Facebook, let’s talk about harm

In news-that-ought-to-be-satire-but-isn’t, the AV Club reports, via New Scientist, that Facebook has been manipulating users’ feeds in order to test whether they can manipulate their emotions. 689,003 users, to be precise.

The full paper is here, and makes for interesting reading. The researchers found that, yes, emotional states are contagious across networks, even if you’re only seeing someone typing something and not interacting with them face-to-face. They also found that people who don’t see emotional words are less expressive – a “withdrawal effect”.

Where things get rather concerning is the part where Facebook didn’t bother telling any of its test subjects that they were being tested. The US has a few regulations governing clinical research that make clear informed consent must be given by human test subjects. Informed consent requires subjects to know that research is occurring, be given a description of the risks involved, and have the option to refuse to participate without being penalised. None of these things were available to the anonymous people involved in the study.

As it happens, I have to use Facebook for work. I also happen to have a chronic depressive disorder.

It would be interesting to know whether Facebook picked me for their experiment. It’d certainly be interesting to know whether they screened for mental health issues, and how they justified the lack of informed consent about the risks involved, given they had no way to screen out those with psychiatric and psychological disorders that might be exacerbated by emotional manipulations, however tangential or small.

The researchers chose to manipulate the news feed in order to remove or amplify emotional content, rather than by observing the effect of that content after the fact. There’s an argument here that Facebook manipulates the news feed all the time anyway, therefore this is justifiable – but unless Facebook is routinely A/B testing on its users’ happiness and emotional wellbeing, the two things are not equivalent. Testing where you click is different to testing what you feel. A 0.02% increase in video watch rates is not the same as a 0.02% increase in emotionally negative statements. One of these things has the potential for harm.

The effect the researchers found, in the end, was very small. That goes some way towards explaining their huge sample size: the actual contagion effect of negativity or positivity on any one individual is so tiny that it’s statistically significant only across a massive pool of people.

But we know that only because they did the research. What if the effect had been larger? What if the effect on the general population was small, but individuals with certain characteristics – perhaps, say, those with chronic depressive disorders – experienced much larger effects? At what point would the researchers have decided it would be a good idea to tell people, after the fact, that they had been deliberately harmed?

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.

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.

Break news everywhere, not just on Twitter

Steve Buttry has a great response to a reporter worried about being scooped by the competition if they post on Twitter. He argues that: “You can’t get scooped because competition gets tipped to a story when you tweet about it. Your tweets already scooped the competition.”

That’s true, but not quite complete. You may have scooped the competition, but you’ve only scooped them on Twitter – for readers who don’t use Twitter or who don’t follow you there, you might not have broken any news at all. The choice of where to break stories or how to develop them live isn’t just “Twitter and/or your own website”. Twitter matters, that’s certain, but what’s less cut and dried is whether it matters more than anywhere else, for you and for your readers.

Sometimes being first on Twitter is worth a huge amount of prestige and traffic for your work. Sometimes, in all honesty, it’s just nice-to-have – the traffic and prestige you really want is elsewhere. Would you rather be first to tweet, or would you rather be the first thing people see in their Facebook newsfeed or the first with a chance at a link from r/worldnews? Is the audience for what you’re writing actually using Twitter, or are they elsewhere? Are you better off dashing off an alert to your mobile app users, or an email to a specialised list, before you take to Twitter?

All Buttry’s advice for how to report live, digitally and socially, is excellent. And it all also has platform-agnostic applications. You can post to a brand Facebook page as well as – or instead of – a brand Twitter account; at the moment, with all the dials turned up, that’s likely to have a significant effect.

You can argue the Facebook audience will most likely disappear when Facebook makes another newsfeed tweak; that ignores the fact that right now is a good time to put your work in front of people who might never have seen it before and might never see it again unless you go where they are and show them.

It also misses the important point here, which is that no one platform is the answer in all situations for every news organisation all of the time. You have to build a strategy that will be flexible enough to respond when something changes, positively or negatively, on a social platform. Social and search sites do not owe you traffic, and relying on one at the expense of others is not sensible in the long term. You have to be willing to allocate resources away from the shiny media-friendly very-visible things and towards the more oblique, less obvious, less sexy things. You have to be able to go where your audience is, not just where you are as a journalist. If your audience is all hanging out on an obscure forum, go post there.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t or can’t also try to be first on Twitter – if you’re doing news seriously, you absolutely should. Twitter’s huge, and hugely important, but it isn’t all there is to social news, and it’s crucial to think about where else your readers might be. If you’re only thinking about breaking news on Twitter, you’re not thinking broadly enough yet. Break news in weird places, if that’s where your audience is.

Tabloid vs broadsheet, Facebook edition

There’s a lot of chatter around about Facebook at the moment in the light of the high levels of traffic it’s driving to publishers, and the way it’s trying to define itself as a news destination as well as a social one. Particularly interesting post on this topic at AllThings D today, which talks about the not-entirely-successful news feed redesign, and the dichotomy between what Facebook seems to want for itself and what its users seem to want from it.

Most people think of Facebook in a similar way: It’s a place to share photos of your kids. It’s a way to keep up with friends and family members. It’s a place to share a funny, viral story or LOLcat picture you’ve stumbled upon on the Web.

This is not how Facebook thinks of Facebook. In Mark Zuckerberg’s mind, Facebook should be “the best personalized newspaper in the world.” He wants a design-and-content mix that plays up a wide array of “high-quality” stories and photos.

The gap between these two Facebooks — the one its managers want to see, and the one its users like using today — is starting to become visible.

I’m not a fan of the constant return to the print metaphor whenever we talk about new ways of depicting news online – the newspaper idea – because it tends so badly to limit the scope of what’s possible to what’s already been done. It’s an appeal to authority, the old authority of print pages, the idea not just of a curated experience delivered as a package but also a powerful force in the political world. An authoritative voice. And it’s likely that Facebook would not be upset if, as a side effect of becoming a more newspaper-ish experience, it also gained more power.

But what we’re talking about here isn’t just a newspaper-Facebook vs a not-a-newspaper-Facebook. It’s the tension between tabloid and broadsheet style, played out in microcosm in the news feed, just as it’s being played out in a lot of news organisations that used to be newspapers. It’s the question of whether you can really wield power and authority, whether you can be trusted, if you’re posting hard news alongside cat gifs. It’s the Buzzfeed questions played out without any content to publish, an editor’s dilemma without editorial control.

It’s also an identity question, because it always is with social media. We’re not one person universally across all our services; we don’t behave the same way on Twitter as we do on Facebook. What Zuckerberg wants isn’t just a news feed change, it’s also a shift in the way we express and construct our Facebook selves – a shift more towards the Twitter self, perhaps. A more serious, more worthy consumption experience and sharing motive, a more informational and less conversational self.

Maybe that’s a really difficult problem to solve, adjusting the way identity works within an online service. Or maybe tweaking people is easy to do, if you just find the right algorithm and design tweaks.

Social places, not networks

In the light of recent events, this post from earlier this month seems timely:

Some years ago, the tech industry set out to redefine our perception of the web. Facebook (and other similar sites) grew at amazing rates and their reasonable focus on the “social network” and the “social graph”, made “social networks” the new kid on the block.

But even though the connections of each individual user are his social network, these sites are not social networks. They are social networking places.

This is an important distinction. They are places, not networks. Much like your office, school, university, the place where you usually spend your summer vacation, the pub where your buddies hang out or your hometown.

And, much like your office, school, university, etc, they all have their own behavioural expectations and norms. When those spaces get big and full of people jostling for room, if they aren’t broken up into their own smaller spaces – or if the partitions are porous – those differing expectations rub up against each other in all sorts of interesting and problematic ways.

The Twitter I have is not the Twitter you have, because we follow different folks and interact with them in our own ways. There are pretty regular examples of this disparity: when people write posts about how Twitter’s changed, it’s no fun any more, but the reality is that it’s just the folks they follow and talk to that have changed how they use it. My Twitter experience doesn’t reflect that – I’m in a different space with different people.

Part of the abuse problem all online spaces face is working out their own norms of behaviour and how to deal with incidents that contravene them. One of the particular problems faced by Twitter and a few others is how to deal with incidents that turn up because of many different, overlapping, interconnected spaces and the different expectations of each one.

And on practical ways to handle those problems, go read this excellent post by an experienced moderator. It’s too good to quote chunks here.

10 things I learned from a web traffic spike

Look Robot wordpress stats

Last week, my other half wrote a rather amusing blog post about the Panasonic Toughpad press conference he went to in Munich. He published on Monday afternoon, and by the time he went out on Monday evening the post had had just over 600 views. I texted him to tell him when it passed 800, making it the best single day in his blog’s sporadic, year-long history.

Next day it hit 45,000 views, and broke our web hosting. Over 72 hours it got more than 100,000 views, garnered 120 comments, was syndicated on Gizmodo and brought Grant about 400 more followers on Twitter. Here’s what I learned.

1. Site speed matters

The biggest limit we faced during the real spike was CPU usage. We’re on Evohosting, which uses shared servers and allots a certain amount of usage per account. With about 180-210 concurrent visitors and 60-70 page views a minute, according to Google Analytics real-time stats, the site had slowed to a crawl and was taking about 20 seconds to respond.

WordPress is a great CMS, but it’s resource-heavy. Aside from single-serving static HTML sites, I was running Look Robot, this blog, Zombie LARP, and, when I checked, five other WordPress installations that were either test sites or dormant projects from the past and/or future. Some of them had caching on, some didn’t; Grant’s blog was one of the ones that didn’t.

So I fixed that. Excruciatingly slowly, of course, because everything took at least 20 seconds to load. Deleting five WordPress sites, deactivating about 15 or 20 non-essential plugins, and installing WP Super Cache sped things up to a load time between 7 and 10 seconds – still not ideal, but much better. The number of concurrent visitors on site jumped up to 350-400, at 120-140 page views a minute – no new incoming links, just more people bothering to wait until the site finished loading.

2. Do your site maintenance before the massive traffic spike happens, not during

Should be obvious, really.

3. Things go viral in lots of places at once

Grant’s post started out on Twitter, but spread pretty quickly to Facebook off the back of people’s tweets. From there it went to Hacker News (where it didn’t do well), then Metafilter (where it did), then Reddit, then Fark, at the same time as sprouting lots of smaller referrers, mostly tech aggregators and forums. The big spike of traffic hit when it was doing well from Metafilter, Fark and Reddit simultaneously. Interestingly, the Fark spike seemed to have the longest half-life, with Metafilter traffic dropping off more quickly and Reddit more quickly still.

4. It’s easy to focus on activity you can see, and miss activity you can’t

Initially we were watching Twitter pretty closely, because we could see Grant’s tweet going viral. Being able to leave a tab open with a live search for a link meant we could watch the spread from person to person. Tweeters with large follower counts tended to be more likely to repost the link rather than retweeting, and often did so without attribution, making it hard to work out how and where they’d come across it. But it was possible to track back individual tweets based on the referrer string, thanks to the t.co URL wrapper. From some quick and dirty maths, it looks to me like the more followers you have, the smaller the click-through rate on your tweets – but the greater the likelihood of retweets, for obvious reasons.

Around midday, Facebook overtook Twitter as a direct referrer. We’d not been looking at Facebook at all. Compared to Twitter and Reddit, Facebook is a bit of a black box when it comes to analytics. Tonnes of traffic is coming, but who from? I still haven’t been able to find out.

5. The more popular an article is, the higher the bounce rate

This doesn’t *always* hold true. However, I can’t personally think of a time when I’ve witnessed it being falsified. Reddit in particular is also a very high bounce referrer, due to its nature, and news as a category tends to see very high bounce especially from article pages, but it does seem to hold true that the more popular something is the more likely people are to leave without reading further. Look, Robot’s bounce rate went from about 58% across the site to 94% overall in 24 hours.

My feeling is that this is down to the ways people come across links. Directed searching for information is one way: that’s fairly high-bounce, because a reader hits your site and either finds what they’re looking for or doesn’t. Second clicks are tricky to get. Then there’s social traffic, where a click tends to come in the form of a diversion from an existing path: people are reading Twitter, or Facebook, or Metafilter, they click to see what people are talking about, then they go straight back to what they were doing. Getting people to break that path and browse your site instead – distracting them, in effect – is a very, very difficult thing to do.

Look Robot referrals

The head of a rather long tail.

6. Fark leaves a shadow 

Fark’s an odd one – not a site that features frequently in roundups of traffic drivers, but it can still be a big referrer to unusual, funny or plain daft content. It works like a sort of edited Reddit – registered users submit links, and editors decide what goes on the front page. Paying subscribers to the site can see everything that’s submitted, not just the edited front. I realised before it happened that Grant was about to get a link from their Geek front, when the referrer total.fark.com/greenlit started to show up in incoming traffic – that URL, behind a paywall, is the place where links that have been OKed are queued to go on the fronts.

7. The front page of Digg is a sparsely populated place these days

I know that Grant’s post sat on the front page of Digg for at least eight hours. In total, it got just over 1,000 referrals. By contrast, the post didn’t make it to the front page of Reddit, but racked up more than 20,000 hits mostly from r/technology.

8. Forums are everywhere

I am always astonished at the vast plethora of niche-interest forums on the internet, and the amount of traffic they get. Much like email, they’re not particularly sexy – no one is going to write excitable screeds about how forums are the next Twitter or how exciting phpBB technology is – but millions of people use them every day. They’re not often classified as ‘social’ referrers by analytics tools, despite their nature, because identifying what’s a forum and what’s not is a pretty tricky task. But they’re everywhere, and while most only have a few users, in aggregate they work to drive a surprising amount of traffic.

Grant’s post got picked up on forums on Bad Science, RPG.net, Something Awful, the Motley Fool, a Habbo forum, Quarter to Three, XKCD and a double handful of more obscure and fascinating places. As with most long tail phenomena, each one individually isn’t a huge referrer, but the collection gets to be surprisingly big.

9. Timing is everything…

It’s hard to say what would have happened if that piece had gone up this week instead, but I don’t think it would have had the traffic it has. Grant’s post hit a chord – the ludicrous nature of tech events – and tapped into post-CES ennui and the utter daftness that was the Qualcomm keynote this year.

10. …but anything can go viral

Last year I was on a games journalism panel at the Guardian, and I suggested that it was a good idea for aspiring journalists to write on their own sites as though they were already writing for the people they wanted to be their audience. I said something along the lines of: you never know who’s going to pick it up. You never know how far something you put online is going to travel. You never know: one thing you write might take off and put you under the noses of the people you want to give you a job. It’s terrifying, because anything you write could explode – and it’s hugely exciting, too.

Picturesque selves

This is brilliant. Identity online is multifaceted, and the explosion in popularity of Instagram and Pinterest is in part about performing single facets of identity, mythologising ourselves through imagery.

Instead of thinking of social media as a clear window into the selves and lives of its users, perhaps we should view the Web as being more like a painting.

This is why Facebook’s desire to own our identities online is fundamentally flawed; our Facebook identities are not who we are, and they are too large and cumbersome and singular to represent us all the time. Google+ has the same problem, of course. Frictionless sharing introduces an uncomfortable authenticity – Facebook identities thus far have been carefully and deliberately constructed, and allowing automatically shared content to accrete into an identity is a different process, a more honest and haphazard one, that for many may spoil their work.

As we do offline, our self-presentations online are always creative, playful, and thoroughly mediated by the logic of social-media documentation.

Pinterest and Instagram are built around these playful, creative impulses to invent ourselves. Twitter remains abstract enough to encourage it too, though in textual rather than visual form. Facebook and Google identities are such large constructions that they become restrictive – you can’t experiment in the way you can with other platforms because of the weight of associations and of history – and they’re not constructed in a vacuum. They rely on interactions with friends for legitimacy – but you can’t jointly create one the way you can a Tumblr or a Pinterest board. Group identities don’t quite work. Individual identities are too heavy to play with properly. But Pinterest and Instagram and Tumblr are online scrapbooks – visual, associative, picturesque – and are just the right formats for liminal experimentation with self-construction. Creative and lightweight.

Aggregation – a substitute newspaper?

I’m not sure that I completely agree with Scott Fulton’s conclusion in this piece, but it’s well worth a read nonetheless. On the difference between Google and journalism:

News has always been a loss leader; it’s the thing publishers provide to make the real products they used to sell timely, interesting and competitive. It’s literally the sugar coating.

The Internet commandeered the services that newspapers once championed and delivered each of these services on an a la carte basis. In an earlier era, it made sense to bundle these services in a single package – the newspaper – and deliver it fully assembled. Today, the Web itself is the package, and each of the services now competes against other similar services in separate, often healthy, markets. And this is as it should be – this is not somehow wrong.

But it leaves local news providers with only the container, abandoning them with the task of making a living from the news alone. What’s worse, it thrusts them into a market with tens of thousands of journalistic ventures of all sizes, all of which have charged themselves with the same objective: building a business model around solely the news. What gives all these services a bit of a reprieve, albeit temporary, are Google News and the other aggregators in its category. Aggregators serve not only as front pages for a multitude of news services, but by bundling them together and giving them the illusion of plurality, aggregators substitute for the missing thunder of the press. The end product is not exactly editorial, but if you squint, there are moments when it reminds you of something that might have been editorial once.

Journalism online has a distribution problem. Unlike a road network, Google isn’t a neutral network through which news can be pushed; unlike hauliers and newsagents, social networks don’t exist primarily to distribute our news but have their own purposes and uses that sometimes conflict with ours. As the Mail Online prepares to turn its first profit, there is a wider argument playing out about whether journalism can or should be valued by how well and widely it is distributed – for display ad driven models this is particularly acute. And Google, as a display ad provider, potentially profits twice by being the primary distributor as well.

For news, Google is a distributor trying to make the product fit its network. (In other areas too – Schema.org microdata, authorship markup and other elements of Google+ spring to mind.) Though it’s certainly useful – I would argue vital to most news sites – it’s not the only way to distribute news, and for some sites it’s not the dominant method. Google is competing with email, social networks or even direct traffic to be the primary access method. Of course, then, it wants access to news and other content in a form that’s easy for it to parse and display. No wonder it fell out with Twitter and Facebook.

To my mind, this is the quote that gets to the heart of it:

Like it or not, aggregation is an interim solution. It’s a kludge that satisfies an immediate need in the short-term; it’s a substitute newspaper.

Google News is the best of what we’ve got now. It’s not necessarily what’s best for news. It’s certainly not where we’re going to end up.

If you don’t want to talk to people, turn your comments off

Advance warning: long post is long, and opinionated. Please, if you disagree, help me improve my thinking on this subject. And if you have more good examples or resources to share, please do.

News websites have a problem.

Well, OK, they have a lot of problems. The one I want to talk about is the comments. Generally, the standard of discourse on news websites is pretty low. It’s become almost an industry standard to have all manner of unpleasantness below the line on news stories.

Really, this isn’t limited to news comments. All over the web, people are discovering a new ability to speak without constraints, with far fewer consequences than speech acts offline, and to explore and colonise new spaces in which to converse.

Continue reading