Aug 232017
 

Today Twitter celebrates the tenth anniversary of hashtags.

What’s notable about the story is how Twitter’s management thought hashtags were a ‘nerdy idea’

Twitter has been consistent in ignoring its user community despite every successful feature of the service coming from the platform’s grass roots.

It’s hard not to think Twitter’s greatest barrier to success is its leadership.

 

Jun 022017
 

The New York Times yesterday announced they will be abolishing their Public Editor role while opening up more of their articles to readers’ comments, a big shift in trends over the past decade.

One of the internet’s broken promises was how allowing the audience to comment would usher in a new era of accountability and democracy.

Sadly, it became apparent giving readers carte blanche opened a sewer of abuse, misinformation and libel. Faced with a whole range of risks, not to mention the psychological damage faced by staff members trying to engage with the public, most media organisations chose to be selective about the articles they opened comments on.

Now the New York Times proposes to re-open most of their articles to readers’ comments.

We are dramatically expanding our commenting platform. Currently, we open only 10 percent of our articles to reader comments. Soon, we will open up most of our articles to reader comments. This expansion, made possible by a collaboration with Google, marks a sea change in our ability to serve our readers, to hear from them, and to respond to them.

That the NYT is teaming with Google to enable readers’ comments is interesting – will the search engine giant be applying AI to the moderation or is this another attempt to pump life into their failed social media and identity service? It remains to be seen.

Also what remains to be seen is if removing the Public Editor role affects journalism standards at the Times. The position at the newspaper was established in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal to oversee the organisation’s output and hold editors and journalists accountable for oversights.

In the era of social media and an empowered readership, the New York Times’ publisher Arthur Sulzberger now believes the Public Editor role is redundant.

The public editor position, created in the aftermath of a grave journalistic scandal, played a crucial part in rebuilding our readers’ trusts by acting as our in-house watchdog. We welcomed that criticism, even when it stung. But today, our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be. Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.

So the comments section now becomes part of the editorial process, it will be an interesting experiment.

In some respects, the New York Times’ embrace of social media feedback is a reflection of what many other organisations have done in other industries with ‘social listening’.

The theory is paying attention to what customers say online gives management immediate feedback, however practice has shown most organisations lack the internal communications systems to take advantage of this. It also appears most executives care little about what the public thinks of them which negates the ‘people power’ aspect of social listening.

If the Times can get this right, it will make the media outlet more responsive and effective. However history isn’t on their side.

May 252017
 

“The future isn’t pre-determined, technology doesn’t come from some outside force. It’s created by us. Some people have more power than others in that system, such as the big tech entrepreneurs, but at the end it’s people and organisations that have the power.”

Nicholas Davis, the World Economic Forum’s Head of Society and Innovation, was discussing at the recent Sydney CeBIT conference how we can take control of the digital economy and where workers fit into an increasingly automated world.

Technology and online platforms aren’t neutral system, Davis observes. “It’s not just about how we use them, but the values that are designed into the systems, technology is not just a neutral thing. During a conversation like this if I put my iPhone between us, it’s proven that reduces our memory of that discussion and our sense of connection.”

Politics and addiction

“The purpose of the technology, the design of it, affects us in different ways.” Davis says, “if we design technologies for addiction, if we design business models that involve us being sucked into systems at the expense of other things in our lives, then that is a value choice that companies make and that we as users are trading off in our lives.”

“In understanding that technology is not neutral then the question is how we, as revolutionaries have that political discussion? I don’t mean political like ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ but these are value decisions that we need to engage with.”

“The difficulties about having discussions about technology is not getting sucked into a left-right divide and letting one group of people own innovation, but to say what do we want, How do we get there and how do we avoid the mistakes of previous industrial revolutions where the environment suffered, kids suffered and vulnerable populations suffered.”

A change in thinking

“One of the biggest problems is we don’t have regulatory or even democratic institutions where we can make collective decisions about technologies,” says Davis.

“The average AI researcher, at the top of their game anywhere in the world, would only understand a small percentage of the AI space. So how do you expect a politician or a voter, to come to grips with it.”

One of the key discussions missing in the public sphere is around automation and concepts like the Universal Basic Income, Davis believes. “We should have a serious chat about giving everyone the space to build up their skills.”

In the development policy, Davis sees growing inequality and applying last century’s thinking to today’s challenges as among the biggest risks facing governments and communities.

Rippling beyond business

For business, the imperative is to recognise the effects of decisions on the wider community.

“The big thing for business is understanding the technology decisions you make have a ripple effect beyond your company, you need to look forward to new ways of value adding.”

Davis warns we are seeing a backlash against innovation and technology with concerns about privacy and security growing.

“So much of the world is build on their use of data. Most companies and organisations don’t have good data hygiene or ontology to classify their information. People say data is their greatest assets – some say it’s the new oil – but it’s also their greatest liability. So understanding information security at the board level is critical.”

The power of individuals

For individuals, Davis believes the power lies with us in the choices we make as consumers.

“Don’t underestimate your own power, but also don’t underestimate that more and more products around us are designed to influence our behaviour in ways we need to be aware of.”

“In most cases, if the product is free then you and your data are the product, understand that and on what terms is important.”

Conscious choices

“Understand the externalities of these services as well. Appreciate the effects it has on your family, your mental health, on the ability to connect is important. Being able to make conscious choices about these things.”

“Supporting open data standards and competition – not just accepting Android or Apple for instance – rather than allowing politicians and big business to fight over these things.”

So in Davis’ view being an ‘industrial revolutionary’ in the digital era is a matter of being an informed, and empowered, consumer. Will that be enough?

May 222017
 

“I stand before you as a failure,” was how I opened my presentation at the Talking Justice conference last weekend. “If I were giving this talk ten or fifteen years ago, I’d have described how the web and social media were going to usher in a new era of democracy and accountability.”

“Like most of the cyber utopians, I was very, very wrong.”

Basically we were wrong because we didn’t see how the internet would concentrate rather than diffuse power or the extent of how new gatekeepers and monopolies would be replaced the old ones.

My friends and I were not alone, in a somewhat rambling interview with the New York Times Twitter co-founder Evan Williams describes how “the internet is broken” and how he thought the messaging service could make the world better.

“I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Mr. Williams says. “I was wrong about that.”

Instead Twitter has become home to trolls, harassment and misinformation, something that saddens Williams and most of us who thought the web would bring about a more open and fair society.

Hope isn’t completely gone though, we are still in the early days of social media and the internet so the current trends may only be a transition effect as audiences, markets, regulators and the community get to grips with the new medium.

There’s also Amara’s law which states we overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

So it’s best to be a pessimistic optimist where one accepts in the short run things are dire but over time things will turn out well.

We can only hope.

May 212017
 

Last week was an interesting time with an appearance before a Senate Committee and a trip to regional Victoria to talk about the media and social justice.

While busy, there was time to read some fascinating articles ranging from Elton’s John’s views on modern pop music, software lawsuits and early losses in the war on ‘fake news’ through to how the shiny new Apple campus boast almost everything for employees except a childcare centre.

Parents need not apply

Apple’s new 5 billion dollar campus is the realisation of Steve Jobs’ final vision. It boasts a hundred thousand square foot gym and an attention to detail that extends to the sand used to make the windows.

But it doesn’t have a day care centre, which gives a pretty clear message to aspiring employees – if you don’t have a stay at home spouse, something pretty rare in the hyper expensive Silicon Valley, then don’t bother applying.

Thanks a latte

Meanwhile in Australia, the government financed National Broadband Network is spending half a million dollars a year on maintaining its staff coffee machines.

While the money is small change in a project recent estimates put at costing $56 billion, it is emblematic of how far from its original purpose the vision has drifted.

Facebook Fails to Tackle ‘Fake News’

The social media’s attempts to tackle ‘Fake News’ are failing dismally reports The Guardian as reactionary groups gleefully reshare and publicise anything flagged as such.

While it’s early days, this isn’t a good start for Facebook although it also illustrates how powerful filter bubbles are and the lengths people will go to spread their ideologies.

The lawyers always win

Lasts week’s ransomware scares will trigger lawsuits says Reuters, quoting several legal experts.

Unsurprisingly, it won’t be Microsoft who’ll be the target given their almost bulletproof terms and conditions but businesses who didn’t patch their systems could be liable.

Fox News’ founder passes

Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News and one time Nixon adviser, passes a few months after being ousted from the network he created.

Ailes personified the tabloidisation of the media as Rupert Murdoch applied the model which had worked so well for him at The Sun in the UK to newspapers and television in the United States.

Many blame the internet for the click bait, sensational model of modern news reporting but the pattern was well established by the time the World Wide Web came along in the mid 1990s.

Tinny, vapid crap

Elton John weighs in on the state of pop music.

 

May 142017
 

Last week finished with a big bang as the Wannacry ransomware attack spread around the world with a curious twist which led one New York Times columnist to suggest software companies need to take more responsibility on security.

In the meantime the world goes on companies still struggling with the definition of innovation and Facebook crushing anyone who dares to try out-innovating them.

On a lighter note, Cary Grant spend much of his Hollywood years on LSD but it all turned out well and VentureBeat asks do humans have a role in a world run by Artificial Intelligence?

The future of humans

Is there a future for humans in a world run by artificial intelligence controlled robots? Venture Beat staged a panel in New Orleans that looks at where we fit into the automated world.

Ultimately the panel concluded, it’s up to us to make some serious choices. Something we shouldn’t leave to engineers.

The ethics of driverless cars

Autonomous vehicles should give priority to occupant over passers by in the case of an emergency suggests a Mercedes Benz engineer.

Christoph von Hugo, Mercedes’s manager of driver assistance systems, probably hasn’t helped the development of autonomous vehicles with his comments but the ethics of driverless vehicles is a discussion we should be having.

Defining innovation

Innovation is very simple, it’s about trying new ideas says Pete Williams, Deloitte Australia’s chief edge officer.

“You need ideas, they need to be new, new for you. If everyone in the world is doing something and you haven’t done it and you do it for the first time, you’re innovating. You’ve got to try stuff. Not just have new ideas, you’ve got to try stuff. Innovation is something you do,” he said.

Rethinking public transport

British transport app Citymapper is to launch its own ‘popup’ bus service in London with the promise of a modern and user friendly operation. An interesting twist for a software service.

“There will be a large screen that shows riders where they are in real time, and what’s coming up on the route — similar to how its smartphone app works. And they also have USB charging ports.”

Snapchat feels the market chill

One the darling unicorns of the tech industry, Snap, reported its first results as a listed company and the results were not good as Facebook’s shameless copying of the service’s features takes its toll.

Sadly Facebook seems to be following the Amazon playbook of crushing upcoming competitors that refuse to be bought out. This is a part of a broader problem with modern American capitalism.

What is Wannacry

Security researcher par excellence, Troy Hunt, gives a full run down on the Wannacry ransomware and how to combat it.

Towards the end of his article he has a list of eight actions computer users – from major organisations to households can do to protect their systems. Depressingly these are exactly what the computer tech support industry has been telling people to do for the past twenty years.

Wannacry’s accidental hero

An anonymous British IT security researcher realised the malware has a ‘kill switch’ – so he activated it. He does have an important message for computer users though.

“This is not over. The attackers will realise how we stopped it, they’ll change the code and then they’ll start again. Enable windows update, update and then reboot.”

An age of insecure machines

One of things that might bring down an AI controlled world is insecure machines as Wannacry shows. In the New York Times technology commentator Zeynep Tufekci suggests we can’t stop the wave of attacks taking advantage of systems running out of date software and vendors need to take responsibility.

“It is time to consider whether the current regulatory setup, which allows all software vendors to externalize the costs of all defects and problems to their customers with zero liability, needs re-examination.”

100 trips in tinseltown

Cary Grant got through his Hollywood years by microdosing on LSD claims a new documentary. When he retired from the movies he quit the speed and lived happily every after.

Interestingly, microdosing is one of the strategies used by today’s Silicon Valley workers to get by in their stressful and demanding roles. Some things never change.

Earworm of the week

May 092017
 
How do mobile phone users reduce costs

Last week Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced the social media platform will be hiring three thousand content moderators following a string of shocking incidents on the company’s live streaming service.

Facebook were the most successful of the generation of businesses promising algorithms and the user community – coupled with common sense – would act as gatekeepers.

That was handy for their business models, as the reduced administration costs would mean a much more scalable and profitable business.

Managing users’ sins

Along with Google, AirBnB and Uber, Facebook found that relying on users’ feedback and their own algorithms wasn’t enough to cover the myriad of sins humans commit or one in a million edge cases which occur a thousand times a day when you have a billion daily users.

Even the biggest of the web2.0 companies, Google, found their core business being shaken as the limits of algorithmic advertising were explored and advertisers didn’t like where their brands were appearing.

Most striking was AirBnB who quickly found ignoring aggrieved landlords didn’t work when you’re a billion dollar company. Uber, Facebook and Google have similarly found the “we’re just an agnostic distribution platform” doesn’t fly when you’re boasting millions of users.

Freelancer and the sugar daddies

Which brings us to Freelancer, the labour sites were always problematic in this space as services are rife with ripoffs, misunderstandings and inexperienced operators – on both the seller and buyer side.

Another problem though which seems to be appearing is the advertising of adult services on this site, such as this advert which appears to be either an advert for a sugar daddy or a webcam performer – the mangled English makes it hard to tell.

Bizarrely a Freelancer administrator has removed some of the advert’s content but has left the post itself up.

Clicking on the related links brings up a whole range of strange projects including someone who needs a photoshop expert to insert an individual into sex photographs.

Holding the service harmless

It’s hard to say whether these posts comply with Freelancer’s Terms and Conditions as they are the usual vaguely written screeds seeking to shift all responsibility away from the company which have become the norm with online services.

The reputational risk to Freelancer though is real, as company listed on the Australian Stock Exchange it has public investor base and, given its competitive market, it has to appear respectable to user – becoming a Tindr for adult performers – is probably not where organisation would like to be positioned.

Hitting the profit margin

Ultimately though Freelancer’s problem in this space is the same as most online platform services, the promise of negligible administrative costs is an illusion as managing a large user base brings up legal, regulatory, reputational and even political risks as Facebook is finding.

Like many of the early promises of the internet, the idea of a hands off platform where users do the work while owners sit back and pocket profits has gone. Where there’s people and edge cases, there’s risk and those profits may not be as great as they appear.