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Useful tragedy beats manipulative clickbait

Thursday, 13 February, 2014 0 Comments

The web was filled with wonder last year when an upstart site called Upworthy garnered 7.8 million pageviews for a story titled “Dustin Hoffman Breaks Down Crying Explaining Something That Every Woman Sadly Already Experienced.” This was then topped with “The Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular,” which racked up 17 million pageviews. The clear and unmistakable message is that manipulative clickbait is a road paved with digital gold. Business plan: Write irresistible headlines + spam the Facebook News Feed.

But then Zuckerberg and Sandberg turned off the big tap and that has been bad bad news for Upworthy, which has experienced a 46 percent traffic decline in just two months. The moral of the story, as Megan McCardle puts it so nicely in her latest Bloomberg column, is: “When you build your business around Facebook, ultimately, it’s Facebook’s business you’re building, not your own.”

The News Long before the fall, however, lots of people had tired of the Upworthy scam, er, strategy, with its incessant drumbeat of banality, which it pawned off in such a way that critics were left feeling like curmudgeons who hated everything positive about our planet. What’s there not to like about good clickbait news? A lot, actually, says Alain de Botton in his new book, The News: A User’s Manual. The philosopher is backing up his thesis with The Philosophers’ Mail, a site that aims to make us think more about the news we consume. Rather delightfully, it borrows from the Daily Mail factory of headline-writing and design.

Why isn’t the news more cheerful?” asks today’s top story, topically. Snippet:

“At the Philosopher’s Mail, we’re not into good news or bad news. We start from a different place. Our primary move in selecting stories is to ask, ‘Would it be helpful to know this?’ This determines whether a story goes in or out. In order to live your life well, you need to deal with negative and positive information. News can very well be helpful when it is talking about appalling events. And it can be extremely unhelpful when the stories it tells us are cheery.”

Instead, de Botton & Co. are serving up useful tragedy and helpful victory. Their stories won’t get as many clicks as Upworthy’s “See Why We Have An Absolutely Ridiculous Standard Of Beauty In Just 37 Seconds” (11.8 million pageviews), but they’re not building their house on Facebook’s land, either.

This just in: “Alain de Botton — why I’ve started my own Mail Online: Media moguls aren’t philosophers. So it’s time for philosophers to become media moguls.”

Technouvelle cuisine: Turkish bruschetta, madam?

Wednesday, 29 January, 2014 0 Comments

Turkish delight IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat Gary Kasparov at chess in 1997 and its Watson computer defeated Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter on the US quiz show Jeopardy! in 2011. Thanks to the evolving ability of its machines to interpret large datasets, IBM continues to develop within the industry it has helped to define. Using big-data analytics techniques, the company’s Thomas J Watson Research Center has created extraordinary food recipes mined from resources such as Fenaroli’s Handbook of Flavor Ingredients, which are then tweaked by an algorithm designed to add novelty to the mix. As a result, we get concoctions like Swiss-Thai Asparagus quiche and Turkish bruschetta. Next up? Cantonese broccoli kebab and Irish brown trout bouillabaisse perhaps.

Along with exploring the potential of technouvelle cuisine, IBM is researching the market for “cognitive services” — computers that think, or appear to. The returns could be huge if it can develop artificially intelligent systems capable of answering questions posed in natural language, such as carrying out intelligent phone calls with customers. That’s why Big Blue is pouring $1 billion into Watson. According to Antonio Regalado writing in the MIT Technology Review, “the number of IBM employees working on Watson technologies, including engineers, salespeople, and consultants, will increase fourfold or fivefold to 2,000. The Watson Group will also be elevated inside IBM and report directly to the chairman and CEO, Virginia Rometty.”

But as Regalado points out, crunching cancer is going to be far more challenging for Watson than playing Jeopardy! or thinking up Creole Shrimp Dumpling.

The selfie society

Monday, 25 November, 2013 0 Comments

“Selfies, Selfies and more selfies: so much so it is the word of the year and in order to celebrate and understand the concept of selfie, I decided to curate seven of the best pieces I have read around selfies.” So said Om Malik in his regular “7 stories to read this weekend” feature.” Included is what he terms the “definitive” article on selfie culture by Jenna Wortham.
The major selfie artist of our time is, of course, Kim Kardashian. Her sister Khloe recently gave an interview in which she revealed Kim’s top secret: shoot from above to avoid double chins. The front-facing camera of the iPhone 4 spurred the rise of the craze, but there’s more to the story than hardware as Kate Losse pointed out in The Return of the Selfie in the New Yorker in June:

“For teen-age social-media users, who generally prefer on-the-go mobile applications, like Instagram and Snapchat, the self is the message and the selfie is the medium. The Instagram selfie, with its soft, artfully faded tones, has replaced the stern, harshly lit mug-shot style of years past. The small, square photo, displayed on one’s phone, invites the photographer and the viewer to form a personal connection. There is little space on Instagram for delivering context or depicting a large group of people; the confines of the app make single subjects more legible than complex scenes. A face in an Instagram photograph, filtered to eliminate any glare or unflattering light, appears star-like, as if captured by a deft paparazzo.”

In his list, Om Malik adds a link to the marvellous selfie taken by astronaut Aki Hoshide while working outside the International Space. Next stop for the selfie? Mars. But wait. Been there. Done that.

Selfie in space

Where’s the European GAFAT?

Thursday, 17 October, 2013 0 Comments

A rum lot of politicians and publishers have gathered in Munich for the annual Medientage talk fest. They’re being aided and abetted in their deliberations by the bureaucrats of Germany’s media apparatus, who intone the yearly incantations about the vital role that newspapers and state broadcasters play in preserving democracy. That these pieties are nothing but a tawdry appeal for protectionism against the inroads being made by the new media is lost on no one, but they must be uttered to ward off the dark shadows being cast by GAFA. That’s Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, by the way. Europe’s total failure to produce its own GAFA is never openly discussed at events like the Munich Medientage for fear that it might expose how dependent the continent’s media industry is now on the kindness of more innovative strangers.

And when it comes to the future of journalism, the shape of things to come won’t be defined in Europe, either. Yesterday’s announcement by Pierre Omidyar that he was “in the very early stages of creating a new mass media organization… that will be independent of my other organizations” suggests that it won’t be paper based or based in Omidyar’s native France, for that matter. He made his money by founding eBay and now lives in Honolulu.

Then there’s the agora, that space in which democracies conduct open discussion. According to the Munich media apparatchiks, state gatekeepers are best placed to take care of that. In the real world, however, the critical service for the well-being of the global public sphere is going to be Twitter. So, make that GAFAT.

This just in: The International Journalism Festival, set to take place in April 2014 in Perugia, has been cancelled. Reason? The thing that’s said to be the root of all evil. In this case, the lack of it. The organizers should have asked @pierre for a few dollars. He’s got them and he’s hot on journalism. Major fail, that, Europe.

Barcelona: The city that Cerdà helped create

Tuesday, 15 October, 2013 0 Comments

When one thinks of Barcelona and urban design, the name that immediately comes to mind is that of Antoni Gaudí, but there’s a case to made that Ildefons Cerdà was the better builder. A civil engineer by training, Cerdà was also an urban planner, an architect and a health specialist: an ideal city-creator, in other words. The avenues and boulevards of Cerdà’s l’Eixample (Expansion) plan made life both pleasant and healthy for the barceloní/barcelonina used to five centuries of “rambling” on La Rambla, one of the world’s greatest people streets.

Cerdà built upon tradition and his limit of seven to nine stories for buildings throughout the plan made the entire urban “room” feel human in scale. Barcelona has broken this rule in recent decades, but when it has, high-rise buildings such as Jean Nouvel’s impressive Torre Agbar have added to the character of the city. Cerdà would be pleased with this timelapse clip by Alexandr Kravtsov.

The rights and wrongs of Big Data visualization

Tuesday, 1 October, 2013 0 Comments

Let’s start with the wrong way to do it as we have been gifted a perfect example by that fine Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail. In an exemplary piece of reporting on the RIM nightmare titled Inside the fall of BlackBerry: How the smartphone inventor failed to adapt, readers are offered a pop-up “INFOGRAPHIC” labeled “The roller-coaster ride of BlackBerry’s shares”. Those who click on the thumbnail image get a smudgy JPG image of a graph so totally lacking in interactivity and imagination that one assumes it was created by the very same RIM engineers who have driven BlackBerry to the edge of its cellular grave.

An example of the right way to do data visualization is provided by Natalia Rojas, a “Creative Technologist”, who was born in Buenos Aires and now lives in Miami. Her “Faces of Facebook” maps the profile photos of the social network’s 1,276,388,529 (and counting) users on one web page and is organized from top left to bottom right by the date each user joined. The result is a fascinating interactive image that rewards pixel clicking with a user’s name and position in the Facebook chronology. For example, face #6,145,640 is that of Stuart Knott.

Faces of Facebook

For those challenged by the visualization of Big Data, there’s hope on the horizon. The Danish Design Center will hold “The Big Data Visualization Seminar” on 24 October in Copenhagen. It’s not just Canadian journalists who would benefit from attending. Meanwhile, Al Boardman shows how to take some data about mountains and turn it into something beautiful.

Business as usual has ended in the media business

Tuesday, 6 August, 2013 0 Comments

In an interview with the German paper the Berliner-Zeitung last year, Jeff Bezos described newspapers as a luxury item headed for extinction:

“There is one thing I’m certain about: there won’t be printed newspapers in twenty years. Maybe as luxury items in some hotels that want to offer them as an extravagant service. Printed papers won’t be normal in twenty years.”

In his letter to the Washington Post employees, who are now his employees, Bezos has this to say: “There will, of course, be change at The Post over the coming years. That’s essential and would have happened with or without new ownership. The Internet is transforming almost every element of the news business: shortening news cycles, eroding long-reliable revenue sources, and enabling new kinds of competition, some of which bear little or no news-gathering costs. There is no map, and charting a path ahead will not be easy.”

With his purchase of the Washington Post, Jeff Bezos has become one of the most influential content creators in the world. Consider this: Amazon’s e-book publishing unit recently scored its first million-copy hit when sales of the Hangman’s Daughter series broke through the seven-figure mark. Last week, Amazon Studios announced five new video-on-demand programme pilots, and its new video games wing is advertising for more than a dozen posts. Content is king, clearly.

appify

Wednesday, 10 July, 2013 0 Comments

“To create or modify an existing service as to make an application of it which in turn can be used in a larger application.” Urban Dictionary

The iOS App Store opened its virtual portals five years ago today. At GIGAOM, Erica Ogg notes that more than 50 billion apps have been downloaded since then, and that individual software makers, small startups and large corporations “have been able to build thriving businesses off of the platform. Apple says it has paid out $10 billion in revenues to its third-party app makers.” She ponders the pricing model and wonders about the search function and asks relevant questions about the future of the model, but today is a day for celebrating the brilliance of the idea and the genius of Steve Jobs. On 10 July 2008, he told USA Today that the App Store contained 500 third-party applications for the iPhone. Now, it’s approaching one million.

Note: In January 2011, app was awarded the honour of being named 2010′s “Word of the Year” by the American Dialect Society.

Apps

The debatable promise of The New Digital Age

Monday, 10 June, 2013 0 Comments

Spent part of the weekend reading part of The New Digital Age by Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen. The book exudes positivity and Richard Waters noted in the Financial Times that “it lays out a mainly optimistic case for why the world’s tyrants should tremble in the face of universal internet access.”

The New Digital Age In their Introduction, the two authors sing the praises of “digital empowerment”, the result of which is that “authoritarian governments will find their newly connection populations more difficult to control, repress and influence, while democratic states will be forced to include many more voices (individuals, organizations and companies) in their affairs.” Then, comes this sentence: “To be sure, governments will always find ways to use new levels of connectivity to their advantage, but because of the way current network technology is structured, it truly favors the citizen, in ways we will explore later.”

Is “the citizen” here Jared Cohen or Edward Snowdon? The revelations about the PRISM project would appear to suggest the transition to a total surveillance society is underway and while Schmidt and Cohen don’t dismiss such dangers, they come across as somewhat naïve when they write: “In fact, technology will empower people to police the police in a plethora of creative ways never before possible, including through real-time monitoring systems allowing citizens to publicly rate every police officer in their home-town. Commerce, education, health care and the justice system will all become more efficient, transparent and inclusive as major institutions opt in to the digital age.”

More “efficient”, no doubt. But more “transparent”? One has doubts. That, by the way, is from the first chapter, “The Future of Identity, Citizenship and Reporting”, which asserts: “Governments, too, will find it more difficult to maneuver as their citizens become more connected.” Really? The NSA data-mining PRISM project is, in fact, a partnership with at least nine big US internet companies, among them Google, Skype, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and Apple. Governments, it turns out, regardless of what Schmidt and Cohen say publicly, are very agile in The New Digital Age.

In a future where everyone is connected, Juvenal will be more relevant than ever: “Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (“But who will watch the watchers?”) he asked.

Erdogan channels Assange and Morozov

Tuesday, 4 June, 2013 0 Comments

“Now we have a menace that is called Twitter. The best example of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.” As protests engulf Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is blaming social media for the unrest. His targeting of Twitter, which has become a hub for activists and a major news source as Turkey’s mainstream media have downplayed the crisis, will be watched with interest by Evgeny Morozov, who has made a profession out of his cynicism for the popular notion that the internet can be an agent of regime change. In the internet-inimical Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which hosts a regular Morozov column, the Belarus-born author argues that the net is, in fact, a tool for mass surveillance and political repression.

Echoing Morozov’s fears, the alleged-rapist, Julian Assange, took to the New York Times at the weekend and declared, “The advance of information technology epitomized by Google heralds the death of privacy for most people and shifts the world toward authoritarianism.” The notorious fugitive from justice was reviewing Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s book, The New Digital Age. He continued: “But while Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Cohen tell us that the death of privacy will aid governments in ‘repressive autocracies’ in ‘targeting their citizens,’ they also say governments in ‘open’ democracies will see it as ‘a gift’ enabling them to ‘better respond to citizen and customer concerns.’ In reality, the erosion of individual privacy in the West and the attendant centralization of power make abuses inevitable, moving the ‘good’ societies closer to the ‘bad’ ones.”

When the dictatorial Erdoğan, the seedy Assange and the skeptical Morozov are on the same page, it’s time to count our digital spoons.

Twitter Istanbul

The emergence of connected cars and drones

Thursday, 30 May, 2013 0 Comments

Yesterday: Desktop PCs. Today: Samsung’s growth. Tomorrow: Wearable tech. Just three take-aways, as they say, from Mary Meeker’s must-read annual Internet Trends presentation at the D11 conference.