Tag Archives: big brother

Embracing the obsessives

Broadly, a subject has three types of audience: uninterested, interested, and obsessive. There are probably nuances here and Gartner would undoubtedly conjure up a four-quadrant chart and charge you several grand for it, but humans like things in threes so that’s where I’m going.

Each of us occupies one of these roles for a subject (the role might change over time). I count hate as interested: you have an opinion. I’m uninterested in Eastenders; I’m interested in X Factor (I want to kill it with fire); I’m obsessed with the Olympics.

Where this gets interesting is how these partitions are considered by content producers.

In almost all cases, newspapers and TV news programmes aim at the interested, ignoring obsessives and uninteresteds.

Consider TV news coverage of football. It assumes you follow the game — it never explains offside, or the league format (unless it changes), so it’s not for the uninterested. It doesn’t have three people arguing over the merits of a free kick, so it’s not obsessive either.

It’s similar with economics: if you don’t understand what GDP actually means (as opposed to the acronym’s expansion), you’re out of luck. But I bet economists regularly scream “it’s not as simple as that!” at the screen. The uninterested and the obsessive aren’t the targets.

The exceptions in news programming seem to be with science and to a lesser extent technology. With coverage of space exploration and physics, the target seems to be the uninterested almost exclusively. Mars is described as the fourth rock from the sun, cold, etc, almost every time, and Higgs is “the so-called God particle”.

Imagine if BBC News said: “Today in the Premier League, which is the richest and most important football league in England, the Liverpool FC club, which plays at a large stadium called Anfield…”

Producers might argue their coverage is as deep as the audience’s knowledge, and the audience knows more about football than about Mars. True, up to a point: but I think the audience knows far less about economics (and politics) than correspondents assume.

With science, it seems the interested and obsessive audiences are deliberately left adrift. The recent coverage of Neil Armstrong’s death was mostly lightweight, and the BBC’s online obituary leads with this excruciating paragraph:

In 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon and arguably the most famous man in the Universe.

As Wikipedia would say: citation needed.

Even a specialist, nominally interested-aimed show like Horizon often fails: there’s too much enforced drama, and the target appears to be someone who progressed only recently from uninterested. I can’t help but think this reflects the status of the production team.

The obsessive science audience is today not considered at all on TV, with the possible exception of The Sky At Night. I think this is very much down to its longevity and to Patrick Moore, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, once he leaves us, the show is quietly shelved as “coming to a natural end”.

Earlier in the year Professor Brian Cox gave a televised lecture on quantum theory. At last, I thought: targeting the high-end interested and the obsessive. And yet, amidst the actual science, there had to be celebrity involvement — Jonathan Ross doing maths, etc. I can picture the production meetings, where confused barely interested TV bods desperately tried to drag the target towards them.

A journalist I follow on Twitter was nevertheless confused by the lack of footage of Cox silhouetted by sunsets and wondered in a tweet whether he had now jumped the shark. I gave her the 140-character version of this post. She didn’t reply.

Irritatingly TV can cater for obsessives. The Big Brother auxiliary shows (such as Big Brother’s Little Brother and its Desmondesque successor on Channel 5) and similar spin-offs are targeted at hard-core fans. And for this year’s Olympics the BBC provided, for no additional cost, up to twenty-four channels of uninterrupted sport. If you wanted fencing prelims, you could watch them (and you still can, until January). BBC1 and BBC3 dipped around, catering for the interested with blanket coverage. (The uninterested had the even-numbered channels.)

The medium that has embraced the obsessives like no other is the internet, of course. (There are obsessive magazines too, like Maximum Carp and Carpology and so on, but the net out-obsesses these comfortably.)

Which brings me back to to Mars.

The seven minutes of terror before Curiosity’s touchdown were just before 6.30am UK time. The interested might’ve watched BBC News in the hope of some coverage. I’m an obsessive and watched NASA TV online, which showed the action from the control room live. Even this, annoyingly, cut away later to clumsy interviews, when all I wanted to do was listen to the mission control loop. (That was available on the net, Roger told me later. He’s a hardcore obsessive.)

But NASA’s usually great at cultivating obsessives. I can watch and listen in to Curiosity briefings and teleconferences live, uninterrupted by a journalist talking over the science. The Curiosity team also took part in a Reddit AMA that produced a bunch of intelligent, occasionally high-end obsessive questions.

Does it matter that mainstream TV doesn’t cater for science obsessives? I don’t know. I’d like to think it matters. The BBC argues that BBC1 and BBC2 have a general remit, and then dedicates sixteen days of BBC1 6am-1am to sport for the Olympics. Is it too much to ask for an hour of proper, obsessive science a week? A month?

But then, I’d probably have read it on the internet already.



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Facebook timelines: mind the gap

Facebook’s new Timeline feature is seemingly intended as an autobiography in the automatic sense: your life distilled to a series of status updates interspersed with red-eye, all filtered and summarised by the invisible hand of logic, the unblinking, unknowing eye of the Zuck-3000.

I’m intrigued by what my own timeline will show. I don’t write the updates Facebook expects. There’s rarely a sense of where I am or what I’m doing. I never say “Sitting in Bill’s, writing a blog post about Facebook timelines.” They’re my tweets, echoed; my rants, hashtag games, rubbish jokes, and other nonsense. My own timeline is likely to consist of other people’s photos of me, some events, and a bunch of non sequiturs. Here’s me at Chris’s 40th; here’s a link to a blog about Facebook; here’s a photo of a typo. Nothing of deep historical or biographical interest, I imagine.

For eager, unjaded pubescents pouring every numbing detail of their lives into Zuckerberg’s database, the timeline will be great – until it isn’t. Until a friendship disintegrates – as it will. Until a relationship ends acrimoniously – as it will. Then the timeline becomes a sniggering, taunting reminder, Gripper Stebson poking Ro-land in his chubby face, forever.

Thus, inevitably, it will become another part of our life online that needs pruning, tending, curating, culling. It will beg for attention, Tamagotchi: The Next Generation. Users will constantly edit their lives. I am going out with Terry from form 3C, I have always been going out with Terry from form 3C.

Facebook wants your timeline to be your autobiography, but it won’t be. For most people it’ll be like a Hello! magazine puff-piece: all of the glamour and the shiny taps, and none of the hoovering.

You won’t see, perhaps, underage drinking at a dodgy party featuring a jazz cigarette, or cruelly excised former friends or partners. I think there’ll be more of the latter omissions than the former: people’s youthful indiscretions appear to be becoming less important. Clinton had to claim he “did not inhale” but Obama didn’t; Cameron successfully sidestepped questions about his own drug use and not even the Daily Mail proclaimed the End Times. I think this is a natural societal evolution, not caused by the Internet but certainly made more visible and – crucially – searchable by it.

However society adapts to decreasing privacy, it’s the gaps that are most interesting. Facebook doesn’t know what happens in the gaps, in the mini dark ages that pepper my history and everyone’s history. It aims to know all but does not, will not, cannot, even with the vast data-buckets that it and the internet in general can supply on-demand for each of us. Like the missing years in a CV or the crackle as an old film skips a few frames, what is absent is often far more interesting and revealing than what is present.

I therefore submit this humble prediction. Facebook’s timeline will ultimately be no tell-all semi-autobiography. It’ll be a sanitised, part-fictionalised history. Stalin’s airbrushing writ large; Big Brother’s ultimate rewrite.

And employers won’t look at your timeline to decide whether to interview you or hire you: they’ll look at your friends’ timelines.

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Facebook and the two minutes’ hate

In George Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother enforces a regular two minutes’ hate to ensure the citizen-slaves are fully au fait with the enemy of the day. It’s a term that originated in WWI’s artillery bombardments and is now mostly evident fully fourteen letters later, on that other battleground, the WWW.

Today’s enemy – as on so many other days – is Facebook. If it’s Wednesday, it must be another home page revamp. This latest change does away with those pesky ‘Top Stories’ and ‘Recent News’ options, which always used to default to ‘Top Stories’ even though I never, ever wanted anything other than Recent News. Now they’ve inflicted some cockamamy algorithmic hodgepodge that combines those two options, and the entire internet has exploded in a fireball of wtf and zomg.

This is not Big Brother’s doing: nobody at Microsoft or Google or Apple pressed a blue button marked with a cuddly sans serif f and sat back cackling with a smartphone full of white, fluffy lolcats. This is entirely a bottom-up reaction. Were I a lazy reporter desperately scrambling for a headline, I might even make some cackhanded pun on Arab Spring. But I can’t think of one right now.

People despise change because we are creatures almost entirely of habit. We might like to think we have will and self-determination and can stay up all night if we want to, you can’t stop me, mum. But we don’t. We laugh at dogs and their pavlovian reactions, and then it’s 4 o’clock and time for tea, oh and I mustn’t miss today’s Pointless I do like that nice Alexander Armstrong, don’t you? and the punched paper tape loops through our brains one more time.

Slow, gradual changes are easily accepted, embraced, like a frog being slow-boiled. I bought a cheapo wifi-capable printer last week, now perched on an ex-server in my spare room together with the military-grade safe in which I keep its priceless ink. The first few times I walked past the room my inner lizard shouted There’s something in there – it was a new, unexpected pattern on the retina and I turned my head involuntarily. Now, meh, I’ve been retrained. The new pattern is absorbed, the newness has gone, the routine is back.

More radical change takes longer to process. In a new house you’re constantly jumping and starting at its various ticks, cracks and wheezes, getting lost in cupboards and locking yourself in fridges. And all the time you’re swearing like a navvy on jankers. Your brain is clunking and clanking away rewriting the paper tape, and your eyes spin like the MacOS X hypnowheel (other operating systems are available) until the updated universe can be paged back in.

Thus it is with Facebook’s latest update. Millions of people are using the site’s various existing features, which they railed against last time they were changed, to protest these latest modifications. In a couple of days the chances are the Facebook juggernaut will thunder on to its next redesign unperturbed by self-immolating gifs and its users will wonder why they were all worked up about it in the first place.

That’s not to say I like the changes. I think they’re daft. And here’s why.

Let’s look at the UI. There are arguably four focal points: the icons at top-left next to the word ‘facebook’, which gain red numbers when something interesting happens; the list of stuff that seems to change in a way I don’t quite understand down the left (favourites, lists, apps) which gain blue-grey numbers when something interesting happens; the main body, which updates in a way utterly unfathomable to mortals, gaining and losing ‘recent stories’, ‘top news’ and other sections when something interesting happens; and the ticker on the right, which updates in a hazily understood way when something interesting happens.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a lot of something interesting and a lot of I don’t know what makes something appear here. Oh, and some of it may appear in multiple places.

I’m not interested if you have figured out how each of these sections works and when it updates. Well done, have a banana. You are special. The point is, most people don’t. To most people, the way all this works is mysterious and magical and they just hope to jebus that they can find the thing they want to when they need to. This is not because they are dumb, it is not because they are lazy. It is because they just don’t care enough to work it all out: their goal is not to understand all this. To a first approximation their goal, to use the sainted jwz’s expression, is to get laid (link is geeky, SFW!).

Facebook’s current incarnation does not make this any easier than its last. It makes it harder, because the vital goal-fulfilling information is scattered amongst the something interesting and I don’t know what makes something appear here sections.

In Joel Spolsky’s words, the fundamental rule of user interfaces is: “A user interface is well-designed when the program behaves exactly how the user thought it would”.

Facebook does not behave how users think it does, because most people have no idea how it behaves. There are too many places where slightly different, possibly overlapping pieces of information are presented in slightly different ways, and those pieces of information are chosen using slightly different, possibly overlapping, closely guarded, unfathomable algorithms.

Which brings us to the end of today’s two minutes’ hate. I think I overran. Ah well, time for a cup of tea and Pointless.

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