Tag Archives: social media

Harshing the Internet Poet’s Mellow

(Michael Gottschalk/dapd)

At The Outline, Laura Yan narrates the saga of a beleaguered poet recently piled on by the internet. A marine scientist by trade, Collin Andrew Yost is tattooed, has a beard and lives in Portland, Oregon, none of which worked in his favor. Neither did the fact that he posted his poems on Instagram in a typeset font, accompanied by images of cigarettes and frequent references to coffee. Yost had a lot of fans on Instagram, but when a writer tweeted critiques about what she viewed as misogynistic and clichéd aspects of his poems, others began to bash him personally. Electric Literature called him “Brobert Frost.” Another said cruelly, “Wow. I think I got cancer reading this.”

After piling on herself, Yan looked more closely at the person who had become the literary internet’s punching bag. She saw her young self, who wrote personal essays and self-published poems on Tumblr. Behind the pile-on is a simple fact: The internet changes the way people behave. Emboldened by anonymity, we align ourselves according to what we love or hate, creating a place that can be as hostile as high school.  Bur if one of literature’s gifts is its ability to create empathy for readers, then maybe Yost’s experience can teach us something about the value of empathy online.

Collin frames his brush with Twitter infamy with uplifting platitudes: love eventually conquered hate, and hate eventually backfired … But it was clear that the incident changed him. “I went from [being in] a close-knit Instagram family to being a woman hater and this ‘bro’ to all these strangers,” Collin said. “I mean, it sucked.” Now, some mornings, he wakes up a little afraid to look at his phone. But then again, his friends told him, maybe that was a sign that he was getting it right, on the road to making it. Collin enjoyed his work as a scientist, but his dream — like almost everyone who writes, he said — was to inspire people, give “people an emotion when they can’t find it themselves.”

I asked Collin if he thought there might have been any validity to the criticisms leveled against him. “No,” he said immediately. “I’m completely fine with criticism when it is actually criticism. But saying “you’re a pretentious dick and your writing is trash. please stop. hope you die” isn’t criticism. That has been 99.9 percent of the comments and messages.”

And so Collin, with his cigarettes and typewriter and goofy smile, continues to share poems on Instagram (at least when you were with me, you were an artist/now you’re just someone’s girlfriend/I’m not sure who that hurt more, goes a recent poem). “It shouldn’t matter if your ‘poetry’ sucks,” he said. “You wrote it. You created something, you molded words together and it means something personal to you… to me, poetry is simply being pure and honest with yourself.”

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When You’re Broken by Breaking News

Two mourners sit among crosses for those killed during the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

I managed to avoid most news about the mass shooting that occurred in Las Vegas this week, but it has been at the front of my mind. There were breaking news updates almost every hour, every day, but I didn’t click. I don’t know and still don’t want to know the gunman’s name. (I won’t use it here unless my editor tells me I have to.)

I was frustrated by the the breaking news updates, which was strange because I used to love being a breaking news reporter. I know the rush of unearthing a piece of information no one else has, of typing as fast as you can to get it out — the pride of being first. But something about this news cycle has changed that for me. I don’t care that the shooter was a gambler, or a loner, that he was cruel to his girlfriend in his local Starbucks, or otherwise unremarkable as he purchased multiple firearms. I don’t see what value that information has for the public.

Even as I type this, I know I’m wrong. Horrible, shocking events like mass shootings scare us, and information soothes us. On Monday, I asked an editor at a national news site, “Why did he do it?” He responded, “We’ll never know.” There was enough known about the shooter on day one to know he was as incomprehensible as the violence he perpetrated. That’s when I stopped paying attention. I know these little details, these constant updates, are attempts to create order out of chaos. I also know that effort is futile, and that futility frustrates me. The barrage of updates serves only to keep the horror in the national discourse. Read more…

The Trump Whisperer: A Conversation with Washington Post Reporter David Fahrenthold

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Fahrenthold (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Cody Delistraty | Longreads | September 2017 | 8 minutes (2193 words)

 

Before David Fahrenthold won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for covering Trump’s candidacy, he spoke to the then-candidate on the phone last May. Trump called Fahrenthold “a nasty guy.”

One of Fahrenthold’s most impressive journalistic pursuits came after that conversation, when he began to investigate Trump’s charitable giving. Trump had long made loud claims about his charitable donations, but Fahrenthold discovered that although Trump claimed to have donated millions of dollars spread among 400 charities, very few of those charities had any record of Trump’s supposed contributions.

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Why Did a Young Woman Broadcast Her Death?

My uncle Howard killed himself in college. He was a grad student in Ann Arbor, engaged to be married, and, according to my family, well-liked. He suffered from depression worsened by tensions with his father. My grandmother knew this, yet she struggled to understand her son’s suicide for the rest of her long life. When Howard committed suicide in 1968, he did it in private inside a school chemistry lab, but he clearly wanted to be found, because he was sending a message. When 18-year-old Océane ended her life in May, 2016, she streamed the incident in real time, jumping in front of a suburban Paris subway train while strangers watched and commented.

At The GuardianRana Dasgupta tells Océane’s story and tries to understand why a young ailing woman could both criticize social media and use social media to communicate her message. Océane was wounded by trauma and haunted by the sense that no one cared, a fact that social media only amplified. Examining this central contradiction, Dasgupta teases out the allure of escape in the depressed Parisian suburbs, the way disconnected youth seek connection, and the way celebrity, even internet celebrity, drains people of life.

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When Is an Internet Company Evil?

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg spoke publicly about the role Russian trolls and fake news on Facebook played in shaping public perception and influencing the presidential election. The company has since changed its mission statement from “making the world more open and connected” to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” The timing is no coincidence. The slogan’s also hogwash. Facebook is concerned with its brand, and with two billion monthly users (there’s 7.4 billion people on earth) and an 18% growth rate, Zuckerberg does not want bad publicity to disrupt the lucrative company’s continued expansion, which is based on the acquisition of free content from users, which it then uses to target users with advertising. Calling Facebook users ‘users’ is fitting, since it was always the public that was being used.

At the London Review of Books, John Lanchester examines three actual books to look closely at what Facebook really is on the inside and how it goes about its data-collecting business. It’s essentially an advertising business, which means, in Lanchester’s words, “Facebook is in the surveillance business.”

Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.

Now that the public knows how Facebook’s fake election stories have created more reader engagement than top New York Times stories, Zuckerberg has a social responsibility to use his powerful platform in a way that doesn’t further erode its users’ society. Instead of factoring in the social costs of social media, though, Facebook remains committed solely to growth and monetization. Google’s public maxim is “Don’t be evil.” Even if you doubt that maxim’s veracity, as consumers, we have to ask ourselves: when a company cares more about monetizing users’ data than about protecting users from a Russian misinformation campaign, why should anyone use their service? In Capitalist America, too many people see it as un-American to say that businesses have a social responsibility. But when it comes to capitalism, we consumers ultimately wield the most power: we can choose not to spend our money or time on businesses who ignore the social costs of their operations. If you’ve been on the verge of deactivating Facebook, now is a good time.

The fact is that fraudulent content, and stolen content, are rife on Facebook, and the company doesn’t really mind, because it isn’t in its interest to mind. Much of the video content on the site is stolen from the people who created it. An illuminating YouTube video from Kurzgesagt, a German outfit that makes high-quality short explanatory films, notes that in 2015, 725 of Facebook’s top one thousand most viewed videos were stolen. This is another area where Facebook’s interests contradict society’s. We may collectively have an interest in sustaining creative and imaginative work in many different forms and on many platforms. Facebook doesn’t. It has two priorities, as Martínez explains in Chaos Monkeys: growth and monetisation. It simply doesn’t care where the content comes from. It is only now starting to care about the perception that much of the content is fraudulent, because if that perception were to become general, it might affect the amount of trust and therefore the amount of time people give to the site.

Zuckerberg himself has spoken up on this issue, in a Facebook post addressing the question of ‘Facebook and the election’. After a certain amount of boilerplate bullshit (‘Our goal is to give every person a voice. We believe deeply in people’), he gets to the nub of it. ‘Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99 per cent of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes.’ More than one Facebook user pointed out that in their own news feed, Zuckerberg’s post about authenticity ran next to fake news. In one case, the fake story pretended to be from the TV sports channel ESPN. When it was clicked on, it took users to an ad selling a diet supplement. As the writer Doc Searls pointed out, it’s a double fraud, ‘outright lies from a forged source’, which is quite something to have right slap next to the head of Facebook boasting about the absence of fraud. Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter and founder of the long-read specialist Medium, found the same post by Zuckerberg next to a different fake ESPN story and another piece of fake news purporting to be from CNN, announcing that Congress had disqualified Trump from office. When clicked-through, that turned out to be from a company offering a 12-week programme to strengthen toes. (That’s right: strengthen toes.) Still, we now know that Zuck believes in people. That’s the main thing.

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To Be an Instagram-Ready Restaurant, Don’t Forget Your Selfie-Optimized Lamps

Image by Paulo Valdivieso (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Back in the 1970s, memorabilia-heavy restaurants became popular as they facilitated the loosening-up of sexual mores. These days, colorful tiles, bold wallpaper, and the occasional (ironic?) taxidermy piece can all trace their origins to our need to capture and broadcast our well-curated pleasures. As Casey Newton shows at The Verge, Instagram is the driving force behind the current vogue for easily reproduced, sleek-kitschy idiosyncrasy — including adjustable lighting that allows diners to take the most flattering selfie possible.

Few restaurants have taken photo-friendliness as seriously as Bellota, a Spanish restaurant that opened in San Francisco last year. The entryway is enclosed, creating a pleasing shadowbox effect as you look into the dining room. The kitchen is open, and encourages patrons to take 360-degree videos of the space. Many Instagram posts feature pictures of “the ham wall,” which is just what it sounds like: a window that looks into the temperature-controlled room where Bellota stores $50,000 worth of Spanish jamón ibérico.

The most striking thing about Bellota may be the custom lamps at its 25-seat bar, which let patrons adjust the lighting in order to get the perfect shot. “I’m probably the most avid Instagram user of the group, so I kept bringing it up,” says Ryan McIlwraith, Bellota’s chef. He wanted the lighting to do justice to the restaurant’s tapas plates and signature paellas. “It turned out these lamps we got were just perfect for it,” he says. The lamps can be tilted or turned 180 degrees, and the light’s intensity can be adjusted up and down. An “advanced feature” allows patrons to rest their phones on the lamp’s neck so as to take a selfie. (I did, and must admit the lighting was lovely.)

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How Do Words Get Added to the Dictionary?

(H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images)

New words, phrases, and definitions are added to the Oxford English Dictionary four times a year, and this month’s revision includes over 1,200 changes and updates, from a new “sense” of the word thing to the “well-established, but newly-prominent usage of woke,” as Head of U.S. Dictionaries Katherine Connor Martin writes on the OED’s blog.

Martin, one of the people who decides which new words and “senses” get added to the OED, agreed to answer a few questions for us about how that process works, and whether dictionary rivalries exist. (We’re looking at you, Merriam-Webster.)

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The Internet Won’t Prioritize Quality Without an Intervention

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

In an interview with The New York Times, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams admits to David Streitfeld that he thinks the internet is broken — and apologizes for the role Twitter played in the ascendency of Donald Trump.

President Trump has said he believes Twitter put him in the White House. Recently, Mr. Williams heard the claim for the first time. He mulled it over for a bit, sitting in his Medium office, which is noteworthy only for not having a desk.

“It’s a very bad thing, Twitter’s role in that,” he said finally. “If it’s true that he wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for Twitter, then yeah, I’m sorry.”

Trump’s campaign slogan may as well have been Extremity First, a strategy his supporters considered the conscious technique of a mastermind playing 4D chess with the media. What the internet is missing, Williams argues, is an ethical framework, a new business model that will introduce a market correction to what the internet perceives as user demand for extremism:

The trouble with the internet, Mr. Williams says, is that it rewards extremes. Say you’re driving down the road and see a car crash. Of course you look. Everyone looks. The internet interprets behavior like this to mean everyone is asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them.

His goal is to break this pattern. “If I learn that every time I drive down this road I’m going to see more and more car crashes,” he says, “I’m going to take a different road.”

But a new road may have other problems. It may, for instance, be a dead end.

Mr. Williams isn’t the only one trying to fix this mess, of course. If he and others can’t find a path forward, if they can’t solve what he calls “the architecture of content creation, distribution and monetization on the internet,” there are unsettling implications for the future of news and ideas. Maybe it will be all car crashes, all the time. Twitter already feels like that.

Williams has been attempting to course-correct with Medium, a publishing platform conceived to intervene on this vicious cycle of misinterpreted rubbernecking with an ad-free, subscription-based business model. Medium’s successes have been tempered and debatable, while its missteps, like so many of the internet’s favorite car wrecks, have been more memorable. (Williams announced layoffs in a blog post before all the sunsetting employees were informed, shocking investors and publishing partners alike; when Williams introduced the $5 subscription model, Bryan Clark published an op-ed titled Ev Williams has lost his goddamn mind.)

While the need for an intervention is readily apparent, the question of how to make publishing sustainable — in spite of, or by somehow newly leveraging, the internet’s existing mosaic of incentives — continues to pose considerable challenges to the viability of new approaches to funding. As fellow Twitter cofounder Biz Stone has said in response to Williams’ statement that he wants to make publishing profitable: “Yeah, so does everyone else.”

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The Slacklash Is Here. You Should Do Something About It.

Image by Giorgio Minguzzi via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Is the app that ate email eating into a whole lot more—like privacy, productivity, and personal time? In The Baffler, Jacob Silverman explores the darker side of Slack, the app that became so ubiquitous so fast, that there’s already a literature of Slack-detox—which puts the burden of mitigating the app’s downsides entirely on the user, and not on the app or the work culture in which it’s used.

It’s worth noting that at some Slack-using companies, these mini detoxes are enthusiastically endorsed by the higher-ups. Alexis Madrigal, then editor in chief of Fusion, offered his advice to other bosses: “If I could give one piece of advice to other media companies, it’s that they should be cool with people deleting the app,” he told Nieman Lab last year. “If someone’s going on vacation or their anniversary, or if they’re going to be away on a long weekend, we tell them to delete Slack from their phone because otherwise the temptation to check it is too great. Deleting the app really helps people disconnect, because it’s that addictive as a social experience.”

The boss is allowed to seem magnanimous—you’re on vacation, delete the app!—as he encourages his employees to take steps to temporarily manage their addictions. Meanwhile, the onus of change falls back on each individual employee. The slacklash may be growing, but it is splintered into a thousand isolated quests, each featuring a lone worker facing off against the snarling beast of Information Overload. The recurring lament of the slacklash is, roughly, “I wish I could change, have more self-control”—a refrain that could not be more different from, say, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

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#Vanlife: Selling Their Staged World, One Social Media Post at A Time

Photo by Mike Petrucci (CC BY-SA 2.0)

How did a movement toward simple, nomadic life in Volkswagen vans become commercialized sponsor-fodder, in which “vanlifers” trade social media currency for subsidized van repairs and discounts? Is #vanlife really freedom, or just another way to sell your soul, one social media post at a time? Read Rachel Monroe’s story at The New Yorker.

Scroll through the images tagged #vanlife on Instagram and you’ll see plenty of photos that don’t have much to do with vehicles: starry skies, campfires, women in leggings doing yoga by the ocean. Like the best marketing terms, “vanlife” is both highly specific and expansive. It’s a one-word life-style signifier that has come to evoke a number of contemporary trends: a renewed interest in the American road trip, a culture of hippie-inflected outdoorsiness, and a life free from the tyranny of a nine-to-five office job.

Vanlifers have a tendency to call their journeys “projects,” and to describe them in the elevator-pitch terms that make sense to potential sponsors. While still in Central America, King and Smith came up with a name for their project: Where’s My Office Now, a reference to their goal of fusing travel and work. “We wanted to see if it was possible to combine this nomadic hippie life with a nine-to-five job,” Smith explained. After the couple returned from Central America but before they bought a van, King registered a Web site and set up social-media accounts. “The business part of me knew there was potential,” she said. Smith, who was still using a flip phone, was suspicious of his girlfriend’s preoccupation with social media, worrying that it would detract from the experience.

King and Smith were now professional vanlifers. They began working more product placement into their Instagram posts. Since then, their sponsorships—which King prefers to call “alliances”—have included Kettle Brand potato chips, Clif Bars, and Synergy Organic Clothing. Last summer, the tourism board of Saskatchewan paid the couple seven thousand dollars to drive around the grasslands of central Canada with other popular vanlifers, documenting their (subsidized) kayaking trips and horseback rides.

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