New Creative Commons search in beta

Creative Commons has launched a new search tool. The search covers images from Rijksmuseum, Flickr, 500px, the New York Public Library and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Eventually it could cover the entire Commons: approximately 1.1 billion literary works, videos, photos, audio tracks, scientific research and content in other formats. Hugely useful for web publishers everywhere.

Designing headlines to make them more useful

Nieman Lab is running their annual predictions for journalism. Melody Kramer’s piece about designing headlines caught my eye:

In other words, how can we encode as much useful information as possible in a headline? Colors, fonts, shading, size, position, pictures, interactivity, history, metadata — basically all the design elements of information encoding across multiple dimensions. Which of those are most helpful to enhancing the headline? How can we test them?

For example, could we think of a headline as something that one can hover over, and immediately see source material? Or how many times the headline has changed? Or how other publications have written the same headline? (How does that help readers? How could that help publications?)

Let’s go broader. Why are headlines text? Could they be something else? What is the most important element at the top of a page? Is it five to fourteen words or is it something else entirely?

The whole piece is interesting and (typically for Mel) full of good ideas. Later she discusses the role of text:

Do we only think of mainly-text-based solutions because of the current nature of the platforms we share on? What if that changes? How could that change? A lot of current restrictions around headlines come from social and search restrictions and it would be interesting to think about that impact and how publications might bypass them with headline-like constructs (like Mic’s multimedia notifications or BuzzFeed’s emoji notifications.) They’re take the headline space and reworking it using images. What could we use besides images? In addition to images?

This is key. We use text because, well, text. It’s demanded by the channels we use to disseminate content. As readers we can react in non-textual ways: Facebook, Buzzfeed and others allow us to offer what might be very nuanced reactions using (barely?) representative icons and emoji. But as publishers, our platforms—both those that we own and third-party sites in our extended IA—generally haven’t evolved to a point where we can implement much of what Mel imagines.

This is a shame, as there’s plenty wrong with text and how it is used. Alan Jacobs wrote a short post in November, disagreeing with another post that championed text over other forms of communication:

Much of the damage done to truth and charity done in this past election was done with text. (It’s worth noting that Donald Trump rarely uses images in his tweets.) And of all the major social media, the platform with the lowest levels of abuse, cruelty, and misinformation is clearly Instagram.

No: it’s not the predominance of image over text that’s hurting us. It’s the use of platforms whose code architecture promotes novelty, instantaneous response, and the quick dissemination of lies.

This is problematic, and brings me back once again to Mike Caulfield’s excellent take on the layout and purpose of Facebook’s news distribution:

The way you get your stories is this:

  • You read a small card with a headline and a description of the story on it.
  • You are then prompted to rate the card, by liking it or sharing them or commenting on it.
  • This then is pushed out to your friends, who can in turn complete the same process.

This might be a decent scheme for a headline rating system. It’s pretty lousy for news though.

[…]

So we get this weird (and think about it a minute, because it is weird) model where you get the headline and a comment box and if you want to read the story you click it and it opens up in another tab, except you won’t click it, because Facebook has designed the interface to encourage you to skip going off-site altogether and just skip to the comments on the thing you haven’t read.

No conclusions this end, but plenty of interrelated issues to ponder:

  1. How do we (re-)engineer headlines to be more useful by revealing more information than is currently available in a few short words?
  2. How do we maintain the curiosity gap without ever-increasing reliance on clickbait?
  3. How do we continue the battle against fake news and propaganda masquerading as unbiased thought?
  4. How do we reconcile this with third-party distribution platforms that can only (barely) cope with text, and that treat content as a title and comments box only?

There’s something else in here about headlines and metadata and their role in content discovery and dissemination, and how users decide what to read and when. I was talking about this today with Richard Holden from The Economist and it’s sparked a few assorted thoughts that are yet to coalesce into anything new or meaningful. Perhaps in time.

How Google’s AMP and Facebook’s Instant Articles camouflage fake news

Kyle Chaka for The Verge:

The fake news problem we’re facing isn’t just about articles gaining traffic from Facebook timelines or Google search results. It’s also an issue of news literacy — a reader’s ability to discern credible news. And it’s getting harder to tell on sight alone which sites are trustworthy. On a Facebook timeline or Google search feed, every story comes prepackaged in the same skin, whether it’s a months-long investigation from The Washington Post or completely fabricated clickbait.

Another unintended consequence of the homogenised/minimalist publishing platform movement. See also: Medium.

Battling fake news with schema.org

More from The Economist, who’ve made a prototype of a tool that estimates the standing of a publisher based on the data about themselves that they make available using structured data:

In simple terms, here’s how our idea works from the perspective of a news reader: imagine that you stumbled upon an article via social media or search. You’ve never seen this site before and you have never heard of the publisher. You want to be able to validate the page to make sure the organisation behind the news is legit. You simply enter the URL of the page into our tool and it produces a score based on how much information the publisher has disclosed about itself in the code of its web page.

A few immediate thoughts:

  • This wouldn’t be impossible to game, but the extra work involved might make it slightly less easy or appealing to pull the web equivalent of the Twitter egg account move: set up a basic WordPress site with no information with the sole purpose of writing and sharing fake news stories for ad revenue.
  • As well as being an end-user action, platforms could adopt some of these checks (among many, many other signals) when determining how to rank content in news feeds and search results.
  • It could also be a quality factor for ad networks when determining where to place adverts.

John Tucker’s zine-making history

Internet pal John Tucker:

I began making zines when I was a student in Manchester. I moved to Manchester aged 20 as a feckless Welsh lump with no discernable skills and underwent a four year larval process that produced a half-decent laboratory scientist and a reasonably capable self-publisher. Here’s how I did the second of those two things.

This is a great post, walking though John’s previous zine projects, working out that the creative process isn’t ‘the real work’:

Thinking back on this hard, I remember every step in the process feeling like the “real work”; drawing the damn thing, that’s the real work! The pure, creative process of putting ideas to page, right? Wrong. As difficult as that is, that is – at least – the thing that people will picture you doing if they ever pick it up and read it. The real work comes after. There is nothing creative about waiting in a dry print-shop reception for the thing to be pulled from a memory stick and onto a thousand individual sheets of paper, nor is there anything artistic or divine about operating a guillotine or a stapler. And there is certainly no creative majesty in cycling around Manchester, red-faced and annoyed. I definitely remember a few points on the dropoff route – chaining my bike to a guard rail for the fifteenth time, sweating out the cigarettes I’d rattled off to get through it (I was also intensely unfit at the time, largely due to the cigarettes) – feeling like this was, in fact, the real “work”. Which of course it was. Without the last push through all the shit, you remain one of those people who’s been threatening a zine for years and never goes through with it. As horrible as it is to have InDesign crash for the third time, taking your layouts with it, that’s what you have to do to do things, and not just be somebody who gives it the big one but still has the default GoDaddy page on their website.

Jumping to the conclusion (which you shouldn’t, you should read it all):

In conclusion to this year’s iteration of this post, making your own publications is a satisfying, infuriating, cathartic, horrible, wonderful enterprise. If you want to frustrate yourself smart about something – anything – then learning by doing is really the only way. If you’ve been considering self-publishing, it’s definitely doable – I’ve done it, and I’m definitely not the least qualified or most delusional person who’s ever done it. And as much as doing it sucks, it sucks a lot less than not doing it.

Here’s an Instagram time-lapse video of one of the pieces in John’s latest work, Handsome Devil Tattoos, a collection of illustrated tattoo concepts based around the work of Morrissey and The Smiths. I’ve got a copy and it’s great:

https://www.instagram.com/p/BMJiGGVAV1f/

The Economist’s Medium experiment

Adam Smith, The Economist’s Deputy Community Editor, writing about Medium on Medium:

Since we were new to Medium, and publishing there in order to find people who were new to us, we decided not to promote our publication on other social platforms. After connecting our Twitter account to our Medium user account — to capture our Twitter followers who also use Medium as followers on Medium — we didn’t drive any traffic to it from Twitter. Or even Facebook. We wanted to see the publication grow organically within Medium.

[…]

The crucial number is how many new people saw our content. We totalled up the page views for Democracy in America on our website and on Medium. Those on Medium represented around 5% of the total. We’re happy with this. Think about all the infrastructure in economist.com, such as all the other content we publish there beyond that single blog, and the fact that we drive so much social traffic to it all day every day. Economist.com is very busy and heavily used. Our Medium publication was publishing one post per day at most and received no promotion. So we think that 5% number looks pretty good: within that 5% are thousands of people who would not have consumed Economist content if they weren’t on Medium.

These seem reasonable numbers and it’s inspired me to start republishing some of OpenLearn’s longer-form articles to Medium.

(Also, of course his name is Adam Smith.)

How social media broke our democracy

Mike Caulfield:

I could not sleep last night at all. So I organized my notes I’ve been taking over the last year on the problem of doing politics in distributed feed-based systems.

I know this election was about so much more than that (so much more), and our problems are so much deeper. But I remain convinced that even if social media is not the fire or the fuel of Breitbartian racism it is in fact the oxygen that helps it thrive and spread.

There are 537 pages of notes in this PDF, and it may not be immediately clear what each has to do with the book, but in my head at least they all relate. They are worth a read.

[pdf]

Wow—this is fantastic, and exactly what I was getting at in my earlier post about indiscriminate collecting. I’ve started using DEVONthink to collect and organise my notes and web clippings. I hope to get to a point where I have a similar collection. Not only does it help my understanding of concepts, but it enables me to make unexpected connections between them.

Publishers stop using chumboxes

Sapna Maheshwari and John Hermann’s article for the NYT, Publishers Are Rethinking Those ‘Around the Web’ Ads:

Usually grouped together under a label like “Promoted Stories” or “Around the Web,” these links are often advertisements dressed up to look like stories people might want to read. They have long provided much-needed revenue for publishers and given a wide range of advertisers a relatively affordable way to reach large and often premium audiences.

But now, some publishers are wondering about the effect these so-called content ads may be having on their brands and readers. This month, these ads stopped appearing on Slate. And The New Yorker, which restricted placement of such ads to its humor articles, recently removed them from its website altogether.

Among the reasons: The links can lead to questionable websites, run by unknown entities.

Sounds pretty terrible for readers. Just listen to Matt Crenshaw, VP of product marketing at Outbrain, one of the companies selling these terrible ads:

“As this space has grown up, this is becoming a very significant percentage-wise revenue source for publishers. We have been told from major, major publishers that we have become their No. 1 revenue provider,” he said, declining to name specific companies.

Herrman’s erstwhile colleague at the Awl, John Mahoney, previously produced an excellent and complete taxonomy of internet chum, the term given to these awful pieces of shit.

Mercury, a new content parser for the web

Postlight have launched Mercury, a free tool to strip cruft from web content. Originally designed to help people produce AMP-compliant pages, it’s evolved into a more comprehensive tool.

From the introductory blog post:

Right now, the Mercury Web Parser is being used by our AMP Converter to make any web site AMP-friendly with just one line of code. It’s working incredibly well there — turning millions of URLs into AMP pages. We can see lots of ways that Mercury can be used:

  1. Migrating legacy content into new CMSes. Migrations are notoriously time-consuming and filled with edge cases. You can use Mercury to quickly grab the content of a web page and put it into a new database. And that will work for millions of URLs.
  2. Generating mobile experiences. We use the Mercury Parser to build great AMP pages. But AMP is not the end-game for Mobile. You can take your entire website, run it through Mercury, and build on the scaled-back version to create a mobile web (or app experience).
  3. Creating new experiences for new platforms. The future is not just words on a screen. There’s a panoply of speaking, whirring, humming devices all of which need content-rich experiences. There’s Amazon Echo, SIRI, enhanced ebook formats — and using the Mercury Parser, your web content is ready for it.

How to create your own thesaurus

John Saito has an interesting approach to writing product copy—he created his own thesaurus from common themes he frequently writes about.

These words aren’t exact synonyms of the word “mobile.” But they’re words that you can use when talking about the benefits of a mobile app. I found this list a lot more helpful than anything I could find in thesaurus.com.

Once I had this list, it was so much easier to write some quick copy:

  • “YouTube goes where you go”
  • “Bring your music with you and never miss a beat”
  • “All your favorite videos—right at your fingertips”

You get the idea. Once your list is big enough, you can just pick a few phrases and iterate from there. Copywriting becomes a lot easier when you have a list of words to start from.

Bandcamp Daily’s editorial strategy

An interview with J. Edward Keyes, editorial director for Bandcamp, about the editorial strategy of their Bandcamp Daily blog:

How much advance planning would you recommend for people mapping out their editorial calendars?

You may be a great planner with a strong sense of what you can accomplish, but there are always complications that spring up during a publishing cycle that you either didn’t anticipate, or didn’t know that you should have anticipated. Start with the kind of writing that comes naturally to you, but set clear goals on the kind of pieces you’d like to be publishing eventually. Once you have a month or so of publishing under your belt, you’ll have a better idea of just how long certain parts of the process take, and will be able to gauge how much more you think you can handle as you start to ramp up.

Look back over your work often: Which pieces worked? Which found an audience? Which pieces fizzled, and why? What kinds of things do you enjoy writing and editing? Who is your audience, and how well did you reach them? All of these are crucial first steps.

Bandcamp have really invested a lot in the Daily blog. Several posts per day, none of which are slight or short. They are interesting not only because they showcase fascinating bands, labels and genres but also because they showcase the myriad ways that people use their product.

Awesome CMS

The agency Postlight recently compiled Awesome CMS, a list of popular content management systems.

From their blog post:

At Postlight we do a lot of CMS work — nearly every technology problem involves publishing something to the web—and so this list comes out of professional interest, plus a desire to stop searching far and wide when clients come to us with questions about content management.

This Awesome CMS list is a resource that anyone can use, and it’s open to all to modify. Send us a pull request on GitHub!

Lots of new (to me) things to investigate!

Charles Paget Wade Before Snowshill

My pal Paul Capewell wrote a booklet on the artist, architect and collector Charles Paget Wade. Aside from wanting to read the booklet, I was caught by this paragraph in Paul’s post:

So I took some time off to get the words down. Fortunately, and partly as I was writing in chronological order, it flowed smoothly. It turns out that if you do the slow, painstaking work of collecting quotes, dates, examples and context beforehand, one’s brain actually does a pretty good job of condensing it all into a readable format.

I’m reminded of Rachel Leow’s great 2008 post Only Collect:

Only Collect; that is to say, collect everything, indiscriminately. You’re five years old. Don’t presume too much to know what’s important and what isn’t. Photocopy journal articles, photograph archives; create bibliographies, buy books; make notes on every article or book you read, even if it’s just one line saying “Never read this again”; collect newspaper clippings and email them to yourself; collect quotes; save your ideas for future papers, future projects, future conferences, even if they seem wildly implausible now. Hoarding must become instinctual, it must be an uncontrollable, primal urge. And the higher, civilizing impulse that kicks in after the fact is organization, or librarianship. You must keep tabs on everything you collect, somehow; a system must be had, and the system must be idiot-proof. That is to say, you should be able to look back on it six months for now and not be completely stymied as to why you’ve organized things that way. (The present versions of ourselves are invariably the biggest idiots, and six months will make that clear).

Steven Johnson has written about his writing process several times over the past decade. He’s an indiscriminate collector too, and he uses software (specifically DEVONthink) to organise it and reveal unexpected connections, which help direct his books and articles:

For the past three years, I’ve been using tools comparable to the new ones hitting the market, so I have extensive firsthand experience with the way the software changes the creative process. (I have used a custom-designed application, created by the programmer Maciej Ceglowski at the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education, and now use an off-the-shelf program called DEVONthink.) The raw material the software relies on is an archive of my writings and notes, plus a few thousand choice quotes from books I have read over the past decade: an archive, in other words, of all my old ideas, and the ideas that have influenced me.

Having all this information available at my fingerprints does more than help me find my notes faster. Yes, when I’m trying to track down an article I wrote many years ago, it’s now much easier to retrieve. But the qualitative change lies elsewhere: in finding documents I’ve forgotten about altogether, documents that I didn’t know I was looking for.

What does this mean in practice? Consider how I used the tool in writing my last book, which revolved around the latest developments in brain science. I would write a paragraph that addressed the human brain’s remarkable facility for interpreting facial expressions. I’d then plug that paragraph into the software, and ask it to find other, similar passages in my archive. Instantly, a list of quotes would be returned: some on the neural architecture that triggers facial expressions, others on the evolutionary history of the smile, still others that dealt with the expressiveness of our near relatives, the chimpanzees. Invariably, one or two of these would trigger a new association in my head — I’d forgotten about the chimpanzee connection — and I’d select that quote, and ask the software to find a new batch of documents similar to it. Before long a larger idea had taken shape in my head, built out of the trail of associations the machine had assembled for me.

WordPress in 2016

Gina Trapani writes on the Postlight blog about recommending WordPress as a CMS:

We talk a lot about content management systems at Postlight, often in the context of a specific client’s needs, and sometimes, as a question about our general philosophy around publishing. And we also build a lot of custom tools for solving very tricky publishing problems—a good example is Instant.me, which benefited from a custom CMS, fully oriented around a specific workflow.

But not every nail needs a fully-custom hammer. During our CMS conversations, inevitably I am the person in the room who brings upWordPress. Then, my teammates put on their most patient facial expressions and listen to me make the argument.

Ultimately, as a director, I am obligated to consider all the technologies that can help our client achieve our goals—including the old, boring ones. Enter WordPress.

I’ve ignored WordPress for years and years but have enjoyed learning more about it over the past 6 months. Ditto learning PHP, which is (perhaps) unfairly maligned.