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Facebook, Twitter, Google are a new type of media platform, and new rules apply

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When Congress questioned representatives of Facebook, Google and Twitter, it became official: We need to finally find an answer to a debate that’s been bubbling for months (if not years) about the role of the tech companies—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, or GAFAM—and their platforms.

The question is summed up by Ted Cruz’s line of inquiry (and here’s a person I never expected to quote) in the Congressional hearing: “Do you consider your sites to be neutral public fora?” (Some others echoed versions of this question.)

Platform or media?

Simply put, the question boils down to this: Are GAFAM tech companies or media companies? Are they held to standards (and regulation) of “neutral platform” or “content creator”? Are they dumb infrastructure or pillars of democracy?

These are big questions to ask, and I don’t envy the companies for their position in this one. As a neutral platform they get a large degree of freedom, but have to take responsibility for the hate speech and abuse on their platform. As a media company they get to shape the conversation more actively, but can’t claim the extreme point of view of free speech they like to take. You can’t both be neutral and “bring humanity together” as Mark Zuckerberg intends. As Ben Thompson points out on Stratechery (potentially paywalled), neutrality might be the “easier” option:

the “safest” position for the company to take would be the sort of neutrality demanded by Cruz — a refusal to do any sort of explicit policing of content, no matter how objectionable. That, though, was unacceptable to the company’s employee base specifically, and Silicon Valley broadly

I agree this would be easier. (I’m not so sure that the employee preference is the driving force, but that’s another debate and it certainly plays a role.) Also, let’s not forget that each of these companies plays a global game, and wherever they operate they have to meet legal requirements. Where are they willing to draw the line? Google famously didn’t enter the Chinese market a few years ago, presumably because they didn’t want to meet the government’s censorship requirements. This was a principled move, and I would expect not an easy one for a big market. But where do you draw the line? US rules on nudity? German rules on censoring Nazi glorification and hate speech? Chinese rules on censoring pro-democracy reporting or on government surveillance?

For GAFAM, the position has traditionally been clear cut and quite straightforward, which we can still (kind of, sort of) see in the Congressional hearing:

“We don’t think of it in the terms of ‘neutral,'” [Facebook General Counsel Colin] Stretch continued, pointing out that Facebook tries to give users a personalized feed of content. “But we do think of ourselves as — again, within the boundaries that I described — open to all ideas without regard to viewpoint or ideology.” (Source: Recode)

Once more:

[Senator John] Kennedy also asked Richard Salgado, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, whether the company is a “newspaper” or a neutral tech platform. Salgado replied that Google is a tech company, to which Kennedy quipped, “that’s what I thought you’d say.” (Source: Business Insider)

Now that’s interesting, because while they claim to be “neutral” free speech companies, Facebook and the others have of course been hugely filtering content by various means (from their Terms of Service to community guidelines), and shaping the attention flow (who sees what and when) forever.

This aspect isn’t discussed much, but worth noting nonetheless: How Facebook and other tech firms deal with content has been based to a relatively large degree by United States legal and cultural standards. Which makes sense, given that they’re US companies, but doesn’t make a lot of sense given they operate globally. To name just two examples from above that highlight how legal and cultural standards differ from country to country, take pictures of nudity (largely not OK in the US, largely OK in Germany) versus positively referencing the Third Reich (largely illegal in Germany, largely least legal in the US).

Big tech platforms are a new type of media platform

Here’s the thing: These big tech platforms aren’t neutral platforms for debate, nor are they traditional media platforms. They are neither neither dumb tech (they actively choose and frame and shape content & traffic) nor traditional media companies that (at least notionally) primarily engage in content creation. These big tech platforms are a new type of media platform, and new rules apply. Hence, they require new ways of thinking and analysis, as well as new approaches to regulation.

(As an personal, rambling aside: Given we’ve been discussing the transformational effects of digital media and especially social media for far over a decade now, how do we still even have to have this debate in 2017? I genuinely thought that we had at least sorted out our basic understanding of social media as a new hybrid by 2010. Sigh.)

We might be able to apply existing regulatory—and equally important: analytical—frameworks. Or maybe we can find a way to apply existing ones in new ways. But, and I say this expressly without judgement, these are platforms that operate at a scale and dynamism we haven’t seen before. They are of a new quality, they display qualities and combinations of qualities and characteristics we don’t have much experience with. Yet, on a societal level we’ve been viewing them through the old lenses of either media (“a newspaper”, “broadcast”) or neutral platforms (“tubes”, “electricity”). And it hasn’t worked yet, and will continue not to work, because it makes little sense.

That’s why it’s important to take a breath and figure out how to best understand implications, and shape the tech, the organizations, the frameworks within which they operate.

It might turn out, and I’d say it’s likely, that they operate within some frameworks but outside others, and in those cases we need to adjust the frameworks, the organizations, or both. To align the analytical and regulatory frameworks with realities, or vice versa.

This isn’t an us versus them situation like many parties are insinuating: It’s not politics versus tech as actors on both the governmental and the tech side sometimes seem to think. It’s not tech vs civil society as some activists claim. It’s certainly not Silicon Valley against the rest of the world, even though a little more cultural sensitivity might do SV firms a world of good. This is a question of how we want to live our lives, govern our lives, as they are impacted by the flow of information.

It’s going to be tricky to figure this out as there are many nation states involved, and some supra-national actors, and large global commercial actors and many other, smaller but equally important players. It’s a messy mix of stakeholders and interests.

But one thing I can promise: The solution won’t be just technical, not just legal, nor cultural. It’ll be a slow and messy process that involves all three fields, and a lot of work. We know that the status quo isn’t working for too many people, and we can shape the future. So that soon, it’ll work for many more people—maybe for all.

Please note that this is cross-posted from Medium. Also, for full transparency, we work occasionally with Google.

Twitter, why u so US centric?

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For my new company Brightfuture [NAME PENDING], I tried to register a Twitter account. Much to my surprise, @brightfuture didn’t seem actively used.

No avatar, two tweets (one from 2007, one from 2009. No activity for 5 years, and no real use before that either.

 

screenshot of @brightfuture

 

So I figured that yes, obviously this account is basically available. Oh, how naive I was.

Twitter does have an inactive username policy. It states:

To keep your account active, be sure to log in and Tweet (i.e., post an update) within 6 months of your last update. Accounts may be permanently removed due to prolonged inactivity.

Find an inactive – or otherwise trademark violating – account? The Trademark policy to the resuce:

Using a company or business name, logo, or other trademark-protected materials in a manner that may mislead or confuse others with regard to its brand or business affiliation may be considered a trademark policy violation.

And:

When we determine that an account appears to be confusing users, but is not purposefully passing itself off as the trademarked good or service, we give the account holder an opportunity to clear up any potential confusion. We may also release a username for the trademark holder’s active use.

Alright, fair enough. The account is clearly inactive, I own a business with the disputed name and can prove it, too. Easy enough!

Wrong again.

To reclaim an account, a US trademark is needed:

A federal or international trademark registration number is required. If the name you are reporting is not a registered mark (e.g., a government agency or non-profit organization), please let us know (…)

So, back to square one. In this case, the Inactive account policy, which states:

What if I have a request for a username from an account that looks inactive, but I don’t have a registered trademark? We are currently working to release all inactive usernames in bulk, but we do not have a set time frame for when this will take place.

 

It’s the equivalent of Twitter shrugging off the problem, or Screw You, Rest Of The World.

I’m not going to lie: I couldn’t imagine living and working without Twitter today. But I can’t say that this kind of policy fosters my bond to the service.

 

For now, for quick updates on Brightfuture[NAME PENDING] please follow @brightfutureio my personal Twitter account (@peterbihr) or this blog.

4% of my Twitter is fictional

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On Twitter I follow some 2.000 accounts. Or rather, about 2.000 people can, in theory, send me direct messages. Because it seems pretty much impossible to me to actually follow that many people, I work with lists a lot. Some are by topic, some by location (Berlin), some by type of relationship (work, friends). One is for people who I want to learn more about before deciding if I want to really follow everything they say.

Maybe the most important one for me is called “want to read”. This one has a mere 193 members at this point, and it’s highly curated super picky so I can make sure that I actually read (almost) everything that passes through that list.

Some of the people there are friends, some are colleagues, some are people I find inspiring or whose thoughts I want to learn about. And then there’s a few oddities in there that I found interesting by way of self-observation. Among those 193 Twitter accounts in my want-to-read list there are 18 “things” accounts: products, companies, locations, conferences. There are 3 feeds that just link to new blog posts in blogs I like. (I pretty much retired my RSS reader, even though I’ve been trying to revive it.) And there are 8 fictional characters, mostly from the West Wing. That’s more than 4 percent!

What does it say about me that out of the entities I really want to follow, four percent are fictional?

Email, Twitter, Phone

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Goopymart

During a number of conversations recently I realized something. This may be obvious to you, or you might find it mighty strange. But I can say with confidence that at this point in time, 2011, my communications hierarchy is this:

First place is clearly email. This is where everything happens, particularly for business.

Second place is Twitter. All the smaller coordination, as well as a large part of the input and inspiration, happens here. (In fact, a large part of organizing and advertising Cognitive Cities Conference was done through Twitter, too.)

Third place – and a distant third, too – is the phone. Cell phone, of course. Landline has become so ridiculously unimportant that between my company Third Wave, our office mates Yourneighbours/Gidsy and our resident freelancer Fabian we share one (!) landline phone – without ever running into a conflict there.

In between, but too hard to place in this hierarchy, are Skype and similar instant messengers as well as SMS and of course face-to-face conversations.

Even I myself was a bit surprised by how clearly the phone had been demoted like this, and how important and ubiquitous Twitter has become in my daily life. But there you go. Curious to hear about your experiences that way!

Image: magical science creature capture / goopy mart / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

News from the Twitter Farm

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Five journalists using only Twitter and Facebook as news sources to provide their reporting, that’s the basic setup of an experiment going on for five days. The headline, by the way, of this post is just a translation of “Nachrichten aus der Twitterfarm“, the title of a blog post announcing a news-gathering experiment by five international journalists from different backgrounds (including France Info, Swiss RTS and Radio Canada). (Here’s a random English version of the announcement.)

Now, I do find it interesting to see professional journalists experiment with alternative ways of gathering their news.

On the other hand, this experiment is so fundamentally flawed that it makes me want to bang my head against the wall. Why?

For one, the basic premise that news reporting as it is today is what we should try to replicate is wrong. News not taking into account different sources is just one problem there, but it’s also that news today are based on the production mechanisms of the middle of last century. They hardly allow for localized news or customization, nor for real-time updates or discussion.

But more importantly, relying only on social media for news gathering is exactly what you should not be doing. It’s all about the mix! It’s about taking into account other sources and then going out and verify them. It’s about enhancing your fact gathering portfolio, not restricting it. (Imagine, when the first vox pops came up, reporters only using those for reporting. Sounds like a dumb idea? Go figure.)

My guess is that the not-so-surprising result will be something along those lines: yeah, a few interesting nuggets of news will have been found; and that oh no, haha, a major story or two slipped by almost unnoticed by the five reporters. High five, everybody, we proved that social media is overrated for reporting. Only that’s not the case.

This experiment is, in theory, great. There should be more like it. But please think it through. It’ll be interesting to see if those five brave social media souls (and I’m sure they have to take a lot of criticism during their regular work) will come up with new conclusions. But please don’t take it for anything like real journalism unless the news organisations get the basics right.

Seven rules for a corporate presence on Twitter

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Twitter still seems to be one of the bigger mysteries for many folks out there, particularly in the corporate sphere. No surprise, it’s one of those phenomena that aren’t easily understood at a first glance. (When looking at a few hundred web 2.0 services for a study I was working on, Twitter was one of the very few – maybe the only one – I thought wasn’t even worth signing up for. Err, right.)

So all the better that Joel Postman over at Socialized shares his experiences with corporate Twitter accounts. His seven rules for success:

  1. Create a Twitter profile that helps people verify your legitimacy
  2. Let consumers know who they are talking to
  3. Empower your Twitter representative to make a difference
  4. Protect consumer information
  5. Include your social media affiliations on your corporate web site news page
  6. Be human, and have a sense of humor
  7. Turn control over to “regular” employees

That’s the short-short version, so don’t miss out on Joel’s more in-depth explanations. Also, to get a better understand Twitter and where they’re coming from, I recommend this video interview with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on Vator TV. Jack Dorsey spent 15 years writing dispatch software for couriers, taxis and 911, so he’s very familiar with the concept of background noise and what has been called ambient intimacy: