Weekly output: digital technology and personal relationships, vulnerability reporting

I got in a quick trip to New York this week, thanks to an invitation to speak at a conference at Columbia University that arrived after the event organizer read the Data Privacy Day piece I wrote for the Washington Post last month.

2/7/2019: Panel IV:​ Connection: Building or Destroying Personal Relationships?, Greater Good Gathering

I talked about the problems and possibilities of social media–more of the former than the latter–with Fred Davie of the  Union Theological Seminary, the University of Southern California’s Todd Richmond, the Women’s Media Center’s Soraya Chemaly, and Robin C. Stevens of the University of Pennsylvania’s nursing school. My contribution to the discussion was suggesting that these social apps might be less amenable to abuse if their development teams weren’t dominated by people whose race and gender render them immune to the usual racist, misogynistic word vomit online.

2/8/2019: How you can report security problems to tech companies like Apple, Yahoo Finance

This post unpacking Apple’s delayed response to a 14-year-old’s discovery of a serious vulnerability in Group FaceTime–which looks pretty good compared to how many companies handle “vuln” reports–went through a couple of post-publication revisions.

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It’s 2015, and I still use RSS (and sometimes even bookmarks)

A couple of weeks ago, I belatedly decided that it was time to catch up on my RSS reading–and try to stay caught up on my Web feeds instead of once again letting the unread-articles count ascend to four-digit altitudes.

RSS Twitter Google Now iconsAfter a couple of days of reacquainting myself with using various RSS apps to read the latest posts at my designated favorite sites, I had another overdue realization: Much as Winston Churchill said of democracy, RSS remains the worst way to keep up with what’s new on the Web, except for all the others.

“Really Simple Syndication,” a standard through which sites can automatically notify an RSS client about each new post, is old-in-Web-years and unfashionable. But it retains a few core advantages over its alleged replacements. One is control: my RSS feed only shows the sites I’ve added, not somebody else’s idea of what I should know. Another is what I’ll call a tolerance of time: A site that only posts an update a week is less likely to get lost when it occupies its own folder in the defined space of my RSS feed.

The third, maybe most important feature: Nobody owns RSS. When Google shut down Google Reader, I could export my subscriptions and move them to any other RSS host. I went with Feedly and have since been contentedly using that site’s free iOS and Android apps and the third-party Mac program ReadKit ($6.99 then, now $9.99).

I know many people now employ Twitter as their news feed, but I can’t make that work. I love Twitter as a social space, but in practice it’s been a miserable way to get the news. That’s not the fault of the service or its interface, but because it’s full of humans who often get excited about the same things that are really important to them in particular. The result: constant outbreaks of banter about inconsequential-to-normal-people developments like the addition of custom emoji to a chat-room app.

Twitter does help me learn about things happening outside of my usual reading habits, alerts me to breaking news hours faster than RSS and provides an incredibly useful way to talk to readers and hear from them. And yet the more I lean on Twitter as a communications channel, the worse it functions as a news mechanism.

(Facebook… oh, God, no. The News Feed filter I need there most would screen out all updates sharing outside content, so I’d only see things written, photographed or recorded by friends instead of an endless stream of links to content posted in the hope that it will go viral.)

Google Now’s cards for “Research topics,” “Stories to read,” and “New content available” can serve as an RSS substitute in some contexts. Unlike RSS, they’re not stuck with your last settings change and instead adjust to reflect where Google sees your attention wandering and where readers have clicked at the sites you visit. And unlike Twitter, these cards don’t get overrun with me-too content.

But relying on Google Now puts me further in Google’s embraces, and I think I give that company enough business already. (I’m quasi-dreading seeing cards about “RSS” and “Google Now” showing up in Google Now, based on my searches for this post.) It’s also a proprietary and closed system, unlike RSS.

I do appreciate Now as a tool to help me decide what sites deserve a spot in my RSS feed–and, by virtue of Feedly’s recent integration with Google Now, as a way to spotlight popular topics in my RSS that merit reading before others.

Safari favorites headingAs I was going over this reevaluation of my info-grazing habits, I realized that I haven’t even gotten out of the habit of using bookmarks in my browsers. Yes, bookmarks! They remain a major part of my experience of Safari and the mobile version of Chrome–thought not, for whatever reason, the desktop edition.

Mine are embarrassingly untended, littered with lapsed memberships and defunct sites. But they also let me get to favorite sites by muscle memory and without excessive reliance on auto-complete (less helpful for going straight to a particular page on a site) and search (like I said, Google gets enough of my time already).

And my bookmarks would work better if there weren’t so many of them. I really should edit them today… right after I see if my signature file needs new ASCII art.

Weekly output: Apple and social media, right to be forgotten, wireless carriers, Facebook and health care, overheating laptops

Another Sunday when my brain is mostly filled with thoughts about baseball. Yes, I was at Nats Park for all 18 innings last night. No, witnessing that loss didn’t hurt nearly as much as 2012’s horrible NLDS Game 5. Yes, I still felt crummy today.

But you know what? We’re going to play another game tomorrow. Go Nats.

9/30/2014: Apple, Can We Talk?, Yahoo Tech

I revisited a longstanding frustration with Apple–its apparently allergy to public conversations with its customers in any form of social media–and found it even more obnoxious when just about every other major American corporation will talk to the people who keep it in business on multiple social networks. This also bothers me as a journalist: Doling out information to select media outlets instead of tweeting it out to its paying customers offers Apple yet another way to try to manipulate the media.

IAB RtbF panel10/1/2014: Debating the “right to be forgotten,” IAB Global Summit

I spent a few days in New York for this Interactive Advertising Bureau conference and a couple of other tech events. My contribution to IAB’s gathering was this discussion with co-panelists Townsend Feehan (CEO, IAB Europe) and Valérie Chavanne (Yahoo France general counsel and public-policy head) about how this emerging legal doctrine in the European Union is unfolding for Internet users, search engines, Web publishers, and the rest of us.

10/1/2014: The Best Wireless Carriers, The Wirecutter

I updated much of this guide to reflect iPhone 6 pricing (thanks for all the extra math, Sprint!) as well as T-Mobile’s expansion of WiFi calling and texting. So if you’ve been dying to know which carrier offers the best deal for not just one iPhone 6 with a 2-gigabyte data allotment, but four of them, look no further.

10/3/2014: Facebook and health care, WTOP

I talked about a Reuters report that Facebook will move to set up “support communities” for people with particular health issues or conditions. Note that on the air, I mentioned that Facebook raised privacy concerns when it bought the maker of an activity-tracking device;  the product in question is not hardware but software, the Moves activity-tracking app.

10/5/2014: What’s cranking up your laptop’s cooling fan?, USA Today

This week’s column covered something that’s puzzled me too often: How is it that my laptop’s cooling fan can sometimes rev up for no apparent reason? The column suggests a few apps that can report the processor’s temperature and indicate which apps are hitting it hardest–and admits that you may still be puzzled after going through those troubleshooting steps.

Hello, Twitter followers; hello, Facebook fans

On Wednesday, Twitter made itself less opaque and a little more understandable when it invited all its users to log into its analytics dashboard and get a detailed breakdown of who had been following them and reading their tweets.

I’ve had access to that feature for a while–I don’t know why, since my unverified account and unwillingness to buy Twitter ads left me outside of the two groups who were supposed to have access to it–but seeing this in the news got me to take a fresh look at my stats.

(To inspect yours, visit analytics.twitter.com when you’re logged in.)

Twitter and Facebook audience analyticsIt also led me to compare this data to the information Facebook provides about users who like my public page there. (People who only have personal profiles get no such report, one of the things I don’t like about Facebook.) Here’s what Twitter’s analytics and Facebook’s Page Insights tell me about my audiences at each social network.

Both are overwhelmingly male. Of my 14,088 Twitter followers, 74 percent are male; for the 2,472 people who like my Facebook page, that figure is 70 percent (while Facebook as a whole is 54 percent male). I don’t know why that is, and I’m not happy about it either. (9/1/14, 12:51 p.m.: If you were wondering how Twitter could determine its users’ gender when it doesn’t ask for that data point, see my friend Glenn Fleishman’s explainer at Boing Boing.)

Facebook seems more globally distributed. The top five cities for Twitter followers are all in the U.S. (Washington, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia), while at Facebook Cairo is in second place after D.C. India is the most popular country after the U.S. on both networks, but citizens of the world’s largest democracy constitute a larger share, about 4.5 percent, of my Facebook audience. Among those U.S. readers, Twitter says California is the most popular state for them while Facebook doesn’t show me state-level data.

Twitter followers are not quite as easy to attract than Facebook fans. From Aug. 3, 2012 to the present, my Facebook page went from 1,798 likes to 2,473, a 37.5 percent increase. From Aug. 1, 2012 to today, my Twitter follower count went from 10,376 to 14,088, a 35.8 percent increase. I didn’t expect that; on Twitter, your poor taste in technology columnists doesn’t get broadcast to your friends the way it does on Facebook.

Tweets can go unread just as easily as Facebook posts, maybe even more so. Over the last week, my most-read tweet was an item about Comcast reviving the hyperlocal news site EveryBlock that netted 4,514 impressions, or less than half of my follower count. At Facebook, my share of a Facebook blog post about clickbait headlines topped the list by reaching 1,783 users, almost three fourths of my page’s fan base.

Neither gives me an ethnic or racial breakdown. So I can only hope that those figures aren’t as unbalanced as the gender split of my social-media audience.

Twitter says you’re here for tech news. Twitter’s analytics include a list of the top 10 interests of your followers; “Technology” and “Tech news” top that list, each with a 79 percent share of my audience. (“Comedy [Movies and television]” appeals to 30 percent of my followers, so maybe I should quote from “Dr. Strangelove” more often.) Facebook doesn’t provide me with this category of insight.

Facebook says you’re probably older than 24. The 18-24 demographic is the largest slice of the Facebook population, but not on my page: men in that age bracket make up 17.9 percent of all of Facebook, but 10.2 percent of my page’s likes. For 18-24 women, the numbers are 14.4 percent and 2.27 percent. Instead, I’m doing best among women and men from 25 to 44. Twitter can’t display this kind of detail, since it doesn’t ask for birthdays.

Not all of this data may be true. Unsaid on either site’s analytics pages: Many users of each choose to provide incorrect data for reasons of privacy or creativity. And even if most of this self-reported information is correct, some of the sample sizes of subsets of my audiences are too small for my conclusions to stand up.

So long, Sulia: lessons from an experiment in compressed journalism

My time contributing short updates to the microblogging site Sulia wrapped up unceremoniously Monday morning when an e-mail–“ending our paid arrangement”–landed in my inbox. The site’s pivoting in another direction that doesn’t involve paying for my input or that of what seems to be most other contributors it had signed up (for example, my friend Rocky Agrawal); so it goes.

Sulia compose dialogThe departure of any one freelance client isn’t that big of a deal, but in this case it was a different sort of medium, and I learned some things along the way that seem worth sharing.

The basic idea here was to get paid a little for writing the equivalent of three tweets in a row–a minimum of 700 characters, a maximum of 2,500. On clicking the “Post” button at Sulia, those updates would appear automatically under my name on Twitter and at my public Facebook page–and that’s when I was met with confusion. Readers had no idea what the heck Sulia was or what I was doing there, leading me to post an explanation here after the first three weeks.

It took longer for me to pace myself so that I wouldn’t be rushing to finish my weekly quota of 10 posts in the last hours of Sunday–and to figure out what topics fit best into this pressurized container. In retrospect, holding off on live-tweeting interesting talks so I could post a longer recap on Sulia was a mistake, while it was smarter to use that greater character count to break some local wireless news in slightly more depthdo the cost-of-ownership math for a new smartphone, or recount my experience upgrading an operating system.

Overall, this site filled a useful void in my work by allowing me to share my notes in a medium slightly longer and less evanescent than Twitter while also getting paid (and without having to send an invoice first). I‘m not sure how I’ll replace that.

Among no-payment options, Twitter puts me back in a 140-character box, Facebook and Google+ have enough of my personal business already, LinkedIn seems too business-focused, and as for Medium–well, I already have a blog here. Alas, my WordAds revenue has been so minimal to date that it’s not worth thinking about the potential income from any one extra post.

Or perhaps the Sulia experiment was a mistake all along, and I should have put the time spent crafting those 40-some morsels a month into finding three or four good stories to sell elsewhere. Either way: on to the next thing…

Weekly output: “TV Everywhere,” changing journalism, ad retargeting

All of the PR pitches for Mobile World Congress exhibits and events should have tipped me off, but it only really hit me this weekend that in two weeks, I’ll be in Barcelona for that show. Which, considering the number of things I’d like to have finished before then, is not entirely convenient.

Yahoo TV Everywhere post2/4/2014: ‘TV Everywhere’ Takes a Trip to Sochi, but Some Viewers Can’t Tag Along, Yahoo Tech

The launch of NBC’s expanded online coverage of the Winter Olympics gave me an opportunity to critique its practice of limiting Internet viewership to people who can authenticate their status as paying TV subscribers. What I didn’t realize at the time I wrote this: That NBC affiliate WRC’s over-the-air signal, once one of the strongest DTV broadcasts in the D.C. area, would be pretty much unwatchable this weekend. I’d like to know what changed there.

2/4/2014: media panel, PR Newswire

With Amy Webb and Edwin Warfield, I talked about the changing nature of journalism and whether I care for some current PR and social-media practices at a Baltimore conference for PR Newswire staffers. (I’m sure our discussion had a less generic title, but I forgot to write it down, and PR Newswire’s blog hasn’t posted the promised recap yet PR Newswire’s blog post, added Feb. 24th, doesn’t cite one either.)

2/9/2014: How does ad ‘retargeting’ work?, USA Today

I’d been thinking of doing an explainer about this increasingly common advertising strategy–where one site shows an ad for something you were viewing on another site minutes earlier–and then a friend’s Facebook comment gave me an excuse to write it.

On Sulia, I offered my first impressions of Facebook’s Paper app, kvetched about a security-certificate bug in OS X that seems to have gone three years without a fix, wondered why it takes so long to answer a call in Google+’s Hangouts app, wrote an insta-review of the Feedly-compatible ReadKit RSS app for OS X, and endorsed a site called CarFreeNearMe.com that plots out real-time info about nearby rail, bus, bikeshare and car-share options.

2013 blogging stats: You still hate Lotus Notes, and I guess I should still miss Google Reader

At the end of every year, WordPress.com automatically generates a nifty presentation about this blog’s readership statistics. To view it, click the fireworks graphics below; for some of my own takes on these numbers and others not included in that infographic, scroll past it.

To start, I had slightly fewer readers than in 2012, at 84,411 versus 89,639. That’s mainly because I didn’t have any one post blow up from a link at a widely-read blog. Instead, the most-read post was my 2011 rewrite of a cheat sheet I wrote on the Post intranet about forwarding Lotus Notes e-mail to Gmail–followed by two other how-to posts, one on my cure for a runaway OS X “CalendarAgent” process and another about places where T-Mobile can provide 3G service for older iPhones.

(I’m going to ping T-Mo PR for an update on that data; if people are relying on me for help, I might as well deliver something current.)

As for what sites sent traffic here, “Search Engines”–by which I mean “Google and then trace elements of Bing and Yahoo”–led the list. WordPress.com set them aside to highlight human-curated sites: first Twitter, then Facebook, then USA Today.

The dearly-departed Google Reader also got a shout-out in my blog host’s presentation. Its sort-of replacement Google+ did not; by WordPress.com’s count, Google’s social network sent less traffic than a single reader comment at the Post’s site. Will my activating the new option to have posts automatically shared on G+ change that? Look for an answer in the 2014 version of this post, coming in about 365 days.