Wednesday Afternoon Quarterback: August 31, 2016

Facebook makes Trending Topics both annoyingly useless and infuriatingly inaccurate; the US government figures out what brands have known for years about the most effective social media content; and Google continues to evolve its social network strategy – with both Google+ and YouTube. Here is your resource for the stories that matter in digital, content, and advanced emerging technology for the past week: The Quarterback report.

Facebook’s Editorial Purge Has Completely Backfired (The Verge, August 30)

Faced a few months ago with allegations that the human team behind the Trending Topics feature was introducing political bias and impacting which stories trended, Facebook vowed to make changes to the feature. In the past week, they revealed and implemented those changes — chief among them the shifting the human element from the process, replacing 18 human editors with a combination of an algorithm and human editors with less journalistic training and more technical backgrounds— with pretty ugly results.

A demonstrably false story about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly trended Sunday and didn’t get taken down until well into Monday, leading some publications to wonder whether Facebook might actually be guilty of libeling Ms. Kelly. Other trending topics boffs during the first few days after the change: headlines were not accurately matched with a subject, trending topics were classified improperly, and the feature simply promoted many more irrelevant, dumbed down topics.

The net effect of the change has been disastrous; even absent the troubling issues of accuracy and promoting false stories, it has rendered Facebook’s Trending Topics irrelevant and, to many observers, kind of useless. (Even the revised presentation, a simple list of topics that requires hovering or clicking to determine why the topic is trending, renders the service no more useful than Twitter’s better-established list; one of the things that made Facebook’s feature unique and added value was the context it placed around topics as they spiked.)

A hardened cynic might wonder if this was the intent of the critics all along – to discredit the feature or make the stories trending there less relevant. It’s certainly a valid question to ask how the accusations of bias might have influenced Facebook to make ill-advised changes that have negatively impacted the feature. Another, less cynical factor in this debacle — first suggested to me by my friend and top digital pioneer Richard Binhammer — is that Facebook has perhaps an overabundance of young Silicon Valley coding types who simply have maybe a little too much faith in the power of algorithms and technology. Algorithms, for all their power and wonder, are still flawed — and aren’t smart enough yet to separate fact from opinion (or truth from falsehood).

And in another indicator that Facebook may be a little too in love with technology, Slate reports that by Facebook’s own admission, the humans they have kept in the process aren’t journalistically trained, but rather have technology backgrounds.

“We are shifting to a team with an emphasis on operations and technical skillsets, which helps us better support the new direction of the product.” — Facebook statement

Wow. You’re crafting a feature that purports to be an information source (and is used by many as such), but you’re building it using people not with journalism or content skillsets, but technical ones?  Ouch. Just… ouch.

Putting a lightning rod feature like Trending Topics in the hands of an algorithm and technologists may not have been what Facebook needed. Even with future revisions, the Trending Topics feature may have had its credibility so wounded, you wonder if it will survive.

US Revamps Line Of Attack In Social Media Fight Against Islamic State (Wall Street Journal, 8/28)

Brands (well, at least the ones that understand audience dynamics) have known for years that third party content and third party opinions from “people like me” move perceptions more effectively and are seen as more credible than organizational content. Amazingly, the US Government didn’t seem to get the memo, at least when it comes to combatting and countering ISIL online. Not only was the government creating its own content — far too easily dismissed as propaganda by its target audience — but it was doing so in English. Really?  From the WSJ article:

“One of the government’s earliest messaging campaigns against Islamic State began in 2013 with a Twitter account run by the State Department called “Think Again Turn Away,” which aimed to dissuade people interested in joining the terrorist group. But the account would often tweet directly at pro-Islamic State accounts, sparking back-and-forths on Twitter that drew more attention to the voices of individual jihadists.”

Sigh.  The government might have looked at our own recent history from the Cold War and examined whether Americans ever considered Soviet propaganda anything but a joke; this was not a strategy destined for success.

Thankfully, the government seems to be now taking a cue from the business world, engaging in a strategy brands have used for close to a decade now: find third party influencers whose credibility with a target audience is greater than your own, then equip them with information or tools to create their own content —  leveraging their credibility for your own benefit.

“Over the past year, the government has helped tech companies like Facebook create competitions for college students around the world to come up with their own campaigns against extremism. The efforts recognize that young people will respond best to messages created by other young people.”

No effort is ever going to completely stop bad or even dangerous ideas or content from spreading online, but at least the government’s now taking a more informed, more realistic approach to countering terrorists.

Google Reboots Its Social Networking Efforts

Google’s history with developing social networks has been, to say the least, challenging. Two stories regarding Google’s social efforts caught my eye this week. First, they have finally rolled out the redesigned Google+ to all users (VentureBeat, 8/30). If you thought Google+ was dead you could be forgiven — but actually Google has been gradually rolling out a redesign since November, focusing on “communities” and “collections” — emphasizing small like-minded group interaction and visual (photo, video) content curation over being a broader social network. The strategy may be working; according to VentureBeat, since November the network has seen twice as many Collections followed per day, and 1.6 million daily new community joins. This week, Google is making the redesigned Google+ available to everyone. The broader rollout features the debut of some new features, including the ability to add links and photos to your comments (wow, it took them this long for that?) and allowing community owners and moderators to enable approved posting, basically controlling who is allowed to post what in a community. Plus will also become a core Google For Work service within the next few weeks.

The initial launch Google+ was so fraught with challenges and carried such an air of “failure” that it may not ever be possible to turn Plus into a mass social network — but that no longer appears to be the intent (if it ever was). Google Plus’s best shot at surivival appears to be looks like it might be creating value as a niche network serving targeted communities. It will be interesting to see how the new features impact the platform and its network.

The other Google-related social networking story that caught my eye this week: reports that YouTube may soon be a social network with text and image posts. First, this is just a report and isn’t confirmed. But if true, this project — known internally as “Backstage” — would seem to be a tacit acknowledgement that Facebook and even has been raiding YouTube’s users and content creators; by allowing users  and creators to expand what they share and how they interact with followers (two-way interaction rather than one-way communication), YouTube might reinvigorate the communities and creators on its network who might have begun being tempted by other networks. Given the increasing shift toward video-first content and information, YouTube’s history as a video-first platform might lend it an edge over Facebook and other rivals.

Other stories that caught my eye this week:

Twitter Is Finally Paying Its Best Users To Create Video (Recode, 8/30)  Will a more generous revenue split be more attractive to creators, and enhance Twitter as a video destination? Related: Twitter is now letting US creators add pre-roll ads to videos (VentureBeat, 8/30).

Report: Twitter Will Let You Filter Abusive Hashtags And Keywords (The Next Web, 8/27) Twitter’s response to its harassment problem so far seems centered on keeping you from seeing abusive content you choose to filter out. That’s a good start, but will Twitter address the damage that can be done to a reputation even if you can’t see it being done — and will it choose to police language that could incite someone to take negative action (anything from doxxing to hacking to physical assault) against another user? I’m not sure that protecting the eyes and feelings of harassment targets goes far enough.

Snapchat Just Deleted Its (Facebook) Account (The Next Web, 8/30). Hard to tell whether Snapchat might have ever been able to develop a community on Facebook; they hadn’t updated their page in going on three years. Snapchat is, however, actively maintaining its Twitter account. Is this simply a matter of Snapchat’s leadership not ever having found value in a Facebook page and having grown quite well without it? Or is this a message from Snapchat, possibly signaling some growing frustration with Facebook (or Instagram)’s “borrowing” so many of Snapchat’s more popular features?

Instagram Adds Stories To Explore Tab, Says Over 100 Million Use It (The Next Web, 8/30). Speaking of things Facebook/Instagram “borrow” from Snapchat… while many users may think the original (Snapchat Stories) is better than the copy, Instagram may have figured out how to better use Stories within a network. On Instagram, “under the Explore tab, users will now see Stories from accounts Instagram thinks they should follow.” Using the Stories feature to help users find relevant content or creators with similar interests may give Instagram’s Stories an edge (over time, of course) over Snapchat by holding a user’s attention and keeping them on Instagram longer.

Helping Users Easily Access Content On Mobile (Google Blog, 8/23) Google’s shift toward mobile has been so successful that at this point, the company finds that 85% of all pages in mobile search results now meet its mobile-friendly criteria. While they’ll still use those criteria in search rankings, they’re ditching the “mobile-friendly” label — when 85% of pages fit the definition, is it really something to highlight anymore? More significantly to me, beginning in January 2017 Google is going to begin penalizing pages with pop-ups and interstitials because are intrusive and make the user experience more frustrating. That sound you just heard was a bunch of web marketers ripping their own hair out.

Intel Reveals Project Alloy, An All-In-One VR Headset With Mobile Positional Tracking (Road To VR, 8/16) I’m a little late on mentioning this, but count Intel now among the major players developing VR hardware and software. Interesting and promising: Intel’s inclusion of an onboard processor to handle inside-out positional tracking — which would make their headset fully portable and tetherless.

Boeing’s ‘Father Of The 747’ Has Died (CNNMoney, 8/30) It’s not really digital or marketing-related, but it’s hard to think of the evolution of international business without considering the impact of the Boeing 747 on international business. The 747 was the first true wide-body commercial aircraft; it changed the physical layout of airports, made over-ocean travel more comfortable and less costly. For its time it was groundbreakingly fuel efficient — dropping costs and shifting fuel-per-passenger ratios so much that it infused money into the airline industry and opened up international air travel to both the middle class and the non-executive employees of business.

The man who led the engineering team that developed the Boeing 747, Joe Sutter, died Tuesday at the age of 95.  All of us who have ever flown across an ocean to conduct business — or even to go on vacation — owe Mr. Sutter a debt of gratitude. The next time you’re in an international departures terminal waiting at your gate or shopping duty-free, spare a thought and some thanks for Joe Sutter.





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