Facebook’s secret newsfeed experiments affected voter turnout in the 2012 election

As many users know by now, Facebook routinely experiments with the structure of the newsfeed — that is, which updates its ranking algorithm highlights and which it down-votes or hides completely. Much of this experimentation is innocuous, but some of it has real-world consequences that extend beyond Facebook and into the disturbing realm of social manipulation: in the latest example, Mother Jones reports that the network tweaked the newsfeeds of almost 2 million users in 2012, and this experiment materially affected voter-turnout rates.

As Techpresident founder Micah Sifry describes in the Mother Jones piece, the manipulation occurred as Facebook was developing a feature it calls its “voter megaphone” — that is, a tool that allows users to post a prominent “I’m Voting” button on their profile in order to encourage others to vote.

Experimentation on or manipulation of users through tweaks to the newsfeed is a controversial topic for many, ever since Facebook admitted earlier this year that a team of researchers had modified the newsfeeds of users to change the emotional content of what they saw in order to determine whether good or bad news could trigger a kind of “emotional contagion,” and make them feel a certain way.

Some argued that this was just part of the tweaking that web-based services do all the time, and pointed out that the 700,000 users affected were a tiny portion of the social network’s user base — but others were disturbed by what they saw as emotional manipulation without proper disclosure. And many saw it as another example of the potential flaws in an algorithmically-filtered online environment.

Newsfeed changes boosted voting rates

The Mother Jones story describes how, in the months leading up to election day in 2012, Facebook made a change to the newsfeeds of 1.9 million users in order to see whether it could influence those users to become more interested in political activity: it did this by increasing the number of hard news items that appeared at the top of a user’s newsfeed. According to one of the Facebook data scientists involved, this change “measurably increased voter turnout.”

Facebook Inc Announces Graph Search

As described in a public talk given by Facebook data scientist Lada Adamic in 2012 (a video of which has since been removed from YouTube, according to Sifry), Facebook made the change to the feeds of almost 2 million users and then studied their behavior — and found a “statistically significant” increase in the amount of attention they paid to government-related news. The number who voted (or at least those who said they voted) went from 64 percent to 67 percent.

It is curious that Facebook officials apparently thought that testing such a major change in its users’ feeds in the weeks before the 2012 election — precisely when people might be paying more attention to political news and cues — was benign and not worth sharing with its users and the public… and, according to Buckley, the public will not receive full answers until some point in 2015, when academic reports fully describing what Facebook did in 2012 are expected to be published.

Experiment in 2010 also affected turnout

As has been reported before, Facebook also experimented with the newsfeed in the months leading up to the 2010 general elections. It put different versions of the “I’m Voting” button on the pages of about 60 million users — and put them in different places — and then studied the reactions and behavior of users. Two groups of about 600,000 users served as a control group: one saw the button but didn’t get any additional information, and others saw no button at all.

The results of the experiment — which Facebook users were not made aware of — were published in 2012 in Nature magazine, under the title “A 61 Million-Person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization.” The authors, including both outside researchers and Facebook data scientists, studied voter records to see whether the changes actually affected voter turnout, and concluded that it did.


According to the study, voter turnout increased by at least 340,000 or about 0.14 percent of the total voting-age population in 2010. Compared to previous changes in turnout, the authors concluded that this was “substantial.” The evidence indicated that “more of the 0.6 percent growth in turnout between 2006 and 2010 might have been caused by a single message on Facebook.”

As Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain wrote in a piece for The New Republic after news of the 2010 experiment emerged, the research raised the possibility that Facebook could actually influence the outcome of certain elections — perhaps even without meaning to do so (Zittrain proposed that large web companies like Facebook be defined as “information fiduciaries,” and have specific duties with regards to the information they collect about their users).

What other behavior is Facebook influencing?

A spokesman for Facebook told Mother Jones the research in 2012 was just part of the ongoing experiments related to improving the quality of the newsfeed for users, and that the company has nothing to hide. He said the company took down the video presentation by its data scientist because it didn’t want to pre-empt the research paper she is writing about the experiment. But despite such explanations, the idea of being experimented on is something many users find disturbing.

As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci pointed out in a recent research paper on the social impact of “big data” involving social behavior, these types of experiments make people uneasy because they are “opaque, powerful and possibly non-consensual, in an environment of information asymmetry.” In other words, they make users feel like they are being experimented on by an unseen and impersonal entity, for purposes that they don’t really understand or in many cases are not even made aware of.

The fact that Facebook can manipulate newsfeed design in ways that can influence voter-turnout rates is fascinating, and perhaps even encouraging — but at the same time, the implications of that are disturbing: what other kinds of behavior could it influence, or actually be influencing even now, without our knowledge?

If you don’t like algorithmic filters, you’re probably not going to like the future of Twitter

There was a lot of attention on Twitter on Monday, as the company reported its quarterly financial results: despite meeting Wall Street estimates on things like revenue, the network’s share price slid by almost 10 percent. According to most of the stock experts who commented on the slump, investors were looking for better user growth and engagement numbers — and that dilemma helps explain why Twitter is going to continue to muck around with your timeline using algorithms, regardless of whether users want it to do so.

The first hint that this trend was likely to accelerate came during an interview last month with new chief financial officer Anthony Noto, who said that the traditional reverse-chronological timeline arrangement “isn’t the most relevant for the user.” Although my summary of his thoughts drew plenty of fire from Twitter and its defenders — who argued that I had taken his comments out of context — it seemed clear to me what was coming.

.@mathewi @om he never said a “filtered feed is coming whether you like it or not”. Goodness, what an absurd synthesis of what was said.

— dick costolo (@dickc) September 4, 2014

In fact, comments made by both CEO Dick Costolo and by Anthony Noto during Monday’s conference call with financial analysts made it clear that these experiments are going to continue, and if anything will be broadened to the point where they will likely impact every user to some extent. If you see tweets that have been favorited or rewteeted by people you don’t follow showing up in your stream out of sync with your timeline, then you will know that you are part of the rollout.

Can Twitter have its cake and eat it too?

The company is doing its best to make it sound like this is not a big deal, and that the reverse-chronological timeline will remain intact. But the reality is that for many users, the ability to curate their own experience on Twitter is a crucial feature — just take a look at the survey we did in September, which was 87-percent negative on the idea of an algorithmically-curated feed. The idea of someone else deciding what’s important in their stream appears to be anathema to many users.

Twitter filter survey

Of course, for Twitter this probably feels like just another enhancement that they think will make the feed better for some — primarily new users and those who don’t log in very much, which is a key market for the kind of future growth Wall Street wants to see. And the stream has already been disturbed by things like promoted tweets and other forms of advertising, which show up out of sync with the timeline. What’s the big deal about one more disruption?

Supporters of Twitter’s move, like early investor Chris Sacca of Lower Case Capital, argue that the changes will make the service more user-friendly, especially for new users, and that existing or power users shouldn’t see it as a threat. But it’s become very clear that some don’t want Twitter to alter their stream via algorithm even if it claims to be doing so for their own good.

The slippery slope of algorithmic filters

The most common response to the idea is that it will make Twitter like Facebook, where an algorithm routinely promotes or down-ranks content based on criteria that users can barely understand — if they even realize that their feed is curated at all (which surveys have shown that many do not). In an impassioned plea to Twitter not to implement a Facebook-style algorithm, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci recently summed up the feelings of many die-hard Twitter users:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]The key to this power isn’t the reverse chronology but rather the fact that the network allows humans to exercise free judgment on the worth of content, without strong algorithmic biases. That cumulative, networked freedom is what extends the range of what Twitter can value and surface, and provides some of the best experiences of Twitter.[/blockquote]

Although Facebook’s feed is different in that it actually hides or removes content without telling people, based on whatever signals its algorithm chooses to look at — few of which are publicly disclosed, of course — a number of the company’s fans have pointed out that Twitter is only talking about adding content to your stream via algorithm, such as “important” tweets that you might have missed.

But as more than one person has noted, this is a slippery slope at best: once you have made the decision to alter the flow or the arrangement of tweets based on abstract criteria that have been programmed into an algorithm, then at some point you are going to decide — for the user’s own good — to hide or remove certain things as well, because you want to improve the signal-to-noise ratio.

The ironic thing about Twitter is that even though many (including me) complain about the difficulty of plowing through all those tweets and finding the signal, we very much want to be the ones doing the filtering, rather than having it done by a faceless algorithm. The whole point of having a social network in the first place is that the people you choose to follow are the algorithm. Flawed, perhaps, but human, and therefore somehow wonderfully unpredictable.

Encouraging more engagement from new users makes perfect sense for Twitter as a company, and particularly a public one, which has to justify its market value to investors. But the changes that are required in order to do that may not make sense for many of the network’s long-time or power users — and that’s a dilemma the company is going to have to confront sooner rather than later.

So Facebook controls the way millions of people get their news. What should we do about it?

The New York Times seems to have finally awoken to the idea that Facebook exerts a growing amount of control over how millions of people get their news, and that it would very much like to increase that control as much as possible — in order to serve the best interests of its users, of course. This is something that I have been writing about for some time now, and it is not going away. If anything, the pressure on media companies to play ball with Facebook is only growing more intense.

As David Carr and Ravi Somaya note in their pieces, the structure of the media business has changed dramatically thanks to the rise of the social web — of which Facebook is by far the largest part. Where media companies used to control the distribution of their content because they owned the printing presses and the trucks, now entities like Facebook control who sees what and when.

In classic internet fashion, this is both a good thing and a bad thing simultaneously: on the one hand, it allows news and other content to reach a far larger audience than it ever would have otherwise, and that’s arguably a positive thing not just for news companies but for society as a whole.

The algorithm is the editor now

The downsides of Facebook’s dominance, however, are legion — including the vacuum that the giant social network has created when it comes to internet advertising, which has sucked a lot of the oxygen out of both the traditional and the online media industry. In addition, the desire to surf the massive wave of attention that Facebook has at its command has arguably led to a rise in clickbait-style content, and in a broader sense has compelled news companies to try and conform to Facebook’s idea of what good or shareable content is.

In comments to the Times, a News Feed engineer says that Facebook doesn’t want to be an editor, it just wants to show people what they are interested in, based on their behavior on the site and their social connections. And technically, this is true. But as Jay Rosen points out in a blog post on the issue, the Facebook algorithm is still an incredibly powerful editorial force, whether Facebook wants to admit it or not. And we don’t know anything about how it operates or why — like Google’s search algorithm, it is essentially a black box.

Because of the role that Facebook plays in people’s lives, the functioning of that algorithm is very much a public policy issue and a media literacy problem — as sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has argued in a piece she wrote for Medium. As I argued in a similar piece, the social network’s influence (or lack of influence) around the events in Ferguson, Mo. earlier this year raises some important questions about the way that algorithms are shaping our world view.

You will be assimilated

David Carr compares Facebook to a large dog, but a better comparison might be the Borg, the race of cyborgs that constantly strove to assimilate human beings in Star Trek. The social network doesn’t want to get rid of people, it just sees them as sources of input that can be aggregated in a much more efficient way — and it doesn’t want to hurt media companies, it just sees them as content producers whose output can fuel its engagement engines.

To that end, the site would very much like publishers to submit their content directly to Facebook, so that it lives inside the network rather than just being a link to external content. This would be the equivalent of suicide for most traditional media entities, since it would effectively hand control over not just the content but the monetization of that content to Facebook. As Carr puts it, media companies “would essentially be serfs in a kingdom that Facebook owns.”

There will almost certainly be companies that take Facebook up on this offer, despite the seemingly unbalanced nature of the deal, just as there were media companies that created “social reading” apps in 2012 that allowed readers to consume content without ever leaving Facebook. That idea ended badly when Facebook changed the way it ranks content and killed those apps in their sleep.

Offer readers the things Facebook can’t

So if Facebook exerts this overwhelming control over how people find and consume and engage with news, what are media companies supposed to do about it? They can’t just ignore the company outright, because that would spell certain doom. Social is the new search, especially when it comes to mobile, and creating great content is useless unless there is some way to ensure that people see it.

For me, the only possible route to survival (notice I didn’t use the word prosperity or success, just survival) is to play in Facebook’s sandbox, but to give up as little as possible — and at the same time, to spend as much or more effort on figuring out how to make your content as engaging and social as it can be on your own terms. Give readers the ability to do things that Facebook can’t or won’t: the ability to interact with you, to be part of the process. That’s why I am such a big believer in media getting to know its audience as intimately as possible.

Marc Andreessen has said that one of the over-riding themes of the current era in technology is that software is eating everything, and that is true. But when it comes to the media, social is eating everything — every form of media and content is becoming social or interactive, whether it wants to be or not, and Facebook’s dominance is a sign of that phenomenon accelerating.

What that means is figuring out how you can benefit from how media works in what Om has called the age of “democratized distribution.” Posting your content and comments on Facebook is only one way, and it may not be the best way, especially in terms of your long-term survival. Explore other options — whether it’s Pinterest or Snapchat or Tumblr. If you hand all of your content and relationships over to Facebook and assume that your work is done, then you have already lost.

How did GamerGate become a lightning rod for violence — and is social media helping or making it worse?

Every now and then, the roiling sea of bitterness and even outright malevolence that lurks in the dark corners of the internet gets forced out into the open, and the latest example of this phenomenon is GamerGate. It’s a term that has developed multiple meanings, depending on who is using it, but in general it refers to a wave of controversy that has swept through the game industry, and resulted in a campaign of harassment aimed at female journalists, gamers and developers.

This campaign — which independent video-game developer Zoe Quinn alleges has been orchestrated by a group of misogynists within the 4chan community, using a series of sock-puppet accounts and some online sleight-of-hand — has resulted in a number public threats of violence and even death being made towards several female participants.

Among those who have been threatened are feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, who was recently forced to cancel a speech at Utah State after the school received warning of a mass shooting, and university officials couldn’t guarantee that no guns would be present (due to the state’s “open carry” laws). Game developer Brianna Wu was also driven from her home in Boston, Mass. last week after she was threatened with violence.

So how did we get here?

In many ways, #GamerGate (a tag that appears to have been coined by actor and gamer Adam Baldwin) is just the most recent example of an ongoing tension between fans and game reviewers in the largely male-dominated video-game industry — which has grown over the past couple of decades to the point where it rivals the motion-picture industry in terms of revenue and influence — and critics (some of whom are female) who argue that many video games are demeaning towards women, if not blatantly misogynistic.

Video game sexism

The most recent flare-up of this tension occurred several months ago, after Quinn broke up with her boyfriend, a programmer named Eron Gjoni — who subsequently posted a variety of personal information about Quinn, including allegations that she had slept with a writer for Gawker Media’s gaming site Kotaku.

This triggered an outpouring of abuse against her on a number of sites including Twitter, YouTube, Reddit and 4chan. As with other examples of the GamerGate phenomenon, accusations about infidelity were mixed in with criticisms of the potential journalistic conflict of interest that stemmed from her alleged relationship with the Kotaku writer, as well as anger over the intrusion of feminist principles into the world of gaming (Quinn wrote a piece for Cracked about the effect that this had on her personal life).

As sociologist Jennifer Allaway described in a recent post at Jezebel, the way that GamerGate has developed is similar in many ways to the formation of any other hate group, including an orchestrated campaign designed to unite true believers around the idea that they are under attack by a more powerful group.

Ethical conflicts and sexism

The theme of ethical conflicts in the game-reviewing industry got some more fuel when the existence of a private email list called GameJournoPros was revealed — a mailing list where game journalists and in some cases game developers and others who work in the industry could discuss various topics. Although many argued this was harmless, it was seen by some as evidence of collusion and a concerted attack on hard-core and/or male gamers as a group.

At about the same time that Quinn’s harassment was reaching a fever pitch, Sarkeesian released a new episode of the YouTube video show she hosts, called Feminist Frequency. Her coverage of the sexism inherent in the video-game business has led to harassment of her in the past — including death threats, and the release of a video game called Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian in 2012, after she criticized the industry for its attitudes. The video she released during the Quinn uproar seemed to fan the flames even further.

I’m safe. I will continue my work. I will continue speaking out. The whole game industry must stand up against the harassment of women.

— Feminist Frequency (@femfreq) October 15, 2014

But the main conflict within gaming culture, of which GamerGate is a subset, is between a traditional view of what a video game should be — one with male heroes, villains, damsels in distress, shooting, science-fiction or fantasy-inspired plots and so on — and new kinds of games, including Quinn’s Depression Quest (which allows the player to experience what depression feels like) or Gone Home, an interactive mystery story about a young woman who finds love with a lesbian partner.

A war of hashtags and GIFs

In many ways, GamerGate is also just the latest example of a much broader culture clash at work: namely, a clash between the sub-culture of the internet — as represented by sites like 4chan — and the mainstream of society, to which members of the sub-culture see themselves as fundamentally opposed. This attitude is behind incidents like 4chan’s tormenting of Jesse Slaughter and the recent release of nude photos of celebrities, things that are often done just for what 4chan devotees call “the lulz.”

Members of these groups may be small in number — as Deadspin notes, the GamerGate forum on Reddit only has about 10,000 members — but many have a lot of time on their hands, and are well versed in social-warfare tactics, including the use of hashtags, dummy or sock-puppet accounts, email campaigns and so on.

Quinn has collected evidence of the orchestration of some of the attacks against her and Sarkeesian — and in some cases GamerGaters appear to have attacked other defenders of video-game culture (through fake accounts) for being gay or people of color, in order to create a kind of “false flag” operation, with the intention of demonstrating both how hypocritical GamerGate critics are for attacking the industry and how broad-minded gamers are.


GamerGate also seems to have gained some steam, and some prominent support, from elements of the conservative political movement in the U.S. (including Adam Baldwin) who argue that the problems stem from the efforts of “social justice warriors” on the left, who want to destroy the rights of freedom-loving gamers. In that sense, it shares some DNA with the Tea Party or “birther” movements.

The social-media maelstrom

Like many other issues that have gotten derailed once they became a Twitter hashtag, the GamerGate phenomenon has arguably generated a lot more heat on social media and very little light: as someone once said, 140 character messages are good for bumper-sticker style pronouncements, but not terribly good for discussions of complex topics like the role of sexism in mainstream video game development.

Is every debate over such issues destined to turn into another Tea Party-style pit of vipers, as Kyle Wagner argues in his Deadspin piece? Is there something about the anonymity of online behavior that encourages violence, or at least makes the repercussions of violent statements seem less severe?

One thing is becoming clear: For every positive use of social media campaigns, such as the recent #YesAllWomen movement against sexual abuse, there is a GamerGate just waiting around the next bend. And once it has exploded in every direction, it’s very difficult (perhaps even impossible) to put all of that rage back in the bottle. It’s not so much about the technical flaws in social platforms as it is about human nature — and that’s not easily fixed.

Here’s a list of some of the news articles, blog posts, Storify collections and other pieces I came across that I think are worth reading about GamerGate — if you have any to add, feel free to leave them in a comment:

The Future Of The Culture Wars Is Here, And It’s Gamergate — Deadspin
#Gamergate Trolls Aren’t Ethics Crusaders; They’re a Hate Group — Jezebel
What’s Happening In Gamergate — The Verge
5 Things I Learned as the Internet’s Most Hated Person — Cracked
Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest — New Yorker
In Defense of Gamers — Jacobin
What Is Gamergate, and Why Is Intel So Afraid of It? — Re/code
The only guide to Gamergate you will ever need to read — Washington Post
Why nerd culture must die — Pete Warden
#GamerGate: Here’s why everybody in the video game world is fighting — Vox

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Thinkstock / Boarding1Now, as well as Flickr user Anna Fischer and Thinkstock / Ten03

Journalism’s biggest competitors are things that don’t even look like journalism

Ever since the web was invented, newspapers and other media entities have had to continually expand their view of who their competition is: in the good old days it was other newspapers, and then TV, and then after the web it became other news websites, or maybe [company]Yahoo[/company] or [company]Google[/company]. But even now, their perspective on that competition may still be too narrow — as my friend Om has argued, they are competing with anything that captures a reader’s attention. And I would argue that they are competing with any service that fills an information need.

I started thinking about this again earlier this week, when a link to an old blog post by journalist/programmer Stijn Debrouwere showed up in my Twitter stream, posted and retweeted by multiple people. I couldn’t track down exactly where it came from, but I’m glad it appeared, because it reminded me of how much sense it made in 2012 when it was first published — and how much sense it continues to make.

Debrouwere’s essay is simply called “Fungible.” Fungibility is an economic term that is used to describe products or services that are interchangeable; in other words, if consumers don’t really care whether they get Product A or Product B, then those two things are said to be “fungible.”

Journalism is being replaced

What the web is doing to journalism, Debrouwere argues, is taking the things it used to consider its bread and butter and making them fungible in ways they never were before. That hasn’t just changed the business model for news or media companies, it has changed the expectations of their audience in some fundamental ways, ways that go beyond whether someone reads a news story on the web or in print.

I’m not talking about digital first or about blogging or about data journalism or the mobile web or the curation craze. Yes, journalism has evolved and is better for it. I’m talking beyond that. I’m not even talking about the fact that everyone is a potential publisher now… beyond even that. I think journalism is being replaced.

The examples are legion: as Debrouwere notes, many people used to find new music by reading reviews or coverage in a newspaper or magazine, and did the same thing for movies and TV shows — but now they get access to all the music and movies and TV shows they could want, and all the commentary surrounding them, via services like Spotify or Netflix, or websites like IMDB and [company]Amazon[/company]. So what purpose does the local newspaper or newsmagazine serve?

social media generic

If you want to read an expert’s take on a variety of different topics, or listen in on an interview with a celebrity like President Barack Obama, you don’t have to wait for a newspaper or magazine or TV network to interview that person — you can find something similar, and possibly even better, in the crowdsourced interviews that appear on sites like Quora and Reddit.

If you want to read about real estate, you can find dedicated blog networks or sites like Curbed, and the same goes for sports: many people are turning away from their baseball or hockey columnists and newspaper coverage to visit crowd-powered sites like SB Nation or Bleacher Report. And then there are media sites created by commercial entities, such as the editorial operation ticket seller Stubhub said it is launching this week — or the example Debrouwere uses, a video-blogging site launched by an electronics chain called SparkFun. As he puts it:

Curbed is a superb real-estate website. Is Curbed journalism because they started out with news and added a marketplace later? Conversely is SparkFun not journalism because they started out selling components and their video blogs came later? When does a blog or podcast or newsletter stop being content marketing and start being journalism with an innovative business model?

Your competition is everywhere

On a local level, a whole series of websites and services from LocalWiki or Everyblock to Pinwheel are providing people with information about their neighborhoods, Debrouwere points out. And many people are duplicating what they used to get from their newspaper by using Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other platforms. As he puts it, those services may not replace a good local newspaper, “but they offer a combo that is increasingly becoming good enough.”


This is an important point: if you’re a media company, your competition isn’t the product or service that is better than you — and it’s certainly not the one that you think is doing journalism — it’s the one that is good enough for your readers or users. In other words, if it provides a service or information that is useful or valuable to them, that is all that matters, not whether it fits the objective definition of something called “journalism.”

I think this is also what Jeff Jarvis means when he talks about journalism as a service, and it’s what I was trying to get at when I wrote about companies like BuzzFeed and Gawker and Quartz and how they see news as a service: they don’t seem to worry much about whether it’s journalism or not, they are more concerned with whether they are serving readers.

What can you do to survive if you are a traditional media entity? You can adapt, obviously, but you can also do a number of other things, Debrouwere says: focus on storytelling and personality, because those things are irreplaceable, and concentrate on appealing to readers who are passionate about a specific topics. Just don’t think that the only things you’re competing with are other journalistic outlets.

Notice that I didn’t mention digital-first or social data crowdjournalism or anything like that? Wonder why? Because the entire point is that journalism is not being disrupted by better journalism but by things that are hardly recognizable as journalism at all. Stepping up your game is always a good idea, but it won’t save you.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen and Shutterstock / Twin Design and Thinkstock / Surkov Dmitri

A tip for media companies: Facebook isn’t your enemy, but it’s not your friend either

There’s been a lot of discussion in the media-sphere lately about the risks and rewards of Facebook for media companies and publishers of all kinds — a debate that was reignited at the recent Online News Association conference, where former New York Times social-media editor Liz Heron was put on the hot seat about Facebook’s impenetrable algorithm and its effect on the news business. It was simultaneously an admission of the network’s immense power and a revolt against the fundamental inscrutability of that power.

Frustration with that reality has been building for some time now, as media organizations have come to realize that social is the new search — and so they are now just as beholden to [company]Twitter[/company] and [company]Facebook[/company] as they once were to [company]Google[/company], and the new bosses are just as opaque as the old one.

You can see that frustration when people like NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen start trying to game the algorithm by pretending that it’s a personal update instead of a blog post, using words like “congratulations,” etc. Or when Facebook product manager Mike Hudack writes about how the news business has turned to crap, and is quickly besieged by media types who claim his company is to blame.

Media companies have lost control

Liz Heron told the ONA that trying to game the algorithm doesn’t work, and that the only real secret to getting lots of interaction from Facebook for your content is to create and post great content (this was always Google’s argument as well). But what is great content? That’s the existential problem media companies are wrestling with: is it clickbait that drives people to share, or is it in-depth analysis of important topics? And how do we know when we are succeeding?

Part of what makes Facebook hard to figure out as a platform for news or content of any kind is that it’s a moving target. John Herrman at The Awl looked at the top publishers on Facebook as ranked by Newswhip, which tracks the most-shared content, and — depending on how you look at the future of online media — the results were more than a little depressing.

Newswhip Facebook ranking

While BuzzFeed and its viral content have been seen for some time as the king of Facebook sharing, Newswhip results show that it has been eclipsed by a BuzzFeed clone called PlayBuzz, a site founded by the son of the former Israeli prime minister that relies heavily on user-generated content, and especially quizzes. In a recent month, according to The Awl post, nine out of the top 10 most-shared posts consisted of either quizzes or fake news reports. As Herrman put it:

What can Publishers Learn From This? A literal interpretation: SUBLIMATE YOUR IDENTITY ENTIRELY, EVERY MONTH, because nothing else works, and the next PlayBuzz or Viral Nova could appear tomorrow and just totally house you out of nowhere.

In a post responding to some of the fears expressed at the ONA meeting and elsewhere about Facebook’s control, David Higgerson — digital publishing director at Trinity Mirror in the UK — wrote a post arguing that media companies need to “get over their fear” of the social network and figure out how to use it to broaden their reach and engage with new audiences in new ways. “Our job as journalists is to be part of that community and give people the content they want,” he said.

It’s not your friend, it’s just a tool

Higgerson is right, of course. If you believe in the principle that former Reuters blogger Felix Salmon and his new boss at Fusion, Margarita Noriega, have described as “promiscuous media” — the idea that content, including journalism, needs to be created and distributed through multiple platforms if it is to be effective — then ignoring Facebook is unwise, and possibly fatal.

News Corp. executive Raju Narisetti made a good point in a response to Higgerson’s argument, however, which is that by giving content to Facebook you are ultimately helping Facebook as much or more than you are helping yourself. How much value are they getting out of that relationship and how much of that is value that you could or should be capturing yourself?

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The bottom line is that Facebook is a corporation that ultimately has its own interests at heart, not those of the media industry or the journalistic community. To the extent that news organizations generate content that improves engagement on Facebook or generates data, then it will promote that content. If that stops working, then it will down-rank that content without a moment’s hesitation.

There’s no better example of the dual nature of Facebook than the “social reader” experiments of 2012, when newspapers like The Guardian and the Washington Post created Facebook apps that allowed users to read their news on the site. At first, those apps generated huge increases in traffic — until Facebook changed its mind about promoting them, at which point they fell off the edge of the earth.

Facebook may be cozying up to journalists and news organizations, because it sees their content as having value in attracting and keeping readers, but that is its only purpose. And anyone doing business with the network should keep that in mind at all times, just as the frog should have kept the scorpion’s true nature in mind in the old fable. Ultimately, it is a tool — one that can cut both ways.

For better or worse, Twitter and Facebook are the guardians of free speech now

One of the most famous free-speech cases in U.S. history, the one that allowed publishers to live without fear of being bankrupted by a libel or defamation suit, involved a newspaper — namely the New York Times, which was sued in 1964 by an Alabama legislator named Sullivan. But any protection free speech gets in the future is more likely to come from [company]Twitter[/company], [company]Facebook[/company] and [company]Google[/company] than it is from the Times, according to a recent essay in the Harvard Law Review.

Marvin Ammori, an American lawyer who specializes in net neutrality law, wrote about where free speech legislation stands now in the June issue of the magazine, and made the case that social platforms are far more important than the New York Times is now — and in fact are probably more important than the paper was even at the time of its landmark case.

In the next decade, if the Supreme Court hands down a landmark decision about freedom of expression, it is more likely that one of the parties in the case will be Google or Twitter than that it will be the New York Times. Traditional media organizations are no longer the only place to find news or make political arguments.

How strong is their commitment?

The rise of social media, Ammori argues, has created a world where freedom of the press “means freedom not just for an institutional press, but freedom for all of us.” Those platforms have created what Harvard’s Yochai Benkler — who testified in the case against document-leaker Chelsea Manning — has called “the networked fourth estate” or the networked public sphere, one that allows journalistic speech to occur anywhere, at any time.

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In terms of their reach, platforms like YouTube and Facebook and even Twitter dwarf the New York Times, Ammori argues — YouTube alone gets as many unique visitors in a day as the New York Times gets in a month. This says nothing about the quality of the content they are consuming, of course, but Ammori’s point is that when Google makes decisions about whether to take down a video like The Innocence of Muslims, it has far-reaching implications.

But are these new stewards of free speech as committed to that principle as the Times and its ilk were? My colleague Jeff Roberts raised that question in a recent post, and some of the legal experts he spoke to weren’t sure of the answer. But Ammori argues that for Twitter and Google at least, a commitment to those ideals is baked into their DNA.

Twitter’s Lee speaks about his company’s founders as one would speak of intrepid newspaper owners: ‘Our legal team’s conceptualization of speech policies and practices emanate[s] straight from the idealism of our founders — that this would be a platform for free expression, a way for people to disseminate their ideas in the modern age. We’re here in some sense to implement that vision.’

Trying to protect free speech globally

Each of the major platforms has been tested in various ways, Ammori notes, from Google’s attempts to resist censorship in China several years ago to Twitter’s struggles with the laws of other countries in which it operates — including France’s desire to prosecute anti-Semitism and homophobia and other forms of hate speech, and the crackdown on free speech in places like Turkey and Ukraine.

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In fact, one of the biggest differences between the current free-speech landscape and the one that existed for the New York Times in 1964, Ammori says, is the fact that companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook are having to try and blend U.S. free-speech principles with laws in other countries. That has driven Twitter, for example, to implement a kind of localized censorship where tweets can be hidden from users inside a specific country.

Strictly speaking, of course, the lawyers who litigated Sullivan also faced such a world. But they did not need to be constantly aware of it. In 1964, the New York Times barely operated in Alabama, with only a few hundred subscribers. Today, fewer than half of leading tech companies’ users are within the United States. Their users come from dozens of countries and regions, each with different national and subnational laws, with different cultures, histories, and local community standards.

One thing that Ammori mentions in his essay but doesn’t really flesh out is how much the companies he talks about — including Tumblr, WordPress and others — make decisions based on their own interests, and in effect restrict speech far more than they are required to by law. Facebook in particular routinely removes content that the site has decided might offend its users or advertisers, and it rarely says how it arrived at that decision.

Free speech has been privatized

This isn’t just an academic issue — removing that content, as Facebook has done with images related to the war in Syria, can have very real effects on what we as a society know about important issues, as the investigative blogger Brown Moses has pointed out. Even the algorithmic filtering that Facebook does can have a real impact on what we know about certain events, as sociologist Zeynep Tufekci argued in the wake of the riots in Ferguson. Said Ammori:

Companies generally forbid sharing speech that is illegal and unprotected (such as defamatory comments or copyright-infringing videos), but they also prohibit some content that would be fully protected under the First Amendment. For example, Facebook’s terms state: ‘You will not post content that: is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.’ The First Amendment would protect, with limited exceptions, all this content.

As free-speech advocates like Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation have pointed out a number of times, the current structure of the social web means that we have essentially given our free-speech rights to a collection of private corporations, who are not bound by the First Amendment. Their commitment to freedom may or may not be sincere, but in the end we get the version of freedom that they choose to provide — and can justify to their shareholders.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Aaron Amat and Pond5/ Cienpies

Kayaking the Rouge River and Toronto’s harbour and islands: A photo essay

I got a kayak for my 50th birthday a couple of years ago — a red, 14-foot Perception Carolina, in case you’re interested in the specifics, with two dry wells — and I’ve been paddling a lot around our cottage north of Toronto, but I hadn’t brought it down to the city before until this fall. I thought I would bring it and see if there was enough to do with it to make it worthwhile, especially since we live near where the Rouge River feeds into Lake Ontario.

I’ve biked down the lake-front trail near our house to the mouth of the Rouge many times, and across the bridge into Pickering and along the bluffs out to Frenchman’s Bay, and I would often see kayaks and canoes coming down the river, and wonder where they had been. So one day I strapped the kayak to our old car and headed over to the Rouge.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and I paddled around the marshes at the mouth of the river for a bit and saw some swans and Canada geese, some blue herons and some white egrets, and then I headed up-river. Unfortunately, I had chosen to go just a couple of days after a big rainstorm, and the river was running quite hard — I was fighting the current the whole way, and after about 45 minutes of hard paddling I could go no further. The ride back to the mouth of the river took me about 15 minutes.


The next time I went, it hadn’t rained for a week or so, and the river was about three feet lower at least — I could see the muddy water-line on the trees and bushes along the bank. Since I didn’t know how fast it would be going, I decided to put the kayak in at Glen Rouge campground, which is just north of Highway 401, off Kingston Road.

I carried it down to the water and dropped it in, and it was an easy paddle of 30 minutes or so down to the mouth of the river — so easy that after I got there, I decided to paddle all the way back up again. I saw more herons and egrets, and even saw a deer at one point in the woods. The most amazing part was that as soon as I got out of sight of the highway, I felt like I was out in the woods in the middle of nowhere. The banks of the ravine were so high I only saw one or two houses.

At one point, I saw a ruined old chimney and fireplace standing right near the bank, made of fieldstone and probably close to a hundred years old — whatever building it used to heat was large and two stories at least. I read that around the turn of the century, someone had tried to sell lots near the river to wealthy settlers, but didn’t sell many and eventually the land was taken over by the province.


Next to the chimney there was a sort of structure made of sticks tied together at the corners, with industrial-size plastic wrapping for walls and a ceiling. I got out to take a look, since the owner didn’t seem to be around, and inside was a cot and some boxes. Outside was a pot hanging from a tripod of sticks over a fire — and hanging from a wire near the chimney (which was tied to the structure) was a small crossbow. Obviously someone was living there, but I left before they returned.

I’ve been back a few times since, and the river is such a peaceful spot. And once when it was calm, I paddled out into Lake Ontario itself and followed the shore all the way out to Frenchman’s Bay and back again.

Since the weather was so beautiful in September, a friend who kayaks with a group out of Harbourfront in downtown Toronto asked me if I wanted to come for a sunset paddle with some of the group — and of course I said yes. We took the boats out into the harbour and across to the Toronto Islands, which I hadn’t been to since I was in my 20s. We paddled into the inland waterway that runs through and around the islands (there are about a dozen of them) and then back across the harbour just as the sun was setting.


It was such a great trip that when my friend asked me if I wanted to go for a longer paddle the next day, I said of course. I showed up at 10 a.m. and we left in a group of 15 or so, and paddled west along the shore through the Western Gap near the island airport, then turned north and paddled into the old Ontario Place grounds, and followed the waterway in and around some of the old buildings like the Cinesphere (where they used to show the first IMAX movies) and back out to the harbour.

After paddling back into the harbour, we went across to Ward’s Island, one of the largest of the islands, and pulled our boats up on the beach and headed inland to a small cafe there for a sandwich and some coffee. It was a beautiful spot — and then it was back into the boats and out around the eastern end of the island.


We paddled up the entire length of the Leslie Spit — a man-made promontory that sticks out into the lake near the end of the Don Valley Parkway — and turned around when we got to the lighthouse at the end. Everyone with a sailboat or any other kind of boat seemed to be out on the lake, which isn’t surprising since the weather was so gorgeous.

Then we came back down the side of the island and into the inland waterway again, and paddled in and around all of the islands, watching people sitting on their sailboats at the marina, or walking and biking around the laneways on the island. After seeing some swans near the island amusement park, we paddled back out the mouth of the inland waterway and across the harbour back to the boat-rental place. We were out for almost seven hours, and probably paddled about 25 kilometres or so.

All in all, it was a pretty amazing September for kayaking, and I’m glad I brought my boat down to the city — I’ve seen far more of Toronto’s rivers and lakes and islands than I ever knew existed.


Update: Years after I originally wrote this, I did a bit more research and found out where the chimney I saw came from, and also why the mouth of the Rouge River has so many little channels and dead-ends to it, unlike most river mouths. As Larry Noonan described in this piece, it turns out that an eccentric entrepreneur named Cecil White had a dream around the turn of the century that he called “Venice of the North,” which involved creating a paradise of beaches and estate homes along the Rouge River, complete with a Venice-style canal system and a small artificial lake.

White bought 700 acres or so, hired architects and started work, and he financed the project by building and selling homes along the river. At one point, according to a number of reports, there was a hotel on the side of the river called the Cowan Hotel, and the chimney is all that remains of it. White excavated the start of some canals and channels at the mouth of the river, and then came the stock market crash and the Great Depression, and the project stopped. He eventually raised some money and started it up again, but then the Second World War put a stop to development.

White got one more try when Highway 401 was built, which increased demand for homes near the Rouge River, but then he passed away. His wife continued the project, until Hurricane Hazel hit in 1954, and water levels in the valley rose so high they swept parts of the buildings and plenty of other material downstream, where it piled up against the bridge across the mouth of the Rouge. Eventually the bridge collapsed and all of construction materials and White’s dreams of a Venice of the North were swept out into Lake Ontario. The land near the river was expropriated by the province so that no one else could build there and now it’s part of Rouge Valley park.

I’m fascinated by Ello because it reminds me of when the social web was still new

Warning: This post may contain statements that sound like an old person lecturing younger readers about how things were better back in the day. I’d like to apologize for that in advance.

Unless you’ve been holed up in a bunker somewhere, you’ve probably heard about Ello, the new social network/platform/website that launched recently and has swept through the social web like a whirlwind. You may even have read one of the dozens of blog posts and news articles about it, including some criticizing its founders for taking venture capital investment after posting a manifesto about the need for freedom, and some that seem to see it as just the latest flash-in-the-pan.

Some or even all of those views may be true. For what it’s worth, the founders of the site — Paul Budnitz and Todd Berger — have told my colleague Carmel DeAmicis and others that pressure to monetize Ello won’t be a problem, despite having raised almost half a million dollars from venture investors, something that blogger Andy Baio of Waxy.org was the first to notice.

A few of the site’s venture backers have also given interviews in which they say they are long-term investors who are primarily interested in the health of the site and building a useful service, not in cashing out as quickly as possible. So perhaps there is a chance that Ello won’t become over-run with banner ads or sponsored posts (the founders say they plan to use a freemium model).

It’s not you, Facebook, it’s me

Business models aside, I’ve been kind of fascinated by Ello since it launched, in part because it seemed to attract a substantial group of users in my social network over a very short space of time — much more so than other networks like App.net, a previous attempt at replacing Twitter with a more open platform. Why is that? I think my friend Om put his finger on it when he said that this frenzy of interest says more about people’s dissatisfaction with the current networks than it does about Ello.

The obsessive coverage of Ello is less about Ello. Instead it really is about our growing dissatisfaction with the state of social networks.

That seems even more likely to be the case because Ello is so difficult to use, and so frustratingly designed: for a site that was founded by artists and designers, and one that seems to have appealed to many early tech adopters and developers, it can be annoying in dozens of small ways. The search function doesn’t really work, you can’t find comment threads very easily — even ones you have participated in — and it periodically just refuses to do something no matter how hard you try.

So why on earth would anyone want to use this new thing? The easy answer is that it’s new, but I think it also fills a kind of yawning void in some users — a void that has been created by a number of factors, including the corporatization not just of Facebook and Twitter but the entire social web. The tools we used to love for their freedom seem more and more constrained — and not designed for us, but for advertisers.

A chance to start over again

As I said when Ello first arrived, I kind of like the fact that it’s hard to use and doesn’t really work properly most of the time, and is filled with a lot of weirdos and cranks. It reminds me of when blogs were new — before they became giant media entities that had to toe the bottom line — or when Twitter had just launched and didn’t work most of the time, and the only people who used it were geeks and nerds.


I remember something that Microsoft researcher danah boyd said when Chatroulette first came out, and people were complaining about how it seemed to be just random people displaying their genitals to strangers — which was undoubtedly true. But boyd said that despite all that, she kind of liked it because it was so anarchic and weird, and reminded her of when the whole web was that way.

I feel the same about Twitter and Facebook — although Facebook has always been a much more tightly-controlled experience, even before it started selling ads and Mark Zuckerberg became a billionaire. But Twitter seems so grown up now, partnering with TV networks and showing you content you may not even want, that it just doesn’t seem the same.

One of the fascinating things about Twitter when it was new was that literally no one had any clue what it was, or what it was good for (if anything) or what it would become, and that includes the founders of the company, as my friend Nick Bilton has chronicled in his book Hatching Twitter. And out of that chaos came something amazing, something that succeeded almost in spite of itself.

New things make us question assumptions

That’s the kind of feeling I get from Ello: not so much that it shows signs of being something hugely successful, but that it’s such a raw, experimental network at this point that it could become anything — or nothing. And that’s interesting. It makes it hard to use, but there’s a sense of freedom and possibility as well.

Dorsey Twitter sketch

Clay Shirky, a media theorist and cultural anthropologist, has written about how Ello seems to be trying to find a happy medium between a social network focused mostly on conversation and one focused mostly on blog-style writing. And sociologist Nathan Jurgenson has said one of the most interesting things about Ello is the features that aren’t there, such as “likes” (which the founders have said they excluded deliberately).

As Jurgenson suggested in one of his posts, one of the good things about having a brand new network with new features and new requirements — especially one where you can’t just connect with Twitter and duplicate your existing social graph — is that you have to start from scratch. And maybe by doing so, you reconsider some of the decisions you made on other networks, whether it’s who to follow, or what you choose to share, or even how to behave.

I love these moments of new social media when conversation explodes, moved to imagine how social media can be different, questioning core assumptions instead of just fretting and complaining -all before this paint even dries. That complaining is important, and we’ve done some righteous complaining about Ello already, but I’m embracing this brief, and especially pronounced, moment of imagination.

Will Ello still exist or be useful to large numbers of people a year or two from now? Who knows. I certainly don’t; I thought Twitter would disappear in a matter of months, and look where it is now. But new things like Ello are interesting — if only because they force us to think about how the social web works, and provide a tantalizing glimpse of what might be possible if they worked differently.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Amenic181 and Flickr / Jack Dorsey

Three things traditional media could learn from a crowdfunded Dutch news site

Just over a year ago, a Dutch news site called De Correspondent made a fairly spectacular debut — raising more than $1.7 million from about 20,000 people, in what is still one of the world’s most successful journalistic crowdfunding efforts. And how is the site doing now? As it turns out, it is not only doing well financially but along the way it has learned a number of important lessons that other media outlets, both traditional and digital, could stand to learn from.

De Correspondent co-founder Ernst-Jan Pfauth — a former digital journalist with Dutch media entity NRC — recently published an update on Medium about the site’s progress, and said it has been able to convert over half of its initial supporters into regular subscribers. That means it now has almost 30,000 paying customers who contribute $76 a year, or about $2 million.

That’s a fairly amazing amount, considering De Correspondent is a brand new entity — and it’s even more incredible when you consider that the Netherlands only has a population of about 17 million, meaning De Correspondent has attracted a relatively large proportion of the potential audience for digital news in that country.

De Correspondent

As I noted when I first wrote about it, the site had a head start in the sense that Pfauth and his co-founder Rob Wijnberg were both widely-known journalists for a popular media outlet, and they also got a lot of TV coverage when they made their crowdfunding appeal. But still, raising $2 million is a notable achievement.

But more than just raising money, De Correspondent has also tried hard to rethink how the news and journalism business works, and how the relationship of a media entity with its readers needs to change, and that’s a big part of what makes it different, as Pfauth describes in his Medium post. Among the key differences are:

Telling readers where the money goes: This is something that succcessful crowdfunding projects often do, but it’s rare for media companies — De Correspondent didn’t just say thank you for the money they raised, they wrote detailed reports for their readers on where the funding was being used and why. It’s a smart way of helping to build trust with your audience, which in turn makes them feel better about contributing.


Talking about your mistakes: The site has freely discussed what it is not doing well, and how it needs to improve — for example, Pfauth has written about how even though the news outlet is digital only and is trying to break the newspaper mold, it still falls into the habit of publishing stories on a predictable schedule instead of figuring out what readers need and giving it to them at a time and in a way that makes sense for them, not for the site or its traditional publishing schedule.

Pfauth and some of the site’s editors and writers also pledged to become more diverse in the types of stories they cover, and more diverse in terms of the people they get to cover those stories — and to broaden the methods they use for storytelling, instead of lapsing back into the tried-and-true newspaper model.

This kind of soul-searching is not common in traditional media, needless to say. It certainly didn’t emerge from the New York Times when that paper announced it was shutting down its NYT Opinion app and laying off 100 editorial staff, nor did any of that play a role in the paper’s internal innovation report.

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Treating your readers like partners: Apart from its openness about finances, or its willingness to admit its mistakes, one of the most compelling things that De Correspondent has done — and in fact the reason why it is committed to those other two things — is to connect readers directly to the writers who work for the site, in as many ways as possible. This is exactly the kind of thing I tried to describe in a post about the NYT’s mobile woes. As Pfauth puts it:

At De Correspondent, we believe that journalists should work together with readers, since every reader is an expert at something. And 3,000 teachers know more than just one education correspondent. That’s why we see our journalists as conversation leaders and our members as contributing experts.

Notice the language: De Correspondent doesn’t have readers or users, it has members. And it doesn’t have comments, it has conversations — ones its journalists are expected to take part in and lead — and it doesn’t have commenters, it has contributing experts. All of those things make a powerful statement about how De Correspondent sees the relationship between its journalism and the people it serves, namely the people formerly known as the audience. Words to live by.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr / Christian Scholz