About Mary Hamilton

I'm a journalist-type tech-ish geek person, working in that interesting ambiguous place where reporting the news meets all sorts of peripheral skills. In my spare time I herd zombies, design games and write stuff.

Pocket Lint #24: hills of beans

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“People do still donate at churches and other places. We literally have ten tonnes of beans. We have a ‘bean room’ at our central storehouse. People for some reason associate a foodbank with beans. But actually what we need is coffee, sugar, UHT milk, tinned fruit, tinned fish. A whole range of things. So we try and get the shopping list to people and ask them to buy from it. But whatever you do, you still get lots of beans.”

The rise and fall of Default Man: “When we talk of identity, we often think of groups such as black Muslim lesbians in wheelchairs. This is because identity only seems to become an issue when it is challenged or under threat. Our classic Default Man is rarely under existential threat; consequently, his identity remains unexamined. It ambles along blithely, never having to stand up for its rights or to defend its homeland.”

Of GamerGate and disco demolition.

Trouble at the Kool-Aid point.

handler/the-paranoid-style-in-gaming-misogyny-1d412f212bda">The paranoid style in gaming misogyny.

I Know This Sounds Like Spam, But I Really Did Double My Mass In TWO WEEKS And Now Women Can’t Get Enough Of Me And I’m SCARED

If you only come into contact with one thing about GamerGate, make it this video.

Robert Webb on growing up male: ‘Nobody ever told me: you don’t have to waste years trying to figure out how to be a “man” because the whole concept is horseshit. We are people, individuals comprising a variety of sexes, races, shifting sexualities and all the rest of it. Every convention that tries to reinforce this difference is a step back. Notions of gender pointlessly separate men from women, but also mothers from daughters and fathers from sons. The whole thing is – at best – just a stupefying waste of everyone’s time.’

Shadows of Mordor, Watch Dogs, and the politics of NPC agency.

‘The first funeral parlour he went to, in Hoxton, east London, told him they needed £2,500 upfront for the church and the vicar. “I said: ‘I can’t afford that.’ They said: ‘You won’t be able to bury him without that money’,” he says, at his flat. His father’s finch whistles in a cage by the window. Griffin is a former landscape gardener who gave up his job to care for his father when he became unwell. Another firm quoted him costs of around £4,000, asking for £1,000 upfront. “I told the funeral office I would just go to the unemployment office to see what they can give me. They said, ‘Oh no, we need the money upfront’. That’s when I started to get worried.”’

Tip sheet and resources for journalists – and others – dealing with graphic images and material.

What to expect when the internet tries to ruin your life.

Poem of the week: Proserpina, Going Deeper, by Jack Hollis Marr

Game of the week: Realistic Kissing Simulator

No, good content is not enough for Facebook success

At the recent ONA conference, Liz Heron, who oversees Facebook’s news partnerships, came in for some questioning about how news organisations can do well on the platform – something that’s a cause of some consternation for many, as it becomes increasingly clear how important it is as a mass distribution service. This is one of her responses:

This is a familiar line from Facebook – I’ve been on panels with other employes who’ve said exactly the same thing. But while I have the greatest respect for Heron and understand that she has to present Facebook’s best side in public – and that a tweet may be cutting context away from a larger argument – this statement is demonstrably false. Even skimming the rather fraught question of what exactly “good” means in this context, it’s questionable whether quizzes and lists such as those that have brought Playbuzz its current success are in any meaningful way replicable for most news organisations.

It’s not that Playbuzz is “gaming the algorithm” necessarily, though it may be. It’s that the algorithm is not designed to promote news content. Facebook’s recent efforts to change that are, quite literally, an admission of that fact. Facebook itself knows that good – as in newsworthy, important, relevant, breaking, impactful, timely – is not sufficient for success on its platform; it sees that as a problem, now, and is moving to fix it.

In the mean time, creating “good” content will certainly help, but it won’t be sufficient. You can bypass that process completely by getting your community to create mediocre content that directly taps into questions of identity, like Playbuzz’s personality quizzes, and giving every piece absolutely superbly optimised headlines and sharing tools. You can cheerfully bury excellent work by putting it under headlines that don’t explain what on earth the story’s about, or are too long to parse, or are simply on subjects that people will happily read for hours but don’t want to associate themselves with publicly.

Time and attention are under huge pressure online. Facebook are split testing everything you create against everything else someone might want to see, from family photos to random links posted by people they’ve not met since high school, and first impressions matter enormously. “Good” isn’t enough for the algorithm, or for people who come to your site via their Facebook news feed. It never has been. Facebook should stop pretending that it is.

Further reading: Mathew Ingram has context and a longer discussion.

Pocket Lint #23: the work we do

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What do homeless veterans look like?

The women I pretend to be.

“I have never been more resolved, in 18 years of practising journalism, of the absolute importance of our function in a democracy. I have never been more sure that the opportunity cost associated with doing this job is, actually, worth it. I believe we matter. I know I’m not alone in that belief. Yet we act as though we don’t matter, and facts don’t matter, and truth doesn’t matter. Call this Dispatch this particular weekend a love letter to my profession, and an outpouring of grief at its failings.”

The mother question.

‘Two days before CoverGirl, the NFL’s “official beauty partner,” was forced to respond to the league’s handling of the Ray Rice case, I helped three girls on the internet find concealer to cover up their bruises and self-harm scars.’

A woman is in jail in the US for helping her daughter have an abortion.

Is it a crime to raise a killer?

Gender disparity in corporate fraud. Even in white-collar crime, the pay gap persists.

This Is Katie Fucking Ledecky: A Thesis About Kicking Ass. The only column I’ve ever read that has instantly made me watch several videos of swimming on YouTube.

A non-definitive ranking of the Mitford sisters.

What Kim Kardashian: Hollywood can teach us about Carl Jung.

[shameless self-promotion] “Some people find it easier to put aside their fear than others; I find it almost impossibly difficult. It would be easy to give up, knowing that even if I manage to conquer my lack of coordination enough to run up a wall, I’d still struggle with the fear of getting down again.”

“The right leg of Leo Bonten broke after a stupid accident. There was an infection, it was off. But Leo wanted to keep his leg per se. To make a lamp out of it.”

Confessions of a former internet troll: “If there was a difference between trolling and schoolyard taunting, it was trolling’s particular take on the best way to be an outsider. The prototypical rebel without a cause is either a nihilist or self-serious, disappointed by a vapid world or giving up on it entirely; in either case, he is not content to gossip while there are motorcycles to be ridden in stoic search of the real. For us, it was neither possibility: the world was the place that cared too much, but the way to be above it all was to take aim at its vanity, to embarrass those who thought themselves too composed and too in charge to ever be caught flustered by something petty. We engaged. We had a cause. Whether it was a worthwhile one was a separate issue entirely.”

The Ballad of Marine Todd: how the internet created a morality play and remixed it into infinity. Little Red Riding Hood for the modern age.

Cat performance review.

Tumblr of the week: Women in space.

Poem of the week: Interview, Dorothy Parker

Game of the week: You won’t tell anyone, right?

What’s next: New York

So this is what’s next: I’m going to New York. I am hugely, hugely excited to say that I’m going to be assistant editor of Guardian US. Sometime towards the end of the year, Grant and I will pick up sticks and head back to London for a short while before living in New York for the next couple of years.

I am so incredibly sad to be leaving. I’m so proud of what we’ve done out here. We’ve made Guardian Australia into a formidable force on the Australian media scene, in a very short space of time. We’ve punched well above our weight in terms of the stories we’ve broken, the readership we’ve gotten, and the response to our presence – it’s impossible to deny that we’re here, and that we matter, now. What we’ve achieved in so short a time is absolutely amazing. None of that will end when I leave, of course; I was only a small part of that incredible growth, and Guardian Australia is in a great place now to grow even more over the coming months and years. I’m so proud of it, and of all my colleagues, and I’m going to miss them enormously.

I’m going to miss Sydney too. I’m going to miss my new friends more than I can say, and I’m going to miss so much about the city too: the botanic gardens, the sky dinosaurs, the red lights on top of the Westfield tower, the ability to go to Bondi beach after work if I want to. I will be very sad to say goodbye.

But I’m so excited about what’s next. Grant and I get to go explore New York. We get to embark on another adventure, so soon after the last one. We get to go across the world, again. And, most excitingly, I get to be a big part of what’s next for the Guardian in the US. I am thrilled to have this opportunity. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Pocket Lint #22: tomorrow, and tomorrow

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THE FLOOR IS MADE OF HOT LAVA AND THE GIRLS ARE RUINING IT.

A history of ‘Can This Marriage Be Saved?’, a relationship advice column in Ladies’ Home Journal, founded in 1883.

There’s an adage amongst storytellers: “Show, don’t tell.” With games, you should go a step further: Don’t even show! Let the audience find the answer. Put interesting things in your game — you were going to do that anyway, right? — and then don’t call attention to them. A cool thing that can be missed makes the world feel more like a real place and less like a clockwork puzzle constructed purely for the benefit of the player. And don’t worry about people missing your cool thing, because players will tell each other about what they’ve found.”

A first-person account of Cotard’s delusion, in which the sufferer believes they are dead.

[The old man offers a response—and thinks it came out OK—but sees on the face of the other guy that not one word was understood. This other guy, he resembles the old man—the old man of a few years ago, at least—and is speaking to him now, but the old man is not sure which language he’s using.] Take the steps slow, your correspondent is telling him as they duck into the subway station. Real widow-makers, these. [The old man looks up at him with lamblike credulity in his eyes. He has no choice but to believe he is being led somewhere in good faith.]

Women have always fought.

“It sounds bizarre, in some ways, to talk about creativity apart from the creation of a product. But that remoteness and strangeness is actually a measure of how much our sense of creativity has taken on the cast of our market-driven age.”

Who is U2?

A definitive and important ranking of animal penises.

Tumblr of the week: Grandpa and Grandmaster Flash.

Poem of the week: Japanese Maple, Clive James.

Game of the week: Stop the Boats, a Tony Abbott simulator.

Reddit thinks it’s a government, but doesn’t want to govern

In non-spoof news, today Reddit’s CEO posted a blog post about why it wasn’t going to take down a community specifically devoted to sharing naked photos of celebrities acquired by hackers and very much not endorsed by those pictured. Then, having drawn a line in the sand, it promptly banned the community. That caused, unsurprisingly, a lot of users to react with confusion and not a little anger, pointing out – among other things – that ban was more than a little hypocritical if Reddit was going to continue not to police other problematic communities (pro-anorexia and self harm communities, for instance), and suggesting that Reddit’s response was only because of the status, profile and power of the victims in this instance (the site doesn’t take down revenge porn, for example). There’s been another round of explanation, which boils down to: Reddit got overwhelmed and therefore had to take action. That actually bolsters some of the arguments made by users – that it’s only the high-profile nature of this incident that forced action – but if the first post is to be believed, Reddit doesn’t see that as a problem. It wants the community to choose to be “virtuous” rather than being compelled to do so – it wants its users to govern themselves. But it also thinks it’s a government. Yishan says:

… we consider ourselves not just a company running a website where one can post links and discuss them, but the government of a new type of community. The role and responsibility of a government differs from that of a private corporation, in that it exercises restraint in the usage of its powers.

Yishan simultaneously argues that Reddit users must arrive at their own self-policing anarchic nirvana in which no bad actors exist, and that Reddit is not a corporation but a governing force which has both the right to police and, strangely, the responsibility not to do so. Of course Reddit is a corporation, subject to US and international laws. Of course its community is not a state, and its users are not citizens. Yishan is dressing up a slavish devotion to freedom of speech regardless of consequence as a lofty ideal rather than the most convenient way to cope with a community rife with unpleasant, unethical and often unlawful behaviour. Doxxing, revenge porn, copyright infringement so rampant it’s a running joke, r/PicsOfDeadKids: none of these things are dealt with according to the social norms and laws of the societies of which Reddit is, in reality, a part. Only when admins become overwhelmed is action taken to police its community, and at the same time the CEO declares the site to be, effectively, the creator of its own laws. This would be nothing but self-serving nonsense if it weren’t for the way it’s being used to justify ignoring harmful community behaviours. Reddit’s users are right to point out that the company only acts on high-profile issues, that Reddit’s lack of moral standards for its users allows these situations to develop and makes it much harder for the company to police them when they do, and that the site’s users suffer as a result of its haphazard approach:

This is just what happens when your stance is that anything goes. If you allow subreddits devoted to sex with dogs, of course people will be outraged when you take down something else. If you allow subreddits like /r/niggers,of course they’re going to be assholes who gang up to brigade. The fine users of /r/jailbait are sharing kiddy porn? What a shocking revelation. The point is, you can’t let the inmates run the asylum and then get shocked when someone smears shit on the wall. Stand up for standards for a change. Actually make a stance for what you want reddit to be. You’ll piss off some people but who cares? They’re the shitty people you don’t want anyway. Instead you just alienate good users who are sick of all of the shit on the walls.

If Reddit thinks it’s a government, it should be considering how to govern well, not how to absolve itself of the responsibility to govern at all.

Pocket Lint #21: sound and fury

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The Times of London is pumping increasingly frenetic typewriter noises into its newsroom.

An excellent primer on this week’s implosion in videogame culture.

Today, videogames are for everyone. I mean this in an almost destructive way. Videogames, to read the other side of the same statement, are not for you. You do not get to own videogames. No one gets to own videogames when they are for everyone. They add up to more than any one group.”

“When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur.”

Stereotype lift persists online with virtual, gendered avatars.

The Man Without a Mask: How the drag queen Cassandro became a star of Mexican wrestling.

How social media silences debate.

“Banning comments—or moderating with an iron fist—is not squelching honest and open debate in the public sphere, anymore than refusing to publish every letter to the editor, unedited, in a print publication. Telling people to take their bullshit to Reddit is not a harbinger of Orwellian dystopia.

Classic first lines from novels in emojis.

How to listen to the radio properly: BBC guidance from 1940.

Tumblr of the week: Slug Solos.

Poem of the week: Mr. Grumpledump’s Song, Shel Silverstein.

Game of the week: Gridland, a match-3 game with a building/fighting day/night cycle.

Do real names really make people nicer online?

Mathew Ingram at GigaOm has an interesting look at some Livefyre research suggesting that if you force people to use their real names to comment on your site, the vast majority will just stop commenting.

Most of those surveyed said that they responded anonymously (or pseudonymously) because they didn’t want their opinions to impact their work or professional life by being attached to their real names, or when they wanted the point of their comment to be the focus rather than their identity or background. And close to 80 percent of those surveyed said that if a site forced them to login with their offline identity, they would choose not to comment at all.

The bottom line is that by requiring real names, sites may decrease the potential for bad behavior, but they also significantly decrease the likelihood that many of their readers will comment.

That led me to an interesting question this morning: do real names really reduce the potential for bad behaviour in comments? It’s a popularly held belief, but there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of evidence out there to support the idea that meatspace identities are any more useful than persistent pseudonyms when it comes to holding people accountable for their actions online. On Twitter, Martin Belam points out:

…but there’s a big gap between “named staff members early in comment threads” and “real names for everyone”.

I can find some evidence that persistent pseudonymity is a positive thing. Disqus did a very large study in 2012 on their comments database; though their methodology is opaque, their results showed pseudonymous commenters posted both the largest number and the highest quality comments across their network. Pseudonyms make people more collaborative and more talkative in learning environments; they positively influence information sharing; they encourage people to share more about themselves in the relative safety of an identity disconnected from meatspace.

There’s also evidence that anonymity – a complete lack of identifiers and nothing to chain your interactions together to form a persona, as distinct from pseudonymity, where you pick your own identity then stick with it – is a negative influence on the civility of debate, and that it engenders more adversarial conversations in which fewer people’s minds are changed.

There’s a Czech study into the differences between anonymity and pseudonymity and how to design for reduced aggression, apparently, but the actual link 404s and the abstract isn’t detailed on the difference. There’s interesting research into the social cost of cheap, easily replaceable pseudonyms, which allow effective anonymity through the evasion of reputation consequences; Reddit and Twitter are great examples of communities where you can see this behaviour in action.

Investigating this issue isn’t helped by the fact that researchers have in the past conflated anonymous and pseudonymous behaviours, but there’s increasing awareness now that the two engender big community differences; it’s also skewed by places like 4chan and Reddit being prominently discussed while less adversarial communities like Tumblr or fandom communities are less often scrutinised. (Male-dominated communities are covered more than female-dominated communities, and widely seen as more typical: so it goes.)

I’ve found one study that suggests anonymity makes for less civil comments, but I can’t access the full study to find out what it says about pseudonymity. There are suggestions, like Martin’s, that moderation helps keep things civil; there’s evidence that genuine consequences for poor behaviour helps too. And there’s this:

“While evidence from South Korea, China, and Facebook is insufficient to draw conclusions about the long-term impacts of real name registration, the cases do provide insight into the formidable difficulties of implementing a real name system.”

But where’s the proof Facebook is right when it claims its real name policy is vital for civility on the site? Where’s the evidence that Facebook comments are more civil than a news site’s because of the identity attached, rather than because the news site goes largely unmoderated and Facebook’s comment plugin broadcasts your words to everyone you know on there? Or because most people just don’t comment any more, so arguments die faster? I am struggling to find one study that demonstrates a causal link.

So this is an open request: if you know of more studies that indicate that denying pseudonymity improves comment quality, let me know on Twitter @newsmary or share them in the comments here. If I’m wrong, and it makes a big difference, it’d be great to be better informed. And if I’m right, and it’s community norms, moderation and reputational consequences that matter, it’d be great to put the idea that real names are a magic bullet for community issues to bed once and for all.

Facebook’s ‘clickbait’ clampdown: more bad news for news?

Hooray, Facebook’s changed its algorithm again. Normally it doesn’t announce these shifts, leaving media organisations to quietly draw their own conclusions about why their page likes have quadrupled in a month or what’s going on with all that app traffic. This time it’s published a blog post on the topic.

“If people click on an article and spend time reading it, it suggests they clicked through to something valuable. If they click through to a link and then come straight back to Facebook, it suggests that they didn’t find something that they wanted. With this update we will start taking into account whether people tend to spend time away from Facebook after clicking a link, or whether they tend to come straight back to News Feed when we rank stories with links in them.”

This is an update aimed squarely at the curiosity gap, designed to take out clickbait (whatever that means). It isn’t going to touch Buzzfeed’s lists, for example, because their informational heads give you exactly as much knowledge as you need to decide whether to click, and they’re geared around getting you to scroll all the way to the end. It won’t hurt any sites successfully getting second clicks from Facebook traffic, rare as those are. It might hurt Upworthy and its imitators, but  not much, because of the method Facebook’s using to decide what’s valuable and what’s not. Tracking time on page is going to hurt thin, spammy sites where a user’s first response is to click back; Upworthy is very focussed on dwell time as part of its core engagement metric, and it’s certainly neither thin nor spammy.

But one unintended consequence of a focus on time away from the Facebook feed is a negative impact on breaking news. Facebook’s algorithm already struggles with news because of its lack of timeliness and the slow way it propagates through newsfeeds; it’s fine for features, for comment, for heartwarming kitten videos, and all sorts of other less-timely reads, but if you’re seeing a 12-hour-old news post there’s every chance it’s no longer really news. Recent events in Ferguson have highlighted Facebook’s ongoing problems in this area, and this risks adding another issue: news is fast, and Facebook is prioritising slow.

Time on site isn’t a particularly sensible metric to use for news: most people hunting for news want it quickly, and then they want to get on with the rest of their lives. The inverted pyramid of news writing is built around that principle – give the reader all they need as quickly as possible, then build in detail later for those who want it.

Increasingly, news sites are using stub articles – a few sentences or shorter – to break fast-moving stories, atomising them into smaller and smaller pieces. Those pieces might take seconds to read. If they’re promoted on Facebook, how does a news reader clicking through, reading the whole thing then backing out look different from someone clicking on a curiosity-gap headline then backing out because it wasn’t what they wanted?

One of the fundamental problems with a few large companies controlling the primary means of mass digital distribution is that media organisations who want to be widely read have to change their work to fit those distribution channels. Not just in terms of censorship – no naked female nipples in your Facebook images, no beheading videos on Twitter – but less obviously, and more integrally, in terms of form.

Online media has as many formal constraints as print, perhaps more, if you want to be widely read; they’re just trickier, more self-contradictory, and constantly shifting. Facebook’s changes are going to have an effect on what news looks like, just as Google’s algorithm did (and still does – Google News requires posts to have a minimum of 50 words in order to count as “news”, which is still shaping decisions about how to break what where in newsrooms).

If Facebook thinks fast, informative, snippets are less important in its newsfeed than longer reads, then news is either going to keep losing out – or change its shape to accommodate the algorithm.

The chilling effect

I’m finding myself withdrawing from Twitter a little, at the moment. Some of that is an ongoing process that started when I moved to Australia and left much of my busy timeline behind; friends are living at different times now, and Twitter is different out here. But some is a response to the corrosive atmosphere around games right now, and the way it’s come to a head in the form of the attacks on Depression Quest developer Zoe Quinn over the last week.

The whole situation has become far too complicated for most folks to follow, but, broadly speaking, it started with a disgruntled ex making unpleasant allegations about private affairs very publicly, went through a point where indie game devs were having accounts hacked just for saying publicly that they supported Zoe, and is now at a stage where people seem to think it’s a good idea to dress up as fantasy racing birds and protest the state of games journalism ethics to get the attention of the “real media”, as though reporting on unsubstantiated allegations by an interested party would be good journalism rather than abysmally, impossibly awful. Liz Ryerson has a very strong round-up of the state of affairs here.

So.

There are consequences for speaking out. There are always consequences. I’m logging on to Twitter, almost any time of the day or night, and I’m seeing friends frustrated by dealing with people who want to tear them down for supporting a friend, a colleague, someone whose work they admire. The chilling effect here is huge, and not just applicable to those who have already spoken. I am finding myself withdrawing because I can’t face watching this happen again, after watching friends and colleagues and people whose work I admire driven completely out of the industry in the past.

And I’m frustrated with myself, because I have a platform that intersects with the games industry. I have a committed hobbyist relationship with videogames; I play a great deal, write about some, and occasionally create strange little pieces. If I was ever going to have a professional career in videogames, that was scotched long before the women I’m watching being pushed out now, when my all-girls’ school refused me permission to cross over to the boys’ school to study IT and electronics when I was 14. (Institutional sexism: it’s a thing.) So I have a platform as someone with an interest but no financial stake, and a successful career as a non-games journalist, and the ability to stand up and say, as a person and a gamer and a journo: this is not OK.

And yet. The chilling effect is such that I am frightened to do so. I use Twitter for work; turning off my mentions and retreating until an attack dissipates is an option that hurts me professionally. I have a mental illness, and I do not know how that might interact with a coordinated attack. Visibility is power, when it comes to speaking out against this bullshit. Visibility is also a great weakness.

This is how I’m feeling, watching a woman being attacked for daring to be female and make games and remain human. Relatively speaking, I’m both protected and powerful. Now imagine how it must feel to watch without that protection or that power. Imagine how it might feel as a teenager who wants to make games, watching someone who looks like you be punished for doing so. Imagine how it affects your choices, not just about whether or not to withdraw from Twitter but whether or not to take certain classes, or whether or not to release side projects online. Imagine trying to decide whether your future creative happiness is worth risking this level of psychological violence. Imagine doing it anyway, and being attacked for it. Imagine deciding that opposing it is too dangerous, and joining the chorus out of self-preservation, in the hope that maybe, just maybe, they won’t attack you next time.

The people involved in these attacks, the hacks themselves but also the vicious teardowns of Quinn’s works and reputation and the harassment of her supporters, just want women to shut up. It’s not about games and it sure as hell isn’t about journalistic ethics; it’s just about keeping girls out of the clubhouse by any means necessary. They don’t like it when we speak, and they really don’t like it when we shout back. But I can’t be pushed out of an industry I’m not in; all I can do is discuss things on the sidelines. If I get attacked for doing so, all it’ll do is prove my point.