I would like to buy an argument: debating Syrian-refugee paranoia

I’ve spent too much time over the last five days arguing with people who have suddenly decided that Syrian refugees represent such a threat to the United States that we cannot risk admitting any of them, and it’s been wearying work on multiple levels.

First, there’s the bankruptcy of the entire argument that boiled over after the Paris attacks. All of the attackers identified so far were EU nationals, not Syrian refugees; there’s no evidence the craven death cult that has no right to call itself Islamic is even trying to hide itself among refugees fleeing it (none of the 2,200-odd Syrian refugees admitted since Sept. 11, 2001 have been arrested for plotting violent acts); getting into the U.S. as a refugee is a tedious, years-long process; getting in as a Syrian refugee involves even more screening; and said craven death cult wants us to fear Muslim foreigners, so this entire demonization of Syrian refugees fits right into their playbook.

Japanese internment memorial(Before you brush off the previous paragraph as a product of the liberal media conspiracy, please read this debunking of refugee myths by longtime Virginia Republican Brian Schoeneman.)

Then there’s trying to grasp the logic of politicians who were for Syrian refugees before they were against it and now refuse to admit any unless we can guarantee that 100 percent of them don’t embody a threat that appears to be fictional. This devotion to security at all costs would be touching if so many of these same individuals didn’t shrug away such better-documented risks as America’s current gun policy, the death toll on our roads, and global warming.

Lest the last paragraph look like a jab at Republicans, remember that this fear-mongering is a bipartisan sport: The single worst statement on the subject may have come from Roanoke, Virginia’s Democratic mayor David Bowers, who cited the 1940s imprisonment of Japanese-Americans as a reasonable precedent before apologizing two days later.

The second-most trying part of this conversation is what happens when you ask strangers how they came to this reasoning. One conversation on Twitter ended with the fellow in question asserting that “I trust 10,000 Jews before I trust 10 Muslims.” A friend of a friend on Facebook declared that “Any restrictions in Muslims would be based on the fact that they have earned it.”

It would be easy to brush off this hysteria as the product of garden-variety xenophobia and Islamophobia, but then there’s the most difficult part of the deal: Hearing from friends I know to be educated and open-minded who still think we can’t let in any Syrian refugees.

I try not to be a jerk when talking politics with pals, but I probably haven’t lived up to that standard this week. All I can say is this: If I didn’t care what you thought, I wouldn’t waste so many processor cycles trying to convince you otherwise. But I wish I did know where you’re coming from, because you’ve totally lost me on this one.

Oh, and this: If you really do want to hold up the citizens of one country or the adherents of one religion as uniquely suspect, can you please first go to D.C. and spend a few minutes contemplating the Memorial to Japanese-American Patriotism in World War II that commemorates the fear-driven imprisonment of 110,000 to 120,000 people who came from or had ancestors in the wrong country? Then ask yourself: Are you willing to make that same statement in front of this monument to our surrender to bigotry 73 years ago?

Caring about social sharing, more or less

I recently made a non-trivial change in how I share links to my work on social media, and I’ll bet you didn’t notice: I stopped touting my work on Tumblr and resumed sharing it on Google+.

Social-network icons

But why would you, when my Tumblr presence has seen so little (sorry, buzzword alert) engagement since I opened an account there in February 2012 basically to augment my social-media literacy?

I had no idea at the time that in less than two years Yahoo would have bought Tumblr and that I would begin writing for a Yahoo site that uses Tumblr as part of its editing system. In other words, so much for worrying about being Tumblr-illiterate.

I kept on sharing a link to each new story to my several dozen Tumblr followers anyway, but a few weeks ago, Yahoo Tech switched to a new editing workflow that required me to set up a new Tumblr account. Having to log in and out of accounts on the same site as I alternate between writing stories and sharing them makes for a lot more work.

At almost the same time, I got some professional advice that Tumblr is not the right place to market your work anyway: At a panel during the Online News Association’s conference, Mashable’s Ryan Lytle said less than 1 percent of Tumblr posts are link shares, making that site “not a traffic play.”

Meanwhile, I’ve realized that while Google+ isn’t going to threaten Facebook or Twitter anytime soon, it continues to function fairly wel as an off-site comments thread. It does, however, remain the last place I share my work, after my Facebook page and then Twitter: Not only is my audience there smaller than on Twitter, Google+ doesn’t give me any useful analytics about how many people saw a post and clicked on its link. Maybe I’ll ditch G+ too in six months?

That ONA panel reminded me that I could be doing a lot more to flack for myself online–notice my absence from Instagram and Snapchat and my pitiful Pinterest participation?–but my leading occupational hazard is online distraction. I’d like to think that limiting my social-media marketing gives me that much more time to participate in the oldest social network of all, e-mail, but we all know how behind I am at that.


A tweet got a little more attention than usual

As I was struggling to finish and fact-check my Yahoo column Monday evening, I stumbled across an enraging story: The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery had been charged in St. Louis County, Mo., for “trespassing and interfering with a police officer” while covering the Ferguson unrest a year ago.

Having read Lowery’s account of his arrest and brief incarceration–his alleged crime was not clearing out of a McDonald’s in which he’d been charging his phone as fast as a cop wanted–I thought that charge was bullshit. And then I remembered another place where a Post reporter has been wrongfully detained: Tehran, where Jason Rezaian has spent more than 365 times as much time in jail on a trumped-up charge of espionage.

I noted the parallel in a tweet:

Twitter analytics screengrabThen I got back to work, or tried to as my phone began constantly buzzing with Twitter notifications. Within a few hours, my comment had been retweeted about 500 times, which would easily make it the most-read thing I’d ever shared on Twitter, and it’s now past 700 RTs. For the first time ever, I found it helpful to use Twitter’s option of showing only interactions from other verified users.

That’s flattering. But I’d rather that Lowery (whom I was pleased to meet briefly at last year’s Online News Association conference) and the two other journalists similarly charged not have to deal with this nonsense. And I can’t help noticing how few people clicked on the Post link I’d shared: when I started writing this post, 2,014 out of 111,591 total “impressions.”

And then there were the minority of ignorant replies that suggested the problem was reporters acting “disrespectful” (should I read that as “uppity”) or merely attempting to document the workings of law enforcement, among other bits of right-wing nuttery. That’s a downside of outsized attention on Twitter or any other social network: You will bring out the crazies.

It’s a good thing I retain a sense of humor about such things. I guess I owe the Post some credit for developing that over the days when the crazies would call the city or national desks, and it was my job to pick up the phone.

What posting a Facebook Offer taught me about Facebook’s privacy rules

Some months ago, a PR person for Gogo handed me a few freebies I probably couldn’t use: three free passes for that company’s inflight WiFi service. (Ethics aside, almost all of my transcon flights are on planes that don’t employ its connectivity, while on shorter flights Gogo’s unintentional free access to Google apps suffices.) Many weeks later, I finally remembered that I could try giving the passes to readers with the Offers function on my Facebook page.

Gogo WiFi passesIt seemed simple enough: You create a special post on your page with the image and brief description of your choice, you set an expiration date and limit how many people can claim the deal, and you watch the audience love roll in.

But I didn’t realize, by virtue of not reading the documentation before, that readers would have to take an extra step to collect this freebie. The lucky winners got an e-mail with this instruction: “To use the offer, visit Rob Pegoraro and show this email.”

As the page owner, meanwhile, I only got a notification that the offer had been claimed–without a hint of who had won it. As Facebook’s help explains: “To protect the privacy of the individuals who claimed your offer, you will not be able to see any of their personal information.” They’d have to get back to me somehow.

I wasn’t planning on any face-to-face interaction, but I didn’t get much of the digital sort either. One longtime reader left a comment saying he’d redeemed the offer–I took him at his word and e-mailed one of the three Gogo alphanumeric codes–and nobody else responded, even after I posted comments imploring them to e-mail me.

That’s bad in the sense that I have some readers wondering why they never received the free inflight WiFi they sought. But it’s good in the sense that Facebook seems to have defaulted to privacy at the expense of marketing convenience.

That, in turn, matches up with such Page limits as my not being able to send messages to fans unless they’ve sent me one first. So if you were holding off on Liking my page because you didn’t want your name in lights–go ahead, since even I probably won’t know unless I spend a lot of time scrolling through Graph Search results for “people who like Rob Pegoraro.”

(Whoever can see your profile will, however, see your new Like. If they already mock you for your taste in tech news, you might want to hold off on the appreciation.)

In the meantime, I have two Gogo passes left. Let’s do this instead: E-mail me about how you’ll make great use of them, and the first two people to send a persuasive story will have the codes in their inboxes soon after.

When I will delete your e-mail

I’ve been making one of my periodic attempts to catch up on my e-mail (read: if you wrote me three weeks ago, your odds of getting a reply sometime this coming week are less worse than usual). That process has required me to think about something I normally avoid: deleting e-mail.

Paper in trash canMy usual habit is to keep everything that’s not outright spam, just in case I might need to look it up later on. Messages from friends and family are of obvious importance, reader e-mail may provide early evidence of a problem that becomes widespread months later, and correspondence from co-workers can have documentary value about a company’s progress or decline. Even PR pitches can have lingering usefulness, by providing the contact info that too many companies can’t think to post on their own sites.

And yet if a search will yield hundreds of messages including the same keyword, I’m going to have a hard time locating the one or few messages I had in mind. Something’s got to go.

The easiest items to delete are the automated notifications and reminders I get from various services I’ve signed up–Twitter, Eventbrite and Meetup, I’m looking at you. The utility of those messages to me usually expires within 24 hours, tops. When those notifications duplicate the ones that already pop up on my phone. my tablet or OS X’s Notification Center, they’re pointless from the moment of their arrival.

(You may have seem this kind of requested, not-spam mail labeled bacn. Not long after that term came about, I wrote that “dryer lint” would be more descriptive and less cutesy, but everybody seems to have ignored that suggestion.)


Then come newsletters that attempt to recap headlines in various categories. Even if I read these almost every day–the American Press Institute’s Need to Know and Morning Consult’s tech newsletter come to mind–they’re little help to me the day after, much less six months down the road. I look for day- or months-old news headlines on the Web, not in my inbox.

Ideally, I could set a filter in my mail client to delete designated notifications and newsletters 24 or 48 hours after their arrival. But although Gmail will let you construct a search like that using its “older_than” operator to scrub stale Groupon offers from your inbox, its filters don’t seem to include that option. And the filters in Apple’s Mail, which don’t seem to have been touched by any developers in the last five years, are of no use in this case either.

Do any other mail clients offer this capability? If not, any interested mail developers are welcome to consider this post a formal feature request.


My ongoing struggle to make comments suck less

One of the most common four-word phrases in journalism (after “the CMS from hell”) must be “don’t read the comments.” A lot of newsrooms treat reader comments as the equivalent of the town dump: They’re something you need to have, and you want to spend as little time as possible there.

Comments formI, however, am one of those weirdos who reads the comments–and not just when I see a bunch, but on almost every story I write. Part of that is because I enjoy seeing people make fools of themselves while attempting to argue. But most of it is because I don’t mind seeing what people think and usually enjoy answering a reader’s question–if not to their satisfaction, in a way that sane readers of the comments thread will regard as astute.

(That’s also why you can usually find me showing up in reddit comments about my stories, much as I used to watch Slashdot to see if any of my work was getting picked apart there.)

Last year, I heard some advice about comments that’s stayed with me: At the Online News Association conference in Chicago, the Texas Tribune’s Amanda `Krauss said that having a story’s author open the discussion by posting the first comment helped make the resulting conversation more civil. She had other advice that journalists can’t easily follow without major CMS tinkering (for instance, changing the “Like” button to a “Respect” one), but this first-comment thing is something any writer can do.

Question is, what should that first comment be? Here’s how I’ve handled that at recent Yahoo Tech columns:

• Sharing a how-to recipe that would have been too involved to cram into the story itself. Example: my review of the KnowRoaming SIM sticker, in which I used that first comment to explain how to stop a “SIM Toolkit” app from taking up full-time residence in your phone’s notifications.

• Using that space to revise and extend my remarks by describing the philosophical underpinnings of my outlook on the subject, as I did in Tuesday’s column about the impending expiration of some USA Patriot Act provisions that enable the NSA’s bulk surveillance. Reader replies to that: zero.

• The old standby of posing a question to readers about a key issue of the story, most recently seen in the column about Apple Watch app rules where I opened the comments by asking readers if they’re bothered at all by them or basically trust Apple to look out for them. Reader replies: three.

Explaining a story’s sourcing or just naming the people I talked to on the record who didn’t get a quote in the story seems like an obvious move, but I haven’t done that yet. Maybe next week?

I’m not sure I’m making a huge difference–I’m sure it won’t for readers who have already sworn off comments–but this practice only takes a few minutes and it helps ensure I won’t ignore the comments later on, or at least until a post gets featured on the Yahoo home page and promptly gets overrun with 2,000 comments. That seems a worthwhile use of my time.

The enduring value of answering somebody’s question

Weekends are a slow time around here, but not last weekend. Credit for that goes to the switch back to Daylight Savings Time… and a post I dashed off on my iPad in a fit of nerd rage last summer that I haven’t tried to promote since.

DST how-to page viewsThat rant about the awful interface of my wife’s Timex sports watch shared my hard-earned knowledge of how to change the time on the thing. And because this watch apparently sold reasonably well, I now get a crazy amount of traffic at each time change. Saturday, for example, this blog racked up 2,079 page views, or about 10 times the typical traffic.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to see that happen, though. The single most popular post here is a how-to about setting up Lotus Notes to forward all your mail to a Gmail account. That, too, has benefited from near-zero promotion on my part since I rewrote the instructions I’d published on the Post’s intranet.

The good news here is that Google can work as intended: If you answer somebody’s question accurately, your work will show up in search queries and get read. You don’t need the post to go viral on social media or be endorsed by some influencer; it gets found pretty much on its own.

The bad news is that this doesn’t happen instantly. And in newsrooms where writers are paid based on the traffic they generate, that kind of slow-burn popularity may not show up in the short-term metrics that can put extra dollars in people’s paychecks or leave those same staffers a little closer to being ushered out the door.