Tag Archives: internet

Smart people don’t read the news

When I was a kid, going to secondary school and college, smart people consumed the news.

If you didn’t have much time, you “snacked” — consumed the few news segments on TV. If you considered yourself a serious person in society, wanting to be an informed voter and current on events and discoveries of the day, you got a morning newspaper and read it. Gave you wonderful material for conversation the rest of the day. Finally, if you really wanted to understand how the world around you worked, you subscribed to magazines, where long format and deep-dive articles took their time explaining to you why things were the way they were.

No more.

Nowadays most people don’t trust the news, but they still consume it. I find that odd.

The usual culprit is that the press has some sort of leaning to it — it’s either conservative or liberal. But press has always been biased, so I don’t buy that. People will tell you that it was the fault of cable TV and the 24-hour news cycle, but while that played a contributing factor, I don’t think it’s the entire story.

Nope, the reason consuming the news today sucks is that we live in a world of constant outrage.

At some point, news publishers realized that emotional engagement, not facts or solid background material, drove readers to consume and share. So all of our media channels are full of people who are either outraged about something or are using thinly-veiled logic to get us upset about something.

And so we have a treasure trove of material designed to drive “engagement”, which just means it’s stuff guaranteed to provoke an argument. Any news event can be spun half a dozen ways to try to generate anger — and it will be. Then, whichever angle works out the best will be mined for eyeballs until the next story comes along.

This consumption of material engineered to constantly outrage does not make for a healthy mind. Part of the reason is the constant emotional roller coaster it puts the consumer in, but part of the reason is that the media outlets are constantly trying to cover up and deny that this is why they’re running the stories to begin with. So most outlets well-known for “just the facts” reporting are anymore just presenting a light sheen on top of articles designed to enforce pre-existing attitudes.

Put another way, the reader is constantly being manipulated. The only question is the degree of manipulation and the honesty involved.

That’s why I’ve converted to reading tweets and opinion columns. Tweets are almost entirely too shallow to waste much of my time, and they’re wildly inaccurate, but they keep me apprised of the general gist of day-to-day conversation. Opinion columns are there to make a point regarding some pre-existing opinion. I find that to be perfectly fine. If you’re going to spin and slant the news to make your point, at least be a man about it and tell it to my face. Don’t hide behind “analysis” and pro and con segments.

With these two forms of news consumption, as long as I read opinion columns from all over the spectrum, I get a fairly good balanced diet of what’s going on. I don’t find all the drama in the news that my fellow consumers feel.

Consuming the news has changed. Smart people don’t do it like they used to.

I wish I could say long format pieces have survived this shift. They have not. More and more, I’m seeing long format articles that amount to nothing much more than extended arguments put forward by one special interest or another, many times with an interview of a token person holding an opposing position as some sort of fig leaf to “fairness”. What is needed here, as in tech and science news, is reporters that actually know their area and can write stories at length about important events happening there. Instead what we’re finding is reporters who are getting socially involved in issues, then try to pry meaningful news from their social network. You end up with four-thousand-word cocktail party chat. Not always, but more and more.

It’s sad that news is dead. As a former freelance writer who has written for both weekly, daily, and magazine outlets, I liked them. The TV guys were never hitting on much, but they had a fun, egocentric job to do as well. These guys as purveyors of what’s important to know are long gone. Their job positions and media outlets will go on for many decades longer, sadly. And dumb people will keep consuming them, keep getting upset every day, and keep wondering why the world is such a bad place to live in.

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The Site I don’t Promote

This article makes me a hypocrite. I’m telling you about a site of mine — promoting it, basically — and at the same time telling you that it’s a site I don’t talk about.

Hopefully this will make sense to you by the end of my story.

I have a lot of sites and apps. I think somewhere around 30 or so. Most I am very happy to pump, like my funny picture site, my site for talking about paychecks, or my site for my e-book series on practically applying Agile in your team. But this site is a special case.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about what many are now calling “technology addiction” The problem is that many web sites are using psychological, social, and gaming tricks to pull readers into more engagement than they would naturally give. Facebook is a great example — it uses your own friends to suck you into the site. But there are others. Instead of a place for textual information that links to other textual information, the web is becoming a few addictive sites doing anything they can to get you to stay and/or click on ads. That’s not where we wanted to go, and it occurred to me my problem can be restated like this:

There is a finite amount of text I want to consume from the web each day. Perhaps I scan 30-40 editorials. Instead of chasing down these editorials on various aggregation sites, then clicking through and using something like readability to remove the graphics, it’s in my best interests to have a computer assemble all of these in one place in plain text format. No ads, no graphics, no commenting, no nothing. Just the text, please. That way I can consume much faster. Over time, perhaps I can train the system to order this list. Also it would be nice if it all was client-side so I could continue to consume without an internet connection, say on an airplane. Using AI to reduce the article size to a paragraph or two would also be nice

And so newspaper23 was born.

Newspaper23 isn’t much to look at. It’s really kind of a dull app with all that plain text and all. That’s kind of the point. But I’ve been using it daily for over a year now, and each time I upgrade I make a little tweak to it. Right now it only provides opinions: sports, religion, politics, world, science and miscellaneous. And it doesn’t count voting (although the only graphic I allowed myself was a neat voting animation) or reduce the article size. But I could expand. Add voting. Do some Bayesian ranking. But I remain conflicted about the app.

Why? It should be pretty obvious to most startup readers. Alarm bells should be going off. Web content providers do not want to provide me with content like that. They do not want me using first-click, or readability, or any other kind of tool to get just the text of the article. They want to build a walled garden and have me come and play in it. Perhaps stay there and poke around. Play a game or two. Exactly the opposite goal that I have. I don’t blame them. After all, creating these sites requires a lot of work. And I have no desire to hurt anybody or upset the apple cart. To me, the only thing I’ve done is automate a bunch of clicking I was already doing.

Yet the problem remains: this is a useful app which many people will not like.

I remain very conflicted. On one hand this is not something I want to promote to a mass audience. On the other hand this is something that I have found very useful and I am sure many more people would as well. But they’ll never get the benefit unless I say something about it. It’s an app many will like and many will be uncomfortable with — and these could be the same people!

My current solution is to make this into a club for people who, like me, have attention-span problems on the net. I’m not sure if this is satisfactory. But it’s the only thing that makes sense right now.

I hate both to talk about this site and to not talk about this site. Hence it’s the site I don’t promote.

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Dear Future

Dear Future,

I thought it was important to write this to you because no doubt many of you will wonder what happened to technology between the years of 2000 and 2015. How did something with so much promise turn into a tool to monitor and control the population?

I wish I could say that there was one bad group or another that we could blame. This would make it much easier to explain. We certainly have a lot of bad groups at the moment. But instead of evil actors, most of the people who destroyed our individuality, privacy, and freedom were acting out of a spirit of helpfulness and kindness. This made the disaster all the more tragic.

Take Mark Zuckerberg. Brilliant guy, great observer of human nature. He noticed that people like sharing little tidbits about themselves, so he created an addictive site where everybody came and shared most everything about themselves. Or Sergei Brin and Larry Page. They noticed that by using certain ranking forumlae they could provide people with what they were searching for on the internet. They didn’t start out to own all the data on the planet, including data most people would have considered private, that’s just where they ended up. After all, a search is a search. “They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next,” said the CEO.

Governments initially had a hands-off policy towards the internet. Let’s see where it goes, they said. But after only a decade or so, it became apparent that people used and valued the internet more than they used and valued governments. It had become a part of their daily lives in a way that government never could. It was only natural that as political things happened on the net — secrets were stolen, criminals moved money around, people were tricked out of their savings, protest movements formed and took off — that governments wanted in on the action. Way in.

The police, who up until now had to actually figure out what was going on around them using limited resources, saw all this technology as a wonderful tool to find and prevent crimes. They could track you without a warrant. They could ask cell companies for your conversation information without your knowledge. They could monitor each detail of your life in an automated way. It was as if instead of the local town having 20 policemen, it had 20 million. It was progress, after all.

People who had jobs that had no purpose any more — and this included a lot of people — wanted governments to help them keep the old world they were used to. So they petitioned for laws to restrict the kinds of thinking that went on inside the net. No passing around crypto tools, no copying certain pieces of data, no mentioning of certain things. Some sites were okay to visit. Some were not. Some thoughts were okay to express. Some were not.

None of these groups saw themselves as hurting humanity. Each was willing to make a small compromise, heck, not even a compromise, just progress, in order to continuing doing the good things they were already doing. Because people already generally supported these groups to one degree or another, the population was suitably prepared not to realize the danger. Some were fiercely worried about bad corporations but less concerned about government. Some were worried about government but less concerned about corporations. Some feared foreign governments. Some feared organized criminals and terrorist but weren’t so concerned about corporations and governments. Each had their groups that they defended and their groups that they feared, but very few realized that it was the combination of all of these that was the danger, not just one group or the other.

In fact, it was our desire to identify bad actors and evil groups to hate that made us blind to the changing world. We kept focusing on the intentions and motives of outsiders, which ironically enough were mostly benign, and trusting our sacred cows to defend us, which also ironically they were woefully unprepared to do. We looked outward at others Instead of instead of inward at the general impact on each of us as a person, which was insidious and pernicious.

It was just our way of solving problems. Political rhetoric was full of all sorts of fear-mongering about dangers that, while important, were not of the same caliber as the (I hate to use this phrase) paradigm shift in the nature of humanity that was happening. It became difficult for most citizens to discern the difference in levels of danger. Was the fact that some people may not like other people of a certain ethnicity worse than the fact that most of the population was having it’s online behavior tracked by multiple entities? Was the country going broke at the same level of danger as embedded, locked-down-by-vendor computer implants? Was terrorism more important than preventing the government from effectively controlling all business travel? One person yelling about one thing on TV was much the same as any other. It’s not that nobody identified the danger. Quite the opposite. People identified too many dangers. We were awash in people telling us about all sorts of evils and dangers.

It became very difficult for the average citizen to prioritize. At some point, most people just gave up. Like a cancer patient waiting for a particularly difficult operation, or a passenger in a jumbo jet huddling frightened in the back as it rides the great storm, we maintained an outward air of calm. There was nothing else to do. It was so difficult to get our head around that we effectively gave up ownership of it. All that remained was a blind trust that somebody, somewhere was figuring all this stuff out. That the market, or my political group, or my favorite software company, or my clan, or technological progress in general, or whomever. Somewhere somebody was fixing it.

Only it didn’t work out that way.

Men at sometime were masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Anyway, I thought I’d let you know how it all happened. Since the victors always write the history books, I’m sure that no matter how it turned out you are happy and assured that it was the best way for everybody. That it was the only solution that would work.

We here in the past are not so sure.

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Where the Net is Broken

Couple of examples from the past month on how the internet is not working like it should.

More groupthink instead diversity. Over the past year or so, I’ve been taking my funny picture collection, which has been threatening to take over my hard drive, and moving it to the net. Nothing special or fancy, just a bunch of pictures tagged up so that I (or others) can find them. So if you’re looking for a funny picture of a turtle or a poster you might could put up in your cube, you can find it easily. This is turning out to be a lot of work, so I decided once a week to do 16 and post them on my feeds. That way my friends can get a good laugh — and I can make sure I’ve spread the word as much as possible. It also makes me accountable to others so I can be motivated to get them all moved over.

I ran into this graph of site traffic, which took me a bit to figure out.

graph from Google analytics of my caption of the day site

As you can see, I keep adding stuff and people keep slowly coming by and using it. But why would traffic level off? After all, I’m continuing to add more material. And it’s the same kind of material. The problem, best I can figure, is that I have several thousand followers on Google+. Even though each week I clearly post something along the lines of “Hey guys, this is my thing. Each week I post funny pictures on Friday. Please ignore if you don’t like” Some folks don’t get the memo. When they see a picture of a cute baby that they don’t like because it’s trivial or just noisy, they click the spam button. So Google marks spam as coming both from my account and my blog site.

This effectively means if you have a lot of followers you can’t continually post things from your site that some of them might find worthless and/or annoying. Google is “helping” you conform to groupthink, i.e., basically rewarding (or not punishing) you only if you think and say the right things. Yay Google.

Empty wastelands of groups. I’m a member of an Agile group on LinkedIn. It has hundreds of members, but oddly nobody posts there. I really don’t know why. One guy last week asked a question about Agile architecture. I asked a clarifying question, hoping to draw in others, but there were no takers. There are several other LinkedIn groups I am a member of which are like this. Why have a group where nobody posts? I felt sorry for the guy. You’d think a large group on X would be the place to ask questions and start discussions around X, right?

Along those lines, I’m a member of the HackerNews Facebook group. It also has no posts — maybe one every couple of days. And it has thousands of members. So a few weeks ago I took to posting my blog entries over there. Who knows? Maybe it’ll start up some conversation. And it did — I got one guy posting that he hated people putting their blogs in the group and another guy telling me that I should strive for posting higher quality material to the list. The second guy said he almost clicked the “spam” button, but decided to comment instead. Thank you!

To me, the purpose of the “like” button is to take a large stream of things and help sort it out based on your preferences. What I was hearing (and what I a suspect is going on over at LinkedIn) is folks only wanting to post the very best material in a group. There’s a lot of self-editing. So nobody posts anything. But the system only works with lots of data. You shouldn’t be trying to write an encyclopedia. Every post shouldn’t be a special snowflake. Instead you should be letting it all hang out and letting the system do it’s job. So instead of active boards centered around user interests, we get these thousand-person groups where 2 people may post each month, and that’s considered too much.

I fully understand and support the idea of having group standards — you probably don’t want my funny pictures of cats in your Agile group. However if the standards (self-imposed or not) are such that two thousand people can be there and only one person posts each week, something is broken. At such a low volume, I don’t even see or notice any of that small volume when it finally does appear. There’s too much other stuff going on in my feeds. And if it’s going to be like that, what’s the point of even having the group?

Not trying to rant. Forum designers set out to do one thing, but then they try to avoid one kind of failure so much that they end up falling into other traps. Good to point these out. Can’t fix what you don’t see is broken.

If you've read this far and you're interested in Agile, you should take my No-frills Agile Tune-up Email Course, and follow me on Twitter.