Jun 232016
 

I’m pretty much an open book to my building manager. If I ever have to move into another rental, though, the services provided by a British data-mining company might unnerve me. Writes Stanley Q. Woodvine in Vancouver, BC’s Georgia Straight,

Tenant Assured is a web-based service first made available two weeks ago to landlords around the world. The service essentially forces people to open up their social media accounts to the prying eyes of landlords as part of the process of applying to rent an apartment. …

This is how Tenant Assured works:

A landlord who’s signed-up with Tenant Assured sends all of their rental applicants to a special link on the Tenant Assured website. They are then asked  to provide full access to up to four of their social media profiles—on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter. These are then thoroughly crawled, scraped, and analyzed by Score Assured. The scrutiny includes conversation threads, private messages, and contact lists. …

Concerns that the service is a gross violation of personal privacy were brushed off by the company, which trotted out the oldest authoritarian assurance about surveillance in the book, namely, “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear“. Or, as [the company’s] cofounder Steve Thornhill put it … “If you’re living a normal life then, frankly, you have nothing to worry about.”

Thornhill further pointed out that people had to give their consent to the Tenant Assured process and that it was really not much different from a background check or credit rating.

Of course it’s very different … . There are long-standing laws governing credit and background checks and there are processes in place to allow people to see their credit reports and correct inaccuracies.

Although landlords anywhere in the world can sign up for the service—including right here in Vancouver—it’s is not clear what laws in any given jurisdiction could hold such an online service to account.

As a professional communicator, I take great pains not to post anything at all controversial online: very little politics or religion … or anger. (I always ask myself, “What would my students think? My future clients? My Mom?”) The persona I therefore project is a good deal sunnier and more welcoming than the real thing. Last year a girlfriend from high school wrote me, “Bob, I like you so much better online.” Good to know.

May 102016
 

For almost a decade marketers, educators, and students have been using the social media “dashboard” created by Vancouver, BC’s Hootsuite to monitor their social networks, analyze the effectiveness and reach of their messages, “listen” to the many buzzes of the online world, and engage with their customers and influencers. It’s a superb platform. (Bias alert: Several former students now work at Hootsuite. I have also used Hootsuite University in my digital media marketing classes at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.)

The company also publishes a lot of content. I find Hootsuite’s blog especially useful; its writers keep me up to date on just about everything in the world of social media. With this morning’s cup of coffee I perused Emily Copp’s Social Media Acronyms All Marketers Should Know and found several I didn’t know: SaaS (“software as a service”), ELI5 (“explain like I’m five”), and … LMK (“let me know”). Copp’s annotations are clear, and the links she provides are helpful.

Other recent blog-posts I have found valuable:

Finally, the blog’s monthly round-up of Social Media News You Need to Know is a really great cheat-sheet – comprehensive and likely vital to your work.

Apr 272016
 

FirstDraftNews

FirstDraftNews.com is a beautiful and wide-ranging resource created for journalists “who source and report stories from social media.”

What is the best way to search for eyewitness media when a story breaks? What are the most efficient and effective ways to verify what you find? How should you approach and credit social sources? What role can you play in stopping the spread of rumours and hoaxes? How can you do all this while remaining commercially competitive? …

Here on First Draft News you will find relevant features, reviews, case studies and analysis authored by members of the First Draft Coalition alongside a library of free training resources for use in the newsroom and the classroom.

First Draft is also, I have found, a godsend to non-journalists who write and teach professionally and who need to navigate and fact-check enormous amounts of information in order to do their jobs at a high level. The site has sections devoted to News Gathering (Mastering Google Search to find eyewitness media and How to find geolocated videos on YouTube, for example), Verification (How to use TinEye to find the oldest version of an image online), and Ethics and Law (What are the legal implications for accidental copyright infringement? and A simple guide to the complexities of copyright law). The site also focuses on Fakes and Hoaxes (Lessons from The New York Times Super Tuesday hoax: Five ways to spot fake news and, my favourite, The ‘giant’ rat found in London is almost definitely not 4 feet long).

University educators can create “packs” useful articles and share them with their students and/or colleagues. Even better, in my experience students eat up the kind of online platforms and tools vetted and annotated here; these lessons and resources will not go unused. And finally, First Draft provides a number of detailed and contemporary case studies that make research – and discussion of research methods – vivid and fun.

A handy-dandy starting spot for you: 5 Vital browser plugins. They include Storyful Multisearch (gives you customized and filtered searches of numerous databases at once), Google Translate (provides automatically translated posts originally written in languages you don’t know well), RevEye (performs a reverse image search “to see if the image has appeared elsewhere before”), Distill Web Monitor (“let[s] you know about changes to a web page via a pop-up on your computer, email or SMS”), and Jeffrey’s Exif Viewer (checks “whether a picture is all it claims to be” – “time, date, device used” – by examining its metadata).

Apr 072016
 

Starting early last year I noticed that students would take photographs of notes I’d written on the board with their smart-phones. What a great idea, I thought – at first. Then I noticed that on some assignments my own on-the-whiteboard language was being parroted back to me. Here is my friend Clarissa’s smart take on the topic:

Studies show that copying information from the blackboard by hand allows students to retain a lot more knowledge than typing this information.

Typing, however, is an outdated trend. Today, students don’t type. They photograph. Time and again, I see a student snooze through the class period only to take a photo of the blackboard at the end of class. This is, of course, a lot more useless than typing. If you haven’t heard the lecture and haven’t tried to make it meaningful to yourself through taking your own notes, the scribbles on the blackboard will have no meaning to you.

I don’t forbid photographing of the blackboard but I always wonder why such a silly method of note-taking even exists.

Apr 042016
 

Another new top-of-the-morning visit these days is Vocativ. It’s a news site that reports on stories I often haven’t seen elsewhere. What sets is apart from traditional online reportage is how it finds stories. From the website:vocativ

Vocativ is at the nexus of media and technology. We use deep web technology as a force for good and go where others can’t to reveal hidden voices, emerging trends and surprising data. We turn exclusive insights into visual stories that
offer our audience new perspectives and connect us more deeply to a changing world.

At the heart of Vocativ is our exclusive technology, a place where science meets storytelling. More than 80% of the Internet sits beyond the grasp of Google, in an area called the deep web. Vocativ explores this vast, uncharted space that includes everything from forums, databases, documents, and public records to social platforms, chat rooms, and commerce sites. Our proprietary technology allows us to search and monitor the deep web 24/7 to spot news quickly, detect early signals of online movements, identify key influencers and share meaningful analysis of ongoing events.

This morning I learned how in the United States the daily fantasy sports industry is in trouble. (Note: Your author acquired and published one of the first fantasy-sports books back in the day.)

Vocativ has a refreshingly international focus. Today’s ‘front page’ has stories on Iceland, Greece, Syria, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, as well as on the many Central and South American nations.

Follow Vocativ’s very busy twitter feed.

Apr 032016
 

My new favourite place to go very morning is Aeon, a marvellous multimedia site devoted to intellectual culture: “big ideas, serious enquiry, a humane worldview and good writing.”

From the About page:

Aeon has four channels…. Most weekdays, it publishes Essays – longform explorations of deep issues written by serious and creative thinkers.

From Monday to Friday, it also publishes Opinions – short provocations, maintaining Aeon’s high argumentative standards but in a more nimble and immediate form.

Aeon’s Video channel streams a mixture of curated short documentaries and original Aeon content, including a series of interviews with experts at the forefront of thought.aeon

Finally, Aeon’s Conversations channel invites the reader in to put their own arguments and points of view. With Conversations, old-style web comments give way to a new form of collective inquiry.

This morning I read a lively, lucid opinion piece by Cory Powell arguing that Galileo’s reputation might be more hyperbole than truth – the author chooses “is” for “might be,” no surprise. (Hint: Kepler was the real giant of science who explained heliocentrism and the laws of planetary motion.)  A 4-minute animation directed by Sharron Mirsky showed me how to enjoy a blackout. Reading an essay by Frank Furede called “The Ages of Distraction,” I learned that moralists and philosophers have complaining about how distracted humans are for hundreds of years:

Attention was promoted as a moral accomplishment that was essential to the cultivation of a sound character. The philosopher Thomas Reid, the foremost exponent of 18th-century Scottish ‘common sense’, argued in his Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind (1788) that ‘there are moral rules respecting the attention’ which are ‘no less evident than mathematical axioms’. The moral rules of attention required cultivation and training and it was the job of educators to ensure that the young were protected from acquiring the ‘habits of inattention’. Inattention was increasingly perceived as an obstacle to the socialisation of young people.

Countering the habit of inattention among children and young people became the central concern of pedagogy in the 18th century. Educators have always been preoccupied with gaining children’s attention but in the 18th century this concern acquired an unprecedented importance. Attention was seen as important for the nourishment of the reasoning mind as well as for spiritual and moral development. Advice books directed at parents, such as Maria Edgeworth’s Practical Education (1798), insisted that the cultivation of concentration and attention required effort and skill.

After reading this wonderful essay, I quickly zipped over to The Drudge Report, alas, to see what crazy things were happening all over the world – well, mostly all over the United States. Shame on me!

Returning to Aeon I got caught up with a high-toned and truly friendly discussion that addressed the question, “Can a mystical tradition within a religion be said to express its true spirit.”

As an author, editor, and publisher, I could not be more impressed and gratified by this initiative. Salut to co-founders Brigid and Paul Hains.

Mar 082016
 

While we’re talking about Jay Rosen, let me introduce you to an initiative he started the other day with some of his graduate students at NYU: NewsLiteracy2016. This is a wonderful project.

Jay’s announcement on his Facebook feed:

One of the first things I teach my students is: “Online, the simplest way to add value is to save the user time.”

That was the principle behind a project we launched today, called NewsLiteracy2016. Each of my 11 graduate students took a key trend or disruptive force that is changing journalism and studied it until they knew it cold. Then they reduced all that knowledge to a series of time-saving features: a short 500 word introduction, a list of the best links for further reading, good people to follow for that topic, key charts and graphs to illustrate trends, a “why is this important?” box.

The cover image (below) is a single paragraph summarizing what’s changing in journalism, and each clause links to the one-page study guide for that topic. So it’s both a condensation, and a table of contents.

We made this especially for teachers and students, and anyone who wants to understand why people keep talking about a “crisis” in journalism. My Studio 20 students built the site and did the design. I hope you will check it out, and “like” this post so it spreads on Facebook, or even consider sharing it with your network. It will save your friends a lot of time!

journalism

Here’s the picture with the links working: As news consumption moves to mobileONE and publishers lose control of distribution,TWO business models have to evolve with changes in the larger ecosystem.THREE Wise media companies are focusing more on products,FOUR exploring how to personalize the flow of information,FIVE and engineering a smarter newsroom workflow.SIXMeanwhile, journalists are realizing that data can help them find better stories,SEVEN and they’re making friends with automation.EIGHTThey understand that users can assist in news production,NINE that if you can’t have scale it’s better to be niche,TEN and that excelling at explanation can interest more people in the news.ELEVEN

Mar 072016
 

househeart

It is hard to edit one’s own work into its final version; you always need a second pair of eyes.

One can, though, review and recast one’s work using intelligent techniques. My former mentor NYU Journalism professor Jay Rosen mentions two such techniques in a piece called “We temporarily lost our minds.” Some thoughts on SB Nation’s Daniel Holtzclaw debacle. (Holtzclaw is the “now-notorious Oklahoma City police officer convicted on 18 counts of rape and sexual assault, crimes he committed while on duty and against the people he was supposed to protect.”)

 

The writer and non-fiction master Gay Talese used to describe for anyone who asked how he would pin the typed pages of his articles to a wall, in order to step back and re-read the draft with binoculars. That’s right: binoculars! Why did he do this? Because it was the only way he could think of to examine his creation at the sentence level and as a completed whole: simultaneously. To perfect what he made, he needed distance from, and intimacy with. He felt he couldn’t sacrifice one for the other. If he planted a bomb on page 2, he wanted to see exactly how it went off on page 22, and assess whether that was the right story arc. I mention this because it is one answer to the mystery of how the Vox editors temporarily lost their minds. They didn’t have any equivalent to Gay Talese’s binoculars. They didn’t know what their creation added up to. They couldn’t see it whole.

There are other ways to get distance on a text you are too intimate with. One of them is so simple, so artless, so obvious that I’m convinced it is under-employed because editorial people — who think of themselves as sophisticated manipulators of text — are embarrassed to use something we might recommend to a sixth grader. Read the work aloud, preferably to an “average” or non-specialist listener. Just vocalizing a problematic text brings the problems with it much closer to the surface. There is no way “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” could have survived being read aloud to a husband, wife, girlfriend or boyfriend. No one who loves you would have let you publish it on the internet.

Jay’s entire piece is well worth reading. It begins:

On February 17, SB Nation, the founding site in the Vox Media empire, did something so inexplicable it amounts to an editorial mystery.

For about five hours the editors had up on their site a 12,000 word article weirdly sympathetic to Daniel Holtzclaw, the now-notorious Oklahoma City police officer convicted on 18 counts of rape and sexual assault, crimes he committed while on duty and against the people he was supposed to protect. This was a piece of writing so wrongheaded, noxious and ill-conceived that the editorial director of SB Nation, Spencer Hall, said later that day in a note to readers: “There is no qualification: it was a complete failure.”

A true statement. I cannot put it any better than Deadspin’s Greg Howard did:  “The tone of the entire piece is fawning and forgiving; by the end, the terrifying, spectacular spree of rapes exists as little more than an unfortunate occurrence, and a 263-year sentence as an unjustly harsh burden Holtzclaw has to bear. Holtzclaw destroyed 13 women’s lives; ‘Who Is Daniel Holtzclaw?’ told the story of how they destroyed his.”

Photo by Robert Basil

Mar 062016
 

sleep

This advertisement by Vanda Pharmaceuticals (shown a dozen times a day, it seems, on MSNBC) is for a drug called Hetlioz. (It’s very expensive.) Vanda says Hetlioz helps blind people who have a rare condition called Non-24. These folk have trouble sleeping through the night and staying awake during the day.

It made me wonder: Who is the audience for these ads? Blind people, who can’t actually watch TV? Their doctors, who might prescribe this drug? 

My favourite new theory is that the pharmaceutical company’s strategy is three-fold: To create awareness of an essentially unheard-of disorder; to make the millions and millions of people who are not blind but who can’t sleep at night and who fall asleep during the day believe that Hetlioz could help them out, too; and to promote this medication to these people, to their friends and family, and to their doctors – without doing so explicitly. (In the United States “Pharmaceutical companies are not allowed to promote their medications for an off-label use, which has led to several large settlements for illegal marketing.”) We all know how utterly awful sleep problems are, so imagine how enticing the hope engendered by these ads is.

Great tidbit: “How obscure is Non-24? There are only 146 citations for the disorder in the entire US National Library of Medicine. By comparison, there are 8,463 citations for the plague.”

Addendum: My NoContest co-founder Tierney and I had a good back-and-forth after she read this post.

screencap

Here’s the link to the “Sandy’s View” post Tierney mentions.

Mar 062016
 

As a teacher and as an editor, my counsel to students and writers often seems too obvious even to say. For instance: “You can’t complete a large project in a short time. Proceed bit by bit” (or “bird by bird“).

I have found, though, that repeating such counsel, many times, loudly and then quietly, and in different contexts, can reduce its obviousness to reveal its plain urgency.

What is more obvious than “practice something to get better at it”? Here is my friend Jonathan Mayhew in a post called “Jazz Piano” from his superb blog “Stupid Motivational Tricks: Scholarly Writing and How to Get It Done“:

Every thing begins with an idea. I have always wanted to play jazz piano, and now I am doing it, albeit at a lowish level. I see no possibility of getting worse with practice. There will be a plateau or two, with steady progress between the plateaux, and then a point at which I won’t get better.

It strikes me that the key with these kinds of things is neither to underestimate nor to overestimate the difficulty of it. If you think it is going to be easy, then it is easy to get frustrated. If you think of it is impossible, then you won’t even imagine doing it. My approach is just to get lost in it when I am doing it. I could spend 15 minutes trying out variations of a few chords. The other day I closed my eyes and I could still play some of my songs fine.

Most things, you can probably do. Ride a bike, make ceramics, or grow plants. If you are interested enough in it, that is. I am quite sure that I could be a crossword puzzle constructor. Some day I’ll want to do this, though not now.

Mayhew’s blog slices into the topic of practice again and again – lucid, brilliant, entertaining, and always very useful variations upon a theme. It is profound stuff. What one says about getting better at playing piano, writing books, constructing crossword puzzles – one is saying about living life.

“I see no possibility of getting worse with practice.”