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Understanding the meme

Abby Rabinowitz, writing for Nautilus about memes:

But trawling the Internet, I found a strange paradox: While memes were everywhere, serious meme theory was almost nowhere. Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist who coined the word “meme” in his classic 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, seemed bent on disowning the Internet variety, calling it a “hijacking” of the original term. The peer-reviewed Journal of Memetics folded in 2005. “The term has moved away from its theoretical beginnings, and a lot of people don’t know or care about its theoretical use,” philosopher and meme theorist Daniel Dennett told me. What has happened to the idea of the meme, and what does that evolution reveal about its usefulness as a concept?

Worth setting a little time aside to read this. It give some great history of memes as they’re understood in digital culture, but also the scientific background (and, to some degree, the lack of it) for the behaviour they invoke. The idea of vitality is far more complex than we give it credit for.

unsplash-logoHal Gatewood

There’s a problem with “trending”

It’s Time to End ‘Trending’:

The first problem with “trending” is that it selects and highlights content with no eye toward accuracy, or quality. Automated trending systems are not equipped to make judgments; they can determine if things are being shared, but they cannot determine whether that content should be shared further. Facebook’s trending section is fully automated.

I think even my five year old has just about figured out that quantity rarely equals quality, but she’ll probably forget it once she’s a teenager.

How have we managed to turn the internet into the world’s biggest high school popularity contest?

Facebook Live is looking rather unwell

Facebook Live is beginning to look undead:

The number of Facebook Live videos produced by paid partners more than halved by the end of 2017—and in one case fell by as much as 94 percent—as once guaranteed payments ended and Facebook deprioritized the product, new Tow Center research suggests.

This graph gives you the picture:

Publisher Facebook Liove decline

This really isn’t a surprise. Live video is an incredibly attention-demanding form of media, and in an attention poor, content rich age, only the very strongest and most compelling videos are going to get any traction at all. That means Facebook Live will only ever be a very niche, very targeted tool for certain stories, where there is a compelling news reason to show events live.

We’ve known this for decades. I discussed this with Nick Newman last year, and he pointed out that TV has had an awfully long time to experiment with live broadcast — and evidence has shown again and again that it only suits a very small number of subjects.

Without Facebook’s payments, I doubt we’d have seen a fraction of the peak levels of use.

Russia’s trolling operations are effective, but not sophisticated

Russia’s Troll Operation Was Not That Sophisticated:

The Russians tracked how well what they were posting was connecting with people. “In order to gauge the performance of various groups on social media sites, the ORGANIZATION tracked certain metrics like the group’s size, the frequency of content placed by the group, and the level of audience engagement with that content, such as the average number of comments or responses to a post,” the indictment reads. And in another spot: “Defendants and their coconspirators received and maintained metrics reports on certain group pages and individualized posts.”

This is not high-level spycraft. It is, rather, bread-and-butter audience development work. My guess here is that they simply looked at Facebook analytics. It’s one click in the Facebook interface to look at these numbers.

This is a good post from Alexis Madrigal pointing out something that many in the mainstream miss: what Russia was doing around the US elections was not particularly clever. They were just using freely-available tools in a socially-manipulative way. Many of their techniques are things Sarah and I have been teaching on the Interactive Journalism MA for years.

I was struck by a video I was showing to some other students this afternoon. It was of Craig Silverman of Buzzfeed talking about Russian misinformation campaigns, amongst other forms of intentional disinformation. Specialists knew about the Internet Research Agency and its work long before the election – but their reporting wasn’t taken seriously because it was “just social media”.

I wonder how different the story of the last two years would have been if they had been listened to more widely.

Twitter Logo

Twitter’s abuse problem is, at heart, a technology problem

This is a damning summation of Twitter’s structural problems:

“It’s a technology company with crappy technologists, a revolving door of product heads and C.E.O.s, and no real core of technological innovation. You had Del saying, ‘Trolls are going to be a problem. We will need a technological solution for this.’” But Twitter never developed a product sophisticated enough to automatically deal with with bots, spam, or abuse. “You had this unsophisticated human army with no real scalable platform to plug into. You fast forward, and it was like, ‘Hey, shouldn’t we just have basic rules in place where if the suggestion is to suspend an account of a verified person, there should be a process in place to have a flag for additional review, or something?’ You’d think it would take, like, one line of code to fix that problem. And the classic response is, ‘That’s on our product road map two quarters from now.’”

Now, it’s a quote from a former executive, so should be taken with a substantial portion of salt.

But it does ring true.