Sips from the Firehose
A blog that seeks to filter the internet into a refreshing, easily-gulped beverage


Sep 22

Social Media and Freedom: A Promise Betrayed

Posted: under Digital Migration.
Tags: , , , ,

Facebook and Twitter are now fueling hatred, conflict, repression, and in some cases – genocide. Where do we go from here? 

“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true/Or is it something worse?”

Bruce Springsteen, “The River”

Back in 2011, I traveled to Ethiopia for the first time, as part of a US State Department mission to work with journalists, pro-democracy groups, human rights organizations, and other do-gooders. As an international digital media consultant (trust me, it’s a lot less glamorous than that title makes it sound), I was fired up with visions of the free & glorious future that awaited us because we were throwing open the doors of mass media to, well, the masses. 

In the wake of the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (dubbed the “Arab Spring”), it seemed to us giddy internet old-timers that the promise of the web had finally arrived. People were using social media to connect, find common ground (they hated the corrupt regimes they were suffering under), organize protests, and topple repressive dictatorships. 

It felt like a Arab world-centric movement akin to the fall of the Berlin wall — a moment when an entire region woke up and said “We’ve had about enough of this” … and then followed through. In Tunisia and Egypt, soldiers refused to massacre their countrymen, and the regimes toppled. 

And then came Libya. 

Khaddafi had always been an irritating dictator; not noxious enough to justify a full-fledged invasion the way a Saddam Hussein did, but certainly enough to merit airstrikes, economic sanctions and covert action. He did not back down to the popular uprisings, and instead chose to stick around and duke it out. A reaction that was shared by Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. 

In Khaddafi’s case, this led to a painful & ignominious end in a ditch, where the victorious troops shot, tortured and mutilated him to death.  At best, we can say that there were decades of pent-up anger that came out.

But what came next was not in line with the script of “Happy people join together in glorious democracy.”  Far from it. Rather, all the angry factions all started lashing out against each other, and it turned out that one of the things that had kept Khaddafi in power for so many years, was his skill at playing “Divide Et Impera” in Libya. And now, with the central character in that drama gone, all the other players started acting on their generational grievances, and the whole country descended into a war of All Against All. 

Source: Wikicommons

Worse yet, the social media platforms that people used to name their kids after, the hopes for bringing people together, have now been weaponized. 

Some “keyboard warriors,” as Facebook partisans are known in Libya, posted fake news or hateful comments. Others offered battlefield guidance. On one discussion page on Thursday, a user posted maps and coordinates to help target her side’s bombs at a rival’s air base.

“From the traffic light at Wadi al Rabi, it is exactly 18 kilometers to the runway, which means it can be targeted by a 130 mm artillery,” the user, who went by the handle Narjis Ly, wrote on Facebook. “The coordinates are attached in the photo below.

Source: Wikicommons

the Special Deterrence Force, a militia led by a conservative religious commander, Abdulrauf Kara, patrols Facebook with a moralizing zeal reminiscent of Saudi Arabia’s once-feared religious police.

Last year his militia detained 20 participants in a Libyan version of Comic-Con, the comic book conference. The militants said they were outraged by photos on Facebook showing young Libyans dressed as characters like Spider-Man and the Joker. Some detainees said they were beaten in custody.

Facebook in Myanmar 

Since I left Myanmar last fall, after my Fulbright Specialist stint in Yangon, the Rohiggya people on the northwest border have been subjected to a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign. I won’t repeat all the crimes and horrors here, because quite frankly they upset me so much I can’t continue typing and have to go on long walks to try to clear my head. 

No, my focus here is on social media – specifically, Facebook. I had heard about the problems with hate speech on Facebook before I arrived in Yangon, and my conversations with students and staff only reinforced what I had been told:

The streets of Yangon are filled with desperately poor people, scrounging out an existence in the margins of opulence. The store in the back left corner sells smartphones. There are dozens of such stores on every major street in Yangon. Such stores were illegal and unknown less than ten years ago. 
  • For the vast majority of users, Facebook WAS the internet, because their smartphones were pre-loaded with Facebook and it was free to use
  • Wild-eyed religious fanatics were ranting on Facebook about how the Rohinggya were subhuman animals bent on killing everyone
  • Thus, all patriotic Burmese had a duty to rise up and “get them before they get us” 

Belatedly, Facebook has realized its role in this conflict, and has moved to try to put in controls and mechanisms to tamp down the online hate. Unfortunately, as of this past August: 

Facebook has acknowledged that it needs to do more to curb misinformation and hate speech spreading in countries like Myanmar, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg told U.S. Senators in a hearing last April that the company is ramping up its efforts.

However, Reuters found the network is still being used to spread comments, videos and images attacking Rohingya and other Muslims in Myanmar. Some of the material, collected by Reuters and the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley School of Law, has been online for at least six years.

The posts, most of which are in Burmese, use dehumanizing language, comparing Rohingya to dogs and maggots, and call for the Muslim minority to be eradicated.

Designed to Fail

There have been some well-documented failures in Facebook’s system. The “Report” button to alert moderators to hate speech on Facebook was not used because during Myanmar’s 50-years of suffering under the military dictatorship, to “report to the authorities” was basically to mark someone for summary field execution, and draw attention to yourself as an informer. 

The Burmese language also is a barrier. The auto-translation software is laughably bad. Spellings can be somewhat arbitrary, since Burmese is rendered phonetically (which is why Google still struggles with search in this market). 

It cited an anti-Rohingya post that said in Burmese, “Kill all the kalars that you see in Myanmar; none of them should be left alive.” Kalar is a pejorative for the Rohingya. Facebook had translated the post into English as “I shouldn’t have a rainbow in Myanmar.”

https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-facebook-myanmar-hate-speech/facebook-removes-burmese-translation-feature-after-reuters-report-idUKKCN1LM208

But more than this, the entire underlying business model of Facebook is the problem. The drive of all these social media platforms has been towards growth. More users. More time spent. More attention paid. More clicks, swipes, likes, comments, shares. 

Growth. Scale. Velocity. Hockey-stick-like lines on innumerable PowerPoint slides. 

It turns out that the vision the techno-hippies in the Bay Area had when laying the foundations of the internet was deeply flawed. Bringing all of humanity together under one roof, and removing all institutional control does not lead to Utopia. 

There is going to have to be a fundamental shift in the way that major media companies and publishers act — and yes, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, et al., are being forced to wake up and confront the fact that they are now publishers. They can no longer pretend that they are just the “Town Square” where they have no responsibility for what goes on there. 

More than that, the fundamental business model needs to change. 

Advertisers have long rewarded publishers for the sheer size & scale of the audience delivered. This incentive has led to a “Damn the torpedoes – get their attention by whatever means necessary!” attitude, because, well, whoever pops a number in the TV overnights gets to keep their job. The poor slobs who get bad numbers are fired. Rinse. Repeat. 

Journalism is engaged in a deep discussion on how to restore trust in the media. One of the biggest factors is going to have to be removing this relentless push for Scale Above All. 

What Comes Next? 

If we can’t charge advertisers based upon the sheer number of eyeballs looking at their message, what do we charge them for? 

How do we take the “mass” out of mass media? 

Is it even possible to make a shift this big in advertising/monetization models after more than 100 years of market evolution? 

Once again, internet consultants are throwing around buzzphrases like “user trust” and “confidence halo” and “transferrable positive authority.” 

Maybe one of these will arise with a methodology that empowers us all to consume the information that we need to live our daily lives without the hate, ugliness, screeching, shockbait, attention scams and everything else that is the hallmark of late-stage information overload. 

But I worry that these new business models for monetizing content and user attention also carry flaws within them that will be exploited to even worse effect. 

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Sep 25

Yes, Investigative Journalism CAN Pay. And Pay Well.

Posted: under Digital Migration, new media, newspaper crisis, Newspaper Deathwatch, Newspapers.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Mediapart in France is profitable because it gives readers what they are willing to pay for.

Imagine that.

mediapart.fr front page

The Mediapart organization makes its living by doing hard-hitting investigative journalism that its audience is willing to support. They also make a point of including lots of video on their pages.

Quick hit here for my students, who are increasingly upset about their job prospects after graduation.

I shared an article from Neiman about the upheaval in the newspaper business in France. Apparently, the same problems that plague the French economy at large are at work, writ small & exceedingly acerbic, at the major newspapers. They are tech-phobic, rely on business models that no longer fully function, and react angrily to anyone threatening the promise of a cushy work situation with guaranteed employment and 1/4 of the year spent on vacation.

Can’t imagine why that can’t cut it in a world increasingly dominated by the internet work ethic of, “If you eat lunch … you ARE lunch.” Somehow, I don’t think this will fit in with a languid afternoon at a sidewalk cafe with a nice burgundy and a baguette slathered with brie. With accordion music wafting in the background.

But about 2/3 of the way down the article, there appeared these grafs, which I am going to excerpt here, although I do urge you to go to the Neiman site & give them some traffic-love, ’cause @petergumbel did a damn good job with this write-up:

Edwy Plenel, for one, is incensed by the conflicts of interest inherent in the French press. But then that’s not entirely surprising, since outrage is Plenel’s mojo.

He has come a long way since his revolutionary youth, which he wrote about in a 2001 memoir. He made his mark as an investigative journalist at Le Monde; one of his most celebrated scoops was uncovering the role of French intelligence in the 1985 sinking in New Zealand of the Greenpeace boat Rainbow Warrior. He made the Elysée so nervous that it illegally bugged his phone during the presidency of François Mitterrand. He spent a total of 25 years at Le Monde, including a stint as editor in chief, but he left in 2005 during one of its sporadic crises, after attacks on his management style.

He launched Mediapart as a subscription site in December 2007. Three years later it was at break-even. Today, it’s racing toward 100,000 subscribers, each paying the equivalent of about $12 per month. This year he expects the site to make about $2 million net profit on just over $10 million in revenue. It has a staff of 50, 33 of whom are journalists. It now outsells Libération, which has almost six times as many staff members. [Emphasis mine – dlf]

The secret: a laser focus on exclusive news, especially revelations of high-level political and financial skullduggery. Mediapart’s subscriptions soared in 2010, the year it broke the story about a convoluted political and financial scandal involving France’s richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt. They leaped again in 2013, after it revealed that the then-budget minister Jérôme Cahuzac, whose job included fighting tax evasion, himself had an undeclared Swiss bank account and had transferred funds to Singapore. After denying the allegations for months, Cahuzac eventually resigned, acknowledging that he had lied to parliament and to President François Hollande.

Work the numbers, folks. $10 mill in revenue-$2M profil = $8M in expenses. $8M/50 employees = $160K/yr per employee. Figure about 40% of that per-employee allocation is insurance, pension, and building/maintaining the site & gathering news costs, and you still get a salary of $64K/yr on average. For a journalist, that ain’t bad. Plus you’ve got a warchest of $2M that you can throw at a big story, should one come up, and to use to build out the site & extend its reach.

So. There’s a lot going on here. I’ve written in the past about how I disagree with the authors of The Death and Life of American Journalism, who called for exactly the kinds of government subsidies for newspapers that are allowing them to continue to try to deny reality, and live in a fantasy-bubble. At the time, I was reacting to what I’ve seen in Latin America, Georgia, Kazakhstan and other places where allowing the government to get its hands on the revenue stream is akin to letting criminals loop a choke-chain around your throat. They can lead you around by it, and if you start getting out of line, all they need to do is give it a quick, sharp yank, and you fall back in line, suitably docile.

I’ve seen that happen. First-hand. In Venezuela, when I was a very young editor.

Government subsidies are kinda like this. Nothing really sticks until you try to do something that the person holding the leash doesn’t like.

The solution that Mediapart has come up with here may not last. It may not work everywhere. But it’s something that makes a lot more sense to me than journalism that exists as a kind of state-supported performance art piece. Because I’ve seen that as well: journalists who are completely disconnected from the concerns of their audience, sporting paternalistic, condescending attitudes, producing self-indulgent “investigations” that nobody really reads, and that don’t really threaten the people who give them checks each month.

So when I see that Mediapart is actually making a pretty nice profit, running with a lean staff, and dedicating itself to serving the interests of its audience, it pretty much makes my day, particularly in light of the grim news out of the LA Register, NBC news, and pretty much every other traditional media outlet recently.

Look, I am not hooting and hanging on the rim here, delighting in the travails of people still stuck in jobs at tottering media empires, hanging on for dear life through ownership changes, strategy changes, and promises that melt away like morning dew.

Long-term, market forces are going to prevail. If journalists produce a product that people want, and give them a means by which to support/purchase/share it, then that audience will fight to ensure that this important part of their lives is still there. The very first case study I ever did was centered around that fact. It makes me sad to see so many journalists, who base their entire journalistic ethos on pushing people and institutions to change, to adapt to the times, to leave behind (even if painful) the habits & traditions of the past … ignoring their own best advice.

Liberation may not be a cafe. But it may also not be an outlet for journalism much longer either.

 

 

 

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Dec 16

The Music Video Is The Advertisement: Lady GaGa Goes Post-McCluhan On Us All

Posted: under New Marketing, new media, Online Video, Video.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Her “Bad Romance” music video features prominent product placement for stuff she designs & sells – and has garnered 38 million views.

The song itself is kinda beside the point – it’s bubblegum synth-disco-pop, about as bland and processed as the stuff the taxi drivers in Moscow used to subject me to on the way back & forth from my gig there. Which may be why it’s getting so many views – this is the kind of stuff that works internationally, since the thumping beat and lyric structure make it sound pretty much interchangeable with everything else on the radio.

Can't wait until she starts marketing the exploding bustier shown here; Madonna's Wannabees all wore their undies over their shirts. Wonder if GaGaEttes are going to be lighting their smokes off their flaming boobs.

Can't wait until she starts marketing the exploding bustier shown here; Madonna's Wannabees all wore their undies over their shirts. Wonder if GaGaEttes are going to be lighting their smokes off their flaming boobs.

But the real action here is in the video to the song. Blew my mind. Didn’t think that people had budgets like this anymore. Costumes that would make Gaultier sick with envy — white latex with “Where the Wild Things Are” shiny plastic crowns, some kinda homage to LeeLoo’s orange strappy outfit in The Fifth Element and a Eastern European mobster/white sex-slave buyer with a steampunk-ish articulated brass chin. Looked to my eye like about a week in production, probably about $500K in total costs of models, locations, crews, lighting, post-production.

The plot seems to be that Lady GaGa wakes from her sleep the way normal people do – by sticking her hand out of a gleaming white Tylenol-shaped coffin – getting forced to drink high-end vodka and the gyrate for & be sold to a bunch of strange pervy dudes.I half expected to see Liam Neeson kicking someone’s ass in the backdrop and telling her, “Here’s the scary part. You’re going to be taken…”

Nobody does these kinds of elaborate music videos anymore, because there is no way to recoup that kinda cash from the moribund music industry.- at least, not until now.As Dan Neil points out in the LA Times

the “Bad Romance” video, which features placements for no less than 10 products: a black iPod; Philippe Starck Parrot wireless speakers; Nemiroff vodka; Gaga-designed Heartbeats earphones (via Dr. Dre); Carrera sunglasses; Nintendo Wii handsets; Hewlett-Packard Envy computers; a Burberry coat; those crazy, hobbling Alexander McQueen hyper-heels; and enough La Perla lingerie to choke an ox.

This isn’t a music video so much as the QVC Channel you can dance to.

I had thought that Madonna and Michael Jackson were about as sophisticated as you could get when it came to figuring out ways to build up a juicy public image, and then squeeze it until rivers of cash started running out. Not so. Lady GaGa has rightly recognized that selling CDs if for chumps; anyone can pirate them, and pretty much does.

No, you need to sell things that people can’t copy – or at least, if they do, it kinda defeats the purpose. So Lady GaGa’s come up with the list of high-end commercial goods to do “Hero Shots” of in the video and obviously done revenue deals with them.

As a business model, I have to say hats off to the Lady. She’s adapted to the draining of value from the content (i.e. nobody actually buys music anymore – at least, not like they used to), and migrated over to where the money still lies.

When advertising no longer works, when information is a commodity in which we all drown for free, then the only things that are left that have any value are physical objects that we can wear, eat, drive or plug in, as well as what cultural anthropologists call “fetish objects” that bestow special status because they signify that we hae enough disposable income so as to be able to waste a couple grand on some gaudy sunglasses.

I’m not sure if this is the way that all news & entertainment is going to have to go in the future. All of it sponsored, with big shout-outs to the guys footing the bills worked into the info-stream every 10 seconds or so.  I do know that if this works, we’re going to see a lot more of these “branded videos” online.

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Jul 16

Interview with Joel Kramer of MinnPost.com about Real-Time Ads

Posted: under Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

This is the bookend interview I did for the story on Real-Time Ads.

Joel Kramer explains how MinnPost.com is using Real-Time Ads to build up business with local advertisers by giving them a product that they can’t find anywhere else.

However, he goes on to explain that the media business has irrevocably changed, and that the “gravy train of advertising” will never again support newspapers. His solution to the revenue crisis facing news organizations can be heard starting at about 7:10 into the interview.

Download Interview with Joel Kramer editor of MinnPost about Real-Time Ads

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