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?”
It’s been interesting to watch ongoing developments in the regulation of ‘small passenger services’ in New Zealand. The Government has conducted a review of the sector, but that doesn’t seem to have calmed the waters at all.
In March, Uber launched in Christchurch (expanding from Auckland and Wellington). The taxi industry wasn’t pleased, particularly given Uber said it was launching with a different set of rules to taxis.
I received my new Meizu Pro5 Ubuntu Edition from China about a week ago. Here are my thoughts on the phone after using it for a little while.
Background: the quest for an open OS
My Motorola Moto G phone (1st gen) was starting to show its age, and I thought it was time to find a new phone. I wanted to replace it with something open and thought about my options.
I was initially quite keen on FirefoxOS, a web-based operating system made by Mozilla. Alas, Mozilla announced in February 2016 that it was discontinuing its involvement in the Firefox OS project for phones, so this one is beyond hope now.
Another alternative is Cyanogen Mod (CM). CM is basically open source Android with a few modifications, and apart from it’s terribly difficult-to-spell name, the project is quite promising. It has the big advantage of being more open source than normal Android, while also allowing users to install Google apps if they choose. Fundamentally though, it’s still Android which means Google is steering the metaphorical software ship CM has latched onto. I’m also not aware of any phones which come with CM pre-installed (edit: turns out there are actually some).
Finally, Ubuntu phones have been on the horizon for a very long time, and have more recently started to look pretty good. (The OS is technically called ‘Ubuntu touch’ as it runs on tablets too) . One thing I particularly like about Ubuntu phones is that they’re designed to have frequent over-the-air (OTA) updates. This features makes them more sophisticated in this area than Android phones, despite the somewhat futile efforts of Google.
If you were cynical, you could argue that Ubuntu phones are too late arriving — the battle has been fought and Apple and Google have won — and it might only attract a few open source nerds at the fringes. But like any good open source believer, I’m hoping that the platform will eventually be a success. If I can buy a phone and help the cause then I may as well 🙂 Continue reading “Review: Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu edition”
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?
I have this feeling at the moment that every good platform for communication is getting ruined by commercial pressures and a lack of user control.
A run-down of the problem
When web 2.0 services were just taking off, the big change was that users were actively contributing to the liveliness of a given site. However, as time has gone on, it’s become clear that big companies have taken all that value created by users with little regard for what users want.
I’ve seen a huge number of complaints on my Twitter timeline about the decision by the company to move from a chronological timeline to a model where tweets are sorted according to a relevance algorithm (like Facebook). I’ve also noticed that both Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook seems to full of more ads than ever. The ratio of content you care about to ads seems to be getting worse by the day.
Another problem with all these platforms is that they’re closed systems. Twitter, Facebook etc. might provide a limited API which enable people to make some services incorporating parts of their platforms, but it seems these spin-offs will always be limited in some way. The closed aspect of these social media platforms also means they’re not indexable or archivable – everything is on the platform owners’ terms. The platform might enable you to embed a tweet or a post on another website, but what assurances do you have that it’s still going to work in a few years’ time?
Nilay Patel had an interesting article atThe Vergeabout the limitations of the mobile web. His argument is that web browsers on mobile devices are terrible, which leads people to look content through apps:
Apps have become nearly irrelevant on desktops because the web experience is close to perfect, while apps are vitally important on phones because the web experience is dismal.
It also leads to companies like Facebook and Google trying to ‘solve’ the mobile web problem by either putting their content inside a walled garden (Facebook) or strip out most of the web page (Google).
He does mention that part of the reason The Verge loads so slow is that their website is because of the amount of crap they’ve loaded into it:
Now, I happen to work at a media company, and I happen to run a website that can be bloated and slow. Some of this is our fault: The Verge is ultra-complicated, we have huge images, and we serve ads from our own direct sales and a variety of programmatic networks. Our video player is annoying. (I swear a better one is coming, for real this time.) We could do a lot of things to make our site load faster, and we’re doing them.
I saw an interesting response to Nilay’s article on the lmorchard blog, where picks up on this last point about the crappyness of The Verge’s website. His takeaway message is:
… there are many things that can make the mobile web suck. Bad CSS layout, heavy UI frameworks, you name it. And, yeah, browsers can get better. They are getting better. There are interesting capabilities on the horizon.
But, I can’t help thinking if everyone shrank those tracking & advertising icebergs down to some sane magnitude relative to the actual content, that this web might be a better place overall.
This latter argument sounds much more sensible to me. Doesn’t it sound like a better idea to strip out the crap on the web rather than trying to make the crap move faster?
Over at The Verge, Vlad Savov has written quite an interesting analysis of Google’s market power in response to US antitrust regulators looking into whether Google has engaged in anticompetitive practices. I’ve written in the past about Google’s somewhat evil Android business model, but it’s interesting to think whether Google’s business practices could be thought of as “anti-competitive” and therefore need some kind of government regulatory response.
Savov sums up like this:
“It’s clear that Google is in a dominant position. It’s less clear how that can possibly be remedied when the company is giving away its software for free and under terms that everyone seems to find advantageous. Google is guilty of making software people and companies want. Now what?”
Overall, I think Savov has been a bit too easy on Google, but he definitely raises an interesting question: does what Google is doing count as being “anti-competitive”? I think that just because Google’s android offering is free doesn’t really affect whether it’s abusing its position and being anti-competitive. Mobile operating systems seem to be quite vulnerable to firms abusing their positions because of the strong network effects in play — as Savov points out there’s no apps for other operating systems because there’s no critical mass.
More broadly, if you disagree that Google’s behaviour with android is anti-competitive, but it’s still not desirable behaviour, where does that leave regulators and the public interest? Can regulators ever be nimble enough to challenge these quasi-anti-competitive actions, or do we just pray for the best and hope that innovation will throw up another competitor?
I’ve just — finally — submitted my politics Masters thesis to the Victoria University of Wellington library, and I thought it might be interesting to note down a few things I did along the way. I’m really interesting in open source, so I thought it would be a good idea to walk the talk and make an open source thesis.
Using open source tools
One of the most obvious ways to make an open source thesis was is to use open source tools. I used LibreOffice Writer to write all 42,000 words of it. Using LO writer was an almost entirely pain free process, except for a couple of admittedly stressful times when the xml of the file got corrupted and I had to revert to old versions to rescue my work.
I also analysed my focus group transcripts using the open source qualitative data analysis tool RQDA. It was really easy and worked really well — I would definitely recommend it.
Add a creative commons licence
I chose to license my thesis under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike International 4.0 Licence. The licence basically allows anyone to share or remix my work as long as they attribute me as the creator and share their subsequent creation with the same licence (or a compatible one). While I think I’m pretty realistic about the fact that pretty much noone is ever going to look at my thesis, I think it’s cool to think that someone might come along and do something interesting with my work.
The international Creative Commons organisation has been advocating for students to license their theses since at least 2009. There must be huge numbers of theses now out there available to read, remix and build on. It’s much easier to stand on the metaphorical shoulders of giants in scholarship when everything is free to read!
Making your thesis open access
The university where I studied has a good open access repository, so I’ll be putting my thesis in the open access section so anyone can view it and download it for free. I think adding your work to the open access repository is a fantastic idea — it’s the best way to make it available so people will actually read it.
Firefox is my favourite browser. (You can read more about why here.)
One of my favourite features of Firefox is that it lets you (relatively) easily block companies from tracking your every movement around the web.
Although I feel too guilty about using an ad blocker on the web, on the basis that it deprives websites of advertising revenue, I feel quite within my rights to use tracking protection. The message I’m sending to advertisers and websites is that “you can show me advertising, as long as it’s not creepy!”. Once you activate the feature it’s amazing how many ads are blocked.
I won’t get into it in this post, but there are many reasons why advertisers and others using creepy tracking technology to follow your every movement on the web is a really bad idea. If you want to know more, I suggest you have a look at Don Marti’s blog.