What responsibilities does Facebook have to share great journalism?

This past week, I wrote about Mile Hudack’s frustrated Facebook update about Vox and the general state of the media  on Facebook, along with many others, and then posted an edited version on Tumblr, which then hit Mediagazer, the Pew Research Center’s daily briefing and the Nieman Lab’s weekly digest of the week in news. It all felt a bit meta and unexpected for a short piece of quick analysis. What follows is an edited version of that initial update.

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Before reacting to Hudack’s update, I’d found and shared a great feature on the passage of The DATA Act over on Facebook, after reading Matt Yglesias’s reply to Hudack, an advertising product manager at Facebook. That’s not uncommon: I discover great posts, analysis, research and even new data on Facebook frequently in 2014, both shared by friends and family and on various lists I’ve built. I’ve found that a lot of important news will find me, but not all of it, so I intentionally use other methods to discover it, from Twitter to RSS to Google News to reading print magazines and newspapers, listening to NPR and watching the PBS Newshour. I think about social media and the news differently than the average, though, and I use Facebook and Twitter differently than other folks, too, sharing public updates across multiple platforms much more frequently than the average user. That means you should take the following with a grain of salt or two.

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Hudack took the newly launched Vox Media to task for not producing more stories like the one about The DATA Act, a historic open government bill that’s now law, as opposed to a story about jeans.

I’m sympathetic to his frustration: I’ve followed and written about the DATA Act for three years, during which time I saw negligible mainstream coverage of it, much like the current lack of coverage regarding the bipartisan FOIA Reform Act, which passed the House of Representatives unanimously this spring, despite the miserable state of Freedom of Information Act compliance in the federal government.

Vox’s jeans story, Yglesias points out, has been shared four times as much on Facebook as the one about how a bill became law in 2014, which suggests that what’s popular on the world’s biggest social network is a result of decisions its users are making, not the media site that originated them. Reasonable people may differ on this point.

I’m on the media producer side of this equation, given my work, which makes me much more sympathetic to Vox’s side of the debate, along with the situation that faces many other media outlets. To Hudack’s point: yes, there’s a lot of dreck in the vast number of media outlets publishing today, from cable to broadcast to online. There’s also fantastic work from a number of outlets that Hudack didn’t list, many of which can be found attached to Pulitzer prizes and nominated for data journalism awards:

Here’s what Atlantic Media senior editor Alexis Madrigal said about it:

“My perception is that Facebook is *the* major factor in almost every trend you identified. I’m not saying this as a hater, but if you asked most people in media why we do these stories, they’d say, ‘They work on Facebook.’ And your own CEO has even provided an explanation for the phenomenon with his famed quote, ‘A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.’ This is not to say we (the (digital) media) don’t have our own pathologies, but Google and Facebook’s social and algorithmic influence dominate the ecology of our world.”

Like Google, Facebook can send vast amounts of traffic and readers to content producers, which creates a natural incentive to learn how to get the attention of those readers, create incentives for them to click and share, and how to game those systems as well, from search engine optimization (SEO) to social media optimization (SMO). (On the latter count, the reasons people *share* stories can differ from the reasons they *read* them, and the rate at which they share may diverge as a result.)

In both cases, however, a powerful and inscrutable, closely held algorithm is showing stories to people when they visit the platforms. On Google.com, the algorithm shows you links in response to a directed search. If you’re not anonymized, Google will personalize those results.

On Facebook’s newsfeed, the default environment that users spend time browsing every day, they’re likely to now see a mix of ads, lists, updates from brands and pages you’ve liked, and updates from close friends.

Unless Facebook users take specific steps to create a list of them, they won’t find the clean line of chronological updates from friends and family *to* friends and family that they enjoyed back in 2007.

Today, even if we enjoy and benefit from interaction on the platforms, we’re very much living in Facebook’s world, on its terms.

If a director of advertising products for Facebook wants there to be better journalism online, in general, here’s a suggestion: as Facebook builds more mobile products like Paper and develops its online product more, it could also consider partnerships with news organizations on content and revenue. That might make some publishers uncomfortable or balk, but others would experiment. (It sounds like Liz Heron might already be exploring some of those possibilities.)

My colleague at the Tow Center, Andy Carvin, commenting on my initial Facebook post, suggested that Hudack’s career and perspective shouldn’t be viewed only through the prism of Facebook:

Andy Carvin: Mike isn’t director of product at fb. He actually works on ad products for fb. And I know where his frustration is coming from – he founded blip.tv, which became just another content site after he sold it, but prior to that was one of the Net’s first bastions of citizen journalism. He’s also been posting for months about the sorry state of online reporting about Ukraine and other international crises. So I totally get where he’s coming from. Even if fb is driving a lot of content providers to lowest common denominator content, it seems unfair to put this on his shoulders. And ultimately, it’s still the content providers who choose to publish stuff they think will get the most eyeballs, whether via fb or any other vector.

That’s a fair point, and I’m glad he added that context. There’s research from Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism for those who want to dig more.

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That said, if Facebook and its leaders wanted to do more to support investigative journalism that isn’t driven by advertising considerations and shareability on social media, the company and/or newly wealthy senior staff might consider investing a portion of the billions in revenue that Facebook is making annually in improving the supply of it.

Specifically, they might support whatever comes after the newspapers that have traditionally housed the investigative journalists that create it. For instance, they could donate revenue to the foundations that have already been investing in news startups, platforms and education (The Knight Foundation News Challenge comes to mind, but there are others, from Sloan to Ford to Gates to Bloomberg to CIMA, which has published a global strategy to support investigative journalism) or establish Facebook scholarships and build out charitable arm focused on the media, akin to Google.org. The total doesn’t have to be much, relative to the annual revenues, but even tens of millions of dollars annually would make a difference to a lot of outlets and startups.

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“High elf” arrested in Oregon, battling Morgoth

A sword-wielding elf spotted in Portland, Oregon by a local smartphone-wielding human, told police that he was “battling Morgoth,” who apparently had made his way back through the Door of Night and returned to Middle Earth in the form of a red BMW.

Morgoth is the evil higher being whose fall from grace as Melkor  in J. R. R. Tolkein’s mythical universe parallels that of Satan in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”  Sauron, who the general public knows from “The Lord of the Rings” movie epics, was one of Morgoth’s chief lieutenants.

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The fact that the young man in Oregon was wearing chain mail is a sign that he might just know what he was talking about: high elves in Tolkein’s universe wore mail, unlike the lightly armored wood elves in the Dungeons and Dragons universe and subsequent worlds.

In this case, however, it appears that he was a different sort of “high elf” — the man admitted to officers that he’d taken LSD before his epic battle with the Beamer — and that he wielding a machete, not an ancient elven blade forged in Gondolin.

According to KPTV, after treatment and release from a local hospital, the young human has been charged with criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, criminal mischief and menacing as a result of the elfscapade.

[IMAGE CREDIT: "The duel of Fingolfin and Morgoth," by Silentwitness97 at the LOTR Wiki]

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Preview of Season 4 of Games of Thrones: “A Foreshadowing”

Today’s mental health break: a behind-the-scenes featurette with the actors and directors of “Game of Thrones.”

Of dragons in a non-dragon world, and much more.

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Remembering Jean H. Hepner, beloved grandmother and Fells Point community activist

I’m still processing the death of my grandmother this weekend, on Saturday night. I haven’t shared any updates anywhere about it online. I’ve gone through several stages of grief, from disbelief to numbness to acceptance and deep sadness. You never know how long you’ll have with some one. Some times, they’re gone in an instant.

News of her death was in the Associated Press yesterday, along with local news yesterday.

The circumstances of her passing feel at once banal and extraordinary. My grandmother and her longtime partner, Ben, were driving back home from visiting his son and grandchild, just outside of DC. According to state police, around 6:30 PM he hit another vehicle on the Beltway and lost control of their car, hitting the jersey barriers on the right before veering across the road to hit another on the median and come to a stop.

Passersby pulled over and quietly committed an act of heroism, pulling them both from the car before it caught fire. I’m grateful to these good Samaritans, who may well have saved Ben’s life and tried to save my grandmother.

After the Maryland state police arrived and saw the extent of her injuries, and called in a helicopter to medevac her to the Maryland Trauma Center. Sadly, she passed in flight, despite the efforts of the paramedics and the doctors and nurses in the ER. [Virgil Ruben Carlson passed away from his injuries one week later.]

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My sister, thinking of “Mom Mom” this morning, shared an item from the “Fells Pointer,” a publication from the neighborhood that she and my grandfather, Dr. Walter Ray Hepner Jr., moved to in September 1968.

My grandmother not only renovated the 18th century townhouse that she, my grandfather, uncles and a troop of Boy Scouts rescued from ruin, in other words, but became a pillar of the early community of preservationists who moved into the then-decayed houses of Fells Point and then fought to protect the entire historic neighborhood when government officials sought to run an expressway through the area.

As my sister Susanna Brennan Buchta noted in her remembrance of her, our grandmother was both “an indomitable spirit and community activist”:

“…she and her fellow members of the Society for the Preservation of Federal Hill and Fells Point probably saved Baltimore. Without their efforts to stop the expansion of I-95 straight through our historic Inner Harbor, Baltimore could well have become another Detroit. Instead, we got our ‘second wind’ and a beautiful waterfront attracting millions of visitors and capital to invigorate vibrant neighborhoods.”

These neighborhoods are now the jewels of the Baltimore of today. While the city still has immense challenges, from poverty to crime to urban blight, the revival that began in the late 1960s and fiercely defended by men and women like my grandmother in the “expressway revolt” will endure for decades to come.

Jean Harvey Hepner had just turned 90 as 2014 rolled over. She lived a long, full life, raising 4 children, including my mother, her eldest. She leaves behind dozens of grieving family members and friends, including this eldest grandchild who is grateful for last Christmas, when Mom Mom was able to meet and connect with Allegra, her first great-grandchild, and the six weeks in the summer of 2005 when I stayed with her in Fells Point, finishing renovations that my grandfather had begun in the 1980s.

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Today, I’m remembering nearly 4 decades of my life with her, from the wonders of Boxing Day to the fun of egg hunts on Easter to halcyon summer days on the coast of Maine. I’m glad that we had the time to visit the Robert Long House in Fells Point and walk around the beautiful garden that she had painstakingly, methodically researched and planted with the flowering plants and herbs that would have been present in colonial Baltimore, when the house was originally built. My grandmother knew an enormous amount about plants, a passion and knowledge base that she passed on to her children over the decades, along with any number of other things.

One of the most precious gifts she ever gave me was a perfect Meyer lemon from the tree that resided in her sunny drawing room on Fell Street. I made one of the best lemon-butter sauces of my life with that fruit, and reserved the zest from the skin for many deserts and dishes to come to boot. My grandmother would have approved of that thorough use. As a child who came to age during the Depression, she reserved, preserved and even hoarded all kinds of things, from string to hardware to any number of baskets, button and doodads that I found fascinating as a child.

I still have an index card, somewhere, inscribed with her simple, spectacular recipe for Maryland crab cakes, although I stopped needing to consult it long ago: some skills, once your grandmother teaches you to do them, become engraved in your memory for lifetime.

I miss you so much already, Mom Mom.

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When speech becomes text, what happens to writing?

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I successfully put down the baby for her late morning nap half an a hour ago. After running quietly around in sock feet trying to do things while she was out cold, I sat down to answer email and messages. As I entered this post into WordPress, she awoke again.)

It’s not easy to respond quickly and at volume using one hand or thumb, though I’ve gotten much better at both over the past five months with a baby daughter.

Over that time, I’ve been struck by how good the voice recognition in iOS on my iPhone has become. I’ve been able to successfully dictate a rough draft of a long article into the email interface and respond to any number of inbound inquiries that way.

That said, neither the soft keyboard nor voice-to-text on the device are a substitute yet for the 15″ keyboard in my MacBook Pro when I want to write at length.

It’s mostly a matter of numbers: I can still type away at more than eighty words per minute on the full-size keyboard, far faster than I can produce accurate text through any method on my smartphone.

Capturing and sharing anything other than text on the powerful device, however, has become trivially easy, from images to video to audio recordings.

The process of “writing” has long since escaped the boundaries of tabulas, slate and papyrus, moving from pens and paper to explode onto typewriters, personal computers and tablets.

Today, I’m thinking about how the bards of today will  be able to reclaim the oldest form of storytelling — the spoken word — and apply it in a new context.

As we enter the next decade of rapidly improving gestural and tactile interfaces for connected mobile devices, I wonder how long until the generations that preceded me will be able to leave decades of experience with keyboards behind and simply speak naturally to connected devices to share what they thinking or seeing with family, friends and coworkers.

Economist Paul Krugman seemed to be thinking about something similar this morning, in a blog post on “techno-optimism”, when he commented on the differences between economic and technological stagnation:

…I know it doesn’t show in the productivity numbers yet, but anyone who tracks technology has a strong sense that something big has been happening the past few years, that seemingly intractable problems — like speech recognition, adequate translation, self-driving cars, etc. — are suddenly becoming tractable. Basically, smart machines are getting much better at interacting with the natural environment in all its complexity. And that suggests that Skynet will soon kill us all a real transformative leap is somewhere over the horizon, maybe not this decade, but this generation.

Still, what do I know? But Brynjolfsson and McAfee have a new book — not yet out, but I have a manuscript — making this point with many examples and a lot of analysis.

There remain big questions about how the benefits of this technological surge, if it’s coming, will be distributed. But I think this kind of thing has to be taken into account when we try to imagine the future; I’m a great Gordon admirer, but his techniques necessarily involve extrapolating from the past, and aren’t well suited to picking up what could be a major inflection point.

That future feels much closer this morning.

[Image Credit: Navneet Alang, "Sci-Fi Fantasies, Real-Life Disappointments"]

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Beware sexy honeybots spear phishing on social media

220px-Robin_SageIf your connected life includes access to sensitive, proprietary or confidential information, be thoughtful about who you friend, follow or connect to online.

When fake femme fatale can dupe the IT guys at a government agency, you could also be spear phished.

If this all sounds familiar, you might be thinking of “Robin Sage,” when another fictitious femme fatale fooled security analysts, defense contractors and members of the military and intelligence agencies around the DC area.

Everything is new again.

[Image Credit: Wikipedia]

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