Extra, extra

Discuss how different digital reading experiences are similar or different from one another. What distinguishes each? Are they all forms of reading? Is one more “pure” than the rest?

The other day during a job interview I was asked where I get my media and how I engage with it and I really had to stop and think about it. Part of my answer was that most of the news I read, I read on twitter from seeing an article that has been retweeted and then choosing to click on it and read it in full. What this generally means is that I read the news on my smartphone.

According to NeimanLab’s Laura Owen, there is, well, “bad news” about reading news on mobile. A paper published in 2018 by Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication by Johanna Dunaway, Kathleen Searles, Mingxiao Sui, and Newly Paul argues that attention is not the same for mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones, as opposed to attention to news on computers. They conducted an extensive study on web traffic data and used eye tracking in two lab experiments to capture the effects of mobile devices on attention.

Through tracking attention to news links in the following ways: “duration of fixation on links embedded in news stories, number of fixations on embedded news links, and a dichotomous measure of whether participants fixate on links at all,” they determined that on average, people spend less time on news story content on mobile, and are less likely to notice links on their mobile devices in comparison to when they are on their computers. Their overall findings were that people spend less time on news web pages online and that their focus wavers more while on these devices, and so platforms that prioritize delivering our news through mobile (like Twitter) can be harmful since readers are processing less of the information.

It is worth considering how reading on mobile devices can change our reading experience because according to Fortune.com, 85% of U.S adults read their news on a mobile device. That is not even digitally — that is specifically on mobile!

“There is the stereotype that people buried in their smartphones in public places have tiny minds to go along with their tiny screens and tiny attention spans. None of this bodes well for the future of long-form journalism” — Forbes

Interestingly, a study done in 2016 by the Pew Research Center also investigated how much time people on their cellphones spend reading news articles and what kind of routes readers take to get to news websites from their phones. Pew specifically wanted to measure if mobile users are still responding to long-form journalism (so journalism as was originally intended).

This is what Pew found:

What they discovered was that reading time does, in fact, increase with the increase of the word count. On average, cellphone users spend 123 seconds on long-form articles versus 57 seconds on short-form articles.

While Kevin Murnane’s Forbes article “Think People Who Read On Smartphones Have Short Attention Spans? Think Again” seemed optimistic about these stats, I am not sure I share his positive outlook, because those are awfully short times spent on news articles if you compare them to the amount of time each of my classmates spent on each individual article for our readings every week.

I think there are a number of reasons why readers are not spending as much time reading on mobile devices (despite the increase in accessibility to news sources), the first being distractions. I do not have push notifications on my laptop, but I do on my phone. If someone is as much as writing me a message on snapchat, that is visible to me and can immediately grab my attention, leaving me to forget the article.

Most of us skim on both our mobile and our computers, but the space is narrower on smartphones than it is on a computer, which can result in the article length feeling more daunting, thus resulting in an increase in skimming. And my third rationale is that phones do not necessarily utilize tabs in the same way that computers do. My phone has multiple tabs, but only one online tab visible at a time, and so when I go to delete unused tabs I often have over 20 to delete that I had long since forgotten about because a new link route had been opened.

I can see why mobile reading might be a less “pure” form of reading than reading on one’s computer, with print journalism trumping both in terms of providing the best reader experience resulting in the absorption of information. That being said, access is a necessity, and I have easy access to articles on my phone, whereas most newspapers cost money. I also have zero interest in having newspapers pile up and occupy my already cramped living space, and so while I might make the switch to reading more on my computer rather than mobile, newspaper journalism remains an unattractive alternative.

Works Cited:

People read news differently on phones than they do on computers, new study suggests

85% of U.S Adults Read the News on a Mobile Device

Think People Who Read the News on Smartphones Have Short Attention Spans? Think Again

What was, what is, and what could be

I learned a lot from Technology and Evolving Forms of Publishing. Following the course, I came away with a sense of empowerment. I became more aware of the spaces I occupy online, how I engage with them, and how those spaces are surveyed. No longer do I take for granted things being the way they are now. This course reminded me to look outside of how the internet is now to imagine a new future, and to remember that the internet of yesterday was a different beast altogether. In some ways, it made me anxious to realize how dependent we are on Big Tech, how we have let them herd us onto their patch of land while they survey us and eliminate every competition that arises. The monopoly that big platforms such as Facebook and Twitter (and even service app Uber) have enable them to exploit users because they know there are not any true viable alternatives yet. In this course, I have contemplated my own complicitness in this system and how I have become more aware of the freedoms I sacrifice in return for the convenience of being a “sheep.”

This is not to say that this class made me technophobic. Instead, it has made me more critical of technology. It is in part our readings in Technology and Evolving Forms of Publishing that inspired the editorial behind our podcast project for our media class. The question of how we can exist in a highly digital society without becoming complacent was one that weighed heavily on my mind throughout the semester. I also wondered how, as publishers, we can better utilize the technologies available to us. As book publishers, much of our publicity and marketing is tied to Facebook, Twitter, and Google algorithms.

How can book publishers gain more agency and independence in the marketing process of publishing? Already, book publishing marketing has had to transform itself and adapt as a result of commercial journalism dying a steady death, but how will publishers adapt to the unpredictable changes that platform publishers or the internet as a whole bring that could disrupt the current model for advertising and marketing. I also wonder how publishers can better employ research data and metadata to maximize both sales and discoverability. Regardless of the nostalgia that people may have for the book as a cultural object, I think that unless publishers learn how best to employ the research and technology that is out there, book sales will continue to be in crisis.

Another takeaway I had was that policy and the laws surrounding copyright in digital spaces are incredibly important. While it is easy to stay ignorant about these matters, this course has inspired me to follow EU’s new copyright policy (or what many are calling the meme ban). Policy is now something that I understand on a greater level, and I think the government should be more to place restrictions on platforms and media conglomerates from holding incontestable monopolies.  It was a very intellectually stimulating class and I enjoyed hearing my classmates’ feedback and being challenged by them to dig even deeper. I do, however, think that the weekly reflections felt taxing. Although the word count was small, I could feel myself losing steam as the semester went on.

I do still think the reflections are a worthwhile exercise, but I wonder if it would be possible for you to ask students to write them a lesser frequency, such as once every two weeks. I also feel that the expectations for the weekly blogs could have been better established at the start. Overall, I enjoyed this course. It opened my eyes to some horrific, data-surveying-type truths, but it also expanded my understanding of what the internet has been, is now, and could be in the future.

If I had unlimited access to the world

As global COO of Macmillan Science and Education, Ken Michaels, states, access to data and the analysis of what is out there allows publishers to “chart better strategic business objectives, improve the effectiveness and efficiency in all parts of the business, including developing better products and audience outreach, enhancing how we market, even one to one [marketing].”

I would use the information out there to do all of the above. I would not necessarily start letting data or computers make all of my marketing or acquisition decisions, but I would work to interpret the data and let it inform my decisions in a way that is collaborative. I also think once publishers have a greater wealth of data and a greater understanding of it, it makes sense that that data would then become a larger factor in pitching titles to Indigo, Barnes and Noble, and other buyers. I would also use the data to shape which kind of titles to commission, as the data would enable us to determine where there is a niche to be filled and what audiences exist.

Speaking on a more specific level, having all the user data for Facebook would enable me to optimize my marketing by helping me learn more about specific reader demographic profiles and how to optimize my audience information when generating ads for specific books and branded contents. Using Facebook’s infinite amount of user data, we could learn more about how people read online, what makes them engage with content, and how directly target consumers likely to actually read our products. As a publisher, I could use data to identify historical trends of what has traditionally succeeded in terms of themes, format, and more. The data from social media platforms could help me identify social trends and I would utilize that knowledge to publish titles that are topical (with an understanding that some trends really are just “trends”) and I would combine this knowledge to see which patterns exist in the overall market.

Using Amazon’s data, we could find out more about what kind of metadata works and how best to optimize our titles for discoverability in a way that takes advantage of Amazon’s algorithms. We could also create more effective comp titles if we had access to all the similar titles a consumer tends to buy (rather than just the ones listed on the website), and we could create more in-depth reader/persona profiles by having further access to the full purchasing or browsing history of users who bought these similar titles.

According to WNWP (What’s new with publishing), a company called Storyfit has been using AI to determine which art is appropriate for which media. The artificial intelligence answers questions such as the following:

“Is this book a good fit for a Facebook marketing campaign across Europe? Is that book series a wise investment for a movie studio to option the film rights? In comparing these three books on sending a spaceship to Mars, which is the most likely to be the most popular and sell the most units, if all are priced the same way?”

The technology is likely not 100% dependable, but being able to gather data helps us improve discovery, create more effective marketing plans, and ultimately drive the sales. Despite all the class discussions about the ethics around using data, I think that publishing right now is largely a guessing game, and that any quantifiable information you can gather about the market and readers is an advantage that one would be foolish to ignore. While I do not think I would build my acquisition strategy, I think the data would prove pivotal for convincing other industry professionals once the practice of gathering better data fully catches on. I think any data I would be able to gather would give me a competitive edge and enable me to push for the books I am already passionate about.

A Look at the Patreon Model

The fact nobody supposedly makes a living on Patreon has never been an issue to me. It is a supplementary form of income that allows artists, cosplayers, writers, podcasters, and more, to put their work behind a paywall or to receive donations from fans. Unlike how Patreon advertises itself, it is not the ideal model for creators to survive off of freelancing. Still, it serves its purpose and enables creators with a platform to have a little bit of extra money each month. The problem that I’m seeing more and more of is the gigantic gap between Patreon’s profits and priorities versus that of the Patreon artists.

In Keith Parkin’s Medium article in 2017, he asked, “Is Patreon a Scam?” In the article, Parkins highlights the platform’s controversy where it was proposed that patrons pay an extra 0.37 cents per pledge, thus hurting less popular creators who rely on their accumulation of 1 USD subscriptions. In the quoted twitter thread, Julie Dillon argued that even those few extra dollars a month can be life changing, and that it hurts to have the platform dismiss this. Of course, the changes were rolled back and Patreon apologized, but the change ultimately revealed the core philosophy and priority behind the platform. The change would have been devastating for small creators (who make up the majority of Patreon), somewhat profitable for larger creators, and incredibly profitable for Patreon. Twitter user @Burrito_Tim calculated that with his pledges, the platform would receive 118% more after the change. Again, even though this new policy was rectified, Patreon is in a position to decide that the demands of investors and their own pursuit of profit outweighs the bad PR of small creators’ outcries. After all, according to Patreon, they only value the “truly life-changing creators.”

In 2017, Patreon received around 60 million in investment capital from Thrive Capital after already having received 30 million from them in 2016, and 17 million in 2014. According to Dan Olsen, Patreon has only actually earned 55 million in revenue since 2013, which makes it highly unprofitable expense right now for those who have invested in it, thus placing further pressure on the platform to generate revenue streams that serve neither the consumer nor the creators.

After the Patreon CEO’s recent announcement that the platform’s current model is “unsustainable,” twitter user Dan Olsen predicts, “series of ill-advised feature rollouts, like they’ll probably go gonzo and build a livestreaming platform or pivot to Fortnite or buy Teespring or something equally confusing, with a slow degradation of the core user experience. Like you’ll sign in and there’ll be six popups asking if you’ve tried Patreon Mega and extolling how it can help you mega-engage with your audience, while you’re just like “can I have a commission button so people can make one-time payments?” and they’re like “no.” Unfortunately, the increasing demand for Patreon to focus only on trying to draw more Hank Green-type clients and profit off of them means the site is often neglecting its primary user base.

There will also likely be a big push to find ways to further monetize creators and have them pay for a better experience. So what is the solution then? I definitely think there needs to be a cooperative platform version made for and by creators. The cooperative version ideally would respect both the small tier and top tier creators, have more payment options that would allow for grouping together as channels and one-time commission payments, and it would have a model that does not overcharge for payment transfer fees. It would serve the creators, rather than treating them like serfs. Until then, creators using Patreon at the mercy of a platform that is at the mercy of venture capitalists. We need more platforms for creators that will put proportionally put money into the hands of workers rather than the pockets of corporations that are looking to just expand the value of the platform so they can sell it for a profit. When the latter happens, the “target audience” of the platform becomes its venture capitalist investors, and what follows is censorship, and a website that ultimately does not prioritize its users.

Citations:

https://twitter.com/FoldableHuman/status/1092870599985123329

https://theoutline.com/post/2571/no-one-makes-a-living-on-patreon?zd=1&zi=pmnmzelf

https://medium.com/dark-mountain/is-patreon-a-scam-a9d0e38bd69e

Thoughts on the Medium Model

The with growing dominance of adblock (which has decimated digital ad revenues), it is worth speculating how publishers can adapt by creating models that enable website traffic and monetization without alienating readers. Medium’s recent model changes put into play an interesting structure: a membership model that, for 5 dollars a month, enablers readers to access “the best” of Medium’s content. Before deliberating on how publishing can apply such a model, I want to first look at what is and is not working with the system.

Continue reading “Thoughts on the Medium Model”

I Can’t Believe this Digital Feudalism is Free

The metaphor that resonated the most with me this week was Alex Singh’s analogy of the internet transforming over the span of 25 years from nomadic culture to a “mostly agrarian one.” An agrarian society involves the cultivation of the land. Singh notes the transition from HTML-only sites to CSS and JS, citing it as a move that shifted the power from the masses to the privileged and elite few. Initially, web users used to navigate from link to link, and site to site discovering new content. In this sense, the web used to be boundless. In utilizing medieval terminology for the analogy, Singh equates the emerging elite class with the “literate Priesthood,” arguing that the few at the top of the hierarchy can build, interface, and moderate the web, but the vast majority of users are “peasants” whose labour is exploited by the lords of the land, and whose convenience comes at the cost of their freedom.

 

Countless times on twitter and Facebook I have encountered posts where people remarked “I can’t believe this website is free.” It is possible some users mean it in an ironic way, but the reality is that most major platforms are not transparent about how they monetize their platform and what we, the lowly peasants, are sacrificing without our knowledge. The analogy makes me think deeper of how platform creators regard their own user-base and where the value of that platform is really generated from. Dragging Tumblr into the conversation once more, I cannot help but compare it to platforms like Youtube. I once read a post where users complained that Tumblr was the worst platform to invest one’s time into – unlike Youtube, where users can make a living off subscriptions, or Instagram where users can get sponsorships and leverage their popularity, Tumblr offers no monetary reward to its producers.

The platform is monetized through ads, but none of those funds are circulated to its content creators. Another Tumblr user complained that her posts had been screenshotted and shared on other platforms, including Buzzfeed, with listicle writers making a profit off of the free labour she has been providing for years. Tumblr’s userbase is becoming increasingly aware of their exploited labour while platform owner Yahoo becomes increasingly aware of how unprofitable it is to be the feudal lord or king of Tumblr. Yahoo’s likely solution? Abandon the land altogether or poison it until the peasants grow dissatisfied enough to migrate to the land of another lord.

For Tumblr, the greatest resource to mine is attention. But Facebook and Twitter have thrived at monetizing not only attention, but also data. We users, the peasants (or serfs), are creating videos, art, stories, and all while surrendering data to our lords (platforms) who are siphoning that data and monetizing it. As Zach Scott and Singh point out, this process is neither fully consensual nor voluntary. The “give me all your data so that I can sell it” part is usually buried in fine print. Any time people start mass migrating to a new platform, or a platform changes its rules and regulations (whether discreetly or publicly), there are usually a small group of users who take the time to thoroughly read through the policies before vocally raising flags about clauses and terms that the vast majority of us would have never noticed. In 2018, Tumblr released a safe mode that by default set every user account to hide any potential adult content. It was users who brought this new feature to light and who shared information on how to disable it. Another example is Snapchat, an app that surprised users by adding a feature that automatically tracks users’ locations and display them on a map. This, too, can be disabled, but the fact it is the default setting makes it ethically questionable. A user’s freedom to make choices about their privacy or online experience has been abused by lords who value their users only as labourers.

As Singh mentions in his tweet thread, there is also class and accessibility to consider. With websites shifting to CSS and JS, many of us do not have the skills and resources to code our own websites. It is a dilemma we discussed in class and not one that has an easy solution, especially since users have gotten used to having their digital services conveniently but dangerously centralized on a handful of platforms. And then there is algorithms. Instagram’s algorithm is a mystery and twitter has rallying against chronological feeds for years now, allowing popular posts to thrive while new posts get buried. Not only that, but our communication within the land is defined based on the restrictions of our lords – Tumblr now hates images posts, Twitter has a maximum word count, and Snapchat is near impossible to use as a chat platform.

In “I Can’t Believe this Blockchain is Free,” Michael J Casey writes:

“The challenge, then, is to design an architecture that allows the producers of data – we, the users – to become less beholden to these centralized aggregators and create a more decentralized digital economy in which we can trust each other’s data and make better personal use of it…should, in theory, result in better economic and political decisions for all.”

We have to bring the power back to the users. It is time for users to start demanding more transparency to ideally dismantle the feudalistic hierarchy by becoming less dependent on a system that exploits and polices us.

Sources:

Digital Feudalism
I Can’t Believe This Blockchain is Free
Web’s Neolithic Revolution