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
But the most important question for this “family album” will be to what extent we can enlarge our notion of family. If viewed as happening to the “other,” then much of this imagery—whether joyous or painful—will be ignored by those not directly affected. If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as mutually dependent, both happy for each other’s successes and attentive to each other’s welfare, then even the harshest imagery created by communities of their own distress can serve a purpose.
Fred Ritchin, professor at NYU and co-director of the Photography & Human Rights Program at Tisch in an article for TIME LightBox on Hurricane Sandy, One Year Later.
He discusses the growing practice of and potential for communities to portray themselves through photography, be it professionals having access to a larger audience through the web, or amateurs using their mobile phones to capture events.
Instagram, for example, allows professionals and amateurs alike to immediately upload images; during Hurricane Sandy last year, ten photos tagged to the storm were uploaded every second; 800,000 pictures were uploaded in all. In contrast, the monumental, multi-year Farm Security Administration program created during the New Deal that focused on American rural poverty with photographers such as Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein and Ben Shahn, produced roughly 250,000 images total.
While Instagram as a photographic and journalistic medium has its critics, one of its positive features is the fact that users can see only one photo at a time on their phone, which, Ritchin points out, provides the viewer a type of respite from the visual chaos of the web. At a time when increasing numbers of citizens around the world are documenting everything from war to human rights atrocities to their daily lives, a coherent way to filter this imagery is missing. Not all disasters are the same, he writes:
Whereas Hurricane Sandy was a catastrophe that those in the Northeastern United States suffered through together, sharing each other’s vulnerability, other circumstances may be more problematic. What might have been the result if those trapped inside the World Trade Towers on September 11 had possessed cellphone cameras? Would it have been enlightening for others on the outside if they were able to distribute images of their terrible predicament, or would large amounts of such first-person imagery have provoked an ugly voyeurism amounting to re-victimization? Would these images have further increased the trauma for a horrified, largely powerless public to even more intolerable levels, and with it the calls for vengeance?
Our task is two-fold: 1) “to develop practical applications for this abundance of imagery” and 2) to find ways to make this “family album” that stretches the world over accessible to us, in our media consumption cycles as something other than an overload of imagery lest it cause “an even greater distancing from events” due to our inability to process the abundance.
All that in mind, view the photo essay "Hurricane Sandy, One Year Later: Self-Portraits of Communities in Distress" here.
If you can’t present your ideas to at least a modestly larger audience, then it’s not going to do you very much good. Einstein supposedly said that I don’t trust any physics theory that can’t be explained to a 10-year-old. A lot of times the intuitions behind things aren’t really all that complicated.
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
Earlier this week, a friend asked me what the best way to get caught up with what’s going on in Syria is. I’m not a fan of most cable channels because they tend to make one feel compelled to have an opinion, jump in on the debate, or pass judgement before being fully informed. So here’s a reading round-up:
And then there’s Mother Jones’ guide to the debate, which is always an easy, and comprehensive read, the Washington Post’s 9 Questions About Syria You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask, and Children’s BBC, which, yes, is for children, but for those trying to catch up, helpful.
Diving Deeper/Interesting Tangential Thoughts:
If you want to spent some time digging into the past, present and future coverage on the issues, go to directly to Syria Deeply, and/or the NY Times Crisis in Syria page, from which some of the above links were selected.
To evaluate the nothing-to-hide argument, we should begin by looking at how its adherents understand privacy. Nearly every law or policy involving privacy depends upon a particular understanding of what privacy is. The way problems are conceived has a tremendous impact on the legal and policy solutions used to solve them. As the philosopher John Dewey observed, “A problem well put is half-solved.”