Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist

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26 March 2015

Two recent pieces of news made me think about the issue of timing of news consumed online. Most obviously, online publication pushes journalists to publish ever-faster, but the ability to archive everything means there is also a place for “evergreen” features and explainers. Once done, as long as they are revisited from time to time to ensure they are still relevant, they can continue to draw people to your writing via search, and as a journalism educator I have long encouraged my students to produce and value such pieces.

Shirley Li points out in the Atlantic that even quite old pieces of ‘news’ can end up being recirculated as if they were new. Her concern is that people sometimes don’t realize that online news recirculated this way is outdated (because timestamps on stories can often be hard to find) but this also suggests once again that older news stories/features can also have continued value.

Alarmingly, however, it seems that online advertisers (at least in one case) place very little value on readers’ attention if it was drawn by old material. According to Jim Romenesko, journalists for Forbes magazine (who are paid per click) will be paid only a quarter as much as before for visits to pages that are more than 90 days old. According to a memo passed to Romanesko, “advertisers are increasingly buying premium ads for new content, not old”.

It is unclear why advertisers would necessarily prefer a view of a new story to a view of a similarly interesting and accurate but older story. However if this were part of a larger trend, what would be the implications? Will this encourage editors to superficially refresh even “evergreen” stories to make them “new” for advertisers? (Keeping a closer editorial eye on older stories might be no bad thing). Might this mean that rather than updating old stories, they are deleted or unlinked and new stories based on the old ones will be written (which among other things would complicate site archives and contribute greatly to the problem of “link rot” where links to old journalism vanish)?

13 May 2014

I saw this and was momentarily intrigued. Then I clicked on the pic to see it full size. It didn’t get any bigger and was therefore still unreadable. So I ended up having to go visit the original story at Journalism.co.uk – now the individual text was readable but you couldn’t get a sense of the meaning of the whole without going full-screen to this from Mattermap. And then? All it turns out to be is a grouped collection of tweets, which were all available and more easily readable in the text of the website below anyway. I got there in the end but three clicks, some head-scratching and a scroll later. Sometimes good old-fashioned text is all you need!

27 August 2012

One of the chapters of my forthcoming book, “Sharing Our Lives Online: Risks and Exposure in Social Media” is devoted to the question “What is risky and who is at risk?” and in answering this question the best resource I have consulted by some distance is Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., Gorzig, A., & Olafsson, K. (2011). Risks and safety on the internet: the perspective of European children: full findings. It combines the findings of a survey of 25,142 (!) children 9-16 across Europe with a measured, thoughtful review of the research of others. Parents and policy-makers who don’t want or need all the 167 pages of evidence should download EU Kids Online: Final Report and pay particular attention to pages 42-46 which debunk the top 10 myths of online safety and set out some clear recommendations. Here are a few things I have noted, based on my interests and approach:

The survey found that 59% of all European children surveyed have social network profiles, including 26% of 9-10 year olds and 49% of 11-12 year olds (though a proportion of these will be on social networks where under-13s are allowed like Club Penguin). (p. 36-37)

The survey looked at children’s use of privacy settings but (presumably because of lack of space on the very extensive survey) in a fairly blunt fashion. It asked them whether their profiles were public, “partly private” (visible to friends of friends) or private. How concerned you are about what they reveal may depend on how you perceive “partly private”.

From Risks and Safety on the Internet p. 38

Research published by scholars working with Facebook (Ugander et al, 2011) noted that “partially private” users with the average number of friends (100) would have on average 27,500 friends of friends able to view their profiles.

This research also does not evaluate how accurate the respondents’ assessments really are of how well their profiles are protected. The only study I am aware of that compared what people wanted to share on Facebook with what they were actually sharing (Majedski, 2011) found no fewer than 93.8% of participants revealed some information that they did not want disclosed. This is consistent with the earlier qualitative findings of (Livingstone, 2008) who found on interviewing teenagers, “When asked, a fair proportion of those interviewed hesitated to show how to change their privacy settings, often clicking on the wrong options before managing this task, and showing some nervousness about the unintended consequences of changing settings” (p. 406).

On the other hand, the survey does not give much guidance about just how risky letting out public information actually is for young people. They say, “Research thus far has proved contradictory about whether SNSs are more or less risky than instant messaging, chat, or other online communication formats, and it is as yet unclear whether risks are ‘migrating’ from older formats to SNSs” (p. 36) but their list of risks is rather vague – ‘flaming’, hacking and harassment – and the only paper they cite about these risks is (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2008) whose scope just covers harassment and sexual solicitation and which seemed rather more unambiguous than the EU Kids Online report suggests. It concluded “broad claims of victimization risk, at least defined as unwanted sexual solicitation or harassment, associated with social networking sites do not seem justified” – though the situation may have changed in the six years since the Ybarra & Mitchell survey.

It is perhaps notable that while online bullying was found to be rare – 6% of young people experienced it in the last year (p. 63) – it is also most often encountered on social network sites (half of all bullying encounters).

It’s unfortunate that the focus of the report (on “the internet”) means it doesn’t cover mobile-phone based risks unless they came via the internet (bullying, ‘sexting’ and other problematic behaviour may be digitally circulated on mobiles but not using the internet).

My biggest problem with the report, however (and one of my motivations to do my book) is that the definition of potential risks in the survey is too narrow. In focusing on the obvious short term issues it overlooks some of the longer term risks of internet use including but not limited to:

  1. Employment harm (“why were you drunk all the time at university?”)
  2. Relationship harms (when your grandmother ‘meets’ your girlfriend online)
  3. Harms from an unanticipated future (“I can’t believe you actually boasted about having a petrol-guzzling car back in the 90s”)
  4. identity theft
  5. Locational crime (you check in at the restaurant, a thief checks out your TV)
  6. The harvesting of personal data for targeted marketing (and possibly ‘redlining’ and exclusion from access to financial products)
  7. Government surveillance using (flawed) risk assessment criteria (one of your 22,000 friends of friends turns out to be a terrorist so you go on a watch list).

I may share more about research I run across that tackles some of these areas in future blog posts. Meanwhile, I would be interested in what you think of this post and (if you’re a researcher) please suggest studies you think do a good job of measuring problems 1-7.

Oh, and perhaps my biggest problem with this report (but one the authors can hardly be blamed f0r) – in common with most internet risk literature it studies only children and teenagers. I would like to redress the balance by noting that many of the problems above will be encountered by adults as well. (So studies about these risks that cover older people would be particularly welcome).

6 August 2012

Evgeny Morozov has recently delivered a scathing (and funny) dissection of a collection of TED ebooks, including most prominently one by Parag and Ayesha Khanna. Leaving aside the superficiality of the ideas he mocks (I have not read the works in question) he points out something rather more disturbing in their work – the anti-democratic streak that appears to run through it eg:

We cannot be afraid of technocracy when the alternative is the futile populism of Argentines, Hungarians, and Thais masquerading as democracy. It is precisely these nonfunctional democracies that are prime candidates to be superseded by better-designed technocracies—likely delivering more benefits to their citizens…. To the extent that China provides guidance for governance that Western democracies don’t, it is in having “technocrats with term limits.

It gets worse though – after the publication of Morozov’s critique, Vishrut Arya found an interview with Ayesha wherein she reflects on the exciting possibilities that augmented reality glasses would enable people who didn’t like homeless people to simply delete them from their sight. When I read this I assumed it was meant by her as some kind of warning but on listening she follows this with “…so now we have enhanced our basic sense”.

I am not surprised to find TED giving credibility to this kind of pundit – I am, however, disturbed and disappointed to see that my alma mater, the LSE, giving her a platform by making her director of their Future Cities Group (while she finishes her PhD there). Seems like another potential Said Ghaddafi embarrassment in the making. Certainly Beatrice and Sidney Webb would be turning in their graves!

5 March 2012

Of course it has a role for easy, quick communication of relatively unimportant information but I fear that its very availability and ease means that like some kind of online kudzu it is expanding and driving out longer-form online discourse – particularly blogs. This is particularly problematic for academics like myself. It used to be that I would string together 500 words and more about an academic subject or something in the news and post it on my academic blog (okay, I admit I was a grad student with a bit more time on my hands) but now I tend to just tweet or Facebook post about it because the blog form implicitly demands more engagement than I feel I can give. It seems to me that possibly for similar reasons gradually nearly all of the blogs I used to read by fellow academics giving me their insights into trends and papers have died away*, replaced by tweets simply directing me to relevant web addresses.

Don’t get me wrong–I love to read and pass on the kinds of references to papers and to newspaper articles I get–see my twitter feed– but by the time a tweeter tells you who sent them a web address, very briefly summarizes why you might want to click and perhaps provides a hash tag to indicate its subject all that remains to be said is that said document or image is “enjoyable”, “provocative”, scary etc. A blog posting by contrast does not have to be that much longer but allows the writer to provide at least a little more context for the resource that they are talking about or indeed to provide a small but nonetheless useful addition to scholarly knowledge without all the psychic and administrative burden of turning out an academic paper.

Moreover, I have recently realised thanks to the news about Datasift providing companies with access to archives of tweets back to 2010 that although Twitter has kept everything, if I as a user ever did want to find an insightful tweet from even a week ago unless I had favourited it or I had been using third-party programs to archive a particular user or hashtag I would be out of luck. I always supposed that the limitations of search in tools like TweetDeck or Twitter.com itself were just a coding problem not reflective of an underlying technical problem.

* Mind you, this rant which I have been saving for a while now was inspired in part by the excellence of a Nathan Jurgenson blog post which reminded me that academic blog excellence is not yet dead.

The cartoon below (sorry have lost the original source) presents a number of other good reasons I dislike Twitter…

23 November 2009

Since I go 2-3 times weekly London to Leicester these days I have to book lots of tickets in advance but all registering with the East Midlands trains site lets me do is auto-fill “london” and “leicester” in the search box and fills in address and credit card details at the end. It doesn’t remember favourite train times or seat locations. Nor does it send booked train time information back in email in a form that can be easily imported into Outlook or iCal. It takes 13 clicks to add each single journey to my basket! Alas Trainline and Raileasy both cost £1 more per ticket and £1 per transaction to book (more if using credit cards). Megatrain‘s tickets are cheaper but trains arriving at 11:00 and leaving at 15:00 wouldn’t give me much time to work.

Any other ideas?

24 December 2008

Remember I couldn’t get Google Talk to run on my non-Intel Mac? I can’t get the new Mac beta of BBC’s iPlayer to run either (well it runs but it isn’t recommended for non-Intel macs according to the BBC and the frame rate is lousy on my G4).