Facebook has announced that it’s going to start adding to your newsfeed stories that you don’t know about but that are on the same topic as ones you follow. As their post puts it:
Now, when a Page tags another Page, we may show the post to some of the people who like or follow the tagged Page.
In the late 1990s and early Oughties, the size of material being indexed by search engines busted the main metrics. Precision measured how many results of a query pertained to that query — how “noisy” the results are. Recall measured how many of the pertinent results were missed by the results list. But when you are indexing hundreds of billions of pages, total recall results in a noisy list because there are so many results that you can’t find the one that’s most relevant. Thus relevancy became much more important than before.
But even relevancy doesn’t cut the mustard when you are browsing the hay more than looking for the needle. Thus, over the past ten years or so we’ve seen interestingness become important in some environments. Sorting Flickr search results by interestingness turns up some of the most striking photos.
Search for “needle,” sorted by “Interesting” at Flickr (cc-by-nc-sa dmelchordiaz)
Reddit‘s community upvoting mechanism results in a front page that reflects not precision, recall, or relevancy, but interestingness. Reddit’s front page also illustrates that when we ask for results sorted by interestingness, we apparently tolerate far more noise than with any of the other three metrics.
These four criteria obviously each have circumstances in which they have value. If you know what you’re looking for, precision counts. If you need to do a complete review of the literature, or just need to cover your backside — an “Oh crap I didn’t come across that” moment is not permissible — then recall is your friend. If you are finding your way through a new topic, then relevancy will give you a feel for the terrain. But if you want to find something that will stimulate and amaze you, click on the interestingness button.
Facebook has opted for relevancy. This makes sense for them from an economic standpoint: You will be a happy Facebooker if you are shown stuff you didn’t know about that conforms to your existing interests and values. In their blog post explaining the change, Facebook takes as their paradigmatic example showing you a post of a photo captioned “James Harden and Dwight Harden throw down some sick dunks during practice” because you “follow or like Dwight Howard.” Highly relevant. And if Facebook started showing its users posts as noisy as what you get on the Reddit homepage or from a Flickr stream sorted by interestingness, its users would likely revolt.
So, I understand how this new move makes for happier users and thus makes Facebook richer and safer.
It’s a missed opportunity for helping to break us out of our “filter bubble” — Eli Pariser’s term for always being shown items that too closely reflect our existing interests and worldview, and that therefore confirm that worldview rather than expanding it. (See Eli’s excellent TED Talk.) It would have been far more helpful if Facebook had chosen to expand our worldview through interestingingess rather than reinforce it through relevancy.
Interestingingness is the key to serendipity, a term that, like precision and recall, doesn’t scale very well. Those who call for greater serendipity are trusting too much in the randomness now that the domain of possibilities is so huge. For example, one could create a site (which means that it’s already been created) that uses truly random ways to create a set of links to Web pages. Randomized Page Roulette. But how long do you think you would spend visiting those pages if they’re truly random? The list would be serendipitous but highly unlikely to be either relevant or interesting.
So, instead of serendipity, think about how Facebook could provide us with interesting links instead of links it knows we’ll like. It could use its awesome Social Graph to guess at enticing content that is outside our normal interests. These links would would have the sort of appeal that Reddit does, especially if it were marked as a stab and what you’ll find interesting rather than as stuff FB is confident you’ll like.
These links would be a powerful addition to Facebook’s value, for nothing is more stimulating to us than the discovery of something unexpectedly interesting or, even better, the discovering a new unexpected interest.
Most important from my point of view as a non-shareholder in Facebook, it would use what Facebook knows about us to expand our vision rather than adding another brick to the walled garden of our existing interests.
, social media
Date: February 26th, 2014 dw
For $3 at a library book sale I picked up a copy of Releasing an Independent Record, revised 4th edition, by Gary Hustwit, published in 1994 by Rockpress Publishing Co. The short review is: Times have changed.
Gary’s advice is that if you want to get your music out, don’t go to one of the existing labels. Start your own. In 1993, that was pretty radical even though it required you to emulate the major labels’ processes, albeit starting from scratch and with no budget. So,the bulk of Gary’s manual is a directory of the services you’ll need to hire. He assumes you’ve already got a tape of your music. So, now you need to find a tape duplication house. You also need to get the paperwork done to set up your label’s bank account, and don’t forget the rubber stamp: “Depending on what formats you release, you’ll need a ton of different sized envelopes, and stamping the return address is easier than having them printed or writing it by hand.”
There are also handy, multi-page lists of the press to contact and the local radio stations (remember them?) to flog your songs to. And booking agents and promoters. And record labels so you can “See if your label name is already taken.” Oh, and you might want to check “if they’re interested in licensing your record.”
A quick google reveals that Gary is now a director of documentaries. I saw and liked Helvetica, and Objectified is on my Netflix list.
On the last page, there’s an ad for Rockpress’ other four books. My favorite is Hell on Wheels, by Greg Jacobs:
A compilation of tour stories from 40 bands, including ALL, aMINIATURE, Babes in Toyland, Big Drill Car, Buck Pets, Buffalo Tom, Butthole Surfers, Cadillac Tramps, Chune, Circle Jerks, Coffin Break, The Cult, Descendents, Doughboys, The Dwarves, Ethyl Meatplow, fIREHOSE, The Germs, God Machine, Kill Sybil, King Missile, L7, Luscious Jackson, Mary’s Danish, Melvins, Minutemen, Naked Raygun, Overwhelming Colorfast, Popdefect, Rockets from the Crypt, Screaming Sirens, Skin Yard, Superchunk, Supersuckers, Surgery, UK Subs, and X.
I recognize a couple —it’s not my demographic, people — but that list’s got a bit of Key and Peele about it, don’t you think?
Tagged with: music
Date: February 22nd, 2014 dw
I’ve been meaning to try Medium.com, a magazine-bloggy place that encourages carefully constructed posts by providing an elegant writing environment. It’s hard to believe, but it’s even better looking than Joho the Blog. And, unlike HuffPo, there are precious few stories about side boobs. So, and might do so again.
The piece is about why we seem to keep insisting that the Internet is panopticon when it clearly is not. So, if you care about panopticons, you might find it interesting. Here’s a bit from the beginning:
A panopticon was Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) idea about how to design a prison or other institution where people need to be watched. It was to be a circular building with a watchers’ station in the middle containing a guard who could see everyone, but who could not himself/herself be seen. Even though everyone couldn’t be seen at the same time, prisoners would never know when they were being watched. That’d keep ’em in line.
There is indeed a point of comparison between a panopticon and the Internet: you generally can’t tell when your public stuff is being seen (although your server logs could tell you). But that’s not even close to what a panopticon is.
…So why did the comparison seem so apt?
, social media
Tagged with: philosophy
Date: February 16th, 2014 dw
A small anecdote in a “Talk of the Town” article by Michael Schulman in this week’s New Yorker (Feb. 17 & 24, p. 36) struck me harder than I would have thought. The article — “Get me rewrite” — tells of the controversy when a private middle school decided to perform the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” The co-author of the script, Dick Scanlan, defended a scene as a satire of the Chinese stereotyping in the 1967 movie version, a point that was perhaps just a tad too subtle for middle school, and perhaps just too subtle.
What got to me, though, was what Scanlan, 53, told the student cast about “how he dealt with getting ‘brutally teased’ for being gay as a kid in Maryland”:
I would go home and imitate the imitation of me in the mirror — “Hi, my name is Dick Ssssscanlan and I’m soooo excited — and I would think, That can’t be the way I’m behaving, because I can imitate that and it doesn’t feel like me.
This simple story hit me at a couple of levels.
I’m 63 and graduated high school in 1968. Some of our crowd were obviously gay, but we had an informal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell social policy. (It was sometimes ok to tell, too: my girlfriend came out to me on the night of the senior prom. Long story.) We didn’t call our gay friends names or mockingly imitate them behind their backs, but we also didn’t know how to talk about it, and public displays of affection just were not in our vocabulary. And, I’m not sure how we phrased it, but we assumed (along with the rest of America) that something had gone wrong to make them that way. It was a syndrome, maybe caused by a domineering mother. So, at Herricks High in middle class Long Island, it could have been a whole lot worse. But it could have been a whole lot better.
So, when I hear Dick Scanlan talk about standing in front of a mirror to see if he was truly like his tormentors’ image of him, a bit of my heart breaks. I can too easily imagine my friends doing that. Having to try on the clothes the bully hands you has to be so unsettling, even if you are wise enough to come to the conclusion that Dick did.
The anecdote hit me hard also because I know I’ve done the same thing for the weaknesses I think others perceive in me. In these cases I’m internalizing my own bully, so it’s by no means as serious as what Dick and many of my gay friends went through. But I think I understand it.
I know I’ve talked about this topic before, and I expect I will again. When a change this deep and liberating occurs so quickly — we’ve come so far albeit not far enough — and when it’s a change not only in your culture but in your own attitudes, and when you don’t have the luxury of thinking that the old attitudes were held only by other people who you can write off as bigots, then what can you do but dwell on it and try to understand how wrong things could have seemed so right and how then so quickly have gotten better.
Tagged with: gay rights
Date: February 13th, 2014 dw
Christian Sandvig has a fun post that looks back at his home page from 20 years. (Your “home page” was a place where you could express yourself to others on the World Wide Web.)
Unfortunately, the earliest versions of my home page (hperorg.com/evident.com) and of my newsletter site (hyperorg.com) archived by Archive.org’s WayBack Machine date back only to 1998. Here they are: Evident Hyperorg (and here are screen captures: Evident Hyperorg).
Evident was the home page for my business, Evident Marketing, Inc. I registered that domain in 1994, I think, so I know I had a home page up for a few years before the archived one. Likewise, Hyperorg.com was the site for my JOHO newsletter (Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization), and it had been running for a couple of years before 1998.
I was surprised that Hyperorg page didn’t have instructions for surviving a nuclear war, but Google helped me to remember that that was on its own page. Here are the two key illustrations, both taken from How to Survive an Atomic Bomb, by Richard Gerstell, Ph.D., Consultant to the Civil Defense Board (Bantam Books, NYC, 1952).
My old font graphic was there, though:
And then there’s this lovely animated gif I made to explain the basic principle of the Hyperlinked Organization:
I think that’s self-explanatory, don’t you?
Tagged with: blogs
• old web
Date: February 7th, 2014 dw
The latest from the Schmoyoho Bros is awesome in every direction. I love it as political satire, but I think it’s pretty great just as a piece of music. And then keep in mind that the Gregory Brothers (the family behind the pseudonym) have pretty much invented a new form of music and satire, just as Reddit invented a new form of journalism with the AMA. The pace of invention of new rhetorical forms is itself awesome.
Tagged with: autotune
Date: February 3rd, 2014 dw
Here are two old films of city streets. (Thank you, Andrew Weinberger! And, yes, he is my brother.)
San Francisco, 1906:
London, 1927, in color, thanks to Claude Friese-Greene :
(Wikipedia explains that Friese-Greene exposed each alternate frame through two different color lenses.)
Tagged with: archive
Date: January 29th, 2014 dw
I know I’m late to the love fest, but I’ve been under the flu. I read Pope Francis’ Message for World Communication Day when it was issued on Jan. 24, and I only get happier upon re-reading it.
NOTE please that I am outside of my comfort zone in this posting, for two reasons. First, I am not a Christian and I know I may be misreading the Pope’s words. Second, I am going to evaluate and expound on what a Pope says. Chutzpah* has a new poster boy! So, please think of this only as me trying to make personal sense of a message that I find profoundly hopeful. *[The joke this links to is not really about chutzpah, but it's a pretty good joke.]
The first thing to note are the ways the message refuses to go wrong. The Catholic Church put the “higher” in “hierarchy,” so it’d be understandable if it viewed the Internet as a threat to its power. Or as a source of sinful temptation. Because it’s both of those things. The Pope might even have seen the Internet quite positively as a powerful communication medium for getting out the Church’s message.
But he doesn’t. He sees the Internet as “Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter,” as the post’s subtitle puts it. This is because he views the Internet not within the space of communication, but within the despair of a fragmented world. Not only are there vast inequalities, but these inequalities are literally before our eyes:
Often we need only walk the streets of a city to see the contrast between people living on the street and the brilliant lights of the store windows. We have become so accustomed to these things that they no longer unsettle us.
Traditional media can show us that other world, but we need something more. We need to be unsettled. “The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity,” Pope Francis says, and then adds a remarkable characterization:
This is something truly good, a gift from God.
Not: The Internet is a source of temptations to be resisted. Not: The Internet is just the latest over-hyped communication technology, and remember when we thought telegraphs would bring world peace? Not: The Internet is merely a technology and thus just another place for human nature to reassert itself. Not: The Internet is just a way for the same old powers to extend their reach. Not: The Internet is an opportunity to do good, but be wary because we can also do evil with it. It may be many of those. But first: The Internet — its possibilities for encounter and solidarity — is truly good. The Internet is a gift from God.
This is not the language I would use. I’m an agno-atheistical Jew who lives in solidarity with an Orthodox community. (Long story.) But I think – you can never tell with these cross-tradition interpretations – that the Pope’s words express the deep joy the Internet brings me. “This is not to say that certain problems do not exist,” the Pope says in the next paragraph, listing the dangers with a fine concision. But still: The Internet is truly good. Why?
For the Pope, the Internet is an opportunity to understand one another by hearing one another directly. This understanding of others, he says, will lead us to understand ourselves in the context of a world of differences:
If we are genuinely attentive in listening to others, we will learn to look at the world with different eyes and come to appreciate the richness of human experience as manifested in different cultures and traditions.
This will change our self-understanding as well, without requiring us to abandon our defining values:
We will also learn to appreciate more fully the important values inspired by Christianity, such as the vision of the human person, the nature of marriage and the family, the proper distinction between the religious and political spheres, the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, and many others.
(This seems to me to be a coded sentence, with meanings not readily apparent to those outside the fold. Sorry if I’m misunderstanding its role in the overall posting.)
The Pope does not shy away from the difficult question this idea raises, and pardon me for having switched the order of the following two sentences:
What does it mean for us, as disciples of the Lord, to encounter others in the light of the Gospel? How…can communication be at the service of an authentic culture of encounter?
That is (I think), how can a Catholic engage with others who deny beliefs that the Catholic holds with all the power of faith? (And this is obviously not a question only for Catholics.) The Pope gives a beautiful answer: we should “see communication in terms of ‘neighbourliness’.”
“Communication” as the transferring of meaning is a relatively new term. The Pope’s answer asks us to bring it back from its abstract understanding. Certainly the Pope’s sense takes “communication” out of the realm of marketing that sees it as the infliction of a message on a market. It also enriches it beyond the information science version of communication as the moving of an encoded message through a medium. (Info science of course understands that its view is not the complete story.) It instead looks at communication as something that humans do within a social world:
Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbours. The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him. Jesus shifts our understanding: it is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other. Communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God.
From my point of view [more here, here, and here], the problem with our idea of communication is that it assumes it’s the overcoming of apartness. We imagine individuals with different views of themselves and their world who manage to pierce their solitude by spewing out some sounds and scribbles. Communication! But, those sounds and scribbles only work because they occur within a world that is already shared, and we only bother because the world we share and those we share it with matter to us. Communication implies not isolation and difference but the most profound togetherness and sameness imaginable. Or, as I wouldn’t put it, we are all children of G-d.
Then Pope Francis gets to his deeper critique, which I find fascinating: “Whenever communication is primarily aimed at promoting consumption or manipulating others, we are dealing with a form of violent aggression…” And “Nowadays there is a danger that certain media so condition our responses that we fail to see our real neighbour.” The primary threat to the Internet, then, is to treat it as if it were a traditional medium that privileges the powerful and serves their interests. Holy FSM!
Pope Francis then goes on to draw the deeper conclusion he has led us to: the threat isn’t fundamentally that the old media will use the Net for their old purposes. The actual threat is considering the Internet to be a communications medium at all. “It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply ‘connected’; connections need to grow into true encounters.”
The impartiality of media is merely an appearance; only those who go out of themselves in their communication can become a true point of reference for others.
The most basic image we have of how communication works is wrong: messages do not simply move through media. Rather, in the Pope’s terms, they are acts of engagement. This is clear in face-to-face communication among neighbors, and it seems clear to me on the Net: A tweet that no one retweets goes silent because its recipients have chosen not to act as its medium. A page that no one links to is only marginally on the Web because its recipients have chosen not to create a new link (a channel or medium) that incorporates that page more deeply into the network. The recipient-medium distinction fails on the Net, and the message-medium distinction fails on the Web.
Now, this does not mean that Internet communication is all about people always encountering one another as neighbors. Not hardly. So the Pope’s post then considers how Christians can engage with others on the Net without simply broadcasting their beliefs. Here his Catholic particularity starts to shape his vision in a way that differentiates it from my own. He sees the Internet as “a street teeming with people who are often hurting, men and women looking for salvation or hope,” whereas I would probably have begun with something about joy. (I’m pointing out a difference, not criticizing!)
Given the tension between his belief that faith has a way to alleviate the pain he perceives and his desire for truly mutual engagement, he talks about “Christian witness.” I don’t grasp the nuances of this concept (“We are called to show that the Church is the home of all” – er, no thank you), but I do appreciate the Pope’s explicit contrasting Christian witness with “bombarding people with religious messages.” Rather, he says (quoting his predecessor), it’s about
… our willingness to be available to others “by patiently and respectfully engaging their questions and their doubts as they advance in their search for the truth and the meaning of human existence.”
Since that seems to imply (I think) a dialogue in which one side assumes superiority and refuses the possibility of changing, the new Pope explains that
To dialogue means to believe that the “other” has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective. Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the claim that they alone are valid or absolute.
The Pope is dancing here. He’s dancing, I believe, because he is adopting the language of communication. If the role of the Catholic is to engage in dialogue, then we are plunged into the problems of the world’s plural beliefs. We western liberals like to think that in an authentic dialogue, both sides are open to change, but the Pope does not want to suggest that Catholics put their faith up for grabs. So, the best he can do is say that the “other’s” viewpoint be “entertained” and treated as worthwhile…although apparently not worthwhile enough to be adopted by the faithful Catholic.
There are two points important for me to make right now. First, I’m not carping about the actual content. This sort of pluralism (or whatever label you want to apply) takes the pressure off a world that simply cannot survive absolutism. So, thank you, Pope Francis! Second, I personally think it’s bunk to insist that for a dialogue to be “authentic” both sides have to be open to change. Such an insistence comes from a misunderstanding about how understanding works. So while I personally would prefer that everyone carry a mental reservation that appends “…although I might be wrong” to every statement,* I don’t have a problem with the Pope’s formulation of what an authentic Christian dialogue looks like. *[I simply don't know the Catholic Church's position on faith and doubt.]
I find this all gets much simpler – you get a nice walk instead of a dance – if you stick with the program announced in the Pope’s post’s subtitle: dethroning communication and putting it into the service of neighborliness. I believe the Pope’s vision of the Net as a place where neighbors can help one another lovingly and mercifully gives us a better way to frame the Net and the opportunity it presents. I assume his talk of “Christian witness” and becoming “a true point of reference for others” also gets around the “dialoguing” difficulty.
In fact, the whole problem recedes if you drop all language of communication from the Pope’s message. For example, when the Pope says the faithful should “dialogue with people today … to help them encounter Christ,” the hairs on my Jewish pate go up; if there’s one thing I don’t want to do, it’s to dialogue with a Christian who wants to help me encounter Christ. Framing the Net as being about communication (or information, for that matter) leads us back into the incompatible ideas of truth we encounter. But if we frame the Internet as being about people being human to one another, people being neighbors, the differences in belief are less essential and more tolerable. Neighbors manifest love and mercy. Neighbors find value in theirs differences. Neighbors first, communicators on occasion and preferably with some beer or a nice bottle of wine.
Neighbors first. I take that as the Pope’s message, and I think it captures the gift the Internet gives us. It is also makes clear the challenge. The Net of course poses challenges to our souls or consciences, to our norms and our expectations, to our willingness to accept others into our hearts, but also a challenge to our understanding: Stop thinking about the Net as being about communication. Start thinking about it as a place where we can choose to be more human to one another.
That I can say Amen to.
I apologize for I am forcing the Pope’s comments into my own frame of understanding. I am happy to have that frame challenged. I ask only that you take me as, well, your neighbor.
In a note from the opposite end of the spectrum, Eszter Hargittai has posted an op-ed. You probably known Eszter as one of the most respected researchers into the skills required to succeed with the Internet – no, not everyone can just waltz onto the Net and benefit equally from it – and she is not someone who finds antisemitism everywhere she looks. What’s going on in Hungary is scary. Read her op-ed.
Axel Arnbak has aggregated some papers about Snowden and the NSA revelations that you might find useful. It nicely does not include only US sources and interests.
Tagged with: nsa
Date: January 16th, 2014 dw
William McGeveran [twitter:BillMcGev] has written an article for University of Minnesota Law School that suggests how to make “frictionless sharing” well-behaved. He defines frictionless sharing as “disclosing “individuals’ activities automatically, rather than waiting for them to authorize a particular disclosure.” For example:
…mainstream news websites, including the Washington Post, offer “social reading” applications (“apps”) in Facebook. After a one- time authorization, these apps send routine messages through Facebook to users’ friends identifying articles the users view.
Bill’s article considers the pros and cons:
Social media confers considerable advantages on individuals, their friends, and, of course, intermediaries like Spotify and Facebook. But many implementations of frictionless architecture have gone too far, potentially invading privacy and drowning useful information in a tide of meaningless spam.
Bill is not trying to build walls. “The key to online disclosures … turns out to be the correct amount of friction, not its elimination.” To assess what constitutes “the correct amount” he offers an heuristic, which I am happy to call McGeveran’s Law of Friction: “It should not be easier to ‘share’ an action online than to do it.” (Bill does not suggest naming the law after him! He is a modest fellow.)
One of the problems with the unintentional sharing of information are “misclosures,” a term he attributes to Kelly Caine.
Frictionless sharing makes misclosures more likely because it removes practical obscurity on which people have implicitly relied when assessing the likely audience that would find out about their activities. In other words, frictionless sharing can wrench individuals’ actions from one context to another, undermining their privacy expectations in the process.
Not only does this reveal, say, that you’ve been watching Yoga for Health: Depression and Gastrointestinal Problems (to use an example from Sen. Franken that Bill cites), it reveals that fact to your most intimate friends and family. (In my case, the relevant example would be The Amazing Race, by far the worst TV I watch, but I only do it when I’m looking for background noise while doing something else. I swear!) Worse, says Bill, “preference falsification” — our desire to have our known preferences support our social image — can alter our tastes, leading to more conformity and less diversity in our media diets.
Bill points to other problems with making social sharing frictionless, including reducing the quality of information that scrolls past us, turning what could be a useful set of recommendations from friends into little more than spam: “…friends who choose to look at an article because I glanced at it for 15 seconds probably do not discover hidden gems as a result.”
Bill’s aim is to protect the value of intentionally shared information; he is not a hoarder. McGeveran’s Law thus tries to add in enough friction that sharing is intentional, but not so much that it gets in the way of that intention. For example, he asks us to imagine Netflix presenting the user with two buttons: “Play” and “Play and Share.” Sharing thus would require exactly as much work as playing, thus satisfying McGeveran’s Law. But having only a “Play” button that then automatically shares the fact that you just watched Dumb and Dumberer distinctly fails the Law because it does not “secure genuine consent.” As Bill points out, his Law of Friction is tied to the technology in use, and thus is flexible enough to be useful even as the technology and its user interfaces change.
I like it.
Tagged with: privacy
• programming the social
Date: January 12th, 2014 dw
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