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.

Pocket Lint #10: wrapped in plastic

A pick of the most interesting things I read this week. If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as a regular-ish weekly email on Fridays you can sign up here or using the form below.

Gunshot victims to be kept in suspended animation, to buy time for doctors to fix their wounds.

The pointlessness of unplugging: “We are only ever tourists in the land of no technology, our visas valid for a day or a week or a year, and we travel there with the same eyes and ears that we use in our digital homeland.”

The pseudoscience of Alcoholics Anonymous, which only has a 15% success rate, and the problems with “Cadillac” rehab.

The overprotected kid, the junkyard playground, and the importance of risk-taking play. ‘The problem, says Ball, is that “we have come to think of accidents as preventable and not a natural part of life.”’

Silicon Valley’s brutal ageism: “an extra burden of proof on the middle-aged to show they can hack it, on a scale very few workers of their vintage must deal with anywhere else.”

What happens as children grow up a little: “Like characters in Dungeons and Dragons, the little ones—with their distinct clothing and high dexterity—can’t carry heavy weaponry, but they can be dispatched to pick locks and fetch magical rings from small places. Sometimes they can heal during combat.”

Australia’s Guantanamo problem: the asylum seekers indefinitely detained on secret evidence without hope of release.

How to use game preorders as a bank.

Women don’t want to work in games, and other myths: perhaps the first piece I’ve read about women in the industry that’s actually, unapologetically, aimed at a female reader.

How we won the war on Dungeons and Dragons.

Tumblr of the week: Shit Private Eye Says

Poem of the week: Louis MacNeice, Snow

Free game of the week: Sleep

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Pocket Lint #9: outsiders

Back after a short break: here’s a pick of the most interesting things I read this week. If you’d like to get Pocket Lint as a regular-ish weekly email on Fridays you can sign up here or using the form below.

Nate Silver and the diversity problem
“What happens when formerly excluded groups gain more power, like techies? They don’t just let go of their old forms of cultural capital. Yet they may be blind to how their old ways of identifying and accepting each other are exclusionary to others. They still interpret the world through their sense of status when they were “basically, outsiders.””

Do psychiatrists think everyone is crazy?
“Though many object to psychiatry’s perceived encroachment into normality, we rarely hear such complaints about the rest of medicine. Few lament that nearly all of us, at some point in our lives, seek care from a physician and take all manner of medications, most without need of a prescription, for one physical ailment or another. If we can accept that it is completely normal to be medically sick, not only with transient conditions such as coughs and colds, but also chronic disorders such as farsightedness, lower back pain, high blood pressure or diabetes, why can’t we accept that it might also be normal to be psychiatrically ill at various points in our lives?”

Why personal change does not equal political change
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.”

The era of Facebook is an anomaly. The idea of everybody going to one site is just weird. Give me one other part of history where everybody shows up to the same social space.

5 myths about how we use the internet

An illustrated book of bad arguments

A preliminary phenomenology of the self-checkout

Frog Fractions 2 has a Kickstarter, which promises not to give you the game until someone works out what it’s called.

Tumblr of the week: Animals Sucking At Jumping

Poem of the week: Shrinking Women

Free game of the week: 2048, which is essentially Threes, only more so.

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Trigger warnings: a broken system with good intentions

This is an interesting thing: a New Review post that looks at the history and present of trigger warnings, and how they’ve moved out of communities online and into public life and spaces. If you don’t know what a trigger warning is, it’s essentially a note indicating that you might be about to encounter something upsetting, something that could negatively affect your psychological wellbeing; they’ve grown out of supportive communities in which people needed to carefully negotiate conversations about subjects that need to be spoken about, but that also could prove detrimental to readers’ health. The roots, however, aren’t quite as simple as the New Review piece paints it them:

Initially, trigger warnings were used in self-help and feminist forums to help readers who might have post traumatic stress disorder to avoid graphic content that might cause painful memories, flashbacks, or panic attacks. Some websites, like Bodies Under Siege, a self-injury support message board, developed systems of adding abbreviated topic tags—from SI (self injury) to ED (eating disorders)—to particularly explicit posts. As the Internet grew, warnings became more popular, and critics began to question their use.

It’s rare to see an article on trigger warnings mentioning Bodies Under Siege, despite its early adoption of warnings as a way for its users to safeguard themselves. It’s a shame, then, that the piece skips over the ways trigger warnings were used there in the late 90s, when I was an active user. They were not a way for users with PTSD specifically to avoid harm; they were for all users – including those without mental health issues – to avoid subjects that could trigger them into unsafe behaviour, or that they didn’t have the mental energy to tackle. They were carefully considered and carefully enforced alongside a list of verboten things that mods would delete on sight: discussions of weights, calorie counts, numbers of self-inflicted wounds, images. Those things were not done lightly. Bodies Under Siege was a community of vulnerable people struggling with mental illnesses of various degrees, and it was built entirely around recovery and support. Trigger warnings and removal of things that could prompt ‘competitive’ behaviour were not courtesies. They were absolutely integral to the community’s existence.

I used a couple of other forums for people who self-harmed, in my teens. BUS was the one that did not make me worse. There’s a direct analogy between one of those forums and pro-anorexia communities; at its worst, it provided encouragement to hurt yourself, and at best it was simply reinforcing the behaviour, a reassurance that self-injury was an OK thing to do. It was not a healthy space. The second, though, tried to be about recovery, but allowed images and discussions of self-injury particulars. It was a deeply conflicted space, as a result: if you were feeling OK, you could quite easily end up feeling worse after a visit. If you were already feeling bad, you went there knowing it would most likely spiral downwards, playing Russian roulette with your feelings. You would, almost without doubt, stumble across something that would likely tip you from ‘maybe I could hurt myself’ into the act.

Trigger warnings on BUS made it safe from that concern. It was a place you could go while feeling awful to try to be strong. It had thread after thread of distraction games, little time-wasting things you could do to stave off the need to self-injure. It had questionnaires to fill in before you did it, drawn up by users and psych professionals, and questionnaires to fill in afterwards. It had resources for asking for treatment, for dealing with emergency care, for supporting others. It had safe spaces for parents, partners, carers to socialise. It had diary threads you could post in and read, if you were well enough, and those diaries came by convention with warnings about the content. If you didn’t want to engage with the illnesses of others, for fear of worsening your own, you did not have to.

Words cannot express how valuable trigger warnings were to me, or to many of the other users on BUS. Not just those with PTSD, or anxiety disorders, or specific trauma-related illnesses; not even just those who self-harmed or those with eating disorders; all of us who used that space benefitted from its policies on keeping us safe.

Trigger warnings on the web were born in communities trying to balance the need to speak with the need not to hear. Those communities were closed, or at least only partially open; LiveJournal communities where membership rules could be enforced, forums and BBs where mods had control over members’ posts. Trigger warnings do not translate well to public spaces – Tumblr tags, Twitter, even Facebook groups, or some of the real-life scenarios mentioned in the New Review article – because those needs are different for the wider community. Interestingly, some Tumblr tags do take content warnings well – conventions have grown up around those tags, and those who transgress those conventions are essentially moderated out by the existing users. But there’s no system to support that, nothing to stop a sustained invasion, no way to organise that space to support that use.

But just as it is inadvisable to add trigger warnings to everything based on the possibility of harm, it’s just as inadvisable to remove them from everything based on disbelief in their effectiveness. In communities focussed on mental health and recovery, trigger warnings are absolutely necessary for users. Whether college classes, campuses or the Huffington Post need the same level of consideration is a valid question, for sure, but it’s one worth asking. If you want people with disabilities to be able to participate fully in your spaces, you’d better be thinking about accessibility in terms of triggers and mental wellbeing as well as wheelchair ramps and sign language. And that doesn’t always need to be in formal language: sometimes it’s as simple as editing a tweeted headline to include the word ‘distressing’, to give your followers the choice about what they click on.

The New Review piece concludes:

Trigger warnings are presented as a gesture of empathy, but the irony is they lead only to more solipsism, an over-preoccupation with one’s own feelings—much to the detriment of society as a whole. Structuring public life around the most fragile personal sensitivities will only restrict all of our horizons. Engaging with ideas involves risk, and slapping warnings on them only undermines the principle of intellectual exploration. We cannot anticipate every potential trigger—the world, like the Internet, is too large and unwieldy. But even if we could, why would we want to? Bending the world to accommodate our personal frailties does not help us overcome them.

There is no way to stop every vulnerable person from coming across things that will make them more vulnerable. There is, however, courtesy and consideration, and a need for equal access for those with mental health issues. Those are not small things. There is a valuable, important baby being thrown out with this bathwater.

Pocket Lint #7: glitch mobs

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We have known boys, but none have been bullet-proof
“We are replanting our underripe fruit, graveyards becoming our gardens, and tending far more memories of boys than moments with full-grown men.”

The founder of 4chan on anonymity
“It’s incredible what people can make when they’re able to fail publicly without fear, since not only will those failures not be attributed to them, but they’ll be washed away by a waterfall of new content.”

Twitch Plays Pokemon, in which 80,000+ people simultaneously play the same game of Pokemon Red, creating a sort of giant ongoing metaphor for the evolution of internet community. And the miraculous progress of Twitch Plays Pokemon, which explains the importance of the Helix Fossil.

How the potato changed the world

The construction of a Twitter aesthetic
“You’re trying to find a way to state contradiction. You’re writing a cartoon caption for a cartoon that doesn’t exist”

For 700 years, the people of Geel have taken in people with psychiatric illness and cared for them as family members
“My father always said, ‘These are the best children. They must sleep in the center of the bed.’”

Dismantling the five silliest responses to calls for more women in videogames

Games by humans
“If a games journalist is interviewing a developer about a game, they typically only have access to the lead developers, the ones in charge. Usually, the journalist’s access to these developers is through the publisher that is bankrolling the game. The dozens or hundreds of men and women actually making the game are hidden from the public behind the doubly thick wall of their employers and their publishers. We can’t speak to them and, more often than not, their employment contract means they can’t speak to us.”

A worldwide registry of roller derby names

Finishing, beating, playing through, bursting out: worldwide ways to talk about completing games

Automatic Guardian comment generator

Tumblr of the week: Sorry, Asylum Seekers

Free game of the week: You Have To Burn The Rope

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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 #5: snowsight

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The Empathy Exams: deep, long read from a medical actor. Anything I say here will under-sell it.
“Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges. Trauma bleeds. Out of wounds and across boundaries. Sadness becomes a seizure. Empathy demands another kind of porousness in response.”

What snow tells us about creating better public spaces

Poverty in academia (and other places)
“If we are a collection of our experiences, can you imagine how difficult it can be then to sit in polite conversation and try and engage about childhood holidays, where you learned so ski, and how to fit orchestra practice in around your job?”

The power of Flappy Bird
“Finally, and most importantly, we should learn once and for all that we will never really know what ‘the people’ want. The screenwriter and novelist William Goldman famously suggested that in Hollywood “nobody knows anything.” The success of Flappy Bird is above all a reminder that this maxim is as true in game development as it is in movie making.”

In defense of Twitter feminism
“In a world where the voices of white middle-class heterosexual men and women are privileged, it is striking that Twitter, one of the few spaces that allows for counternarratives and resistance, is now facing a barrage of criticism.”

A linguistic analysis of the language of doge.

Game openings are important
What’s wrong with the first 300 seconds of Bioshock Infinite

FLUSHED!, a zine exploring the intersection of gaming and toilets, is out now. Go get it.

A newsgames hackathon is happening in May. If you’re like me you might want to apply.

Tumblr of the week: Deep Dark Fears

Free game of the week: Candy Match Forever

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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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Defending the indefensible

Today it became clear that in the course of a work-related Facebook conversion IndieStatik founder Josh Mattingly decided to ask a female game developer if he could kiss her vagina. And some other things that she decided she didn’t feel comfortable sharing.

Mattingly has apologised, which is a good call, to say the least. He says he’s going to get started on AA and therapy, which is great. It’s awful that his mental health issues have contributed to him harassing someone, and it’s entirely excellent that he’s taking responsibility for it and using it as a wake-up call to get help.

But away from his personal response, there’s been an unhappy sideline on Twitter today, with David Jaffe as its poster boy, in questioning the developer’s behaviour, and asking why she didn’t ‘shut him down’ or tell him, confrontationally, to stop before he escalated. Why she ‘let’ him make more than one crude sexual comment. Implying that it’s somehow her fault for not stopping him, rather than his fault for continuing; implying that silence is consent.

This is bullshit.

I wrote last week about how online harassment is a professional issue - how when people abuse minorities online they are often doing so in a professional context, not merely a personal one. McWilliams was in a professional space here, talking to a professional contact; the idea that she could confront him with absolutely no repercussions for herself is a cosy and pleasant one, but not necessarily a realistic one.

Even if it were, the idea that there’s a ‘right way’ to respond to abuse like this is completely wrong-headed. A lot of interactions with harassers turn unbelievably ugly when they’re called on their harassment. Ignoring it and maintaining a calm front can be the best way of de-escalating. Not everyone is happy or comfortable with showing that they’re upset to someone who’s potentially trying to upset them in order to get a thrill. Blocking is not always an option, especially in a professional context. And – let’s be clear – the point at which anyone would have to resort to blocking or shutting down is the point at which the harasser has already crossed the line. No response of any kind is going to negate that.

Mental health issues don’t excuse you from behaving well towards other people. A lot of people live with depression without sending people unpleasant messages (hi!). Depression doesn’t absolve you from responsibility, and it certainly doesn’t turn this situation around to put McWilliams in the wrong. Mattingly seems to be trying to own his actions and apologise. The people who’ve tried to defend him by attacking his victim’s responses should probably follow his lead.