Leaving Facebook

I’ve decided to deactivate my Facebook account. The straw that broke the camel’s back was this article in the New York Times which suggested Facebook isn’t taking its privacy problems seriously, and is in fact actively working to dig dirt on its opponents instead of changing its business model.

I want to see how difficult life is without it.

I’ve been feeling uncomfortable keeping my account for a while now, but whenever I thought about the stuff I use Facebook for it keep me there. For example, my book club is a Facebook group so I’ve had to ask them to text me whenever they organise a new meeting.

Even though I’ve deactivated my account I’m still deeply enmeshed in their ecosystem. I’m still on Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp, and I’m sure Facebook’s ad system is still following me around the web (despite my best efforts).

I’m glad I’ve done this and I hope I won’t be back.

Why can’t I subscribe to quality local NZ media?

I would pay for local, digital news, but there are no easy ways to do that. Why is it so hard?

I live in New Zealand where we have two large national newspaper brands: the New Zealand Herald and Stuff.co.nz. (side note: these brands are actually trying to merge at the moment)

I subscribe to the New York Times, but if I want to support a local paper I have unsatisfactory options. Neither of the big NZ brands offer digital subscriptions. Beyond giving local papers ad impressions, the only way to support them is to buy a physical newspaper subscription! Continue reading “Why can’t I subscribe to quality local NZ media?”

Uber becomes (more) legal in NZ

The Land Transport Amendment Bill (No 2) passed its third and final reading in Parliament on 4 August. One of the changes it makes are to ‘small passenger’ service regulations (i.e. taxis). The new rules are expected to come into force on 1 October 2017.

Here are some different perspectives on the change. Continue reading “Uber becomes (more) legal in NZ”

The future of Scoop.co.nz

Screenshot from 2017-05-07 19-04-37

I’ve been meaning for a while to put down in writing my thoughts on Scoop.co.nz. What follows is hopefully constructive criticism.

What is Scoop?

Scoop calls itself an “independent news website” but it’s fundamentally a big collection of press releases. It’s been collecting them since 1999 — mostly from New Zealand — and now has a huge number of historical press releases. The fact that it has all these press releases in one place is really useful. As organisations and companies change their websites these press releases often go missing — so it’s great from a research perspective to have them collated in one place.

Recently Scoop has run into financial problems (seemingly mostly because of the collapsing market for advertising) and has been repeatedly crowdfunding to stay afloat. It has also been transitioning from a “for-profit” company (although losing money) to a non-profit member organisation. Part of this shift involves the Scoop Foundation offering grants for investigate journalism.

Scoop has also introduced what it calls an “ethical paywall”. Basically if you’re a commercial user Scoop expects you to pay for using the website, although there’s no actual paywall stopping you from looking at the content. This strategy seems to have been pretty successful based on the number of organisations paying for a licence.

The website is terrible!

If you go to Scoop.co.nz you’ll see straight away that it has a terrible website. (It’s straight out of the mid 2000s. In fact if you look at a 2006 version of the site, it doesn’t look that different.) There’s far too much going on — too many columns of different content and an overly comprehensive navigation system at the top.

I know Scoop is well aware of this website problem. They have taken the good step of introducing a beta mobile website, but the main website remains seemingly frozen in time.

[Update 13 May — see bottom of the post for details of the new website]

Continue reading “The future of Scoop.co.nz”

Briefly: What’s the value of a free service?

At the New York Times, Patricia Cohen has written an interesting piece on how economic growth measures (e.g. Gross Domestic Product, or GDP) aren’t great at measuring some parts of the economy.

That’s because a country’s GDP doesn’t include goods or services which are ‘free’. For instance, a mother or father who doesn’t work and looks after their kid doesn’t add a dollar to GDP because they aren’t being paid — but they’re performing an immensely valuable service.

Another — increasingly important — GDP blackhole is free digital services:

The growing suspicion, however, is that in a digital world overflowing with free services like Facebook, Google and YouTube, price is an increasingly ill-suited proxy for value.

What is the worth of a free software update that protects against a nasty virus? Of the streaming service that enables you to watch shows on your computer instead of on a television? Of the hours and hours saved by looking up a fact on Wikipedia rather than having to go to a library? All have productive value but no price.

I’ve thought about this problem in relation to free/open source software too. The more people who are using open source software, the lower GDP goes, even if the user is happier than if they’d paid for propriety software.

What are Facebook’s responsibilities as an information gatekeeper?

 By Oliviu Stoian, RO (CC-BY)
By Oliviu Stoian, RO (CC-BY)

I’ve previously written about how Facebook is a sort of quasi monopolistic utility. Part of Facebook’s status as a dominant player is that it has a huge rule in determining what news people see. A few developments in the past few months have raised interesting questions about how Facebook deals with its role as an information gatekeeper.

Humans = bad, robots = good

You have read a while ago that Facebook was in trouble for supposedly showing a left-wing bias in an obscure part of its platform which was curated by human employees. This was not the main newsfeed but a small section called ‘Trending Topics’. In response to the controversy, Facebook switched from having humans curate the topics to using a supposedly more neutral and fundamentally workable algorithm (in other words moving to a newsfeed-like model). Continue reading “What are Facebook’s responsibilities as an information gatekeeper?”

Facebook as a powerful, ubiquitous ‘utility’

Kwame Opam wrote an interesting piece on The Verge a few months ago about Facebook’s responsibilities in the modern world (in the context of the Paris terror attacks). I thought his point that Facebook has become so ubiquitous that it’s akin to a ‘utility’ is a particularly interesting one:

Facebook is both a utility and an immensely powerful media company. The social network wields more influence than any single news outlet on the planet, serving as both a wire service and forum for 1.01 billion daily users. That means readers in search of a narrative will often turn to Facebook first. That’s an enormous responsibility, especially as the company acts out its ambitions of becoming a global portal to the internet at large. We need to ask ourselves: what should Facebook’s role be in determining the narratives that people follow?

Continue reading “Facebook as a powerful, ubiquitous ‘utility’”