TagTwitter

Facebook, Twitter, Google are a new type of media platform, and new rules apply

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When Congress questioned representatives of Facebook, Google and Twitter, it became official: We need to finally find an answer to a debate that’s been bubbling for months (if not years) about the role of the tech companies—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, or GAFAM—and their platforms.

The question is summed up by Ted Cruz’s line of inquiry (and here’s a person I never expected to quote) in the Congressional hearing: “Do you consider your sites to be neutral public fora?” (Some others echoed versions of this question.)

Platform or media?

Simply put, the question boils down to this: Are GAFAM tech companies or media companies? Are they held to standards (and regulation) of “neutral platform” or “content creator”? Are they dumb infrastructure or pillars of democracy?

These are big questions to ask, and I don’t envy the companies for their position in this one. As a neutral platform they get a large degree of freedom, but have to take responsibility for the hate speech and abuse on their platform. As a media company they get to shape the conversation more actively, but can’t claim the extreme point of view of free speech they like to take. You can’t both be neutral and “bring humanity together” as Mark Zuckerberg intends. As Ben Thompson points out on Stratechery (potentially paywalled), neutrality might be the “easier” option:

the “safest” position for the company to take would be the sort of neutrality demanded by Cruz — a refusal to do any sort of explicit policing of content, no matter how objectionable. That, though, was unacceptable to the company’s employee base specifically, and Silicon Valley broadly

I agree this would be easier. (I’m not so sure that the employee preference is the driving force, but that’s another debate and it certainly plays a role.) Also, let’s not forget that each of these companies plays a global game, and wherever they operate they have to meet legal requirements. Where are they willing to draw the line? Google famously didn’t enter the Chinese market a few years ago, presumably because they didn’t want to meet the government’s censorship requirements. This was a principled move, and I would expect not an easy one for a big market. But where do you draw the line? US rules on nudity? German rules on censoring Nazi glorification and hate speech? Chinese rules on censoring pro-democracy reporting or on government surveillance?

For GAFAM, the position has traditionally been clear cut and quite straightforward, which we can still (kind of, sort of) see in the Congressional hearing:

“We don’t think of it in the terms of ‘neutral,'” [Facebook General Counsel Colin] Stretch continued, pointing out that Facebook tries to give users a personalized feed of content. “But we do think of ourselves as — again, within the boundaries that I described — open to all ideas without regard to viewpoint or ideology.” (Source: Recode)

Once more:

[Senator John] Kennedy also asked Richard Salgado, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, whether the company is a “newspaper” or a neutral tech platform. Salgado replied that Google is a tech company, to which Kennedy quipped, “that’s what I thought you’d say.” (Source: Business Insider)

Now that’s interesting, because while they claim to be “neutral” free speech companies, Facebook and the others have of course been hugely filtering content by various means (from their Terms of Service to community guidelines), and shaping the attention flow (who sees what and when) forever.

This aspect isn’t discussed much, but worth noting nonetheless: How Facebook and other tech firms deal with content has been based to a relatively large degree by United States legal and cultural standards. Which makes sense, given that they’re US companies, but doesn’t make a lot of sense given they operate globally. To name just two examples from above that highlight how legal and cultural standards differ from country to country, take pictures of nudity (largely not OK in the US, largely OK in Germany) versus positively referencing the Third Reich (largely illegal in Germany, largely least legal in the US).

Big tech platforms are a new type of media platform

Here’s the thing: These big tech platforms aren’t neutral platforms for debate, nor are they traditional media platforms. They are neither neither dumb tech (they actively choose and frame and shape content & traffic) nor traditional media companies that (at least notionally) primarily engage in content creation. These big tech platforms are a new type of media platform, and new rules apply. Hence, they require new ways of thinking and analysis, as well as new approaches to regulation.

(As an personal, rambling aside: Given we’ve been discussing the transformational effects of digital media and especially social media for far over a decade now, how do we still even have to have this debate in 2017? I genuinely thought that we had at least sorted out our basic understanding of social media as a new hybrid by 2010. Sigh.)

We might be able to apply existing regulatory—and equally important: analytical—frameworks. Or maybe we can find a way to apply existing ones in new ways. But, and I say this expressly without judgement, these are platforms that operate at a scale and dynamism we haven’t seen before. They are of a new quality, they display qualities and combinations of qualities and characteristics we don’t have much experience with. Yet, on a societal level we’ve been viewing them through the old lenses of either media (“a newspaper”, “broadcast”) or neutral platforms (“tubes”, “electricity”). And it hasn’t worked yet, and will continue not to work, because it makes little sense.

That’s why it’s important to take a breath and figure out how to best understand implications, and shape the tech, the organizations, the frameworks within which they operate.

It might turn out, and I’d say it’s likely, that they operate within some frameworks but outside others, and in those cases we need to adjust the frameworks, the organizations, or both. To align the analytical and regulatory frameworks with realities, or vice versa.

This isn’t an us versus them situation like many parties are insinuating: It’s not politics versus tech as actors on both the governmental and the tech side sometimes seem to think. It’s not tech vs civil society as some activists claim. It’s certainly not Silicon Valley against the rest of the world, even though a little more cultural sensitivity might do SV firms a world of good. This is a question of how we want to live our lives, govern our lives, as they are impacted by the flow of information.

It’s going to be tricky to figure this out as there are many nation states involved, and some supra-national actors, and large global commercial actors and many other, smaller but equally important players. It’s a messy mix of stakeholders and interests.

But one thing I can promise: The solution won’t be just technical, not just legal, nor cultural. It’ll be a slow and messy process that involves all three fields, and a lot of work. We know that the status quo isn’t working for too many people, and we can shape the future. So that soon, it’ll work for many more people—maybe for all.

Please note that this is cross-posted from Medium. Also, for full transparency, we work occasionally with Google.

Twitter, why u so US centric?

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For my new company Brightfuture [NAME PENDING], I tried to register a Twitter account. Much to my surprise, @brightfuture didn’t seem actively used.

No avatar, two tweets (one from 2007, one from 2009. No activity for 5 years, and no real use before that either.

 

screenshot of @brightfuture

 

So I figured that yes, obviously this account is basically available. Oh, how naive I was.

Twitter does have an inactive username policy. It states:

To keep your account active, be sure to log in and Tweet (i.e., post an update) within 6 months of your last update. Accounts may be permanently removed due to prolonged inactivity.

Find an inactive – or otherwise trademark violating – account? The Trademark policy to the resuce:

Using a company or business name, logo, or other trademark-protected materials in a manner that may mislead or confuse others with regard to its brand or business affiliation may be considered a trademark policy violation.

And:

When we determine that an account appears to be confusing users, but is not purposefully passing itself off as the trademarked good or service, we give the account holder an opportunity to clear up any potential confusion. We may also release a username for the trademark holder’s active use.

Alright, fair enough. The account is clearly inactive, I own a business with the disputed name and can prove it, too. Easy enough!

Wrong again.

To reclaim an account, a US trademark is needed:

A federal or international trademark registration number is required. If the name you are reporting is not a registered mark (e.g., a government agency or non-profit organization), please let us know (…)

So, back to square one. In this case, the Inactive account policy, which states:

What if I have a request for a username from an account that looks inactive, but I don’t have a registered trademark? We are currently working to release all inactive usernames in bulk, but we do not have a set time frame for when this will take place.

 

It’s the equivalent of Twitter shrugging off the problem, or Screw You, Rest Of The World.

I’m not going to lie: I couldn’t imagine living and working without Twitter today. But I can’t say that this kind of policy fosters my bond to the service.

 

For now, for quick updates on Brightfuture[NAME PENDING] please follow @brightfutureio my personal Twitter account (@peterbihr) or this blog.

Whose tweets are these anyway? (What happens when election campaign tweets get deleted?)

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Today, there was a bit of a flurry of tweets after the official Twitter account by SPD candidate for chancelor, Peer Steinbrück, sent this tweet:

deleted tweet

… and then deleted it. (Screenshot from Politwoops)

Because it can be hard to read, the tweet says: “Wann hat sich ein Kanzlerkandidat irgendeiner Partei schon mal für Netzpolitik interessiert! Wann? cc @pottblog” (translation: When did any party’s candidate for chancellor have any interest in net politics before? When?)

In general, deleting tweets isn’t considered good style. Fair enough.

Before I continue, full disclosure: I once was an advisor to the federal youth campaign for SPD, back in 2009, and as a student job I worked on the SPD 2005 campaign as well. I don’t have any business relationship with the party now.

So, now that that’s out of the way, I think there are several aspects to look at this.

One, overall etiquette. Should tweets ever be deleted (if so, when is it acceptable), and if they are, should it be marked? I tend to go a pretty pragmatic way: If something’s posted accidentally, delete the tweet or say it in the next tweet. This, and that’s important to stress, doesn’t serve to hide the information, but to help prevent the spreading of information that wasn’t intended to be published. In other words, both the deletion and the clarifying statement serve (IMHO) as a statement of intention: “please don’t spread this, it was an honest mistake and not intended to be published”. If something’s tweeted on purpose but simply wrong, never delete but own up. Also, be aware that no tweets stays deleted, ever, because what’s out there is out there.

Two, if something is tweeted, like in this case obviously, accidentally on one account but was meant for another. (According to Twitwoops, the fantastic services that archives tweets deleted from politicians’ accounts, the tweet in question was deleted within half a minute.) If, in other words, something that was meant to be a tweet from the personal account of a member of the election campaign team that has access to the candidate’s twitter account as is normal and as it should have, then what’s the best next step? Does a tweet, even if by technical/human error sent from a candidate’s account, count as “their tweet”? Frankly I don’t think so.

Here’s the original tweet, from the owner, and surely it’s harmless enough in this context:

Tobias Nehren (Fison) on Twitter

So, I don’t know what the best practice is. But I do know that a bit of common sense helps put this things in context. In my experience as someone who pretty much posts stuff online all day and who’s also been heavily involved in election campaigns where things tend to move very fast, more often than not there’s no intention to hide things but simple, honest mistakes. We’re all human.

Recollecting my Instagrams & other social data

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So, Instragram announced updates to their Terms of Services. Nothing unusual about it, really, only that the updates seem to be aimed at monetizing by allowing advertisers to use your photos without prior notice or consent (besides agreeing to the ToS, obviously).

Now, often times ToS changes trigger all kinds of resentment by the user base, and in many cases it’s a matter of legalese or bad communications. Say, if a service requires consent to copying and distributing your content: Copying and distributing can easily sound like selling or licensing or doing other weird things with your data, while it might just be necessary to run the service you signed up for. After all, you can’t store a digital image without making copies of it. That kinda thing.

That said, Instagram’s new ToS seem to be more directly aimed at advertisers, and as such it’s a different game altogether. Furthermore, they’re now part of Facebook, and as such – in my eyes – much less trustworthy than a year ago. Facebook has a horrible track record of abusing users’ trust, for example by changing default privacy settings and making it unnecessarily hard to opt out of new features. So personally I’m not willing to give Instagram/Facebook the benefit of the doubt on this one.

 

But enough with the rant. The Instagram ToS kerfuffle was as good an excuse as any to eventually try out Recollect, a service run by good former Flickr engineers, who sources closer to the matter tell me are good, trustworthy folks. Moreover, they’re building a service that charges users upfront, which seems to be to be a good model of building sustainable businesses.

So what does Recollect do? Simple – it backs up data from your social media accounts. I just had Recollect gather my Tweets, Instagram and Flickr photos as well as Foursquare check-ins. You can then proceed to download them to your local machine. (In the case of Instagram, it saves everything as HTML, so you get to keep not just your photos, but faves, comments, etc.) It’s simple, and a useful thing to do if you think that archiving your data is useful at all.

Recollecting Screenshot of the Recollect dashboard. Note the activity on the different services, and how they changed over time.

 

A nice side effect: The dashboard shows you your activity on these other services. In my case, as you can see in the screenshot, I saved more than 12.000 items, including 7.500+ Flickr photos and about 1.500 Foursquare check-ins.

I won’t be losing much Instagram: Since the Android app only came out this year, I have less than 400 photos there, it’s really a minor problem. (I also had them automatically cross-posted to Flickr anyway.) It’s just a bit of a bummer that Twitter introduced an API limit awhile ago, allowing only about the last 3.000 tweets to be accessed – so for me that means I’m about six years short on Twitter archives. Which is pretty bad, and another reason to back up data there as it passes through.

I’ve only been testing Recollect for a single day yet, but I’m pretty sure I’ll keep using it and will be happy to pay the monthly fee for a reliable backup and the option to export my data whenever I choose. Recommended!

4% of my Twitter is fictional

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On Twitter I follow some 2.000 accounts. Or rather, about 2.000 people can, in theory, send me direct messages. Because it seems pretty much impossible to me to actually follow that many people, I work with lists a lot. Some are by topic, some by location (Berlin), some by type of relationship (work, friends). One is for people who I want to learn more about before deciding if I want to really follow everything they say.

Maybe the most important one for me is called “want to read”. This one has a mere 193 members at this point, and it’s highly curated super picky so I can make sure that I actually read (almost) everything that passes through that list.

Some of the people there are friends, some are colleagues, some are people I find inspiring or whose thoughts I want to learn about. And then there’s a few oddities in there that I found interesting by way of self-observation. Among those 193 Twitter accounts in my want-to-read list there are 18 “things” accounts: products, companies, locations, conferences. There are 3 feeds that just link to new blog posts in blogs I like. (I pretty much retired my RSS reader, even though I’ve been trying to revive it.) And there are 8 fictional characters, mostly from the West Wing. That’s more than 4 percent!

What does it say about me that out of the entities I really want to follow, four percent are fictional?

A digital inventory

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image by johannes kleske

Every day, I post to a number of web services. Quite a few actually. So here’s a quick inventory of the services that are most important in my daily life – for easier navigation, and because – let’s face it! – we all use these things in very different ways. So we can all learn from each other’s tech setups.

thewavingcat.com

This blog you’re reading just now is run on WordPress, on a cluster of Mediatemple’s Grid Service. It’s a great, open source blogging platform on a solid hosting that’s easy to use and maintain. It’s where I post (too rarely) about the stuff I do, what I think about, event announcements and the like. It’s more a log than anything else, a place for me to put stuff that I need a URL for – so it’s easier to link and refer to from other places. It’s also my homebase online.

Twitter (@peterbihr)

My second home on the web is Twitter. This is where I’m certainly most active, where I share quick thoughts, comments and most importantly, questions. What my blog lacks in terms of posting frequency I certainly make more than up for on Twitter. If you want to know what I’m thinking about, and if you don’t mind mostly unstructured thoughts & info as well as eclectic links, follow me at @peterbihr.

Tumblr

I have quite a few tumblelogs, and enjoy starting them even just for a quick joke or so. The one I use most is thewavingcat.tumblr.com, where I (mostly re-)post things I find on the web. Photos, videos, the more fluffy kind of stuff.

Flickr

Most of my photos go on my Flickr page. It’s where I upload a lot of mobile photos as well as the occasional screenshot. I use this for all kinds of purposes: as documentation, to share photos or events, and as an image database for blog posts etc. I don’t use most of the social features on Flickr, except faveing photos to find them again later. Also, the Creative Commons photo search is great to find images for blog posts. It’s both a joy and a working tool, really.

Pinboard

When there were rumors of Yahoo shutting down their social bookmarking service Delicious, I quickly migrated my data to Pinboard, and couldn’t be happier. Via bookmarklet I save all relevant links with one click, and tag them for easier re-use. We also use Pinboard as a tool for our work at Third Wave – by collaboratively saving articles with one tag that we then use to generate our weekly reading lists and other posts.

Instapaper

Are you like me and tend to curiously open all kinds of articles “to read later” until your browser has so many tabs that it won’t display the little icons anymore? Then Instapaper is for you. Via a bookmarklet you mark articles to read later, and the service collects them for you, so you can read them on a different device when you like. I hear it’s super smooth with iPads. I use the Kindle, where it’s not quite as perfect, but still worth the transfer so I can read longer articles on my next train ride or in a café.

quote.fm

If I stumble over an interesting quote, I usually tweet it or throw it on my Tumblr. However, that is changing: Since quote.fm has launched (currently in semi-private beta, I think, so keep an eye out for invites), this has becoming more and more where I send my quotes, and where I go to get some fresh ideas during the day. The strength here is that they turn quotes into social objects that can be shared and commented on. Sounds somewhat boring? Yes it does, but give it a try. It’s really very, very good. Join the conversation!

So here you have it, that’s my digital setup. What’s yours?

Image by Johannes Kleske, some rights reserved.

Email, Twitter, Phone

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Goopymart

During a number of conversations recently I realized something. This may be obvious to you, or you might find it mighty strange. But I can say with confidence that at this point in time, 2011, my communications hierarchy is this:

First place is clearly email. This is where everything happens, particularly for business.

Second place is Twitter. All the smaller coordination, as well as a large part of the input and inspiration, happens here. (In fact, a large part of organizing and advertising Cognitive Cities Conference was done through Twitter, too.)

Third place – and a distant third, too – is the phone. Cell phone, of course. Landline has become so ridiculously unimportant that between my company Third Wave, our office mates Yourneighbours/Gidsy and our resident freelancer Fabian we share one (!) landline phone – without ever running into a conflict there.

In between, but too hard to place in this hierarchy, are Skype and similar instant messengers as well as SMS and of course face-to-face conversations.

Even I myself was a bit surprised by how clearly the phone had been demoted like this, and how important and ubiquitous Twitter has become in my daily life. But there you go. Curious to hear about your experiences that way!

Image: magical science creature capture / goopy mart / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0