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Raw Data Podcast, Episode Eight: All the Data that's Fit to Feed

What do your media platforms do for you?

Jeff Hancock, Professor of Communication and researcher of the emotional effects of digital technologies, wants to know what you think of your Facebook news feed. More specifically, he wants to know what metaphor you would use to describe what it does to someone who was unfamiliar with the service. Is it a local newsletter, written by a small group of people and attempting to describe the events of a community? Is it a highway overpass, giving you a fleeting birds-eye view of traffic in your area, and catching any graffiti that gets thrown on it? My analogy would be a dog: it usually brings you what you asked it to, but it gets distracted by new people, bright and shiny things, and anything that smells rotten. It immediately recognizes your friends and family, but sometimes leads you into interactions you don’t want to have.

Analogies are powerful but simplifying tools

These analogies are useful when we want to evaluate how people expect digital technologies to behave, and their emotional reactions toward that behavior. Someone who thinks of their newsfeed as a spy will behave differently—and feel differently—when using it, compared to someone who thinks of it as a magazine editor, or a personal shopper: a metaphor designed to entertain or please. When you think of the analogies used by lawmakers to describe encryption—is it a lock and key? A backdoor? A safe and a combination?—or the internet—a series of tubes?—you begin to understand the power of analogies to frame debate, to mislead, and to bring more voices to the discussion. That’s partially the job of the media, and in this week’s episode the media is turning its gaze inward.

Have you ever been fooled by an Onion headline?

How much do you rely on Twitter for your news? How easy is it for you to spot a fake tweet, or a photoshopped image? If you’ve been following the Apple vs. FBI debate that broke out today, when a US magistrate ordered Apple to assist the FBI in unlocking the phone of a suspect in the San Bernardino shootings, you may have heard conflicting reports: the FBI is asking for a backdoor. They’re not asking for a backdoor. They’re asking for access to this one phone. They’re asking for a tool that could be used to access any phone. How you feel about this issue may depend on what you hear from news sources, and where those news sources get their information: from primary sources, or from hearsay. The news sources themselves may go back and edit their pieces later, as new information emerges, and if you read an earlier version on the internet, that version can be entirely different—or entirely gone—when you return to it. The impermanence of the internet is one problem that the Internet Archive, and sites like politwoops, are trying to address when they scan and host the internet, or as much of it as they can index. Their efforts are making it easier to do research on the internet, and check whether, and when, something has been edited online.

Journalists don't have it easy

Some establishment supporters have complained that the internet makes it too easy to claim to be a journalist nowadays: running a blog or a popular twitter account can give you as much cred as a SF Chronicle reporter in some crowds. The internet has sped up the pace of news, and the demands of fact-checking, and broadened the scope of what reporting entails (FOIA requests? Independent data analysis, as Inside AirBnB does for one company?) Furthermore, sites like Buzzfeed have given internet reporting a checkered reputation. Are you producing hard-hitting longform investigative journalism, or clickbait? (For the record, I think Buzzfeed does both, and it may be what has allowed them to stay afloat as other media properties have gone under). The interviewees on this week's podcast are analyzing the means of internet news production, and producing richly interesting research.



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