The case against Facebook

But Googlers can also make a strong case that Google makes valuable contributions to the information climate. I learn useful, real information via Google every day. And while web search is far from a perfect technology, Google really does usually surface accurate, reliable information on the topics you search for. Facebook’s imperative to maximize engagement, by contrast, lands it in an endless cycle of sensationalism and nonsense.

I’m not sure I’d give Google as much of a moral edge over Facebook. Both are focused on optimising engagement. That’s pretty much a necessity given their business models. At the same time, Facebook does seem to turn engagement into an art form.

Courtesy of Vox in “The case against Facebook“.

“… the whole stream is just noise”, the state of news media

The state of news media
Reading newspapers

A depressing thought from Om Malik about the state of much of the news media these days. Fortunately there are still sources of insightful analysis that is worth reading. You just have to dig a little deeper to find them.

One of the current downsides of news blogging is that we have atomized it to a point where the whole stream is just noise. In the tech industry, funding news and HR moves have been fetishized to a point where there’s no point checking anything. Companies are getting smart and spewing so much PR content that everything and anything seems all the same — important and unimportant, both at the same time.

There is a metaphorical silver lining, though:

I know one thing: there is so little context to what we read that when we find something intelligent, we actually read it, even when there are annoying banners or native ads or teeth-whitening messages.

But be sure the read Malik’s whole post. As with all of his work, it is well worth the read.

Source: A rainy day & I’m thinking about the current state of media – Om Malik

Image credit: Igor Trepeshchenok

When 140 characters are not enough to rant

One of the big pieces of “news” in the last few days is that Twitter may stop counting links and images in the 140 characters permitted for tweets:

While there is other news, this one seems to have the media in an absolute frenzy. Bloomberg reported the news in an article titled “Twitter to Stop Counting Photos and Links in 140-Character Limit“. The key paragraph is this one:

The social media company will soon stop counting photos and links as part of its 140-character limit for messages, according to a person familiar with the matter. The change could happen in the next two weeks, said the person who asked not to be named because the decision isn’t yet public. Links currently take up 23 characters, even after Twitter automatically shortens them. The company declined to comment.

Largely unsubstantiated speculation

Read that carefully. What Bloomberg said is the following:

  1. Some anonymous person said Twitter will stop including links and images (well, image links, effectively) in the 140 characters limit.
  2. This might happen in the next two weeks.
  3. Twitter declined to comment.

While all of this might happen, this news report is pretty much unsubstantiated speculation (well, aside from the “person familiar with the matter” who could be a guy who passed an open window where someone who looked like a Twitter employee said something about 140 characters and links).

This speculation has then been reported as pseudo-fact by a variety of other publications. The Verge, for example, reported this:

Twitter is planning on letting users craft longer tweets by not counting photos and links toward its 140-character limit, according to a report from Bloomberg today. The change may happen in the coming weeks, and it would remove one of the more annoying product hurdles that has persisted on Twitter for years. Links and photos currently hog 23 and 24 characters respectively.

Huh?

I’m not quite sure what to make of this. For one thing, seeing so much copy written about a lot of speculation, especially after the whole 10,000 characters fiasco not too long ago which probably had more credibility because Jack Dorsey made some obscure reference to the possibility.

Secondly, Twitter reportedly declined to make any comment. In other words, Twitter either won’t confirm it because –

  • it’s just another rumour about something Twitter is still thinking about;
  • Twitter isn’t going to make the change; or
  • Twitter is being coy because it thinks this sort of frenzy might just convince all those Facebook users to switch.

Lastly, surely this sort of “news” isn’t worth all this attention? We’re literally talking about roughly two dozen characters where people either post multiple tweets to express a whole thought or do what Dorsey did back in January and publish an image of a lot of text. To add to that, a lot of people even publish thoughts that can’t be contained in 140 characters in those things we old-timers call “blogs” (it’s a real thing and it’s in the dictionary).

It might happen

If this change comes to pass, it will be a good thing. Twitter shouldn’t be counting links and media in the already constrained character limit and commentators have been calling for this change for years.

It won’t change the tweetstorms, tweets attaching images of longer texts and other stuff. It will just mean that users can probably avoid publishing multi-part tweets when they happen to be a word or two over the limit and still want their tweets to be intelligible.

Making this change won’t bring about peace in our lifetime; fix global warming or make the wifi on my train work any better. It really isn’t that big a deal, people.

The Daily Maverick’s response to trolls

SkinHead by JonasMF, licensed CC BY-ND 2.0

The Daily Maverick informed its readers that it is shutting down comments on its site in response to an unfortunately common phenomenon: trolls. It isn’t the first publication to do it and won’t be the last.

Over the past six years, we have worked painstakingly hard to build a legacy brand of which we could be proud. Unfortunately, our comments section is tarnishing that brand. As of today, we are suspending our comment section until such time as we can either moderate away those who feel entitled to spew hate speech on our property, or come up with some other solution that fosters genuine engagement rather than reductive trolling.

Shutting down comments won’t stop trolls from being trolls but it will force them out into other fora and deprive them of the opportunity to spoil an otherwise valiant enterprise.

As disappointing as it is, I’m kicking myself that I didn’t take better advantage of the comments section in the past to share my non-trollish thoughts about the great stories TDM publishes. That said, there are other ways to share your thoughts with the editorial team and The Daily Maverick’s readers. You just won’t be using the comments section.

Small minds crippled South African democracy

I’ve been reading a couple more stories both anticipating and discussing yesterday’s shameful vote to pass the Protection of State Information Bill in Parliament. There are some terrific quotes in these articles, all of which are worth reading:

Times Live’s article titled “The bitter triumph of small minds”:

If our parliament votes this bill into law on Wednesday, mark the day. It will signal the moment small minds obsessed with power triumphed over freedom.

Times Live’s article titled “Ruling party MPs should hang their heads in shame”:

Far from protecting South Africa from spies and “information pedlars”, as the securocrats would have us believe, this regressive bill will cause our nation incalculable harm.

Times Live quoting former president Nelson Mandela in a piece titled “An unequal contest with the truth”:

A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution.

It is only such a free press that can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen. It is only such a free press that can be the vigilant watchdog of the public interest against the temptation on the part of those who wield it to abuse that power. It is only such a free press that can have the capacity to relentlessly expose excesses and corruption on the part of government, state officials and other institutions that hold power in society.

The National Editors’ Forum released a statement anticipating the vote on the bill which included this quote:

Every MP who presses the green button to vote ‘yes’ for the Protection of State Information Bill will at that moment take personal responsibility for the first piece of legislation since the end of apartheid that dismantles an aspect of our democracy – a betrayal that will haunt them forever

I have also collated a number of stories leading up to the bill’s passing and subsequent analysis on Storify:

Why TechCentral's Google+ review is the worst I've read

Craig Wilson has written the worst Google+ review I have read so far. This isn’t because the review is critical of Google+ or questions whether it has what it takes to compete with Facebook and Twitter, but because the review is factually inaccurate in some respects, misleading in others and reads a little like Wilson has no idea what has been going on in the Google ecosystem. I really shouldn’t have read this review so early this morning, it just put me in a bad mood. I left a comment on the post a little earlier and thought I’d deal with the specific issues here instead.

Referring to Google+ as a Facebook-killer is possibly one of the more unimaginative categorizations a journalist can come up with. Actually, most of these “-killer” descriptions are sensationalist but I suppose that is what attracts readers, as tired as it is. Moving along …

But Circles does have its flaws. Most importantly, the suggested contact list is populated from your Gmail contact book, which is fine if you’re an Android user and all of your contacts are up to date, but less so if you’re not and they aren’t.

This is not a criticism of Circles but rather of users who don’t have up-to-date Contacts in Gmail. Circles does suggest new connections based on your Contacts and if your Contacts are not up-to-date, well, perhaps you should update them if you want better recommendations. Circles also makes recommendations based on your connections and these recommended connections may not be in your Contacts.

Fortunately, this time around Google didn’t automatically add all contacts from users’ Gmail accounts to its social platform (as happened when the disastrous Google Wave was launched). But it would still be great to be able to import contacts from elsewhere. No doubt this, along with other minor failings, will be addressed in updates.

Two things here. First, the “disastrous Google Wave” was really Google Buzz which launched with poor privacy controls in place. When Buzz launched last year it initially automatically populated your Buzz connections with your Gmail Contacts and made those connections publicly visible. It was a terrible decision, in retrospect, because Googlers who had been testing Buzz internally didn’t realise that making those connections public by default could be a bad idea. That decision probably doomed Buzz, to a large extent, and has haunted Google since then.

Second thing is that Google+ does allow you to import contacts from Hotmail and Yahoo!. The option is clearly marked:

Circles  Google+

After all, Google+ is only in its infancy so there are bound to be a few kinks.

Google+ is not complete by any stretch of the imagination. It is in a limited field test which is Google’s way of saying that it is really really in beta. It has bugs and its features are being tweaked, added and removed on an ongoing basis. The team behind Google+ is listening to feedback us early users (read: testers) are submitting and is iterating pretty rapidly.

Perhaps the best feature of Circles is that it’s possible to opt to prevent people in your Circles from re-sharing content you’ve shared with them.

This is also incorrect and a cause for concern on Google+. Users can limit what they share to specific Circles or individuals (or combinations of both). One of the early concerns was that a user could share something intended for a limited audience, publicly, and effectively negate the privacy Circles enables. Google has addressed this in part and while it still allows you to reshare posts (still a concern), it warns you that doing so may not be what the original poster intended and you should think twice before doing so.

Still, for the paranoid there may be other privacy concerns. Like Facebook, Google+ wants to encourage people to share as much information as possible, including making your Google+ profile public, if you’ll allow it.

Google has said that all Google profiles will be public and, as Wilson points out further in the review, private profiles will be deleted at the end of July. If you want to use Google+ and any other service that uses a Google profile beyond that point you will need to disclose your name and gender at a minimum (this is pretty much what Wilson has on his profile – name and gender with a profile photo). Google has not given any indication that it expects or wants users to expose more profile information beyond that to public view. This isn’t Facebook.

You could probably have a Google profile with only your name and gender and nothing else and it would be fine from Google’s perspective. That said, as Jeff Jarvis pointed out recently, social is for sharing, not hiding. If the thought of disclosing personal information on the Web really doesn’t appeal to you then you probably wouldn’t want to use Google+, Facebook or Twitter (I believe Facebook also requires that all profiles have a name and possibly a photo or gender in public view. Twitter profiles disclose whichever name you use for the profile and whatever you add to the bio section, I believe. This minimum disclosure requirement is not unique to Google+).

That said, there may be other privacy concerns looming. This is bound to happen as services like Google+ and Facebook struggle to find a balance between persuading users to share more and enhance the network’s value, on one hand, and protecting their right to choose how much to share with who, on the other hand. My view is that Google is off to a good start, even with some of its initial mistakes which are being picked up and addressed in this limited field trial.

Furthermore, a look at Google’s terms of service suggests that “by submitting, posting or displaying the content you give Google a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and nonexclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute any content which you submit, post or display on or through the services”.

So if you are, say, a professional photographer, you may want to think twice before using Google+’s photo sharing capabilities. But then, Facebook’s terms of service are equally draconian and alarming. For most users, however, this isn’t anything to be worried about, unless they have something to hide — or plan to in the future.

This is a convenient alarmist approach which typically has relatively uninformed users and journalists shouting that the service “owns” their content. We just saw this with Dropbox and we have seen it in the past with Facebook. It is misleading and just designed to attract traffic rather than accurately inform users about what is going on.

What users need to bear in mind is that social networks like Google+ and Facebook take broad licenses from users to be able to run the service. This license is broad, so is Facebook’s, and the question is how far the licenses go. Twitpic’s terms of service, for example, go further than is required for the service to be oper
ated and the service has assumed the right to sell users’ content. That is unacceptable and people should think carefully before using Twitpic. In fact, I think Wilson’s comments are dead-on when it comes to Twitpic. As for Google’s license terms, professional photographers should think carefully about adding their work to any social network because their work is their livelihood. That said, Google’s wording doesn’t include the right to sell the photographs, just reproduce and manipulate them.

Sparks, meanwhile, seems far less refined than other Google+ features. Essentially an aggregator that uses all of that information Google has about you to suggest content you might like, Sparks is somewhat underwhelming in that the content it suggested to us was neither particularly relevant nor interesting. Still, it’s early days, and we have no doubt that the more time we spend on Google+ the better its suggestions will get.

Sparks is actually a very interesting product. The idea is to run a search for topics which interest you and Sparks will give you curated content (not ordinary search results) which you may find interesting and which you could use to spark a conversation (hence where the name comes from).

As far as I can tell Google+ doesn’t base the content in Sparks on personal profile data at this stage. I have a spark for “industrial design” which I haven’t really mentioned much and isn’t listed in my profiles. Google gives me articles which I may find interesting without reference to my profile data. Sparks is really smart because it gets around the question of who to follow for interesting content and instead works to present better results. It is almost a counterpoint to feed readers where you are the curator or have to rely on other curators to identify the best sources.

As unimpressed as I am with Wilson’s review, I want to reiterate that this shouldn’t be regarded as a slight on TechCentral or on Duncan and Candice who I regard as two of South Africa’s best journalists. TechCentral is one of a couple innovative and excellent local news services and I have tremendous respect for the work being done there. With the exception of Wilson’s review.

Google+ is part of a grander Google strategy which seems to be intended to reinvent Google as a social search and marketing business. Google has been working on this strategy for a while now and has made a number of changes to existing services pretty much under the radar. Google+ has attracted huge attention because it is a credible threat to Facebook and Twitter. With enough users it could be the next big social service on the Web but it faces an uphill battle against both services which are fairly well entrenched in their respect markets. I don’t know if Google+ will ever supersede Facebook and I’m sure if it has to do that to be regarded as a success. What I do know is that it has been very well received already and I love using it. It is sticky, stimulating and very well designed and developed. It also keeps getting better, as buggy as it is sometimes. It should feel pretty slick and compelling when it becomes publicly available.

If you would like to read some pretty good articles on Google+, here are a few I have been reading lately:

Explore Yad Vashem's collections online

I just noticed that Yad Vashem’s collections are available online, with Google’s help. If you are not familiar with Yad Vashem (I haven’t had an opportunity to visit yet, myself), here is some background information:

As the Jewish people’s living memorial to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem safeguards the memory of the past and imparts its meaning for future generations. Established in 1953, as the world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem is today a dynamic and vital place of intergenerational and international encounter.

I think it is awesome that Google has helped put these collections online. These are critical works that must be preserved as a reminder of what has happened and as a collective memory of the millions of Jews who lost their lives or whose lives were changed by the Holocaust.

The Daily Maverick: an example of how to do online journalism right

I just picked up on an article in Mail & Guardian titled “The site your mom warned you about” about The Daily Maverick (I got the link in today’s First Thing newsletter, of course) and thought I’d throw in a few cents of my own. If you haven’t read The Daily Maverick or receive the daily First Thing email (one of perhaps 2 daily emails I subscribe to and am glad I do) then you are missing out on an experience. This extract from the Mail & Guardian sums up TDM’s focussed approach to great news for me:

De Wet, the deputy editor of The Daily Maverick, plugged his Nokia N85 into his PowerBook, his Canon EOS 550D fastened to a tripod at his side, and dialled up a connection.

“Anybody hash tag this?” he shouted across the room to no one in particular as he set up his mobile reporting station. “I’m tweeting. Is anybody tweeting this?”
We were not. But no matter. De Wet would. And as the ambassador spoke, the bespectacled 32-year-old journalism school dropout, in his signature crumpled T-shirt and faded Levis, told the 3 730 followers of The Daily Maverick what was being said in 140 characters or less, in real time, while simultaneously monitoring the questions readers were sending through. All while taking notes for the piece he would write and post within the next few hours.

Publications like The Daily Maverick and TechCentral (disclosure: TechCentral is/has been my firm‘s client) are excellent examples of online news sites done right. If this sounds familiar it is because I have said this a couple times in the past. When I look at other SA news sites and compare them to what Branko has done with The Daily Maverick and what Duncan has done with TechCentral, I get a strong sense that those other news sites are just not trying very hard to save themselves from the trend away from print news publications. Their (the other people) online presences are weak and their efforts to force me to subscribe to read their content are pitiful.

My Kindle has me reading more books and The Daily Maverick has me reading more news. Isn’t that the point?