In other words, based on your consumption of news, your search patterns, and a deep analysis (semantic, tonality, implied emotions) of your mail and your posts — matched against hundreds of millions of others — Google will be able to suggest a link to the profile of an artist in Harper’s when you dropped in Google News to check on Syria.
Frédéric Filloux, News: Personalized or Serendipitous?, Monday Note.
Filloux interviews Richard Gingras (senior director of news and social products at Google) about how Google is planning to serve content to readers that is both personalized and serendipitous:
According to him, “Today’s news personalization is very unsophisticated. We look at your news reading patterns, we determine that you looked at five stories about the Arab Spring and we deduct you might like articles about Egypt. This is not how it should work. In fact, you might be interested in many other things such as the fall from grace of dictators, generation-driven revolutions, etc. These requires understanding concepts”. And that’s a matter Google is working on, he says. Not only for news, but for products such as Google Now which is the main application of Google’s efforts on predictive search.
How it’ll actually pan out, we don’t know, but there are a couple of questions that come out of this that are worth keeping in mind:
01. How do recommendation engines (currently) work?
Recommendation engines, otherwise known as recommender systems, suggest content based on previous behavior or purchases. Such systems typically use one of two approaches: Collaborative filtering creates a predictive model based on a user’s previous interactions such as products purchased or viewed. Content-based filtering looks at content or item characteristics and suggests content with similar elements. Amazon, Netflix and music services including Pandora and last.fm use recommendation engines.
02. Why preserve serendipity?
Four years ago, Mathew Ingram wrote about the serendipity defense—one of the main arguments for a bundled news package: basically, newspapers let you easily stumble upon fascinating articles that you’d never think to look for by yourself. The advantage that newspapers have over the internet on this is that once you pick one, you can have a good sense of what quality to expect from it. You know the brand, you can let your critical guard down and the whole experience is fun and easy. While the internet might be the ultimate serendipity machine, achieving the same results requires much more: know-how, patience, a critical eye on the trustworthiness of the source, and regular exploration.
03. Why prescribe content?
While the web allows us to find endless amounts content, that content often ends up being finer and finer bits of the candy we love, which encourages us to exist in echo chambers of information-decadence. Those who believe that news services should deliberately prescribe content to help readers diversify the perspectives they are exposed to have yet to find a way to do so that doesn’t feel like an eat-your-vegetables approach. Plus, prescribing content to readers for the benefit of a “balanced” news diet would likely require too many assumptions about value to ever be widely accepted.
FJP: If you’re a proactive news reader, you can create your own diet of publications or people both in and outside your comfort zone and maintain a personalized, serendipitous, diverse set of sources. If you’re not, you’ll rely on recommendation engines to do the work for you. For the creators of those engines, it’s a tricky mix to find the right balance between serendipity and prescription. And unfortunately, many of the concocters of the magic potion are for-profit companies that skew the formula for their own benefit.—Jihii
This online cultivation of beautiful sadness is easy to join: anyone can take a picture, turn it black and white, pair it with a quote about misunderstood turmoil, and automatically be gratified with compassion and pity. And this readily accessible sea of dark poetry could easily drown out those whose suffering has reached the clinical level. During the vulnerable years during which adolescents seek out self-affirmation and recognition from others, this new, easy promise of being recognized as strong, beautiful, and mysterious by Tumblr “followers” can be very tempting, says Dr. Mark Reinecke, chief psychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Too often, it just leads to more teenagers believing and feeling they are depressed, self-pitying, self-harming.
We must choose completeness over succinctness when tweeting breaking news, especially if it’s complex breaking news that’s easily misunderstood.
Sam Kirkland, New Orgs Could Have Done a Better Job Tweeting Shutdown News, Poynter.
Yes, yes and yes. Kirkland points to tweets from large media organizations (USA Today, The AP and The Wall Street Journal) on September 27, which state that the Senate “passed” a bill to avert the government shutdown. He writes:
Every editor should know how a bill becomes a law — but no editor should assume every reader does. That’s why some of the breaking news tweets before and during the government shutdown were incomplete and potentially misleading.
He points to large media organizations because the reach of their tweets is enormous.
The real story that day — and every day since, until Wednesday — was what House Republicans would agree to. Democrats in the Senate passing a budget bill meant little if it was dead on arrival in the GOP-led House, as the New York Times’ fantastic ongoing back-and-forth graphic showed throughout the shutdown.
So, the all-caps #BREAKING treatment perhaps made the Senate’s move seem more consequential than it really was, especially with wording that could be misconstrued as indicating the Senate’s vote actually meant the shutdown threat was over. Those three tweets weren’t factually wrong, but responses to them indicated at least some confusion from readers.
Instead of seeking an engaged audience — that’s a metric better suited for movies and prime-time TV — we in news should be seeking an informed public, using new tools to make them better informed with greater relevance and more efficiency. Instead of measuring our success by how much more time we can get them to spend with us, we should measure it by how much less time they need to spend with us to reach their own goals.
Jeff Jarvis, Maybe News is Just More Efficient, BuzzMachine.
FJP: Jarvis goes on to discuss a hypothetical news service that accomplishes this task of efficiency by serving the public news that uses a (very) smart algorithm to bring each reader a hyper-personalized news stream. An obvious issue with this is selection bias, and the possibility that one will end up consuming a very narrow slice of the perspective pie (read about the perils of algorithmic curation here). Also see the comments below Jarvis’s article for some interesting points made by readers.
Google on Friday announced that it would soon be able to show users’ names, photos, ratings and comments in ads across the Web, endorsing marketers’ products.
"Facebook has been aggressively marketing social endorsements, which it calls sponsored stories. For example, if you post that you love McDonald’s new Mighty Wings on the chain’s Facebook page, McDonald’s could pay Facebook to broadcast your kind words to all your friends."
"Twitter also enables advertisers to show public tweets in their ads, but requires advertisers to get the permission of the original author of a message before using it in an ad."
Nothing to see here. This is just the natural movement of companies finding ways to monetize the personal information you give them. If you don’t want to be in an ad, don’t endorse products online.
FJP: To opt out of Google’s “shared endorsements,” head here. Scroll to the bottom of the page and uncheck the box.
Related: Citing lack of use of its universal privacy controls, Facebook announced earlier this week that it was doing away with them and instead asks Users to select privacy settings on a post by post basis.
The caveat, of course, is that when Facebook says only a few percent of its Users use something, we’re talking millions of people.
The Supreme Court hears oral arguments today in a campaign finance case. At issue is whether total caps on direct individual giving to candidates and PACs violate First Amendment rights.
As CNN puts it, “The competing arguments are stark: supporters of campaign finance reform say current federal regulations are designed to prevent corruption in politics. Opponents said it would criminalize free speech and association.”
While oral arguments run today with a decision on the case expected next spring, Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig submitted a brief in September in the form of a Tumblr.
First: Via Fred Wilson:
Professor Larry Lessig has submitted a brief to the Supreme Court in a case arguing that limiting large political contributions is Constitutional and exactly what the Framers had in mind when they used the word corruption.
As part of the evidence he has submitted in his brief, Larry created a Tumblr with 325 citations from the Framers themselves showing that they had a very broad understanding of the word corruption. This will be the first time that a Tumblr has been submitted as evidence in a Supreme Court case.
Second: So what’s Lessig doing? Via “Corruption,” originally.
According to the Supreme Court, the First Amendment does not limit Congress’s power to pass laws narrowly tailored to attack “corruption” or the “appearance of corruption.” (Buckley v. Valeo). But by “corruption,” the Court increasingly speaks as if it means “quid pro quo” corruption only.
This modern understanding of the term “corruption” struck me as odd, at least for the originalists on the Court. Because it seemed to me clear that the Framers of the Constitution had a different conception of “corruption” than one limited to “quid pro quo” alone. For the Framers, “corruption” could predicate of an individual (“Aaron Burr is corrupt.”) as well as of an institution (“Parliament is corrupt.”). And when it predicates of an institution, that institution is not only corrupt because its members have engaged in “quid pro quo” corruption. Instead, according to the Framers, an institution could also be corrupt when it develops an “improper dependence.”
In other words, the Framers’ “main focus (or most common usage) was institutional corruption. And one prominent example of the institutional corruption they were concerned about was an institution developing an improper dependence. Like — to pick just one totally random example — a Congress developing a dependence upon its funders, rather than the dependence the framers intended — ‘on the People alone.’”
Third: Need help sifting through the "Corruption," originally site? Tumby, the social discoverability engine, has added its search magic to Lessig’s Tumblr to help you go through tags and keywords. To use and experience it, grab the tumbyHover Chrome Extension here.
But why would a person write to Redbook extolling the great beauty and virtue of Eva Longoria? I have my own set of favorite actors… but I can barely imagine composing a sincere tweet about them, let alone writing multiple paragraphs and then sending them to a magazine for publication. That’s even more true in an era in which it’s so easy to do one’s gushing online, using less formal language. What compels an enthusiastic reader to let Entertainment Weekly know that this year’s fall TV preview was the best ever?
Ruth Graham, Meet the People Who Still Write Letters to the Editor, The Awl.
To answer the question, Ruth Graham interviews four writers of recent letters to the editor in People and Vanity Fair. While this is by no means representative of any kind of trend, three out of four of them are over the age of 60 and three out of four are or have been writers of some sort. Read about them here.
FJP: Here’s a personal thought on reading comments in print vs. online. I generally read about 4 magazines in print per month. I don’t subscribe to any, I just pick up what looks interesting at the train station when I’m visiting my folks. I always stop and read the letters section, both the letter from the editor and the letters to the editor. I do this because when reading in print, I feel I need to orient myself and get a grip on the identity of the publication in hand. It feels like a respectful thing to do. I feel compelled to perform this act of respect because holding an entire issue of a magazine in your hands makes you feel the weight of the effort that went into it. Perhaps it makes no sense, but I want to reciprocate.
The content of these letters to the editor are hardly ever more insightful or intriguing that comments people leave online. Yet because they get an entire printed page, I spend a few extra seconds pondering them than I would something online. And particularly because I’m a child of the age of millennial voyeurism, it’s a strange feeling to read letters to the editor in print and not get to internet stalk the people who wrote them. So, this Awl piece is a fun read. And something I’ve always been curious about. —Jihii
Somewhat related: A NY Times Magazine piece from last weekend on the history, future and quality of comments.
In an interview on his newest project (the just over 1-year-old long-form platform Medium) Twitter co-founder Evan Williams shared a few thoughts on the uselessness of general news, and the need for a platform to highlight ideas of lasting import.
Williams is taking aim squarely at the news industry’s most embarrassing vulnerability: the incessant need to trump up mundane happenings in order to habituate readers into needing news like a daily drug fix.
“News in general doesn’t matter most of the time, and most people would be far better off if they spent their time consuming less news and more ideas that have more lasting import,” he tells me during our interview inside a temporary Market Street office space that’s housing Medium, until the top two floors are ready for his growing team. “Even if it’s fiction, it’s probably better most of the time.”
[…] Instead, Williams argues, citizens should re-calibrate their ravenous appetite for information towards more awe-inspiring content. “Published written ideas and stories are life-changing,” he gushes, recalling his early childhood fascination with books as the motivation to take on the media establishment. The Internet “was freeing that up, that excitement about knowledge that’s inside of books–multiplied and freed and unlocked for the world; and, the world would be better in every way.”
In Williams’s grand vision, the public reads for enlightenment; news takes a backseat directly in proportion to how often it leaves us more informed and inspired.
This is a really valid, and really noble ambition that resonates with more than a few people. In a letter to a young journalist, Pulitzer winning writer Lane DeGregory looks back on her career and says she wishes she had “read more short stories and fewer newspaper articles.”
It also echoes what Maria Popova has been aiming to do with her curatorial interestingness project, Brain Pickings, for years now. Last week, she wrote a must-read piece on tech writer Clive Thompson’s new book, which pushes past “painfully familiar and trite-by-overuse notions like distraction and information overload,” to deeply examine the impact of digital tools. She writes:
Several decades after Vannevar Bush’s now-legendary meditation on how technology will impact our thinking, Thompson reaches even further into the fringes of our cultural sensibility — past the cheap techno-dystopia, past the pollyannaish techno-utopia, and into that intricate and ever-evolving intersection of technology and psychology.
The Problem: Though I’ve been excited about Medium and its potential, I’m inclined to file Williams’ vision for it into the “pollyannaish techno-utopia” bucket that Popova mentions because although the impulse behind it (the desire for an antidote to the ravenous appetite for tidbits of useless information) is something I wholeheartedly agree with, algorithmic curation worries me.
Traditional news editors stake their reputations on having an intuition for what drives eyeballs to their sites. Editors don’t, however, know whether readers leave more informed.
Williams thinks Medium has an answer: an intelligent algorithm that suggests stories, primarily based on how long users spend reading certain articles (which he’s discussing publicly for the first time). Like Pandora did for music discovery, Medium’s new intelligent curator aims to improve the ol’ human-powered system of manually scrolling through the Internet and asking others what to read.
In the algorithm itself, Medium prioritizes time spent on an article, rather than simple page views. “Time spent is not actually a value in itself, but in a world where people have infinite choices, it’s a pretty good measure if people are getting value,” explains Williams.
"Time spent" seems like a questionable way to measure value, if "enlightening" content is what Medium wants to put on the screens of readers. As a content-neutral long-form discovery platform, sure, it makes sense. And there isn’t really anything wrong with it either. But touting itself as a solution to our appetite for endless streams of meaningless information seems troubling to me. Here’s why:
A key aspect of Thompson’s argument on the good the internet has done for our brains is that it has given us unprecedented access to one another’s memory stores, which means that our ability to indiscriminately discover information and understand the world through it, has expanded infinitely. To oversimplify it: we don’t have to remember as much by ourselves—we simply need to remember where information is stored and how to access it quickly. While the benefits are obvious, the issue with this is that it hampers creative thought, and our ability to make connections.
In light of platforms like Medium, longer isn’t better, especially when the discovery of value is left to machines. Popova excerpts a portion of Thompson’s book in which he explains how an algorithm’s biases exist, but are almost impossible to identify:
The real challenge of using machines for transactive memory lies in the inscrutability of their mechanics. Transactive memory works best when you have a sense of how your partners’ minds work — where they’re strong, where they’re weak, where their biases lie. I can judge that for people close to me. But it’s harder with digital tools, particularly search engines. You can certainly learn how they work and develop a mental model of Google’s biases. … But search companies are for-profit firms. They guard their algorithms like crown jewels. This makes them different from previous forms of outboard memory. A public library keeps no intentional secrets about its mechanisms; a search engine keeps many. On top of this inscrutability, it’s hard to know what to trust in a world of self-publishing. To rely on networked digital knowledge, you need to look with skeptical eyes. It’s a skill that should be taught with the same urgency we devote to teaching math and writing.
Popova explains that without a mental pool of resources from which we can connect existing ideas into new combinations—and I’d add, thereby access, retain, and be “enlightened” by information—our capacity to do so is deflated.
TL;DR: Popova’s piece doesn’t directly address or assess discovery platforms like Medium, but I think it’s worth considering them together. Longer form writing isn’t an antidote to short bites of information, and ideas of lasting value can’t be judged by time spent consuming them. The point here is that for content platforms that truly seek to give people access to more ideas with more lasting import, a lot more work has to be done, namely: (1) The limitations of algorithmic curation need to be transparent, and talked about, and (2) Readers need to be taught how to critically consume self-published writing that they received through digitally networked knowledge. —Jihii