful I will be able to make something beautiful that will make us all proud.

A few thoughts came to mind on how I could’ve done this run this Kickstarter a little bit better:

Under a certain goal amount, it feels weird to launch a Kickstarter – One of the benefits and downsides of Kickstarter is that if you don’t fulfill your goal, you get none of the money (Kickstarter competitor Indiegogo famously gives you money along the way). Thus, I toyed with putting a goal of something like $300 or $500, to give myself a better chance of reaching the goal. But on a personal level, I felt as though under a certain amount (call it $500?), it doesn’t really make sense to do a Kickstarter. Why not just borrow some money from a friend or something? In addition, Kickstarter projects take a crapton of work. If you’re going to do one, you might as well set your goal higher to make it worth the time that it will take.

Very few people will take your lowest tier – Again, as with previous Kickstarters, my dream was that I would get hundreds of people contributing small amounts of money (i.e. $3 for just the EP) and once again that did not play out. When it comes to Kickstarter, people like to be upsold! They like bonus content, they like the personal connection with creators, and they like knowing that they are getting a set of rewards that are hard or impossible to obtain otherwise.

The emotional and practical barriers to entry for people supporting Kickstarters is pretty high. They need to support your work, they need to be willing to contribute to it, and they need to know that you have a live Kickstarter. Once those barriers have already been surmounted, they are likely going to be willing to contribute a larger amount than the bare minimum. On that note…

You should absolutely have a reward tier between $15-25 – A lot of people gave $5, but I’m fairly certain they would’ve been willing to contribute up to $15-25. That’s a lot of money that I simply left on the table, and while I did eventually add a few $15-25 options, I really should have built this in from the beginning. As in, I literally should have spent as much time as necessary time thinking of how I could produce a ton of $15-level rewards and not launched the Kickstarter until I had come up with something. It’s that important.

The average Kickstarter donation is $25.

The Perfect Response

Adam Sternbergh from New York magazine takes on the concept of “The Perfect Response”:

[T]he Perfect Response you cheer for and re-post frantically also tends to be one that (a) confirms whatever you already believe and (b) sticks it to someone you already despise. The Perfect Response is, in essence, not a radical new perspective, but simply a person saying a thing you agree with to a person you disagree with. It’s a kind of linguistic record-scratch, a perfectly crafted gotcha that ostensibly stops trolls in their troll-tracks and forces them to deeply reconsider the sad wreckage of their wasted lives. Which means the Perfect Response is also largely a figment of the internet’s imagination.

I agree with most of what Sternbergh writes here – that an actual  “Perfect Response” is essentially so rare as to make its sharing more like an act of wishful thinking.

But I think this headline format has really taken form primarily because of sharing sites like Facebook and Twitter, something that Sternbergh acknowledges. A “Perfect Response” is simply more interesting and attention grabbing than “A Really Good Response” or “An Adequate Response.” Publishers often need to exaggerate to get attention on your News Feed these days.

My question is: What is next in the Internet arms war for attention? What happens when Upworthy-style headlines are so common that all they receive in response is an indifferent shrug?