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Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Inspiration, Stymied

The Awl
Photo by Andrew Magill.

Yesterday I thought of a really good premise for an article. Now I can’t remember the idea. It arose after I listened to the first episode of The Awl’s podcast on the way to work. Editor John Herrman served as the show’s host and interviewed Jenna Worthman, the New York Times reporter who profiled Instagram gossip rag The Shade Room.

They talked about how weird and exhilarating the internet economy is, how platforms like Facebook respond to the way users interact on them more than the companies innovate independently. This dynamic makes room for miniature entrepreneurship in the cracks between the code — for instance, The Shade Room.

Facebook getting into news
Quoting Stratechery on Twitter.

As Herrman said in The Verge’s profile of the publication, “Our entire economy is just a giant science fiction writing prompt.” (The editor should have hyphenated “science fiction” — I can’t turn off my proofreading brain after work.)

And yet, for the life of me, I can’t remember the idea sparked by his discussion with Jenna Worthman. I suppose I could just replay the podcast and hopefully retrieve my notion, but that seems tedious. I’d rather be uninspired than bored. So I’m watching The Good Wife instead.

It’s fun to have a blog because I can document inanities.

The Awl
Another awl. Photo by Kevin K.

Will Social Media Habits Transfer To Labor?

Sam Biddle wrote for GQ, “When even our genuine friendships are being quantified, what hope can we possibly have for treating labor as more than a pack of pixels?” This is an obvious reference to Facebook and all the other social networks. Personal relationships are uploaded piece by piece — voluntarily, it’s worth noting — and then rigorously monetized.

road worker signs
Image via morgueFile.

We are eager to feed snapshots of daily life into websites or apps that promise to show our acquaintances. Soon we learn to rely on digital hearts and stars when defining our social value.

Biddle seems afraid that the same laissez-faire, click-happy attitude will apply to labor and transform the American job market. The evidence behind this notion is ample. Worry has spread so widely that I don’t feel like I need to substantiate with a link. But I do want to help tweak the argument’s focal angle.

Biddle touched on this topic again when he responded to a “gig economy” advertorial on Medium’s tech site Backchannel. The article, called “The Full-Time Job Is Dead”, was sponsored by Upwork, a middleman freelancer market created when Elance and oDesk merged. Biddle wrote, addressing the Upwork authors, “What you’ve described is a societal nightmare in which the only employment is deeply precarious, and only employers benefit.”

I don’t disagree. However, as far as I can tell, we are just seeing the repercussions of supply and demand. (Upwork still bears responsibility — like Biddle, I think their business is heinous.) There are more workers than jobs, so employers have leverage. It’s that simple, right? Of course the people hiring can do whatever they want. The only way to deal with the problem is regulation. (Or is there another solution that I’m unaware of?)

Alternatively, we could wait for the market to change on its own… which might not happen. Unless some bizarre disruption takes place.

Hat tip for the concepts: “Rebuilding the world technology destroyed” and the affiliated podcast.

Facebook Can’t Excel At News Design Because…

1 Like Thumb War
Image by Surian Soosay.

The Society for News Design crowned Facebook “World’s Best-Designed Digital”, although without specifying digital what. Presumably “digital experience” is what they were going for. Here’s some malarkey from the announcement page, on how to qualify as “World’s Best-Designed Digital”:

“You must be thoughtful and meaningful, but fast. You must be clear, engaging and engaged. You must be available anywhere and everywhere. Now, more than ever, your audience is in control.

From desktop to mobile to app, this year’s winner works. […] It provides a richer news experience than any one ‘site.’ It is redefining ‘community,’ by evolving our relationships with the news and each other. […] It is the platform that you love, or hate, or love to hate. But increasingly cannot live without. This would not be possible without world class design.

This year’s winner is Facebook.”

SND’s choice is particularly interesting because Facebook’s mobile website and app are both garbage, meaning the judges’ concept of “design” must be quite… expansive. If they were examining beauty and ease-of-use, Evan Williams’ website Medium would have won. (Or, you know, an actual news site. I mention Medium because it was a contender.) Apparently aesthetics and UX were not high-rated factors:

Audience — Scope of organization: To be World’s Best, recirculation strategy has to be excellent as well Mobile web / responsive vs app —  It has to work well across devices and breakpoints, unless strategy is to treat devices separately. Apps are strictly judged on the app experience Performance — Speed, easy to use / intuitive The content — Relevant to you, easy-to-find presentation. Elegant, clean, intuitive Community — A safe place that fosters conversations Portability —  Of content, or elements of the site or experience, atomic

Presumably Facebook won because they have billions of users.

Twitter commentary from the #OmgMedia crowd was wry and pithily outraged:

Comment by Andrew Losowsky.
Comment by Andrew Losowsky.
Comment by Dan Sinker.
Comment by Dan Sinker.
miscellaneous outrage
Comments by Dave Stanton, Scott Klein, and Losowsky again.

The best reactions emerged on Facebook itself. SND posted that their announcement “was met with tepid applause” and asked, “Do you agree with the decision?” The response was, basically, “No.” Sue Apfelbaum said it very well:

“All the nominees might provide news and community, but to liken the New Yorker to Twitter, or NPR to Facebook, is hardly a fair comparison. Imagine we were talking about food and not this stuff we’re just lumping together and calling content—Andrew Losowsky and I were riffing on this analogy.

What this award does, essentially, is compare fine dining with someone who hosts an excellent potluck. It could be an amazing potluck, where all your favorite people are, and everything you need to serve your dishes is provided for you, and the ambiance is just right for socializing, but it’s still up to those guests to provide the feast.

On the other hand, fine restaurants source their ingredients, produce menus to nourish and please customers (in these cases 24/7), staff their establishments with chefs, food preparers, and servers, and create an atmosphere as welcoming to the first-time diner as their regulars. Would you really put these establishments in the same category?”

[I edited the quote for readability; see the original on FB.] A+ analogy; Apfelbaum has it right. We don’t even need to talk about Facebook’s bad design. The crux of the matter is that Facebook is a coincidental conduit between journalists and audience, not an entity that creates and sustains those relationships on purpose. Facebook is a news middleman, not a creator or a consumer!

potluck dessert table
Facebook = information potluck. Photo by Loren Kerns.

Commenting on the same post, Leah Nicole protested:

“The decision was an insult to digital news teams that invest a lot of time into designing and understanding the audiences they serve.

And it’s difficult to believe a social media site with an algorithm focused on ‘trending topics’ would be compared to news teams producing real journalism.”

Whereas Ted Han asked:

“What aspects of Facebook are responsible for its praiseworthiness (even if it’s a gestalt) in a news context […]? […] Facebook certainly is the platform among platforms for the conveyance of news (and everything else) to an audience… but why stop at Facebook? Should Google win an award for having a fast secure browser? Should Apple be lauded for killing Flash? Android/iOS for giving people access to news content anywhere/everywhere?”

IMO the answer to these queries is… no. Let’s refrain from blending categories until they’re senseless.

Meta blogging note: I’m discovering that one of the things I want to do with this blog is highlight ideas or ways of approaching ideas that are really good (for example, Martin Weigert re: Apple Watch). I’m even happy to post tidbits that don’t ascend to the level of “idea” but which are interesting nonetheless (Ben Thompson re: RSS users).

Destroying Supply & Demand Barriers

Ben Thompson of Stratechery on the Facebook-as-publishing-platform furor:

“What Facebook is doing—and not just Facebook, but nearly every disruptive Internet-based service from Uber to Amazon—is destroying all of the barriers between supply and demand. Moreover, this destruction isn’t really the fault of the destructors; it’s the natural outcome of the Internet, where distribution is free and marginal costs are zero. It’s the most important story of our time.”

Quote from the Daily Update email, 3/24/2015. I highly suggest subscribing.

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