newsonaut


A blog about social media — by Mark Rogers

August 30, 2014


Basic coding is fast becoming a part of basic literacy

Host a Maker Party event

Moms and dads, if you were to advise your children to learn just one skill in order to have a successful career — what would it be?

It’s taken a while, but I’m finally convinced. The kids should learn as much computer programming as they can. Even if it just means figuring out the basics of marking up copy for a website, it’s the one thing they’re all going to need to know if they have any hope of holding on to a well-paying, stable job.

We’ve reached a point where pretty much every business and organization, large or small, has a website and a presence on social media. Many have their own apps.

Currently, it’s common to have someone on staff who specializes in taking care of this kind of stuff. But I predict that in the near future, nearly everyone will be expected to contribute in one way or another. If you’ve got an update for the website, you’ll just have to go ahead and do it. No one will do it for you.

And while many content management systems have evolved to the point where it’s easy to make updates without having to mess with code, there are still times when it helps to know some HTML. Are the paragraphs jammed together instead of having a space between them? Maybe there’s a <p> tag missing.

Knowing HTML will become as common as knowing your ABCs.

If this sounds daunting, it shouldn’t. Take a few lessons in HTML or CSS — the building blocks of web design — and you’ll wonder why you were ever scared of it.

Luckily, encouragement for web literacy abounds on the Internet. Firefox, for example, has modified its start page to show just how easy it is to do a bit of coding. Want an orange background? Just type in the word “orange.”

It’s part of an effort by Mozilla — the open source organization behind Firefox — to promote Maker Party, described as a “global campaign to teach the web.”

It consists of thousands of events taking place in virtually every nook and cranny of the world. An unfortunate exception is our hometown of Kamloops. There is still time to add events to the list, though, and there are many bright people in the city who could organize one.

Even if nothing formal is put together, there is no reason why web savvy people can’t take the time to show friends and family some of the basics. The Webmaker site also has plenty of online training and resources available. You can also check out the free lessons at W3Schools.

It won’t be long before special events like the Maker Party will seem archaic. Children in elementary school will be taught HTML soon after learning the alphabet. And they’ll consider it to be one of their easier subjects.

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August 21, 2014


What I know about Jim Foley gives me hope

Jim Foley

Before he was beheaded by extremists in Syria, I had never heard of journalist Jim Foley. But having worked with journalists most of my life, I feel like I know a little bit about him.

For example, most people might think he was crazy to risk his life reporting from a war zone, a place where barbarism has become the norm.

Maybe. More likely he was an idealist with a streak of eccentricity. I’m thinking he was someone who believed the world is a better place if we can act and live out our lives based on knowledge — as much as that’s possible — of what’s really going on. He was willing to go to great lengths to carry out that belief. Maybe he was a little bit crazy, but we owe a debt of gratitude to people crazy enough to help us better understand what’s happening around us.

It’s because of people like Foley that I have greater confidence than ever that journalism will survive and thrive well into the future.

This is in spite of recent articles like the one by U.S. writer Clay Shirky who again sounds the death knell for newspapers. And in spite of the fact he has some good points. For example, it’s only a matter of time before newspapers lose their flyer business to some Internet equivalent — just as they lost the bulk of classified ads.

This will be particularly hard on free-distribution newspapers that depend heavily on the selling point of blanket coverage. Even so, the death of newspapers will not mean the death of journalism.

Determined journalists will simply find new ways of funding their passions.

A case in point is the crowd funding partnership between Huffington Post and Beacon Reader to pay and train a citizen of Ferguson, Missouri, to be a journalist for a year in this city torn by racial strife after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed teenager.

From Huffington Post:

Local resident Mariah Stewart has been covering the Ferguson protests as a citizen journalist with the support of readers through Beacon’s platform. With HuffPost readers’ support, we can make sure Stewart can continue her work.

The Beacon Reader is itself a great idea. You pay $5 a month to support the writer of your choice and get access to all the content.

I’m not saying this is some sort of golden path forward for journalism, but it does demonstrate that innovation is by no means dead.

Of course, some journalists have pointed out that Huffington Post should go ahead and actually hire a full-time reporter (with benefits!), and is instead using a gimmick to cheap out.

But what did you expect? Idealists with a streak of eccentricity seldom agree.

Image Credit: The Associated Press

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August 18, 2014


Affiliate links bring credibility into question

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory cover

I was all set to dump on the Washington Post for inserting “Buy Now” buttons in the text of its articles. Turns out it was a mistake — but still scary.

A “Buy Now” button was spotted on the Post’s website last weekend in a story about the creepy new cover for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Not only did it appear to be endorsing a book exploiting a JonBenet Ramsey look-alike, but it also called into question the authenticity of the article. Did the writer really mean what he said, or was he just trying to sell a book?

Making things worse is that the “Buy Now” affiliate is Amazon — owned by Jeff Bezos, the new owner of the Post. Could this really be how Bezos was going to save journalism? With cheesy buttons that send a few pennies to the paper whenever someone buys a book?

The buttons only appeared briefly, and were misplaced, a Post spokesperson told Mashable. They should have been over on the side, where they have been for years.

But even over on the side, affiliate links raise questions. With the Washington Post there is a level of trust that keeps the articles credible despite the presence of these links.

A run-of-the-mill blog, on the other hand, doesn’t have that kind of reputation. I’ve seen glowing reviews of software, only to find an affiliate link at the bottom. This has been going on for so long that readers seem to have learned to accept it as the price they pay for a free-wheeling Internet.

It’s getting to the point where the entire web needs a giant “Buyer Beware” button on it.

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August 16, 2014


Robin Williams tragedy shows desperation of the media

Here’s the bad news about how the media treated Robin Williams’ suicide:


The good news is that ABC News was inundated with complaints, and has issued an apology.

When we realized there was no news value to the live stream, we took it down immediately. Our intention was not to be insensitive to his family, friends and fans, and for that we apologize.

It’s good to see that there are still some lines that can’t be crossed. It’s still bad, though, that ABC even contemplated aerial photography of the Williams home. What could they possibly have been hoping for?

The answer, most likely, is that they knew there would be nothing of any real consequence to show, but they figured the promise of aerial shots would give a nice boost to their page views and help make them more money from ad sales.

An example of the kind of thinking that goes on in newsrooms these days comes from a New York Daily News memo made public by Jim Romenesko. It was written by deputy managing editor Cristina Everett:

Thank you to everyone who did a great story [sic] with keeping our stories SEO strong with the * Robin Williams dead at 63 * header for the first 24 hours. Starting tomorrow morning, we can scale back on the robot talk (meaning no death header) just as long as the stories continue to start with his full name and include buzzy search words like death, dead, suicide, etc.

In case you’re not familiar with the term SEO, it stands for search engine optimization. This is the voodoo art of writing headlines in such a way that they will appear at or near the top of Google search results.

And the New York Daily News was indeed rewarded for its efforts. Their story ranks first if you search “Robin Williams dead at 63.”

Should we be mad at the media for resorting to these tactics? That’s a tough call. Statistics clearly show that people, especially those in their 20s and 30s, want their news from the Internet. The news industry is trying to respond to this demand, but is struggling to find a way of generating enough online revenue to pay the bills or even make a profit.

Advertising remains one of the big ways to make money, and advertisers demand that their ads be seen by as many people as possible. So news sites scramble to increase the number of clicks on their stories by every means at their disposal.

That doesn’t mean we have to like it, though. When they go too far we should complain. And we should also be willing to reward responsible news sites by paying for subscriptions, memberships and the like.

Otherwise, we might find we’re paying too a high price for “free.”

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August 6, 2014


Google's autocomplete has suddenly become serious business

If you haven’t had fun with Google autocomplete, you’re missing out on a popular Internet pastime. People have been posting their results for years.

One of the best-known recent examples is a map of Europe by Randy Olson showing autocompletes for the phrase: “Why is [country] so . . .?”

Why is country so

You can do the same for other places. For Canada, the top result is “bad at soccer.” It might have something to do with the second result: “boring.”

For B.C., it’s “expensive” and for Kamloops, it’s “smoky.” Wildfires are a big worry in River City.

But what if autocomplete didn’t come up with a harmless result. What if, instead, it was actually defamatory.

If you type in Albert Yeung, you get “triad” next to his name — and the Hong Kong entrepreneur maintains that this association with criminal gangs is bad for business.

So he went to court, and got a judge to agree that he can sue Google because it refuses to remove the autocomplete. CBC has the story from The Associated Press:

Judge Marlene Ng disagreed with Google’s lawyers, who argued Yeung was better off asking the websites where the defamatory information was published to remove it. She said Google had the ability to censor material.

Google finds itself in an awkward position. The company is so successful that it has become synonymous with search. That means its autocompletes are seen by millions of people every day — and a bad one could indeed affect a person’s reputation.

The U.S. firm is already trying to figure out the best way to deal with a European “right to forget” law requiring it to remove information about people if they make a request.

And The Associated Press notes this isn’t the first autocomplete case to go before a court.

Last year, a German court ruled in favour of a nutritional supplements company and its owner who sued Google to remove autocomplete terms suggesting links to Scientology and fraud.

Google makes the bulk of its money by gathering data about users and translating that into ad revenue. But that data is turning into a double-edged sword.

No longer can the company claim to be an disinterested bystander. They’re in this up to their necks.

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August 2, 2014


Readers are wising up to clickbait tactics

For many websites, revenue from advertising depends on getting as many visitors as possible. The higher the numbers, the more they than can charge for their ads.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that we’ve been subjected to a phenomenon called clickbait. These are the linked headlines you see on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere that present tantalizingly unanswered questions — the idea being that many people won’t be able to resist the temptation to click so they can read the rest of the story.

Here are a couple of examples I just made up:

“You’ll never guess what crazy thing Kim Kardashian did last weekend”

“Seven secrets about kittens that will blow your mind”

Newspapers and magazines have long tried similar tactics to lure people into buying their product. There is no clicking involved, so these types of headlines are known as teasers.

But the Internet clickbait really does seem a lot more shameless, likely because there is so much more competition.

It’s reached a point where there is a backlash of sorts brewing from readers who are tired of being manipulated. One such effort is a Twitter account called @SavedYouAClick, run by Jake Beckman.

When he sees clickbait on Twitter, he reads the story to get the gist of it. He then retweets the clickbait with a couple of words that save you the trouble of clicking and reading it yourself.

So if he saw one of my examples above, he might have reworded it like this: “Went skinny dipping RT @newsonaut You’ll never guess what crazy thing Kim Kardashian did last weekend.” The one about kittens might prove tricky for him.

Other Twitter users have followed suit, and saving us a click has become quite popular.

You might think what Beckman is doing is a harmless pastime, all in good fun. But one of the worst clickbait offenders, BuzzFeed, has raised the alarm in a lengthy article called Please Stop Saving Me A Click.

Charlie Warzel presents a number of reasons for why we shouldn’t be worried about clickbait, but here is his biggest:

But perhaps the best reason — especially if you happen to work in media — not to police clickbait is simple: Everyone’s at least a little bit guilty of trying to get others to care about their work (and why not?!).

Well, yes, as I said, clickbait is nothing new when you think about the teasers that have been vying for our attention at newsstands for decades.

Still, I can’t help but root for efforts such as @SavedYouAClick. They help readers by raising awareness about how the media works. And in a sense they also help the media by forcing writers to become better at their craft, and not resorting to lazy formulas.

Oh, and Beckman has an answer for BuzzFeed: “No. RT @BuzzFeed: Please Stop Saving Me A Click”

Clickbait comic from xkcd

Image Credit: xkcd

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July 24, 2014


How much longer can newspapers compete in a digital world?

Garbage bin made of recycled newspapers

The journey I have taken away from newspapers is summed up well in this blog post by Kevin Sablan at Almighty Link:

I’ve found a platform that fulfils my news-reading needs. My Internet-powered cellphone has replaced you, and it’s time for us to go our separate ways. To be honest, newspaper, I’ve been using my new platform for years now, while I’ve tossed you into the recycle bin nearly every day.

I’m not saying that you’re a bad product, but I just don’t need you anymore. I wish you well, and I’m sure you’ll continue to make your habitual readers happy.

I’ve had that feeling ever since I got an iPhone a couple of years ago. I needed one for work and had to be talked into it. But it didn’t take long before I was hooked on this new way of getting news.

The news on my iPhone is always up to date, it’s all in one place, it’s almost infinite in what’s available, and I can carry it around in my pocket. I have nothing against newspapers, but they simply can’t compete on this level.

I think of newspapers the same way I do about record albums of old. The art work was often spectacular, and they came packed with posters or a booklet with lyrics. They were more than just music — they were an experience.

Two that come to mind are Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. They touched you emotionally on many levels.

The same holds true of newspapers. It’s not just about the news — it’s about the incisive choices made by editors, the beautiful layouts crafted by deskers, the care taken by reporters to write enduring works. Plus the tactile nature of the paper itself.

But all that comes at a price. At most they can only be updated once a day, and you don’t get to see the latest news until several hours later because it needs to be physically delivered to your door. Papers are portable, but it takes only a day at most before the contents are mostly irrelevant and ready for recycling. And with limited space, there are only so many stories they can contain.

Newspapers continue to survive in some communities because they are supported by advertisers. But how much longer will that last? For a glance at the future, just look at Facebook’s recent earnings report. The newspaper industry can only look with envy at that kind of success. And where does it come from? Largely from advertising dollars that used to go into print.

As much as I will always have an emotional attachment to newspapers, those feelings are increasingly akin nostalgia.

Image credit: Learn how to make a recycled paper basket like the one above at the How To Recycle blog.

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July 16, 2014


Email scams are obvious for a reason

Those Nigerian email scammers must think we’re really stupid, right? For years, they’ve been trying to trick us into handing over our bank accounts with amazing tales of untold riches to be unlocked.

The truth, it turns out, is that they know that less than one per cent of us are that stupid. But that’s all they need. They know few people will believe their story of a deposed prince who needs a way to get his money out of the country. But from their point of view, that’s a good thing.

The last thing scammers want to do is waste time trying to lure people who are too sensible to fall for their schemes. It’s much better to concentrate their efforts on the truly gullible.

Chart showing email origins

This topic came up recently at Quora, a website devoted to giving intelligent answers to people’s questions.

One person asked why it is that email scams are typically written in broken English. Are they crafted by people with a poor command of the language or by idiots who simply can’t spell?

It turns out that these emails are often deliberately written this way. The 99 per cent of people who know better will put them straight into the trash. The remaining one per cent — the credulous and the easily deceived — will be reeled in.

Microsoft researchers have published a paper on this method called Why Do Nigerian Scammers Say They Are From Nigeria? Here’s an excerpt:

An email with tales of fabulous amounts of money and West African corruption will strike all but the most gullible as bizarre. It will be recognized and ignored by anyone who has been using the Internet long enough to have seen it several times. It will be figured out by anyone savvy enough to use a search engine and follow up on the auto-complete suggestions. It won’t be pursued by anyone who consults sensible family or friends, or who reads any of the advice banks and money transfer agencies make available. Those who remain are the scammers’ ideal targets.

Another reason for using broken English may be to get past spam filters. There seems to be a whole industry based on ways of presenting the word “Viagra” without using the actual letters used to spell it.

Also, part of the scheme may be to portray the scammer as the one who is gullible. Greedy victims might be lured in thinking they can get the best of the deal.

So now you know — they don’t think you’re stupid after all. It’s that other guy they’re aiming for.

Image credit: Why Do Nigerian Scammers Say They Are From Nigeria?

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July 12, 2014


Use lists to get around Twitter's follow limit of 2,000

Twitter's fail whale

Today I learned that not only does Twitter have a limit on how many accounts you can follow — it’s 2,000 — but also that Steve Buttry considers this to be an annoying limitation on the ability of journalists to do their jobs.

And it’s not just him. A post he wrote on the subject a year ago continues to receive dozens of readers a day:

That post is now my second most-read post, with more than 19,000 views. Day after day, nearly a hundred people come to my post, invariably from Google, looking for help with Twitter’s follower limit (97 came on Thursday, 83 on Friday).

I’ve come across people on Twitter who follow over a thousand other accounts, and have marvelled at their ability to do so. How do they keep up? Is it even possible?

Buttry’s solution — curated lists — is one I’ve used myself. You create lists based on various subjects and add Twitter accounts to them. It helps get you organized and reduces the number of accounts you need to keep on top of. Some lists will be more worthy of your attention than others. In fact, you might even want to organize them in terms of priority.

You don’t really need to follow someone unless you hope they will follow you back so you can establish a relationship with them. While it’s useful to create dialogue with community leaders via Twitter, it’s incomprehensible that you could keep track of thousands of them.

In fact, by using lists, you could drastically cut the number of accounts you follow to colleagues and regular sources. Why would you need to follow, say, a columnist, when all you really want are updates on what he’s writing?

I’ve got a public list called Media. Feel free to check it out for inspiration and maybe subscribe. And here are instructions on how to create your own Twitter list.

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July 10, 2014


Free images are plentiful if you know where to look

Ragdoll cat with cropped ear

Every list of social media tips includes a point on the importance of pictures for retweets, likes and sharing, but where do you get them and how do you make sure you can use them?

It’s tempting to jump into Google and do a search on images, but that route is fraught with peril. Many of those pictures are copyrighted, and you can get into trouble if you use the wrong one.

For that reason, I usually wind up at Free Images. Everything there is indeed free. The only catch is that you are sometimes required to let the owner know you are using the picture. All that entails is firing off an email.

Still, there is no reason to limit yourself to a couple of sources. Bing, for example, is the only search engine that allows you to filter down to public domain images only. You can do what you please with pictures you find this way.

A directory of free image sources at The Edublogger has this and many other great tips. It’s aimed at teachers needing pictures for their students’ projects, but can easily be adapted to anyone needing images.

Another fantastic source is Getty Images — the quality is stunning. The catch here is that you link to their pictures rather than placing them on your own server. If the link is ever broken, there is not much you can do about it.

Image credit: Ragdoll cat with cropped ear from Photos Public Domain. Why a cat? The Internet loves cats.

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