If Facebook wants to be completely transparent, then its time for them to reveal their algorithm | Liam O’Dell

With the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Select Committee calling for more transparency around the business models used by social media platforms such as Facebook, the rise of data politics means that the algorithms can no longer be kept a secret.

It’s a system so mysterious that it’s become a game to content creators and data miners – a series of hoops to jump through that can get them to the audience they want. Crack the algorithm, and you crack a system which is, in essence, the hive mind of those which use said platform. Cambridge Analytica have shown that it can be done, which is why it’s time that the inner workings of social media sites are revealed to the public.

Photo: Anthony Quintano/Flickr.

This level of transparency was also called for by a report by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Select Committee (DCMSC), along with a new definition for social media websites which are “not necessarily either a ‘platform’ or a ‘publisher'”.

There has been ongoing talk about Facebook’s precise role in the tech and media industries, and whether it is indeed a ‘publisher’. Yet, as the DCMSC notes: “Facebook is continually altering what we see, as is shown by its decision to prioritise content from friends and family, which then feeds into users’ newsfeed algorithm.”

More importantly, it’s time for social media platforms to fully disclose what exactly their algorithm is. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has shown that this is a serious ethical issue. It’s essential that something so impactful and manipulative is out in the open, so the public knows just how they are being influenced.

Recently, Channel 4’s Dispatches investigated how Facebook moderates content on its platform, and questions are being asked about what sort of content the site decides not to take down. Monika Bickert, Facebook’s Head of Global Policy Management, told the DCMSC that “our community would not want us, a private company, to be the arbiter of truth”, yet their systems display content in a particular way, and they still have to make decisions about what content they do not allow on their platform.

In turn, social media sites may claim that publishing extensive details about their algorithms may harm their company when it comes to competition, but this issue covers freedom of expression and democracy – two things which cannot continue to be sacrificed for protecting ‘trade secrets’.

Granted, knowing how such a system works may be a gold mine for those who seek to exploit it (clickbaiters, data miners and so forth), but when the general public know how a system can be cheated, they can also know how others can use it for monetary gain. Those who publish fake news will be faced with a fresh wave of scepticism when people know the tactics that they use.

If Facebook doesn’t want to be seen as an “arbiter of truth”, then the solution is simple: make the algorithm more transparent, and then the people can decide the truth for themselves.

Advertisements

Musical Discovery: ‘Wearing Nothing’ by Dagny

Facebook adverts are just as interesting as they are concerning. Over time, the social networking platform has managed to nail my complex taste in music, offering a mix of musicians I had never come across before. Most recently, the mysterious algorithms were responsible for me finding the Norwegian singer, Dagny, and her track, Wearing Nothing.

A pop-heavy blend of Kylie Minogue and Charlie XCX, Dagny encapsulates the soft vocals of the former, and the screaming cheerleader sound of the latter. It’s a flashback to the older days of pop with the singer, whilst also hanging on to the genre’s current style through sophisticated instrumentals.

Stripped-back (pun not intended), the chorus offers a sluggish, bouncy rhythm. The bass drum keeps the song in time, before a plucky guitar riff adds in an off-beat groove on top. Rather than being an excitable, loud melody, the almost anticlimactic drop sets a smooth tone fitting of the track’s meaning.

Whilst the pop industry descends into this weird tropical, calypso mash-up (which is, quite frankly, getting a little bit tedious), it’s refreshing to hear a pop song that offers a more chilled tone for people to listen to – and all thanks go to Dagny for that.

Messenger Day: A wrong step in the trend of multi-purpose apps | The Friday Article

Snapchat took a risk in 2013. The launch of Stories was one that some people weren’t impressed with when it first started out, but it has since become one of the app’s key features. There’s something about Snapchat’s multitude of features – text chat, photo chat and stories – which doesn’t deviate from its core message. This is in contrast to Facebook Messenger, which launched a worryingly similar version of ‘stories’ – called Messenger Day – on its app today.

Photo: Facebook Messenger.

It’s been dubbed a ‘clone’ by some tech websites, and it’s likely that not everyone will approve of the new update. Granted, people had a similar reaction to Instagram, but it’s slowly being warmed to.

What made Instagram Stories ‘work’ (something to be debated) was the fact that Stories was on-brand. The app has always been about sharing photos and videos as a snapshot of your day. It works. Messenger – as the name suggests – has always been about messages on the most basic of terms. For a long time, it’s been through GIFs, photos, texts and videos. The app has always been grounded to its role as a basic messaging tool. To add something which is about sharing photos and videos ‘as they happen’ is a bizarre and wrong step to take for the app.

Plus, it doesn’t compete against Instagram, since they are both owned by Facebook. Whilst Zuckerberg’s platform has the most users (1.86 billion people compared to Snapchat’s 160 million daily users), why would Facebook introduce a feature on Messenger which is already available on Instagram?

There’s a right way to jump on a technological bandwagon, and this isn’t it. Breaking away from the aforementioned ‘core’ definition is brave, but it won’t work when the industry is all about creating a multi-tool app with one sole purpose.

A Stance on Self-Promotion

I’ve taken a step back and let my blog do its own thing. I would write the posts and wait for people to discover them, rather than using scheduled tweets and Twitter chats to boost views out of desperation. When I said earlier this month that I was to take a step back from the blogging community, I was worried at first. I knew the community around my blog would remain, but I was didn’t know whether the interaction and comments – most often as a result from conversations during a Twitter chat – would come to a halt. Today, as I realised that I’ve surpassed my milestone of reaching 12,000 views by the end of 2016 and I’m one away from 1,000 combined WordPress followers, I decided that I quite like how things are going.

Granted, I still feel bad about not keeping up with scheduled tweets, but with most of my posts being shared by musicians or those with an interest in the current affairs I talk about, I tend to get more views than desperate and repetitive social media posts would get.

As I announced that my blog would be moving more towards professional writing as opposed to more personal pieces, I reflected on where I was four years ago in 2012. It was a time when I wrote posts on pretty much anything just to get something up on the website. I’ve already talked about how the content on this site has changed since then, but I genuinely believe that this blog has helped to improve my writing (alongside my path through education, of course). I have had a change in attitude and I like to think that I’ve had more people contact me through my blog because of that.

It’s likely that this is the same rhetoric I’ve mentioned countless times before in previous posts, but I also have something important to mention when it comes to how active my blog will be in the future.

I have returned to the University of Lincoln to begin my second year of studying journalism. Lectures, seminars and other commitments will mean that social media will remain low. For a long time, I have always had time to schedule blog posts, so that won’t be a problem. Yet, scheduling tweets via. Buffer has often come down to remembering to do it and finding the time to do it.

You’ll be seeing less promotional tweets from me, but that may just be a good thing.

Liam

YouTube’s ToS changes: User input is something the social media industry is lacking | The Friday Article

Trends on today’s social media platforms are determined by the websites themselves. Users are forced to accept these changes or go elsewhere for the service. The result has led to Instagram changing the algorithm on its timeline, and introducing Instagram Stories and a zoom function. Gone are the days when the demands of the users were met. It needs to change. Websites and their users must come together to discuss changes which both parties want, for it is an interdependent relationship between the user and the platform as a whole.

YouTube's new policies on 'advertiser-friendly' content is the latest change to be made without consulting users or creators on the platform. Photo: Effie Yang on Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons - https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/legalcode.
YouTube’s new policies on ‘advertiser-friendly’ content is the latest change to be made without consulting users or creators on the platform. Photo: Effie Yang on Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons – https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/legalcode.

Twitter is the website which has come the closest to gathering audience feedback, be it in the form of Twitter survey advertisements, for example. Yet, these surveys are about companies which work with Twitter. Why can’t they introduce surveys to assess users’ reactions to new changes?

As for Facebook, they have always remained transparent on any new change to their platform – particularly in terms of privacy, of course. However, we all remember when they tried to introduce profile timelines for the first time, right? A fair amount of people didn’t want to make the change, yet it happened to everyone eventually. Again, users of a platform must go along with social media updates. The companies set the trends, and what’s funny is that we often use the social media platform itself to complain about it. Of course, these websites will see the discontent in a trending hashtag (#YouTubeisOverParty doesn’t sound particularly positive, after all), but they never really address it. Sadly, the changes still go ahead, as all we have are our online soapboxes, and they can do whatever they want with their own website – as many online creators have mentioned when it comes to the latest drama with YouTube’s new Terms of Service.

With any change on YouTube, content creators on the site are forced to make videos as a way in which to kick up as much of a fuss as possible. Small YouTube channels often lose out the most, as – unlike big YouTubers – they don’t have a network or a contact at YouTube to whom escalate their concerns.

The idea of a YouTube channel dedicated to being the middle man between the site and video makers is a solution I’ve often thought about. Whilst YouTubers big or small making videos on the subject is great for showing the collective frustration at the news, a channel dedicated to conveying the general consensus to YouTube would be more meaningful to those at the company. It’d be a way for communication to improve between the users and the platform.

Then, that should hopefully bring this trend to a close, and encourage other sites like Instagram and Twitter to find a way in which users of their website can give clear feedback on upcoming and proposed changes.

Social media apps and websites are trying to be the leading platform in their sector, and are doing this by copying features from rivals (Facebook borrows from Twitter and vice versa, and Instagram Stories has a lot of similarities to Snapchat, of course). However, they are prioritising the business goal of being at the top of the industry over listening to the users. If apps and platforms made the changes people wanted after communicating with them directly, then the industry would be more competitive and offer unique and exciting apps – they wouldn’t have to rely on the unnecessary copying which is happening at the moment.

It’s time for a ‘middle man’ on these platforms. We can no longer rely on automated support or feedback emails to vent our frustration at new changes. Now is the time for a proper conversation between users and the platform itself.

Liam

Instagram Stories: The battle for being the go-to photo app is on | The Friday Article

Instagram Stories has started a new battle for social media apps. For years, the battle between Facebook and Twitter has dominated tech news, with the two websites becoming more similar each day. Now, the attention shifts towards a new type of communication and the latest trend – photo and video chats. In an attempt to adhere to the latest trends, Instagram has sacrificed its individuality. Whilst users want to be able to choose between social media platforms, they also want the one app to serve a specific purpose. It’s freedom of choice versus the desire for a social media monopoly. Twitter may be winning against Facebook as the platform for text-based communication, but now there must be one go-to app for sharing photos and videos. It’s Instagram vs. Snapchat.

Photo: https://www.instagram-brand.com
Photo: https://www.instagram-brand.com

Instagram’s new update exposed a conflicting desire in society: we all want a variety of apps for the collectibility aspect, but at the same time, we like all our needs being served in the form of one app. We want both a collection and an individual service. It is impossible to have both, and now that Instagram Stories is worryingly similar Snapchat, users are faced with a dilemma: to which social media platform do they remain loyal to?

“It seems like it’s lost touch with the spirit of innovation and creation” said YouTuber and online creator Hank Green in an Instagram story posted earlier this week. His views tapped into a larger issue in the social media industry today. It’s essentially a landscape where apps can either copy each other, or be left behind. Rather than tapping into new and exciting ideas, in order to continue their takeover of the specific market, social media websites are forced to mimic competitors. It’s not a great way for these apps to act, and leaves social media users torn between two or more great apps.

Aside from users questioning their loyalty to certain mobile applications, another dilemma comes in the form of their requests being ignored. Twitter users long for an edit button, and those who use Instagram want to see the old logo and a chronological timeline make a comeback. It’s concerning that instead of making these changes, they choose to mimic their rivals. If they are doing this out of fear for losing users, then listening to their demands would lead to them continuing to use the service, right?

Who will come out on top? I don’t know. However, whilst being the go-to app for videos and photos is an important thing in terms of keeping up with the market, listening to the demands of the public is one of the best ways to procure loyal and regular users. It’s about time that we determined the trends and updates for some of our favourite apps.

Liam

Twitter’s blue tick is no longer the badge of honour it used to be | The Friday Article

“A stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous who love to second-guess, to leap to conclusions and be offended – worse, to be offended on behalf of others they do not even know.” This is Twitter, according to the comedian, writer and national treasure that is Stephen Fry, who decided to leave the social networking site earlier this year.

You can now join Twitter's elite, and this 'us and them' dynamic is worryingly close to real life. Photo source: https://about.twitter.com/company/brand-assets
You can now join Twitter’s elite, and this ‘us and them’ dynamic is worryingly close to real life. Photo source: https://about.twitter.com/company/brand-assets

Twitter has become a dangerous reflection of real-life sociology. The social media website is a weird mixture of individualism and collective action. We can boost our ego and self-worth by glancing at our follow count and we can bury ourselves in Twitter hashtags, where most of us just adopt the group think within that community. Much like real life, we are individuals, but we can get lost in subcultures and groups. There is the elite and the masses. The 99% and the 1%. In both worlds, offline and online, there is the desire for the majority to experience the life of the privileged few. Now, with the social network creating a form to apply for ‘blue tick’ validation, the doors to Twitter’s elite have now been flung open.

Compared to other sites such as Facebook, Twitter is one of the main social networks which captures the human desire for recognition and social progression. Mark Zuckerberg’s website has always been about friendship, with the main focus being on the connection between two people, as opposed to Twitter, which has since become a game about followers, where everyone longs to get to the top – whatever that means.

In the real world, class and wealth establish the ‘us and them’ rhetoric which creates division in our society. Of course, we’ve also longed for our opinions to be recognised in person, but that’s when Twitter comes in. Opinions and content drive the hegemony online. It’s a factor which leaves users desperate to find the opinions and content which appeals to such a wide audience. Of course, at the top of Twitter’s ‘blue tick elite’ are accounts such as Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, but their accounts are more than just places to promote their latest content, they also use it as a platform for their own opinions. For the 99%, it’s not the content or music we are envious of, it’s having our views and opinions respected by strangers – over 90 million in Katy Perry’s case – which every person in society longs for. Twitter is a soapbox, and that’s what made it successful.

On Tuesday, it was announced that all Twitter users can apply for the verified blue tick, but it was a move which will only confuse people. As BBC’s Newsbeat puts it, the icon is seen to be “one of the ultimate compliments”, but it is also a sign that you’re part of a secret group, up there with other verified accounts in the entertainment industry. It’s drifted away from its original purpose of preventing fake accounts and providing authentication. Instead, it’s a badge given to those whose opinions can appeal to anyone. Twitter themselves say that they are for accounts in “the public interest”, and for an account on the site, that can only be determined by how many strangers a person or business’ opinions can appeal to.

By Twitter opening the doors to join its group of verified accounts, users everywhere are now seeing this as a way to prove to others that their opinions appeal to a large audience and are worth listening to. The desire to force a person’s opinions on others is rooted in society today, and if this isn’t done through the form of civilised debate or discussion, then it turns into arrogance – a trait nobody wants to admit to possessing.

A blue tick on Twitter is no longer a badge of honour. Instead, people take it to mean that the soapbox they’re standing on is respected. No one’s ego should be stroked to that extent.