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Dec. 13, 2013, 9:39 a.m.

This Week in Review: Facebook’s viral content crackdown, and the NSA’s cookie grab

Plus: A shield-law victory, messaging changes at Twitter and commenting changes at HuffPo, and rest of the week’s news in media and tech.

Defining quality and accuracy in viral contentLast week’s discussion about the value of viral content bled into this week in a few areas, most notably Facebook’s changes to its News Feed last week intended to filter out memes in favor of more “high quality” content. Facebook News Feed manager Lars Backstrom provided some more details to All Things D’s Peter Kafka, saying that Facebook’s discrimination is based mostly on source rather than content, but that it’s not aimed at any specific targets, like BuzzFeed or Upworthy.

Mike Isaac of All Things D said Facebook’s actions illuminate a gap between what Facebook wants its News Feed to be (a tightly crafted “personalized newspaper” of useful information) and what its users want out of its News Feed (a lighter, more junk-foody stream of whatever’s popular at the moment). Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici tied Facebook’s changes to the difference between clicking and sharing — or between “the kinds of content we want to be seen as consuming and the content we actually like to consume.” The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer characterized Facebook’s changes as part of a fight with Twitter over being the ultimate feed, one publishers are caught in the middle of.

Mathew Ingram of Gigaom highlighted the nervousness of publishers regarding the changes and said Facebook will do whatever it has to do to boost its sagging engagement, publishers’ desires be damned. Both he and Slate’s Matthew Yglesias cautioned publishers about relying on Facebook for their traffic, with Yglesias noting that the economic value from that traffic will ultimately be captured by Facebook — if someone wants to advertise to an audience interested in that type of Facebook-oriented content, they’ll just advertise on Facebook.

And there are indeed publishers relying heavily on Facebook for their content’s distribution: Derek Thompson of The Atlantic pointed out some data showing the degree to which Facebook engagement dominates Twitter engagement in volume, with viral-oriented sites like Upworthy leading the way there. Social media consultant Suw Charman-Anderson offered some tweaks to Thompson’s analysis, saying that the observation that meme-based content is popular on Facebook “isn’t an insight, it’s a tautology,” and noting that Facebook users tend to prefer polarized, meme-y, and outrage-inducing content, while Twitter users are heavier on nonpartisan and tech news than outrage.

The other aspect of the viral-content issue that people discussed this week had to do with its veracity, or lack thereof. After the rash of viral hoaxes that hit us over the past few weeks, The New York Times looked at how web-based news organizations are navigating their responsibility to verify stories whose main value is simply their popularity and found a lot of ambivalence. Reuters’ Felix Salmon defended that ambivalence, arguing that it’s perfectly reasonable for news organizations to use journalistic standards for certain types of harder, newsy content but not for other types of softer, viral content because “the reasons that people share basically have nothing to do with whether or not the thing being shared is true.”

Gigaom’s Ingram, meanwhile, argued that since the decentralized nature of online media has now made each of us a member of the media, we all need to employ higher verification standards ourselves rather than blaming “the media” when false stories are spread. And at American Prospect, Paul Waldman expressed concern that the you-have-to-see-this-now headline style of sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy is going to start generating skepticism from its overuse.


C is for cookie hacking: Six months on, the revelations of U.S. National Security Agency spying based on documents leaked by Edward Snowden continue to roll out weekly. This week it was The Washington Post’s report that the NSA is secretly using private companies’ cookies and location trackers to target people for surveillance and hacking.

As The Post and PandoDaily’s Nathaniel Mott noted, online data-tracking companies have argued that their surveillance is different from and more benign than the government’s, but now the government has united the two. Princeton’s Edward Felten and Mike Masnick of Techdirt urged Google and other companies to find ways to protect cookie data from NSA interference. Meanwhile, The Guardian also reported that the NSA has tried to infiltrate online gaming communities like Xbox Live and World of Warcraft. The Washington Post’s Andrea Peterson explained why news organizations could but don’t protect users’ browsing data through encryption.

Several anti-surveillance campaigns surfaced this week, led by a campaign by numerous tech giants including Google, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Twitter, and Facebook, to demand changes in U.S. surveillance law as well as an international ban on bulk collection of data as a way to restore trust in Internet services.

The New York Times and The Guardian have thorough coverage of the initiative, and CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis applauded the companies while urging them to go further and write standards to govern their own behavior. In addition, 500 leading authors called on the UN to create an international bill of Internet rights protecting civil liberties, and privacy groups petitioned the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to discipline phone companies that sell customer information to the CIA.

Snowden would have been a logical choice for Time’s Person of the Year, but he was named runner-up (with a fine big-picture essay by Michael Scherer) to Pope Francis, to the consternation of media observers. The New Yorker’s John Cassidy and The Post’s Andrea Peterson both made the case for Snowden as person of the year based on his immense international impact, while Business Insider’s Adam Taylor noted that Time likely made the choice at least in part because a cover with the pope was likely to sell many more copies than one with Snowden.

Reading roundup: A few other stories and thoughtful pieces floating around this week:

— A New York appeals court ruled that Fox News reporter Jana Winter doesn’t have to go to jail for refusing to reveal her sources for a story about last year’s Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting. The New York Times has a good summary of the ruling’s shield-law implications, as did The New Yorker. The Columbia Journalism Review explained what the case cost Winter, and what she gains by winning it.

— YouTube issued a slew of copyright claims on producers of videos of video gameplay, both professional and amateur. YouTube issued a brief explanation, and Forbes’ Paul Tassi sorted through what might be at work here.

— Twitter announced it’s adding photos to its private direct messaging feature, which, as BuzzFeed’s John Herrman and Wired’s Mat Honan noted, appears to mark its official entry into the private messaging wars against Facebook and Instagram. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram argued that it’s a war no one will win.

— The Huffington Post, perhaps the most-commented-on news site on the web, announced it would end its anonymous commenting system, requiring commenting through Facebook. Poynter’s Sam Kirkland looked at what goes into verifying a Facebook account as HuffPo will require, and Meranda Adams of 10,000 Words wondered if we’ve reached the tipping point against anonymity on the Internet.

— Finally, two thoughtful articles from The Atlantic: Alexis Madrigal on why the constant stream of newness-focused, reverse-chronological content is beginning to wear on people, and James Bennet on why ‘long-form journalism’ is a pretty pointless (and unenticing) name for good magazine-style writing.

Images of dengue virus by Sanofi Pasteur and of “C is for Cookie” (1974) by epiclectic used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Dec. 13, 2013, 9:39 a.m.
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