phiffer.org

Dan Phiffer Dan Phiffer builds websites, makes art, and teaches in NYC

Christina Xu’s setupusesthis.com

I don’t usually follow this sort of equipment connoisseurism, but I enjoyed reading about ethnographer Christina Xu’s international phone setup.

Having two phones went out of style in China a few years ago because most phones for the Chinese market can use (at least) 2 SIM cards simultaneously, but no such luck the Galaxy S6 I got in the US. There’s no way I’m giving up my T-Mobile SIM card, either: my plan comes with unlimited free data while roaming internationally, and while it’s not terribly fast, it’s a real lifesaver in China. You see, the Great Firewall is designed to limit access to information for locals, not foreigners, so it doesn’t even bother blocking mobile data if you’re roaming. This means that—wonder of wonders!!—I have slow but steady, constant access to Instagram, Twitter, and all of the Google services I use regularly.

But at the same time, having a local Chinese number is indispensable, not least because many local mobile and web services require one for verification purposes. And the Great Firewall goes in both directions: Chinese apps run incredibly slowly outside of it. My solution was to get a second phone in China that I could use just for phone calls and Chinese apps, and I ended up with the Oppo, a low-end Android smartphone designed for the Chinese and Indian market.

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Untitled (social media, variable dimensions). 2015.twitter.com

I’ve collected some images that were circulating on Mlkshk recently, based on a Tweet by Brett O’Connor.

twitter.com/negatendo/status/628611950168117248

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On Facebook’s Safety Checkwww.theatlantic.com

Facebook’s Safety Check lets you notify friends and family that you’re safe after a natural disaster or “human disaster.” Robinson Meyer wrote about it in the Atlantic.

To know, within an hour or two of an event, that someone is safe: It’s so valuable, so emotionally practical, as to be almost priceless. It is anti-terror, in a way: It says, be not afraid. And in the three places where it was first deployed—Afghanistan, Chile, and Nepal, all three after major earthquakes—its activation made a lot of sense, because earthquakes are events which by their nature can affect millions over huge swaths of territory.

But earthquakes and cyclones are not themselves public-facing events. Terrorist attacks are. As Brian Jenkins, a terrorism scholar at the RAND Corporation, writes, “terrorism is aimed at the people watching.” Terrorism is a public-relations campaign with guns and bombs. It weaponizes culture, and it exploits journalistic concern for heinous violence to grab media attention and get pathology taken instead as politics.

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How to escape the advertising bubble

Maciej Cegłowski has interesting things to say about big data and the online advertising business. He argues—persuasively, I think—that the advertising technology (adtech) sector is overvalued. In a recent essay, he describes what will happen when that adtech bubble finally bursts.

The problem is not that these companies will fail (may they all die in agony), but that the survivors will take desperate measures to stay alive as the failure spiral tightens.

These companies have been collecting and trafficking in our most personal data for many years. It’s going to get ugly.

Remember when, in its death throes, RadioShack sold off the customer data of 67 million people? This will probably be worse than that. And a whole lot of the web is built on top of adtech spaghetti business (think: spaghetti code, but for business).

The prognosis for publishers is grim. Repent! Find a way out of the adtech racket before it collapses around you. Ditch your tracking, show dumb ads that you sell directly (not through a thicket of intermediaries), and beg your readers for mercy. Respect their privacy, bandwidth, and intelligence, flatter their vanity, and maybe they’ll subscribe to something.

One way I could see publishers phasing in this more-respectful business model is through existing web browsers’ do-not-track differentiation. Every modern browser has privacy settings that let an individual user opt out of online tracking. That do-not-track preference gets included with each and every web request, but it’s up to the website operator to act on it. As far as I can tell, all adtech companies seem to ignore this preference completely.

Firefox privacy preferences
Firefox privacy preferences

Okay, so are you ready for my idea for how publishers can escape the adtech bubble? Stay with me here, because this is a crazy suggestion: if I’ve signaled through my preferences that I prefer not to be tracked, then … I dunno, maybe don’t track me.

A typical ad-driven website relies on dozens of companies to show me slow loading, poorly-customized advertising. But there’s nothing stopping the website itself from simply not letting those companies’ code onto the page.

I would say just switch to dumb (non-tracking) ads for everyone, but I know how this would play out: “it’s too extreme, we can’t afford it!” But here’s the thing, if you think this adtech spaghetti business is going to collapse, you’ll have to start switching traffic over to something else eventually. Why not start out with current and future subscribers (aka “users”) who’ve already indicated they prefer not to be tracked by the adtech industry? Just do what we’ve been asking for in the first place.

Here’s how: if a given visitor has checked the do-not-track box, you’ll be able to detect it. Adjust your ad libraries and CDNs to detect the DNT: 1 HTTP header and then show a small message congratulating yourself, and set aside those ad spots for “artisanal” ads. Once things are rolling along you can ditch the old bloated, crappy ads for everybody else.

You can already tell what proportion of visitors have do-not-track enabled, it’s there in the traffic stats if you look for it. You could pitch this to the higher ups with real numbers, and spin it as a Premium Advertising Experience, like organic fair trade traffic without all the slow bandwidth-bloat and creepy surveillance.

The big challenge, of course, is this type of effort involves cooperation between many departments that may not currently get along well. But getting the ad sales people and the ad tech people and the web developers to get along is important.

Nobody likes working on ads, and I know it’s hard to just get buy-in, let alone actually launch a new thing. But an adtech collapse might be an existential threat, better to get in front of this now rather than wait for it to happen.

Also posted on Medium.com

Next Epoch Seed Librarynextepochseedlibrary.com

I made Ellie and Anne a website for their project, the Next Epoch Seed Library.

[nextepochseedlibrary.com](http://nextepochseedlibrary.com)
nextepochseedlibrary.com

If the website design looks familiar, it’s because I used the same WordPress theme I developed for Ellie’s website.

See also: Ellie’s essay about the project

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On faves, likes, and hearts

Filed under: Celebration
Filed under: Celebration

This week’s On the Media includes a discussion with the Tow Center’s Emily Bell, talking about a piece she wrote in The Guardian.

Yes, it’s about Twitter faves/likes/hearts. And yes, website design choices do influence user behavior!

I found myself not bookmarking, as I would have done a day earlier, a horrifying image retweeted by journalists depicting men using phones to film a woman being stoned to death for adultery. I did not “like” let alone “love” the image but wanted to note it as important. We must have a system which allows for capturing the significant as well as the appealing.

You may have experienced a version of this when a friend or loved one shares bad news on Facebook. I don’t “like” this, but I want to acknowledge it, and express my empathy. Facebook makes it easy to give that post a thumbs up. The cynical conspiracy theorist in me says this is an effort to make the site more compatible for a sale to Zuckerberg & Co.

The most baffling part is how Twitter is saying the new heart icon is “a universal symbol that resonates across languages, cultures, and time zones.” But then in the following sentence claiming that it is “more expressive, enabling you to convey a range of emotions and easily connect with people.”

It may be true that newer users—from a wider range of backgrounds—may find ❤️ symbols more familiar, but the ⭐️ undoubtedly offers greater flexibility in terms of which “emotions” are being conveyed.

It’s a small change, and I understand that complaining about social media software is tedious, but it does point to how Twitter is first and foremost a profit-seeking company. This change was meant to get their monthly active users numbers up (and by extension, their stock price). And perhaps the strategy is working:

“It’s a change that’s been fantastic for the platform,” said Weil. “We see now 6% more hearts, 6% more likes on Twitter than we saw with favorites.” He also noted that new users tend to engage 9% more with this change.

Back to Emily Bell in The Guardian:

The inherent tension at the centre of all modern communication businesses—including every news organisation—is that only the likable is reliably bankable.

The relaying of trauma, devastation and cruelty is not inherently profitable in the same way that the relaying of how awesome the new Adele track is or how much we adore kittens might be.

What people like on social media has consequences; not just the marginal economic kinds, but also for how the public publics (a verb) on the network. As Zeynep Tufekci has written in The Message:

What if Ferguson had started to bubble, but there was no Twitter to catch on nationally? Would it ever make it through the algorithmic filtering on Facebook? Maybe, but with no transparency to the decisions, I cannot be sure.

Would Ferguson be buried in algorithmic censorship?

Anyway, here’s a small selection of the 19,500+ (!!) tweets I’ve faved so far:

Platform Cooperativism + Creative Time Summitplatformcoop.net

There are two conferences happening in NYC this weekend that I’m planning on going to. Platform Cooperativism just got started this morning and runs through tomorrow at The New School. The Creative Time Summit is happening Saturday/Sunday, at a high school in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I’m not sure how I’ll juggle both events tomorrow, but Platform Cooperativism has a livestream going if you want to follow along from home.

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I was an undercover Uber drivercitypaper.net

Related to yesterday’s post about the tyranny of customer ratings, here’s Emily Guendelsberger writing about her experience driving for Uber.

The Uberpeople forum exists in a state of quivering rage I usually associate with cable-news talk shows. Drivers are furious about everything. Spoiled passengers. Fare cuts. Living in fear of arbitrary ratings. The dumb Spotify thing streaming over the driver’s data plan rather than the passenger’s. A bunch of drivers are even using the forum as a home base to try to unionize in several cities.

But I also find some useful numbers to fill in the vagaries of the training video. For example, I should accept 90% of pings to avoid trouble. I’m also surprised to learn that Uber’s cutoff for driver ratings “below rider expectations” is generally agreed to be only 4.6 stars—I’d had no idea when using Uber as a passenger that rating someone four stars was kind of a big deal.

(photo by Jessica Kourkounis)
(photo by Jessica Kourkounis)

So what does a 4-star ride look like?

I’ve had a perfect rating for almost a week when I get a ride that I can tell is going to screw it up. I pull up, blocking a one-way street, and throw on my blinkers. After waiting the requisite few minutes, I text the guy. He opens the front door, makes a “one minute!” gesture, then shuts it again. Several more minutes tick by. I finally call, and the guy picks up, giggling. “We’ll be right out!”

When the couple finally gets in, nearly 10 unpaid minutes after I showed up, a cloud of weed stank follows them into my car. I try to hide my irritation. They’re headed to a restaurant in Chinatown I’ve been to a bunch of times, so we chat about that as I drive. Despite this, the stoned guy insists on giving me inefficient directions. When he directs me to turn the wrong way down a one-way street, I tell him not to worry, I’ve got this, and just drive them to the restaurant. The guy sulks.

The next day, my five-star rating has updated to a 4.8.

It’s a good article, and I’m slightly worried that it’s published in a publication that’s been shut down recently.

The website remains accessible for now, but if it were to go offline archive.org won’t have a copy: “Page cannot be crawled or displayed due to robots.txt.” Here’s the article text on Pocket, but that doesn’t include the embedded infographics.

I’ve saved a copy of the page’s HTML and images as WordPress metadata, for posterity. Perhaps I should be doing this more systematically. I bet a lot of my old posts link out to dead URLs.

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Rating systems in the on-demand economywww.theverge.com

The Verge’s Josh Dzieza on how Uber and its peers “turned us into horrible bosses.”

The rating systems used by these companies have turned customers into unwitting and sometimes unwittingly ruthless middle managers, more efficient than any boss a company could hope to hire. They’re always there, working for free, hypersensitive to the smallest error. All the algorithm has to do is tally up their judgments and deactivate accordingly.

Ratings help these companies to achieve enormous scale, managing large pools of untrained contract workers without having to hire supervisors. It’s a nice arrangement for customers too, who get cheap service with a smile—even if it’s an anxious one. But for the workers, already in the precarious position of contract labor, making every customer a boss is a terrifying prospect. After all, they—we—can be entitled jerks.

See also: The Trouble with the “uber for…” Economy and part 2 of Enchanting by Numbers

Link via James

The Whale is dead, long live Linky (updated)

I recently got this email about my project The Whale:

I am not a web developer or anything like that, but I am a person who has struggled with OCD and dyslexia for decades. A work like Moby Dick is normally not accessible to me because of the way I read. Your way of organizing it into small bitesize, all caps chunks has allowed me to enjoy this great literary work.

I know this is probably not what you had in mind when you wrote the code, but I wanted to thank you all the same.

I was floored. This is the most rewarding kind of feedback to get about a project.

And while that’s certainly not what I had in mind when I wrote the code, there is a part of me that enjoys the constant fidgeting with the text. All the clicking (or tapping) eases some part of my brain that might otherwise have me go impulsively check for new social media notifications.

I asked if there were any other texts that he might enjoy in this format, and then decided to generalize my project to show additional novels beyond Moby Dick. And so was born the project I’m now calling Linky. The current selection includes:

Update: Added three more titles to the list.

From [Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein](https://phiffer.org/linky/frankenstein#14)

If you have any ideas for other titles that might benefit from the Linky treatment, please let me know.

The brutal rationymag.com

New York magazine’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells identifies the key political fact that has emerged from the Intercept’s Drone Papers:

One question—maybe the most pressing question—is how the public feels about that brutal ratio of one targeted death to five or six unintended. The evidence so far is that the public is more or less okay with it.

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