Internet

Things I Hate on News Sites

I’m something of a news junkie, and I spend a lot of time reading stories on a reasonably wide range of news sites. I pay for a number of those sites, but appreciate that advertising revenues alone aren’t enough to support any sites – with the possible exception of the very largest.

But there are a number of “features” that we find on many news sites that I find incredibly annoying. This is by no means a complete list!

Video only stories

Depending on what day of the week it is, video is either in or out of vogue. When Facebook was paying everyone to do Facebook Live videos, many sites instantly set up video units to supply these. Then Facebook fell out of love with video and they stopped paying, so everyone stopped making all those videos. Then Snapchat came along, and video was back in the ascendancy. Then it wasn’t. Now we have Facebook Watch and something that nobody is watching called IGTV.

Anyway, I especially hate it when a “story” is published that consists only of a video. The thing is, I can read a lot faster than I can watch a video. I would say that 9 times out of 10, I bail out at this point. No matter how interested I am in the story – I don’t watch the video.

Of course those same videos have subtitles which some have dubbed the return of silent cinema, since producers know we don’t always have access to headphones at time of watching.

But just write the story below the video and give me the choice of either medium!

Music on Videos

Sometimes there are news videos that either don’t have sound at all (perhaps dash-cam footage), or are packaged up to include music. For rights reasons, commercial music (i.e. music you might recognise) can’t be used. So we get library music – that is, music that can be paid for once with no further rights issues arising. That’s useful in the digital realm.

There’s perfectly good library music of course – but it takes time to dig out. More often than not, we get generic “muzak” and it’s just awful. Worse are the videos where the person who made them isn’t aware of sound levels and mixes the music too loudly.

Music can be a very powerful part of a video, but used badly  it draws attention to itself and is just awful.

Unnecessary pictures

There’s a certain daily newspaper site that’s worst at this. Any article they publish includes large numbers of mostly irrelevant photos. Here’s an article about someone. Here are ten photos of that person when a maximum of one was required.

And because that site has been successful, others have mirrored it.

Creating Pages Where There’s No Story

This is common in the breaking news environment. You see a Tweet that might say something like “Politician John Smith has resigned – [URL]”

You click through to the URL to discover that there’s no more story than the Tweet contained. Now I realise that in due course, the newsroom will build out that story and add more detail and context. And I also realise that just because I’m clicking the link at time of initial publication, others may be clicking later. But if you have no further information, why not send a second Tweet when you can offer more details? I’ll be more inclined to click through that way.

The danger otherwise is that I’ll assume all your breaking news links are empty and won’t click. Yet sometimes, the story has been written ahead of time, and the release of it has been carefully timed. E.g. a big investigative piece. If my learned behaviour is not to click the link on breaking news, then you’re not getting me to read a story when you have actually published it in detail!

Creating Pages for Stories That Aren’t Stories At All

I’ve written about this before, but there are two key examples of these stories which can be summarised as:

“What time is the World Cup Final?” and

“Who is Oskar Schlemmer?”

What both of these are doing is relying on the fact that Google prioritises news sites in their search results. So if a “respectable” news publisher has written a piece on “What time the World Cup Final starts” then it’ll get in that news carousel at the top. News sites all know that people will be Googling basic information like this, and so they write a news story to get the clicks. The answer to a question like this should simply be a time. But that’s not good enough for Google’s algorithm, so a writer puts together 500 words on the World Cup final, which somewhere includes the kick off time.

Google has countered this to some extent with its own top level search results for basic information, but it doesn’t stop the news sites.

Needless to say that such “stories” do not end up in print products.

The second example above is from a recent Google Doodle – those cartoons that Google regularly place on their home page where their logo would sit. They invariably celebrate the anniversary of someone interesting, and clicking through on the doodle will take you to a page of search results.

More often than not, the best result is probably the Wikipedia page for that person. But again, if a news site writes a piece about the Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer, then that ends up at the top of the search results page. When a viewer clicks through.

I can only assume that it’s someone’s job to monitor Google around midnight to see if they’ve put a Doodle up, and if they have, bash out a quick “news” story – probably based solely on their Wikipedia page for background info.

Taboola, Outbrain et al

I loathe these sites. Really I do. The problem is that they’re crack cocaine for news sites, offering both revenues and clicks.

In essence, they’re those “Around the Web” boxes you get at the bottom of news stories from often incredibly respectable sites. They offer supposed further reading opportunities and have a list of stories. But those stories are invariably the most salacious and often misleading stories around. Somehow the murky world of digital advertising means that the economics work. Dubious sites claiming to offer cheap iPhones or whatever, pay these companies to promote their sites of little merit. Outbrain or Taboola pay the host sites on actually quite good rates – that’s why so many sites use them.

There was a great Reply All episode a few months back that told one person’s sad story which was being used by these clickbait organisations for their gain. They couldn’t get the story taken down. But the resulting episode really explained how these “chumbox” services work.

What’s interesting is that these companies do offer more premium versions with less clickbait, but that few organisations seem to take this option.

And I do know that they pay handsomely for those boxes, so news sites invariably keep them up despite dragging down the overall quality of the page.

“Feedback” Stories

Something aired on television and people have opinions on it. Perhaps an actor took his top off on a period drama, or a celebrity did a disgusting challenge in the “jungle.” A story needs to be written, and some junior reporter trawls Twitter looking for comments that back up whatever angle they’re taking. This is particularly the case for any BBC-bashing story, because no matter what, there will always be someone who has a view on Twitter that meets the needs of the writer.

And so we get stories with random members of the public saying things that support whatever thesis the publication is trying to present.

Twitter in Celebrity Death Reports

This is what happens. Someone famous dies. A story is put together. If they’re really famous and really old, then an obituary might already be ready. But there’s the general news story about their death to write. News site writers instantly trawl Twitter and Instagram looking for other famous people’s nice words about the person who has died.

And there lies the problem.

All too often, the first people to comment are not necessarily the people you’d want to hear from. A famous old actor dies, and someone who was knocked out in week 2 of Strictly quickly Tweets their thoughts. I’m not saying that the thoughts of said failed dancer aren’t genuine, it’s just that they’re not someone who’s opinion I’m truly interested in.

All too often the stories are filled with the remembrances from whichever celebrities have Tweeted first rather than looking for the dead person’s peers or family members.

GDPR

No, I am not asking you to re-sign up to my website. You’re OK.

But if you’re based in the EU like me, then you’ve probably been swamped with direct emails from businesses asking if I can confirm that I’m happy to continue to receive their missives. This Friday, GDPR comes into effect and appears that essentially every company ever, has only considered the implications of this in the last month or so, despite it coming into law back in 2016.

The thing is that there is a lot of, often contradictory, advice floating around, and a lot of medium to smaller sized companies feel like they’re going to lose out.

The general principle of GDPR – that citizens should be in control of their own data – is excellent. And yet, we know it’s never as simple as that.

Furthermore, advice is often not entirely clear. Unless you’ve actually hired lawyers expert in this field, you may be lost. Indeed, even if you do speak to lawyers expert in this field, you might still be lost. And that’s difficult, because people and businesses want to understand what practical steps they need to take.

Hence we’ve had a barrage of emails in the last couple of months, which has become a torrent in the last weeks.

But amidst that torrent, there seems to be two general types of email that are being sent out:

  1. Please confirm that you want to continue to receive email from us.
  2. We’ve updated our privacy policy. Have a look here.

It feels like the smaller the company you are, the more likely you are to send the former – perhaps because you don’t have advice to do anything else.

While the larger company you are, the more likely you are to have sent the latter.

A case in point would be businesses who use Mailchimp for their email solution. In general terms, these are likely to be smaller companies – since big groups tend to invest in their own often internally-managed email systems. Users of Mailchimp have in effect told their customers that they must collect consent from all their subscribers. Therefore, it’s been noticeable that many of the Mailchimp powered lists I’m on have been busy getting me to resubscribe.

And the reality is that in many of these cases, I purposefully gave a company my email address in order that they could send me emails, and as long as they said they weren’t doing anything dubious with my details – selling them to someone else for example – then I don’t believe that these resubscribe missives are always necessary.

But given that there are enormous fines attached to GDPR misuse, everyone plays it safe. And that comes with an enormous cost – more of which later.

Compare and contrast with much larger companies. They are also affected by GDPR, but their messaging is very different. For the most part, they have been sending me emails saying that they have updated their privacy policy and providing me with a link to go and have a look. They also provide a link to unsubscribe, and probably include a message about how seriously they treat all of this. But they key is that, if I do nothing, I remain on their lists.

Now it may be that these larger companies have been more GDPR compliant for a while now, and that their batteries of lawyers have meant that they have consent already for everything they do. But this is essentially the approach taken by some of the giants of the industry. And these titans are far more likely to do things that have a real-world impact on me. Consider Facebook and Cambridge Analytica for starters.

The reason I said that there’s a cost to smaller businesses is that their email lists are likely to be decimated come Friday.

For starters, email open rates tend to be considered good if they reach 25%. So a single email is unlikely to be seen by upwards 75% of people to start with. Add to that the need to positively do something off the back of that, and you’re potentially facing an enormous fall-off.

Now add into the mix that everyone else is doing the same thing at pretty much the same time, and you can probably mark down that already small number again, as email recipient fatigue sets in.

By this Friday, a lot of businesses are going to have a lot smaller email lists that they did this week. I wonder if any of them will share that information?

Email marketing is perhaps the cheapest marketing a business can do. Even with low open rates, the cost can be close to zero in producing those emails, and if some companies’ marketing campaigns are to be explained, they counter this by using volume. You didn’t open yesterday’s or today’s email, but by God, you’ll open tomorrow’s!

Furthermore, email marketing can mean upselling products to your best customers. You already have a relationship of some sorts, so getting that person to spend more is easier than getting a new customer on board with a brand they may not have heard of.

This time next week, emails from Amazon won’t have stopped, but they may have dried up from that small UK-based cycle clothing manufacturer that I once bought something from, and who’s GDPR consent email I missed in my busy inbox.

The Redundancy of Imploring Me To Change Things

I regularly receive emails of the following type:

Hi, My name is XXXX and I’m writing to you on behalf of YYYY.

We have noticed that you wrote about on your page .

We have a new that would be helpful to your readers.

We think you’re doing a wonderful job and everything you publish is excellent.

Can you make the and let us know when you have done so?

Yours,

Invariably I simply ignore the email, and then I get several follow-ups over the course of the following days, weeks and months.

A couple of things.

This is a blog. The only time I make changes is if there’s something inaccurate, wrong, or there’s a worthwhile update that readers should be aware of.

I assume that these pages are targeted because if you enter the right search combination into Google, a page from my blog ends up somewhere vaguely towards the top of search results.

I literally have no interest in updating old pages. While this blog isn’t some kind of journalistic record, it does represent my thoughts and views at the time the entries were written. And just because you’ve got a better place for me to link to now, it’s kind of your fault if my original link was not great.

Of course, I completely realise that these emails are automated. But that knowledge makes me even less likely to make changes. Do not underestimate my intransigence!

But I do hope the companies that are employing these agencies to drive more traffic to things that they want to promote are completely wasting their money.

* When I say “infographic”, I mean some kind of feeble unsubstantiated graphic that has the most dubious information imaginable, and is basically an advert.

Netflix, Independent Cinema, and Hollywood’s New Business Model

The other day The Ringer published a piece about Netflix and their original movie strategy. The piece, entitled Netflix and Shrill listed the original movies that Netflix has already released in 2018 and challenged readers to see how many they recognised. For most people, the most familiar title will have been The Cloverfield Paradox. This was an $XXm space horror film that became part of the Cloverfield franchise. However the studio that made it, Paramount, got cold feet and decided to sell the thing to Netflix lock, stock and barrel. They promptly gave it a surprise release right after the Super Bowl, during which of course, they promoted it.

But what about the rest of the titles in Sean Fennessey’s piece? Well only three others on the list actually resonate with me at all – Mute, Kodachrome and Mercury 13. The former because it’s a Duncan Jones film, and the latter two because I just added both to my Netflix List.

Netflix gets films in a few different ways. It sometimes licences big name studio films either directly from the studios or via third party rights packages. That’s the way most of those familiar titles end up on the service. However, those titles are probably only licenced for a specific period of time. That’s why you get lists of movies that are coming off the service.

Then there are those it acquires at film festivals. The model for smaller independent titles has often been to scrap together funding from wherever, then pitch up somewhere like the Sundance Festival and try to get a distributor to take on the picture, getting it into theatres and, importantly, marketing it. The latter is expensive, and it’s the reason why titles sometimes end up unseen even though funding had been found to actually make them. Netflix’s preferred model is to buy the global rights and buy out the film in perpetuity. But sometimes that’s not possible because different territory’s rights may have been given up as part of the funding model. Furthermore residual rights for home release like Blu Ray or iTunes may reside with someone else.

Finally, there are Netlfix original productions – those that are put together on paper and then shot specifically for Netflix. These are labelled “Netflix Originals,” although confusingly, so are those acquired at places like Sundance. When Netflix owns the film in totality, they get to release it globally and own it in perpetuity on every platform. They control whether you can ever even see the film somewhere like iTunes.

What all this means is that the list at the top of The Ringer article only completely applies to the US. That said, when I checked, all but one of the films was also available in the UK.

I recently read a really good new book called The Big Picture by Wall Steet Journal reporter Ben Fritz, who has long covered the entertainment beat. The book goes through deep into the current Hollywood business model, because it has changed fundamentally inside the last ten years. You only have to look at the table in The Ringer piece.

Fennessey notes that the six major Hollywood studios have released a total of 25 films in the first 16 weeks of 2018. During that same period, Netflix has also released 25 films!

But there’s a reason for that. Hollywood has just dropped out of the middle market – those $30-$80m or more production films that weren’t based on franchises, relying instead on audiences turning out to see stars. They included thrillers, romantic comedies and more serious fare. Fritz’s book takes a really good look at the model that yet used to hold up Hollywood, because some of those titles in the past might have lost money, but others would have made decent cash.

However in the scheme of things, Hollywood was only make 10% and now for a studio like Disney it’s closer to 30%. That’s because they don’t these days make films that aren’t based on franchises or other known intellectual property.

Most famously Disney has Marvel. But they’ve also got Star Wars, their own animated back catalogue now being remade in live action, Pixar (who are perhaps the only real originators of new stories at the moment, even if they themselves are relying more than ever on franchises. Did we really need another Toy Story, or did the trilogy end perfectly before?), and coming soon Indiana Jones.

Fritz’s book looks closely at the travails of Sony. In part because they were the studio that were considered the most talent friendly in the past. Amy Pascal who led the studio had great rapport with the talent and was as a result Sony was home to lots of those kinds of mid-budget films, while only really having Spiderman as a top tier franchise.

The other reason the books uses Sony as a case study is because of the massive email hack. All those communications ended up online and viewable to all. These caused Sony enormous damage at the time, not least when studio heads bad-mouthed people in some of those emails. But Fritz uses them to illustrate some of the inside thinking at Sony as they realised that they desperately needed franchises, and at the same time were struggling with their most valuable asset in Spiderman. As long as they kept making new Spiderman movies on a semi-regular basis, Marvel wasn’t able to grab back arguably their biggest property.

This is all important in light of The Ringer piece because it explains why the number of studio releases this year equals the number released by Netflix. If it wasn’t for Netflix, it’s not clear how those movies would get released at all!

I’m not saying that some of them wouldn’t make it to our screens. In the US, Alex Garland’s highly regarded recent release, Annihilation, based on the Jeff Vandermeer novel, got a theatrical release. But the studio who made it – Paramount again – got slightly cold feet and sold the rights for the rest of the world to Netflix. So a film that was visually spectacular ended up going no a screen no bigger than our televisions, and no doubt for many people, no bigger than their phones. However, that’s another discussion for another day.

Had Netflix not existed, then yes, I suspect some kind of theatrical release would have happened for Annihilation – certainly in the UK. But I can’t see studios like Paramount continuing with this kind of strategy for long. Nor can I see Netflix wandering around picking up and endless succession of studio releases that the studios have suddenly got concerned about. While Annihilation is excellent, the same can’t be said of The Cloverfield Paradox which is decidedly the weakest in the somewhat contrived franchise.

The risk is that Netflix is perceived as the dumping ground for movies that have tested badly with the distributors. Of course Paramount and their ilk manage to avoid having a flop on their hands, and come out cash neutral, or perhaps with a small upside.

Meanwhile, I completely understand that filmmakers must be frustrated. They made these films to be shown on the big screen – that’s how they’re conceived and shot. You frame things differently for television. On the other hand, it has long been the case that far larger audiences will see films on television than will the big screen.

More and more, then, it’s going to continue to be Netflix and Amazon that become the homes of these medium and smaller films. What they perhaps struggle to do is sufficiently market those films.

A lot is made of Netflix’s algorithms that surface films that viewers will want to see with incredible accuracy. I don’t agree. I’ve long felt that Netflix (and Amazon) are woefully bad at surfacing their own titles. They think they know me, but they really don’t.

When Netflix emails me to alert me to a new Adam Sandler release, Netflix being the exclusive home of new Sandler releases these days (Fritz’s book details this deal), then Netflix has failed to grasp even the most basic understanding of my interests. Of course they only know what they know. They don’t know that I enjoy Westworld on Sky Atlantic; The City and the City and Howard’s End on the BBC; Endeavour on ITV. They don’t know that I saw nearly all the Oscar Best Picture shortlist at the cinema this year.

Furthermore, when big releases like Annihilation or that recent flawed Duncan Jones title, Mute are released, I have to really go searching to find them. Did either Kodachrome or Mercury 13 show up on the Netflix home page? No – I had to do a search.

Now these are titles that I’m actively aware of. What about others that I suspect I’d like if they were marketed properly? Well those are the titles that are disappearing into the depth of the platform.

It still seems remarkable to me that neither Netflix nor Amazon are able to replicate what a good physical store is able to do in showing me new titles. If I visit a branch of Fopp (about the only significant retailer of physical discs in the UK right now), I might browse at a display of films from the Criterion Collection, the BFI or Second Sight. In some instances, I simply won’t have heard of some of the titles, but I’ll still pick up discs and browse at them. I may actually buy them. The same is true in a good bookshop where as well as the latest bestsellers, the bookseller has perhaps contrived to display some thematically interesting books together on a table somewhere.

A properly released mid- budget or indie film will have press ads, posters, bus sides, and importantly, reviews. The latter is an area that Netflix and others need to work hard at. Most of the broadsheets have full time film reviewers, but in the main they don’t review streaming titles very well. The release medium seems to dictate what gets reviewed. In the past studios would “game” this. A release that was really “direct to DVD” would get a brief cinema release over a weekend just so they got notability before you spotted the title in the DVD aisle of Sainsburys the following week.

Somehow a movie poster can tell me more about a film than a small box with barely even a one line description of the title. Netflix has some incredible algorithms to test multiple images to find just the right one to appeal to me. Am I a fan of a particular actor? Then I see that actor in the image on the platform. You see something different to illustrate the same title. But beyond that, they need to work harder. Choosing to start a stream is a much more proactive choice than flicking through the channels on a remote control before settling on something.

So that’s the real reason why those movies have disappeared without me aware of them. That said, if you gave me a list of everything released at the cinema in the first few months of this, many of them too would be unfamiliar. There are a lot of films craving for attention, and only so much attention that they can be given.

I’m not going to criticise Netflix for their release strategy – but they do need to work harder on marketing of titles. Otherwise, yes, it can feel as though these films didn’t exist at all. An unfamiliar movie title in a long list remains just that. A consumer gets more excited when they seen a known property than an unknown one.

The Ringer piece notes forthcoming films from Paul Greengrass and Alfonso Cuarón, both of which I’m excited to see. Netflix will also be bringing Andrew Niccol’s new SF film, Anon (It’ll air on Sky Cinema in the UK). I’m always keen to see a new film from the man who brought us Gattaca. As long as Netflix does enough to raise the profile of these films rather them just at best appearing as a meaningless title that tells us nothing, then I’m excited for their future.

The studios, however, I’m more worried about. Their strategy of shifting to fewer and bigger films runs all kinds of risks in the longer term. The words ‘eggs’ and ‘baskets’ spring to mind.

Marvel may be unassailable at the moment, but it only takes one or two duff movies, and that success can begin to slip. In his book Fritz notes that the reduced number of releases affords movie executives more time to spend on the titles that they are releasing. They can give them the time that they need, delaying releases if necessary. That’s great in theory, but even Marvel films have dates to meet, particularly if the outcome of one film leads into the next Avengers title or whatever.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is, as he says, the world’s highest budget TV series. Audiences go and see the new Marvel films regardless of the hero, a bit like watching your favourite TV shows week in and week out. Marvel tries to structure the films a little like a TV a procedural. You can basically watch each as a standalone, but of course there’s a larger story arc underlying the series. But as we know, even the biggest TV series juggernaut, eventually falls from grace eventually.

And will audiences continue to actually go to cinemas? They’re fighting the battle by laying on bigger and better seats that can sometimes be more akin to a business class seat on a long distance flight. They’re offering in-chair food and drinks service, and we’re seeing new formats like IMAX 3D and 4DX. Yet cinema ticket prices continue to rise ahead of inflation, and they become ever more hostile environments when they don’t ensure that patrons keep their phones switched off for example.

Disney’s answer to this potential uncertainty is to get skin into the streaming game as well. With its Disney Life app in the UK, and the forthcoming bigger offering that is coming in the US, they get to do their version of Netflix. Star Wars and Disney titles will soon disappear from Netflix as a previous deal expires. Don’t expect to see further expansions of the Netflix Marvel TV series featuring the likes of Jessica Jones and Daredevil, although I suspect the existing titles will continue, with the former having just been renewed for a third season.

Disney is claiming back its catalogue, and will no doubt look towards making its own Marvel TV series, and almost certainly, a live action Star Wars universe series. Who would bet against a reboot of the Young Indy series in the future too?

Will audiences get bored of superheroes? Are there enough franchises out there? How often can the same series be “rebooted”?

Who knows. But Hollywood is betting big time on them not running out any time soon.

Gaming Google

It’s widely understood that news organisations can find the going quite precarious in this digital age, with a reluctance on the part of consumers to pay for news, and advertising alone not bringing in enough revenues. So it’s perhaps not surprising that they should look at whatever advantages they can take, and some of these seem to be at the expense of “gaming” Google.

I’ll highlight a couple of things that do irk me a little. But it’s worth noting that while these work for news organisations, they probably won’t work for anyone else. That’s because Google tends to prioritise news outlets in search results that return news sources.

Generally speaking, if your search result is purely factual and not newsworthy then unless a Google “snippet” appears, the top results will be relevant sites, quite often including results from places like Wikipedia or Quora.

However if the search is about current events, then Google throws recently updated news sites in the mix, andthese will find themselves in a prestigious position near the top of the page. Most of the time, that’s because it’s relevant. Someone searching on a current event probably does want a news site at the top of the list of results, rather than some dated article that contains the same keywords.

But that means that news organisations can game the system a little, and here are two examples.

1. The Google Doodle

As anyone who ever uses Google knows, Google loves to replace its regular logo with doodles on its home page. These celebrate all sorts of things from anniversaries of famous people to major events that are happening. Sometimes the doodles are localised to specific countries or regions, and other times they run globally.

Occassionally there’ll be a really ornate interactive one that offers something like a game or even a musical instrument!

But what happens when you see a doodle that you perhaps don’t understand or that intrigues you?

You click it.

And therein lies an opportunity. Because what that actually does is perform a Google search on whatever the subject matter is.

If you’re a news outlet, you swiftly write a piece on the subject on the doodle, noting that Google is celebrating said subject, and you get it published post haste.

The result is that when user click on the doodle, they get a page of results on, say, clockmaker John Harrison. But near the top of the screen are some links to news sites’ “Top Stories” about the very same.

Sure, the Wikipedia piece is there, but the other stories are hacked together pieces written full in the knowledge that they will generate page views as a result of Google’s doodle.

There’s nothing particularly wrong here, but it does push other relevant search results further down the page.

2. When’s It On?

Another type of gaming that goes on is also based on anticipating what people are Googling. Often these will be based around sports events or TV series.

There’s a big fight this weekend, or a big game in the Champions’ League. Perhaps a really popular TV drama is returning to our screens.

In any of these cases, some people will Google something along the lines of, “When is the Joshua fight?”

Now there is some semblance of information being asked for. They do want a date or a time. Perhaps they want to know what channel it’ll be on, or how they go about getting access to that channel.

Into that void rush news outlets. They quickly author pieces providing that information, but usually padding it out beyond briefly stating the date, time and channel. If I were suspicious I’d suspect that Google’s algorithms downgrade stories that are too short. So they get bulked out. You try writing 500 words on when a football match starts!

To put this into perspective, a search for “What time does the super bowl start” – in quotes – returns 15,400 pages.

Yes, these are questions that people want answers to. But do we really need dozens of “news” stories on them?

Of course, Google can sort of kill this my providing the information itself. In some cases it does that, but it doesn’t stop the news sites offering their own pages.

I probably find the first of these two things more irritating that latter, but you still have to recognise these articles for what they are – cheap traffic drivers that don’t really offer a great deal.

Facebook Pixel Tracking

This morning Nieman Lab had a really good piece asking whether if there was a certain amount of hypocrisy coming from certain news organisations castigating Facebook for leaking data, when at the same time they’re helping Facebook collect more data on you.

Recall yesterday, when I said that some of Facebook’s data was missing from the download, and I highlighted Facebook Pixel? Quora is a good place to go and have a look (Note: Quora itself has a Facebook cookie):

The pixel is a transparent, 1×1, unique image file that can be embedded on pages outside of Facebook (unique = 1 per advertiser account). That image file, however, sits on Facebook servers. So, each time it is loaded, it increments counters on Facebook’s side.

And each time the pixel file is being seen by a user… Facebook servers can see which browser is used, which machine and which IP address. In other words, they are able to reconstruct that signature – they know which Facebook user has seen the pixel.

In essence, the Facebook Pixel lets you then target people who visit your site when they’re back on Facebook. And of course, Facebook now knows that you’ve visited a particular site, deepening the picture they hold on you.

And Facebook also has the Facebook Audience Network, which basically extends Facebook’s advertising business beyond the bounds of the Facebook website. In particular, they’re targeting mobile sites and apps.

Using the EFF’s excellent Privacy Badger browser plugin, I looked at some of the UK and US’s biggest news websites to see which ones allow Facebook to track you. This obviously isn’t a comprehensive list, but it gives you an idea.

Sites with Facebook Cookies

  • The New York Times
  • The Washington Post
  • Forbes
  • The Daily Mail
  • The Sun
  • Metro
  • The Times
  • The Economist

NB. These are at time of writing.

It must be said that I’ve not really gone into detail about Facebook’s business model here, but it gives you an idea.

And there’s a wealth of data being collected by many companies beyond Facebook – and a multiplicity of ad tracking cookies going around. Upwards of 20 cookies on a website is not unusual. Sometimes they’re just there for analytics purposes. All the advertising networks use them, with Google and Facebook being by far the biggest networks globally.

And there can be good reasons to use tracking cookies. This very site uses Google Analytics to count the number of people who visit, for example. I’ve embedded Vimeo videos and Flickr images on this site, and they have tracking codes built into the code I copy to this site. If you comment, there are various ways you can log in, and they have tracking codes too. I’d prefer there not to be, but if I want to properly use those sites’ services then I have to play ball with them.

While everyone kind of knows that the pair of shoes they looked at over lunch, but didn’t buy, is now following them around the internet, and that must be using some kind of tracking information, I’m not sure that many of us really understand how widespread this is, and how much data is being captured about us.

[Update: In related news, Mozilla has announced a Firefox plugin that stops Facebook tracking you around the web. Useful if you’re not already using something like Privacy Badger or Ghostery.]

Is Netflix Quite As Smart As Everyone Says It Is?

That’s possibly a provocative title, but I’ve come to the conclusions that while Netflix is very good at some things, I’m not certain that its recommendation engine is entirely as linked up as you’d think it’d be.

A couple of recent cases in point.

I was really looking forward to the new Alex Garland film, Annihilation. While I was slightly disappointed it wasn’t getting a cinema release, I was very pleased that Netflix was investing in it (well, buying the rights), and making it available to its subscribers. I dutifully searched for it ahead of its 12 March release, and added it to “My List,” Netflix’s somewhat clunky system for saving things you want to watch.*

Although I believe the film was made available at midnight UK time, but I waited until Monday evening to open the Netflix app on my Nvidia Shield and settle back to watch. I thought that they’d probably have the film front and centre when I opened the app. After all, it was a big coup them getting it. Plus I’d explicitly added it to my list.

There was no sign of it. It wasn’t in trending (too early I guess), or in any of the top lists of things I might want to watch. I ended up using Search to find it. It was – but hidden.

Then over this past weekend, while I was out and about, I got some Instagram advertising for a film called Paradox with Darryl Hannah and Willie Nelson. I’d not heard of it, but clicked through and saw video for some kind of western themed film. “I might watch that,” I thought – vaguely intrigued. Netflix are obviously promoting it, I’d catch up with it at some point.

Later, with that thought having drifted out of my head, I did open Netflix again in search of something to watch. Had I spotted Paradox, I’d have at least given it a second look.

But it wasn’t there. Or more to the point, it wasn’t obviously visible. In any case, because a film I’d seen promoted precisely once, was no longer in my view, I didn’t search for it. I only remembered this at all because I saw a second Instagram ad for it earlier today.

But again, it feels like Netflix is being a bit slow and doesn’t have all its ducks lined up. It’s not that I don’t think they can do some clever stuff, but they’re not as good as they make out.

Have you heard of a Danish comedy drama called Rita? Maybe if you’re Danish, but otherwise, you might not have. Netflix never recommended it to me. It was someone on Twitter who noticed it. It’s very amusing.

I started watching a Spanish series called La Casa de Papel. It’s a series about a gang of thieves who try to rob the Spanish Mint. It starts well, but like another Spanish series I saw on BBC Four last year, the strong hook doesn’t last the course, and we end up with an interminable number of episodes where not a lot happens, and the villain is really villainous. More plot and fewer episodes please Spain. I mention this because after I’d watched a few episodes on Netflix, the series promptly changed its name. It’s now called “Money Heist,” although it wouldn’t be obvious to those like me who’d started watching it under another name entirely. I had no idea what Netflix had done!

I’m always suspicious of over-claims about how briliant someone’s algorithms for discovery are – mainly because I’ve yet to experience anything that’s really that good. Amazon is pretty bad at recommending me books I didn’t tell it about, and music recommendation engines are pretty poor in my experience – especially if you move beyond the obvious.

Maybe they work for some, but I’m underwhelmed.

* I say it’s clunky, because it’s incredibly binary, and doesn’t allow you to make lists for different things. Furthermore, when you watch something that was on the list, it doesn’t then remove that item from your list. I’m also not aware that Netflix alerts you when something that’s on your list is shortly to be removed. Another useful feature.

Examining My Facebook Downloads

One very good consequence of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story is that a lot of people are discovering the surprisingly large amount of data that Facebook holds on them. The BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones was “somewhat shocked” to see what it had on him. And The Verge has a good piece on the subject with particular reference to Android phones.

In essence, Facebook always asks for quite a lot of data when you install its apps, and people seem to be too quick to offer that data when it comes to installing those apps. Only now are they discovering what they’re sharing.

“Yes, yes. Just install and let me get onto Facebook,” seems to be the default thought process.

Now I’m not going to pretend that I’ve always slavishly careful about those permissions myself, but I certainly wanted to see what Facebook holds on me. So I went to the Facebook Settings page and clicked on the Download A Copy link at the bottom.

Facebook first has to prepare the data, crunching it into a Zip file for you. You need to re-enter your password to begin the process, and Facebook promises to email you when the link is ready.

Based on others, I thought it may take a while to compile, but in face it took just 16 minutes. Fast considering the volume of data and the number of users who are perhaps also doing this right now. You have to re-enter your password a second time, and then the file downloads.

I’ve been on Facebook since 2007, and I thought that this could be a big file. In the end it was just over 1.1GB. I’ve uploaded a lot of photos to the service in the past, but particularly in the early years of Facebook, they heavily down-sampled those pictures. (Another reminder that you shouldn’t use Facebook as your only photo backup.)

Anyway, the file extracts easily enough and Facebook has built a fairly intuitive html interface for you to examine your data offline.

My profile data is an interesting place to start. Facebook seems to have detected a single family relationship. While relatively few of my family are on Facebook, some of those who are, were not picked up here as family members. If they don’t have the same surname it might not be obvious to an algorithm.

The interests section is very odd, and not very accurate. When Facebook first started, you just had empty text boxes to fill out. I wrote a general stream of consciousness about music, TV, movies and so on. At various points Facebook has tried to clean that up a little, isolating artists and titles, and linking them to official accounts or lists that it has.

But despite prompts to help them (and help me!), I never really played ball. So there is one novel listed in books, which I think I was probably reading at the time. There is one TV series – one that I absolutely do not recommend. Movies are a little more populated, but with films I may have referenced directly on the service rather than anything else. And music is very limited. Facebook really doesn’t know much about my media consumption.

In general, Facebook would learn a lot more about my media choices if they scanned through this blog!

Otherwise, most of the rest is either groups or people I’ve taken an interest in. I would say that they’ve used Instagram heavily for the latter.

Probably the most contentious area is the list of contacts. And for me, that’s a moment in time, when I did at one point let Facebook into my phone or Gmail account. The list of contacts is old, and while many of those email addresses and phone numbers still work, they’re cast in aspic. Over the years I’ve had any number of phones, and if and when I install a Facebook app, I never give permission for it to see my contacts.

My Timeline is as you would expect – everything I’ve written on Facebook. I link my Twitter account to Facebook, because I’m far more active there. All those Tweets are also captured here. But nothing I wouldn’t expect Facebook to have.

As I mentioned above, I’ve uploaded a number of photos to Facebook over the years. They tend to be more social photos than anything, and Facebook was an easy way to share with friends and work colleagues. Latterly, anything that I’ve cross-posted from Instagram shows up. [Update: A friend – on Facebook – noted that captions for photos are not included]

There are only a limited number of videos, again social, and no surprises.

Messages lists all my Facebook message and Messenger interactions. I loathe Messenger and don’t ever have it permanently installed (On occasion I’ve installed it for a short, but necessary period of time. I uninstall it immediately thereafter). Nontheless, again there were no surprises.

The data supplied by Facebook on “Pokes” (Remember them?) was incomplete. I only had one poke listed!

Security lists a variety of things including devices, and even IP addresses from which I’ve accessed Facebook.

The final two key pieces of note were Applications and Ads. I recently cleared out the list of applications that I allow Facebook links to. It’s always worth doing this on a regular basis. I know precisely which apps are currently linked, and there is a good reason for each of them. There are only five.

Ads are broken into three parts. There’s the list of topics that Facebook thinks you’re interested in. This is a curious mix of very broad things (“Music”) and very narrow things (“Dan Martin (cyclist)”). It’s reasonably fair, although I don’t really have a particular interest in Citroen, nor Motor Sports or Auto racing. And I’ve no idea why “BBC Radio Solent” is one of a handful of radio stations listed as being of interest to me [Update: I worked out that a former work colleague of mine works there now, and I’ve liked some of their activities]. They do at least list my current employer! My previous employer is not listed. It’s possibly that this list is dynamically updated and pruned accordingly.

Ads History claims to list all the ads I’ve clicked on. They only have two listed – both this year – and one without a named advertiser. This is clearly missing data. While I do recall clicking the one named advertiser, and although I rarely click advertisements, I have clicked others in the past. Incredibly, I once actually bought something on the basis of a Facebook ad! Extraordinary, I know.

Finally, perhaps most worrying for me, is a list of “Advertisers with your contact info.” Most of the list is made up of KLM subsidiaries. I once entered a KLM competition on Facebook, and must have agreed they could use my data. I rarely participate in competitions that require much data access for this very reason. Uber, Airbnb, Deliveroo and eBay Canada seem to have my details. But there are a hole bunch of seemingly related “Crowdfunding” companies who have my data. I’ve no idea how they got it, and more importantly, I’ve no idea how to remove it from them. In general it’s quite a contained list.

Notably, Facebook does not have a list of my outgoing or incoming calls, and it’s not had access to any SMS messages I’ve sent. I’ve never given permission, and never wanted to use one of its products as my default SMS app.

The most sensitive data is my list of contacts. But that data is old and is not being updated since the Facebook app on my current phone does not have permission.

As I’ve said repeatedly on this blog, I’ve never found Facebook the most trustworthy company. But on the other hand, there aren’t any surprises to me from what Facebook has in my data.

I think that there are some incomplete aspects of it. I’ve clearly clicked on more ads that Facebook is admitting – but perhaps they delete that data after a period? Less importantly, the list of Pokes was incomplete. I mention that only as it suggests that this might not be a truly complete picture of my Facebook activity.

But I also know that if I carried out the same process for Google, it would be a lot larger. Google has all my email. It has all my contacts. It stores documents, photos and videos for me. I use its browsers multiple times per day. It knows what YouTube videos I watch. It knows what music I listen to. I’ve had phones running its software for years. They know where I go.

In all of that respect, it’s potentially a much scarier proposition.

And yet, I do have more trust in Google than I do in Facebook. Perhaps that’s misplaced? Perhaps not. But in general terms, I think people are clearer in their knowledge of how their Google data is used.

Auditing who knows what about you is important, and we should all be doing this on a regular basis. It’ll be a much bigger job, but it looking at my Google Data might be worth doing too…

[UPDATE]

It’s probably worth highlighting a few things that you don’t get from this data.

  • Likes – Given that a key part of the Cambridge Analytica story is about trying to determine OCEAN psychographic measures from Facebook likes, a record of comments and pages I’ve “liked” is data that’s relevant but not here.
  • Facebook Pixel dataFacebook Pixel is the technology that Facebook uses to determine where users also go. While that could be websites that simply allow you to comment via your Facebook login, it might as well be websites that you never realised had installed the pixel. In effect, when you visit such a site, Facebook knows about it. It gives them some of the data that Google collates about you via its ad networks.
  • Geographic data – Facebook loves to know where you are. I mostly have this turned off, but couldn’t definitively say that this has always been the case. While Google has its Timeline History that tells you where you’ve been, there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent for Facebook’s location data. Incidentally, if you’ve never explored that Google data, I’d urge you to. You’ll be delighted, scared and possibly both. (Note to crime drama and fiction writers: Nobody ever uses this, although I understand it potentially increases the difficulty in plotting your story as mobile phones in general have.)
  • Whatsapp or Instagram data – I’ve noted that some of my Instagram information does seem to have fed through to parent company Facebook’s data. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for WhatsApp. Within the EU, Facebook has been limited quite significantly about how much data it shares. The UK’s Information Commissioner made that very point again recently. But it’s worth noting nonetheless.

Netflix: $8 Billion and 700 NEW Shows?

How much programming is Netflix actually making?

The answer is a lot, but I think that the widely reported numbers are a little misleading.

Heavily retweeted earlier today was this:

I’m not trying to pick on one person; these are figures that have been reported elsewhere.

Most pieces reference a Variety story: Netflix Eyeing Total of About 700 Original Series in 2018. But you’ll note that the Variety headline includes the word “total” in it.

The key section of Variety’s report is this:

The “700-range” figure [Netflix CFO, David Wells] cited includes 80 non-English-language original productions from outside the U.S., such as psychological thriller “Dark” from Germany and “Club de Cuervos” from Mexico. The total encompasses both new and existing original series (such as “Orange Is the New Black” and “Narcos”). [My emphasis]

In other words, this is a cumulative figure and represents the total number of original series on the platform.

It does not mean an additional 700 originals!

The Variety report is based on an investment call that Netflix had, and as is the way with these things, the transcript of the call is available online.

Here’s the relevant section:

Unidentified Analyst
Right. So moving from maybe the big-picture stuff to more into here now. What are your priorities for 2018? Where are you focused and where is the team focused in making sure the company executes this year?

David B. Wells – Netflix, Inc. – CFO & Principal Accounting Officer
Well, I think — a lot of what you hear many of us say is internal execution, right? So we think we have a large market. We just talked about there’s so many more nonmembers than there are members, and so our focus is really to continue to improve the product that we have. We’ll be adding increasingly more and more of our originals in our global content. This year, we’ll have 80 originals in the global category, meaning these are non-English language original produced content things, like Club de Cuervos, Dark — O Mecanismo is a new one coming from Brazil. And so the — our muscle in that area is increasingly being built and exercised, and I’m excited about lots of great stories coming from different parts of the world. And again, people seem to love high production quality and a good story. It doesn’t really matter where it comes from. So I think our focus is building out our production muscle, building out our global production muscle, increasing our product in various parts of the world. We’re the newest in Asia. So I’d say it’s continuing to sort of localize pieces in Asia, continue to improve the product there. But we also have an eye towards not losing our leadership position in other parts of the world as well. So it’s not like we’re not also improving the Americas.

Unidentified Analyst
You mentioned 80 global originals. That’s TV series, so that’s distinct from your film strategy?

David B. Wells – Netflix, Inc. – CFO & Principal Accounting Officer
Yes. That’s distinct to film, and it’s even distinct from television series that you might describe as sort of global, like Orange Is the New Black or Narcos. These are things that are produced in a non-English language market. So I just want to make that distinction. So there’s even more than 80 that are sort of for the global market. If you think about the total number, it might be somewhere in the 700 range.

That makes clear that there are 80 original “global” originals – non-English language originals. And there are 700 in total. They obviously measure movies differently, and categorise them separately, but then they are still both commissioning original movies and also buying them outright after festivals such as Sundance, beyond the regular licencing of movies from studios. Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer has previously said that they will release 80 original movies in 2018.

But how do you even determine what is a Netflix original? It’s not that simple.

Stranger Things or Narcos are relatively simple. They’re 100% Netflix. But for others it’s less clear. For example, in the US, the science fiction series The Expanse appears on SyFy, but it counts as a Netflix original in much of the rest of the world. Star Trek: Discovery appears in the US on the CBS All Access streaming platform. Everywhere else it’s a Netflix Original. Troy: Fall of a City is currently airing on BBC One and was co-commissioned by both the BBC and Netflix where it’ll appear globally.

Even seemingly homegrown series like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards, aren’t strictly Netflix exclusive. Orange is the New Black is currently airing on the Sony Crime channel in the UK, having done a deal with Lionsgate the producers. In France House of Cards originally aired on Canal+ since there was no Netflix in France and the producer, MRC, was able to sell it to them. On more recent 100% Netflix commissions, it has reportedly tightened contracts to prevent that programming appearing elsewhere – unless they choose to allow it.

In any event, a Mashable report makes clear that this 700 number includes some of these co-commissioned series:

A Netflix representative told Mashable that this content budget includes properties we already know and love like Stranger Things, as well as licensing content from partners like AMC’s The Walking Dead.

Note that The Walking Dead is not available on, for example, UK Netflix, because Fox International has the rights and they distribute it on Sky’s platform in boxsets.

It should also be pointed out that “originals” can include one-offs as well as series or seasons of shows. Think about all the stand-up comedy specials that Netflix is commissioning.

So to summarise, there will be 700 originals in total at the end of 2018, which includes new commissions, previous commissions and co-commissions.

Netflix is definitely spending a lot, although it’s in the ballpark of what other large media companies also spend each year. But it’s not launching new series at the rate of two a day!

They’re also losing money – negative free cash flow in the parlance. I’m not arguing that there isn’t an underlying business model that makes sense, but it’s worth noting all the same. The theory is that as they build up their library of originals, they don’t have to licence as much third party material (See also the recent news that Disney won’t renew their Netflix deal and will shift their output to their own new streaming platform).

Netflix faces the issue of needing to have relevant programming in multiple local territories, and while there’s value in older series, viewers will continue to seek new programming. Netflix will have complex calculations about how much it needs to spend on new programming versus catalogue versus subscriber growth versus how much it licences. It’s a complex grid.