Life(Ville) Isn't Fair: It's the Best Media Writing of the Week

Algorithms Lack Ethics, Bill Keller Bombs Twitter, Roseanne Gets Screwed and Zynga Sells Success

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Bill Keller
Bill Keller

Perhaps Bill Keller and Eli Pariser, the former executive director of MoveOn.org, should have coffee. They could talk about media and technology. And more importantly, they might talk about how to talk about media and technology, because it's become quite clear that Mr. Keller, accomplished as he might be at running a global news organization that 's done a great job digitizing itself, has a few things to learn on that score.

Mr. Keller this week followed a Twitter stinkbombing -- "#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss." -- with a groping column trying to explain why the internet is bad for your brain. It's a completely unconvincing complaint about what the cloud is doing to our memories intertwined with hackneyed condemnation of social media as a distraction.

Mr. Keller could learn a lot from Mr. Pariser, whose new book, "The Filter Bubble" is a nuanced critique of how most of us are now getting our information: through algorithms. His argument is simple, elegant and spot on. Basically, Google and Facebook now determine what news and entertainment we see based on what their algorithms know to be our preferences.

That means our feeds might be dominated by Justin Bieber, or left-wing politics or, in my case, news about social media, to the exclusion of world affairs. The more automated our content feed, the less there is to surprise or challenge us. Contra Mr. Keller, it's an impassioned, common-sense criticism of how vast swathes of the internet are managed -- without ever being condescending, luddite, snobbish or reliant on convenient cod science. Here's a quote from Mr. Pariser's nine-minute TED talk, filmed in March but posted this month, which is more than worth a look:

This moves us really quickly toward a world in which the internet is showing us what it thinks we want to see, not necessarily what we need to see ...

So, I do think this is a problem. ... Your filter bubble is your personal own personal, unique universe of information that you live in online. And what's in your filter bubble depends on who you are and it depends on what you do, but the thing is that you don't decide what gets in and more importantly you don't actually see what gets edited out. ...

This is how founding mythology goes, right, in a broadcast society there were these gatekeepers, the editors, and they controlled the flows of information. And along came the internet and it swept them out of the way and it allowed all of us to connect together and it was awesome. But that 's not actually what's happening right now. What we're seeing is more of a passing of the torch from human gatekeepers to algorithmic ones. And the thing is , that the algorithms don't yet have the kind of embedded ethics that the editors did.

The most interesting direct response to Mr. Keller, though, was a sizzling rant from Mat Honan writing for Gizmodo. The headline -- "New York Times Editor Is a Horrible Troll Who Doesn't Understand the Modern World" -- about sums it up, but here's another choice selection:

Much of Keller's evidence relies on a lone experience, when he sent a message to Twitter stating "#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss." Keller did not ask any important questions, or engage with the other people using Twitter to communicate. He just rolled up and trolled. He went into a venue where people have elected to be, and told everyone that their presence there makes them stupid. He then laments that he did not receive more positive responses from within that forum itself.

LOL! It's funny because it's so fucking facile.

Calling me stupid isn't generally the best way to get a nuanced, reasoned response out of me, Bill. To prove this point, I have broken out my notecards, and composed an old-fashioned letter to you which I am sending in the old-fashioned mail. I eagerly await your handwritten response.

Rolling up to trash the sexist TV business this week was the world's most famous macadamia nut farmer, Roseanne Barr. She penned a blistering piece in New York magazine that looks at the first year of her wildly popular working-class sitcom of the late 1980s and early 90s, detailing the appalling attempts to deny her control of her own show based on her standup act. A favorite part comes when Roseanne, tired of telling the wardrobe people that the clothes they're buying for the character were all wrong, confronts a producer:

I grabbed a pair of wardrobe scissors and ran up to the big house to confront the producer. (The "big house" was what I called the writers' building. I rarely went there, since it was disgusting. Within minutes, one of the writers would crack a stinky-pussy joke that would make me want to murder them. Male writers have zero interest in being nice to women, including their own assistants, few of whom are ever promoted to the rank of "writer," even though they do all the work while the guys sit on their asses taking the credit. Those are the women who deserve the utmost respect.) I walked into this woman's office, held the scissors up to show her I meant business, and said, "Bitch, do you want me to cut you?" We stood there for a second or two, just so I could make sure she was receptive to my POV. I asked why she had told the wardrobe master to not listen to me, and she said, "Because we do not like the way you choose to portray this character." I said, "This is no fucking character! This is my show, and I created it -- not Matt, and not Carsey-Werner, and not ABC. You watch me. I will win this battle if I have to kill every last white bitch in high heels around here."

Finally, we have Vanity Fair's profile of Zynga CEO Mark Pincus, he of the FarmVille, CityVille and, most recently, GagaVille. Here writer Vanessa Grigoriadis talks about how Mr. Pincus came up with the virtual-goods economy that gives Zynga so much of its revenue:

Now he started to think about what would happen in games if you could, essentially, pay for a coach. Why couldn't you gain an advantage in games by paying for it? "I was addicted to this online game, Rise of Nations, where you move your nation through civilizations, to the point that it really hurt a relationship I was in," he says. "These kids online were just destroying me -- they were coming in with tanks, and I was throwing spears at their tanks. And I thought to myself, Wow, I would really pay some money to not have it be this way." Most of us would think of this as cheating. "It's breaking the rules of the Western ways of gaming to buy your way ahead, but so what?" he says. He's got a point: Why do games have to be fair? After all, in life, everything is easier if you throw money at it. It's all easier then. You knew that already.

And in this line from an NYU professor, she also quotes one of the more memorable criticism of Zynga I've seen: "After all, millions of flies can't be wrong -- if they're buzzing around shit, they're getting something from it."

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