Notes

The Great Trending Topics Debacle

Facebook officially killed the Trending Topics program.  It may have been the most foolhardy decision they have made recently (which is amidst a fair share of recent foolhardy steps).

Facebook (through Mark Zuckerberg) famously crystalized the prevalent Silicon Valley thinking into a quotable slogan: Move Fast and Break Things.

Of course, the impetus behind the worldview was that smart, young companies iterate and get products into the market before the competition. It was a reaction to long lead times that didn’t match customers’ expectations.

If it failed, it failedAnd the thinking likely went: if we fail, well, it just means we gotta do something else. But Facebook moved too often, too quickly, without thinking about the macro impact.

Exhibit A: Trending Topics. Facebook had always tried to be more than just the engine where people meet and share information. So it tried to add a layer of news gathering and news promotion. It has always wanted to dabble in media. By thrusting editorial decision-making on this massive platform – the largest collection of humans we have ever seen – it took an engineering approach to a decidedly human problem. The world is a mass of information and no one necessarily agrees to decide to prioritize what is the most important.

That, of course, was a simplistic world view. The arena of editorial decisions is not a place for a multi-billion-dollar company that just wants to keep the peace and count the advertising dollars. Traditional media outlets understand that they can’t appeal to everyone and most don’t try. They also have tend to have years upon years editorial experience that realize it’s not some simple task.

Trending topics is the quintessential example of the Facebookian worldview of “most fast and break things”. People want their news on the Facebook “homepage” – let’s deliver it them. If people don’t like it, we can just quietly remove it. But it didn’t have the experience, patience, and, especially, forethought to make this a successful endeavor. Well, it failed.

And it didn’t just fail. It tarnished Facebook’s image, caused incalculable hours of headaches away from its core mission, and has further jeopardized its relationship with the conservative audience.

Maybe all the planning in the world would haven’t saved trending topics, but I’m pretty sure they’ll put in the prep work the next time they want to do something like this.

 

Twitter on TV Was Always a Bad Idea

Twitter just announced that it is killing off its smart screen and box apps. Some of you may not have realized these even existed or believe they had died an ignominious death years ago. But it was not long ago that many were touting this as the next big thing in building community around the act of watching live television.

Anyone who tried out these apps found they were a pale imitation of the second-screen experience of using your phone or iPad. The reality is – and has always been – that people do not want a lot of things blocking the picture. The interfaces were clunky – the experience really only allowed for passive reading of tweets (anyone who shudders at using a directional cursor to enter their passwords on a smart TV or smart device can imagine how difficult it would be to tweet.

This death is more than just a specific failed initiative for Twitter. It was also thought to be the starting point of rolling out Twitter to many more non-mobile, non-desktop experiences. But as Twitter ages, it’s clear that people are interested using the service in very specific instances and not for others.

The Enemy of My Enemy Is Still My Enemy

These are definitely fracturing times. Humanity is prone to hyperbole, but there seems to be a consensus that recent times are <all caps>NOT NORMAL</all caps> and the world is losing its collective mind.

Kanye West has somehow come to the judgment that George W. Bush was not deserving of our trust and patience, but Donald Trump is.

The engineers of much of the right-wing progress (regress?) are now openly resisting the Republican governmental bodies.

The fervor on the left is leading previously united parties to turn on each other for not being zealous enough towards the disintegration of said government, regardless of legality or appropriateness. It’s also leading them to blindly follow some obvious snake oil salespeople.

I have no doubt that everything going on now makes things more challenging, but I have two hard and fast rules that I am doing my best to follow.

The functioning democracy in which we live must remain so. Change happens so (or may not happen at all) and we have to do our damnedest to effect in the correct way. Anything else is an abrogation of the very reason why we’re so passionate about what a just society requires.

And – the purpose of the title: I don’t care if people with odious politics are currently found on the same side as me aligned against some currently common obstacle or foe. If their politics are odious, they remain a net-negative on the body politic. They will not get my congratulations and they will be excused.

We Go Back

That meal kit startups are having some issues might come to some as a surprise.

Most people who have tried the kits appreciate the simplicity and the convenience of not thinking about their meals. Until the convenience feels stifling and the simplicity feels like a negative instead of a positive. People then yearn for the bounty of the supermarkets where you can go thinking you’re buying ground beef for hamburgers and end up with the ingredients for a lentil soup.

We tend to think of the unwritten future as progress, but it’s not so simple. We bend, we go back. This can be a cause for optimism (a rethinking of social media’s overextended social graphs may lead us to smaller, more intense relationship spheres) and pessimism (the rattail white nationalists feeling it’s once again comfortable to express their views in public).

Anything and everything are ascendant; until it is not. Some people think Donald Trump’s crony capitalism will bring about a socialist revolution, mostly because capitalism can, should, and will expand to such great influence that it collapses under its own weight. The theory is called accelerationism.

This may seem like it makes the future difficult to predict, but the blueprint is there. Nothing marches inexorably towards total usage, power or influence.

The US’ standing in the world is waning. So will Facebook. Neither Conservatism nor Liberalism knows what it is anymore. Theology is running laps around science. It’s best to assume whatever is good and popular now will eventually become bad and fringe. You can’t change the past, but why would you bother. It’ll catch up to you soon enough.

 

How Do You Fix Facebook When It Was Probably Born Broken?

Famous for issuing himself idiosyncratic personal challenges, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg realizes his billion-dollar company needs his full attention this year.

Zuck recently addressed – let’s be real – the world with some mea culpa and to inform it of changes to the services.

The company is awash in trouble, which is perhaps unavoidable when you’re this big and this impactful. But the scope of the trouble is damning. They have bungled their ad and video reporting, they’ve allowed abuse of their live video tool, and they’ve been used by Russian trolls and hackers to influence the US Presidential elections. That’s a lot with which to grapple.

Facebook’s solution this year is to minimize the amount of information you get from companies and news outlets and to increase the number of peer-to-peer messages you receive. This would be a solution if the problem were that we felt too disconnected.

But if you think deeper about the issue, you realize the issue is not the current iteration of Facebook, it’s Facebook, as intended, itself.

The reality is increasingly clear: social media is not good for us. Facebook, specifically, is probably not net positive for humanity. It has created a Moveable Thanksgiving dinner table feast, where arguments and rancor follow us everywhere. We are provided deep dives into the psyche of our friends and colleagues and neighbors, and we often come away disappointed or disgusted. We are often disappointed and disgusted with ourselves.

This is likely because that Facebook (and, yes, other social media platforms) is a relatively new way to communicate and we’re not sure how to handle it. Just imagine telling someone 15 years ago that they would be able to think of something, post it, and have hundreds of thousands of people see it within hours. It’s a platform that previously did not exist for 99.9% of the population.

A simple thought experiment: has your faith in humanity net risen or fallen since you have begun using social media? We obsess about Facebook and we obsess about our obsession with Facebook. We spend emotional energy we do not have in reserves worrying about our Facebook habit. It’s also clear that humanity has not used these new tools of communication to bridge gaps. We’re nastier than we ever have been to friends and family, we use social media as a tool to bludgeon those we disagree with, we’re unalarmed with the speed and ease in which we can use it to destroy careers. We’ve learned that bringing communities online has not produced a Utopia. Perhaps it never could. But some of the most vocal advocates for the power of the Internet to better humanity are seriously rethinking that stance. 

Being generous to the prophets Brand and Kelly et al, it’s entirely reasonable to argue that this version of a global village is not what they proposed or envisioned. Minorities are still denied equal voices on the internet — harassed off of it, or still unable to even get online. Massive amounts of data is still hidden behind firewalls or not online at all. Projects to bring more information online (such as Google Books) have foundered due to institutional obstruction or a change of priorities in those undertaking them. Governments still have secrets. Organizations such as Wikileaks that showed early promise in this regard have been re-cast as political tools through some mix of their own hubris and the adversarial efforts of the governments they seek to expose.

I recently sped through the fantastic series Halt and Catch Fire (originally broadcast on AMC, now available in full on Netflix). The drama, which imagines a small group of protagonists as being involved in all of the major foundational shifts of the computing revolution, reminds us in 2018 how optimistic people were about the computing revolution. In the second season, major protagonists are building a video-game-over-telephone modem, but stumble upon a chat function that becomes more popular than the games. There is a touching moment in the show where a customer talks about how she finally found people who understood her online. But then there is another scene where a gay employee thinks he is meeting someone he encountered online, but it ends up getting assaulted by a pack of homophobes. The Utopia, perhaps, was never there.

So how can Facebook fix itself is the only right solution is closing down? As someone who makes a living advising individuals and organizations to use social media, I can’t say I wish for this scenario. And any attempt at “regulation” brings with it significant freedom of speech issues. But Zuck is not addressing the problem head on – that unfettered conversation among small networks held in public is not the perfect world we thought it might be.

Experimentation Losing Its Appeal

Reading this Q&A with the CEO of Der Spiegel is a very interesting case of the glass half-empty/half-full problem. A charitable reading could find a company that is comfortable with experimentation and with a lot of different avenues in which they could devote their resources.

But a less charitable view, and I think the correct one, is that the main revenue source (advertising) is continuing to decline and none of the alternative avenues (Snapchat? Facebook? Subscriber model) seem like they can carry the freight. It seems like 2018 needs to not be the year of experimentation, but that of refocusing.

Source: Spiegel Online CEO Jesper Doub on the pivot to consumer revenue, the duopoly and privacy regulations – Digiday

Why Bots Could Be The Best Thing to Happen to Writers

Before I hit send on this piece, I passed the words on your screen through a program called Grammarly. While it is not a foolproof editor, its algorithm will likely catch grammatical issues immediately that would take me multiple times to spot (if at all). It will also confirm to me that I haven’t stolen the below copy from another writer through its plagiarism engine. It’s just one piece of technology that helped bring this article to life.

There will not be any spelling errors because a little underline appears when I try to do that, alerting me to a missing or extraneous letter or a futile attempt at spelling out a florid* word.

* I previously used the word fancy, but a trip to Thesaurus.com led me to change it to florid.

My SEO plugin has made multiple suggestions on word usage to make sure this article reaches as wide an audience as possible. I used a headline optimizer to come up with the best way to draw you in.

There are countless ways that technology improves upon the written word. Some have been around for so long that we barely appreciate them anymore.

But because it often assists us in the background, we tend to treat mentions of technology as career destroyers, not job enhancers. Especially when we’re discussing bots capable of writing the very stories we write today.

As a reader, you have likely read a bot-written article in a newspaper powered by technology like HeliografNarrative Sciences, or others.

If you are a writer, this may potentially keep you up at night. You fear the bots are coming to take your job. And, it’s true, bots might replace a lot of editorial employees. But, if you’ll read on, allow me to propose a more optimistic result of the bot revolution.

//

CODA

Last night, I watched the Pittsburgh Steelers play the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football. If I hadn’t and wanted to know what happened, I could look at any number of recaps filed last night and this morning. While each story undoubtedly has its unique take on the night, the reality is that all of those stories present a collection of data points.

The key themes of the football game:

Who Won: Pittsburgh, who are still in 2nd place in the conference and lead their division.

How They Won: Comeback – they were down 17 points.

Who They Beat: Cincinnati, who now has a 1% chance to make the playoffs.  This is the sixth straight time they’ve lost to the Steelers. Pittsburgh is 62-35 all-time against Cincinnati.

Key Stats: LeVon Bell gained 182 yards from scrimmage and a TD, A.J. Green had 77 yards and 2 TDs, and Antonio Brown had 101 yards and a TD.

Miscellaneous: Multiple players exited the game and did not return. However, one person, Ryan Shazier exited with a traumatic back injury – where he was not immediately able to move his legs, stoking fears of paralysis (he appears to have been very lucky, but still TBD)

These are all distinct, data points that a bot can easily access. Currently, that bot is going to do some things better than a human (access deep, nonobvious trends and stats that a human might not detect or be able to find) and things worse (describe the horror on the field when Shazier went down). A bot might also get tripped up by some confusing narratives (Pittsburgh won yesterday despite having significantly underperformed Cincinnati in 3rd down conversions, which usually implies overall success) Or does it? The point is it would take me a significant amount of time to try that theory out, whereas a bot can have that info on hand.

Point being, bots are ready to take on a lot of sports coverage. And can probably outperform human writers in educating readers on some story templates. This is why the Washington Post is farming out local area sports coverage to bots. And the technologies are only going to get better.

But all is not lost. The ideal template for at least the next couple of years is a writer/editor relationship between bot and human. The bot writes the first draft and the human edits the final draft off of that template (adding color, moving around grafs, removing the less important info). If you think about bots are editorial assistants as opposed to replacement, it seems more empowering and less frightening.

It will also likely free up editorial bandwidth to pursue the narrative stories that bots are much further away from solving.

Such as: what drove Ryan Shazier and others to continue playing football despite the dangers.

The future is uncertain and frightening, but we should keep a grounded perspective. If you think of a bot not as your competition, but as one of those person assistant robots made famous by science fiction movies, it becomes less scary. But maybe don’t think about HAL-9000.

Why Editorial Make The Best Marketers

It is brutal out there for those working in editorial. From pivots to video and extensive layoffs, job security is an illusion. While that is depressing and many people will find no solace in this, journalists and editors are an in-demand workforce. This is because content is now among the most valuable marketing tools for any company.

I do sincerely hope that journalism thrives and those out of work find (or start) the next great journalistic enterprise. But for those that don’t, a new career awaits.

And for companies looking to bolster their marketing departments, here are a couple of reasons why you should look to journalists for their next job opening.

  1. Content is the lifeblood of a modern marketing organization. The average consumer’s attention is spread out over an almost incalculable amount of sources. And they have particular needs without having a high criterion of how someone meets those needs. They may want to be entertained… or informed… or shocked… or brought to tears. While it’s not always easy for a brand to do that, it’s not impossible.
  2. They bring a new mentality. It’s not shocking to point out that brands can sometimes get into trouble and obfuscate their way out of it. They usually get figured out and, as we learned from Watergate, the coverup is worse than the crime. Journalists can imbue within the organization a sense that the truth is advisable and can be used to one’s advantage.
  3. They don’t bullshit. Companies can often get lost in and in love with the mythos of their brand. Storytelling gets lost. A journalist cannot repeatedly mail in a story and keep his or her job. He or she can tell you when your brand is not resonating and likely why.
  4. They are sponges. Journalists are curious by nature. If you want someone who is going to be determined to learn every day, you often cannot find a better fit than a person who has taught his or herself how to understand entirely new industries just through research and dedication.
  5. The job’s the thing. While the traditional path of promotion for writers is to become an editor, not all (in fact many) do not want to be editors. Managing career paths is a challenge for all industries, but it’s especially prevalent in media. Some just want to grow their stature as a writer and obviously make more money. In a marketing department beset with ego and title hawking, you can have a dedicated worker who just wants to do good work and be paid fairly without needing to manage people or have the loftiest title.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but you’ll find a lot of journalists embody the above. It’s definitely a buyers market for editorial talent, but don’t take it for granted. Smarter companies have been hiring journalists for a long time. If you haven’t started, now is the time.

Destination: 2020

 

In the year 2020, in the year 2020!!!!!!!!!

The Wall Street Journal tackles a pernicious trend taken root in governance and corporate America. The rise of the 2020 report!

But not just any 2020 report, there are multiple organizations that have rolled out documentation called Vision 2020, which, as the WSJ reports, has dismayed eye doctors for hijacking their phraseology.

Behold some of the offerings:

Vision 2020: NYC Comprehensive Waterfront Plan – NYC.gov

Strategic Plan – Vision 2020 – Defense Security Cooperation Agency

Vision 2020 – Siemens AG (PDF warning)

Futuristic reports like these are very easy to churn out seemingly credible accounts, but they fail to illuminate upon closer inspection. They mostly follow the idea that globalization will continue, culture is important, and the world is changing rapidly. And so?

Perhaps a little over two years from now is not an important milestone. AI will be improved, remarkably so, but will it have reshaped our world yet? The erosion of the human workforce is approaching, but can anyone even credibly predict what that will mean and how we’ll address that?

I’d like to see someone take a crack at Vision: 3030 (someone else besides Deltron, that is). Will we all be half-cyborgs? Will the rock on which we currently stand be burning and will we have escaped it? Not sure, but I’m willing to bet culture will be important and globalization will be continuing

//

Today’s Bonus Thought

Some damning reportage out of Forbes on Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross regarding his net worth. It is said that he has exaggerated his finances by a figure of $2 billion! The entire piece is a study in abject narcissism, where you are left shaking your head at the amount of time Mr. Ross spent haranguing Forbes about accurately depicting his wealth and then trying to weasel out of reportage of his deception. Of all of our great pathologies, our self worth over our net worth is one of the most destructive.

 

Pizza Parties and Other Important Matters

I’m trying to square Papa John’s logic that the furor around the NFL protests is driving down its sales (Pizza Hut says sales are great; we’re still waiting for Taco Town’s quarterly earnings call to see what they say)

is
Papa John’s certainly should have pull with the NFL; they are the league’s official pizza and their ongoing campaigns with retired NFL star Peyton Manning brings them even closer to the orbit of the football-watching public.
But Papa John’s doesn’t make it clear WHY sales are down? Are people boycotting sponsors too? While that is a usual tactic (to force corporations – in this case the NFL – to accede to a movement’s goals, it rarely has a material effect. And I had not previously seen any specific Papa John’s boycotts.
Ratings are down, yes; and some studies point to the protests as a partial reason. But overall TV viewership is down (+/- 5%) – and it is more significantly down as a whole than football. And is logical. People want to watch anything on their own schedule; live sports is one of the few things that people still make appointment viewing.
But that decline in viewership is unlikely to produce huge depression in the addressable audience.
Do the (small amount relatively speaking of) people who previously watched the NFL who have boycotted it also index high in Papa John’s customer base?
Or is it more likely that Papa Johns has fallen behind the innovations of its competitors Pizza Hut and Dominos? If we’re to take the pizzas on equal quality footing (I plead ignorance as a New Yorker; I do not wish to find out which is currently the best pizza of that dominant trio).
Dominos has taken a HBR case study approach to its advertising – eviscerating its past self to make its current version palatable. It is also known for being an innovator in technological developments – it’s the 10 year anniversary of None Pizza with Left Beef, after all.
Pizza Hut is in the midst of a major technological leap forward (or so it claims) through advanced heating mechanisms
Papa Johns, on the other hand, is known for its ubiquitous ads with Peyton Manning, who, again, is retired. No new advancements, save for limited edition topping styles. The pizza is the same. The tech is the same. The ordering is more or less the same.
While it is not like Papa Johns has avoided the tech revolution, they always seem a step behind. Is that the missing ingredient? I’m not sure, but it’s as plausible as (slightly) worse ratings.