Facebook: news as signal, everything else as noise?

Facebook is taking reach away from brand pages. That much seems pretty obvious from the growing anger of people who’ve spent time and energy building audiences on Facebook, only to find they now can only reach a small proportion of them without paying. Mathew Ingram has a great piece today on GigaOm looking at this in a lot more detail, covering the negative reactions by both major brands and individuals looking to use Facebook to promote their work.

In any case, every successive change or tweak of its algorithms by Facebook — not to mention its penchant for removing content for a variety of reasons, something Twitter only does when there is a court order — reinforces the idea that the company is not running the kind of social network many people assumed it was. In other words, it is not an open platform in which content spreads according to its own whims: like a newspaper, Facebook controls what you see and when.

At the same time as all this is going on, Facebook is giving a pleasant boost to pages belonging to news organisations; the Guardian isn’t the only news organisation seeing a rapid rise in the numbers of page likes it’s receiving, starting on March 18. That’s driven by Page Suggestions, a relatively recent feature that, well, suggests pages to users, generally based on posts they’ve liked or interacted with, though it’s possible Facebook’s changing/has changed the situations when it displays that feature.

It certainly seems like an algorithm tweak that’s designed to benefit news pages by boosting their audience, but not necessarily their reach – while news pages are certainly getting more exposure, that’s no guarantee the posts themselves are reaching more people. It could be a mask; boosting audience numbers for particular types of pages in order to counteract a general lowering of reach, so that news brands end up more or less where they started in terms of the people who actually see their Facebook shares. Or it could be a rebalancing, promoting news pages at the expense of other brands on the basis that Facebook would much rather you got news in your news feed than advertising.

Or, given the lack of transparency of Facebook’s approach across the board, it could of course be a blip; an unintended consequence of downgrading some types of content that leaves news at an advantage, for now. Either way, it’s not likely to last unless it helps Facebook become the sort of Facebook that it thinks it wants to be – and it’s another reminder, even on the up side, that this isn’t a platform that can be controlled.

Time vs the news

Jason Kint, in an interesting piece at Digiday, argues that page views are rubbish and we should use time-based metrics to measure online consumption.

Pageviews and clicks fuel everything that is wrong with a clicks-driven Web and advertising ecosystem. These metrics are perfectly suited to measure performance and direct-response-style conversion, but tactics to maximize them inversely correlate to great experiences and branding. If the goal is to measure true consumption of content, then the best measurement is represented by time. It’s hard to fake time as it requires consumer attention.

Some issues here. Time does not require attention: I can have several browser tabs open and also be making a cup of tea elsewhere. TV metrics have been plagued by the assumption that TV on === attentively watching, and it’s interesting to see that fallacy repeated on the web, where a branching pathway is as easy as ctrl+click to open in a new tab. It’s also easy to game time on site by simply forcing every external link to open in a new tab: it’s awful UX, but if the market moves to time as the primary measurement in the way that ad impressions are currently used, I guarantee you that will be widely used to game it, along with other tricks like design gimmicks at bailout points and autorefresh to extend the measured visit as long as possible. Time is just as game-able as a click.

 

It’s worth noting that Kint is invested in selling this vision of time-based metrics to the market. That doesn’t invalidate what he says out of hand, of course, but it is important to remember that if someone is trying to sell you a hammer they are unlikely to admit that you might also need a screwdriver.

In a conversation on Twitter yesterday Dave Wylie pointed me to a Breaking News post which discusses another time-based metric – time saved. It’s a recognition that most news consumers don’t actually want to spend half an hour clicking around your site: they want the piece of information they came for, and then they want to get on with their lives. Like Google, which used to focus on getting people through the site as fast as possible to what they needed. Or like the inverted pyramid of news writing, which focusses on giving you all the information you need at the very top of the piece, so if you decide you don’t need all the details you can leave fully informed.

There’s a truism in newsroom analytics: the more newsy a day is, the more traffic you get from Google News or other breaking news sources, the less likely those readers are to click around. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re failing those readers or that they’re leaving unsatisfied; it may in fact make them more likely to return later, if the Breaking News theory holds true for other newsrooms. Sometimes the best way to serve readers is by giving them less.

Why blog?

When I started this blog, blogs were dead exciting. They were the Future. They were New Media, and I was a new journalist, and I desperately loved working online. I wanted to throw myself into the exciting new future of online journalism as hard as I possibly could, so I did the best thing I could think of: I started writing about online journalism, as a sort of add-on to my day job, writing in the cracks. I read everything I could find. I used to get home after 10-hour days writing and demand my brain to produce something else, another few hundred words of analysis or a quick pointer to something else interesting on the internet that someone had said, because I thought it was hugely important.

It was. Honestly, it was. I treated it with such seriousness, and I’m pretty sure that without it I wouldn’t have moved on in the way that I have. Blogging made me, in some ways more than newsrooms did: blogging made me think about reaching specific audiences, it honed my research and collaboration skills, it made me capable of synthesising an argument in 500 words for humans (rather than 2,000 words for academics), it stopped me being scared of speaking my mind in public. What it did for me has been invaluable.

Then I moved on. I started work at the Guardian, and that has a certain chilling effect on writing: for one thing, I can’t use this blog to kvetch about minor work frustrations, because Private Eye exists. There’s a tendency for some people to think that if a journalist works for a national or international news organisation, their words in a personal space reflect back on that organisation. And there’s also the fact that a great many of the things I worked on at the Guardian have been the things I couldn’t work on back when I started out. There’s no need to come home and get fired up about online journalism when I can put that fire to action at work. That’s a very satisfying place to be.

But blogging matters. Late last year, inspired by Adam Tinworth, I tried to blow the dust off this place and pick up the pace a little: I forced myself to write about something every day for ten days. Sometimes games, sometimes journalism, sometimes politics, sometimes creative work, sometimes criticism, sometimes just notes – a broader palette than the one I started with, and perhaps a more mature one. (Perhaps a more confusing one; I’ve stopped trying to separate those parts of my life, because each of them informs all of the others, but if you’re looking for a single-subject blog I can imagine the combination can be strange.)

Since then I’ve slacked off somewhat, but since the new year started I’ve been trying to write posts with ideas in them, thoughts or analysis or at least contextualising a link to something else. One a week at least, on top of the weekly Pocket Lint email. In fact, that Pocket Lint links post every Saturday is a deliberate strategy to force myself to write more: I don’t want my blog to only consist of links posts, like the Delicious-powered graveyards that scattered the web a few years back, when everyone stopped writing and just auto-posted links instead.

Adam’s currently doing another challenge: one month of 500-word posts, substantive things, every day. He linked to this post on writing yourself into existence:

Once you have a blog you notice more, you start to think “I might write about this on my blog” “What do I want to say?” “What will people’s reaction be?”. Over time you get better at noticing and the better at noticing you get the more noticed you get! You end up in the wonderful collective web of “Oooh that’s interesting” which I now wouldn’t ever want to be without.

That’s right. When I wasn’t blogging, I wasn’t thinking about what I read in the same way. Now, finding myself falling out of the habit after a couple of months, that’s a useful reminder to keep writing, to keep sharing what I find interesting, as much for the process of finding, thinking, synthesising and creating as for publishing the end result. Blogging’s been very good for me. I should be doing it more.

UsVsTh3m turns comments on

UsVsTh3m has decided to give Th3m a direct voice on site, and turned its comments on.

That’s perhaps not a huge surprise, given Rob Manuel’s involvement – he’s talked in the past about the class issues involved in online commenting, as well as presiding over one of the most interesting hotbeds of user activity on the internet. But it runs counter to a long-term trend of sites shutting down comments, deliberately deciding that they’re too much work, too unruly, too problematic, or even counter to the entire purpose of what the site’s trying to do.

It’s a nice start, opening with a joke and a clear prompt to participate, and a potential reward for excellence in the form of inclusion in the daily newsletter – a promise internet bragging rights that act as an incentive to be awesome, rather than merely guidelines that tell you how not to be bad. Worth noting that Rob’s participating there too.

It’ll be an interesting experiment to watch, and if a creative community of jokers is what UsVsTh3m is after, they seem to have started out pretty well.

Pocket Lint #6: in the dark

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Georgina Henry obituary
I was privileged to work with George, albeit briefly, and she will be very much missed.

How colleges flunk mental health
“Colleges are very accustomed to accommodating learning and physical disabilities, but they don’t understand simple ways of accommodating mental health disabilities”

Climate change is happening, now, and could lead to global conflict
“Delay is dangerous. Inaction could be justified only if we could have great confidence that the risks posed by climate change are small. But that is not what 200 years of climate science is telling us. The risks are huge.”

Good Samaritan backfires
Arrested and detained naked in a solitary psych cell after calling an ambulance to help injured cyclists.

The rise of the Facebook truthers
“Something about Facebook makes journalists lose their minds. How else to explain the seemingly unending procession of stories based on wild speculation and implausible conspiracy theories?”

Unnecessary surgeries to correct male babies
“In contemporary American culture, much is still demanded of “real men”: To be commanding and composed. To be courageous and chivalrous. To be rugged, strong, and low-voiced. And to be able to pee standing up.”

Listen to the purring, electromagnetic weirdness of mushrooms

Our Flappy Dystopia
“We, as global, national, and artistic communities, justify a lot of shitty things on the premise of making money. This industry justifies sexism, racism, and all forms of discrimination and oppression because of some unwritten right to make money. Why can’t we have equal representation of minorities in our media? Because someone wants to make money.”

Tumblr of the week: Flappy Bird Think Pieces

Free games of the week, Flappy Bird edition: Flappybalt; Maverick Bird; 171 other Flappy Jam games

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In defense of pageviews

Pageviews have been much maligned as a measure of web traffic for the last few years. They’re flimsy, prone to being distorted by artificial inflation, and have generally fallen out of favour as a universal metric. Instead, web analytics for content is fracturing, with news and content businesses starting to promote their own individual ways of measuring what matters, while other businesses make big money by producing proprietary, comparative metrics that let competitors analyse each other and help agencies decide where to spend money.

Upworthy is the latest business to come out with its own way to measure itself: attention minutes, a composite metric that takes in whether and how its users are engaged with what it’s producing.

We built attention minutes to look at a wide range of signals — everything from video player signals about whether a video is currently playing, to a user’s mouse movements, to which browser tab is currently open — to determine whether the user is still engaged. The result is a fine-grained and unforgiving metric that tells us whether people are really engaged with our content or whether they’ve moved on to the next thing.

 

Upworthy’s making what looks like a sensible move here, focussing on the things that make them money and with a clear understanding of how they’re going to act on their new number. The most important questions about any metric for content online are as follows:

  1. How does it make money?
  2. How can I act on it?

If any metric doesn’t have clear answers to those things, it’s probably not something you should be asking your newsroom to try and affect. There’s no point in having targets based on numbers you can’t do anything about, especially opaque ones made up of multiple factors that are difficult to tease out. (This is why anyone even thinking about using the phrase “Klout for content” should desist immediately and repent.)

Upworthy, as with Medium, is finding a metric that works for its business, which doesn’t rely on banner ads and therefore doesn’t make money from pageviews. From the looks of things it’s found a solid metric that allows editorial staff to make decisions about what they promote; closing the circle like that is absolutely crucial.

But one big metric for everything is an unachievable goal for most content businesses, especially if you want more than just an inscrutable number: you need complexity, granularity, and ways to actually affect the number. That granularity comes from segmentation, not from bundling more numbers together, but it isn’t at all important for everyone to see every metric that matters – as long as those who can change things see the ones they need to change. How do reporters, writers, editors, people who are making and working directly with content, make a dent in a metric like “engaged time on page” in real time?

What matters for the business is different to what matters for newsrooms on a day-to-day basis. Of course it’s important to be aware of your views per visit, your engaged time on page, your DAU to MAU ratio, your signed-in user rate – whatever metric you’re using as a proxy for loyalty or engagement – and to understand how to make differences to it over time. But most people in most newsrooms will struggle to articulate what those metrics are, and will struggle even harder to take actions to increase them.

Which is where pageviews come in. Pageviews have a lot of advantages over other, more complicated metrics. They’re relatively easy to measure. In a business where display ad revenue matters, or which revolves around driving traffic to content in some other way, they have a clear value attached. And they’re immediately and obviously affected by activities people do in newsrooms: editing, commissioning, subbing, promoting.

Everyone in a newsroom can get behind the idea of maximising the number of potential pageviews for a piece of work – the number of potential reads. They’re an equaliser: a click from a front is the same value as a click from social media or search or from a different article, so anyone with skin in the game in any of those areas can make a difference. Everyone can get invested in that number, because they feel like they can control it, even if only a little. If you’re trying to get people to act on data in real time – rather than just building a dashboard that looks pretty on a big screen – that usability can’t be an afterthought. It has to be baked in.

Honesty matters too. If you’re inflating your pageviews with galleries or autorefresh, you’re creating perverse incentives for your editorial staff, who are going to take the easy routes to boost that number. If you’re gaming the numbers as a business, your newsroom will game them too. That leads to big problems – but those problems are with the dishonesty, not the metric itself. It also makes it unsuitable for external comparisons, unless you’re sure all your competitors are no more or less honest than you – but in a world where every competitive metric is plagued with accuracy, comparability and gaming issues, that’s not a crippling defect when it comes to internal use.

Pageviews aren’t a bad metric, if they’re used well. New metrics like attention minutes or engaged time on page aren’t either, as long as they’re being used sensibly. If the number that everyone understands and everyone can act on is pageviews, you should be using it.

The rise of ‘social headlines’ is not the end of search

At the launch of BuzzFeed Australia on Friday, Scott Lamb gave an interesting keynote aimed at puncturing some commonly-held myths about the internet and social sharing. It was a good speech, well written up here, but at one point he gave a view that social is essentially an evolution of the net. His idea – at least as I understood it – was that the internet had gone from portals, through search, and was now at social; that search is something of the past.

Perhaps it’s not possible to say this clearly enough. Search and social as they’re currently used are two sides of the same coin – two strategies for discovering information that serve two very different purposes. Search is where you go to find information you already know exists; social is where you go to be surprised with something you didn’t know you wanted. If you know something’s happened very recently, these days, you might go to Twitter rather than Google, but once you’re there, you search. And if a clever headline crafted for Twitter doesn’t contain the keywords someone’s going to search for, then it’s going to be as impossible to find it on Twitter as it is in Google. It’s easy to forget that a hashtag is just a link to a Twitter search.

But Twitter isn’t what we’re really talking about here. “Social” when it comes to traffic, at the moment, is a code word that means Facebook – in much the same way that “social” for news journalists is a code word that means Twitter. And optimising headlines exclusively for Facebook gives you about as much leeway to be creative and clever as optimising exclusively for Google. You can do whatever you want as long as you follow the rules for what works, and those rules are surprisingly restrictive.

Lamb, to give him credit, pointed out the problem with the current over-reliance on Facebook: they burn their partners, they have full control over their feeds and what appears in them, and they have shown no hesitation in the past in shifting traffic away from publishers if it serves them or their users. All the same problems as a lot of sites have with Google.

David Higgerson has an interesting post that feeds into this issue, asking whether the growth of social and mobile has “saved the clever headline”. He writes that instead of straight keyword optimisation, social headlines require a reaction from the reader, and says:

This should be great news for publishers steeped in writing great headlines. Just as having a website isn’t quite like having multiple editions throughout the day, the need to force a smile or an emotion in a headline doesn’t mean the days of punderful headlines can return, but there are similarities we can draw on.

Lamb also said that optimising for search is all about optimising for machines, while social is all about optimising for people. Like Higgerson, he expressed a hope that social headlines mean a more creative approach – and the idea that now we’re moving past the machine-led algorithms news can be more human.

But search, like social is people; social, like search, is machines. Online we are all people mediated by machines, and we find content through algorithms that drive our news feeds and search results. Optimising purely for Facebook’s algorithm produces different results to optimising purely for Google’s, but it’s no less risky a strategy – and no more or less human.

Pocket Lint #4: edgewise

If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as a regular-ish weekly email you can sign up here or using the form below. I promise not to spam you. Sometimes there are special bonuses for people who get the email. Today it’s excellent cookie recipes, which I can’t currently eat.

When mainstream media is the lunatic fringe
“Mainstream media cruelty is actually more dangerous, for it sanctions behavior that, were it blogged by an unknown, would likely be written off as the irrelevant ramblings of a sociopath. Instead, the prestige of old media gives bigoted ranting respectability. Even in the digital age, old media defines and shapes the culture, repositioning the lunatic fringe as the voice of reason.”

Davos to Detention: Why I hate coming home to America
“The last four times I’ve traveled abroad (to Turkey, Kuwait, Lebanon and Switzerland), Homeland Security has detained me upon arrival.  It’s as frustrating as it is ironic, because although in Arabic my name, Ahmed, means, “blessed,” each time I land at JFK airport, I can’t help but feel somewhat cursed.”

It is expensive to be poor
“If you can’t afford the first month’s rent and security deposit you need in order to rent an apartment, you may get stuck in an overpriced residential motel. If you don’t have a kitchen or even a refrigerator and microwave, you will find yourself falling back on convenience store food, which—in addition to its nutritional deficits—is also alarmingly overpriced. If you need a loan, as most poor people eventually do, you will end up paying an interest rate many times more than what a more affluent borrower would be charged. To be poor—especially with children to support and care for—is a perpetual high-wire act.”

How long have I got left?
Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely.

readme.txt
Readme files in game mods: a feminist perspective

Unfinishable games
Let’s stop pretending that “done” is an aspirational state.

List of animals with fraudulent diplomas. Related: Sir Nils Olav, via @mildlydiverting

The Bloodbath of B-R5RB
The tale of the largest and most destructive battle in gaming history.

Downworthy, a browser plugin to moderate hyperbolic headlines

Tumblr of the week: Dimly-lit Meals For One

Free game of the week: Chancery Lane – analogue board-game Mornington Crescent

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Technology is media’s overwhelming context

Very smart piece on Buzzfeed today from Charlie Warzel, who writes off the back of Ezra Klein’s new venture:

media reporting today is, for better or for worse, inextricable from technology reporting. Tech — the internet, CMSes, distribution and production — is not just a factor for media companies, but an overwhelming context.

This goes deeper than simply CMS issues, though they’ve long been the biggest bugbears of those in the industry dominated by print requirements as they moved onto the web. Journalism and the technology used to distribute it have long been so deeply enmeshed that separating them would be meaningless. You can see that in the launch of things like Inside, which is aiming to aggregate content in short, fact-filled bursts designed for mobile reading but not for grammatical sense.

You can also see the context-blindness that Warzel mentions in the launch of the Saturday Paper, a new Australian print weekly which is relying on entirely different technology to Klein or Inside. The conversations around it have mostly been about editorial quality, with the CEO coming out swinging at the print incumbents. What’s missing from that analysis is any kind of conversation about the technology used, the difficulties of expanding a print model through rural Australia, and the issues of attention competition. Like Inside, like any news organisation on any medium, the Saturday Paper has to compete not just with other attractions using its own tech and distribution method, but also all those using other methods too. Print is no more a monolith than the internet, but the media reports around this new print product aren’t (yet) about innovations in design or in production, editorial strategy (beyond ‘be better than the others’, which is a little nebulous) or how the content will fit the form.

It’s that last part that matters most. Journalism, in whatever form it’s in, is symbiotic with the technology it’s using, in ways that go far beyond 140-characters for Twitter reports or design parameters for print. Increasingly, journalism online is shaped to match or to work with algorithms, tapping into what works to trigger broader pickup on different networks. Snappy front pages sell newspapers because of the technology and affordances of the newsstand; Upworthy headlines get links shared because of the technology and affordances of Facebook; Inside is betting that the technology and affordances of mobile readership will bring it similar success. The content strategy can’t be sensibly separated from the technologies involved.

Pocket Lint #2

If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as an email you can sign up here or using the form below. I promise not to spam you.

The problem with “do what you love”
“According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.”

The Names They Gave Me
“Thank you for my name, mama.”

Drowning in money
“Instead of a steady flow sustained around the year by trees in the hills, by sensitive farming methods, by rivers allowed to find their own course and their own level, to filter and hold back their waters through bends and braiding and obstructions, we get a cycle of flood and drought. We get filthy water and empty aquifers and huge insurance premiums and ruined carpets. And all of it at public expense.”

Before and after
The slow and gradual process of gender transition, and how different that reality is from the crisp, sharply delineated “before and after” photos that are the common image.

The Naked Twine Game Jam
46 Twine games made over a weekend without using CSS modifications or Javascript.

Gun Home: the ultimate Gone Home DLC

Turning normal experiences of motherhood into depression
“Dr Spock told a generation of women that they didn’t need to learn how to look after their babies, that it was instinctive and that they knew more than they thought they did. He was completely wrong. ”

What Google knows about you
“We know Google collects the data. But what they do with the data we don’t exactly know. They might be using it for the best or the worst. Pessimists will think the latter, optimists will think Google will use it to build new great stuff for us which will make our lives better. Probably both are right.”

25 things a great character needs
Helpful advice for writers, especially number 17

Tumblr of the week: Cute animals, bad dates

Free game of the week: Catlateral Damage, a first person cat simulator

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