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I don’t know if this quite qualifies as a trend, but then, trend pieces don’t need real facts, so what the hey. Something I’ve noticed these last months across several major sites, is a move away from the traditional, boring-but-understood approach to comments. While pretty much everyone already agreed that YouTube comments were the worst thing on the Internet, somehow Google managed to make them worse. Not more misogynistic, homophobic, racist, or violent – that’d be hard – but far more nonsensical. In necessitating a Google+ account (which, mea culpa, continues to be totally useless), it shut out many, and in re-threading the conversations based on “relevance” it took away the free-wheeling (often awful, but still) conversational threads of comment sections.

Similar complaints have followed on Gawker’s transition to Kinja, but perhaps the most ridiculous post-comment context has to be Voice Media Group’s new “My Voice Nation” system, which I was alerted to after it pulled in a second-order @ exchange I’d had about one of its stories. Not the tweet itself, but the conversation I’d had about the tweet, with a friend. The “comment section” thus becomes a random mash of unrelated, unconnected words – a documentation of buzz, perhaps, but in no ways a conversation.

And of course: I never signed up for that. I did send that tweet, yes, and I suppose that’s public-ish, but again – not all publicly accessible data is meant to be publicized. I’m guessing most people won’t ever notice, but for me, I’ll just make sure to never send out or comment on a piece of Voice Media Group content unless it’s unavoidable (which is to say: never).

What’s curious about this Death of Comments is that they’re not being eliminated as a feature for principled reasons, or as a straight cost-benefit analysis (i.e., it doesn’t really make sense to have a community manager paid to make the comments not *quite* so execrable). Rather, the transition seems to be away from comments and towards a comment-like substance – words related to the content, written at some point in some medium, presented in some relation to the content. I’m not sure what the long game is on that, but it’s all a little lorem ipsumy for my taste.


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I wrote a column for the Txchnologist, and it’s over here. If you like what I’ve been writing about here recently, you’ll like this too. A preview:

Social media, despite its centrality in our daily lives, still causes most businesses to tremble with fear. They fear liability over what employees may post in their official capacity. They fear embarrassing information posted by employees, both current and potential, in their off hours. They conduct social media “background checks” to ferret out anything that might reflect poorly on the business. Such is this fear that social media sites are discouraged or outright blocked at many workplaces.

As modes of business communication, social media channels are treated as loudspeakers, with messages painstakingly cleared through legal and public relations, polished to perfect sheen and void of real meaning. Meanwhile, email remains the central trusted tool of business communications. Used internally, it is the official channel for directives, meeting planning and document-sharing. It is the central way to communicate anything that matters both within your organization and to any collaborators. For external communications, email lists are built, maintained and bombarded. Huge marketing dollars are spent formulating email segmentation strategies, word-smithing, and tracking open rates.

All of this is entirely backwards.

Read the whole thing!

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Communications Segmentation

TechCrunch reports on a recent ComScore report highlighting changes in webmail usage:

In introducing his messaging platform last November Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said one of the primary motivations behind Messages product strategy was that teenagers have given up on email, “High school kids don’t use email, they use SMS a lot. People want lighter weight things like SMS and IM to message each other.”

A comScore report on 2010 digital trends reinforces at least part of Zuckerberg’s claim.  It’s inevitable: Innovative social messaging platforms like Facebook and Twitter as well mobile communications continue to dominate our online time, and web email begins its steady decline. Total web email usage was down 8% in the past year (YOY), with a whopping 59% decline in use among people between the ages of 12-17. Cue Matt Drudge -style alarm.

Usage was also down 1% among 18-24 year olds, 18% among 25-35 year olds, 8% among 35-44 year olds and 12% among the 45-54 demographic. Because oldsters are continuing to migrate online in droves, web email use actually saw an uptick in the AARP-eligible sector, with 22% gains among 55-64 year olds and 28% among those 65 and older. Obviously this was not enough to offset the decline in youth usage.

Though the numbers don’t lie, “webmail is dying” is entirely the wrong way to look at it. My dissertation research found similar figures in terms of the pre-eminence of social communications methods: cell phones and texting are the center of young peoples’ (in that case, college students’) social universe, with Facebook messages more popular than email for social communications. Contra Zuck, IM is not used as frequently or centrally in their social communications, and it’s my hunch that for the most part it’s getting pushed out by texting.

But all of this changes in a professional context. Young people still use email for communicating with their parents and, in the context of college, want to only use email (and face-to-face meetings) to communicate with their professors: no cell, texting, IM, Facebook messages. Definitely not. This divide was further explicated in interviews where students described that email was for professors, internships (and bosses there), and campus organizations – mailing lists and the like.

What’s clear is that while webmail and email are, among younger cohorts, losing their social centrality, they are not going away at all. Rather, email is becoming increasingly professionally branded. Old people (e.g., me) still use it (albeit at slightly decreasing rates) for social communications, and the ComScore report shows that the oldest cohorts are actually using it increasingly for those communications. But email has become the central tool for business communications, and as young people enter a workforce that is actually increasingly adopting webmail for professional purposes – notice the flat number among 18-24s and smaller decreases above that – email usage will endure. It just might get left at the office.


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This is why:

Lower Merion School District employees activated the web cameras and tracking software on laptops they gave to high school students about 80 times in the past two school years, snapping nearly 56,000 images that included photos of students, pictures inside their homes and copies of the programs or files running on their screens, district investigators have concluded.

In most of the cases, technicians turned on the system after a student or staffer reported a laptop missing and turned it off when the machine was found, the investigators determined.

But in at least five instances, school employees let the Web cams keep clicking for days or weeks after students found their missing laptops, according to the review. Those computers – programmed to snap a photo and capture a screen shot every 15 minutes when the machine was on – fired nearly 13,000 images back to the school district servers.

If authorities have the ability to behave badly, some of them always will. Which is why stuff like this is especially bad:

The MPAA and RIAA have submitted their master plan for enforcing copyright to the new Office of Intellectual Property Enforcement. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Richard Esguerra points out, it’s a startlingly distopian work of science fiction. The entertainment industry calls for:

  • spyware on your computer that detects and deletes infringing materials;
  • mandatory censorware on all Internet connections to interdict transfers of infringing material;
  • border searches of personal media players, laptops and thumb-drives;
  • international bullying to force other countries to implement the same policies;
  • and free copyright enforcement provided by Fed cops and agencies (including the Department of Homeland Security!).

The Fourth Amendment has been gutted pretty extensively over the past generation, but if “unreasonable search and seizure” has any meaning at all, it should mean that neither the government nor private corporations should be legally empowered to constantly monitor our activities through our own computers.

I’ve thought for a while that the coming divide in our politics is not going to be one of conservatism versus liberalism, but about authoritarianism versus a politics of individual liberty. News like this goes to reinforce that belief, as does the acrimony of our current political climate in the US. More on the latter, later, but I’ll reiterate the main point: it’s a bad idea to give authorities unlimited surveillance powers because they will always, always be abused.

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I’ll heartily second what Jim Fallows says here (though without rehashing my earlier anti-Kindle thoughts, I wouldn’t say it’s an argument for the Kindle per se so much as eReaders in general):

My main view on communications media is that new systems usually add to old ones, rather than displacing them. Radio didn’t eliminate books and newspapers — that would come later!; movies didn’t eliminate still photos; TV didn’t eliminate either movies or radio; and the internet has not (yet) eliminated TV. A few communications systems do disappear altogether, except for specialist/curio use: vinyl records, photos on real film, etc. Usually the field just becomes more crowded and the options more diverse.

So it will be, at least for a while, with e-readers like the Kindle versus “real” books.

To add to this a bit, what I think this kind of innovation in new communications channels does is to rationalize the kind of content on each. For all the nostalgia that some (e.g., me) have about obsolete forms, books do a better job at holding novels than newspapers, so we don’t see serialized novels anymore. Similarly, TV and movies do a better job at dramatic narrative than radio, so very few radio dramas still exist. But radio’s still excellent at talk shows and sports broadcasts (safer, too, if you’re driving), and the nature of the technology means that nowadays we can shove a radio into just about anything else (e.g., cell phones).

eReaders are going to perform a similar function – eventually (sooner than later) they will mostly eliminate the printing of many academic texts and monographs (and this is going to be a good thing for the people who write those texts, but more on that later). There’s probably a good place for magazines on eReaders but I’m not quite sure on what that is. Many of the books at the top of best-seller lists will find a lot of their sales (or in the Kindle’s case, rentals) moving very quickly to eReaders once there’s a critical mass – which makes sense for the most disposable (if fun) stories. Nobody’s really that well-served by several dozen more Dan Brown books ending up in used book stores.

In the end, eReaders represent not a replacement for books but an overlapping-but-complimentary form. They’ll absolutely cut into book sales but there will be a new equilibrium whereby booksellers will be able to more clearly see what their market is, and isn’t.

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Good post by Richard Nash on the future of publishing, most of which I agree with. I don’t agree at all, however, with one of the predictions:

3. Most predictions for 2020 based on models derived from controlling the supply side, that is, from the monopoly on the means of producing and distributing books, will be wrong. By which I mean, the supply chain book publishing and retail model is ending. The book retail chains will disappear, just like Circuit City, Sharper Image, Tower Records disappeared. And the corporate publishers will likely all but disappear just as Atari, Digital, Wang disappeared though the backlists will be spun off to private equity companies looking for semi-predictable IP-based cash flow, and a couple of front list publishing enterprises will likely be operating trying to emulate the Hollywood blockbuster model with just about enough success to be able to stay in business.

It seems certainly possible that Borders will not make it, but the idea that there will be literally no retail book chains is preposterous. Circuit City went out of business because they fired their best employees and destroyed whatever appeal they had as a place to get electronics; Tower Records went under because you can’t just sell CDs. But Best Buy is doing just fine, thankyewverymuch, because they have been flexible and now do all of what both Circuit City and Tower did, but better, and more.

Barnes & Noble is employing a not-dissimilar strategy: they knew from early on that an online presence is key, and while they’re not Amazon they’re well-established online. Similarly, they know that they’ve got to have an entrant in eReader space, so even if Nook doesn’t cut it, something will. B&N has also been pretty smart about store location; some of their mall and exurb locations may shut down but they’ve got a strong college store presence and lots of very attractive downtown city real estate. There was a time when I wished the chains nothing but ill, but I can’t fault B&N on how they’ve played the last several years, and I don’t see them going away.

More on all that later, but I also think this is spot-on from Nash:

8. In 2020 the disaffected twentysomethings of the burgeoning middle classes of India, China, Brazil, Indonesia will be producing novels faster than any of us can possibly imagine.


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A few weeks back I took an all-day seminar with Don Dillman, “How Visual Design and Layout Influence Responses to Questionairres.” It was a great course and I definitely recommend taking the opportunity to do anything similar with Dillman or Odum if the opportunity presents itself.

In addition to some great walk-throughs on the power of design to elicit greater rates of survey response, and the importance of harmonizing design elements across multiple modes in survey designs (i.e., web, mail, phone), Dillman also made a pretty shocking (even to him!) point about what his latest research showed: namely, that mail surveys are (still?again?) the best method:

Postal delivery sequence file (DSF) provides all residential addresses and may now be our best household address frame.

When you give this a minute to think, it’s not all that outlandish. Despite huge increases in Internet connectivity – even among older and rural populations – it remains far from universal, and any given channel online (e-mail, SNS) is only going to present a relatively small and self-selecting share of the population. Further, there’s no centralized database of “online users”, and those with the biggest files (Facebook, MySpace, Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft) sure aren’t giving you access to them, Mr./Ms. Academic Researcher. Landline use continues to decline and cell-phone-only-households, with the protection of the Federal Do Not Call Registry, continue to move into a patchwork non-contactable space.

But nearly everyone still has a street address, and even if it’s not always correlated reliably with a person-name, it’s the best way to reach the biggest and most generalizable share of the population. So in a world where more and more of our interactions and identity are moving online and mobile, to spaces where we increasingly control access, how can researchers hope to build generalizable samples of the population?

Let’s step back for a minute and talk about the U.S. in five years. Just as most of the population now has a cell phone, most of the population will have a smart phone/iPhone-like device that will handle voice communications, e-mail, SNS, microblogging, etc. [A point for future discussion is just what this will do to the differential effects of media channel as observed in the media effects literature] It will be the pivot point for all of our communications and personal identity information – we’ll increasingly be using it as an identity storage and verification device for airport check-in, payment and receipt of payment, and a half-dozen other things that now seem outlandish and will soon seem mundane. It’ll be how we carry who we are, and how we tell others about that, for any manner of transactions and interactions.

But that identity will also be floating, a bit. There’ll be several big databases – the mobile companies, Apple, Google, Facebook, etc. – but, again, they won’t be distributing Yellow Pages. Your identity will be relational and transactional and contingent but always subject to change and shift depending on your satisfaction with service provided. Which is good, but presents an increasing challenge to anyone who wants to find some kind of “everyone” (e.g., Census takers, public opinion researchers, etc.). What’s needed is a tether, that also is contingent and user-controlled, but is based on a stable hook.

The DSF can provide that hook. Most people will continue to have a street address – indeed, even the homeless can provide some manner of address that would interface with the DSF – even as the majority of their communications are mediated through shifting electronic interface. A user-controlled and -verified system of tying your various communication methods – contingently – to a physical address could allow users the ability to better control access to all manner of modes of communication and contact. Physical address and solicitation could become tokens that would then be entered into whatever other interface you wished (Amazon for deliveries, Gallup for polls, IRS.gov for taxes), allowing the third-party only what permissions you desired but also providing the verification layer that you are indeed [a person]. Of course this would raise all sorts of new issues about interface and self-report data, but given Dillman’s very promising results – >50% response rates to online surveys via mail solicitation (and >70% via mail) – this is certainly worth thinking about more extensively.

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I’ve been reading and re-reading Jim Fallows’ post from the other week and have concluded I have nothing smart to say that he doesn’t say already. But, here it is:

A reader sends in a link to this recent post by law professor Orin Kerr, on a ruling about how 4th Amendment protections against “unreasonable search and seizure” apply to email. The central question is whether the government needs to inform individual email users when their messages are seized and read — or whether it is sufficient to notify their internet service provider or mail service, like Google or Yahoo. According to the logic of the ruling, by the sheer act of sending email, a user has transferred custody of the messages to a third party. Thus notifying the third party — Google, Yahoo, et al — is enough, with the sender left in the dark.

All parties with a stake in developing cloud-based computing — Google and Microsoft, IBM and Apple, Yahoo and anyone else you can name — should push for clearer policy statements about keeping things private even in the cloud. People simply are going to store and share more information this way. That shouldn’t mean a further, big, automatic, unintended surrender of privacy, and it would be better to set up rules to that effect before there’s a big scandal or problem.

So – what he said.

Okay, maybe I do have a thought or two. Really what this problem advocates for is personal ownership of all identity information: everything either that is or is owned by you living together in a single space (also backed up in multiple redundant spaces) that, crucially, is also yourself such that you always have control over cloud computing resources. So rather than logging in to Google accounts and accessing your information, you log into your own server (virtual or otherwise) and use Google services to edit and modify the information. They get only what you show them at a given time and then it’s back in your own box. When you become your own third-party provider – and Google et al. are merely providing a limited service to manipulate or move your data – then Fourth Amendment questions are much more easily decided.


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I had a great time presenting on my work with the Bot2.0 project earlier today at ASIS&T; you can find a copy of the talk here [.pdf]. Thanks to Miguel Ruiz for organizing the panel, moderating and presenting, to my co-panelists Bryan Heidorn and Nathan Hall, and everyone who came out to listen and ask some great questions.

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Thus does a large group of eminent scientists frame a pretty gloomy assessment (ScienceDaily summation here) of the failure of multilateral cooperation on a wide range of threats facing Earth, including,

Energy, food, and water crises; climate disruption; declining fisheries; increasing ocean acidification; emerging diseases; and increasing antibiotic resistance are examples of serious, intertwined global-scale challenges spawned by the accelerating scale of human activity. They are outpacing the development of institutions to deal with them and their many interactive effects

Depressingly, there’s nothing to argue with there. But the fact that the authors feel the need to follow the above with the caveat that they are not advocating for countries to abandon sovereignty is troubling for two reasons. First, that scientists are so jumpy about charges of elitism that they feel the need to preemptively defend against the insane (and inevitable) charges from cranks (e.g., some U.S. senators) that global warming is some kind of hoax being perpetuated in the service of a one-world government. Or something.

Secondly, the caveat makes me itch because the authors leave the door open substantially for something similar in their conclusion:

The institution of the nation-state has helped improve the well-being of many individuals, but at the cost of reduced global resilience. To address our common threats we need greater interaction among existing institutions, as well as new institutions, to help construct and maintain a global-scale social contract.

Their proposed solutions on global climate change, fisheries depletion and increased drug-resistance among drugs are to strengthen existing institutions (e.g., WHO) and introduce new institutions along similar lines (e.g., following the WTO). That’s fine as far as it goes, but the thrust of the editorial is to point out the failures of existing frameworks, and the frustration at free-rider problems and the inadequacy of current decision-making processes for addressing these issues. I don’t think it’s reading too many tea leaves to focus on this sentence and parse it out further:

The major powers must be willing to enforce agreements, but legitimacy will depend on acceptance by numerous and diverse countries and by nongovernmental actors, such as civil society and business. [emphasis mine]

I try not to get too paranoid about these things, but this taps pretty deeply into one of my fears with how the conversation on climate change is going to develop over the next 10-20 years. Scientists are rationalists and many are either very bad at or just can’t quite understand the functioning of politics (or are continually frustrated by the results – rightly so, often). Politics, indeed, isn’t very rational. And at the same time, for anyone who cares to look, we’re at a pretty grim moment for the continuance of human civilization along the lines which we’ve grown used to. Many scientists are getting pretty tired of pointing out this fact. As our institutions of shared collaborative decision-making (or not-making, as it may be) continue to dither in the face of planetary doom, it’s a great fear of mine that scientists will look for alternate means of addressing what they see (correctly) as increasingly dire climactic instability. In short, business: the actor with the means and motivation to address these issues on a massive scale, but not answerable to a larger (and often-annoying) polity. The thing is – and I’ve got plenty of dystopian SF narratives to back me up here! – it might work. Multinational corporate rule might save us from planetary self-destruction (or not), but at the great expense of human liberty.

I think that would be a Bad Thing. What would be a Good Thing, would be if scientists would get more engaged in politics. It’s a messy irrational business but that’s how it goes. Rather than pre-emptively defending themselves against Inhofian nonsense, why doesn’t a physics prof at the University of Oklahoma run against him? Or any and every other anti-science, climate-change-denying buffoon out there?

Would they win? Most likely not. But politics isn’t all about winning – or at least, not about winning one particular election. It’s about narratives, and the narrative of a widespread, grassroots effort from scientists to directly address the problems that they see  – rightly – as threatening our continued survival as a species would be a compelling one.

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