Online joke shops are no laughing matter

With a headline that makes me want to respond with, ‘Thank goodness!”, here’s an unusual take on the business behind internet “humour”.

Memes are becoming harder to monetize
“One of the biggest factors in a meme dying is if a meme gets overused,” says Jason Wong, the founder and CEO of a meme-focused e-commerce business called Dank Tank that sells merchandise like Tide Pod socks. “People today are consuming more memes than ever. The expiration date for them has shortened more since even last year. Memes used to last for two to three weeks, but recently we’ve noticed they die after just a few days.”

“It feels like the internet is all moving a lot quicker,” says Samantha Fishbein, the co-founder and COO of Betches Media.

Or maybe we’re getting bored of it all a lot quicker.

The sweet smell of failure

To be filed under ‘just because we can doesn’t mean we should’.

The failed quest to bring smells to the internet
In November of 2001, the smell of success began to fade for Joel Bellenson.

His invention, the iSmell, promised to bring scent to the internet. He’d developed cutting-edge sensory technology, assembled a dream-team of Fortune 500 execs, and raised $20m. Video game companies, Hollywood studios, and internet giants were lining up for partnerships.

But he’d forgotten to ask a crucial question: Did anyone actually want this?

It turned out nobody wanted iSmell, in the same way that no one wanted AromaRama and Smell-O-Vision in the 60s, but that’s not stopping people from still trying with this.

The oPhone is currently trying to convince the world it needs scent-based text messages, and the Cyrano (a “digital scent speaker”) aims to create “smell tracks” with names like “Thai Beach Vacation,” which can be played to the aromas of coconut and suntan lotion.

“Right now, nobody’s waking up at 3 a.m. saying, ‘I really want to send a scent message,’ ” oPhone founder, David Edwards, told The New Yorker. “But one day they will.”

Nah they won’t. It’s a sad, silly story, but the guy behind iSmell still stands by his invention.

Today, Bellenson’s a bit sour looking back on Digiscents’ failure. He insists the idea isn’t dead, but has merely “just been injured.”

“People just wanted to dance on our grave because we were so ridiculous,” he defends. “They were just afraid of our greatness.”

Nearly 20 years after the downfall of the iSmell, that greatness isn’t so apparent. The device is omnipresent on nearly every “worst inventions of all time” list and is universally heralded as a technological feat with no practical application — a paradigm of the dot-com bubble’s ugly bravado.

Blogger’s still here?

TechCrunch has news of an update to Blogger. Nothing newsworthy about the update, really. What’s catching our eye is that Blogger still exists at all.

Blogger gets a spring cleaning
It’s surprising that Blogger is still around. I can’t remember the last time I saw a Blogger site in my searches, and it sure doesn’t have a lot of mindshare. Google also has let the platform linger and hasn’t integrated it with any of its newer services. The same thing could be said for Google+, too, of course. Google cuts some services because they have no users and no traction. That could surely be said for Blogger and Google+, but here they are, still getting periodic updates.

I used to have a blog on Blogger, and prompted by this article I’ve just had a very strange stroll down memory lane to visit it, via the Internet Archive’s marvellous Wayback Machine.

more-coffee-less-dukkha-585

I really liked the look of that old blog. Very mid-2000s. Are there no blogs that look like this anymore?

A book 20 years in the writing

A great piece by Craig Mod about kottke.org, a website I’ve been following for many years now.

If kottke.org were a book
There are so few websites that have been around for twenty years. Certainly so few that are not explicitly commercial in intent, built on a singular voice and point of view. Because of that, sites like kottke.org have a special emotional resonance not often found online. For those of us who have not just used the web but built on the web for decades, a place like kottke.org becomes almost physical in its emotional resonance.

The web’s been slowly turning to crap over recent years, with all the fun melting away like dropped ice cream, but kottke.org has been one of the few fixed points. Long may it continue.

Good, but not that good

Some interesting research from Pew Research Center, on shifting attitudes towards the internet over recent years. The majority of respondents to their survey think the internet is mostly good for them personally, but less so when thinking about society as a whole.

Declining majority of online adults say the internet has been good for society
By contrast, those who think the internet is a bad thing for society gave a wider range of reasons for their opinions, with no single issue standing out. The most common theme (mentioned by 25% of these respondents) was that the internet isolates people from each other or encourages them to spend too much time with their devices. These responses also included references to the spread and prevalence of fake news or other types of false information: 16% mentioned this issue. Some 14% of those who think the internet’s impact is negative cited specific concerns about its effect on children, while 13% argued that it encourages illegal activity. A small share (5%) expressed privacy concerns or worries about sensitive personal information being available online.

It’s interesting that, for all the talk in the media about online privacy and data protection fears, many more people are worried about the internet’s effect on children. This seems to get less attention, perhaps because it’s harder to unravel, less black and white.

Attempts have been made, however, and Pew Research Center have also published an extensive report on possible remedies relating to a wide range of issues.

The future of well-being in a tech-saturated world
Many of those who argue that human well-being will be harmed also acknowledge that digital tools will continue to enhance various aspects of life. They also note there is no turning back. At the same time, hundreds of them suggested interventions in the coming years they feel could mitigate the problems and emphasize the benefits. Moreover, many of the hopeful respondents also agree that some harm will arise in the future, especially to those who are vulnerable.

[…]

Three types of themes emerged: those tied to expert views that people will be more helped than harmed when it comes to well-being; those tied to potential harms; and those tied to remedies these experts proposed to mitigate foreseeable problems.

Lots of interesting opinions and ideas, from calls for government regulation to formally educating people about the impacts of digital life on well-being.

Fingers crossed for Flickr

I can’t imagine my photos without Flickr. I can’t really imagine the internet without Flickr. But it’s been bought out. Again.

Flickr agrees to be acquired by SmugMug – Q&A
What are SmugMug’s plans for Flickr? Will the products be merged? SmugMug loves Flickr and they want us to keep on being Flickr. There is no plan to merge the products. As we spend more time with the SmugMug team, we hope to find ways to coordinate our development work and provide two great destinations dedicated to visual storytellers and creatives.

I don’t really know anything about SmugMug. Their smug announcement page isn’t much help.

Together, SmugMug + Flickr
This Community Always Existed. Now It’s Uniting. Together, SmugMug and Flickr represent the world’s most influential photographer-centric community.

Are they trying to suggest some equivalence with Flickr? But perhaps I should be more generous.

Exclusive: Flickr bought by SmugMug, which vows to revitalize the photo service
Founded in 2002, SmugMug has been around even longer than Flickr and, from the start, has defied conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley, never taking a dime from outside investors or entertaining buyout offers. It operates on a smaller scale, but has won over millions of customers with a single-minded devotion to photography and a personal touch often lacking in online services run by giant corporations.

Certainly something needed to be done.

Flickr bought by SmugMug as Yahoo breakup begins
Verizon bought the ailing Yahoo for $4.8bn in 2016 leaving many of its most dedicated users, who had collectively uploaded 12.4bn photos, fearful for the future. Verizon began cutting costs and selling off parts of its Yahoo and AOL combined business, renamed Oath, at the start of 2018, including Moviefone and the e-commerce firm Polyvore. The SmugMug acquisition puts to bed rumours of Flickr’s imminent demise at the hands of Oath cost savings.

Family-owned Smugmug acquires Flickr, rescuing it from the sinking post-Yahoo ship
My marriage, my family, and my life are inextricably tied up with the history of Flickr, and watching it decline has been a kind of Dorian Gray exercise in watching a portrait of myself at some sweet, long-gone moment age and wither.

I really hope it works out. Remember Friendster?

RSS is back. Again. Except it isn’t.

I’ve always used RSS readers to keep up-to-date with what my favourite websites are publishing. It’s just easier and quicker than checking them all individually. Yes I was sad to see Google Reader go in 2013for me that was more useful than Gmailbut moved on to Feedbin, then Feedly, and have been happily skimming the web there ever since.

I’ve not met anyone IRL that uses RSS, or even knows what I’m talking about. So when the tech pundits are saying RSS is back, was it ever here in the first place?

Here’s Thomas Ricker from The Verge back in 2015, trying to big-up RSS.

You can have your ad blockers, I’ll stick with RSS
RSS has never been fashionable — it’s always been a news gathering tool for nerds, not norms. But now, more than two years after the untimely demise of Google Reader, RSS almost feels cool — like listening to vinyl or hating things on Twitter.

One of the benefits of reading websites via their feeds is the lack of ads cluttering up the place.

With interest so low, RSS users like me can fly under the radar, quickly consuming vast quantities of news almost completely devoid of ads. Sure, some sites only feed headlines and a few choice blurbs, but many publish the entire content of their stories. Regardless, it’s still the best solution I’ve found for keeping up with news.

Three years later and here we are again. The emphasis isn’t on getting past the ads this time, but on avoiding the algorithm.

It’s time for an RSS revival
The modern web contains no shortage of horrors, from ubiquitous ad trackers to all-consuming platforms to YouTube comments, generally. Unfortunately, there’s no panacea for what ails this internet we’ve built. But anyone weary of black-box algorithms controlling what you see online at least has a respite, one that’s been there all along but has often gone ignored. Tired of Twitter? Facebook fatigued? It’s time to head back to RSS.

[…]

“There are multiple approaches to connecting to news. Social felt pretty interesting at first, but when you mix social and algorithmic, you can easily get into these noise bubbles, or areas where you don’t necessarily feel 100 percent in control of the algorithm,” says Edwin Khodabakchian, cofounder and CEO of popular RSS reader Feedly. “A tool like Feedly gives you a more transparent and controllable way to connect to the information you need.”

Wired’s call for a revival might be a little over-optimistic. Here’s TechCruch’s view.

RSS is undead
Don’t get me wrong, I love RSS. At its core, it is a beautiful manifestation of some of the most visionary principles of the internet, namely transparency and openness. The protocol really is simple and human-readable. It feels like how the internet was originally designed with static, full-text articles in HTML. Perhaps most importantly, it is decentralized, with no power structure trying to stuff other content in front of your face.

It’s wonderfully idealistic, but the reality of RSS is that it lacks the features required by nearly every actor in the modern content ecosystem, and I would strongly suspect that its return is not forthcoming.

Using RSS readers is seen as a way of taking back control over the updates you’re presented with, rather than relying on social media algorithms. Ben Evans has a great rundown of where Facebook’s algorithmic newsfeed came from and why it’s so difficult to get right. Say you ‘friend’ 200 or 300 people, “and each of them post a couple of pictures, tap like on a few news stories or comment a couple of times, then, by the inexorable law of multiplication, yes, you will have something over a thousand new items in your feed every single day.” …

The death of the newsfeed
This overload means it now makes little sense to ask for the ‘chronological feed’ back. If you have 1,500 or 3,000 items a day, then the chronological feed is actually just the items you can be bothered to scroll through before giving up, which can only be 10% or 20% of what’s actually there. This will be sorted by no logical order at all except whether your friends happened to post them within the last hour. It’s not so much chronological in any useful sense as a random sample, where the randomizer is simply whatever time you yourself happen to open the app. ’What did any of the 300 people that I friended in the last 5 years post between 16:32 and 17:03?’ Meanwhile, giving us detailed manual controls and filters makes little more sense – the entire history of the tech industry tells us that actual normal people would never use them, even if they worked. People don’t file.

This is the logic that led Facebook inexorably to the ‘algorithmic feed’.

Back under the bonnet

Russell Davies on the backward steps we’ve taken with how we relate to the web.

Let’s make the grimy architecture of the web visible again
And, for a while, domain names and URLs became part of the fun of the web. While the more commercial parts of town got excited about the money changing hands for cars.com, the bohemian quarters were creating baroque constructions like del.icio.us or mucking about with ridiculously domains. I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited as when I realised I could buy agoodplaceforacupofteaandathink.com. Surely, I thought, this must already have been snapped up. And then the URL shorteners arrived.

[…]

It’s increasingly apparent that a more digitally literate citizenry would be good for a thousand different reasons. A great way to start would be to make URLs visible again, to let people see the infrastructure they’re living in. Perhaps it’s time for some pro-URL sloganising: Beneath The Shorteners, The Web!

Agreed. Another example of this has been prevalent in TV and radio advertising for a while now — adverts ending with calls to search specific keywords or hashtags, rather than directing potential customers to web addresses. As well as reinforcing this move to de-emphasise URLs, dumbing-down the internet and creating more reliance on search engines, it can also work against those companies themselves.

The lunacy of search term CTAs in TV ads
Additionally, it is very difficult to dominate page one of the search results for those generic terms. Taking the Mini Original commercial shown above, the search query they told viewers to search for online was ‘New Original’. When conducting this search on Google, the first page of results are no where near dominated by Mini. As you can see from the screenshot below, seven of the listings are nothing to do with the car.

Big bad numbers

TechCrunch has a summary of the latest report from Google on its attempts to clear up its mess. Some of the numbers are incredible.

In 2017, Google removed 3.2B ‘bad ads’ and blocked 320K publishers, 90K sites, 700K mobile apps
Google also removed 130 million ads for malicious activity abuses, such as trying to get around Google’s ad review. And 79 million ads were blocked because clicking on them led to sites with malware, while 400,000 sites containing malware were also removed as part of that process. Google also identified and blocked 66 million “trick to click” ads and 48 million ads that tricked you into downloading software.

Sounds impressive, but that’s not all they’re trying to tackle currently.

The bad ads report publication comes in the wake of Google taking a much more proactive stance tackling harmful content on one of its most popular platforms, YouTube. In February, the company announced that it would be getting more serious about how it evaluated videos posted to the site, and penalising creators a through a series of “strikes” if they were found to be running afoul of Google’s policies.

The strikes have been intended to hit creators where it hurts them most: by curtailing monetising and discoverability of the videos.

This week, Google started to propose a second line of attack to try to raise the level of conversation around questionable content: it plans to post alternative facts from Wikipedia alongside videos that carry conspiracy theories (although it’s not clear how Google will determine which videos are conspiracies, and which are not).

That sounds quite intractable. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

Reviewing my reading habits

It’s occurred to me that I’m becoming an increasingly lazy reader, preferring to read reviews of books than the books themselves. Below are some snippets from the latest to have caught my eye.

Reviews of books about dark Jewish comedians and insightful Australian art critics. Books on how the internet has changed our understanding of knowledge, how word processors have changed literature, and about how art can save us from our bone-deep solitude.

The wondrous critic
The most manifest virtue of these essays is their language, marked by an uncommon command of vocabulary and (in our day) a far rarer mastery of syntax, allied to a thoroughly antiquated respect for the rules of grammar. Open this anthology anywhere and you will be hard put to find a sentence that is not as memorable for its very phrasing as it is for its thought.

The lonely city
She tells us that she often moved through New York feeling so invisibly alone that she felt like a ghost, and so started to think of other ghosts as suitable company. The dead, for Laing, are not so much historical figures as they are very vibrant modern companions, and she invokes them with an ease and familiarity of old friends. She allows Warhol to pop up in the chapter on the web, Hopper to pop up in a chapter on Warhol, and so on. In Laing’s head, all of these artists are still alive somewhere – perhaps even in communion with one another. This thought makes her feel less alone, and she passes it along to us.

Rethinking knowledge in the Internet Age
In fact, knowledge is now networked: made up of loose-edged groups of people who discuss and spread ideas, creating a web of links among different viewpoints. That’s how scholars in virtually every discipline do their work — from their initial research, to the conversations that forge research into ideas, to carrying ideas into public discourse. Scholar or not, whatever topic initially piques our interest, the net encourages us to learn more. Perhaps we follow links, or are involved in multiyear conversations on stable mailing lists, or throw ideas out onto Twitter, or post first drafts at arXiv.org, or set up Facebook pages, or pose and answer questions at Quora or Stack Overflow, or do “post-publication peer review” at PubPeer.com. There has never been a better time to be curious, and that’s not only because there are so many facts available — it’s because there are so many people with whom we can interact.

How literature became word perfect
The literary history of the early years of word processing—the late 1960s through the mid-’80s—forms the subject of Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s new book, Track Changes. The year 1984 was a key oment for writers deciding whether to upgrade their writing tools. That year, the novelist Amy Tan founded a support group for Kaypro users called Bad Sector, named after her first computer—itself named for the error message it spat up so often; and Gore Vidal grumped that word processing was “erasing” literature. He grumped in vain. By 1984, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michael Chabon, Ralph Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, and Anne Rice all used WordStar, a first-generation commercial piece of software that ran on a pre-DOS operating system called CP/M.

Jews on the Loose
In his movie roles Groucho, for Lee Siegel, represents not an amusing attack on pretension but “the spirit of nihilism.” Siegel disputes the view that Woody Allen is Groucho’s descendant, for he feels that “Allen is simply too funny to be Groucho’s direct descendant.” Groucho is—and he is right about this—much darker. “No other comedians of the time,” Siegel writes, “come close to the wraithlike sociopath Groucho portrays in the Marx Brothers’ best films.”

Rather than solely answering our “Should I buy the book or not?” question, these reviews act as companion pieces to the books, whether the reviewer is agreeing with the author or not. The dialogue only adds.

I need to resist the temptation of considering the review as a substitute to the book, though. Maybe I need to find a review of a book about tackling laziness or something…