20
Apr 17

Two faces of Facebook

This morning’s headlines are about the Facebook’s progress in connecting your brain to their social network. Their scientists, led by the ex-head of the American defence research agency Darpa, foresee the day when you won’t even have to lift a finger to press a ‘Like’ button. You’ll think it and it’ll happen.

The focus on Facebook’s announcement at their F8 developers conference in California is understandable. But my eye was caught by something quite different in what the network’s founder Mark Zuckerberg said. Something which shines a light on what a split personality Facebook is becoming on the issue of its effect on human society.

Zuckerberg talked about pictures and how much easier Facebook would make it to edit them. There’s a coffee cup in a picture of you: the touch of a key will add a whisp of steam or a second cup. You could make it look, he said, as if you’re not drinking coffee alone. Facebook will help us be ‘better able to reflect and improve our life experiences.’

New products would focus on the visual. And that, Zuckerberg said, is ‘because images created by smartphone cameras contain more context and richer information than other forms of input like text entered on a keyboard.’ Boring old words: so tiresome, so time-consuming, so slow.

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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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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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20
Apr 15

Andy Mitchell and Facebook’s weird state of denial about news

Andy Mitchell, Facebook’s director of news and global media partnerships, arrived at the (superb) international journalism festival in Perugia last week to speak about news on Facebook. Thirty per cent of American adults get their news via Facebook (27% in the UK); 88% of millennials in the US do so (71% in Italy). Each month, 1.4bn people use Facebook. That makes Mitchell one of the most – if not the most – powerful news distributors on the planet.

And what Mitchell had to say was straightforward in most ways (full video here) and extremely odd in one important omission.

Facebook wants to improve the “experience” (this word cropped up a lot) of people getting their news on mobile to improve. Links to clunky news sites load slowly and Facebook is talking to major sites (such as the New York Times and Buzzfeed) about embedding their journalism directly in Facebook. Every statistic underlines how much people like getting their news on Facebook.

This was all fascinating, but there wasn’t any mention of how Facebook sees and handles its role as a news gatekeeper, influencing both the detail and flow of what people see. The issue didn’t come up right till the end when a Scandinavian questioner asked Mitchell about instances of Facebook cutting out material from the news linked from his organisation and an Italian student followed up. Mitchell batted both questions away without addressing either directly.

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12
Dec 14

Nick Denton: a quotation to add to the collection

NDentonWLeitch_033110.jpgI think it is hallway of the Chicago Tribune building which is decorated by quotations on journalism and the freedom the press carved into the stone walls. Many are inspiring, most are sonorous and a few are pompous.

I have a new candidate for this collection. Its language is in the informal style of the 21st century rather than the more formal wording of earlier eras. Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker, wrote a 4,000-word memo to his staff this week brutally critical of both himself and some senior members of the groups’ staff (background here). This paragraph leapt at me:

“Editorial management’s mission for next year is simple. Here’s your budget. Break some stories. Expose the story behind that story. Say what others cannot or will not. Make us proud. This is the one of the greatest editorial openings of all time. Don’t fuck it up!”

Gawker has a claim to be the most successful online journalism start-up on the planet (despite the fact that some journalists don’t think it’s good journalism). What Denton’s rallying cry illustrates so well is that in the digital era much changes, but not everything does. Adjust the prose style and that paragraph could have been written or spoken by any galvanising editor of the past three centuries. It belongs on a wall somewhere.


12
Nov 14

“Shield laws” are back – but watch the drawbacks

The annual conference of the Society of Editors heard two arguments this week for “shield laws” to protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources including a pledge from the Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, that a future Conservative government would amend the Human Rights Act to give more “specific protection” to journalists.

There is a good account here of the speech by Gavin Millar QC, a very knowledgeable expert, and Javid’s speech is here. All this is well-intentioned and understandable: shield laws already exist in several American states. For a whole series of reasons stemming from recent disclosures, the protection of sources in the digital age is a big concern.

But there’s a big difficulty with shield laws, however tempting they might sound at first hearing. They require journalists to be a defined category of people. Once upon a time, that might have been easy: they were people who worked on the editorial content produced by printed newspapers and broadcast channels. Important disclosures are made by journalists; but they are also made by people who aren’t inclined to call themselves that.

Now, it’s not so easy. Anyone with a smartphone can “publish” to audiences large and small, simply by hitting a “share” button. Who counts as a journalist? In the aftermath of the Leveson Inquiry into phone-hacking and related wrong-doing, civil servants tied themselves into tangled knots trying to define “news publishers” who would be included in a new regulatory system.

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22
Sep 14

Metadata surveillance: the issue which won’t be allowed to disappear

This blog returns to what I hope will be more frequent publication after an unintended break with a small item of good news. How often do blog-writers throw out appeals, queries and rhetorical questions and hear nothing but silence? Frequently.

In the wake of the Snowden revelations about the scale of electronic communications surveillance by the NSA and its international partners, I wrote a short post a few months back underlining why journalists should worry about “metadata”. To journalists particularly, the issue of whether the snoopers, tappers and buggers are reading your email or merely tracking who you email and when (metadata is the latter) isn’t important.

A source can be identified by a list of emails and calls even if the authorities don’t have the content of those exchanges. Indeed, there are active cases in the US which suggest that the American government is doing precisely that. In the long history of keeping reporting free of the state, this may turn out to be a more important issue than the British media’s debate over regulation in the wake of phone-hacking and the Leveson Inquiry.

I suggested in February that someone should test whether the indiscriminate collection of this kind of information was a threat to free expression and a breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It’s not an open and shut case, but surely something worth trying.

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