Saturday, 21 February 2015

We are all click-baiters

Cat in a cannon
Bet this picture made you click

A while back, Buzzfeed published a post on clickbait (Why Buzzfeed doesn't do clickbait). Far from it being a mea-culpa (and why should you apologise if you don't think you're wrong?), it was a bold defence of their content, a firm rebuttal to those who wish to categorise their content as such.

All of which was nearly undone by the first comment underneath - a search query for the phrase 'You won't believe' on their site.

So yes, Buzzfeed, you do engage in clickbaiting. But why are you so ashamed of it? Nobody is above it.

This post is in no way a defense of clickbait - but I feel like, as with most pejorative terms like this, it's being abused by people who don't necessarily understand the model.

Essentially: people want other people to click on their stuff. It doesn't matter whether you're Buzzfeed, Salon or Dave-fucking-Swift from Cannock, whenever we post something to social media, we think we've got something interesting to share.

It's like a campfire: everybody talking around it thinks that they have something of value to add to it. It could be Noam Chomsky, Katie Hopkins, Evgeny Morozov and H from Steps - each one of them wants to say something that makes another person 'click': in other words, think or feel something.

So yes, lots of websites use the tired old 'You won't believe' headlines and sub headers to try and sell a story online. But we all do that. It's social. We're hardwired genetically to do that. If we don't bring value to our tribe, we are cast out. It's really fucking cruel, but that's the way it works in the animal kingdom.

We want people to click with us and on us. If we didn't, then we wouldn't share.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Is Twitter killing nuance? #Itsabitmorenuancedthanthat

Twitter Logo

‘It’s a bit more nuanced than that’

This is becoming my favourite phrases of late. Why is that?

Working as I do as a social media manager, I spend most hours of the day either on social networks of all shapes and sizes.

I think that social media taken as a whole, can be a fantastic tool for society. It’s quicker way of keeping in touch with the people and things we care about, and has revolutionised customer service in a way that is still sending shockwaves through many industries, five years after ‘United Breaks Guitars’.

It's excellent for spreading important news, whatever the industry, as far and wide as digitally possible.

But there is one question that is really starting to play on my mind, and I’ve never quite been able to get my head around it as a concept. I guess this is my attempt to try.

Is social media killing nuanced conversation?

In life, we all know that we are involved in thousands of interactions on a daily basis - from the mundane (buying a coffee, catching the bus), to the important (meetings, deadlines, personal chores and errands), to the truly important (spending time with friends, family and loved ones). These interactions, whether small, medium or large, all become part of the story of us. We carry these around with us, and they make us what we are today, and help to make us what we will be tomorrow.

Over millions of years, we have had wide-ranging conversations about nearly every topic known to man: whether God exists, whether capital punishment is right or wrong, why does asparagus make our pee smell funny, should the success of a society be defined by it’s strongest or weakest links. And refreshingly, we’re still having them today.

The sad thing is though, I’m not entirely sure that we’re having them properly.

Nothing is better for me than to sit down and have a debate about politics, religion, sport or relationships. But now, with the advent of Twitter, I sometimes wonder if we are losing the ability to have nuanced discussions about these topics.

Politicians love to make their points Tweet-friendly. To create memes that stick (’Skivers and Strivers’, ‘Hardworking families’). 

Policies are expected to be able to be summed up in a Tweet or less before another source gets to it first. In the age of information, we are still very much in thrall to the reductive power of the headline.

That is not to say that the headline is not important. It is. We need headlines. But they are what they are: markers, FAOs, have-a-look-at-thisses. But how many times have you been infuriated by something you read in a headline, only to read the article and realise that maybe the writer in question has a point?

And furthermore, how many articles do you share without actually reading?

This is not necessarily the person or brand sharing it's fault. We are all culpable in this, and articles are shared online with the implicit expectation that they should be read.

We have more information than ever at our disposal these days - and we are in thrall to the speed at which it is delivered to us.

But do we actually take anything in? And of we're having it fed to us at one million miles per hour does it represent true freedom, or does it represent force-feeding?

We make a lot of hoo-hah online about the freedom that mediums such at Twitter give us to express our views. Yet isn’t it ironic that we are expected to express these views within 140 characters?

How can an argument on Twitter be anything other than reductive when we are limited in that way? 

We are all expected, like politicians, to have a perfect soundbite to silence our critics that doesn’t run a letter over 140 characters. How can you be expected to come up with a nuanced argument in 140 characters?! I can’t sum up my views on politics, religion or even Morrissey’s career in 140 characters. I shouldn’t have to - we have a whole life of experiences, and a whole raft of sources to draw on, and conversation is really enough of a TL:DR way of summing it all up anyway.

Nuance is important. Nuance is vital when debating. The less we are trained to look at the nuances of a certain case (the Oscar Pistorius trial, Shrien Dewani’s acquittal, Plebgate), the more we are in danger of turning Twitter, a fun medium for conversation, into a reductive shit-hole ruled by people fluent in Newspeak.

How much nuance do you see in the average debate on Twitter? How many sources to you see cited, beyond the tweeter’s own truncated opinion?

Syme from 1984 makes this point fantastically well. Read this passage, and it almost describes Twitter to a tee (thanks to Nick Lewis for pulling out these quotes on his blog):

‘Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten…’ 
‘Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.’
My point in this rambling post is not to decry Twitter, but to decry the assumption that having a platform with a limit of 140 characters somehow represents some kind of thriving, intellectual community, when in fact it is just a shorthand way of having a casual chat about the matters of the day.

People in powerful positions like to talk about the democratising power of social media because they realise the power that it gives them. If you can provide a 140-character sum-up of a report, who is really going to bother reading the full report? Twitter is based on headlines. People like me are paid to make them.

I mean, how many people actually read the terms and conditions before they signed up to a social media platform?

By buying into the myth that Twitter is somehow a democratic force for good (it isn’t, it’s just a platform), rather than a social network for people to share ideas on, or the internet equivalent of an echo chamber, magnifying the sound of a pin dropping a thousand fold, is misguided. We need to think beyond this. We need to be having the big conversations, and stop thinking that Twitter is the ideal or best place to have it.

Rolling news channels are always asking us to Tweet what we think of an issue of the day to them. Yet many issues are beyond the grasp of somebody to make sense of in such little time and space.

140 characters can make morons of us all sometimes.

I am convinced that we are all much more than that.

Courage Wolf Quote

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Twitter Newsfeed Changes: Good or Bad?

Twitter Newsfeed Changes: Good or Bad?

This week, Twitter annouced that it was looking into offering users a more 'curated', algorithmically-sourced newsfeed to it's users - whether they like it or not.

As a business, that's their prerogative, but I have to say that it's a mis-step from them in my opinion.

My reasons?

  1. It's not their newsfeed: people like to be in control of what they see, and everybody is different. Whilst I know that algorithms take this into account, I'd rather have the primary option of being able to control exactly what's in my newsfeed, and what isn't. Twitter is forgetting that we already have a way of curating our newsfeed: following and unfollowing.
  2. Social networks are top-down, but can be destroyed from the bottom-up: Social networks, as opposed to user-built (and even business-built) communities are traditionally ran in a top-down model: the guys at the top make the changes, and the guys at the bottom (the users) have to suck it. That may make people using the network think that they are powerless to stop this, but you only have to look through Silicon Valley's graveyard of failed social networking sites to see that the true power lies with the users. If you build it, they will come, but if you piss them off, they will leave.
  3. Media influencers and early-adopters are still crucial: Twitter has gained traction as a social platform with influencers and people working in the media like no other social network I have seen.
    As a platform, it is genuinely transforming the way many media outlets get their news, and produce their content. It has become an essential part of the content-creation and news-sourcing loop because it appears to be a source completely unfiltered by any internal or external forces. Being able to pickup and follow the trail of a story as it develops across Twitter is one of the few mainstays of the constantly-evolving digital content age. If you curate what a journalist sees, or what a person sees, how can we trust you as a platform? How can we trust the fact that Twitter isn't going to start hiding controversial updates regarding #Ferguson? Or about #ISIS?
    We already know that Twitter censors our newsfeeds in countries easily-offended by free speech - fine in principal if you dislike hate-speech, but what does removing that hate-speech, controversy and illegality really do? It certainly doesn't stop it from existing. It will just stop industrious people fighting it on the net, and acts as a sop to the 'down with this sort of thing' brigade, who would rather not have views expressed that they didn't agree with - on the left and the right of these debates. A journalist won't use a compromised news source - believe it or not (and I do), the vast majority go there for unvarnished facts, commentary and opinion. To remove that would remove one of the major benefits for using Twitter. 
So, with that in mind, can you tell which side of the fence I'm sat on, Twitter?

Friday, 23 May 2014

Britain Thirst (sic) - shaming Britain one typo at a time

This week, in the midst of the European and local elections, an article appeared on professional content-bucket Buzzfeed regarding a political party called Britain First, an offshoot of the British National Party.

In Buzzfeed/Upworthy terms, what I read shocked me.

According to the article, over 300k people are fans of the Britian First page on Facebook - far more than the three mainstream political parties, and over three times the number of fans than the Liberal Democrat party.

At first I was wary: how could a political party with so little representation nationally have so many fans on their Facebook page? I smelt a rat.

However, upon checking the Facebook page, and discovering to my dismay that two people I know like the page in question, I am having my doubts about this.

The page is consistently adding fans, and it’s majority user base is in the United Kingdom.

Britain First Facebook Stats

There are no sudden growth spurts to indicate the bulk-buying of fans, which is a subject I’ve covered in previous blogs.

The only reason that I can see for the page’s popularity is their constant, incessant sharing of patriotic imagery, coupled with strong calls to action - asking people to like and share their content if they agree, and goading people who do not share the images with the inference that they somehow condone mass immigration and child abuse if they don’t. 

Classy political discourse.

I have no problem with people choosing to support a political party if they genuinely believe in the ideals that party stand for.

But I think this is more of a case of mistaken identity than anything else.

From what I can see, the images that are being liked and shared the most are little more than clickbait. 

Lee Rigby, Princess Diana, Winston Churchill. Three people who are stitched into the fabric of our society for a variety of reasons. They resonate with people. Tragic, heroic, caring.

Britain First is exploiting this. By asking somebody to like and share a picture of Lady Diana, you are avoiding having an actual conversation about your policies. Yes, you are creating engagement, and getting new people to your page, but you are not really having conversation about your policies. Britain First - I doubt that the vast majority of your Facebook audience know what your policies actually are.

And the reason that most political parties don’t share pictures of Lady Di, Lee Rigby and Winston Churchill is that they don’t have the permission of the families of these people to do so. They don’t want their relatives exploited for political gain. 

You should know this, Britain First -  Lee Rigby’s mother asked you not to use his name or likeness in any of your promotional literature. 

Lyn Rigby

Are you genuinely proud to do that on Facebook?

Are you proud that you are using pictures of the dead (who aren’t around to grant permission for you to use their images or likeness) to get engagement for your page?

Are you happy to reduce the terrible murder of Lee Rigby to a Facebook post?

If so, you don’t sound like the type of party that I’d vote for. You sound a bit ignorant, and quite frankly thick.

You are a party that marches down Brick Lane, a place where thousands of people go for curry, culture and a bit of fun on a weeknight, claiming that you’re doing it for the memory of 'great Christian crusaders' like Lady Diana.

The same Diana who is represented in all her glory on the wall of my favourite Brick Lane curry house.

I bet you more British people have enjoyed a nice curry in Cafe Bangla than like your Facebook page, Britain First.

I bet you more British people like the country how it is, and where it is going, Britain First.

I bet you that the spelling and grammar on the curry menu in Cafe Bangla is a lot better than the spellings on your Facebook page, Britain First.

Ringo Starr