Facebook News FeedFacebook will drop traditional news stories from the News Feed. Mark Zuckerberg says the goal is to clean up the social network making it a force for good. The move is overdue.

While there are many things wrong with Facebook, matters came to a head when unfriendly forces meddled in both the 2016 US presidential election and the UK Brexit referendum.

As part of the clean-up, Facebook will change the way its News Feed works.

The News Feed is a scrolling list of updates that the Facebook app and website show on the main page. Each News Feed is tailored to the person logged-in to the Facebook account.

News Feed priority

Facebook’s News Feed prioritises items based on the user’s previous activity, their likes and interests. It also serves up news stories from external publisher using similar algorithms to select items Facebook thinks will interest the user.

Zuckerberg says news will downgraded after the change. Instead Facebook will show posts that it considers are more ‘meaningful’. That means Facebook users will see more posts and photos from friends and family members, fewer links to news stories and videos.

Facebook uses the term ‘meaningful’ to mean users will see more items they will interact with. That means writing a response, clicking on links or hitting the ‘like’ button. This is in contrast to the way users tend to passively scroll through news stories and video links.

Users will still get news items in their News Feed. Instead of selecting items based on interests, Facebook will serve up the stories that have more comments or have generated a lot of chatter. This could mean more gossip and sensational stories, fewer hard news items. Although that remains to be seen.

In some ways a positive move

Despite the possibility of poor quality news, giving users material less likely to depress them seems like a positive move. And brave. Zuckerberg admits the change could be hurt Facebook’s business in the short term. Shareholders agree. Facebook shares dropped 4.5 percent after Zuckerberg’s announcement.

If that’s the case, why is Facebook doing this? Zuckerberg and his team have always been aggressive. They run a clear Facebook-first strategy where they only make choices that are good for Facebook shareholders. This move is a long-term play with complex objectives.

Zuckerberg quotes internal company research that shows social networks can often make people feel bad about themselves. There are many reasons for this, one is that other users post carefully edited versions of their news tweaked to make their lives look as exciting or as perfect as possible. Too much Facebook can leave people feeling envious.

Well-being suffering

There’s also respectable academic evidence from elsewhere that users who spend too much time scrolling through their feed without much interaction suffer from negative health and mental health problems.. That’s not good for Facebook. If users wise up to these problems and leave en masse, Zuckerberg’s empire could crumble.

Facebook’s own research says that those who get deeper involved with their News Feed have better than normal personal well-being. Which implies it is the news part of the News Feed, that is the stories from journalists and others, along with the sugar rush diet of snackable video material that depresses users.

While cutting down on the bad feed items and increasing the good ones makes perfect sense, there is a problem. It means people will spend less time on Facebook. That means they will see less advertising which, in turn, will mean less revenue for the social media giant.

We can take it as read that Zuckerberg and his senior officers have workshopped how this will play out. The drop in time spent may not be huge.

It’s possible that having happy engaged readers means the advertising is more effective and that Facebook can increase rates. At this point it is worth mentioning that Facebook’s revenue per ad served has been falling for some time. Arresting that fall is important.

Flying below regulatory radar

There’s another angle to the change. Facebook has begun to attract attention from governments and regulators who have many concerns about its power. Acting now may see some of the possible regulatory action before it happens. There’s even a possibility some regulators have had a quite word in Facebook’s ear suggesting this kind of move might be wise.

Facebook’s move looks like a positive step for its two billion or so users. It may even decrease the total amount of unhappiness in the world. Yet that won’t be the case in news organisations and with publishers who depend on Facebook to funnel readers to news websites. They’ll get less traffic than before.

Publishers are understandably angry. In effect those who have used Facebook as a distribution network have been victims of a giant bait and switch con job. Facebook wooed published a decade or so ago with the promise of delivering traffic. The argument for publishers was they may as well fish where the shoals were swimming. Pulling the plug on them is an act of bad faith.

Yet Facebook has steadily dropped the amount of external news material in its News Feed in recent years. The latest move is only a speeded up version of what has already been happening.

Many publishers learned long ago that stories about the colour of a dress or pictures of cute animals were more likely to get Facebook traffic than an in-depth investigation into changes in taxation or other heavy-duty reporting.

The other aspect of Facebook changes is that it will be harder for companies and public relations professionals to get News Feed attention. That will force them to spend more on advertising if they want a Facebook audience.

Facebook is not now and never has been the publisher’s friend. Yet it makes sense to keep customers, literally, happy. In the long term that’s likely to pay dividends. In the meantime, what’s left of the traditional news media will need to find another path out of the internet maze.

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Sky TV launched legal action in a bid to force ISPs to block access to streaming and video download websites.

As you’d expect, the move didn’t go down well with the industry. At least two ISPs say they will fight Sky in court.

Sky sent notice that it will seek court orders for Spark, Vodafone, 2degrees and Vocus — which trades as Orcon, Slingshot and Flip – to block a list of unspecified sites. The date blocking should start is not specified in the letters.

Spark and Vocus seem ready to resist.

The four ISPs account for more than 90 percent of all online accounts in New Zealand. If Sky gets them to block, picking off the smaller players will be trivial.

Pirate Bay

Sky TV’s letter specifically names the Pirate Bay as a site it wants to be blocked.

The pay TV company says it is targeting illegal pirate sites as they are a threat to local entertainment industries and sporting codes.

The timing is curious. Most of the threat from piracy has subsided. The battle is won.

Once were pirates

It would have made sense for Sky to have moved against these websites in the past. But today piracy is only a shadow of its former self.

Vocus consumer general manager Taryn Hamilton says his company’s stats show visits to The Pirate Bay – a popular file-sharing site – is now at 23 percent of its 2013 peak.

Most of the damage to Sky TV’s business was done a long time ago. Today pirates are no threat. Legitimate online streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are what is really killing Sky’s business. They have already killed the pirates.

They offer a similar mix of entertainment programming at a fraction of Sky’s price. Netflix is $15 a month, Sky TV is around $80.

Sport is different

Things are different with sports programming. Sky has the rights to the most popular sporting codes in New Zealand, there are no legitimate alternatives.

While determined customers with VPNs can often shop around overseas for a better deal, it’s often too much trouble for most people. And overseas coverage can be inferior,

Hamilton says the idea of Sky blacklisting sites is dinosaur behaviour and something you might expect to see in North Korea.

It is certainly dinosaur behaviour. The fact that Sky names the faded and diminished Pirate Bay as a public enemy is a sign of how out-of-touch it is with the current scene.

Yet blocking websites isn’t restricted to totalitarian North Korea. A number of countries have laws blocking pirate websites. Often after the kind of litigation Sky plans. Web-blocking regimes don’t always work. There are plenty of workarounds for determined pirates.

Fighting Sky

Hamilton says Vocus will fight Sky in court. His company is not alone. Spark says it also aims to fight the injunction. Last time there was a copyright battle, Spark sided with Sky TV.  InternetNZ says it is seeking legal advice. Vodafone, which has a close relationship with Sky, says it will comply with any court order. At the time of writing, 2degrees has yet to commit.

Should the four ISPs co-ordinate their defence, maybe with help from InternetNZ and other interested parties, life could be difficult for Sky, which is already in long-term decline as it continues to fail to adjust to new technology.

Lawyers are obvious winners here. Litigation is likely to be expensive. One problem is there is no precedent in New Zealand for this kind of complaint, the Copyright Act stems from a time before video streaming was practical. Until now most service providers have walked away from pitched battles.

Kodi victory

Around the time Sky sent letters to the ISPs, the company won an interim injunction against Fibre TV which sells the Kodi set-top box. Fibre TV sells the set-top box along with software designed to make piracy easy. The decision was made in the Christchurch District Court and Sky was awarded costs.

It is possible that the Kodi victory spurred Sky TV’s renewed interest in attacking the ISPs. Possible, but unlikely. Fibre TV was small and unable to put up much of a fight. The case against Fibre TV was a slam dunk and there’s not much public sympathy for the company.

On the other hand, the attack on ISPs looks set to be a public relations disaster for Sky. The move is unpopular with consumers.

Criticism of Sky TV

As you’d expect Sky TV has come in for a lot of criticism over its move – not just from the ISPs who are in the firing line.

It is fair to say Sky is struggling to defend an outmoded business model. Yet it is equally understandable that the company wants to protect the value of the rights it has purchased in good faith from movie or TV studios and sporting codes.

It is possible that Sky is acting against ISPs on behalf of rights holders. In the past, the big US-based media companies have attempted similar actions. They or the sporting codes could be bankrolling Sky’s litigation or even pressuring Sky to act as their proxy.

All these protagonists seem out of touch with what’s happening on the ground. Netflix has shown how to make software piracy redundant. It charges what consumers consider a fair price for a decent selection of programming. That becomes a compelling alternative to navigating the dark side of the internet.

Sky needs to find a way to cut its prices to Netflix-like levels. From outside, that looks hard because it appears bundling channels lets Sky subsidise some content by overcharging for other content. If so, it is an unsustainable business model. Moreover, the problem has nothing to do with Orcon customers being able to see the Pirate Bay.

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For several years now, the trend among geeks has been to abandon the RSS format. RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, is a way to queue up and serve content from the internet.

Source: The Case for RSS — MacSparky

Geeks might not like RSS, but it’s an essential tool if you monitor news or need to stay up to date with developments in a subject area.

An RSS feed is a way of listing material that’s published online. There’s a feed for this site if you’re interested. It sends out a short headline and extract as each post is published. That way you can stay up to date with everything published here without needing to constantly revisit the site to check for updates.

Separate feeds

Some big sites break up their news rivers into separate feeds. At the New York Times or The Guardian you can choose to read the technology news feed. At ZDNet you can pick subject feeds or selected a feed for an individual journalist.

Sometimes you can also roll your own niche feeds from big sites by using a search term to get a list of all stories including a certain key word.

The beauty of RSS is that it is comprehensive. It misses nothing. If you go offline for a week you can pick up where you left off and catch up immediately.

RSS is comprehensive

The alternatives are social media sites like Twitter or Facebook. They are nothing like as comprehensive or as easy to manage. Tweets go flying past in a blur on Twitter.

All the main social media sites manage your feed. They decide what gets served up. This means you can miss important posts as they get pushed out of sight. That doesn’t happen with RSS.

In his story David Sparks says you need to be on Twitter all the time to catch news. Make that: you need to be on Twitter all the time AND staying more alert than most people can manage.

Universal feed

The other great thing about RSS is the format is so universal. It can be as simple as raw text. You can read it on your phone, tablet, computer or anywhere at any time. You can suck it out and place it on your own web site, for instance.

There are RSS readers built into browsers, mail clients like Outlook and other standard software. Or at least there were. I haven’t checked again lately. One of the most popular readers is Feedly. This is both a website and a series of free apps. You can pay a little extra to extra features such as an ability to search feeds, tools for integrating feeds into your workflows and so on.

Indieweb – why you should take more control of your online presence and how to use WordPress to do it.

What you post online should belong to you, not a corporation. That corporation can close shop or change its rules tomorrow: you may not be able to get at your own data.

Even if you can get at your data, you often have little control over who can see your posts and messages.

The IndieWeb is all about you keeping control over your posts and data. Think of it as a declaration of independence. It means you get to choose who can see your material where and when. The idea is to build a long- presence that big business interests can’t take away.

It doesn’t mean you have to walk away from Facebook, Twitter or any other service. It does mean you don’t need to be trapped in someone else’s walled garden.

Indieweb and WordPress

WordPress is an ideal open source tool for building a personal online presence. You don’t need to be a developer to use it. And the Indieweb is a great way to get more from a WordPress web site.

At the November WordPress meet up I’ll talk about the ideas behind the Indieweb. We’ll discuss the problems it solves. Then I’ll look at the WordPress themes, plug-ins and other tools to help make it work. I’ll also talk about my experience using them in practice and in my work as a journalist.

There will be plenty of opportunity to ask questions during the presentation and after.

Event details:

Duck Duck Go

For the last monthDuck Duck Gohas been my default search engine on my computers, tablets and phone. It’s not the first time I’ve tried this experiment.

Unlike other search engines Duck Duck Go doesn’t track your searches. You’ll see advertising based on your search terms, but they don’t relate back to earlier searches. Nor are they based on your recent web activity elsewhere.

This is a different business model to Google which attempts to build profiles based on your activity. Google doesn’t just track your searches; its tentacles are everywhere. By some estimates three-quarters of all websites report your habits back to Google.

Stalker

This explains why some advertisements stalk you as you navigate the web. In my case it can be surreal. I write about technology, so let’s say I research a story about software defined networking. If I do a lot of researching advertisements for SDNs can dog me for days after. They may drop off, then return later.

While a lot of people don’t care about privacy in this way, others are concerned.

The vast amounts of data Google collects are enough to identify an individual. Thanks to the ability to read most emails, Google knows where you live, what you do and can make assumptions about how much money you earn, what you spend and who you vote for.

Google reckons

Away from privacy, the Duck Duck Go approach has another advantage. Because Google thinks it knows about you and what you want, it uses your profile to send customised search results your way.

This can be useful. It can also be a problem. It means Google searches are not neutral. If I search for a certain term, I may not get the same answers as you.

This isn’t always helpful in my work as a journalist. If I’m doing background research I want the best quality information. There’s no way of knowing that Google’s filters give me that. With Duck Duck Go I would see the same result as you.

Duck Duck Go tricks

Duck Duck Go has a couple of tricks up its sleeve which I find helpful. Let’s say you want to know more about someone you meet on Twitter. Type their address into the search bar and you get a result like this:

Duck Duck Go social media search

The last time I tried Duck Duck Go, I found there wasn’t enough depth of coverage. In particular, it didn’t do a great job of finding New Zealand-specific material.

This hasn’t changed, or if it has changed, it hasn’t changed enough. It can still be frustrating to use at times. During the last month there have been few working days where I didn’t need to switch back to Google to handle a specific search.

Away from New Zealand searches, Duck Duck Go does well enough. It is better than before. One Google feature I miss is the ability to restrict the search to Google News. This is useful for getting straight to publications avoiding sites that are trying to sell things like, say, software defined networks.

Google often seems to be more interested in delivering me to sales outlets than information services. Duck Duck Go doesn’t have a news filter, so a search for SDNs means I have to wade through lots of sales sites to find more independent information. It would be great if a news search was an option.

Bang Bing

What the search engine does have is something called bangs. This is a shorthand way of restricting a search to a single site or organisation. So, if I want to look on Bloomberg for information about SDNs, I type:

!blmb software defined networks

This doesn’t always work. My search shown here drew a blank. When I tried the same search using The Economist bang, the browser couldn’t open anything, not even a 404 page.

When I last wrote about Duck Duck Go, I mentioned that I returned to Google because… well it looked as if it was more efficient and finding what I need.

It often still is. Not all the time, but a lot of the time. It depends on what I’m searching for. At other times Duck Duck Go does a better job. The site uses data from Microsoft’s Bing search engine, which, can be just as disappointing.

Duck Duck Go still isn’t the best choice for most searches, but it is a more private choice.