Journalism

You are currently browsing the archive for the Journalism category.

Here’s the popover that greets visitors on arrival at Rolling Stone‘s website:

Our Privacy Policy has been revised as of January 1, 2020. This policy outlines how we use your information. By using our site and products, you are agreeing to the policy.

That policy is supplied by Rolling Stone’s parent (PMC) and weighs more than 10,000 words. In it the word “advertising” appears 68 times. Adjectives modifying it include “targeted,” “personalized,” “tailored,” “cookie-based,” “behavioral” and “interest-based.” All of that is made possible by, among other things—

Information we collect automatically:

Device information and identifiers such as IP address; browser type and language; operating system; platform type; device type; software and hardware attributes; and unique device, advertising, and app identifiers

Internet network and device activity data such as information about files you download, domain names, landing pages, browsing activity, content or ads viewed and clicked, dates and times of access, pages viewed, forms you complete or partially complete, search terms, uploads or downloads, the URL that referred you to our Services, the web sites you visit after this web site; if you share our content to social media platforms; and other web usage activity and data logged by our web servers, whether you open an email and your interaction with email content, access times, error logs, and other similar information. See “Cookies and Other Tracking Technologies” below for more information about how we collect and use this information.

Geolocation information such as city, state and ZIP code associated with your IP address or derived through Wi-Fi triangulation; and precise geolocation information from GPS-based functionality on your mobile devices, with your permission in accordance with your mobile device settings.

The “How We Use the Information We Collect” section says they will—

Personalize your experience to Provide the Services, for example to:

  • Customize certain features of the Services,
  • Deliver relevant content and to provide you with an enhanced experience based on your activities and interests
  • Send you personalized newsletters, surveys, and information about products, services and promotions offered by us, our partners, and other organizations with which we work
  • Customize the advertising on the Services based on your activities and interests
  • Create and update inferences about you and audience segments that can be used for targeted advertising and marketing on the Services, third party services and platforms, and mobile apps
  • Create profiles about you, including adding and combining information we obtain from third parties, which may be used for analytics, marketing, and advertising
  • Conduct cross-device tracking by using information such as IP addresses and unique mobile device identifiers to identify the same unique users across multiple browsers or devices (such as smartphones or tablets, in order to save your preferences across devices and analyze usage of the Service.
  • using inferences about your preferences and interests for any and all of the above purposes

For a look at what Rolling Stone, PMC and their third parties are up to, Privacy Badger’s browser extension “found 73 potential trackers on www.rollingstone.com:

tagan.adlightning.com
 acdn.adnxs.com
 ib.adnxs.com
 cdn.adsafeprotected.com
 static.adsafeprotected.com
 d.agkn.com
 js.agkn.com
 c.amazon-adsystem.com
 z-na.amazon-adsystem.com
 display.apester.com
 events.apester.com
 static.apester.com
 as-sec.casalemedia.com
 ping.chartbeat.net
 static.chartbeat.com
 quantcast.mgr.consensu.org
 script.crazyegg.com
 dc8xl0ndzn2cb.cloudfront.net
cdn.digitru.st
 ad.doubleclick.net
 securepubads.g.doubleclick.net
 hbint.emxdgt.com
 connect.facebook.net
 adservice.google.com
 pagead2.googlesyndication.com
 www.googletagmanager.com
 www.gstatic.com
 static.hotjar.com
 imasdk.googleapis.com
 js-sec.indexww.com
 load.instinctiveads.com
 ssl.p.jwpcdn.com
 content.jwplatform.com
 ping-meta-prd.jwpltx.com
 prd.jwpltx.com
 assets-jpcust.jwpsrv.com
 g.jwpsrv.com
pixel.keywee.co
 beacon.krxd.net
 cdn.krxd.net
 consumer.krxd.net
 www.lightboxcdn.com
 widgets.outbrain.com
 cdn.permutive.com
 assets.pinterest.com
 openbid.pubmatic.com
 secure.quantserve.com
 cdn.roiq.ranker.com
 eus.rubiconproject.com
 fastlane.rubiconproject.com
 s3.amazonaws.com
 sb.scorecardresearch.com
 p.skimresources.com
 r.skimresources.com
 s.skimresources.com
 t.skimresources.com
launcher.spot.im
recirculation.spot.im
 js.spotx.tv
 search.spotxchange.com
 sync.search.spotxchange.com
 cc.swiftype.com
 s.swiftypecdn.com
 jwplayer.eb.tremorhub.com
 pbs.twimg.com
 cdn.syndication.twimg.com
 platform.twitter.com
 syndication.twitter.com
 mrb.upapi.net
 pixel.wp.com
 stats.wp.com
 www.youtube.com
 s.ytimg.com

This kind of shit is why we have the EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and California’s CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act). (No, it’s not just because Google and Facebook.) If publishers and the adtech industry (those third parties) hadn’t turned the commercial Web into a target-rich environment for suckage by data vampires, we’d never have had either law. (In fact, both laws are still new: the GDPR went into effect in May 2018 and the CCPA a few days ago.)

I’m in California, where the CCPA gives me the right to shake down the vampiretariat for all the information about me they’re harvesting, sharing, selling or giving away to or through those third parties.* But apparently Rolling Stone and PMC don’t care about that.

Others do, and I’ll visit some of those in later posts. Meanwhile I’ll let Rolling Stone and PMC stand as examples of bad acting by publishers that remains rampant, unstopped and almost entirely unpunished, even under these new laws.

I also suggest following and getting involved with the fight against the plague of data vampirism in the publishing world. These will help:

  1. Reading Don Marti’s blog, where he shares expert analysis and advice on the CCPA and related matters. Also People vs. Adtech, a compilation of my own writings on the topic, going back to 2008.
  2. Following what the browser makers are doing with tracking protection (alas, differently†). Shortcuts: Brave, Google’s Chrome, Ghostery’s Cliqz, Microsoft’s Edge, Epic, Mozilla’s Firefox.
  3. Following or joining communities working to introduce safe forms of nourishment for publishers and better habits for advertisers and their agencies. Those include Customer CommonsMe2B AllianceMyData Global and ProjectVRM.

______________

*The bill (AB 375), begins,

The California Constitution grants a right of privacy. Existing law provides for the confidentiality of personal information in various contexts and requires a business or person that suffers a breach of security of computerized data that includes personal information, as defined, to disclose that breach, as specified.

This bill would enact the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018. Beginning January 1, 2020, the bill would grant a consumer a right to request a business to disclose the categories and specific pieces of personal information that it collects about the consumer, the categories of sources from which that information is collected, the business purposes for collecting or selling the information, and the categories of 3rd parties with which the information is shared. The bill would require a business to make disclosures about the information and the purposes for which it is used. The bill would grant a consumer the right to request deletion of personal information and would require the business to delete upon receipt of a verified request, as specified. The bill would grant a consumer a right to request that a business that sells the consumer’s personal information, or discloses it for a business purpose, disclose the categories of information that it collects and categories of information and the identity of 3rd parties to which the information was sold or disclosed…

Don Marti has a draft letter one might submit to the brokers and advertisers who use all that personal data. (He also tweets a caution here.)

†This will be the subject of my next post.

A few weeks ago, in Where journalism fails, I wrote about how journalism, for all its high-minded (and essential) purposes, is still interested only in stories. I explained that stories have just three requirements—characterproblem, and movement—and that, by focusing on those three requirements alone, journalism excludes a boundless volume of facts, many of which actually matter. I also point out that story-telling is vulnerable to manipulation by experts at feeding journalism’s appetites.

In this post my focus is on the near-infinite abundance of stories that have never been told, have been forgotten, or both, but some of which might still matter to somebody, or to the world.

You’ll find pointers to billions of those in cemeteries. Every headstone marks the absence of countless stories as lost and buried as the graves’ occupants. All the long-buried were characters in their own lives’ stories, and within each of those lives were countless other stories. But the characters in those stories are gone, their problems are over, and movement has ceased. All have been, or will soon be, erased by time and growing disinterests of the living—even of surviving friends and heirs.

So I want to surface a few stories of deceased ancestors and relatives of my own, whose bodies are among the 300,000+ occupants of just one cemetery: Woodlawn, in The Bronx, New York. We’ll start with my great-grandfather, Henry Roman EnglertThat’s him with his first four daughters, above. Clockwise from top left are Loretto (“Loretta”), Regina (“Gene”), Ethel (my grandma Searls), and Florence. Here’s Henry as a younger man:

Here are the same four girls in the top picture, at the Jersey shore in 1953, ten years after Henry died:

All those ladies lived long full lives. The longest was Grandma (second from right), who made it to a few days short of 108.

Here’s henry his granddaughter, Grace (née Searls) Apgar, my father’s sister, ten years before that:

And here is his headstone, placed ten years after the shot above:

Henry R. Englert headstone

Some biography:

Henry was a fastidious dude, meaning highly disciplinary as well as disciplined. Grandma told a story about how her father, on arriving home from work, would summon his four daughters (of which she was one) to appear and stand in a row… He would then run his white glove over some horizontal surface and wipe it on a white shoulder of a daughter’s dress, expecting no dust to leave a mark on either glove or girl.

Henry was the son of German immigrants: Christian Englert and Jacobina Rung, both of Alsace, then of Bavaria and now part of France. They were brewers, and had a tavern on the east side of Manhattan on 110th Street. (Though an 1870 census page calls Christian a “laborer.”) Jacobina was a Third Order Carmelite nun, and was buried in its brown robes. Both were born in 1825. Christian is said to have died in 1886 while picking hops in Utica. Jacobina died in 1904.

Here’s more:

  1. Henry was sometimes called “HRE.”
  2. He headed (or was said to have headed) the Steel and Copper Plate Engravers Union in New York—and was put out of business by mechanization, like many others in his trade. I don’t know what else he did after that. Perhaps he lived off savings.
  3. He was what his daughter (my grandma) called a “good socialist.”
  4. He had at least seven daughters and one son (Henry Jr., known as Harry, who died at age four).
  5. He was married twice, and outlived both his wives and three of his kids, all by long margins.
  6. His second wife, Teresa, was (again, by lore) both an alcoholic and kinda crazy. Still, she produced several children.
  7. It was said that he died after having his first dentistry—a tooth pulled, at age 87. I don’t know if that was correct, but it’s one story about him.
  8. He rarely visited the families of children by his first wife: the Knoebels (by daughter Regina, known as Gene), the Searls (by daughter Ethel, my grandma) or the Dwyers (by daughter Florence), though there seem to be plenty of pictures of him with those families.
  9. Nobody alive can say why the graves of the wives and kids buried with him are unmarked, or why Henry’s is the only headstone. Here’s some detail on who lies where in his plot:

Henry Roman Englert, wives and kids

My grandmother and her sisters used to take their families on picnic trips to this plot when it was unmarked. Why did they not mark it before Henry died? Nobody who knew is alive to say.

About 80 feet away is an older three-grave plot occupied by Henry’s parents, plus one of his brothers and three cousins and in-laws named Fehn*:

Woodlawn’s own records say this about the distribution of the graves and their occupants

Left:

  1. Theresa M. Fen, 10 mos 8/2/1887
  2. Agnes Fen, 1 yr

Center:

  1. Annie T. Englert, 29 yrs, 4/12/1881 Bellview Hosp. NYC
  2. Christian Englert, 60 yrs, 10/4/1886, 16 Devereux St. Utica, NY
  3. Jacobina Englert, 78 yrs & 7′ deep, 3/1/04 110 e. 106th St. NYC

Right:

  1. Christian P. Englert, 33 yrs 4/12/1891 Bellview Hosp. NYC
  2. Henry W. Fehn, 85 yrs 10/23/1948 Am Vet

A hmm here: to bury Jacobina 7 feet deep,  they surely would have had to dig past her husband (dead 18 years) and daughter (dead 23 years), and to have encountered bones along the way. I can say that, because I’ve seen evidence

—that bones survive well in glacial till (about which more later). So I suspect that this three-person grave is seven feet deep, with the final occupant stacked on top.

Also, since Jacobina was a Carmelite nun, I call her “Nun of the Below.”

Further digging of the research kind, done my my aunt Katherine (née Dwyer) Burns (daughter of Florence Englert), turns up an 1870 census page that says this about the Englert family at that time:

  1. Christian, from Bavaria, a laborer, age 45
  2. Jacobina, from Bavaria, “keeps houses,” age 45
  3. Henry, “(illegible) engraver,” age 15
  4. Christian, age 12
  5. Annie, age 9
  6. Mary, age 7*
  7. Andrew, age 4

*Mary, I gather, married a Fehn. Here’s a clue. [Later…] Ah! I found a better one:

Mary A Fehn (born Englert), 1863 – 1957

(This is from Geni.com, which wants money to reveal details at those links.)

Mostly I’m impressed that, among Christian and Jacobina’s kids, Mary and Henry alone lived long lives.

Here are Christian and Jacobina, in life, perhaps around the time of the 1870 census:

And here are their three sons, with Henry’s first three daughters, the future Grandma Searls on the right:

There are differences between the caption I wrote under that photo eight years ago (based on what I knew, or thought I knew, at the time), Grace’s comment below it, posted when she was 100 years old. (Grace rocked. Here’s her 100th birthday party, in Maine.) In that comment, Grace says she thinks the one on the left is Andrew, and the one in the middle is Christopher, by which I’m sure she means Christian (the younger). Both died not long after this photo was taken. Not clear whether Christian or Andrew was the one who died of a terminal cold acquired while working in a frozen food warehouse or something.

While he’s not in the Englert plot above, he is in an unmarked one nearby, which Woodlawn identifies thus:

  1. Andrew J. Englert, 35 yrs, 5/29/1901
  2. Annie C. Englert, 67 yrs, 11/17/1935

I suppose, since his sister Annie (named Anna) is buried with her parents and brother Christian (among various Fehns), that she was Andrew’s wife. Here is a shot of that grave.

And here is a Google Earth GPS trace of a visit to all three gravesites: Henry at B, his parents Christian and Jacobina + sibs Anna (Annie) and Christian at A, and Andrew + (wife?) Annie at C:

At D in that shot is a collection of headstones for New York’s Association for the Relief of Respectable Aged Indigent Females, which occupied a beautiful Victorian gothic building in Harlem that is now home to a youth hostel. The Wikipedia entry at the last link fails to mention the cemetery. (I should correct that.)

Last is the Knoebel plot, nearby. Bigger than any of the Englert plots, it is first in a way, because Regina Knoebel was the Eldest of Henry Englert’s many children. It looks like this:

From the caption under that photo:

The six-grave, twelve-body Knoebel plot is described by Woodlawn Cemetery here. Since the descriptions of those graves that don’t quite agree with some of the headstones (for example, with spellings), I’ve combined the two in the description below.

First, behind the main monument are three graves. Left to right, they are—

1
Lillian (Lillie) Raichle, 1876-3/3/1958, 81 years
Lillian W. Raichle, 1902-1907, 5 years
Herman Raichle, 1877-1933

2
Sarah Bladen, 1864 to 1926, 61 years

3
Henry Vier, 8 years
Rita P. Knoebel, 81 years, 2/15/92

All three have headstones.

In front of the monument are three more graves, left to right, those are:

4
John E. Knoebel, 78 years 9/4/50
John E. Knoebel, 84 years, 12/25/2000
Regina Knoebel, 80 years, 1/6/1960, exhumed on 10/7/70 and reburied in Fairview Cemetery in New Jersey

5
John E. Knoebel, 61 years

6
Louis F. Knoebel, 50 years, 11/11/2013
Anastasia Knoebel, 60 years

Note that grave 4 is a bit sunken. This is the one from which Regina (née Englert) Knoebel (Aunt Gene), who was married to one of the John E. (“Johnny”) Knoebels, and whose son John E. was, apparently, buried in her stead.

A story I recall about Aunt Gene is almost certainly apocryphal, but still interesting, is that she once climbed a spire of rock in New Jersey’s Palisades and carved her initials, “RE,” near the top—and that these were later visible from the George Washington Bridge, because it was built right next to the spire. (On the North side.)

Lending credence to this story is an absent fear of heights that runs in my father’s family (his mom was Gene’s younger sister Ethel). Pop also grew up on the Palisades and was a cable rigger working on the Bridge itself. (Here he is.) And I do at least recall Aunt Gene as the most alpha (being the eldest) of the four Englert sisters; so it kinda seemed in character that she might do such a thing. But … I have no idea. I’ve been by there many times since then, and the whole face of the Palisades is so overrun with greenery now that it’s hard to tell if a spire is even there. I do recall that there was one, though.

Yet the sad but true summary of all this is that today none of these people matter much to anybody, even though most or all of them mattered to others a great deal when they were alive. Living relatives, including me, are all way too busy with stories of their own, and long since past caring much, if at all, about any of the departed here.

A measure of caring about the preservation of graves at Woodlawn is whether or not the headstone is “endowed,” meaning maintained in its original upright and above-ground condition. The elder Englerts’ stone, as we see in the shot above, is endowed. Henry’s, I suppose, is not, but appears to be holding up. So far.

Many of those not endowed are sinking into the Earth. See the examples here, here and here. The last of those is this:

The gravestone business calls its products memorials, defined as “something, especially a structure, established to remind people of a person or event.” The headstone above may have reminded some people a century ago of Henry Kremer and his infant namesake, but today I find nothing about either online. And soon this stone, like so many others around it, will be buried no less than the graves they once marked, simply because most of Woodlawn, like much of New York City itself, is barely settled glacial till, and so soft you can dig it with a spoon. (In fact, New York’s glacial history is far more interesting today than the lives of nearly all the inhabitants of its cemeteries. That’s why it makes the great story at that last link.)

Archeology is “the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains.” These days we do much of that online, in digital space. It’s what I’m doing here, in some faith that at least a few small bits of what I tossed out in the paragraphs above will prove useful to story-tellers among the living.

And I suggest that this, and not just telling the usual stories, needs to be a bigger part of journalism’s calling in our time.

newspaperIn a Columbia Journalism Review op-ed, Bernie Sanders presents a plan to save journalism that begins,

WALTER CRONKITE ONCE SAID that “journalism is what we need to make democracy work.” He was absolutely right, which is why today’s assault on journalism by Wall Street, billionaire businessmen, Silicon Valley, and Donald Trump presents a crisis—and why we must take concrete action.

His prescriptive remedies run ten paragraphs long, and all involve heavy government intervention. Rob Williams (@RobWilliamsNY) of MediaPost provides a brief summary in Bernie Sanders Has Misguided Plan To Save Journalism:

Almost two weeks after walking back his criticism of The Washington Post, which he had suggested was a mouthpiece for owner Jeff Bezos, Sanders described a scheme that would re-order the news business with taxes, cross-subsidies and trust-busting…

Sanders also proposes new taxes on online targeted ads, and using the proceeds to fund nonprofit civic-minded media. It’s highly doubtful that a government-funded news provider will be a better watchdog of local officials than an independent publisher. Also, a tax-funded news source will compete with local publishers that already face enough threats.

Then Rob adds,

Sanders needs to recognize that the news business is subject to market forces too big to tame with more government regulation. Consumers have found other sources for news, including pay-TV and a superabundance of digital publishers.

Here’s a lightly edited copy of the comment I put up under Rob’s post:

Journalism as we knew it—scarce and authoritative media resources on print and air—has boundless competition now from, well, everybody.

Because digital.

Meaning we are digital now. (Proof: try living without your computer and smartphone.) As digital beings we float in a sea of “content,” very little of which is curated, and much of which is both fake and funded by the same systems (Google, Facebook and the four-dimensional shell game called adtech) that today rewards publishers for bringing tracked eyeballs to robots so those eyeballs can be speared with “relevant” and “interactive” ads.

The systems urging those eyeballs toward advertising spears are algorithmically biased to fan emotional fires, much of which reduces to enmity toward “the other,” dividing worlds of people into opposing camps (each an “other” for the “other”). Because, hey, it’s good for the ad business, which includes everyone it pays, including what’s left of mainstream and wannabe mainstream journalism.

Meanwhile, the surviving authoritative sources in that mainstream have themselves become fat with opinion while carving away reporters, editors, bureaus and beats. Brand advertising, for a century the most reliable and generous source of funding for good journalism (admittedly, along with some bad), is now mostly self-quarantined to major broadcast media, while the eyeball-spearing “behavioral” kind of advertising rules online, despite attempts by regulators (especially in Europe) to stamp it out. (Because it is in fact totally rude.)

Then there’s the problem of news surfeit, which trivializes everything with its abundance, no matter how essential and important a given story may be. It’s all just too freaking much. (More about that here.)

And finally there’s the problem of “the story”—journalism’s stock-in-trade. Not everything that matters fits the story format (character, problem, movement). Worse, we’re living in a time when the most effective political leaders are giant characters who traffic in generating problems that attract news coverage like a black hole attracts everything nearby that might give light. (More about that here.)

Against all those developments at once, there is hardly a damn thing lawmakers or regulators can do. Grandstanding such as Sanders does in this case only adds to the noise, which Google’s and Facebook’s giant robots are still happy to fund.

Good luck, folks.

So. How do we save journalism—if in fact we can? Three ideas:

  1. Start at the local level, because the physical world is where the Internet gets real. It’s hard to play the fake news game there, and that alone is a huge advantage (This is what my TED talk last year was about, by the way.)
  2. Whatever Dave Winer is working on. I don’t know anybody with as much high-power insight and invention, plus the ability to make stuff happen. (Heard of blogging and podcasting? You might not have if them weren’t for Dave. Some history herehere and here.)
  3. Align incentives between journalism, its funding sources and its readers, listeners and viewers. Surveillance-based adtech is massively misaligned with the moral core of journalism, the brand promises of advertisers and the privacy of every human being exposed to it. Bernie and too many others miss all that, largely because the big publishers have been chickenshit about admitting their role in adtech’s surveillance system—and reporting on it.
  4. Put the users of news in charge of their relationships with the producers of it. Which can be done. For example, we can get rid of those shitty adtech-protecting cookie notices on the front doors of websites with terms that readers can proffer and publishers can agree to, because those terms are a good deal for both. Here’s one.

I think we’ll start seeing the tide turn when when what’s left of responsible ad-funded online publishing cringes in shame at having participated in adtech’s inexcusable surveillance business—and reports on it thoroughly.

Credit where due: The New York Times has started, with its Privacy Project. An excellent report by Farhad Manjoo (@fmanjoo) in that series contains this long-overdue line:”Among all the sites I visited, news sites, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, had the most tracking resources.”

Hats off to Farhad for grabbing a third rail there. I’ve been urging this for a long time, and working especially on #4, through ProjectVRMCustomerCommons and the IEEE’s working group (P7012) on Standard for Machine Readable Personal Privacy Terms. If you want to roll up your sleeves and help with this stuff, join one or more of those efforts.

 

 

“What’s the story?”

No question is asked more often by editors in newsrooms than that one. And for good reason: that’s what news is about: stories.

I was just 22 when I got my first gig as a journalist, reporting for a daily newspaper in New Jersey. It was there that I first learned that all stories are built around just three elements:

  1. Character
  2. Problem
  3. Movement toward resolution

You need all three. Subtract one or more, and all you have is an item, or an incident. Not a story. So let’s unpack those a bit.

The character can be a person, a group, a team, a cause—anything with a noun. Mainly the character needs to be worth caring about in some way. You can love the character, hate it (or him, or her or whatever). Mainly you have to care about the character enough to be interested.

The problem can be of any kind at all, so long as it causes conflict involving the character. All that matters is that the conflict keeps going, at least toward the possibility of resolution. If the conflict ends, the story is over. For example, if you’re at a sports event, and your team is up (or down) by forty points with five minutes left, the character you now care about is your own ass, and your problem is getting it out of the parking lot. If that struggle turns out to be interesting, it might be a story you tell later at a bar.)

Movement toward resolution is nothing more than that. Bear in mind that many stories, and many characters in many conflicts around many problems in stories, never arrive at a conclusion. In fact, that may be part of the story itself. Soap operas work that way.

For a case-in-point of how this can go very wrong, we have the character now serving as President of the United States.

Set the politics aside and just look at the dude through the prism of Story.

Trump—clearly, deeply and instinctively—understands how stories work. He is experienced and skilled at finding or causing problems that generate conflict and enlarge his own character to maximum size in the process.

He does this through constant characterization of others, for example with nicknames: “Little Mario,” “Low Energy Jeb,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Sleepy Joe,” “Failing New York Times.”

He stokes the fires of conflict by staying on the attack at all times: a strategy he learned from Roy Cohn., who Frank Rich felicitously calls “The worst human being who ever lived … the most evil, twisted, vicious bastard ever to snort coke at Studio 54.” Talk about character. Whoa. As Politico puts it here, “Cohn imparted an M.O. that’s been on searing display throughout Trump’s ascent, his divisive, captivating campaign, and his fraught, unprecedented presidency. Deflect and distract, never give in, never admit fault, lie and attack, lie and attack, publicity no matter what, win no matter what, all underpinned by a deep, prove-me-wrong belief in the power of chaos and fear.” There is genius to how Trump succeeds at this, especially in these early years of our new digital age, when the entire Internet is one big gossip mill.

Trump’s success at capturing the attention of everyone and the loyalty of many calls to mind The Mule in Isaac Azimov’s Foundation and Empire. (It was by noting this resemblance that I, along with Scott Adams, expected Trump to win in 2016.)

So that’s the first way journalism fails: its appetite for stories proves a weakness when it’s fed by a genius at hogging the stage.

Journalism’s second failing is not reporting what doesn’t fit the story format. Stories are inadequate ways to represent facts and truths. Too much of both get excluded if they don’t fit “the narrative,” which is the modern way to talk about story—and to spin journalists. (My hairs of suspicion stand on end every time I hear the word “narrative.”)

There is a paradox here: we need to know more than stories can tell, and yet stories are pretty much all human beings are interested in. Character, problem and movement give shape and purpose to every human life. We can’t correct for it.

That’s why my topic here—a deep and abiding flaw (also a feature) of both journalism and human nature—is one most journalists won’t touch. The flawed nature of The Story itself is not a story.

I’ll illustrate my point with the killing fields of Cambodia. Those fields are the setting for a well-known story about how Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge committed genocide on a massive scale, wiping out between one and a half to two million people, or around twenty-five percent of the country’s population.

That story meant almost nothing here in the U.S. before it became a story about one man.

A measure of that close-to-nothing was delivered one evening in the late 1970s, by Hughes Rudd, an anchor at the time of the CBS Morning News. He said, almost offhandedly, that there were reports coming in, saying that perhaps half a million people were dead in Cambodia. Rather than a story, this was just an item: too important to not mention but not interesting enough to say more about. The next morning I checked The New York Times and found the same item mentioned in a short piece on an inside page. It blew my mind: half a million dead, and no story.

What made it not a story was the absence of all three elements. There were no characters, no conflict that was easy to describe, no movement toward resolution. Just a statistic. It hardly mattered to journalistic institutions of the time that the statistic itself was a massive one.

The killing fields finally became a story on January 20, 1980, when Sydney Schanberg‘s The Death and Life of Dith Pran ran in the Times‘ Sunday Magazine. Now the story had all three elements, and pulled in lots of relevant an interesting facts. Eventually it became the movie that gave Cambodia’s killing fields their name.

For journalism, however, what also matters about this is that years went by, with hundreds of thousands more dying, before the killing fields became a big story.

And this wasn’t the first or last time that massively important and consequential facts got too little attention in the absence of one or more of a story’s three elements. Consider The Holocaust (six million dead) vs. the story of Ann Frank. The Rwandan genocide vs. Hotel Rwanda. The Rohingya conflict (more than 10,000 civilians dead, 128,000 internally displaced, 950,000+ fled elsewhere) vs. approximately nobody. Heard of Holodomor? How about any of the millions who died during Mao’s revolution in China? (Want to learn about a holocaust still going on—one that’s hard to make into a story? Watch One Child Nation and think about how many millions of stories have never been—and will never be—told.)

Without characters to care about, or a conflict to focus interest, or movement toward resolution, you mostly just have statistics which, in telling without a story context, become cemeteries of facts. Sure, some of it will be studied by academics and obsessives of other kinds (including journalists who care about the topics and publish what they learn wherever they can). But Big-J journalism will mostly be preoccupied elsewhere, by more interesting stuff. Like it is right now.

_________

*However, if you want good advice on how best to write stories about the guy, you can’t beat what @JayRosen_NYU tweets here. I suggest it also applies to the UK’s new prime minister.

 

 

 

[19 July 2019 update…] I just copied* this piece over from its old placement in Medium. I can no longer edit it there, and the images in it have disappeared. This is also the case for other stuff I’ve published on Medium, alas.

*I also copied over all the HTML cruft that Medium is full of. It’ll take more time than I have to extract that. Meanwhile, it seems to look okay.

Tags: , , , ,

The Spinner* (with the asterisk) is “a service that enables you to subconsciously influence a specific person, by controlling the content on the websites he or she usually visits.” Meaning you can hire The Spinner* to hack another person.

It works like this:

  1. You pay The Spinner* $29. For example, to urge a friend to stop smoking. (That’s the most positive and innocent example the company gives.)
  2. The Spinner* provides you with an ordinary link you then text to your friend. When that friend clicks on the link, they get a tracking cookie that works as a bulls-eye for The Spinner* to hit with 10 different articles written specifically to influence that friend. He or she “will be strategically bombarded with articles and media tailored to him or her.” Specifically, 180 of these things. Some go in social networks (notably Facebook) while most go into “content discovery platforms” such as Outbrain and Revcontent (best known for those clickbait collections you see appended to publishers’ websites).

The Spinner* is also a hack on journalism, designed like a magic trick to misdirect moral outrage toward The Spinner’s obviously shitty business, and away from the shitty business called adtech, which not only makes The Spinner possible, but pays for most of online journalism as well.

The magician behind The Spinner* is “Elliot Shefler.” Look that name up and you’ll find hundreds of stories. Here are a top few, to which I’ve added some excerpts and notes:

  • For $29, This Man Will Help Manipulate Your Loved Ones With Targeted Facebook And Browser Links, by Parmy Olson @parmy in Forbes. Excerpt: He does say that much of his career has been in online ads and online gambling. At its essence, The Spinner’s software lets people conduct a targeted phishing attack, a common approach by spammers who want to secretly grab your financial details or passwords. Only in this case, the “attacker” is someone you know. Shefler says his algorithms were developed by an agency with links to the Israeli military.
  • For $29, This Company Swears It Will ‘Brainwash’ Someone on Facebook, by Kevin Poulson (@kpoulson) in The Daily Beast. A subhead adds, A shadowy startup claims it can target an individual Facebook user to bend him or her to a client’s will. Experts are… not entirely convinced.
  • Facebook is helping husbands ‘brainwash’ their wives with targeted ads, by Simon Chandler (@_simonchandler_) in The Daily Dot. Excerpt: Most critics assume that Facebook’s misadventures relate only to its posting of ads paid for by corporations and agencies, organizations that aim to puppeteer the “average” individual. It turns out, however, that the social network also now lets this same average individual place ads that aim to manipulate other such individuals, all thanks to the mediation of a relatively new and little-known company…
  • Brainwashing your wife to want sex? Here is adtech at its worst., by Samuel Scott (@samueljscott) in The Drum. Alas, the piece is behind a registration wall that I can’t climb without fucking myself (or so I fear, since the terms and privacy policy total 32 pages and 10,688 words I’m not going to read), so I can’t quote from it.
  • Creepy company hopes ‘Inception’ method will get your wife in the mood, by Saqib Shah (@eightiethmnt) in The Sun, via The New York Post. Excerpt: “It’s unethical in many ways,” admitted Shefler, adding “But it’s the business model of all media. If you’re against it, you’re against all media.” He picked out Nike as an example, explaining that if you visit the brand’s website it serves you a cookie, which then tailors the browsing experience to you every time you come back. A shopping website would also use cookies to remember the items you’re storing in a virtual basket before checkout. And a social network might use cookies to track the links you click and then use that information to show you more relevant or interesting links in the future…The Spinner started life in January of this year. Shefler claims the company is owned by a larger, London-based “agency” that provides it with “big data” and “AI” tools.
  • Adtech-for-sex biz tells blockchain consent app firm, ‘hold my beer’, by Rebecca Hill (@beckyhill) in The Register. The subhead says, Hey love, just click on this link… what do you mean, you’re seeing loads of creepy articles?
  • New Service Promises to Manipulate Your Wife Into Having Sex With You, by Fiona Tapp (@fionatappdotcom) in Rolling Stone. Excerpt: The Spinner team suggests that there isn’t any difference, in terms of morality, from a big company using these means to influence a consumer to book a flight or buy a pair of shoes and a husband doing the same to his wife. Exactly.
  • The Spinner And The Faustian Bargain Of Anonymized Data, by Lauren Arevalo-Downes (whose Twitter link by the piece goes to a 404) in A List Daily. On that site, the consent wall that creeps up from the bottom almost completely blanks out the actual piece, and I’m not going to “consent,” so no excertoing here either.
  • Can you brainwash one specific person with targeted Facebook ads? in TripleJ Hack, by ABC.net.au. Excerpt: Whether or not the Spinner has very many users, whether or not someone is going to stop drinking or propose marriage simply because they saw a sponsored post in their feed, it seems feasible that someone can try to target and brainwash a single person through Facebook.
  • More sex, no smoking – even a pet dog – service promises to make you a master of manipulation, by Chris Keall (@ChrisKeall) in The New Zealand Herald. Excerpt: On one level, The Spinner is a jape, rolled out as a colour story by various publications. But on another level it’s a lot more sinister: apparently yet another example of Facebook’s platform being abused to invade privacy and manipulate thought.
  • The Cambridge Analytica of Sex: Online service to manipulate your wife to have sex with you, by Ishani Ghose in meaww. Excerpt: The articles are all real but the headlines and the descriptions have been changed by the Spinner team. The team manipulating the headlines of these articles include a group of psychologists from an unnamed university. As the prepaid ads run, the partner will see headlines such as “3 Reasons Why YOU Should Initiate Sex With Your Husband” or “10 Marriage Tips Every Woman Needs to Hear”.

Is Spinner for real?

“Elliot Shefler” is human for sure. But his footprint online is all PR. He’s not on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. The word “Press” (as in coverage) at the top of the Spinner website is just a link to a Google search for Elliot Shefler, not to curated list such as a real PR person or agency might compile.

Fortunately, a real PR person, Rich Leigh (@RichLeighPR) did some serious digging (you know, like a real reporter) and presented his findings in his blog, PR Examples, in a post titled Frustrated husbands can ‘use micro-targeted native ads to influence their wives to initiate sex’ – surely a PR stunt? Please, a PR stunt? It ran last July 10th, the day after Rich saw this tweet by Maya Kosoff (@mekosoff):

—and this one:

The links to (and in) those tweets no longer work, but the YouTube video behind one of the links is still up. The Spinner itself produced the video, which is tricked to look like a real news story. (Rich does some nice detective work, figuring that out.) The image above is a montage I put together from screenshots of the video.

Here’s some more of what Rich found out:

  • Elliot – not his real name, incidentally, his real name is Halib, a Turkish name (he told me) – lives, or told me he lives, in Germany

  • When I asked him directly, he assured me that it was ‘real’, and when I asked him why it didn’t work when I tried to pay them money, told me that it would be a technical issue that would take around half an hour to fix, likely as a result of ‘high traffic. I said I’d try again later. I did – keep reading

  • It is emphatically ‘not’ PR or marketing for anything

  • He told me that he has 5-6,000 paying users – that’s $145,000 – $174,000, if he’s telling the truth

  • Halib said that Google Ads were so cheap as nobody was bidding on them for the terms he was going for, and they were picking up traffic for ‘one or two cents’

  • He banked on people hate-tweeting it. “I don’t mind what they feel, as long as they think something”, Halib said – which is scarily like something I’ve said in talks I’ve given about coming up with PR ideas that bang

  • The service ‘works’ by dropping a cookie, which enables it to track the person you’re trying to influence in order to serve specific content. I know we had that from the site, but it’s worth reiterating

Long post short, Rich says Habib and/or Elliot is real, and so is The Spinner.

But what matters isn’t whether or not The Spinner is real. It’s that The Spinner misdirects reporters’ attention away from what adtech is and does, which is spy on people for the purpose of aiming stuff at them. And that adtech isn’t just what funds all of Facebook and much of Google (both giant and obvious targets of journalistic scrutiny), but what funds nearly all of publishing online, including most reporters’ salaries.

So let’s look deeper, starting here: There is no moral difference between planting an unseen tracking beacon on a person’s digital self and doing the same on a person’s physical self.

The operational difference is that in the online world it’s a helluva lot easier to misdirect people into thinking they’re not being spied on. Also a helluva lot easier for spies and intermediaries (such as publishers) to plausibly deny that spying is what they’re doing. And to excuse it, saying for example “It’s what pays for the Free Internet!” Which is bullshit, because the Internet, including the commercial Web, got along fine for many years before adtech turned the whole thing into Mos Eisley. And it will get along fine without adtech after we kill it, or it dies of its own corruption.

Meanwhile the misdirection continues, and it’s away from a third rail that honest and brave journalists† need to grab: that adtech is also what feeds most of them.

______________

† I’m being honest here, but not brave. Because I’m safe. I don’t work for a publication that’s paid by adtech. At Linux Journal, we’re doing the opposite, by being the first publication ready to accept terms that our readers proffer, starting with Customer CommonsP2B1(beta), which says “Just show me ads not based on tracking me.”

I came up with that law in the last millennium and it applied until Chevy discontinued the Cavalier in 2005. Now it should say, “You’re going to get whatever they’ve got.”

The difference is that every car rental agency in days of yore tended to get their cars from a single car maker, and now they don’t. Back then, if an agency’s relationship was with General Motors, which most of them seemed to be, the lot would have more of GM’s worst car than of any other kind of car. Now the car you rent truly is whatever. In the last year we’ve rented at least one Kia, Hyundai, Chevy, Nissan, Volkswagen, Ford and Toyota, and that’s just off the top of my head. (By far the best was a Chevy Impala. I actually loved it. So, naturally, it’s being discontinued.)

All of that, of course, applies only in the U.S. I know less about car rental verities in Europe, since I haven’t rented a car there since (let’s see…) 2011.

Anyway, when I looked up doc searls chevy cavalier to find whatever I’d written about my felicitous Fourth Law, the results included this, from my blog in 2004…

Five years later, the train pulls into Madison Avenue

ADJUSTING TO THE REALITY OF A CONSUMER-CONTROLLED MARKET, by Scott Donathon in Advertising Age. An excerpt:

Larry Light, global chief marketing officer at McDonald’s, once again publicly declared the death of the broadcast-centric ad model: “Mass marketing today is a mass mistake.” McDonald’s used to spend two-thirds of its ad budget on network prime time; that figure is now down to less than one-third.

General Motors’ Roger Adams, noting the automaker’s experimentation with less-intrusive forms of marketing, said, “The consumer wants to be in control, and we want to put them in control.” Echoed Saatchi & Saatchi chief Kevin Roberts, “The consumer now has absolute power.”

“It is not your goddamn brand,” he told marketers.

This consumer empowerment is at the heart of everything. End users are now in control of how, whether and where they consume information and entertainment. Whatever they don’t want to interact with is gone. That upends the intrusive model the advertising business has been sustained by for decades.

This is still fucked, of course. Advertising is one thing. Customer relationships are another.

“Consumer empowerment” is an oxymoron. Try telling McDonalds you want a hamburger that doesn’t taste like a horse hoof. Or try telling General Motors that nobody other than rental car agencies wants to buy a Chevy Cavalier or a Chevy Classic; or that it’s time, after 60 years of making crap fixtures and upholstery, to put an extra ten bucks (or whatever it costs) into trunk rugs that don’t seem like the company works to make them look and feel like shit. Feel that “absolute power?” Or like you’re yelling at the pyramids?

Real demand-side empowerment will come when it’s possible for any customer to have a meaningful — and truly valued — conversation with people in actual power on the supply side. And those conversations turn into relationships. And those relationships guide the company.

I’ll believe it when I see it.

Meanwhile the decline of old-fashioned brand advertising on network TV (which now amounts to a smaller percentage of all TV in any case) sounds more to me like budget rationalization than meaningful change where it counts.

Thanks to Terry for the pointer.

Three things about that.

First, my original blog (which ran from 1999 to 2007) is still up, thanks to Jake Savin and Dave Winer, at http://weblog.searls.com. (Adjust your pointers. It’ll help Google and Bing forget the old address.)

Second, I’ve been told by rental car people that the big American car makers actually got tired of hurting their brands by making shitty cars and scraping them off on rental agencies. So now the agencies mostly populate their lots surplus cars that don’t make it to dealers for various reasons. They also let their cars pile up 50k miles or more before selling them off. Also, the quality of cars in general is much higher than it used to be, and the experience of operating them is much more uniform—meaning blah in nearly identical ways.

Third, I’ve changed my mind on brand advertising since I wrote that. Two reasons. One is that brand advertising sponsors the media it runs on, which is a valuable thing. The other is that brand advertising really does make a brand familiar, which is transcendently valuable to the brand itself. There is no way personalized and/or behavioral advertising can do the same. Perhaps as much as $2trillion has been spent on tracking-based digital advertising, and not one brand known to the world has been made by it.

And one more thing: since we don’t commute, and we don’t need a car most of the time, we now favor renting cars over owning them. Much simpler and much cheaper. And the cars we rent tend to be nicer than the used cars we’ve owned and mostly driven into the ground. You never know what you’re going to get, but generally they’re not bad, and not our problem if something goes wrong with one, which almost never happens.

 

river bend

Publishing and advertising both need to bend back toward where they came from, and what works. I see hope for that in the news today.

In Refinery29 Lays Off 10% of Staff as 2018 Revenue Comes Up Short, by Todd Spangler, (@xpangler) of Variety reports,

Digital media company Refinery29, facing a 5% revenue shortfall for the year, is cutting 10% of its workforce, or about 40 employees.Digital media company Refinery29, facing a 5% revenue shortfall for the year, is cutting 10% of its workforce, or about 40 employees.

Company co-founders and co-CEOs Philippe von Borries and Justin Stefano announced the cuts in an internal memo. “While our 2018 revenue will show continued year-over-year growth, we are projecting to come in approximately 5% short of our goal,” they wrote. As a result of its financial pressures, “we will be parting ways with approximately 10% of our workforce.”
The latest cuts, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, come after New York-based Refinery29 laid off 34 employees in December 2017.

Refinery29, which targets a millennial female audience, is going to cut back on content “with a short shelf life,” according to the execs. “While this type of content has been driving views, it has not yielded a great monetization strategy to justify the same level of continued investment.” Von Borries and Stefano wrote that they see sustainable growth in “premium, evergreen” programming, and plan to produce more video (both short- and long-form) on that front.

I’ve boldfaced the important stuff. To explain why it’s important, dig this, from Refinery29 Lays Off 10% of Its Staff, Unifies Sales Team, by Melynda Fuller (@MGrace_Fuller) in MediaPost:

As part of the restructuring, Refinery29 will also unify its sales teams into a unified Customer Solutions Group, in addition to a Sales Planning and Operations Group.

This suggests that Refinery29 is becoming a high-integrity publication, and not just another content pump and eyeball-shooting gallery for adtech (tracking-based advertising). (This Digiday piece by @maxwillens may suggest the same.) If that’s so, then there is new hope: not just for publishing online, but for the kind of brand advertising that actually sponsors publications, and which has worked for both brands and publications since forever in the offline world.

By now pretty much all of online advertising is adtech, which doesn’t sponsor publishers. Instead it uses publishers to mark and track eyeballs wherever they might go. It does that by planting tracking beacons (mixed like poison blueberries into those cookies  sites now require “consent” to) on readers’ browsers or phones, and then shoots the readers’ eyeballs with ads when they show up elsewhere on the Web, preferably on the cheapest possible site, so those eyeballs can be hit as often as possible within the budget the advertiser has paid adtech intermediaries. (To readers the most obvious example of this is “retargeting,” perfectly described by The Onion in Woman Stalked Across Eight Websites By Obsessed Shoe Advertisement.)

Advertising, real advertising—the kind that makes brands and sponsors publications—doesn’t do any of that. Here’s how I explain the difference in GDPR will pop the adtech bubble:

First, advertising:

  1. Advertising isn’t personal, and doesn’t have to be. In fact, knowing it’s not personal is an advantage for advertisers. Consumers don’t wonder what the hell an ad is doing where it is, who put it there, or why. The cognitive overhead for everybody is as close to zero as possible.
  2. Advertising makes brands. Nearly all the brands you know were burned into your brain by advertising. In fact the term branding was borrowed by advertising from the cattle business. (Specifically by Procter and Gamble in the early 1930s.)
  3. Advertising carries an economic signal. Meaning that it shows a company can afford to advertise. Tracking-based advertising can’t do that. (For more on this, read Don Marti, starting here.)
  4. Advertising sponsors media, and those paid by media. All the big pro sports salaries are paid for by advertising that sponsors game broadcasts. For lack of sponsorship, media—especially publishers—are hurting. @WaltMossberg learned why on a conference stage when an ad agency guy said the agency’s ads wouldn’t sponsor Walt’s new publication, recode. Walt: “I asked him if that meant he’d be placing ads on our fledgling site. He said yes, he’d do that for a little while. And then, after the cookies he placed on Recode helped him to track our desirable audience around the web, his agency would begin removing the ads and placing them on cheaper sites our readers also happened to visit. In other words, our quality journalism was, to him, nothing more than a lead generator for target-rich readers, and would ultimately benefit sites that might care less about quality.” With friends like that, who needs enemies?

Second, Adtech:

  1. Adtech is built to undermine the brand value of all the media it uses, because it cares about eyeballs more than media, and it causes negative associations with brands. Consider this: perhaps a $trillion or more has been spent on adtech, and not one brand known to the world has been made by it. (Bob Hoffman, aka the Ad Contrarian, is required reading on this.)
  2. Adtech wants to be personal. That’s why it’s tracking-based. Though its enthusiasts call it “interest-based,” “relevant” and other harmless-sounding euphemisms, it relies on tracking people. In fact it can’t exist without tracking people. (Note: while all adtech is programmatic, not all programmatic advertising is adtech. In other words, programmatic advertising doesn’t have to be based on tracking people.)
  3. Adtech spies on people and violates their privacy. By design. Never mind that you and your browser or app are anonymized. The ads are still for your eyeballs, and correlations can be made.
  4. Adtech is full of fraud and a vector for malware. @ACFou is required reading on this.
  5. Adtech incentivizes publications to prioritize “content generation” over journalism. More here and here.
  6. Intermediators take most of what’s spent on adtech. Bob Hoffman does a great job showing how as little as 3¢ of a dollar spent on adtech actually makes an “impression. The most generous number I’ve seen is 12¢. (When I was in the ad agency business, back in the last millennium, clients complained about our 15% take. Media our clients bought got 85%.)
  7. Adtech gives fake news a business model, because fake news is easier to produce than the real kind, and adtech will pay anybody a bounty for hauling in eyeballs.
  8. Adtech incentivizes hate speech and tribalism by giving both—and the platforms that host them—a business model too.
  9. Adtech relies on misdirection. See, adtech looks like advertising, and is called advertising; but it’s really direct marketing, which is descended from junk mail and a cousin of spam. Because of that misdirection, brands think they’re placing ads in media, while the systems they hire are actually chasing eyeballs to anywhere. (Pro tip: if somebody says every ad needs to “perform,” or that the purpose of advertising is “to get the right message to the right person at the right time,” they’re actually talking about direct marketing, not advertising. For more on this, read Rethinking John Wanamaker.)
  10. Compared to advertising, adtech is ugly. Look up best ads of all time. One of the top results is for the American Advertising Awards. The latest winners they’ve posted are the Best in Show for 2016. Tops there is an Allstate “Interactive/Online” ad pranking a couple at a ball game. Over-exposure of their lives online leads that well-branded “Mayhem” guy to invade and trash their house. In other words, it’s a brand ad about online surveillance.
  11. Adtech has caused the largest boycott in human history. By more than a year ago, 1.7+ billion human beings were already blocking ads online.

By focusing less on “content-production” (that stuff with a short shelf life) and consolidating its sales staff, Refinery29 appears to be re-making itself as a publication that can attract actual sponsors—real brands, doing real branding—and not just eyeball-hunting intermediaries that deliver lots of data and numbers to advertisers but nothing with rich value.

[Later…] This Digiday piece may support that t

If that’s the case, online publishing is starting to turn a corner, led by Refinery29, and heading back to what makes it valuable: to its readers, to its advertisers and to itself.

twitter down a holeSo I’m taking live notes at Blockchain in Journalism: Promise and Practice, happening at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation, in the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism, to name the four Russian dolls whose innards I’m inhabiting here

In advance of this gathering, Linux Journal, which I serve as editor-in-chief (but can’t use as a blog, meaning editing it live is do-able but not easy), published When the problem is the story. I wanted it up, on the outside chance that stories themselves, as journalism’s stock-in-trade, might get discussed. Because stories are a Hard Problem: maybe one we can’t solve.

Okay, now the live blogging commences::::

“Token curated registratries, aka TCRs.” Mike Goldin of AdChain is talking about those now. Looking him up. Links: Token Curated Registries 1.0#18 Mike Goldin, AdChain: Token-Curated Registries, An Emerging Cryptoeconomic Primitive.

Observation: blockchain is conceptually opaque, in ways the Internet (the way everything is connected) and the Web (a way to publish on the Internet) are not.

Not quite technically speaking, a blockchain is a distributed way of recording data in duplicate. Or something close enough to that. (Let’s not argue it.) What makes blockchain hard to grok is the “distributed” part. What it means is an ever-expanding copy of the same record accumulates on many different computers distributed everywhere. Including yours. Your computer is going to have a copy of a blockchain, or many blockchains, for the good of the world—or the parts of the world that could use a distributed way of keeping an immutable record of whatever. See what I mean? (Yes and no are equally good answers to that question.)

Mike Goldin just said that understanding blockchain is as big a cognitive leap as it took to grok the Internet way back when. Not so. Understanding blockchain is a shit-ton harder than understanding the Internet.

“Identity procreator type tool” just got uttered. My wife, who knows blockchain better than I, just made two fists and whispered “Yes!” I believe @JarrodDicker of Po.et just uttered it.

RadioTopia just got some love from Manoush Zomorodi of ZigZag.

So let’s get to the title of this post.

Normally I’d be tweeting this, but right now I can’t. Nor can I write about it in Medium. Both are closed to me, because Twitter hates my @dsearls login, for reasons unknown, and my login to Medium uses my Twitter handle.

<gripe>

When I tried to troubleshoot my eviction from Twitter this morning, I went to the trouble of creating a new password, alas without help from Dashlane, my password manager, which for some reason wasn’t able to help by generating me a new one. Dunno why.

Deeper background: I’m active on four different Twitter accounts, spread across four browsers. I tweet as myself on Chrome, and as @VRM, @CustomerCommons and @Cluetrain on the three other browsers. The latter three are ones where multiple people can also post.

(Yes, I know there are ways to post as different entities on single browsers or apps, but being different entities on different browsers is easier for me. Or was until this morning.)

So I decided to try getting onto Twitter on one of the other browsers. So I logged out @VRM on Firefox, failed to log in as myself, created the new password through Twitter’s password creating routine, made up a new password (because Dashlane couldn’t help on Firefox either), and wrote the new password down on a sticky.

Then, once I got @dsearls working on Firefox, I logged out, and tried to log in again as @vrm there. Twitter didn’t like that login and made me create a new password for that account too, again without Dashlane’s help. Now I had two passwords, for two accounts, on one sticky.

Then I got in the subway and came down to Columbia, ready to tweet about the #BlockchainJournalism from the audience at the Tow Center. But Twitter on Chrome wouldn’t let me in. Meanwhile, the new password was still on a sticky back at my apartment, and not remembered by Firefox. So I thought, hey, I’ll just create a new password again, now with Dashlane’s help. But I got stopped part way with this response from Twitter when I clicked on the new password making link: https://twitter.com/login/error?redirect… .

This kind of experience is why I posted Please let’s kill logins and passwords back in August, and the sentiment stands.

</gripe>

So now that I’m experiencing life without Twitter, on which much of journalism utterly depends, I’m beginning to think about how we’ll all work once Twitter is gone—either completely or just to hell. Also about my own dependence on it. And about how having Twitter as a constant steam valve has bled off energies I once devoted to doing full-force journalism. Or just to blogging. Such as now, here, when I can’t use Twitter.

A difference: tweets may persist somewhere, but they’re the journalistic equivalent of snow falling on water. Blog posts tend to persist in a findable form for as long as their publisher maintains their archive.

Interesting fact: back in the early ’00s, when I was kinda big in the (admittedly small) blogging world, I had many thousands of readers every day. Most of those subscribed to my RSS feed. Then, in ’06, Twitter and Facebook started getting big, most bloggers moved to those platforms, and readership of my own blog dropped eventually to dozens per day. So I got active on Twitter, where I now have 24.4k followers. But hey, so does the average parking space.

I guess where I’m going is toward where Hossein Derakhshan (@h0d3r)has been for some time, with The Web We Have to Save. That Web is ours, not Twitter’s or Facebook’s or any platform’s. (This is also what @DWeinberger and I said in the #NewClues addendum to The Cluetrain Manifesto back in ’15.) Journalism, or whatever it’s becoming, is far more at home there than in any silo, no matter how useful it may be.

 

 

A few weeks ago, while our car honked its way through dense traffic in Delhi, I imagined an Onion headline: American Visitor Seeks To Explain What He’ll Never Understand About India.

By the norms of traffic laws in countries where people tend to obey them, vehicular and pedestrian traffic in the dense parts of Indian cities appears to lawless. People do seem to go where they want, individually and collectively, in oblivity to danger.

Yet there is clearly a system here, in the sense that one’s body has a circulatory system. Or a nervous system. Meaning it’s full of almost random stuff at the cellular traffic level, but also organic in a literal way. It actually works. Somehow. Some way. Or ways. Many of them. Alone and together. So yes, I don’t understand it and probably never will, but it does work.

For example, a four-lane divided highway will have traffic moving constantly, occasionally in both directions on both sides. It will include humans, dogs, cattle, rickshaws and bikes, some laden with bags of cargo that look like they belong in a truck, in addition to cars, trucks and motorcycles, all packed together and honking constantly.

Keeping me from explaining, or even describing, any more than I just did, are the opening sentences of Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet:

Shortly after dawn, on what would have been drawn in a normal sky, Mr. Artur Sammler with his bushy eye took in the books and papers of his West Side bedroom and suspected strongly that they were the wrong books, the wrong papers. In a way it did not matter to a man of seventy-plus, and at leisure. You had to be a crank to insist on being right. Being right was largely a matter of explanations. Intellectual man had become an explaining creature. Fathers to children, wives to husbands, lecturers to listeners, experts to laymen, colleagues to colleagues, doctors to patients, man to his own soul, explained. The roots of this, the causes of the other, the source of events, the history, the structure, the reasons why. For the most part it went in one ear out the other. The soul wanted what it wanted. It has its own natural knowledge. It sat unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.

So I will disclaim being right about a damn thing here. But I will share some links from some brilliant people, each worthy of respect, who think they are right about some stuff we maybe ought to care about; and each of whom have, in their own very separate ways, advice and warnings for us. Here ya go:

Each author weaves a different handbasket we might travel to hell, but all make interesting reading. All are also downbeat as hell too.

My caution with readings that veer toward conspiracy (notably Martin’s) is one of the smartest things my smart wife ever said: “The problem with conspiracy theories is that they presume competence.”

So here’s what I’m thinking about every explanation of what’s going on in our still-new Digital Age: None of us has the whole story of what’s going on—and what’s going on may not be a story at all.

Likewise (or dislike-wise), I also think all generalizations, whatever they are, fail in the particulars, and that’s a feature of them. We best generalize when we know we risk being wrong in the details.  Reality wants wackiness in particulars. If you don’t find what’s wacky there, maybe you aren’t looking hard enough. Or believe too much in veracities.

Ed McCabe: “I have no use for rules. They only rule out the possibility of brilliant exceptions.”

We need to laugh. That means we need our ironies, our multiple meanings, our attentions misdirected, for the magic of life to work.

And life is magic. Pure misdirection, away from the facticity of non-existence.

Every laugh, every smile, is an ironic argument against the one non-ironic fact of life—and of everything—which is death. We all die. We all end. To “be” dead is not to be in a state of existence. It is not to be at all. Shakespeare was unimprovable on that point.

To some of us older people*, death isn’t a presence. It’s just the future absence of our selves in a world designed to discard everything with a noun, proper or not, eventually. Including the world itself. This is a feature, not a bug.

It’s also a feature among some of us to, as Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever”: always interested, always open to possibilities, always willing to vet what we at least think we know, always leaving the rest of existence to those better equipped to persist on the same mission. So I guess that’s my point here.

Basically it’s the same point as Bill Hicks’ “It’s just a ride.”

*I’m not old. I’ve just been young a long time. To obey Gandhi, you have to stay young. It’s the best way to learn. And perhaps to die as well.

« Older entries