22
Mar 17

Cut clutter, clarify and care about every word: Robert Silvers, RIP

Much has been written about Robert Silvers, one of two founders of the New York Review of Books, who died the other day. I never met Silvers but almost feel as if I knew him, despite the fact that he almost never wrote in the NYRB as an author. To read the NYRB was to read the minds of many knowledgeable people; one was also reading the mind of Silvers. His mark was on every paragraph.

That was of course because he edited every word. People who create ideas which last simplify and clarify. Listen to Silvers in this interview from four years ago. I can imagine that his voice might, to some, sound ‘elitist’ and arrogant in its certainty. But hear the clarity of purpose – and the watchful care to have that expressed in every word and comma. Lazy writing is lazy thinking, and vice versa.

The only statement of editorial mission the NYRB ever needed appeared in the first issue in 1963:

“This issue … does not pretend to cover all the books of the season or even all the important ones. Neither time nor space, however, have been spent on books which are trivial in their intentions or venal in their effects, except occasionally to reduce a temporarily inflated reputation, or to call attention to a fraud.”

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06
Mar 17

Dear Google, your algorithm went walkabout

In the past couple of years Google has moved more and more openly into creating editorial content, albeit material assembled by computers and not by people. One algorithm experiment in this line reveals a terrible muddle about truth.

The version of machine-created material most often seen in a Google search is the box which flips up on the right hand side of a screen to summarise what Google knows about the main subject of a search. I asked Google for the nearest branch of the restaurant chain Wahaca to my home in London:

For this kind of search, such panels work just fine. I get links to Wahaca locations on the left and a summary of the things I’m most likely to want to know about Wahaca neatly laid out on the right. This is the sort of thing that search does well with what the early pioneers of online called ‘ease of do’. Exact factual information, in a split second.

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20
Feb 17

Mr Zuckerberg’s education has further to go

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14
Nov 16

Zuckerberg: news ought to be ‘authentic’ and ‘meaningful’

No great surprise that the election of Donald Trump was a tipping point for opinion about Facebook. Now people are really asking the questions about the influence of social networks and the mix of human intervention and algorithms that power their selection of news.

This is not a post about the causes of the American election surprise and its implications of journalism (there’s an informative survey of opinions here). This is another bulletin on the progress that Facebook is making in absorbing and acting on the fact that it has moral and democratic responsibilities which stem from its colossal informational power.

At the weekend, Facebook’s chief honcho Mark Zuckerberg responded to charges that Facebook had influenced the election outcome, in particular by circulating fake news stories. No surprise either that Zuckerberg guesses not. But he is guessing. And I’d guess that subsequent research may show infuence. We’ll see.

Fake news is an issue, but it is not the heart of the question. The question which matters is how Facebook – the techies, the software and your community – decides what to show you. Anyone with a smartphone can now distribute information, true, false or debatable. The group of people who used try to sift the truth information likely to matter to society (aka journalists) no longer control the distribution of what they produce. Facebook is the first news distribution platform which operates at scale across the whole planet. Plainly that gives it power and influence; we just don’t yet know precisely how that works. Facebook’s responses to the dilemmas raised by this have been hesitant, crabwise, half-admissions that it may have some ‘editorial’ responsibilties and is not only a big, neutral tech-only company.

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24
Oct 16

News on Facebook: clever people still not (quite) getting it

Six weeks after unleashing a small tornado of criticism for mistakenly taking down a legendary news picture, Facebook’s top honchos have responded to the criticisms they attracted and switched policy.

Their global ‘community standards’ will be adjusted to allow exceptions for ‘newsworthy’ material. So say Justin Osofsky and Joel Kaplan, two Facebook Veeps, in a blog post. This is the key paragraph and the entire description of the tests they will use:

‘In the weeks ahead, we’re going to begin allowing more items that people find newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest — even if they might otherwise violate our standards. We will work with our community and partners to explore exactly how to do this, both through new tools and approaches to enforcement. Our intent is to allow more images and stories without posing safety risks or showing graphic images to minors and others who do not want to see them.’

On the surface, this is fine and I’m glad that Facebook has learnt from its recent experience. But the surface is the problem. If the Facebookers don’t dig under he surface of these brief, bland phrases soon, they will rapidly find themselves up to their armpits in more controversies. Last weekend’s flare-up was a reported internal row over whether or not Trump-supporting posts should be taken down because they qualify as hate speech. At the rate Facebook seems to be thinking about these dilemmas at the moment, there will be plenty more of this to come.

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27
Sep 16

A few clues to how Facebook should think about news

Among the mainstream online/print news media, anxiety about Facebook has turned to aggression. The attacks are the product of fear.

Facebook is a large enough corporation to generate headlines almost every day. But the row over the social network taking down a historic, and still powerful, picture taken in 1972 during the Vietnam War handed the pundits who worry about the future of journalism a golden opportunity.

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-11-50-23Facebook was beaten up for good reason: taking the picture down was idiotic and asking for trouble. But the ferocious aggression is not about Facebook’s failure to tell the difference between kiddie porn and a legendary piece of photojournalism. It’s about Facebook hoovering up advertising revenue which once went to pay for newsrooms.

A great many journalists aren’t thinking straight about Facebook (notable exception here). In an attempt to clarify, this post is in the form of advice to Facebook. That’s because I don’t think sniping at Facebook is working (although I’ve had a go at its executives before now myself). Least of all do I think that publishers can seek protection from social news distrbutors from governments. With the distribution of news now decoupled from the organisations which generate news, power now lies with the distributors. Facebook’s daily news audience is at least 600,000 people and growing; it’s the most popular news-sharing site in America.

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09
Dec 15

Politicians and Twitter: not the apocalypse

twitterPolitical commentator Steve Richards argued in the Independent yesterday that “political leadership is impossible in the age of social media”. He gave a gripping tweet-by-tweet account of how Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to impose his will on the Labour Party of Syrian airstrikes had been undone by dissent spread on Twitter.

Richards concluded that the leadership of political parties, as previously understood, can no longer be done then parties will change shape. This is quite the wrong lesson to draw.

The Labour Party is in a neurotic mess and it would be in one if Corbyn had been elected its leader in the age of the quill pen. The party’s membership is out of line with a significant segment of its MPs. Until one of these bodies brings the other into line, the mess, the rebellions and the tweets will not stop.

Communications media have changed often, switching the conditions and context in which politicians operate and requiring new skills in the armoury of anyone intending to lead. Come to that, political parties have changed across time as the gains to be made by bossing MPs have grown.

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08
Dec 15

The age of polymorphous media

For my sins, I spend a proportion of my professional life listening to journalists moaning about what is at risk and what has been lost in the digital era. I’ve come gradually to the conclusion that what they mourn most of all is the loss of simplicity.

Journalism expanded in the late 20th century in conditions which were historically exceptional and which, in retrospect, look miraculous. Print had stable advertising and circulation income; the capital costs of presses acted as an automatic barrier to new competitors. Terrestrial television had either taxpayer subsidy or advertising. For journalists, life was simple: they only had to worry about competition from the nearest rival.

In some competitive markets this made life tough, but not complicated. That agreeably simple era has been replaced by a chaotic and fast-changing system for news and opinion which is volatile, unpredictable and polymorphous. In other words, the present is like every other period of journalism’s history except the late 20th century.

If you’re running, working in or thinking of investing in a business involving journalism, here are five things worth keeping in mind in 2016: Continue reading →