Wednesday, January 29, 2014

On reaching 50,000 page views

Hello dear readers.

Just a quick note to mark another blog milestone: 50,000 page views! So won't you join me in raising a glass to commemorate this joyous day.

And like they say in Grammy acceptance speeches (if they're nice, that is), I couldn't have done it without you. So thanks to you and you and you for the clicks and comments and shares and retweets over the past year. Each and every one is appreciated.

The Demassed maintenance crew at the official 50,000 page view celebration, held earlier today

Later this year you can look forward to better weather and an exclusive interview with legal scholar and MIT Media Lab intellectual property research specialist Kate Darling. The topic is how the adult entertainment industry has adjusted to reduced intellectual property protections online, the subject of a qualitative study she recently completed.

Upcoming blog interviewee Kate Darling

Yes, Internet porn comes to the blog. But not gratuitously. That means you can read the interview and not have to judge yourself. Oh, and I'm told the interview will also be available as a podcast on Radio Berkman too, so stay tuned.

Update: Listen to the podcast of the interview with Kate Darling here.

And to help us prepare for that interview, let's go back to a spacey 1977, and a song that would inspire a film of the same name, 20 years later.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The perpetual now and the authority of everyone

A while back on the blog I came up with, or at least thought I came up with, the term instant nostalgia, in an attempt to describe the phenomenon of the more than 10,000 versions of cover songs uploaded daily to YouTube, most of which are contemporary hit songs. Remember when cover songs used to equal oldies, or classic rock? Remember when we thought of time as marching forward, with a generally common understanding that history meant something that had happened at least, say, five years ago? Well apparently no more. History now equals five minutes ago, if not five seconds ago. It's partly the technologies, but it's partly us. Yes, there are billions of camera-equipped mobile phones on the planet. And applications such as Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat, the latter which erases history almost as quickly as it ordains it, making photos available for a matter of seconds before disappearing forever (security breaches notwithstanding, of course). This perpetual now, it turns out, is more appealing to us than any past or future. Probably because it is the mediated equivalent of crack cocaine, spurring the release of feel good brain chemicals and keeping us encsonced in the loop of the action itself. Interruptions take the place of sequence. Interruptions become the flow.

Earlier this week my friend and research colleague Elizabeth Watkins sent around an email announcing the publication of her article on 'hyperhistory'. It's the idea that in our current environment of digital, networked, ubiquitous information, concepts such as 'narrative', 'history', 'memory', and 'authority' get a serious shake up. Using YouTube as an example Elizabeth concludes that " entirely new now is made possible through billions of individual view counts, [opening] the doorway for innovative shapes of history to be drawn." She continues: "Without a structure of regulation, chaos would render this tidal wave tough to navigate. Who decides how YouTube people read and sift through YouTube videos?...In broadcast media, editorial control is concentrated among editors, producers, and stakeholders...These authorities use popular stories to create a narrative arc, embedded with ideology and the concerns of capital, and then distribute them through products like periodicals and broadcast news...Online, however, the process of editorial influence and audience is decentralized and dispersed back to the community of users."

Aaron Smith, another friend and research colleague (I know what you're thinking....these people are really not spending enough time watching reality TV) sent me some of his thoughts on Elizabeth's piece. I thought to myself, why not take one person's musings and throw them up on the blog, as a kind of on-ramp for a discussion of these points. With his permission I'm sharing those comments here, and hope that you, the interested and interesting reader, will pipe up with some comments and opinions as well.

Aaron wrote:

"Everything today is about the right now to the point where even our history is created in the now. That was the major point from your piece I hadn't thought about. History is being written without the space to reflect, to process, to contextualize. But I believe that space is important - that space between "memory and history" Why? Because equally important to what is remembered is what is forgotten. And even with "distributed authorship", structures of power and control shape collective memory (and collective forgetting) in ways that seem like the democratized voice of the people but in reality are not.

Without a voice of authority to filter the material of memory into a vehicle of shared cultural identity, then to whom does the task of organization fall? The users. Yes and no, right? Most users aren't scouring YouTube for content (I don't think) - they're finding videos from content aggregators or from their friends. Those content aggregators have their own ideologies - i.e. Huffington Post vs. Daily Beast - and those in turn shape who views them.

Likewise, I think users generally hold a bias towards videos that are more shareable than others - i.e. things that will be popular with their friends. And often times YouTube messages get spread based on an existing infrastructure. Invisible Children had a massive built-in network of social activists to distribute the Kony 2012 video, making it much easier for the campaign to go viral. So I would argue this is not a fully democratic process where every YouTube video has an equal chance to join our collective memory. The process of constructing hyperhistory is contingent upon the conditions for certain videos to spread and unlike television and broadcast media, those conditions vary immensely.

That's where your work in the economics of attention comes in. Also, how does Reddit compare with YouTube in terms of hyperhistory? I would say it's more democratic in terms of what popular content is shown, but harder to search through the archives and find things no longer relevant. At one point, you liken Wikipedia to YouTube. This is an interesting comparison. I think Wikipedia is designed with the goal of creating a collective memory, a written hyperhistory. YouTube doesn't feel the same way to me. There is not much care about getting things right or about accuracy or about deciding what's in and what's out on a debate page. Instead, everything gets to be included but not everything gets to be important. There is no public debate about what is worthy of YouTube's front page or what should be featured in YouTube's algorithm. That is decided for us. Should we have a place that handles such matters? A place where users can even discuss what videos should be representative of our history?

In addition to not having a say in shaping YouTube's filtering process, here's another issue: when the act of participation is a function of "viewing" a video, the credentials of the person viewing are rendered useless. The "vote" has no substance to it. Views - even at aggregate scale -- grant something popular, not something important. YouTube seems to be "self-regulating" towards music videos, ironic videos, and cute cats - that's what is most popular. What happens to “alternative” histories now - pieces of histories that may not be popular enough to be viewed a million times? Are the videos that receive the most views and "likes" representative of our history? What say do oppressed people -- people without access to the Internet or without the literacy to produce videos -- have in the production of hyperhistory?

I think there are still boundaries on YouTube, as with other places on the web, defined by "geography, ideology, and capital." Arguably they matter more than ever, since countries have different sensitivities, governments different regulations, and YouTube has an incentive to personalize based on your location. Given these boundaries, can we trust these privatized tools alone to pave the way for new models of historiography or should the public develop platforms where the very process of inclusion and exclusion is under constant debate, just like the production of our cultural history and memory has been for thousands of years."

Ed. Note: If you're interested in further pondering the concept of 'now-ism', here's a 2013 interview on the topic with Douglas Rushkoff, author of Present Shock.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

On digital trickery

It all started with this post from a Facebook friend:

The article being discussed is this one, which appeared in Esquire recently. The basic premise is that in an environment of digital, social, and networked information being first is often valued more than being right. This on its own flies in the face of what we have come to understand journalism is, and what we have come to expect from the people and institutions in which we invest both trust and authority. 

But wait there's more, because the business model of today's Internet is predicated on attracting eyeballs and shares, even if it is with 'click bait' or 'link bait'. It all monetizes, and the person that gets there first gets the most clicks and shares and retweets. Everyone else gets the sloppy seconds and the rest, well I guess it gets sorted out by the gladiators in the comments section.

The hands of very few are clean in these click olympics. Even the writer of the piece in Esquire admits: "Give me the viral pictures, and I’ll give you the truth. And then, after an appropriate waiting period, I’ll give you the other truth, and capitalize on that traffic too. It’s almost a perfect callback to William Randolph Hearst’s infamous declaration on the eve of the Spanish-American War, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Even more fitting, historians don’t think he ever said anything like that. Then as now, it’s the myth that plays, not the reality. Today it just plays on an exponentially larger stage."

Though true virality happens about as often as lightning strikes, it is still the thing everyone online chases, because the wins, when they happen, are big wins. Think of it like the rows of people seated at the Las Vegas slot machines with the yogurt pails full of nickels, waiting for that one big win, and you've got a reasonable analogy for what most publishers and marketers are trying to accomplish online.

For some, the definition of a 'win' begins and ends with the metrics. If X number of people click or share on a piece of content, it's a win. Whether there's quality, integrity, or truth is beside the point. And increasingly stories are designed to lure online readers in exactly this way. If it can evoke an OMG or WTF in the body of the tweet, it is much more likely to get prime placement on the screen.

Companies such as Buzzfeed and Upworthy and to a lesser extent Gawker owe their existence and their good fortune to the quirk of human nature that drives us to circulate this kind of content. Sometimes it is digital water cooler, a can-you-believe-this story, and sometimes it is, to use my Facebook friend Sean's term 'digital horseshit', i.e. untrue but clickworthy.

This was was the case with this story about the recent snowfall on the Sphinx in Egypt. It's not that there wasn't snow in Egypt. There was. The most snow in over a century, no less.

Giza, Egypt? Nope. Japanese theme park? Yup.

It's just that it was easier and faster to run a bogus picture from a Japanese theme park than it was to get a real one from a journalist at the Cairo bureau, or just some person with an iPhone in the area. Plus the real photo probably wouldn't have been as attention grabbing as the fake one. The fake photo got retweeted and shared thousands of times, maybe more, and in the process brought in the dollars that accompany the diversion of traffic online. And when we aren't paying for content online we pay with our eyeballs' value to advertisers.

In a time when attention is one of the few things we do not have a surplus of it is not surprising that hijacking it has become the name of game for some online businesses. In the music business leaking has become one of the new forms marketing, and in the content business the same might be said for harmless hoaxes. In the words of one John Lydon, ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

Ed. Note: And a week later, this story circulated, about people in China resorting to watching the sun rise on a giant screen as the smog is so thick the actual sun cannot be seen. Time, CBS, Huffington Post, and the Daily Mail all ran (with) the story. H/T @AaronSmith50. (Metaphor alert: The click smog is so thick, the actual story cannot be seen).

Here comes the sun in China...delivered on the big screen. Happened? Again, no.

But wait, there's more...

From the 'for every action on the Internet there is an opposing action' department, meet Downworthy, the plug-in that dials down the sensationalistic headlines of the culprit sites noted in this post.

And from the world of research, there's And from the world of research, there's TwitterTrails, which tracks levels of skepticism on Twitter, correlates to propagation levels, and then follows stories on their path to truthfulness, or just more Internet bullsh*t.