POP LOSER no. 97

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Last week's newsletter had two problems:

1. It had the wrong number in the subject line

2. It went out about six hours late

The first problem was because I'm terrible at proofing things. The second was because MailChimp decided I was violating their terms of service, held up the email and suspended my account. The automated notice didn't tell me anything specific, just that I'd been flagged and locked out. I had a theory and, once I managed to get a hold of someone in their compliance team, that theory proved to be correct. 

So what was my sin? I linked to a porn site. Now, I didn't link to any actual porn, it was just a link to PornHub's 2017 data dump (which is, as always, fascinating, but I can't link to it, so use Google, I guess). The algorithm that scans every outgoing MailChimp email just saw a PornHub URL and that's enough to trigger a suspension. 

This bears a lot of repeating, so I say it a lot: Computers fucking suck at context. We can do wonderful things with AI, but teaching context is really, really hard. Maybe impossible. Even after the compliance team lifted my ban and agreed the link didn't violate the terms of service, they told me I'd need to delete it anyway to get by the filter, which means, in this very specific case, they aren't even really trying to add context to the system. (Granted, updating your AI for a single user with a small newsletter probably isn't great business. But still.) 

If I thought any of you would pay actual money for this thing, I'd move over to Substack. Also quit my job. And move to Paris. 



So Facebook and the newsfeed. Let's recap: The newsfeed is important because more than one billion people log on and see it every day. When Facebook decides to tweak it, they are tweaking something for nearly an eighth of the world's population. Actually it's more like a quarter if you go monthly instead of daily. It's fucking huge. Nothing else has that kind of scope. After years of playing with the feed, they've decided to take a step back and refocus it on the things your friends (sorry, your "Friends") share over content from media companies. That's probably good, right? 


“Entire business models have risen and fallen with Facebook’s tweaks to its opaque algorithm: First, companies chased Facebook virality, regardless of the content of their articles; then, they made videos specifically to chase engagement on Facebook’s newsfeed; then, Facebook prioritized live videos, which, in one case led to a Washington Post journalist literally eating his newspaper article on camera (later, the company would pay media companies to make these videos, a program it quickly dropped). Serious reporting and journalism became “content” subject to A/B testing and paid promotion. Small changes to the news feed would make the views on our articles rise and fall; analytics experts in the industry would ask other outlets: “Is everyone getting screwed by Facebook, or just us?”

In the end, Facebook didn’t care about media companies. Faced with perhaps its first ever existential crisis—the weight of being considered a “media company,” and all the responsibilities that come with it, including being blamed for the rampant spread of “fake news,” a Russian psyops campaign, and the tampering of a US election—Facebook has decided it’s not cut out for the news business.”


Me? I like anything that spurs a talk about the effects of technology on society, so these are exciting times, as evidenced by the volcano full of scorching takes from all over the web. But, as I also recently wrote something about Facebook being shitty and because, like Nav, I frequently bang the "Technology Is Bad Because Capitalism" drum, it's worth reminding everyone that despite all the nicey nice talk of Zuck's New Year's resolution, Facebook is unfixable in any real sense and it's only moderately cynical to say they only give a fuck insofar as we keep our eyeballs on their site. 

Because so many people get their news from Facebook, is it fair to assume we will now be less informed? Admittedly, if you're the sort of person who reads this newsletter, you probably have a more well-rounded news diet, but we're really talking about the mythical majority (I just made that up!), a sort of internet proletariat you and I functionally don't understand and probably look down on. But they are who Facebook is designing for and they will, I suppose, now be operating with less news and information in their life. Except one of the reasons Facebook is making these changes is because the shit we were being fed wasn't especially informative in any useful way or, in a lot of cases it wasn't even, like, true. (My friend Scott is really big on the "You do not understand those people, stop thinking you do" thing. He's about half correct or correct half the time. One of those.) 

This seems right


“My strong suspicion is that the overwhelming majority of users will barely notice a difference, and that an even more overwhelming majority will do nothing to change their off-Facebook news habits to make up for the loss. People who relied on the vagaries of the Facebook News Feed to get their news were never strong candidates to become assertive, forward-leaning, money-paying news consumers. They were the instantiation of that famous line from an old Brian Stelter story: If the news is that important, it will find me. If the news stops finding them, I doubt many will to start hunting for it.”


To conclude: The Facebook newsfeed probably matters. The news that was in it was probably bad for us and taking the news out of it is probably a different kind of bad for us. But it's fine because probably nobody really cares about news anyway, except for people like you who probably weren't using Facebook for news anyway. 




Is Instagram withholding "Likes" on purpose to keep you coming back? (And does the "on purpose" part really matter?) 


+++ is what Clive Thompson calls "antisocial media." A simple blogging platform without liking or sharing or, well, anything really. Type a thing and post it. Done. I find this… deeply comforting. 


“We peer at our feeble posts on Twitter or Instagram or LinkedIn and pray for likes, for hearts, for a big-smile emoji. Our attention is magnetically drawn to anything with a huge “share” number beneath it—what psychologists call the social proof: If lots of people are paying attention to something, we figure it’s worth our notice too.

This lust for virality deforms how we think in public. What do you get if you mentally focus-group every utterance before you post it? Stuff that’s panderingly dull (best not to offend anyone) or that leans into the kabuki hysteria of a sick burn (offend everyone!). Posts designed specifically to hack the attentional marketplace.”




I wouldn't say that Farhad Manjoo is the worst tech columnist working today, but because he's the New York Times' tech columnist, it can feel like he is absolutely the worst tech columnist working today. And his take on Apple and phone addiction is fucking awful. He simultaneously acknowledges a problem that (may or may not (but probably)) exists while, to put it crassly, fellating the company that invented the problem to begin with. Get a load (sorry!) of this: 


“And there’s another, more important reason for Apple to take on tech addiction: because it would probably do an elegant job of addressing the problem.”


And a scant two paragraphs later, he offers what is the stupidest take on Apple's business model I have ever read: 


“For one thing, Apple’s business model does not depend on tech addiction. The company makes most of its money by selling premium devices at high profit margins. Yes, it needs to make sure you find your phone useful enough to buy the next one, but after you purchase your phone and sign up for some of its premium services, Apple doesn’t really need you to overdo it. Indeed, because it can’t make infinite battery life, Apple would probably be O.K. if you cooled it with your phone a little.”


The Times also thinks you can solve your phone addiction by making the screen black and white. Which is actually a better view than letting Apple do its own "elegant job" of helping you out. 




The 29 stages of a Twitterstorm in 2018. (If you only click one link in this issue, this is the one.) 




The problem with artificial intelligence and sans serif fonts.


“Sans serif fonts are modern. They’re sleek. They take up less space and, conveniently, fewer pixels on a website. Sans serif fonts are everywhere (except in Medium posts like this, apparently). Look around you right now; you’re bound to find more sans serif fonts than serif.

Why is this a problem? Because practically every online article that talks about AI looks like they’re talking about someone named Al.”




The Awl is shutting down. It was good. Here's Longform's archive of stories.  




✏️ Inside One of America's Last Pencil Factories

😂 SlideShare Gems on Twitter

⚱️ Dolores O'Riordan

📷 Social Decay

👏 Regarding the Em-Dash

📷 Not So Bad At Holding Things

👾 Larry's Quest

🎥 Won't You Be My Neighbor? 




There is a gap between criticism and what people actually enjoy.


“I hate to sound like a philistine, but audience-critic discrepancies often occur when a work is less than pleasant to sit through, whether because of The Sorrow and the Pity–like length (a growing problem, pun intended) or grim subject matter. Take last year’s Best Picture winner, Moonlight, which has a 98 critics’ and 79 audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, and which I haven’t seen. The Rotten Tomatoes blurb calls it “The tender, heartbreaking story of a young man’s struggle to find himself, told across three defining chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love, while grappling with his own sexuality.” I can get that at home.”


Appreciation and enjoyment aren't the same thing. This comes up a lot when I drink with friends. It usually goes like this: I appreciate that Empire Strikes Back has sharp dialogue and is better directed than the other Star Wars movies. But I enjoy A New Hope and even Return Of the Jedi way more because they are more fun and have better contained plots. And then there's yelling. This happens more than you can imagine. It's already happened three times this month, including in the middle of a wiffle ball game. I am a real-life Star Wars troll.

Weekend Reading

What It's Like to Be the Parent of a Social-Media Star // The Atlantic 
The parents of teen internet celebrities get a crash course in a new kind of fame while trying to maintain boundaries for their newly rich and powerful children.


The Fall of Travis Kalanick Was a Lot Weirder and Darker Than You Thought // Bloomberg Businessweek
Silicon Valley CEOs are supposed to be sacrosanct. So how did it all go wrong at Uber? 


What's So Dangerous About Jordan Peterson? // The Chronicle Of Higher Education
Not long ago, he was an obscure psychology professor. Now he leads a flock of die-hard disciples.


How Sierra and a Disgraced Cop Made the Most Reactionary Game of the 90s // Vice
In the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots that ruined his reputation, Daryl Gates found himself in a point-and-click professional afterlife. 


Pop Loser is a weekly newsletter of innumerable confusions collected and written by Tyler Hellard.

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