Google’s Ever-creeping Tide

While the world is shocked – shocked I tells ya! – to learn that not all the countless people who have been datamining Facebook for the last decade have been using it for good, Google have once more turned their screw on ownership of the ‘open, free internet.’

As is usual with Google, it is presented as a benign, friendly move designed to help others. Nothing Google ever does is anything else, right? This time it is the “Google News Initiative.

It begins as all these things do, with a reminder of just how positive Google has been for the news industry:

news

AMP (which I loathed on instinct) was always a move to force proprietary markup onto publishers for Google’s own purpose. In fact, it purposefully stripped the methods used by publishers to generate revenue or gain insight – ostensibly for ‘speed’, but really just to hack competitor networks off at the knees. It didn’t take long, in fact, for Google just to start hosting AMP pages altogether – making a trip to the publisher’s own website completely redundant.

YouTube? Well, we don’t need to delve too deeply into the horror that is YouTube, but even just taken as a news delivery platform it ties organisations to a Google property, and thus at the mercy of Google policies and processes and the secret methods they deploy in their decision about what to surface and what to bury.

Having forced people onto platforms it owns, Google is now looking to control the purchase funnel.

news2

Again: to engage with this ecosphere is to put yourself at the mercy of Google’s terms and conditions. There can be little doubt that “Subscribe with Google” buttons will start to appear alongside titles which join the service, and thus they will get a little extra juice in the rankings, probably improved clickthrough rates (weird that anything with an extra visual clue would do better than plain text huh? See: AdWords’ ever-increasing feature set).

So when you’re effectively publishing on Google rather than the free internet, what is the next logical step? To capture the data, and provide it to you as a ‘service’ without ever mentioning that all this data must necessarily flow through Google’s own infrastructure and therefore give them industry-wide insight that they can use to whatever means they see fit (better monetising their display network, selling insight directly, or gaining intelligence to make acquisition decisions).

news1

So there you are: Google’s offer is to host your content. To monetise it for you. To give you loads of tools that make you feel that you’re in control. And all they ask in return is your soul.

Meanwhile in the background, Google relentlessly lobbies Governments and supranational bodies for its own commercial benefit (which, of course, it is completely free to do) while getting ever closer to the seats of power.

In that environment, with all the control that Google has, and with Google’s own interests at stake, do you really believe that they would not interfere with the free flow of information if it conflicted with their own aims? Given the relentless nature with which they have pursued the destruction of business models they happen not to like (link building, affiliate sites, competing products, browers etc etc etc) then I wouldn’t count on it, personally.

Is it really 7 years since I wrote this?

20 years ago, Bill Gates thought the world wide web was too open and free and beyond his control. That his vision of an alternative, closed-system “Microsoft web” failed still rises alternative chuckles at his naivety and contempt for his anti-competitive ideas. And yet here we are, supine to Google as they blithely buy the internet – blinded by the whole “do no evil” thing, which is about as deep as the copywriting on Innocent smoothies, when you think about it.

7 years might have passed, but there is still no answer to the riddle of what to do with Google, and how the world responds to the increasing threat it poses to the internet as envisaged.

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YouTube is a Toilet

I watched it. Well, actually I watched a ‘reaction’ video, in which a thumbnail of the video was playing in the corner while the camera was focussed on the guy watching it. So in this hall-of-mirrors existence we lead, I’m blogging about my reaction to a reaction video to a video. Got that? Good.

So, do you know what *that* video was? It was a video posted by YouTube celebrity (don’t look at me like that – I had to Google him too) Logan Paul. The setup was that he was going to spend a day in Japan’s “haunted forest” of Aokigahara, but his plans ran adrift when he found the body of a recent suicide, and took the decision to film both the body and his own reaction. Uploading it to YouTube, his 15,000,000 subscribers had ‘liked’ the video 500,000 times until the media got a hold of the story, he removed it and issued an apology (of sorts) via his Twitter account.

Firstly, it’s worth a quick exploration of why he was there in the first place before we come to ponder briefly on what this episode tells us about a certain strand of internet life.

The forest has gained its infamy largely due to the phenomenal number of people who have taken their own lives there. Like the Golden Gate Bridge, it has acquired some kind of magnetic power in the minds of those looking to end their own lives, and they are drawn to the woods in the last extremities of their desperation. In a bid to dampen the dark allure of the place, the number of suicides is no longer publicised – although in 2003 no fewer than 105 bodies were found there, to give you some perspective.

Even before it became a mecca for suicides, Aokigahara was known as a ‘haunted forest’. It is alleged to have been used for ‘ubasute‘ in the 19th century: the practice of leaving elderly or infirm relatives in a remote location to die, which – as remarkable as it seems to modern sensibilities – is weakly documented as having been an actual practice. As with our own culture, the spirits of the dead are believed by some to continue to reside in the place of their deaths and so the combination of ancient legend and the general creepiness of forests makes for an eerie, sombre place that certainly would tickle the interest of anyone with a taste for the morbid.

Quite a few YouTubers have made videos of themselves spending a night in the woods, ending the night with a few minutes of guffawing sub-Blair Witch night-vision footage of them saying “Shit! Did you hear that?” and running around in the dark as part of their exploration of Japanese culture, or in search of clicks (depending on your general attitude towards this kind of stunt). It’s almost a sub genre of video in itself – along with “holy shit! I’m eating a live octopus, guys!” and “our hotel room is crazy, yo!”

And so we reach Logan Paul. Entering the woods, he and his team had walked just a hundred yards from the car park before finding a body hanging, dressed in a purple, double-breasted woollen coat, dangling lifelessly against a tree trunk. To he and his crew’s credit, their initial response was actually within the bounds of how you might expect humans to react. They called to the person from some distance (“Hello..? Are you OK?”), proceeded closer, noticed the facts of the situation (noose, discoloured skin) and shouted at each other to phone the police. Presumably – hopefully, even – one of them actually made that call.

But it’s what happened next that is instructive. Firstly, they kept the camera rolling and focussed on the body. Their concession to taste ended at blurring his face out, but that pretty distinctive coat I mentioned earlier would surely give away the identity of that poor soul to anyone who knew him. Then Paul and a couple of his crew made some stumbling statements along the lines of “don’t do this” and “suicide is not an answer, guys” as well as incoherently documenting how they feel about finding a body – which we can imagine was as genuinely shocking to them as it would be to anyone else.

Already we’ve reached the point where human decency would demand that nobody should be filming this, but true to the modern idiom of endless narcissistic voyeurism it takes them a couple of short minutes to come to terms with what they’re seeing and pass into the “we’d better get some more footage of this!” mode. And so, Logan Paul – with his audience of 15,000,000, mainly young, subscribers – decides to get into frame with the body, wearing his dorky Pokémon hat and veering from shock to a kind of “holy shit, bro!” tone.

And now this person – dead for only a handful of hours – became a grotesque prop for one man’s ego.

So. They go into a wood that is a notorious suicide hotspot. They find the body of man, hanging in those woods. They keep the camera rolling. They decide it’s fine to get into the frame with him. They laugh (and seriously, his two companions cannot stop smirking and openly laughing throughout). They then take that video, edit it, film a disingenuous introduction (“I’m not monetising this video”), and upload it to YouTube with this thumbnail.

logan

In one day, 6 million people watch the video before it comes to the attention of the ‘normie’ world and a “monsoon of negativity” forces the berk to take it down. He issues the following apology on Twitter.

logan

Note the following aspects of his apology.

  • “I didn’t do it for views… I thought I could make a positive ripple on the internet.”
  • “I’ve made a 15 minute TV show EVERY SINGLE DAY for the past 460+ days.”
  • “‘…it’s easy to get caught up in the moment.”
  • “With great power comes great responsibility.”

As is now commonplace with these kinds of public displays of contrition, it is sickeningly mealy-mouthed, and as much a denial as it is an apology.

Remember I said I watched this sort-of second hand via a reaction video? Well the guy in the reaction video stopped halfway through, because his own sister had taken her life by hanging. No surprise then that he broke down in tears for several minutes during his own video. But then he himself continued to watch… in search of…. what? Closure? Answers? Or his own little slice of the clickbait money?

I don’t know what’s wrong with us any more. I don’t know why I’m writing this. But YouTube is another Google property that is a toilet, and a perfect little microcosm of how social media connectivity is often a conduit for our worst, rather than our better sides.

London Mayoral Elections: Detecting BBC Bias through Google?

I don’t foray into politics on this blog, but nonetheless you can find some interesting stats using Google around the issue.

The BBC’s charter instructs it to maintain a fair balance in political reporting through the news – giving a proportional share of editorial space and coverage to all interested parties. Famously, the BNP’s performance during the late 2000s led to appearances on Question Time for Nick Griffin as part of this remit to even-handedness.

But lingering suspicions about the corporation’s bias remain. Rare is a week that passes without some politician or other averring that the BBC shows bias against his or her side of a debate. But thanks to Google, it’s possible to do some high-level stats to test the notion of balance. A good example is the election for London Mayor* – now just days away.

Current polls for the London Mayoral elections are quite revealing. The major parties – Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems are naturally standing candidates – as  well as The Green Party, UKIP, BNP and a number of independents and small parties.

Firstly, bear in mind that by current polling figures, UKIP is expected to poll around 3% of the vote  –  around exactly that of the Greens.

So you’d expect that the BBC would be giving coverage to these parties more or less equally, right? I did some snuffling around using Google and found the following facts.

Of the main candidates, the results are more evenly split but still indicate some imbalances

As the incumbent, it is difficult to separate election-related stories for Boris Johnson from stories that involve him in his role as mayor – Google treats “mayor” and “mayoral” as equivalents. It is likely that the number of mentions he has received in the specific context of the election is actually fairly similar to that of Livingstone, but filtering signal from noise isn’t easily done.

Despite this, some interesting facts leap out.

  • Brian Paddick receives 66% of the number of mentions of Ken Livingstone does, despite only 8% of polled Londoners declaring their intention to vote for the Lib Dem compared to 41% for Livingstone.
  • Jenny Jones is given almost as much coverage as as Paddick, despite only 3% of voters saying they will vote Green.
  • Siobhan Benita receives fewer mentions than Jones, despite being at least equal to her in the polls
  • The BNP received more coverage than UKIP despite only polling at only 1% in contrast to 3% for UKIP
  • UKIP receive the least coverage of the ‘major’ parties (and by some margin) despite polling more highly than either the Greens, Independents or BNP.

Of course, this is all just fun and games but I think it’s possible to construct a view of how the BBC is covering the London Mayoral elections and it’s not one that the BBC should be proud of. The Liberal Democrats receive far more coverage than their likely share of the vote would suggest they should- and the paucity of coverage given to UKIP is pretty damning. That is nothing compared the favour shown to the Greens, who receive almost as much coverage as the Liberal Democrats, despite their even smaller share of the vote.

It must be allowed that the BBC disproportionately favours the Greens and the Liberal Democrats and almost ignores UKIP altogether, despite the backdrop of falling interest in green issues and increasing concern over the future of the EU.

*As I’m not a Londoner, and won’t be voting, none of this matters to me except in the abstract matter of how the election is being covered.

2011: Still Old Media Doesn’t Get it

“Both Google and Facebook offer their services to users apparently for free. But the services are not of course free. Both companies sell the information that users provide – in search data, or personal profiles.

Apparently, these companies mostly sell their (your) information to advertisers who mine the data in order to target consumers more effectively. But, despite fervent declarations about transparency, in fact, it’s very hard to find out exactly to whom they sell the data or what the “data miners” do with it. McDonald’s or the CIA? We’re not told, even though it is information about us that they are trading.”

So sayeth the Guardian. Given their political stance, it’s little wonder that they immediately leap from ‘advertisers’ in the generic to “McDonald’s or the CIA” in the specific. In the gothic imaginings of the left, The CIA and McDonald’s are handy ciphers for Government and Capitalist evil respectively – which pretty much informs the tone of the whole post.

In fact, neither Facebook nor Google sell your information to anyone. Instead, they allow advertisers to target you through information freely offered by you. And it’s all done at an aggregated level. In, well, the same way that the Guardian itself operates.

“We also ask some further, voluntary questions so we can gain a clearer understanding of our users. Your responses help us to sell appropriate advertising space and so keep the site free. They also enable us to personalise services for our users. We do not share this information with third parties unless you have specifically consented to this.”

No-one at Glaxo Smithkline is sitting there reading specifically about me. Or you. Or anyone. They have, however, instructed Facebook to show an ad for washing powder to any male between 30 and 45 who talks about trousers. Just as Google sells search slots based on, well, searches.

But hey – if you’d rather do it the old way and just get blanketed with formless, unpersonalised mailshots – don’t use Google or Facebook!

My Contempt for the Press

The press, we are told, is the exposer of hypocrisies, purveyor of the truth, defender of liberty and champion of justice. Rarely does a day go by when the media won’t claim victory for itself in the personal or professional ruination of Person X or Person Y, who has been found wanting in the cold stare of press indignation.

How hollow and shabby do those claims ring in 2011?

Well this week, we see that The Sun and The Mirror are charged with contempt of court for portraying an innocent man as “lewd” and “creepy” during the investigation of the disappearance of Joanna Yeates. He had been arrested for questioning at the time of the investigation but the courts found that the coverage of his arrest was so prejudicial as to potentially render a fair trial impossible. They were not alone: The Telegraph still carries a page rife with innuendo:

“However, another former pupil of Mr Jefferies, David Gawain, said: “He had a tendency of wanting to get his own way. If you had not done your prep or other things like learning poems, he used to shout at you. I went to his flat with my English class once and he began shouting at us because we were not behaving ourselves.”

We also now know that The News of the World were prepared to sanction the ‘hacking’ (although the phrase – popularised in the media – is also inaccurate) of the phone of missing Milly Dowler.

In the same case, 6 newspapers now face charges of contempt of court by their coverage of the case. which caused the collapse of a second prosecution of Levi Bellfield: again for the prejudicial nature of their coverage

Less seriously, but no less tellingly, the press rushed to cover the “beautiful people Shrek virus” story which was, of course, nothing more than a got-up piece of PR puff which they swallowed gladly and regurgitated over their front pages while the EU balances over the edge of a continuing economic precipice which could yet bring ruination to us all.

The ‘quality’ end of the press also finds its nose rubbed in its own do-do this week. Johann Hari has been exposed as a plagiarist. He might dance on the head of a pin with his explanations but outside the media circle, all we say was another liar exposed at the heart of our media.

So far from purveyors of the truth, the media stands exposed as peddlars of lies, corrupters of justice, destroyers of lives.

The press think that you are simple, manipulable and often vile. Sometimes, the expression of their contempt for you is very direct. Andrew Marr, now revealed to be a hypocrite of the first water, spoke publicly about bloggers last year:

“..so-called citizen journalism is the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night. It is fantastic at times but it is not going to replace journalism. A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting “

Even if not expressed so directly, the likes of The Sun, championing such constructs as ‘white van man’ is nothing more than contempt with another face. The people who write for the Sun are highly educated, highly trained and work in an intense, technological field. The very notion that they share anything in background and outlook with the man on the Clapham omnibus is laughable.

Need we even talk about the likes of Jan Moir or Richard Littlejohn?

The charge sheet lengthens daily.

Contra Marr, we see bloggers holding journalism to account. From all parts of the political spectrum, bloggers  daily show up the media for what it is, exposing its lies and perversions. While no doubt personal ego plays a part, these people seek no power. They do not presume to be influencing policy or leading the country by the nose. It is they who are the truth seekers. They who fact check the media. They who act to express the discontent of people of all political persuasions.

I know and have known journalists. As individuals they are no more incorruptible or abnormal than you or I. They include good, honourable people as well as thieves and liars. Taken together, the form a terrifying cabal of untrammelled power and unwarranted influence.

We need a media with the power and the moral authority to speak truth to power and to question mercilessly the motivations of politicians and business in our interest.

In 2011, we don’t have one.

 

 

RIP Old Media

No one in their right mind would pay for the vast majority of newspaper content. Your choice has been reduced to:

  • Tits (n: mammary glands) and press releases
  • Tits (n: shrill newspaper columnists) and press releases

While each are entertaining in their own ways the world is hardly short of tits and opinion. And as these things are largely interchangeable they are effectively free and selling them is therefore almost impossible. Murdoch’s foolhardy attempt to put his content behind a paywall is half laudable, half mad.

But the flipside of the competition for your interest is a precipitous decline in serious reporting in the mainstream media.

Listening to Radio 4 while driving home recently, there was a report on progress at Fukushima. Having hauled in an expert from the IEAE the interviewer quickly got down to the most pressing issue: the “mood of the workers” knowing that the “whole world is willing them on”.

While I’m sure that makes for a moderately distracting human interest story, this is one of the flagship current affairs programs on the what is generally regarded as a beacon of journalistic quality. Fukushima has many dimensions to it that will strongly affect the future not just of the workers at the plant, but possibly of the world: European countries are pulling back from nuclear power in the wake of the event – including Germany – the industrial powerhouse of the entire European economy.

That’s a huge deal, and there is a very interesting story to explore there. Why a ‘disaster’ that has so far led to no directly attributable deaths can cause a kneejerk abandonment of a critical piece of energy infrastructure in a major economy, while almost simultaneously a localised health drama that has killed 35 people has been relegated to the “oh – is that still happening?” pile.

And of course almost all of the media also fell for a beautifulpeople.com press release/linkbait.

Dear media: get real.

Whilst people on Twitter were calling on the scam almost immediately, the damage to media credibility was already done. The BBC might have surreptitiously gone back and re-edited the story to look at the PR angle, but they still link to the site. And on other sites as mighty as The Telegraph and The Guardian, the story still sits there, generated a higher profile for the company and passing valuable link equity.

And these are the sites which, in themselves, Google is happy to call ‘authoritative’.

The claims made for journalism – that it is fair, researched, driven by truth and independent of distortion by power and money are yet again show to be hollow. News coverage is now a commodity: name  the price you put on that coverage, and it’s yours for the taking.