Metastatic media

twitter-video-embed-blogpost1
If the medium is the message, what are we to take of a service famous for short text messages evolving into a medium that can be embedded in other messages? The social media platform has, taking a page from YouTube, taken an important step to make media created on its platform metastatic, spreadable and shareable.

While the ongoing to more pictures and video isn’t going to make Twitter into the next Instagram — it’s its own thing — the social platform has certainly come a long way since its text-based origin in 2006!

When I joined Twitter in 2007, I thought it was interesting, combining presence technology with mobile publishing and microblogging. A year later, I saw much more potential in the service than the sarcastic dismissal it tended to receive in the media and business worlds. It wasn’t until a disputed election in Iran in 2009, when online discussion and sharing of documentary evidence leaking out of that country led CNN to change its coverage, that the world started waking up to what Twitter would eventually become. While my embrace of Twitter has led some commentators to consign me to a triumphalist, intolerant cult of scolds, I continue to hold that there’s considerable value to be found here, premature eulogies notwithstanding.

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Twitter co-founder @Jack Dorsey endorses multi-tweet ‘tweetstorm’ as clever

In a series of 17 tweets today, Jack Dorsey endorsed the multi-part “tweetstorm” as a “clever” way around the famous 140 character constraint of Twitter, the social media platform he co-founded in 2006.

“The folks using Twitter daily created the @username, the #hashtag, and the retweet, all within the constraint of 140 characters,” he tweeted. “The @, #, and RT have become cultural movements and have influenced every social and communications service since. Even offline. The “tweetstorm” and #/tweet syntax is a (clever) way around the 140 character constraint. Once again created by people using the service!”

What the co-founder of Twitter had to say in the latter half of his tweetstorm is worth noting as well, particularly in the context of the public social media company’s earning’s report next week. He defended Twitter CEO Dick Costolo from criticism, which in recent months has included a Wall Street Journal feature and influential investors on Wall Street.

Dorsey also highlighted recent product improvements at Twitter, including group messaging and video,

@Jack’s endorsement of the tweetstorm is likely to carry some weight with both users and Twitter itself, although he hasn’t been in a position to directly implement product design for some time. Previously, new features like the #hashtag and RT have been built into the Twitter platform after users adopted them. For that to happen again with the tweetstorm, Twitter would have to alter its publishing interface across operating systems to accommodate series or perhaps acquire an app like tweetstorm.io that enables easier creation.

One of Twitter’s most voluble users, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (@pmarca), may be the must public adopter of the tweetstorm format, making news with series on Bitcoin and many other topics. Vox.com co-founder Ezra Klein is also a fan of the format, sending tweetstorms about whatever he’s covering with some frequency. Other users are as well, like digital media manager Justin Whitaker:

If Twitter does formally adopt the format as its own, don’t expect universal excitement.

Some observers and users of the platform don’t care much for the tweetstorm convention, even going so far as to say that “the tweetstorm trend must be stopped,” as Charlie Worzel did last year:

The fundamental criticism of the tweetstorm™ goes beyond the simple “get a blog” mentality. At its root, the tweetstorm™ feels like an abuse of power/influence or, at the very least, a slightly inconsiderate, oblivious way to engage with people who’ve chosen to follow you (granted, users can obviously choose to opt-out at any time with an unfollow). In earnestly embarking on a tweetstorm™, the tweetstormer™ is tacitly admitting that he or she has many important things to say and an infinite listener attention span in which to say them.

For my part, I can’t say I care much for the convention. While it is more accessible to all than using screenshots of text to get around the character constraint, a form that writer Mat Honan has dubbed the “screenshot, I tend to think that if you have enough to say that many tweets are required, you and the people you want to read whatever you are choosing to communicate will be better off if the series is collected into a blog post and edited.

I took a (decidedly unscientific, highly biased) poll of my followers on Twitter about the practice and confirmed that ‘tweetstorms’ are not beloved by all, but some people do like them.

All that said, now that Jack Dorsey has endorsed tweetstorming, I suspect we’ll see more of them, not less. What I can co-sign, however, is the value Dorsey ascribes to Twitter’s role as a platform for expression and connection around the world.

While the platform and product is still imperfect, not equally representative of all of humanity or absolved from addressing ongoing issues with censorship and abuse, I’ve found that it to be a valuable place to invest time and attention for the past 7 years. I hope that feeling endures.

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On accountability

“If the press won’t represent itself — and the people — by showing some interest in the free flow of government information, who will?” – Margaret Sullivan, public editor, New York Times

If an editor says that she is “very interested in the subject, and in following the legislation,” even if she and her staff are “particularly busy,” I would expect to see her tweet about it and retweet people who do have time to cover it. That wasn’t the case, even when the New York Times editorial pages blog wrote about it and other editors tweeted.

I can’t help but judge this to be a weak reply by the DC bureau chief. It’s particularly disheartening when the bill in question never got a vote in the House yesterday, sending Freedom of Information Act reform to expire in the 113th Congress.

Over the years, I’ve found that being politely persistent with editors over email and Twitter has led to more attention & coverage of boring but important topics. I tried a couple of new approaches to try to get attention on this count, including making “memes” and tweeting about what media companies were covering instead.

I spent the time not just because of the obvious need for FOIA reform but because I care about the New York Times and these other publications. I hoped they would put attention where it has *impact*. I can’t imagine that I made myself popular by doing so, but I’ve faced uncomfortable public questions about why I haven’t covered subjects, or how I did it. I’ve made errors of omission.

In my view, I failed; the vast majority of editors, producers and editorial boards simply didn’t cover FOIA reform, with notable exceptions at The Tennessean, Star Tribune, Review Journal, Cincinnati Enquirer, Bennington Banner, and, at the 11th hour, Newsweek.

The Washington Post did, on Wednesday, but completely blew the headline, putting no pressure on House leadership. I knew cable & broadcast news were unlikely to bother covering FOIA reform. I expected The New York Times would, when I flagged it on Sunday and contacted the public editor.

My bet was that House leadership would judge that they could hold back FOIA reform for a vote because major media would focus elsewhere. If so, they were right, and the public interest lost.
“In a political climate as divided as this, I had hoped that we could come together in favor of something as fundamental to our democracy as the public’s right to know,” said Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), That government transparency and openness would not just be the standard applied to the Obama Administration but what is applied to every future administration. The FOIA Improvement Act would have done just that.”

Postscript: On Friday afternoon, Columbia Journalism Review published a FOIA reform dies while the press looked the other way that quoted David Cuillier of the Society for Professional Journalists, Sullivan and me.

By day’s end, publications that hadn’t covered the bill while it was live covered its death. A “Push to Reform the Freedom of Information Act Collapses in House,” reported Frontline PBS. The U.S. “House Scuttle Bipartisan FOIA Reforms, reported MSNBC. FoxNews published an Associated Press report that Congress Fails to Revise Freedom of Information Act. None of the outlets had informed readers and watchers about the bill over the previous week, or what forces or people prevented its passage.

“If we’re going to be beacons of democracy, we need to walk the talk,” Cullier told CJR.

Post-Postscript: Writing for the Sunlight Foundation, Matt Rumsey managed to publish a somewhat, well, sunny post about the death of FOIA reform.

Sunlight has been strongly supportive of the FOIA Improvement Act because it addresses real world problems faced by requesters every day, specifically targeting overly broad exemptions and limiting unnecessary fees. Just like Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., one of its strongest champions, we aredisappointed that it did not become law.

And yet, we are hopeful for the future.

Most laws never make it out of committee even after repeated attempts spread over multiple years. The FOIA Improvement Act came tantalizingly close to becoming law its first time around.

Rest assured that the FOIA Improvement Act will be reintroduced in the 114th Congress and that the Sunlight Foundation and its allies will be fighting harder than ever for its passage. We want to say a hearty thank you to Leahy, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and everyone else that worked so hard during the 113th Congress to make these needed reforms possible. We’ll see you next year!

The Washington Post, to its credit, did a post-mortem on how this popular government transparency bill died in Congress. The reason the FOIA reform stalled in the House may not simply have been lobbying by the financial industry, however, as had been previously reported.

According to House aides, some lawmakers balked at the legislation because several agencies, including the Justice Department, warned that those making information requests would use the “forseeable harm” requirement as the basis for frequent lawsuits.

This detail led Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, to argue that it was the Justice Department that secretly tried to stop FOIA reform, despite the text of the legislation being almost word-for-word the poilcy that the agency itself embraced in 2009.

Writing for the National Security Archive, Nate Jones looked for lessons from the death of the unanimously supported FOIA bill and decried “Janus-faced support for open government.”  Here was his key takeaway:

Many people –in Congress, in the agencies, in the White House, in the media– proclaim they believe in open government, but don’t really.  To me, that’s the only plausible reason a FOIA bill could garner unanimous approval (thrice in the Senate over the past seven years!) and still die; that’s the only plausible reason agencies whisper that instructions about FOIA currently on the books will ruin the federal government as we know it; that’s the reason for White House silence on the benefits the FOIA Ombuds office not being forced to run its reports though the Department of Justice so they can be “rosified;” that’s the reason the New York Times wins Pulitzers for its FOIA-based reporting, but doesn’t assign a Congressional beat reporter to cover the bill’s death.

How do we overcome these FOIA Januses?  First, we must avoid being stalled out.  We should force Speaker Boehner to act on his pledge that he “look[s] forward to working to resolve this issue [FOIA reform] early in the new Congress.”  FOIA champions Senators Leahy, Cornyn, and Grassley remain in the Senate Judiciary Committee; these senators have an impressive history of defending and working to reform FOIA, no matter which party is in the majorly.  Replacing Representative Issa on the House Oversight Committee is Jason Chaffetz (R-Ut); Democratic FOIA champion Elijah Cummings remains.  Encouragingly, Chaffetz has said he “wants to address the Freedom of Information Act and the difficulties many have in getting the executive branch to comply with FOIA requests.”  Both houses should immediately reintroduce the FOIA bill.  More than 440 members who voted for FOIA reform remain in Congress.

On Saturday, December 20, the New York Times editorial board called for the 114th Congress to revisit the freedom to see government records.

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Why it matters if Uber execs access user data: U.S. Congress loves Uber

heatmap Uber DC

heatmap Uber DC

Last night, Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith published an explosive story, reporting on a dinner in New York City where Uber executive Emil Michael floated the idea of hiring opposition researchers to dig up dirt on journalists who had been critical of the startup. Michael, who has since repeatedly apologized, asserted that neither “me nor my company would ever engage in such activities.” Uber spokesperson Nairi Hourdajian tweeted that “We have not, do not and will not investigate journalists. Those remarks have no basis in the reality of our approach.”

If so, Uber would differ from H-P, Wal-Mart, Deutche Telekom, Fox News and other tech companies that have investigated and monitored journalists reporting on them. Regardless of the truth of whether this famously aggressive company has or will gather such “dirt files,” one item in Smith’s report deserves special notice, as Jay Yarrow picked up this morning: Smith reported that Uber demonstrated how it could spy on journalists:

In fact, the general manager of Uber NYC accessed the profile of a BuzzFeed News reporter, Johana Bhuiyan, to make points in the course of a discussion of Uber policies. At no point in the email exchanges did she give him permission to do so.

Uber told Smith that “Any such activity would be clear violations of our privacy and data access policies. Access to and use of data is permitted only for legitimate business purposes. These policies apply to all employees. We regularly monitor and audit that access.”

According to Ellen Cushing, a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine, that policy doesn’t look watertight.

Cushing explained more in a followup post about the warning she received::

It’s worth noting here that as far as I know, the company hasn’t looked into my logs. After talking to Uber staffers, it’s quite clear that the company stokes paranoia in its employees about talking to the press, so there’s a solid possibility that my sources’ fears were just the result of overzealous (and unfounded) precaution. But when I contacted a former employee last night about the news, this person told me that “it’s not very hard to access the travel log information they’re talking about. I have no idea who is ‘auditing’ this log or access information. At least when I was there, any employee could access rider rating information, as I was able to do it. How much deeper you could go with regular access, I’m not sure, as I didn’t try.” A second former employee told me something similar, saying “I never heard anything about execs digging into reporters’ travel logs, though it would be easy for them to do so.”

If you’re not thinking through the potential issues of Uber knowing who its riders are, when, and where, and what they are likely to have been doing, it’s worth stepping back a bit. Such associations can be powerful, as Uber has itself noted itself, from a “Ride of Glory“, defined as “anyone who took a ride between 10pm and 4am on a Friday or Saturday night, and then took a second ride from within 1/10th of a mile of the previous nights’ drop-off point 4-6 hours later (enough for a quick night’s sleep” to associations with alcohol and prostitution.

Uber blog: "How Prostitution and Alcohol Make Uber Better." "Areas of San Francisco with the most prostitution, alcohol, theft, and burglary also have the most Uber rides. "

Uber blog: “How Prostitution and Alcohol Make Uber Better.” – “Areas of San Francisco with the most prostitution, alcohol, theft, and burglary also have the most Uber rides. ”

With great data comes great power, and therefore responsibility. That means culture and ethics matter. The reason Michael was angry at Sarah Lacy is appears to be because of her excoriating post about Uber’s culture.

Now, imagine if powerful members of Congress decide that they don’t like Uber’s labor practices, or surge pricing, or its approach to flaunting regulatory strictures, or the way it lobbies city governments not to be subject to reporting on compliance with accessibility laws. What then? Will the same executives who have showed a limited “God View” at launch parties choose not to use more powerful internal analytics to track who is going where and when?

I know this is all hypothetical, but multiple reports of executives accessing user profiles mean we need keep our eyes open and ears clear, particularly given the relationships we can see forming between powerful politicians and tech companies, and the stories we already know meta data can tell about our lives.

The co-founder and CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, is a driven entrepreneur relentlessly focused on building a great product that seamlessly connects demand to capacity in a brilliant mobile app, leaving payment and logistics in the background. When I sat across from him at the launch party for Uber in DC, I found him to be funny and quick-witted, with a natural salesman’s charisma. Today, I think Uber users, including me, need to hear from him next, however, isn’t about future profit projections, plans for future expansion or more partnerships: it’s that we can trust him and his company with our locations and our safety. We want to know that they won’t ever use the data generated by our movements or pickups against us or the people who represent us. We want to know that they aren’t “morally bankrupt.” The stakes are too high to blindly trust without verifying.

UPDATE: Kalanick tweeted out the following statement after I published this post: “Emil’s comments at the recent dinner party were terrible and do not represent the company. His remarks showed a lack of leadership, a lack of humanity, and a departure from our values and ideals. His duties here at Uber do not involve communications strategy or plans and are not representative in any way of the company approach. Instead, we should lead by inspiring our riders, our drivers and the public at large. We should tell the stories of progress and appeal to people’s hearts and minds. We must be open and vulnerable enough to show people the positive principles that are the core of Uber’s culture. We must tell the stories of progress Uber has brought to cities and show the our constituents that we are principled and mean well. The burden is on us to show that, and until Emil’s comments we felt we were making positive steps along those lines. But I will personally commit to our riders, partners and the public that we are up to the challenge. We are up to the challenge to show that Uber is and will continue to be a positive member of the community. And furthermore, I will do everything in my power towards the goal of earning that trust. I believe that folks who make mistakes can learn from them – myself included – and that also goes for Emil. And last, I want to apologize to @sarahcuda.”

I’ll update this if he replies to my question. An edited version of this post was published on Wired.com.

UPDATE: On Tuesday night, un response to further concerns and criticism about its data use, Uber updated its privacy policy in a post to the company blog. I’m posting the statement in full below:

We wanted to take a moment to make very clear our policy on data privacy, which is fundamental to our commitment to both riders and drivers. Uber has a strict policy prohibiting all employees at every level from accessing a rider or driver’s data. The only exception to this policy is for a limited set of legitimate business purposes. Our policy has been communicated to all employees and contractors.

Examples of legitimate business purposes for select members of the team include:

Supporting riders and drivers in order to solve problems brought to their attention by the Uber community.

Facilitating payment transactions for drivers.

Monitoring driver and rider accounts for fraudulent activity, including terminating fake accounts and following up on stolen credit card reports.

Reviewing specific rider or driver accounts in order to troubleshoot bugs.

The policy is also clear that access to rider and driver accounts is being closely monitored and audited by data security specialists on an ongoing basis, and any violations of the policy will result in disciplinary action, including the possibility of termination and legal action.

Uber’s business depends on the trust of the riders and drivers that use our technology and platform. The trip history of our riders is confidential information, and Uber protects this data from internal and external unauthorized access. As the company continues to grow, we will continue to be transparent about our policy and ensure that it is properly understood by our employees.

[Graphic Credit: TechCrunch, Uber]

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Yes, it matters if senior staff at your institution use social media. Here’s why.

Over at GigaOm, Mathew Ingram asks whether it matters whether some editors and reporters at the New York Times tweet or not, riffing on the “Twitter graveyard” that Charlie Warzel dug up at Buzzfeed. As Warzel notes, dozens of Times staff are dormant or are “eggs,” with default accounts. My answer is simple: yes, it matters, and as I clarified to Patrick LaForge, a long-time, active Twitter user who I think uses it quite well, this isn’t about how they tweet but whether they do it at all.

Full disclosure: I gave the Times a much longer, richer answer regarding social media when their researcher interviewed me for the innovation report that leaked earlier this year. I was constructively critical then and will try to be now, as well.

It’s true that Twitter is being actively used by a smaller percentage of American adults online (19%) than other platforms, like Facebook. While I think that underbills Twitter’s influence and reach, I would be interested to see Charlie Warzel or a media reporter audit the NYTimes use & participation on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Google+ Hangouts with readers, Reddit, or comment sections. That would be more representative of total commitment and action on reader engagement, as opposed to a Buzzfeed post that may feel like a potshot to people internally. As someone who has watched and participated in discussion about Times content on all of those channels, I can say with some certainty that there is a gradient of demonstrated use & active listening. As long as @deanbaquet is silent, though, folks at 620 Eight Avenue should be prepared for negative comparisons to Alan Rusbridger (@arusbridger) at the Guardian and external analysts wondering whether he understands how the top editor acts sets the bar, high or low, for a media organization. Reasonable editors can differ, as Lydia Polgreen does:

I’ve consulted for a number of people on this front over the years and done internal training at past gigs. Showing you are listening with a favorite or retweeting a reply that advanced a story is valuable; it’s the first step to ‘tweeting your beat.’ For instance, for Baquet, retweeting a different reporter sharing her or his big story once every day would demonstrate that he was reading his own staff and using the audience that he has accumulated to amplify stories would be a safe approach. From where I sit, leading a media organization now includes a profoundly public component, and as the “sources have gone direct,” top editors are ceding ground by not using social media to get their perspective into discussion; posting a press release online or emailing statements is a limited and limiting approach. As for whether someone can lead a newsroom effectively or not without paying attention to Twitter, knowing what your staff or those you respect in the industry are saying about you or your leadership, or how they are responding to public critique or your journalism, is relevant to understanding what their challenges or needs are.

I don’t understand some arguments I see elsewhere online that engaging with readers, across platforms and email, doesn’t make the product better or make someone a better editors. The best reporters I know have active inboxes, busy phones and are constantly vetting stories with sources. The idea that products and services don’t get better through exposure to the customers, clients, readers, buyers or users and listening to their responses goes against the grain of everything we’ve learned about iterative, user-centric design over the last decade, in media organizations or out. I find that many comments, @replies, email or calls I get about my journalism makes it better — not all, by any stretch, but a lot, particularly by people who do research in the space, who do what I’m describing, who report on it or are affected by it. If you don’t think so, that’s fine. It’s been my impression that Margaret Sullivan (@sulliview) is a great public editor because she is an active listener online, not just in her inbox.

I understand that some people may still feel that Twitter is dumb, inane, hobbled by a character limit or not a valuable place for senior staff to spend time. In response, I would suggest looking at how another executive editor at a towering media institution in the United States that’s also working to transform from a print-centric model is handling Twitter: Marty Baron, at the Washington Post: @PostBaron. It sure seems like Marty Baron has quite similar working conditions and roles and constraints as Baquet, and yet manages to approach public communication in a different way.

Time is not the issue at the Times or elsewhere. It’s culture. It takes 10 minutes a day to log on to Twitter, read replies, search for responses to your stories (just put in URL) and send a tweet and RT another one. Anyone in government, media, academia or nonprofits who portrays doing that as a bigger time commitment is being disingenuous, perhaps because they simply don’t want to use the platform, given years of negative media reports about how people act there. It’s certainly true that building and engaging an audience takes time, training or experiential learning, but it’s also worth noting that former Timesman Brian Stelter reported his heart out daily and managed to balance building large, engaged social networks. This isn’t the false dichotomy that I keep seeing, where it’s either you report or you use social media: it’s both/and.

Creating an account on a two-way platform and then walking away, ignoring people talking to you, is like going to a cocktail party with strangers and spending your time looking at your phone and ignoring people — or occasionally saying something at dinner and ignoring what people around the table say in response. It may be better strategically, from my standpoint, not to create an account at all than to do so and then abandon it. Your mileage, as ever, may vary.

UPDATE: Folks who said critiquing the lack of tweets by Dean Baquet wasn’t reasonable, take note: the NYT executive editor responded to Steve Buttry, writing that “the fact that I have made so little use of Twitter is fair game for criticism.” I’d take this as tacit acknowledgement that it’s fair game to critique other folks in the media, too. (In other news, I should have asked him for comment on this post, too.)

As Steve notes, though, Baquet adds an observation that I suspect will create more concern than it tamps down:

“One of the biggest criticisms aimed at my generation of editors is that we created a priesthood, that we decided who was a journalist and who was not. If you hadn’t done cops and courts you weren’t a journalist, etc. That characterization was right on. We deserved the hit.

As I observe the criticism nowadays, you will forgive me for noting that it sounds like a new priesthood is being created, with new rules for entry. Don’t take that as saying I should not tweet more. I should. Just a warning that each generation of journalists seems so certain they know what it takes to be a journalist.”

As it happens, the metaphor is one I know well: Back in 2009, when I met Arianna Huffington for the first time at the FTC, she asked me to write up our conversation for her site. So, I did. Its title? “Is Journalism Going Through Its Own Reformation?

Maybe I’ve misread the criticism of Baquet that I’ve seen elsewhere, but my view is exactly the opposite: the smartest young journalists coming up and the Generation X-ers (ahem) that preceded them, along with their wise elders, understand at visceral level that social media, online video and smartphones have shifted how newsgathering works, democratizing publishing to all and enabling any connected person to report and commit acts of journalism.

The people formerly known as the audience, per NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, certainly know and experiences this during every breaking news situation, with all the confusion and misinformation it creates For much of the public, a top editor publicly choosing not to participate in the hurly burly of online conversation, even to the point of not contributing, much less demonstrating listening or acting as a hub to redistribute confirmed reports, might look like he or she is remaining aloof, choosing to preach from in front of the cathedral, not minister to a circle of friends.

Personally, I look forward to Baquet joining these conversations. I have faith they will be better for having him in it.

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Reports of Twitter shifting to an algorithmic timeline raise concerns about user control and experience

Twitter is signaling that it’s going to change how it shows the timeline to users, or at least experiment with it. Here’s what the company CFO actually said yesterday, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.

“Twitter’s timeline is organized in reverse chronological order, a delivery system that has not changed since the product was created eight years ago and one that some early adopters consider sacred to the core Twitter experience. But this “isn’t the most relevant experience for a user,” Noto said. Timely tweets can get buried at the bottom of the feed if the user doesn’t have the app open, for example. “Putting that content in front of the person at that moment in time is a way to organize that content better.”

Mathew Ingram read the WSJ report and interpreted it to mean that a “Facebook-style feed is coming, whether you like it or not.” Twitter CEO Dick Costolo objected to that headline and characterization:

After Ingram’s post, both Mashable’s Karissa Bell suggested and Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel have suggested that users shouldn’t freak out about a filtered feed because Twitter isn’t turning into Facebook — yet. Like Ingram, Warzel notes that this change to product might be an improvement for normal or new users:

For average Twitter users, an algorithmic feed might be just the incentive to head to Twitter for breaking news like so many journalists and news fiends. Given the newsgathering makeup of the social network, the content is already there. And this would certainly help expose a great number of tweets to a larger audience.
Of course this is a terrifying prospect for Twitter’s most obsessive crowd. The ones who live on Twitter. And for good reason! For plenty of journalists Twitter is a key tool in their day to day work and, for some, an integral platform in advancing their careers. But there’s nothing in Noto’s comments to suggest that this incarnation of Twitter — the core component of the social network that’s led to the platform’s meteoric rise, IPO, and global success — can’t co-exist with an algorithmically-driven timeline.

At the risk of giving Twitter too much credit, it seems preposterous that the company’s executives and product team would toss out the very core of the site and almost maliciously alienate its most ardent supporters and users. Sure, there’s wide concerns that Twitter’s product team doesn’t have the same relationship to the product as most intense newsgatherers, but it seems odd that the company, which employs a Head of News executive and frequently touts the importance of the raw feed during live events, would be clueless as to the platform’s standing in the news community.

Still, even the possibility of the change has riled a lot of people up, particularly media, and for good reason: the defaults do matter, particularly when the vast majority of users access the service using Twitter.com, m.twitter.com or the official mobile applications. There’s good reason to be concerned, as Ingram highlighted:

The most recent example of how stark the differences can be between a filtered feed and an unfiltered one was the unrest in Ferguson, Mo. and how that showed up so dramatically on Twitter but was barely present for most users of Facebook. As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci noted, that kind of filtering has social consequences — and journalism professor Emily Bell pointed out that doing this makes Facebook and Twitter into information gatekeepers in much the same way newspapers used to be.

Tufecki holds that Twitter should not algorithmically curate users’ timelines, even if algorithms will always serve tweets:

It’s simple: Twitter’s uncurated feed certainly has some downsides, and I can see some algorithmic improvements that would make it easier for early users to adopt the service, but they’d potentially be chopping off the very—sometimes magical—ability of mature Twitter to surface from the network. And the key to this power isn’t the reverse chronology but rather the fact that the network allows humans to exercise free judgment on the worth of content, without strong algorithmic biases. That cumulative, networked freedom is what extends the range of what Twitter can value and surface, and provides some of the best experiences of Twitter.

I’m inclined to take these concerns seriously but I’ll keep my powder dry just yet, with respect to upset. My take (yeah, I know) is that if Twitter experiments with giving users of its website an algorithmically curated stream to improve the relevance of what they see, OK… new users may appreciate that product. Or not. Either way, I hope that the company preserves API access for 3rd party clients, like Tweetbot. I hope Twitter preserves user’s ability to use Tweetdeck to view the timeline of people you follow and lists in reverse chronological order. I want to be able to decide, just as I do on the Facebook newsfeed with “Most Recent” vs “Top News,” and just as I want to know that I see every tweet from the people I’ve chosen to follow or put on the list.

If any of that access or control actually changes, then you’ll see me getting genuinely upset about Twitter breaking Twitter, just as I was when they crippled the free flow of information over the service in the name of spam and phishing prevention. Ironically, the Wall Street Journal also reported that Twitter is going to put more emphasis on messaging after it neglecting it for years, perhaps enabling “group chats” after adding pictures earlier this year. If so, I hope the company adds more domains to the small white list it currently allows. Tufecki, for her part, has an even longer wish list for improvements:

…there are many, many things Twitter could do to address all of that without breaking its networked, human-prioritizing logic. Much much better tutorials seems like such an obvious step (I have hardly seen good ones). Better suggestions for users to follow, perhaps a dozen at a time, and better ways of trying following groups of people. Right now, it’s all individual and arduous, and that should remain the core option, but the entry ramp could be much faster. Better filtering, too, especially of mentions would be very welcome. I’m craving a timed mute, for example—let me mute out someone who I don’t happen to want to listen that day or that week, without having to mute them permanently. Group chat for DM? Woohoo. DM is among Twitter’s most powerful features because it only allows contact from people one chooses to follow which is a better filter than email, but not as strict a one as Facebook which operates differently. Also, brevity makes DM more powerful. And lists! Twitter can do so much more to make lists more useful to its users to let users decide how to deal with signal/noise and interest ratios.

There is so much Twitter can do try to improve the user experience, for both the experienced and the beginner. But I hope that it does not algorithmically curate the feed, not because I love the chronology per se, but because I value people’s judgement. Yes, Twitter can make it easier to access that judgment in more varied ways but stepping between people I choose to follow and me is not the answer.

Asked for comment on these reports, Twitter spokesman Jim Prosser pointed me to Costolo’s reply to an analyst during Twitter’s earning call this July:

Vis-à-vis the additional products we could see I mentioned that I really again the kinds of experiences we created around topics and live events during the World Cup. We will run a number of experiments to that broader audience those unique visitors I talked about and I wouldn’t want to be specific about the sequence with which roll those out or when you would see those. On your second question, algorithmic timelines for example versus manually curated follow lists I think it’s fair to say that we are not ruling out any kinds of changes that we might deliver in the product in service to bridging that gap between signing up for Twitter and receiving immediate value and you will see a number of kinds of experiments that we produce there.

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On Columbia Journalism Review’s curiously ahistorical cover story about online journalism

I read the cover story in the Columbia Journalism Review this week. Alexis Sobel Fitts wrote a great feature, as measured by its narrative coverage of the rise of the I f*cking love science (IFLS) Facebook page or its creator, Elise Andrew, but the piece was hobbled by a false title and embedded premise: that this was the first time a journalism or her journalism were entirely self-made, without the help of an existing network or media company.

Journalists have been creating self-made brands for many decades, long before media went online. Even if we limited consideration to when journalism started being produced natively on the Internet, much less using social media, there are many media pioneers who were self-made online long before Andrew, with no assistance from mainstream media.

I’m a relative late-comer to in that kind of effort, but I’ll note proudly that the media brand I started last year has now been cited numerous times by NPR, Wikipedia and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. I’m not looking for credit from CJR or others: I’m simply noting that by putting up a masthead online and publishing on it, I’m following in the digital footsteps of people who started blogging and putting up websites decades ago, including original journalism and media creation. Boing Boing has been online for some 15 years old now, for instance, but is far from the only such enterprise.

What was novel to me about this story was not that aspect — the bold, unsupportable claim that IFLS was this was “journalism’s first self-made brand,” a statement that the author of “Poor Richard’s Almanac” might dispute — but rather how a Facebook page enabled a twentysomething student to build a huge engaged audience without the cost of reporters, marketing, advertising, distribution, taxes or any of the operational costs that a publisher would have had to bear in past decades.

She also bore some risks: if Facebook had changed how it showed her content, the page would have suffered. That’s no longer the case: As CJR reported, IFLS launched a website, iflscience.com.

If you read the comments on the CJR article, you’ll also see many voices calling out a genuinely problematic issue with calling the Facebook page “journalism,” which I define as text, photography or video that includes:

1) context (who/what/when/where/how/why)
2) attribution and sourcing, and
3) fact-checking the veracity of 1) and 2).

Whether what this Facebook posted has been “a new form of journalism or even journalism at all is debatable,” Fitts notes in CJR, but as she also reported, IFLS now has four writers, two of whom have journalism backgrounds. Visitors to the site find an engaging mix of colorful photography, articles, animations and videos, organized into taxonomies.

Most of the posts I browsed today featured a big photo and a few paragraphs summarizing a report or other news and link to the original source, along with a caption sourcing the media. As I explored, I stumbled upon a lovely piece of longform writing, on strange sailor jellyfish — and that it had originally been published elsewhere. Most are 300-500 words long and link out, which is to say they look and read like many of the blogs in the networks that Gawker Media or Vox Media or that routine end up atop TechMeme. They post are also, on average, incredibly popular on Facebook.

The flaws in the CJR cover story are not just about semantics or definitions, at least with respect to an upstart media entity bootstrapping itself without tapping into an existing broadcast power by using digital tools to find new audiences. That’s been happening for a long time, with each succession of media technology, from newspapers to radio to TV to cable news to the Internet.

I generally like reading CJR, but the way the publications covers the Internet is occasionally painful, from social media to technology the history of the Web. I’m insure how the issues in this article got by an editor, though I suspect an editor may well have written the headline, as is common at many publications.

I was also struck by two unanswered questions on revenue (how much, if any, revenue did she receive from Facebook or sponsors How much traffic does her website receive) and wondered the absence of some big news for the site’s creator: a TV show. If CJR decides to do a followup or digest of responses to reader questions, I’d be interested in reading answers.

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