Category Archives: Journalism

Spewing From the Facebook News Feed

In a sharp article that takes a curious turn at the end, Derek Thompson discusses the Facebook News Feed and how it’s influenced by users. The broader and more important point speaks to the role of Facebook as a news source and how it shapes the public’s attention on important issues and conversations.

The News Feed is perhaps the world’s most sophisticated mirror of its readers’ preferences—and it’s fairly clear that news isn’t one of them. We simply prefer stories that fulfill the very purpose of Facebook’s machine-learning algorithm, to show us a reflection of the person we’d like to be, to make us feel, to make us smile, and, most simply, to remind us of ourselves.

In Thompson’s view, since each user has the power to alter her News Feed, we can conclude that evocative and emotional stories are extremely popular on Facebook because users prefer engaging with these stories. We choose to like and share this kind of content and we prefer it over traditional journalism and “hard” news. Thompson believes that Facebook has become a portal to entertainment-focused stories because that’s what users actually want to consume.

The problem I see in this line of reasoning is how little attention is paid to Facebook’s own control of the algorithms that determine what users see. In Thompson’s essay he makes it seem as if users have full power to create the News Feed just because a user can friend/de-friend and follow certain pages. But I think Thompson confuses the ability to alter the News Feed with transparency and control over it. Except for Facebook employees, nobody knows what the News Feed algorithms look like. Thompson also fails to acknowledge that even machine-learning algorithms were created by humans and contain very human biases both unintentional and by design (which news sources are favored/what kind of behavior determines that a user actually likes a story).

Facebook’s interest is to maximize user engagement. By measuring likes, shares, and comments, the company is improving ways to keep us on the News Feed. But I think the question “How best to retain the audience?” is different from “What are the deeper preferences for consuming news?” Thompson, however, thinks they are the same.

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What Has Become of Business Journalism?

The New Yorker published my essay about the financial crisis and business journalism; I review a new book that talks about these issues.

“The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark” doesn’t attempt to enshrine old-media institutions. Instead, it defines accountability reporting and what’s needed to foster it, no matter the medium: resources, to fund extensive research; expert knowledge, to decipher sub-cultures; and resilient editors willing to withstand intimidation from the government and from powerful companies. Starkman’s strength is his insistence that we judge journalism from within its own tradition rather than jamming it through the logic of market efficiency or “disruptive” information technology and accepting what comes out.

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Evgeny Morozov And The Tech Press

Once again, Morozov indicts the tech press. Do we want a horde of gadget reviewers or critical thinkers? Read his “How to Stop a Sharknado” on Internet ideologies, public intellectuals and politics at the German site Zeit Online.

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Jeff Bezos Is Bad News

Writing in The New Republic Senior Editor Alec MacGillis takes an informed and critical stance against the purchase of The Washington Post by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

…let’s not kid ourselves here: The company that made him one of the richest men in the world has had a less than benign impact on our nation. It has devastated the publishing industry, from the big presses to the small booksellers. It has exacerbated the growth of the low-wage economy, to the point where the president feels the need to celebrate an increase in warehouse jobs that will pay barely more than minimum wage. (Fun fact uncovered by the Morning Call in Allentown, Pa. two years ago: Instead of paying for air-conditioning at some Pennsylvania warehouses, Amazon had just stationed paramedics outside to take the inevitably heat-stressed workers to the hospital.)

More generally, Amazon has embodied, more than any other of the giants that rule our new landscape, the faster-cheaper-further mindset that scratches away daily at our communal fabric: Why bother running down to the store around the block if you can buy it with a click? No risk of running into someone on the way and actually having to talk to them, and hey, can you beat that price? No thought given to the externalities that make that price possible…

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