Audacious Fox

Laura Sydell, NPR, reporting on Facebook’s recent change to its Trending topics algorithm:

As of Wednesday, the company has once again changed its trending algorithms. Personal preferences are now out of the equation. “Facebook will no longer be personalized based on someone’s interests,” Facebook says in a press release. “Everyone in the same region will see the same topics.” For now, a region is considered a country, so everyone in the U.S. should see the same topics.

Considering how individualized Facebook attempts to make its products, this is a huge pivot for Trending topics. Although region-based topics are the big story here, the Trending section will also now display the original headline and originating source for every story. Good stuff.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Fidji Simo, Director of Product at Facebook, recently announcing a large, coordinated effort to bolster Facebook’s ability to collect, verify, and distribute online news. They’re calling it the Facebook Journalism Project, and Mr. Simo categorized the various efforts of the project into three areas: collaborative development of news products, training and tools for journalists, and training and tools for everyone.

Predictably, a number of the efforts deal with helping journalists better understand and use Facebook products. This will come primarily through a whole new series of e-learning courses, eventually certified by Poynter, that focus on Live, Instant Articles, and other Facebook tools for building a presence and distributing stories.

Of the 10 key areas Mr. Simo highlighted, three of them were particularly interesting: news-specific hackathons, focused on collaborating with news organizations; working with the News Literacy Project to develop a series of public service ads for Facebook users; and helping First Draft News, a nonprofit focused on digital trust and ethics, establish a virtual verification community for eyewitness media. These are all problems that are both important and could benefit from a company with the influence and resources as Facebook.

Yet, for some, I imagine the Facebook Journalism Project serves as a visible reminder to how rough 2016 was for Facebook and online news.

In May, Gizmodo’s Michael Nunez spoke with former Facebook workers, who said they routinely suppressed conservative stories from appearing in the Trending Topics section of the site. This kicked off a whole slew of responses, and set the stage for events later that summer.

In August, Facebook stated they had investigated the claims in Gizmodo’s piece and found “no evidence of systematic bias”. Shortly after that story, Quartz reported that Facebook had laid off the entire Trending Topics editorial staff and would be replacing them with engineers, automation, and algorithms. Then, only three days after Quart’z piece, the Washington Post reported a top post for Facebook’s Trending Topics featured a factually incorrect article about Megyn Kelly, stating she had been fired from Fox News. She hadn’t, and attention shifted from the suppression of conservative news to the unintentional elevation of fake stories.

It goes on, and the 2016 election only served to raise Facebook’s profile in the debate of fake news, responsibility, and influence.


In some ways, the Facebook Journalism Project is embarrassingly late to the party, and work to tackle the effects of reinforced ideological bubbles could have begun much sooner. In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that 62% of U.S. adults get their news from social media, and on Facebook, which reaches about 67% of all U.S. adults, about two-thirds of its users get their news from the site. I imagine those numbers will continue to rise for the foreseeable future, as Facebook looks to push past over 1.8 billion active monthly users.

The Facebook Journalism Project is a good first set of acknowledgements and initiatives, but they shouldn’t be the only ones. If Facebook wants to be a “place for public discourse”, an institution that blends media and technology, the company should continue to devote money, talent, and time to projects like this one. The first step to solving a problem is recognizing there is one, and while I don’t know if the Facebook Journalism Project will solve anything, it’s uplifting that they’re trying.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Eric Brantner, on the recent update to Google’s page rank algorithm, which targets overly obnoxious interstitial ads on mobile:

Google is targeting what they call “problematic transitions,” and gave three specific examples of pages that would be affected. The first is pages that show a pop up that opens right after a user clicks a link or as they scroll through a page, hiding the page’s content. Also affected are pages that show an interstitial ad that must be closed out before the user gets to their desired content and pages that keep content “under the fold” with an interstitial on the top of the page. Google has noted that “small” pop ups won’t be affected by these rules, but they didn’t give any details about what specific size constitutes “small.” […]

Of course, there are some caveats. The new rule applies only to the first click on a page from Google. Once you’re on a web page, there are no penalties if you encounter the ads following another link.

This change feels like a half measure. On their Webmasters Blog, Google specifies they’re only targeting (emphasis mine) “pages where content is not easily accessible to a user on the transition from the mobile search results”. Google’s only focusing on the transition from result to page; the part of the experience most closely tied to them. This is not an attempt to purge these terrible fullscreen roadblocks from the web.

To an extent, that’s fair; Google’s entitled to only focus on the parts of searching they can control: the results and the certain parts of the result itself. Additionally, judging from my own analytics, most Google traffic tends to read what they came for and leave. For those people, interstitial ads after the first page aren’t an issue.

However, if Google’s opinion is truly that “intrusive interstitials provide a poorer experience to users than other pages where content is immediately accessible”, why not apply the same site-wide expectations they do for mobile-friendly webpages? If Google’s crawler is smart enough to determine the difference between an interstitial ad (penalized) and one displayed for legal obligations (exempted), I think the new ranking algorithm should consider the entire site, not just the individual pages.

Intrusive, distasteful interstitials hurt the mobile web, and Google should oppose them on principle, not passively.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Rob Rhyne, in his aforementioned essay:

My thinking goes like this: I can borrow someone else’s phone if I need to make a call, but I want my Mac if I need to do any sort of deep thinking. This feeling of personalization runs deep in a desktop operating system. It’s much more than wallpaper, or color schemes. My Mac is loaded with software and utilities that I have written custom for my specific use. I’m not talking about general software development, but scripting, and automation which ease my everyday tasks.

This level of customization is nigh impossible on iOS devices, by design. Might sound like I’m being facetious or setting up a strawman argument. In fact, I believe this capability for deep customization is the crux of the division between the iPad-only and Mac loyalist camps.

This last sentence clearly conveys what I’ve been struggling to articulate for a while. My argument against the every road ends with iOS conversation shouldn’t focus on functions iOS can’t perform, because that position loses ground with each passing year and software update. Rather, the more sound, sane, stance is to frame MacOS as the more malleable operating system; one that lets me tinker and customize my machine to my own thinking, instead of the other way around.

iOS is simpler, yes. Requires less maintenance, yes. Can — functionally — replace MacOS for many, yes. But for me, my Mac is irreplaceable and intertwined with a certain style of computing I love and can’t find anywhere else.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Pete Souza, Chief White House Photographer, presents his eighth and final collection of photographs from this year at the White House. Mr. Souza:

As always, the editing for this project is both subjective and personal. Yes, there are some historic moments included but mostly I was looking for behind-the-scenes moments that give people a more personal look at the President and First Lady. And I’ve included a few that I thought were just cool photos.

Interesting to see how often President Obama’s Fitbit Surge makes it into the shot. 17 out of 73 by my count. I couldn’t find any solid sources on what modifications (or limitations) this particular Surge might have, but it’d be interesting to see a.) what changes were made and by whom, and b.) if or where the health data is stored.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Jason Sheehan, writing for NPR’s new “Reading The Game” series, which looks to cover “some of the best, wildest, most moving or revealing stories” in video games. To kick things off, Mr. Sheehan starts with No Man’s Sky:

On the one side, there’s the built-in story of the game, which is just terrible. At worst, it is incomprehensible spacey-spaceman gibberish about ancient civilizations and lost artifacts. And at it’s best, it ain’t much better — failing on many basic levels to tell a meta-story about the in-game universe being a simulation (which, you know, it is) where the player (also called “the Traveler”) is tasked by its creator to explore his way to the center of everything, essentially making the player a kind of galactic-level landlord checking in on all the tenants.

But on the other hand, it is also the best game I have ever experienced for self-generating storytelling.

This is going to be a great series.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Mark Wilson, Fast Company, writing about cooking with the $1,500 June smart oven:

This salmon had become more distracting to babysit than if I’d just cooked it on my own. This salmon had become a metaphor for Silicon Valley itself. Automated yet distracting. Boastful yet mediocre. Confident yet wrong. Most of all, the June is a product built less for you, the user, and more for its own ever-impending perfection as a platform. When you cook salmon wrong, you learn about cooking it right. When the June cooks salmon wrong, its findings are uploaded, aggregated, and averaged into a June database that you hope will allow all June ovens to get it right the next time. […]

Instead of teaching ourselves to cook, we’re teaching a machine to cook. And while that might make a product more valuable in the long term for a greater number of users, it’s inherently less valuable to us as individuals, if for no other reason than that even in the best-case scenarios of machine learning, we all have individual tastes. And what averages out across millions of people may end up tasting pretty … average.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

A massive update to No Man’s Sky, after several months of radio silence from developer Hello Games. Philippa Warr, Rock Paper Shotgun:

No Man’s Sky’s [official site] Foundation update was released over the weekend bringing base-building, different game modes, farming, freighters (kind of mobile resource warehouses), new resources, UI tweaks and so on. It’s a massive update, both in terms of what it brings and also in the sense that it feels like it changes the nature of the game.

And here’s Kirk Hamilton, writing for Kotaku:

It makes me hopeful about the future of No Man’s Sky, given that Hello Games describes it as “the first of many free updates.” My sense after a few hours is that while it adds depth and allows players to anchor their game with a new degree of permanence, the Foundation Update will ultimately fall short of remedying the broad, shallow aimlessness that left so many cold back when No Man’s Sky came out.

I also sense that that this game’s overarching lack of focus couldn’t have been addressed or “fixed” by any one addition or patch. If this update is anything to go by, No Man’s Sky may gradually become fortified over time as Hello Games adds more systems, features, and modes. It’s a confident step forward.

Not mad, disappointed. That’s how I tried to describe No Man’s Sky in my review and subsequent commentary. Based on its launch and lack of, well, game, I was relatively sure that No Man’s Sky would fade into the night.

For now, it appears I might have been shortsighted. This update is huge (see the patch notes) and appears to address some of the concerns I had with the original gameplay. Base building and resource farming adds variety to the previous formulaic universe, and the ability to quickly revisit old planets makes exploring less lackluster.

The patch also seems to have reinvigorated the player base. Steam Charts, a site that monitors player numbers of PC-based game platform Steam, is reporting a jump in active players over the past few days, taking active user count from 500 to more than 6,000. This is still a far cry from the 36,000 average players in August, and 200,000 after launch, but the spike is impressive.

I don’t think going completely silent for three months was the best PR approach, but there’s something to be said for screwing hype and choosing to under promise and over deliver.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

There's more good stuff in the archive.