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When deepfakes are everywhere

A network spells out the words: deep fake

I’m soliciting prompts for discussion. This piece is a part of that series.


Ryan Barrett asks:

It seems like the last 200 years or so - when we could use recorded media, photographs, audio, videos, as evidence or proof of anything - may have been a brief, glorious aberration, a detour in the timeline. Barely a blink of an eye, relative to the full history of civilization. Nice while it lasted, maybe it’s over now.

What does that mean? If true, how will we adapt? What techniques for evidence and proof from the pre-recorded-media era will we return to? What new techniques will we find, or need?

I’ll start by asking: could we? Or to put it another way: have previous assumptions we might have made about the trustworthiness of recorded media been warranted?

One of the most famous users of photo editing to alter the historical record was Stalin, who often edited people he deemed to be enemies of the state out of photographs. Portraits of the leader that hung in peoples’ homes were retouched so that they were more to his liking.

A few years later, the artist Yves Klein took photographs like this one of him hurling himself off a building. Obviously, they weren’t real: his intent was to demonstrate that the theatre of the future could be an empty room; arguably an accurate demonstration of our present.

Later still, a photo of Obama shaking hands with the President of Iran circulated widely on Republican social media — despite the fact that the event never happened.

And there are so many more. As the Guardian wrote a few years ago about Photoshop:

In fact, the lesson of the earliest fake photos is that technology does not fool the human eye; it is the mind that does this. From scissors and glue to the latest software, the fabrication of an image only works because the viewer wants it to work. We see what we wish to see.

Sometimes, we didn’t even need trickery. President Roosevelt tried to hide his disability by having the Secret Service rip the film out of anyone’s camera if they caught him in his wheelchair. Endless short men in the public eye — Tom Cruise, for example — have hid their height on camera by standing on boxes or having their counterparts stand in a hole.

Of course, the latest deepfake technology and generative AI make it cheaper and easier to create this kind of impossible media. Although it’s not new, it will become more prolific and more naturalistic than ever before.

The Brookings Institution points out that in addition to the proliferation of disinformation, there will be two more adverse effects:

  • Exhaustion of critical thinking: “it will take more effort for individuals to ascertain whether information is true, especially when it does not come from trusted actors.”
  • Plausible deniability: accusations of impropriety will be more easily deflected.

Trusted actors, of course, are those we already know and rely on. Most people will not think the New York Times is faking its images. So another adverse effect will be the relative inability for new sources to be taken seriously — which will particularly hurt sources from disadvantaged or underrepresented groups. For the same reason, maintaining a list of “approved” sources that we can trust is not a real solution to this problem. In addition to it censoring new and underrepresented voice, who could possibly reliably maintain this kind of list? And what will prevent them from interpreting factual data that they don’t like as disinformation?

Regarding plausible deniability, even without deepfakes, we’re already learning that many forensic evidence techniques were more limited than we were led to believe. Bite marks, hair comparisons, and blood spatter, all commonly used in cases, were shown to have a limited scientific basis and to have often been misapplied. An artifact in itself is almost never enough to prove something to be true; we simply have to ask more questions.

Context is a useful tool here. If a public figure is shown to have said something, for example, are there other corroborating sources? Were there multiple independent eyewitnesses? Is any surrounding media drawn from this one artifact, or are there other, independent stories drawn from other, separately-recorded evidence?

So the real change will need to be with respect to source analysis. We’ve been trained to be consumers of information: to trust what’s on the page or on the screen. As I tried to explain at the beginning, that was always an approach that left us open to exploitation. There is no text that should not be questioned; no source that cannot be critically examined.

Generally, I think the Guardian’s observation holds true: we see what we wish to see. The truth will have plausible deniability. We will need more information.

To be sure, technology solutions are also useful, although it will be an arms race. Intel claims to have a deepfake detector that works with 96% accuracy — which will be true until the inferred blood flow signals it uses can also be accurately faked (if that hasn’t happened already). Researchers at the University of Florida experimented with detecting audio deepfakes by modeling the human vocal tract. Again, we can expect deepfake technology to improve to a level where it surpasses this detection — and regardless, we still have to worry about the impact of false positives. We also should worry about any incentive to recreate a situation where we unquestioningly accept a source.

As IEEE Spectrum noted:

Even if a quiver of detectors can take down deepfakes, the content will have at least a brief life online before it disappears. It will have an impact. […] Technology alone can’t save us. Instead, people need to be educated about the new, nonreality-filled reality.

We will need to use all the tools at our disposal — contextual, social, and technological — to determine whether something is a true record, representative of the truth, or an outright lie. We always had to do this, but most of us didn’t. Now technology has forced our hand.

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The baby stack at 9 months

A Nanit Pro screenshot on a tablet

Before our son was born last September, I published a UsesThis-style baby stack of devices and software we were using.

He’s now nine months old, so I thought I’d revisit the list now that he’s been alive for longer than he gestated. We’ve got far more experience than we did.


Stroller: We’re still using and loving our Uppababy Cruz v2. Its modular design made a big difference for us. We grew out of the bassinet mode, but the seat is still holding strong for daily walks — and it was incredibly useful to also be able to plug the Mesa car seat right into the stroller base for quick trips into the store etc.

Car seat: We grew out of the Uppababy Mesa, but it was great while it lasted. I loved how adjustable it was, as well as easy to install into my car (something I had a genuine fear of before the baby was born).

We’ve moved on to the Clek Foonf, which is broadly recommended as well as being fun to say — I’ll update once we know if we’re satisfied with it. But the reviews look great, and we were happy that it came with an option without nasty chemicals in the cover material.

Bed: For a while, the Happiest Baby SNOO was absolutely magical. Then, not long before he grew out of it, he became scared rather than soothed by its rocking motion (although we still used its white noise feature). It became moot, because he grew so fast that watching him in the bassinet began to resemble watching bread dough proofing out of its tin.

These days we’re on the Ikea Sundvik crib, which grows with the baby. We paired it with the Naturepedic Classic Organic Cotton Crib Mattress and have already lowered it to prevent him from falling out when he stands up.

White noise: The Hatch Rest is pretty good, and can be used both with and without an app, but he’s developed a fascination with technology and has started wanting to grab it whenever he can. I think we might be on our last few weeks of this one.

Baby monitor: The Nanit Pro has great sound and vision and connects to our smartphones on and off wifi. We use it with the stand above the bed. The app also does a great job of recording when he fell asleep and woke up, so we can plan ahead to his next nap.

Nanit Pro app screenshot

Changing mat: The Keekaroo Peanut is still going strong. It’s easy to clean, does a good job of holding him in position, has a good strap, and is easy to move. We have two around the house.

High chair: The Stokke Tripp Trapp is well-made and adjustable as he grows. I wish it was a little easier to clean, but there are no nasty nooks and crannies - it just takes a wipe down after every meal. We’ve been using it both with and without the tray and we’re loving it.

Toys and Play: We’re trying to avoid screen time and toys that make noise / use electronics in favor of Montessori-inspired simple toys. I like our Lovevery Play Kits. They arrive at our door every few months; they’re made from good materials and each box is geared towards his developmental stage. They come with suggestions for when to introduce each toy and how to play with them — which, to be honest, I’ve ignored more often than not.

We use ALZiP Mat Eco Color Folder playmats to give him a safe space to play where he’s less likely to hurt himself. It’s free from harmful materials and the insides are recyclable.

Food: We like WeeSprout silicone baby spoons. Usually we just use a small Glasslock glass food storage bowl to serve him. We try and cook for him, but he absolutely adores CereBelly brain-supporting food pouches. We also add Ready Set Food powder to introduce him to common allergens.


Tracking: Huckleberry is buggier than I’d like — sometimes it loses entries with no explanation — but it’s still proven to be a useful way to keep track of eating, sleeping, and diaper changes between parents. It also does a fairly good job of predicting when his nap might be based on his sleep. Like most parenting software, I dearly wish it had multi-user support. Dads look after their babies too! (We just share our credentials, which works fine unless the two of us are in different timezones.)

Food: Solid Starts has been a useful reference as we’ve begun to introduce solid food. It helps us understand not just what we can introduce, but how.

Shopping: Baby gear is expensive; doubly so if you don’t want to compromise on quality. We use GoodBuy Gear to get it second hand whenever we can. It doesn’t have everything, but when it does, it’s usually a pretty good deal.

Babycare: We’re using to find carers. It’s been a grueling process and we’re nowhere near there yet. That’s not the fault of the platform, although I wish it had more CRM-style features — hiring baby care is not dissimilar to hiring for a full-time role and I’ve found myself missing the tools I’ve used when I’ve built teams. But the carers are there, and that’s the important thing.

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The notable list: June 2023

A map of slow internet neighborhoods in Washington DC, by The Markup

This is my monthly roundup of the links, books, and media I found interesting. Do you have suggestions? Let me know!

Apps + Websites


Generative AI: What You Need To Know. “A free resource that will help you develop an AI-bullshit detector.”


TimeGuessr. Fun little game that asks you to guess the place and time a series of photos were taken. My best score so far: 38,000.

Moderator Mayhem: A Content Moderation Game. This is HARD. Which is the point.


See your identity pieced together from stolen data. “Have you ever wondered how much of your personal information is available online? Here’s your chance to find out.” Really well-executed.



Severance, by Ling Ma. Though it fades out weakly, I loved this story about loss, meaning, and what it means to be an immigrant, dressed up as a science fiction novel. The science fiction is good too, and alarmingly close to the real-life global pandemic that took place a few years after it was written. This is a book about disconnection; it resonated for me hard.



Little Richard: I Am Everything. A well-argued documentary that does an excellent job of showing the debt every rock musician has to Little Richard - and, in turn, how rock and roll was birthed as a Black, queer medium. Joyous and revelatory.

Notable Articles


‘This robot causes harm’: National Eating Disorders Association’s new chatbot advises people with disordering eating to lose weight. ““Every single thing Tessa suggested were things that led to the development of my eating disorder,” Maxwell wrote in her Instagram post. “This robot causes harm.””

Google Unveils Plan to Demolish the Journalism Industry Using AI. “If Google’s AI is going to mulch up original work and provide a distilled version of it to users at scale, without ever connecting them to the original work, how will publishers continue to monetize their work?”

Indirect Prompt Injection via YouTube Transcripts. “ChatGPT (via Plugins) can access YouTube transcripts. Which is pretty neat. However, as expected (and predicted by many researches) all these quickly built tools and integrations introduce Indirect Prompt Injection vulnerabilities.” Neat demo!

ChatGPT is not ‘artificial intelligence.’ It’s theft. “Rather than pointing to some future utopia (or robots vs. humans dystopia), what we face in dealing with programs like ChatGPT is the further relentless corrosiveness of late-stage capitalism, in which authorship is of no value. All that matters is content.”

Google Bard is a glorious reinvention of black-hat SEO spam and keyword-stuffing. “Moreover, researchers have also discovered that it’s probably mathematically impossible to secure the training data for a large language model like GPT-4 or PaLM 2. This was outlined in a research paper that Google themselves tried to censor, an act that eventually led the Google-employed author, El Mahdi El Mhamdi, to leave the company. The paper has now been updated to say what the authors wanted it to say all along, and it’s a doozy.”

OpenAI's ChatGPT Powered by Human Contractors Paid $15 Per Hour. “OpenAI, the startup behind ChatGPT, has been paying droves of U.S. contractors to assist it with the necessary task of data labelling—the process of training ChatGPT’s software to better respond to user requests. The compensation for this pivotal task? A scintillating $15 per hour.”

Schools Spend Millions on Evolv's Flawed AI Gun Detection. “As school shootings proliferate across the country — there were 46 school shootings in 2022, more than in any year since at least 1999 — educators are increasingly turning to dodgy vendors who market misleading and ineffective technology.”

Will A.I. Become the New McKinsey? “The doomsday scenario is not a manufacturing A.I. transforming the entire planet into paper clips, as one famous thought experiment has imagined. It’s A.I.-supercharged corporations destroying the environment and the working class in their pursuit of shareholder value.”

Google "We Have No Moat, And Neither Does OpenAI". “Open-source models are faster, more customizable, more private, and pound-for-pound more capable. They are doing things with $100 and 13B params that we struggle with at $10M and 540B. And they are doing so in weeks, not months. This has profound implications for us.”

Economists Warn That AI Like ChatGPT Will Increase Inequality. “Most empirical studies find that AI technology will not reduce overall employment. However, it is likely to reduce the relative amount of income going to low-skilled labour, which will increase inequality across society. Moreover, AI-induced productivity growth would cause employment redistribution and trade restructuring, which would tend to further increase inequality both within countries and between them.”


Earth is in ‘the danger zone’ and getting worse for ecosystems and humans. “Earth has pushed past seven out of eight scientifically established safety limits and into “the danger zone,” not just for an overheating planet that’s losing its natural areas, but for well-being of people living on it, according to a new study.”

Outrage as Brazil law threatening Indigenous lands advances in congress. “Lawmakers had sent “a clear message to the country and the world: Bolsonaro is gone but the extermination [of Indigenous communities and the environment] continues,” the Climate Observatory added.”

Documents reveal how fossil fuel industry created, pushed anti-ESG campaign. “ESG’s path to its current culture war status began with an attempt by West Virginia coal companies to push back against the financial industry’s rising unease around investing in coal — which as the dirtiest-burning fuel has the most powerful and disrupting impacts on the climate.”

Petition: Global Call for the Urgent Prevention of Genocide of the Indigenous Peoples in Brazil. “As citizens from all over the world, we are uniting our voices to demand urgent justice for the indigenous peoples of Brazil.” This is urgent; please sign.

Recycled plastic can be more toxic and is no fix for pollution, Greenpeace warns. “But … the toxicity of plastic actually increases with recycling. Plastics have no place in a circular economy and it’s clear that the only real solution to ending plastic pollution is to massively reduce plastic production.”

CEO of biggest carbon credit certifier to resign after claims offsets worthless. “It comes amid concerns that Verra, a Washington-based nonprofit, approved tens of millions of worthless offsets that are used by major companies for climate and biodiversity commitments.”

New York is sinking, and its bankers could go down with it. “When discussing climate change that banker suggested that sinking cities was the biggest problem he thought the sector faced. Over 80% of the property portfolio of many banks was, he suggested, in cities where the likelihood of flooding was likely to increase rapidly.”

New York City is sinking due to weight of its skyscrapers, new research finds. “The Big Apple may be the city that never sleeps but it is a city that certainly sinks, subsiding by approximately 1-2mm each year on average, with some areas of New York City plunging at double this rate, according to researchers.”


Narrative over numbers: Andreessen Horowitz's State of Crypto report. “The result of this approach is an incredibly shameless piece of propaganda showing the extents to which Andreessen Horowitz is willing to manipulate facts and outright lie, hoping to turn the sentiment on the crypto industry back to where retail investors were providing substantial pools of liquidity with which they could line their pockets. If anyone still believes that venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz are powerful sources of innovation and societal benefit, I hope this will give them pause.”


Jesse Armstrong on the roots of Succession: ‘Would it have landed the same way without the mad bum-rush of Trump’s presidency?’. “I guess the simple things at the heart of Succession ended up being Brexit and Trump. The way the UK press had primed the EU debate for decades. The way the US media’s conservative outriders prepared the way for Trump, hovered at the brink of support and then dived in.”

Creative Commons Supports Trans Rights. “As an international nonprofit organization, with a diverse global community that believes in democratic values and free culture, the protection and affirmation of all human rights — including trans rights — are central to our core value of global inclusivity and our mission of promoting openness and providing access to knowledge and culture.” Right on. Trans rights are human rights.

The Real Difference Between European and American Butter. “Simply put, American regulations for butter production are quite different from those of Europe. The USDA defines butter as having at least 80% fat, while the EU defines butter as having between 82 and 90% butterfat and a maximum of 16% water. The higher butterfat percentage in European butter is one of the main reasons why many consider butters from across the pond to be superior to those produced in the US. It’s better for baking, but it also creates a richer flavor and texture even if all you’re doing is smearing your butter on bread. On the other hand, butter with a higher fat percentage is more expensive to make, and more expensive for the consumer.”


How I Won $5 Million From the MyPillow Guy and Saved Democracy. “But if more people sought truth, even when that truth is contrary to their beliefs — such as when a Republican like me destroys a Republican myth — then I think we really can save democracy in America. In fact, I think that’s the only way.”

Henry Kissinger at 100: Still a War Criminal. “Kissinger’s diplomatic conniving led to or enabled slaughters around the globe. As he blows out all those candles, let’s call the roll.”

Georgia GOP Chair: If the Earth Really Is Round, Why Are There So Many Globes Everywhere?“Everywhere there’s globes…and that’s what they do to brainwash… For me, if it is not a conspiracy, if it is, you know, ‘real,’ why are you pushing so hard? Everywhere I go, every store, you buy a globe, there’s globes everywhere—every movie, every TV show, news media, why?”

NAACP warns Black Americans against traveling to Florida because of DeSantis policies. “On Saturday, the NAACP joined the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a Latino rights advocacy group, and Equality Florida, an LGBTQ rights advocacy group, in issuing Florida travel advisories.”

May Anti-Trans Legislative Risk Map. “The map of anti-trans risk has polarized into two Americas - one where trans people have full legal protections, and one where they are persecuted by the state.”

Techbro SF. “San Francisco is a dystopian hellhole caught in doomloop and it is all because everyone hates techbros. Well, we are tired of being disrespected. Therefore we are going to attack those who can’t fight back, yes, poor people.”

One year after Dobbs leak: Looking back at the summer that changed abortion. “The 19th spoke with people from across the country about those historic days: lawmakers, physicians, organizers on both sides of the abortion fight and pregnant people navigating a new world.” What a newsroom.


Can Americans really make a free choice about dying? A characteristically nuanced, in-depth piece about the debate around assisted suicide.

One more dead in horrific eye drop outbreak that now spans 18 states. An actual nightmare.

Widely used chemical strongly linked to Parkinson’s disease. “A groundbreaking epidemiological study has produced the most compelling evidence yet that exposure to the chemical solvent trichloroethylene (TCE)—common in soil and groundwater—increases the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.” By as much as 70%!


Of Course We Should All be Working Less. “In 1940, the Fair Labor Standards Act reduced the workweek to 40 hours. Today, as a result of huge advances in technology and productivity, now is the time to lower the workweek to 32 hours—with no loss in pay. Workers must benefit from advanced technology, not just the 1%.”

Hollywood writers strike could impact diverse stories on TV and in film. “When Kyra Jones wrote for the ABC broadcast show “Queens,” she collected a $14,000 residuals check that helped her get through the months after the project ended and she was without work. Then last summer, she got her first residuals check for writing on the Hulu streaming show “Woke.” It was $4.”

Business Mentality. “Hi, we’re the company you work for and we care about your mental health!”

Hustle culture is over-rated. “When hustle culture is glorified, it incentivizes people to work longer hours, not because it’s a good way to get the work done, but because they want to be perceived as working long hours.”


How We Reached Dairy Farm Workers to Write About Them. “The reporters’ process underscores one of our central beliefs at ProPublica: Publishing a story about injustice isn’t enough if we don’t reach the people who are directly affected.”

2023: The year equitable journalism goes mainstream. “For too long, journalism has had a laser focus on holding power to account, rather than widening its aperture to recognize the opportunity to build and share power in and with communities.”

Unconstitutional TikTok ban would open the door to press censorship. “But if we accept the arguments for banning TikTok, what might come next? The consequences are even more catastrophic. Bans on foreign news websites that track Americans’ clicks and comments? For example, the Guardian must have a gold mine of information on the millions of Americans that read it every day.”

It’s Time to Acknowledge Big Tech Was Always at Odds with Journalism. “Do we want to preserve the dominance of companies that like to act as if they are neutral communications platforms, when they also act as publishers without the responsibilities that come with that? Do we want digital behemoths to accumulate so much power that they can exploit personal data in ways that buttress their dominance and diminish the value of news media audiences?”

How we told the story of the summer Roe v. Wade fell. “We knew this wouldn’t be an easy feat to pull off. But this project, while technically reported over the past five months, benefited from years of our work covering abortion at The 19th. After working nonstop since 2021 to cover the looming fall of Roe, I had built a list of sources whose stories I knew would be instructive and illuminating. And I knew that they would trust me to do a thorough, accurate job.”

Grist and the Center for Rural Strategies launch clearinghouse for rural US coverage. “The Rural Newswire was created to help newsrooms that serve rural communities by providing a platform to both find and share stories that can be republished for free. Editors can use the Rural Newswire to source stories to syndicate, and they can also upload links to their own coverage. As part of this project, together the Center for Rural Strategies and Grist are providing $100,000 in grants to report on rural America. The grants are open to both newsrooms and freelancers.”

Elon Musk thinks he’s got a “major win-win” for news publishers with…micropayments. “In a digital universe where every news story is behind a hard paywall — one impenetrable to the non-paying reader — then a micropayments model might make sense. But that’s not the digital universe we live in.”


Seniors are flooding homeless shelters that can’t care for them. “Nearly a quarter of a million people 55 or older are estimated by the government to have been homeless in the United States during at least part of 2019, the most recent reliable federal count available.” Hopelessly broken.

Letter from Jourdon Anderson: A Freedman Writes His Former Master. “Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.”

A College President Defends Seeking Money From Jeffrey Epstein. ““People don’t understand what this job is,” he said, adding, “You cannot pick and choose, because among the very rich is a higher percentage of unpleasant and not very attractive people. Capitalism is a rough system.””


My New Startup Checklist. Interesting to see what creating a new startup entails in 2023.

What a startup does to you. Or: A celebration of new life. “Just like having kids, you won’t understand until you do it. But if you do it, even if you “fail,” you will come out stronger than you could have ever been without it. Stronger, wiser, ready for the next thing, never able to go back to being a cog, eyes opened.”


Block Party anti-harassment service leaves Twitter amid API changes. “Announced in a blog post last night, Block Party’s anti-harassment tools for Twitter are being placed on an immediate, indefinite hiatus, with the developers claiming that changes to Twitter’s API pricing (which starts from $100 per month) have “made it impossible for Block Party’s Twitter product to continue in its current form.””

How Picnic, an Emerging Social Network, Found its Niche. “By putting a degree of financial incentive in the hands of moderators by offering them fractional ownership of the community they built through a system of “seeds,” they ultimately are able to control their community’s destiny.”

Twitter Fails to Remove Hate Speech by Blue-Check Users, Center for Countering Digital Hate Says.“Twitter is failing to remove 99 percent of hate speech posted by Twitter Blue users, new research has found, and instead may be boosting paid accounts that spew racism and homophobia.” Who would have predicted?

Power of One. “It’s not about how many views you have, how many likes, trying to max all your stats… sometimes a single connection to another human is all that matters.”

Social Media Poses ‘Profound Risk’ to Teen Mental Health, Surgeon General Warns. “Frequent social media use may be associated with distinct changes in the developing brain in the amygdala (important for emotional learning and behavior) and the prefrontal cortex (important for impulse control, emotional regulation, and moderating social behavior), and could increase sensitivity to social rewards and punishments.”

Leaked EU Document Shows Spain Wants to Ban End-to-End Encryption. “Breaking end-to-end encryption for everyone would not only be disproportionate, it would be ineffective of achieving the goal to protect children.” It would also put a great many more people at risk.

Growing the Open Social Web. “I think there are two big things that would help the Open Social Web seize this opportunity to reach scale.” A big yes to all of this.

Hype: The Enemy of Early Stage Returns. “Technology alone does not create the future. Instead, the future is the result of an unpredictable mix of technology, business, product design, and culture.”

Montana becomes first US state to ban TikTok. “Montana has became the first US state to ban TikTok after the governor signed legislation prohibiting mobile application stores from offering the app within the state by next year.” I’m willing to wager that this never comes to pass.

Many US Twitter users have taken a break from Twitter, and some may not use it a year from now. “A majority of Americans who have used Twitter in the past year report taking a break from the platform during that time, and a quarter say they are not likely to use it a year from now.”

Why elite dev teams focus on pull-request metrics. “What’s clear from this study is elite development workflows start and end with small pull request (PR) sizes. This is the best indicator of simpler merges, enhanced CI/CD, and faster cycle times. In short, PR size affects all other metrics.”

See the Neighborhoods Internet Providers Excluded from Fast Internet. “A Markup analysis revealed that the worst internet deals disproportionately fell upon the poorest, most racial and ethnically diverse, and historically redlined neighborhoods in all but two of the 38 cities in our investigation.”

How people are archiving the storytelling and community behind Black Twitter. “They see an urgency to preserving Black Twitter in a world in which Black history and Black women’s cultural labor are undervalued or unacknowledged — and where the future of Twitter seems unknown. They also want to document the racist and sexist abuse that Black women on the platform received, in part to help people dream up and create a more inclusive way of connecting that prioritizes the needs of the most marginalized.”

Google AMP: how Google tried to fix the web by taking it over. “In 2015, Google hatched a plan to save the mobile web by effectively taking it over. And for a while, the media industry had practically no choice but to play along.”

The UX Research Reckoning is Here. “It’s not just the economic crisis. The UX Research discipline of the last 15 years is dying. The reckoning is here. The discipline can still survive and thrive, but we’d better adapt, and quick.”

The web's most important decision. “But also, and this is important to mention, they believed in the web and in Berners-Lee. The folks making these decisions understood its potential and wanted the web to flourish. This wasn’t a decision driven by profit. It was a generous and enthusiastic vote of confidence in the global ambitions of the web.”

Blue skies over Mastodon. “One of big things I’ve come to believe in my couple of decades working on internet stuff is that great product design is always holistic: Always working in relation to a whole system of interconnected parts, never concerned only with atomic decisions. And this perspective just straight-up cannot emerge from a piecemeal, GitHub-issues approach to fixing problems. This is the main reason it’s vanishingly rare to see good product design in open source.”

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Extinguishing the fediverse

The Mastodon homepage, displayed on a smartphone

I’m soliciting prompts for discussion. This piece is a part of that series.


Erlend Sogge Heggen asks:

There’s legitimate reason to be worried about Meta’s P92 project being part of a EEE play against the fediverse.

How might the fediverse community counteract this, perhaps with its own EEE strategy?

We know Meta will attempt an EEE play, but what if we play the reverse UNO card and EE(E) them instead?

Embrace: Carefully federate in a minimum-viable fashion that doesn’t overrun the existing .

Extend: Make a reality, so accounts can be moved effortlessly.

Extinguish: In case of misconduct, defederate and provide mass-migration assistance.

First, some quick definitions!

P92 is the codename for Meta / Facebook’s new app that will support the same ActivityPub protocol as Mastodon and its cousins. Users will be able to log in with their Instagram credentials, and one can potentially (but not definitely) imagine it being folded into the mainline Instagram app.

Embrace, Extend, Extinguish was a phrase coined internally inside Microsoft to describe its strategy with respect to the web. The idea was that the company would embrace open protocols, extend them with its own proprietary extensions, and then use its control over those extensions to extinguish competition. In particular, its plan was to do this with HTML in order to cement Internet Explorer as the web browser.

Finally, the fediverse, of course, is the community of small, independently-owned, largely non-profit social networks that interoperate using shared protocols, on which Mastodon is the largest platform.

There is legitimate concern that a company like Meta might attempt to control the fediverse. This is particularly true if they are allowed to create a uni-polar world: one where Meta is the only large company embracing these standards. In that world, Meta can throw hundreds of millions of users at the protocol, and it will instantly become its largest user.

I think it’s helpful to look at how Microsoft’s EEE strategy failed. There were arguably two main factors: antitrust risk and competition.

The Department of Justice sued Microsoft for monopolistic business practices, ultimately leading to a settlement where Microsoft capitulated to changing some of its approach in return for the DOJ dropping its desire to break up the company. It’s not clear to me that this kind of case would or could take place with respect to Meta extinguishing the fediverse; while I’m not a lawyer, I think the argument would probably be that many other social networks are available.

The other thing that hurt Microsoft’s dominance was Firefox. It was a good browser backed by a good community, but that wasn’t the deciding factor; Firefox gained market share because Google pushed it at every possible opportunity. Because Internet Explorer’s dominance was a business risk to Google, and because Firefox was built by a non-profit that was non-competitive with Google’s business, it made financial sense to try and break Microsoft’s stranglehold. Mozilla’s model was stronger than its predecessor Netscape’s had been: whereas Netscape needed to sell licenses, Mozilla’s deal with Google meant it made money every time someone used Firefox to search for something on the web. There was almost no friction to its growth strategy.

This activity led to a resurgence in a healthy ecosystem of standards-based web browsers for years — until Google decided to re-use the technique it had used on Firefox to push its own web browser. Even then, Chrome is a far better standards player than Internet Explorer ever was.

There won’t be hard evidence that Meta is adopting ActivityPub until we see its app in the wild. But if it is, that likely means that it sees the protocol as at least worth experimenting with, and maybe even as a potential threat. That’s a sign of great progress, and everyone involved in building the fediverse should feel good about it.

If Meta wants to own the fediverse, this isn’t a battle that will be primarily won with features or technology. Easy-to-use platforms, nomadic identity that easily lets you move your presence from one provider to another, and assistance will all be essential, but they’ll be table stakes. (If Meta is working on the platform today, it’s probably also too late for truly nomadic identity to make a difference.) To really stand a chance, the fediverse will need the kind of marketing and go-to-market support that Firefox enjoyed back in the day. Which may mean support from another large player that considers Meta’s ownership of the standard to be an existential risk.

It’s hard to see who that might be. Twitter is now the incompetence wing of the incompetence party. It’s highly unlikely that networks like Pinterest care. Microsoft’s platforms are tightly bound to its ecosystem, with access control at their core; I don’t see LinkedIn joining the fediverse any time soon. Google has fallen on its face every time it’s tried to build a social network, and runs YouTube as a separate entity that strongly benefits from closed ads. Salesforce might consider it a risk, as it provides social tools for businesses, which are easier to build and sell on an open social networking standard. Some of these entities might consider the fediverse to be worth exploring — but there’s no clear technology backer. Cloudflare actually did provide its own Mastodon-compatible platform that runs on its CDN, but it hasn’t seen anything like wide use. Medium has embraced Mastodon but has not deeply built support into its existing platform.

Perhaps media companies, who generally live and die on the size of their audiences, and have often been beholden to the large social networks, might find themselves interested in embracing a social networking federation where they have more say and control. The rise of the fediverse certainly is a de-risking of their business models. But I don’t think they see it yet; nor do I think they consider it their place to pick a winner. (Nor should it be, really, in practice.)

Perhaps there can be another kind of backer: an entity that sees the existential thread centralized control of social media poses to democracy itself. We’ve already seen how, left unchecked, centralized companies like Facebook incite genocides and throw elections. The fediverse can be an antidote to these trends — if we see it as a set of collaborating communities rather than simply the technology alone. The erosion of democracy, like monopolistic abuse of power, are human problems with human solutions rather than technological ones. Foundations and philanthropists may choose to provide this level of support, if they continue to see Meta as a threat to democracy.

Building features will not protect the fediverse from being extinguished, although they may provide a useful baseline. It’s going to take a whole different level of strategy, relationship-building, deal-making, and movement-building. I believe the fediverse is capable of doing this, as long as it doesn’t mistake building software for making true progress.

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Adding a sustainability lens to design thinking

Via Jeremy Keith, Future-First Design Thinking:

Incorporating non-human personas into the design thinking process would allow us to embody the essential elements that constitute our environment, such as air, trees, water, and land. These personas can serve as tangible reminders of the interconnectedness between our design decisions and the health of our environment, a living entity that deserves our protection and consideration.

I’m sorry to say that I don’t trust it.

My bias: personas are harmful. A persona is an amalgam — a fictional person, really — that is supposed to be drawn from extensive user research. The problem is, the process of drawing up a persona always requires a degree of subjective invention, regardless of the amount of research that went into it. It is always a reflection of the biases on the team.

In contrast, POV statements that describe a single person who has been interviewed, in combination with direct transcripts and photographs, allow you to use a non-invented example to build your product — and, at least theoretically, go back and use that person as your referee for product decisions as you continue to build. While condensing a person’s interviews into a POV does require some invention, it isn’t a statistical exercise. You can always go back and ask.

It’s very difficult to do this with a tree. By its nature, then, all you can do is invent — and potentially excuse all kinds of activity because your fictional tree persona approves (or, more likely, has blind spots).

All of this said, I do think it’s vital to include future-facing sustainability in design thinking frameworks. (Design thinking is prone to colonial thinking, so considering distributed equity is vital too.) My proposal was to add sustainability to the desirability, viability, feasibility lenses; it’s not necessarily right, but it’s something to consider.

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Stooping to the tactics of the bad guys

A megaphone on a yellow background

I’m soliciting prompts for discussion. This piece is a part of that series.


An anonymous reader asks:

‌Do the good guys need to stoop to the tactics of the bad guys in order to avoid losing, or is there still value in holding oneself to certain standards?

First: who are the good guys and the bad guys? Can you be sure that’s true? One of my all-time favorite comedy sketches is Mitchell and Webb’s “are we the baddies?” skit. (The writers room for That Michell and Webb Look included Succession creator Jesse Armstrong and Oscar winner Olivia Colman. It’s well worth checking out if you’re new to it.)

I don’t think it’s worth getting into a discussion about objective good or objective bad, or the shades of morality in between. I’m not a moral philosopher and will not do that topic justice. But I can tell you who I think needs to be supported and who needs to be hindered in the current moment in order to create the world I’d like to see. Hopefully that’s a good enough analog.

My values are that equality is a virtue, and that everybody should be able to live a good life, regardless of their background or context. Fundamentally, nobody is more valuable than anybody else. That means I’m in favor of social programs like welfare and universal healthcare; I’m pro-choice; I’m heavily against the death penalty; I believe strongly that there are serious structural inequities in society that must be redressed; I value cosmopolitan spaces, immigration, multiculturalism, and inclusion. I think an abundance of guns and a militaristic foreign policy are tools of dominance and intimidation that must be relegated to the past. I was and am in favor of covid lockdowns and restrictions.

You might not agree with me on some of these things. That’s completely fine! One of the core tenets of democracy is that we can have opposing views and debate them — and that there’s open access to the reporting and data we need to make informed decisions.

From this, you can probably discern the ideas that I think are harmful or “bad”. Monoculturalism; impeded debate; social hierarchy / structural inequity; fascism; violence; anti-intellectualism; nationalism; dominance. The people who would ban books from libraries, eradicate open journalism, impose their worldview and ambitions through force.

Some of the tactics used by proponents of these ideas are abhorrent to the point where “stooping to their level” would make a movement indistinguishable from them. Voter suppression is one; storming the Capitol is another; book banning a third; tricking asylum seekers into flying to Martha’s Vineyard as a political stunt is obviously a fourth.

Those values are actually in the statistical minority: in America, in Britain, around the world. Undemocratic tactics are required to keep those people in power.

But here’s one tactic that I do think we can do better at. Fascists have always been great marketers, and explicitly used marketing tactics; Edward Bernays influenced the propaganda Goebbels produced for the Nazis, for example. “Make America Great Again,” though recycled from Reagan, complete with its recognizable Nazi-red hats, has proven itself to be an enduring brand (albeit one that turns my stomach). More importantly, they’ve made promises about what they will give to their base.

Progressives have not done as great a job at marketing themselves - in any arena. Lately, we haven’t so much painted a picture of how the world could be as pointed at the bad stuff and said, “at least we’re not that.” I believe Joe Biden was mostly elected by not being Donald Trump. New social networks gain popularity by not being Twitter. At-least-we’re-not-that isn’t actually a terrible tactic right now, given how bad that really is, but it can’t last forever, and it’s quite a long way from hope and change.

There needs to be a simple message about how regular peoples’ lives will improve in a progressive world. Bill Clinton, who was not progressive by most measures, was right when he said “it’s the economy, stupid” — the message isn’t about how the world will be fairer, but for each voter must be about how the world will be better for them. That story needs to be told, simply, but with all the skill that anyone can muster. Because it really is a better world.

Thinking one’s values are ideological better does not absolve a movement from having to address, directly, how it will make the world better for every person. When that work is really done, it will be a stronger message. For one thing, hopefully, unlike the opposition’s, it will actually be true.

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Where have I been

Inspired by Manton’s list of countries and states he’s been to, I thought I’d come up with my own.

I’ve lived in five:

  • The Netherlands 🇳🇱
  • England 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿
  • Austria 🇦🇹
  • Scotland 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
  • The United States 🇺🇸

In addition to those, I’ve been to (excluding those “I’ve technically been to here but I really haven’t” airport layover visits):

  • Albania 🇦🇱
  • Belgium 🇧🇪
  • Canada 🇨🇦
  • Denmark 🇩🇰
  • France 🇫🇷
  • Germany 🇩🇪
  • Greece 🇬🇷
  • Italy 🇮🇹
  • Liechtenstein 🇱🇮
  • Luxembourg 🇱🇺
  • Mexico 🇲🇽
  • Russia 🇷🇺
  • Spain 🇪🇸
  • Switzerland 🇨🇭
  • Vatican City 🇻🇦
  • Wales 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿
  • Yugoslavia, when it was Yugoslavia 🇧🇦🇭🇷🇲🇰🇲🇪🇷🇸🇸🇮

There are some serious and obvious omissions on this list. I’ve never been outside of Europe and North America! And even in Europe, I’ve never been to Iceland, Ireland, Sweden, Norway … and so on. There are so many places on my bucket list — not least Indonesia, where so many of my family comes from. One day, I would also like to explore my roots in Ukraine; I hope it’ll be safe to do so.

I’ve driven across the US three times, so I’ve been to markedly more US states and the District of Columbia. In fact, every state aside from Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, and South Dakota. I’ll have to correct those soon.

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AI as an evolutionary trend

A metaphorical illustration of divergent train tracks that have yet to be fully built

I’m soliciting prompts for discussion. This piece is a part of that series.

Michael Kriegh asks:

‌Do you think AI is an evolutionary trend for intelligence in the universe? If so, what do you imagine that trend will look like in 50 years? 100 years? If not, why not?

There’s a body of work surrounding the potential of truly artificial / alternative intelligence on human development. You can read about some of that on Michael’s site. However, I’m going to take another, simpler approach to answering this question.

Most, if not all, of the software we call AI is not intelligence at all. They can’t think, or reason, or discern. They’re pattern-matchers. Arthur C Clarke’s third law states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic; any set of sufficiently advanced heuristics is indistinguishable from intelligence. Just as technology is not magic, software is not intelligence. It’s a tool.

Still, this doesn’t mean it can’t have an evolutionary impact on intelligence. It’s worth considering how new tools have affected the evolution of intelligence in the past.

For example, stone tools:

The development of sophisticated stone tools, including sturdy cutting and sawing edges, is considered a key moment in human evolution, as it set the stage for better nutrition and advanced social behaviours, such as the division of labour and group hunting.

These behaviors, according to the cited study, evolved alongside language, as both required more complex thought. Language enabled coordination; tools enabled nutrition and the development of better and better equipment that eventually allowed humans to travel around the globe. In turn, we adapted for the new environments we found ourselves in.

It’s possible that modern AI tools could have a similar impact on evolution, but I’d argue that this is only because computers as a whole will. Large Language Models and their cousins are incremental applications of existing technology rather than something wholly new.

I also think it’s important to not be carried away by the hype driven by AI companies themselves. Bloomberg earlier this year:

Now, a sea of companies are adding “AI” to their taglines and pitch decks, seeking to bask in the reflected glow of the hype cycle. For example, one startup that offers tools to zhuzh up PowerPoints said in a press release that it will incorporate AI so users can skip the writer’s block and build compelling presentations. (It made no mention of AI in a press release describing the product earlier in the year.) Another release touted the value of AI in a campaign to promote shoes.

Perhaps it’s best not to read too much into the marketing. This is a phase change for the tech industry, but I don’t think it’s one for human civilization.

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This moment isn't about decentralization

I think it’s important to understand that what’s happening today in social media is not because decentralization’s time has come: it’s because Twitter’s time has gone.

The core need being expressed by millions of users isn’t “get me a decentralized protocol that nobody owns where I can have my choice of algorithms and apps”. It’s “get me a platform that works consistently, with less abuse”. Sometimes it’s also appended with, “where I can build a following for me / my brand / my employer and measure my progress.”

Now, of course, as product people, we can build that with decentralized tech, which will in turn yield benefits later on as an ecosystem grows around it. And third-party app developers probably do want the assurances of an open platform. But most people do not have a nuanced view on how social media is built or how it should be governed. They know what they want for themselves.

“We’ve built the infrastructure for nuanced moderation” is not an adequate answer to people who are suffering, or who are prone to suffer, abuse. “We are making sure you have a safe space to be social” is the only answer for them. If those measures happen to work as part of a nuanced decentralized protocol, great. But either way, it’s got to happen, and it’s got to be at least as good as it would be on any other social network.

Many of us have been wanting decentralized social networking for a long time — I’ve been a part of these conversations for around twenty years. It’s tempting to feel like people finally get it. But that’s a trap and a mistake. As always, quite rightly, most people want something that works for them. If decentralized tech gets them there better than the alternative (and I think it can!) then there’s a wonderful route forward for everyone. But decentralization is not the goal. The goal is always a human experience for people who do not and should not care how the sausage gets made.

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Why do prison emails cost so much?

Barbed wire and loudspeakers on the edge of a prison.

I’m soliciting prompts for discussion. This piece is a part of that series.


An anonymous reader asks:

‌Why do emails in jail cost 50 cents each?

Since around 2016, US inmates in 43 state prison systems and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have been able to send electronic messages of a sort. Recipients must be whitelisted and all messages are screened. The upper-bound cost is around 50 cents; the average is now around 30 cents. In Connecticut, they’re free.

To be clear, while these messages are electronic, they’re not email, and are not sent via email protocols. The messages themselves have character limits and don’t support attachments; they also typically don’t support the Unicode character sets that would allow many non-English languages to be used. Inmates are often charged per minute to use the tablets that allow them to send and receive mail to begin with. Data about the messages and their recipients is mined and shared with the prison authority.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is an unregulated industry. The proceeds of these fees are shared with the prisons. The tablets themselves are often made freely available to prisons, because each service on them makes their supplier money. Because the revenue is split with the prisons, most prison systems are not going to complain about the unfair pricing policies.

One of the most popular providers, JPay, is largely a prison financial services company that was fined under the Consumer Financial Protection Act for gouging its customers. You may recall a John Oliver piece on prison labor that included a mention of its 45% transfer fees some years ago. Some prisons were contractually obligated to phase out in-person visits, meaning that video calls and these electronic messages were the only way many inmates could contact their families, sending them into debt in the process.

Debt is an important component of this exploitation. The real underlying reason for these high costs is a combination of collusion between prison authorities and the private providers, and a lack of concern for prisoners and their families. Financial debt has a negative impact on re-entry outcomes, as well as family well-being and mental health. Or to put it another way, it keeps people in the prison system, where they can be exploited for labor to the tune of $11bn worth of goods and services a year. With this amount of money on the line, it’s in nobody’s interest to create equitable conditions for prisoners.

Elsewhere in the world, prisons are experimenting with internet access in prisons without this exploitative profit motive. In parts of Australia, Germany, the Philippines, and elsewhere, access with varying degrees of supervision is allowed. This corresponds to a different attitude to incarceration: one that centers around rehabilitation and preventing re-entry rather than imprisonment for profit. Given the wildly disproportionate degree to which people of color are incarcerated in the United States, it’s not too hard to determine the underlying cause of this difference in attitudes.

The problem has more to do with a societal approach; the corruption of individual prison systems and service providers is an outcome of this rather than the cause. In America, rather than people who often need help, the incarcerated are resources to be exploited, at the center of a system that keeps almost two million people behind bars. And that’s why we charge them to message their loved ones.

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Patronage may be the business model for news

A pile of newspapers showing a business section exposed

I’m soliciting prompts for discussion. This piece is a part of that series.


Hunter Walk asks, in two prompts:

What's one business model you wish consumers would get more comfortable with because it would be a net-positive for media/news/society? And similarly, what's one business model you wish media/news organization would spend more time figuring out because it would be net-positive for society?

Should America have more BBC-like funded news media? Is capitalism, democracy and stability in media just fundamentally incompatible for the US?

I’ve conflated these into one piece because I think these are interrelated questions that need to be considered together. How can news organizations find sustainability while keeping the voting public well-informed and retaining their editorial independence?

Let’s begin with the BBC, which is often held up as a model for both newsroom operations and revenue.

The BBC, of course, has traditionally been predominantly broadcast news: a term that will eventually fade from relevance as broadcast television and radio are replaced by the internet over the next decade. It was funded through the UK’s broadcast receiver tax 119 years ago, originally created for radio; as televisions also used broadcast receivers, it was expanded to that equipment when TV came online in 1936. The license fee is essentially a regressive tax which now charges households £159 (roughly $200) a year for the right to use at least one broadcast receiver.

There is no equivalent internet connection tax. Instead, assuming that a household doesn’t own a broadcast receiver, they must continue to pay the license fee if they watch or listen to any kind of live television — for example, on the BBC’s iPlayer service, on YouTube, and so on, regardless of the device they watch it on. This revenue goes to pay for the BBC’s domestic activities in the UK, while its international activities are supported by advertising and traditional licensing through BBC Worldwide, a private corporation set up to drive revenue for the public corporation.

There’s a lesser-known second public broadcaster in the UK: Channel 4 is publicly-owned but makes its revenue through commercial means. It is banned from making its own shows, and must instead re-invest its revenue into distinctive programming as a way to stimulate the creative sector in the UK. Its news program, Channel 4 News, produced by the fully-private news agency ITN, is anecdotally at least as good as the BBC’s: it doggedly broke a number of political scandals in the UK as well as the Cambridge Analytica story. (Overall, the BBC’s coverage is undeniably more expansive, across many broadcast and digital channels.)

Both entities are theoretically independent, but have experienced a fair amount of political interference over the last few years. The BBC has been a political football at the hands of the Conservative Party, which has often felt it has been too critical of its policies. Channel 4 was set to be fully-privatized by that same government, but those plans were abandoned at the beginning of this year.

In the US, the closest analogy is the Corporation for Public Broadasting, a non-profit which receives money from Congress every year and whose board is appointed by the President of the United States. It is legally required to maintain “objectivity and balance”. In turn, the CPB funds stations affiliated with NPR (a national radio non-profit) and PBS (its television equivalent) through both content grants and community service grants. In both cases, the rest of the funding is derived from donations from individuals and private foundations.

The CPB, too, has been a political football. During the most recent war in Iraq, its leadership decided that coverage was too liberal; in response, PBS aired a show headlined by Tucker Carlson for a year. That particular chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson, who had been appointed by George W Bush, was eventually forced to step down after he was found to be directly interfering with programming.

The CPB has limits. There are many non-profit newsrooms in the US that aren’t affiliated with PBS or NPR and don’t broadcast in the traditional sense. These are typically funded through a combination of foundations, gifts from high net worth individuals, and small donations from ordinary people, in reverse order of prominence.

In these cases, one source can’t exist without the others: although foundations or high net worth individuals could hold up a newsroom on their own, that newsroom would then effectively be in their pocket (or at least, they would be perceived to be). By soliciting a range of donations from different sources, non-profits can help ensure their independence both effectively and reputationally. Short of an Act of Congress, the more a newsroom is dependent on a single source of funding, the more it is likely to bend to that source’s will. To future-proof its existence — and secure a reputation for independence — a non-profit newsroom must have diversity in funding.

At the same time, public organizations like the CPB, private foundations, and mandated public-private broadcasters like the BBC are vital to maintaining a thriving news ecosystem. Consider a hypothetical newsroom serving a low-income population in what would otherwise be a news desert. In a community where people are having trouble putting food on the table, there are unlikely to be enough individual donations to a newsroom to keep the lights on. On the other hand, we know that in communities without local newsrooms, voter participation decreases and corruption increases, potentially degrading quality of life in that community even further. Corruption in one area can also lead to corruption in others, creating a larger risk to democracy overall. While this hypothetical community might not present a great profit opportunity and may not be able to financially support a newsroom in its own right, ensuring it has coverage is not unimportant.

Meanwhile, for-profit news is lagging. Buzzfeed just shut down its newsroom; well-funded newcomer The Messenger is shaping up to be the Quibi of news; once-valuable properties like Vice are filing for bankruptcy; cable news networks are beginning to look like they will say or do anything to maintain ratings. One growing trend is for for-profit news sites to either convert into non-profits or adopt non-profit business models like philanthropy. In turn, VC funding for news startups is tanking: the odds of a news startup providing the kinds of financial returns that venture capitalists need to see are vanishingly small. Experiments like the blockchain-based Civil were failures bordering on scams. And the advertising industry, at least in the US, is falling off a cliff.

I don’t think American capitalism itself is incompatible with a functioning news ecosystem. There are thousands of domestic newsrooms that, while not necessarily thriving, are at least sustaining. Revenue and audiences overall are growing. But virtually all of the newsrooms I’m talking about are non-profits. While there are outliers — The New York Times is potentially one — for-profit news has generally fared disastrously. Physical newspapers and magazines continue to die, losing 50% of their revenue over the last two decades. Even where digital outlets are not dependent on ads, paywalls prevent most people from consuming their journalism, eroding their mission to begin with — and for most outlets aren’t even that effective at generating revenue. And micropayments are science fiction at best.

There’s been a boom in non-profit local and niche news startups: around 40% of Institute for Nonprofit News members were founded after 2017, and 60% after 2012. Most of this growth has been in local media, where revenue increased by 25% last year, albeit unevenly (remember my hypothetical news desert above). INN attributes some of this to the American Journalism Project, which seems to have had a positive role in stimulating local newsroom growth since it was founded in 2019. Across the non-profit sector, the median growth in revenue for non-profit news outlets was 25% over 4 years. 40-60% of total revenue was from foundations, 30-40% from individual giving, and the last 10% or so from earned revenue sources like advertising.

This giving-based model isn’t actually limited to non-profits, although many foundations will only award grants to non-profit entities. The Lenfest Institute acts as a non-profit arm for for-profit newspapers in Philadelphia. The Guardian is one example of a for-profit newsroom that has made a success of attracting philanthropy, in part by establishing a companion non-profit to attract tax-advantaged donations (not a million miles away from the model Mozilla uses). Even its for-profit arm is held in a trust whose rules dictate that profits must be re-invested into journalism — and has made a great success out of a subscription patronage model that saw recurring donations increase by 87% in three years.

Given all this, how might we ensure a healthy news ecosystem in America?

I think we need to get comfortable with the idea that non-profits do not exist outside of capitalism. At their heart, they’re another kind of corporate entity, with a different set of rules and restrictions.

We also need to get comfortable with the idea that news will be reported by a patchwork of local and niche newsrooms rather than a single branded entity. I’m sure many people will continue to tune into PBS NewsHour, the NBC Nightly News, and Fox, but these will continue to become the equivalent of the Huffington Post, bringing wider attention to other peoples’ reporting — often with a selective bias that has driven erosion in trust in these national institutions for years. Today, the public trusts individual journalists far more than branded newsrooms — a situation that benefits smaller newsrooms that perhaps don’t have brand recognition yet.

I don’t see a world in the near future where the CPB’s remit is expanded to include independent digital newsrooms across the country, although I do wish that we’d get more comfortable with the idea of federal funding, particularly if we accept the idea that journalism is a requirement for a healthy democracy.

Lacking that, I think the 60%/30%/10% model of foundations, individual giving, and earned revenue has shown itself to be relatively robust. For this to work on a larger scale, consumers will need to get comfortable with the idea of paying for news not because access is scarce but because it’s important. Paying to ensure that reporting happens at all — perhaps not even in the place you live — will need to become more normal.

The journalism industry has experimented with lots of different models. At Matter, an accelerator for media startups where I was west coast Director of Investments, we used to precede every demo day with Clay Shirky’s 2009 quote about the declining newspaper industry that “nothing will work, but everything might”. These days, I would say that some things obviously won’t work (venture capital investment in news, for one), and that we shouldn’t seek one prevailing business model for every kind of newsroom. Industry outlets like The Information can make great money from paywalls, for example; local outlets like Mission Local probably wouldn’t.

Nonetheless, I wish the industry would spend time focusing on making individual patronage donations as easy and seamless as possible. How can that 30% become a diversified 80%? There is no dedicated OpenCollective for news: a place where I can find newsrooms to donate to that will also provide non-profit fiscal sponsorship to newsrooms so that smaller outlets don’t need to spend time and money incorporating.

Patronage has been successful for newsrooms despite the software they use to solicit donations, not because of it. Today, if I want to donate to a newsroom, I need to do it on that newsroom’s site, using whatever tool they’ve decided to adopt. If they want to let me manage my subscription in a meaningful way, they often have to build their own member portal. If they want to transparently allow the public to see exactly who has donated, they have to build that functionality themselves. These are organizations that rarely have full-time developers at all; they shouldn’t have to do any of those things. What is shared infrastructure for making patronage as simple as possible across both non-profit and for-profit newsrooms, both for readers and for the newsrooms themselves?

The news isn’t incompatible with American capitalism. But it may be incompatible with 1980s-era models and outdated delivery mechanisms. Newsrooms will need to continue to collaborate and evolve if they are to survive. And we need them to survive more than ever.

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Consider me your personal analyst

A blue question mark on a pink background

I’m going to try something new for the next few weeks. I usually write about the intersection of media, technology, and democracy, often in reaction to new developments or something that’s been in the news.

But I’d love to know what you’re interested in. So here’s the idea: until further notice, I’m taking prompts. For every prompt or question that’s within the scope of this space, I will commit to writing a post in response to it. Consider me your personal analyst - or perhaps, less charitably, your personal ChatGPT - for free. You can submit them here; if you leave your name, I’ll credit you with a link to your personal website.

Some ideas for prompts include:

  • What are the biggest genuine risks posed by AI?
  • What could save the non-profit news industry?
  • How can open source social networks be welcoming places for vulnerable communities?
  • If you were founding a startup in 2023, what would you focus on?
  • What will be the year of Linux on the desktop?

But I bet you can do better than that.

Send them to me here. Let’s see how this goes.

Small print: links must be to personal websites only; prompts must be in good faith and not promotions; posts will not be revised; I may stop doing this for any reason, for example if this doesn’t work out or if it becomes popular beyond my wildest dreams.

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A million times this

And that's the thing -- the best thing doesn't win -- the one that is easiest for others to build off of is what wins!

~ Christina Warren on Mastodon, discussing ActivityPub and AT Protocol

This is exactly right. It’s not about ideological purity or architectural perfection.

Can a developer take your protocol, without permission or pushback, and build something meaningful in under a day? That’s how you win.

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A personal update

The author with a portion of The 19th's team

I’ve loved every moment of working with The 19th. I was a supporter before I joined, and I’ll continue to be one afterwards. As well as well-executed journalism at the intersection of gender, politics, and policy, The 19th is a masterclass in building an equitable remote organizational culture that should serve as a model to other newsrooms and startups. (Hopefully, in part thanks to the documentary about it that will be released at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, it will be.) The CTO role is now open, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

So what’s next?

The internet is at a new crossroads. Mainstay services that have been constants for over a decade are ceding space to newcomers that challenge prevailing venture capital business models and offer equitable alternatives. The over-financialization of the web is giving way to co-operatives, collectives, and true decentralization.

This is a movement at the heart of the open web that I care very deeply about. We’re in a very unique moment in time where that movement could succeed, empowering communities everywhere - or it could topple back and be replaced by the same old extractive gatekeepers.

I began my career by building the first website for a local paper in my hometown. I co-founded Elgg, an open source social networking platform that was used by Oxfam to train aid workers as well as universities like Harvard and Stanford. I was a part of the indieweb community, helping people to own their own web presence apart from silos like Facebook - and co-founder of the indieweb platform Known, which powered KQED Teach, a site that won an award from the National Association for Media Literacy. I helped train newsrooms in human-centered design at Matter (where I also invested in mission-driven startups) and taught equitable product design workshops at the Newmark J-School.

I want to use these ideas - human-centered design, open software development, and radical collaboration - in service of the next phase of media and the open web. I want to work with organizations that are similarly motivated, and who have empathetic, inclusive remote work cultures.

What does that look like, exactly? I’m not quite sure yet. It could involve joining an organization or it could involve starting one. It could involve advising many projects or concentrating on one. It will certainly involve lots of experiments.

If this mission resonates with you and you have a Ben-shaped hole in your organization - or if you want to help support these kinds of projects and communities - let’s talk. You can always email me at

Thanks for sticking with me. Let’s find out what happens next together.

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Finding time to write

I’m learning that I cannot write at night. Many writers do their best work once everyone else has gone to bed when the house is quiet; I, on the other hand, am a ragged, sorry mess.

This is a bit of a turnaround for me: I wrote the first version of Elgg in the evenings, usually logging off at a little past 1am. But the rigors of parenting an infant have meant that I’ve become a morning person by force.

So right now I’ve really got two options: wake up really early, and write before everyone else wakes up. (After I’ve made my first cup of coffee, obviously.) Or carve out time and write during baby’s first nap, which is usually somewhere between one to two hours. The latter has been working out pretty well for me lately, but I’ve also been booking calls during that slot.

New rule, then, at least while I’m the primary carer for our son (perhaps it’ll change if we start sending him to daycare or hire a nanny). The morning slot is for writing. The afternoon slots can be used for calls. I need to make that first naptime sacrosanct, otherwise I’m never going to finish this thing.

And I’d like to finish this thing.

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AI and privacy

A quick reminder: if your favorite service has added generative AI to its core functionality, that means it’s almost certainly also added sending your data to an AI service. Depending on which service that is, that may include sending your data across borders and adding personal information to a training corpus.

It’s worth noting that companies like Google internally ban sending sensitive data to AI services. You should too — particularly if you deal with peoples’ personal information. This functionality can seem magical, but it’s not without cost. As with any technology, it’s important to consider the real implications before making it a part of your business.

My post about AI in the newsroom applies to any small organization. And if you have questions about how you might take advantage of the technology, or what the issues might be, I’m here for you. As always, you can send me an email at

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Plotters and pantsters

A writer at their desk, planning

Fiction writers are popularly split into two camps: plotters and pantsters. Whereas plotters work closely on a detailed outline before they ever begin a word, iterating on the plot again and again so that it’s tight and hits the right themes, pantsters have a concept in mind, fill their heads with research and ideas, and then just start writing.

I’ve tried really hard to be a plotter, but try as I might, I’ll always be a pantster: in writing, work, and life. In fact, the more I try to plot and create the perfect plan, the less likely I am to actually start writing and see how it feels. The act of creation involves emotion as well as craft; the more I worry about the perfection of my plan, the more I lose creative momentum. The more I iterate, the more the joy seeps through my fingers, until I’m left with a lifeless skeleton that I don’t have the will to carry on with — and I’m still none the wiser about whether my outline would have ever worked.

Some people have the confidence and internal fortitude to build a plan and stick to it; I do not. I self-question like it’s an Olympic sport. In order to overcome this, I need my internal excitement to outweigh my hesitations. Emotional momentum — the kind of excitement that makes you want to dance on your chair because you love the process of what you’re doing so much — is the only way I can get any work out the door.

Doing work imperfectly requires a different kind of confidence. The actor Richard Kind talks about having the confidence to know you’re good at what you do. You can’t just think it speculatively; you’ve got to know it, which means (if you’re anything like me) you’ve got to trick yourself into knowing it.

There are two things I couldn’t have done my first startup without. The first is universal healthcare. (Entrepreneurship is entirely a more brutal proposition without a social safety net.) The second is absolute blind naïvety. If I’d known what I was doing in any way, there’s no way I would have done it. But because I didn’t know enough to ask some of the questions I should have considered, I did it, and it worked. Instead, when a problem arose, we found a way around it, often from first principles.

It’s not that being naïve magically made the problems go away; it’s that we had emotional and intellectual momentum, and we had the confidence to know that we could overcome problems that arose. We weren’t blind: we had a North Star, knew broadly what we were trying to achieve, and had a good understanding of the people we were building for. But we weren’t dead set on doing it a particular way. We kept an open mind. And that’s how we ended up building software that was originally built for higher education but found use at organizations like Oxfam, in social movements like the Spanish 15-M anti-austerity movement, and at Fortune 500 companies. We didn’t know any of that was going to happen ahead of time, but we scrappily adapted and grew. We were pantsters.

I’m trying hard to finish a novel, and do it seriously. It’s hard work, and although there are some similarities to finishing any large creative project, the craft involved is very different to building software. I’m also a very different person to the naïve kid who built a social network twenty years ago. For one thing, I don’t have anywhere near as much free time. For another, my self-doubt is so much better informed.

It’s taken me too long to realize that I have to work on is that emotional momentum. At least for the first draft. It’s not the only thing, and I’m prepared to work hard chiseling whatever comes out into something palatable. But first, the excitement, the creative flow, the momentum, the force.

And when I build that next big software project from scratch, I’ll have to re-learn it then, too.

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Every news publisher should support RSS

I’m disproportionately frustrated by news websites that don’t provide an RSS feed. Sure, most provide an email newsletter these days, and that will suit many users. (It also suits the publisher just fine, because now they know exactly who is subscribing.) But while it’s been around for a long time, RSS isn’t the niche technology many people seem to think it is.

I start every day by reading my feeds in Reeder: a popular way for Apple users to keep on top of new content from their favorite sites. There are plenty of alternatives for every platform you can think of. On top of all the easy-to-use open news readers that are available, apps like Apple News also use a dialect of RSS behind the scenes. It is the standard way for websites to let people read updates.

It’s also a way for publishers to free themselves just a little bit more from the proprietary social media ecosystem. If most users learn about content they’re interested in from Facebook, publishers are beholden to Facebook. If most users learn about new stories from open web standards like RSS, publishers aren’t beholden to anybody. They have full control — no engagement from the partnerships team required.

It’s very cheap to support. If you’re using a CMS like WordPress, it comes free out of the box; there’s no email inbox to clog up; and not allowing people to subscribe directly is hostile to both the user and the publisher. Hell, if you really want to, you can even run ads in the feed.

So, please: I want to read your articles. Spend half a day of developer time and set up a feed for every site you run.

Thank you.

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The fediverse and the AT Protocol

Ryan discusses the differences between the fediverse and the AT Protocol:

One core difference between the fediverse and the AT Protocol seems to be that AT decouples many key building blocks – identity, moderation, ranking algorithms, even your own data to some degree – from your server. The fediverse, on the other hand, ties them all to your server and sees that as a desirable feature.

I’m probably being a bit presumptuous, but I think there’s actually a difference between a European and American mindset here. (Mastodon is headquartered in Germany while Bluesky is rooted in San Francisco and Austin.)

The fediverse prioritizes communities: each community instance has its own rules, culture, and potentially user interface. You find a community that you’re aligned with first and foremost, and your activity is dictated by that.

The AT Protocol is much more individualistic. You bring your own identity support, moderation, ranking algorithms, interface, etc. You’re using someone’s space to be able to access the network, but ultimately your choices are yours rather than an outcome of which collaborative community you’ve opted to join.

I think both models are good. I like the fediverse’s emphasis on community. I also think by not emphasizing granular community rules early on, Bluesky has the luxury of being able to build community across the whole network more cohesively. I’m glad both exist.

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Blue checks for email are a bad idea

Google is adding to Brand Indicators for Message Identification:

Building upon that feature, users will now see a checkmark icon for senders that have adopted BIMI. This will help users identify messages from legitimate senders versus impersonators.

So in other words, Gmail will show a blue checkmark for email domains that have logged a registered trademark, bought a Verified Mark Certificate, and set up DMARC.

I hate this!

Although this method avoids Google itself from being a central authority, it demands that senders (1) have a verifiable registered trademark, (2) pay well over a thousand dollars for a Verified Mark Certificate.

This heavily disadvantages small vendors, sole operators, and anyone who can’t afford to drop a couple of thousand dollars on their email domain. The effect is to create an aura of legitimacy for larger organizations at the expense of individuals and smaller shops. It also heavily advantages certificate vendors, who are already running what amounts to be shakedown scam across the whole internet.

It’s an unequal, annoying policy, made worse by the realization that Gmail is likely to add routing rules that advantage BIMI-enabled messages in the future. Bah, humbug.

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How open content is transforming American journalism

I’m focusing on the intersection of technology, media, and democracy. Subscribe by email to get every update.

It’s genuinely refreshing to see how non-profit newsrooms have been embracing the open web and the spirit of collaboration over competition. These are often resource-strapped organizations shedding light on underreported stories, many of which are local or apply to vulnerable communities. They’re usually donation-supported rather than paywalled, and the primary goal is to get the journalism out and serve the public. They’re public service organizations first and foremost.

You’ve probably seen newsrooms like The 19th, ProPublica, Grist, and The Texas Tribune. What you might not have noticed is that each of them makes their articles available under an Attribution NonCommercial NoDerivatives Creative Commons license, such that anyone can republish them on their own sites. Publisher by publisher, a nascent ecosystem for open news content is being built.

There are a few carve-outs: often photos are not re-licensable, so republishable content usually comes without illustrations. There’s also often an analytics pixel included in the content so that newsrooms can measure their reach and report back to their funders.

And the reach can be significant. By making their content available under an open license, these newsrooms can find audiences far beyond their websites: major outlets like PBS, USA Today, the Washington Post, and more are all actively republishing stories.

The 19th's republishing dashboard

Because of the turnaround time involved in one outlet reporting on and publishing a story to their site, and another discovering it, re-illustrating it, and publishing it on their own site, this mechanism hasn’t been particularly applicable to breaking news. But there’s a lot of potential in gathering feeds from open publishers and creating a kind of republishing newswire, which could speed up this process and streamline the ability for these newsrooms to reach other publishers and audiences.

Grist just announced Rural Newswire, which is exactly that: a collection of publishers reporting on rural America that make their content available under a Creative Commons license. The site contains a filterable, RSS-powered feed with “republish” buttons next to each story. It’s the first site like this I think I’ve seen, but I know more are coming — and, of course, there’s nothing stopping third parties from creating their own. Each RSS feed is publicly available and instructions for republishing are provided by each site.

The result is a de facto co-operative of non-profit news organizations, working together to build a commons that makes the country more informed. It’s a way that open content licensing and open source ideas are really working to strengthen democracy. It’s the kind of thing that gives me hope for the future.

ProPublica's republishing dashboard

Grist's republishing dashboard

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AI in the newsroom

A screenshot of a page on the ChatGPT website

I’m focusing on the intersection of technology, media, and democracy. Subscribe by email to get every update.

By now, you’ve been exposed to Generative AI and Large Language Models (LLMs) like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, DALL-E 2, and GPT-4. It seems a lot like magic: a bot that seems to speak like a human being, provides confident-sounding answers, and can even write poetry if you ask it to. As an advance, it’s been compared in significance to the advent of the web: a complete paradigm shift of the kind that comes along very rarely.

I want to examine their development through the lens of a non-profit newsroom: specifically, I’d like to consider how newsrooms might think about LLMs like ChatGPT, both as a topic at the center of reporting, as well as a technology that presents dangers and opportunities internally.

I’ve picked newsrooms because that’s the area I’m particularly interested in, but also because they’re a useful analogue: technology-dependent organizations that need to move quickly but haven’t always turned technology into a first-class competence. In other words, if you’re not a member of a non-profit newsroom, you might still find this discussion useful.

What are generative AI and Large Language Models?

Generative AI is just an umbrella term for algorithms that have the ability to create new content. The ones receiving attention right now are mostly Large Language Models: probability engines that are trained to predict the next word in a sentence based on a very large corpus of written information that has often been scraped from the web.

That’s important to understand because when we think of artificial intelligence, we often think of android characters from science fiction movies: HAL 9000, perhaps, or the Terminator. Those stories have trained us to believe that artificial intelligence can reason like a human. But LLMs are much more like someone put the autocomplete function on your phone on steroids. Although their probabilistic models generate plausible answers that often look like real intelligence, the algorithms have no understanding of what they’re saying and are incapable of reasoning. Just as autocomplete on your phone sometimes gets it amazingly wrong, LLM agents will sometimes reply with information that sounds right but is entirely fictional. For example, the Guardian recently discovered that ChatGPT makes up entire news articles.

It’s also worth understanding because of the provenance of the datasets behind those models. My website — which at the time of writing does not license its content to be re-used — is among the sites scraped to join the corpus; if you have a site, it may well be too. There’s some informed conjecture that these scraped sites are joined by pirated books and more. Because LLMs make probabilistic decisions based on these corpuses, in many ways their apparent intelligence could be said to be derived from this unlicensed material. There’s no guarantee that an LLM’s outputs won’t contain sections that are directly identifiable as copyrighted material.

This data has often been labeled and processed by low-paid workers in emerging nations. For example, African content moderators just voted to unionize in Nairobi.

Finally, existing biases that are prevalent in the corpus will be reiterated by the agent. In a world where people of color are disproportionately targeted by police, it’s dangerous to use an advanced form of autocomplete to determine who might be guilty of a crime — particularly as a software agent might be more likely to be incorrectly assumed to be impartial. As any science fiction fan will tell you, robots are supposed to be logical entities who are free from bias; in reality they’re only as unbiased as their underlying data and algorithms.

In other words, content produced by generative AI may look great but is likely to be deeply, sometimes dangerously flawed.

Practically, the way one interacts with them is different to most software systems: whereas a standard system might have a user interface with defined controls, a command line argument structure, or an API, you interact with an LLM agent through a natural language prompt. Prompt engineering is an emergent field.

Should I use LLMs to generate content?

At the beginning of this year, it emerged that CNET had been using generative AI to write whole articles. It was a disaster: riddled with factual errors and plodding, mediocre writing.

WIRED has published a transparent primer on how it will be using the technology.

From the text:

The current AI tools are prone to both errors and bias, and often produce dull, unoriginal writing. In addition, we think someone who writes for a living needs to constantly be thinking about the best way to express complex ideas in their own words. Finally, an AI tool may inadvertently plagiarize someone else’s words. If a writer uses it to create text for publication without a disclosure, we’ll treat that as tantamount to plagiarism.

For all the reasons stated above, using AI to generate articles from scratch, or to write passages inside a published article otherwise written by a human, is not likely to be a good idea.

The people who will use AI to generate articles won’t surprise you: spammers will be all over it as a way to cheaply generate clickbait content without having to hire writers. The web will be saturated with this kind of low-quality, machine-written content — which means that it will be incumbent on search engines like Google to filter it out. Well-written, informative, high-quality writing will rise to the top.

There’s another danger, too, for people who are tempted to use LLMs to power chat-based experiences, or to use them to process user-generated content. Because LLM agents use natural language prompts with little distinction between the prompt and the data the LLM is acting on, prompt injection attacks are becoming a serious risk.

And they’re hard to mitigate. As Simon Willison points out in the above link:

To date, I have not yet seen a robust defense against this vulnerability which is guaranteed to work 100% of the time. If you’ve found one, congratulations: you’ve made an impressive breakthrough in the field of LLM research and you will be widely celebrated for it when you share it with the world!

Finally, let’s not forget that unless you’re running an LLM on your own infrastructure, all your prompts and outputs are being saved on a centralized service where your data almost certainly will be used for further training the model. There is little to no expectation of privacy here (although some models are beginning to offer enterprise subscriptions that promise but don’t demonstrate data privacy).

Then what can I use LLMs for?

Just as autocomplete can be really useful even if you’d never use it to write a whole essay that you’d show to anyone else, LLMs have lots of internal uses. You can think of them as software helpers that add to your process and potentially speed you up, rather than a robot that will take your job tomorrow. Because they’re helping you build human-written content rather than you publishing their machine-written output, you’re not at risk of violating someone’s copyright or putting a falsehood out into the world unchecked. Prompt injection attacks are less hazardous, assuming you trust your team and don’t expose agents to unchecked user-generated content.

Some suggestions for how LLMs can be used in journalism include:

  • Suggesting headlines
  • Speeding up transformations between media (for example, articles to short explainers, or to scripts for a video)
  • Automatic transcription from audio or video into readable notes (arguably the most prevalent existing use of AI in newsrooms)
  • Extracting topics (that can then be linked to topic archive pages)
  • Discovering references to funders that must be declared
  • Suggesting ideas for further reporting
  • Uncovering patterns in data provided by a source
  • Community sentiment analysis
  • Summarizing large documents

All of these processes can sit within a content management system or toolset as just another editing tool. They don’t do away with the journalist or editor: they simply provide another tool to help them to do their work. In many cases they can be built as CMS add-ons like WordPress plugins.

Hosting is another matter. When newsrooms receive sensitive leaks or information from sources, interrogating that data with a commercial, centrally-hosted LLM may not be advisable: doing so would reveal that sensitive data to the service provider. Instead, newsrooms likely to receive this kind of information would be better placed to run their own internal service on their own infrastructure. This is potentially expensive, but it also carries another advantage: advanced newsrooms may also be able to build and train their own corpus of training data rather than using more generic models.

Will LLMs be a part of the newsroom?

Of course — but beware of the hype machine. This kind of AI is a step forward in computing, but it is not a replacement for what we already use. Nor is it going to be the job-destroyer or civilization-changer some have predicted it to be (including VCs, who currently have a lot to lose if AI doesn’t live up to its frothily declared potential).

It’s another creative ingredient. A building block; an accelerator. It’s just as if — imagine that — autocomplete was put on steroids. That’s not nothing, but it’s not everything, either. There will be plenty of really interesting tools designed to help newsrooms do more with scant resources, but I confidently predict that human journalists and editors will still be at the center of it all, doing what they do best. They’ll be reporting, with a human eye — only faster.

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The notable list: May 2023

The Electrician, by Boris Eldagsen

I’m focusing on the intersection of technology, media, and democracy. Subscribe by email to get every update.

This is my monthly roundup of the links, books, and media I found interesting. Do you have suggestions? Let me know!



Poverty, by America, by Matthew Desmond. More of a searing polemic than its predecessor; I nonetheless wish it could be required reading. Perhaps the work Desmond describes isn’t possible - but it is the work that needs to be done in order to end poverty in America. Its impossibility is a symptom of an ugliness that cuts to the country’s core.

Notable Articles


"the secret list of websites". “Google is a portal to the web. Google is an amazing tool for finding relevant websites to go to. That was useful when it was made, and it’s nothing but grown in usefulness. Google should be encouraging and fighting for the open web. But now they’re like, actually we’re just going to suck up your website, put it in a blender with all other websites, and spit out word smoothies for people instead of sending them to your website. Instead.”

ChatGPT is taking ghostwriters’ jobs in Kenya. “Collins now fears that the rise of AI could significantly reduce students’ reliance on freelancers like him in the long term, affecting their income. Meanwhile, he depends on ChatGPT to generate the content he used to outsource to other freelance writers.”

AI Drake just set an impossible legal trap for Google. “Okay, now here’s the problem: if Ghostwriter977 simply uploads “Heart on my Sleeve” without that Metro Boomin tag, they will kick off a copyright war that pits the future of Google against the future of YouTube in a potentially zero-sum way. Google will either have to kneecap all of its generative AI projects, including Bard and the future of search, or piss off major YouTube partners like Universal Music, Drake, and The Weeknd.”

See the websites that make AI bots like ChatGPT sound so smart. “Also high on the list: a notorious market for pirated e-books that has since been seized by the U.S. Justice Department. At least 27 other sites identified by the U.S. government as markets for piracy and counterfeits were present in the data set.”

Google Bard AI Chatbot Raises Ethical Concerns From Employees. “In February, one employee raised issues in an internal message group: “Bard is worse than useless: please do not launch.” The note was viewed by nearly 7,000 people, many of whom agreed that the AI tool’s answers were contradictory or even egregiously wrong on simple factual queries.”

Sony World Photography Award 2023: Winner refuses award after revealing AI creation. “In a statement shared on his website, Eldagsen admitted he had been a “cheeky monkey”, thanking the judges for “selecting my image and making this a historic moment”, while questioning if any of them “knew or suspected that it was AI-generated”. “AI images and photography should not compete with each other in an award like this,” he continued. “They are different entities. AI is not photography. Therefore I will not accept the award.””

How WIRED Will Use Generative AI Tools. “This is WIRED, so we want to be on the front lines of new technology, but also to be ethical and appropriately circumspect. Here, then, are some ground rules on how we are using the current set of generative AI tools. We recognize that AI will develop and so may modify our perspective over time, and we’ll acknowledge any changes in this post.”

A Computer Generated Swatting Service Is Causing Havoc Across America. “In fact, Motherboard has found, this synthesized call and another against Hempstead High School were just one small part of a months-long, nationwide campaign of dozens, and potentially hundreds, of threats made by one swatter in particular who has weaponized computer generated voices. Known as “Torswats” on the messaging app Telegram, the swatter has been calling in bomb and mass shooting threats against highschools and other locations across the country.”

Publishers create task forces to oversee AI programs. ““My CEO is fucking obsessed with AI… but I’m not totally convinced,” said one publishing executive on the condition of anonymity.”

We need to tell people ChatGPT will lie to them, not debate linguistics. “We should be shouting this message from the rooftops: ChatGPT will lie to you.”

ChatGPT is making up fake Guardian articles. Here’s how we’re responding. “But the question for responsible news organisations is simple, and urgent: what can this technology do right now, and how can it benefit responsible reporting at a time when the wider information ecosystem is already under pressure from misinformation, polarisation and bad actors.”

Clearview AI scraped 30 billion images from Facebook and other social media sites and gave them to cops: it puts everyone into a 'perpetual police line-up'. “A controversial facial recognition database, used by police departments across the nation, was built in part with 30 billion photos the company scraped from Facebook and other social media users without their permission, the company’s CEO recently admitted, creating what critics called a “perpetual police line-up,” even for people who haven’t done anything wrong.”

What if Bill Gates is right about AI? “So as an exercise, let’s grant his premise for a moment. Let’s treat him as an expert witness on paradigm shifts. What would it mean if he was right that this is a fundamental new paradigm? What can we learn about the shape of AI’s path based on the analogies of previous epochs?”


The EU Suppressed a 300-Page Study That Found Piracy Doesn’t Harm Sales. “The European Commission paid €360,000 (about $428,000) for a study on how piracy impacts the sales of copyrighted music, books, video games, and movies. But the EU never shared the report—possibly because it determined that there is no evidence that piracy is a major problem.”

Online Ads Are Serving Us Lousy, Overpriced Goods. “The products shown in targeted ads were, on average, roughly 10 percent more expensive than what users could find by searching online. And the products were more than twice as likely to be sold by lower-quality vendors as measured by their ratings by the Better Business Bureau.”


Is PFAS pollution a human rights violation? These activists say yes. ““We live in one of the richest nations in the world, yet our basic human rights are being violated,” Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, said in a statement. “We refuse to be a sacrifice zone. Residents here are sick and dying and we continue to lack equitable access to safe water in our region, or the necessary health studies to truly understand the impact from our chronic PFAS exposures.””

Climate Fiction Will Not Save Us. “What these examples reveal, too, is that all fiction is political, even if just by turning away from this and deciding to show us that instead. But it is not a policy map, which isn’t a failing so much as a condition of most fiction as an art form having other obligations to fulfill than, say, those embodied by a scientist, who does not make things up for a living (even though the two warring conditions may coexist in the same person).”


How Philly Cheesesteaks Became a Big Deal in Lahore, Pakistan. “Pakistan’s fast-food boom of the 1990s and 2000s overlapped with a rise in Pakistanis traveling to the U.S. for study, work, business and immigration. As a result, many of the food establishments launched in Pakistan at the turn of the millennium were brimming with ideas that those visiting the U.S. brought back with them. The cheesesteak was one of these.”

Judy Blume is reaching a new generation — even as her books are targeted by bans. “Blume’s books are still considered trailblazing for the way they talked about burgeoning sexuality without judgment, and the everyday lives of young people as complicated, difficult and worthy of attention, experts said. The same could be said of so many of the books routinely censored today. The book ban surge in school districts across the country “can be depressing on any given day,” Finan said. Which is why, he stressed, Blume matters so much right now.”

Tiny Technicalities: The Pronoun Update. “The trouble is: the very people that most feel a need to escape are the ones that need to escape from the negativity, from having their identity and their body not recognized. Is that really “gender activism”, or is it just people who are being forced to take part in a convoluted political discussion, the bottom line of which should be simple: people should get to be who they really are, and people should get to be happy with their identities and their lives.”

Dril Is Everyone. More Specifically, He’s a Guy Named Paul. “Paul Dochney, who is 35, does not, in fact, look like a mutant Jack Nicholson. He has soft features and a gentle disposition and looks something like a young Eugene Mirman. It’s difficult to say what I expected to find sitting across from me, but it wasn’t this. Looking at him, you’d never presume that this was the person who made candle purchasing a matter of financial insecurity.”

Jerry Craft drew a positive Black story in 'New Kid.' Then the bans began. “The ALA director says about 40 percent of the challenges are to “100 titles or more at one time” rather than an individual title challenged by a lone concerned parent. “What we’re seeing is political advocacy groups trying to suppress the voices of marginalized groups and prevent students the access to different viewpoints.””

The Costs of Becoming a Writer. “I am aware that focusing on individual responsibility can obscure the reality of broken systems. That neither my parents nor I am to blame for what they were up against. That it was always going to be beyond my capacity to provide and pay for all their care out of pocket when they had significant medical needs and, for many years, no healthcare coverage. But I was—I am—their only child, and I not only wanted but expected to be of more help to them. I didn’t know that we would run out of time.“

Jackson Heights: The neighbourhood that epitomises New York. I adore New York City. This is why.


A Pharmacist Is Helping Clear the Way for Lethal Injections. “I conclude that they did experience extreme pain and suffering through the execution process.”

Courts Are Beginning to Prevent the Use of Roadside Drug Tests. “Each of the cases had relied on the results of chemical field test kits used by corrections officers at nearby state prisons. The kits indicated crumbs and shreds of paper that guards found on the inmates contained heroin and amphetamine. But a state forensic laboratory later analyzed the debris utilizing a far more reliable test and found no trace of illegal drugs. The defendants were factually innocent.”

Ranked-choice voting is growing – along with efforts to stop it. “”Entrenched interests are recognizing that they would like to stop ranked-choice voting from moving forward because it has such a profound impact in shifting power dynamics,” said Joshua Graham Lynn, chief executive officer of RepresentUs, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for democracy-related policy. “They, of course, benefit from the power dynamics the way they are.””

Americans are demanding change on guns ahead of Election 2024. “Some lawmakers offer only thoughts and prayers, and others insist that something must be done. But the unrelenting toll of gun violence across the country has resulted in incremental change at best in a sharply partisan Congress and inaction more broadly, particularly in red states. The nation’s status quo is unacceptable to many Americans, while talks of reform only affirm others’ commitment to the Second Amendment.”

French publisher arrested in London on terrorism charge. “A French publisher has been arrested on terror charges in London after being questioned by UK police about participating in anti-government protests in France.” Scandalous.

ICE Records Reveal How Agents Abuse Access to Secret Data. “ICE investigators found that the organization’s agents likely queried sensitive databases on behalf of their friends and neighbors. They have been investigated for looking up information about ex-lovers and coworkers and have shared their login credentials with family members. In some cases, ICE found its agents leveraging confidential information to commit fraud or pass privileged information to criminals for money.”

Oklahoma officials recorded talking about killing reporters and complaining they can no longer lynch Black people. “The governor of Oklahoma has called for the resignations of the sheriff and other top officials in a rural county after they were recorded talking about “beating, killing and burying” a father/son team of local reporters — and lamenting that they could no longer hang Black people with a “damned rope.””

Clarence Thomas Secretly Accepted Luxury Trips From GOP Donor. “These trips appeared nowhere on Thomas’ financial disclosures. His failure to report the flights appears to violate a law passed after Watergate that requires justices, judges, members of Congress and federal officials to disclose most gifts, two ethics law experts said. He also should have disclosed his trips on the yacht, these experts said.”

ICE Is Grabbing Data From Schools and Abortion Clinics. “The outlier cases include custom summonses that sought records from a youth soccer league in Texas; surveillance video from a major abortion provider in Illinois; student records from an elementary school in Georgia; health records from a major state university’s student health services; data from three boards of elections or election departments; and data from a Lutheran organization that provides refugees with humanitarian and housing support.”


Discrimination against moms is rampant in workplaces. “Moms are still often laid off while on parental leave, pushed out of workplaces and subjected to stereotypes about their competency. But with few legal protections, attorneys say most cases go unreported.”

CEO Celebrates Worker Who Sold Family Dog After He Demanded They Return to Office. “In a virtual town hall last week, the CEO of a Utah-based digital marketing and technology company, who is forcing employees to return to the office, celebrated the sacrifice of a worker who had to sell the family dog as a result of his decisions. He also questioned the motives of those who disagreed, accusing some of quiet quitting, and waxed skeptical on the compatibility of working full time with serving as a primary caregiver to children.”

How Important Is Paternity Leave? “Maternity leave should still be our top policy priority in the U.S. However, paternity leave is an important next step. In the shorter term, for individuals and companies, these results are worth considering. Flexibility for overlapping leave in the short term, and concentrated father time in the first year, both appear to have positive impacts.”

Julie Su prioritized workers long before U.S. Labor Department nomination. “The press called it the great resignation. Many of our low-wage worker members are calling it the great revolution.”


How newsrooms pay journalist-coders today. “The overall findings from the recent survey showed changes in demographics and priorities for the news nerd community. We hope that the salary data can now serve as one piece of the puzzle to improve equity in newsroom culture.”

Inside Rupert Murdoch’s Succession Drama. “While the finale unfolds, Murdoch is trying to prove he has one last act in him. But his erratic performance, which has thrown his personal life and media empire into disarray, has left even those in his orbit wondering if he’s lost the plot.”

NPR to stop using Twitter, says account's new label misleading. “National Public Radio (NPR) will no longer post content to its 52 official Twitter feeds in protest against a label by the social media platform that implies government involvement in the U.S. organization’s editorial content.”

Why KCRW is leaving Twitter — and where else to find us. “Twitter has falsely labeled NPR as “state-affiliated media.” It’s a term the platform applies to propaganda outlets in countries without a free press, a guaranteed right in the United States. This is an attack on independent journalism, the very principle that defines public media. Twitter has since doubled down on the label, which is outrageous and further undermines the credibility of the platform.”

Why journalists can't quit Twitter. “For the moment, though, Musk has learned the same lesson Jack Dorsey did: Twitter is extremely hard to kill. And for the journalists who have come to rely on it, there is almost no indignity they won’t suffer to get their fix.”


The ‘invented persona’ behind a key pandemic database. “Bogner’s apparent alter ego is only one of many concerning findings about his life and the way he runs GISAID that emerged during a Science investigation involving interviews with more than 70 sources, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and reviews of hundreds of emails and dozens of documents. Scientists and funders have also started to ask hard questions about Bogner and his creation, because GISAID’s mission could hardly be more critical: to prevent, monitor, and fight epidemics and pandemics.”


Blocked Crossings Force Kids to Crawl Under Trains to Get to School. “Lamira Samson, Jeremiah’s mother, faced a choice she said she has to make several times a week. They could walk around the train, perhaps a mile out of the way; she could keep her 8-year-old son home, as she sometimes does; or they could try to climb over the train, risking severe injury or death, to reach Hess Elementary School four blocks away.” A close schoolfriend of mine died when he crossed under a train, and these photos made my heart stop.

Why Silicon Valley is bringing eugenics back. “We can debate whether Musk knows what he’s doing here — it’s obvious he thinks he’s much brighter than he is — but he’s very clearly laundering eugenicist and white nationalist views. When he refers to “smart” people needing to have more “smart” kids, he’s suggesting that IQ — a deeply flawed concept in itself — is passed through genetics, and when he warns about the crumbling of civilization, it’s hard not to hear the deeply racist concerns about the decline of the white race that have become far too common in recent years.”

Gun Violence Is Actually Worse in Red States. It’s Not Even Close. “In reality, the region the Big Apple comprises most of is far and away the safest part of the U.S. mainland when it comes to gun violence, while the regions Florida and Texas belong to have per capita firearm death rates (homicides and suicides) three to four times higher than New York’s. On a regional basis it’s the southern swath of the country — in cities and rural areas alike — where the rate of deadly gun violence is most acute, regions where Republicans have dominated state governments for decades.”

Nonprofits Led by People of Color Get Less Funding Than Others. “Nonprofits that serve people of color or are led by nonwhite executive directors have a harder time getting the funding they need than other organizations, increasing their financial hardships.”

Coloring the Past. “The following images are originally from 1897-1973. After noticing how much more responsive audiences are to color photos, Eli decided to work on past images from queer and trans history. During a time when politicians can openly argue trans people did not exist until 2015, it is important to use reminders like these that we have always been here.”


Six Months In: Thoughts On The Current Post-Twitter Diaspora Options. “There have been a bunch of attempts at filling the void left by an unstable and untrustworthy Twitter, and it’s been fascinating to watch how it’s all played out over these past six months. I’ve actually enjoyed playing around with various other options and exploring what they have to offer, so wanted to share a brief overview of current (and hopefully future options) for where people can go to get their Twitter-fix without it being on Twitter.”

Google Authenticator finally, mercifully adds account syncing for two-factor codes. “IT employees must be crying tears of joy.”

Smartphones With Popular Qualcomm Chip Secretly Share Private Information With US Chip-Maker.“During our security research we found that smart phones with Qualcomm chip secretly send personal data to Qualcomm. This data is sent without user consent, unencrypted, and even when using a Google-free Android distribution. This is possible because the Qualcomm chipset itself sends the data, circumventing any potential Android operating system setting and protection mechanisms. Affected smart phones are Sony Xperia XA2 and likely the Fairphone and many more Android phones which use popular Qualcomm chips.

The Future of Social Media Is a Lot Less Social. “Social media is, in many ways, becoming less social. The kinds of posts where people update friends and family about their lives have become harder to see over the years as the biggest sites have become increasingly “corporatized.” Instead of seeing messages and photos from friends and relatives about their holidays or fancy dinners, users of Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and Snapchat now often view professionalized content from brands, influencers and others that pay for placement.”

Parler Shut Down by New Owner: ‘A Twitter Clone’ for Conservatives Is Not a ‘Viable Business’. ““No reasonable person believes that a Twitter clone just for conservatives is a viable business any more,” Arlington, Va.-based digital media company Starboard said in announcing Friday that it had acquired Parler.”

GitHub Accelerator: our first cohort and what's next. “The projects cover a wide range of potential open source business models, and while many of the maintainers are looking for a way to sustain their open source work full-time, they have differing goals for what financial stability could look like for them. We’re here to help support projects testing new ways to bring in durable streams of funding for open source—and to help share those learnings back with the community.”

Is Substack Notes a ‘Twitter clone’? We asked CEO Chris Best. “You know this is a very bad response to this question, right? You’re aware that you’ve blundered into this. You should just say no. And I’m wondering what’s keeping you from just saying no.”

Feedly launches strikebreaking as a service. “In a world of widespread, suspicionless surveillance of protests by law enforcement and other government entities, and of massive corporate union-busting and suppression of worker organizing, Feedly decided they should build a tool for the corporations, cops, and unionbusters.”

Elon Musk seeks to end $258 billion Dogecoin lawsuit. “Elon Musk asked a U.S. judge on Friday to throw out a $258 billion racketeering lawsuit accusing him of running a pyramid scheme to support the cryptocurrency Dogecoin.” Related: Twitter’s logo changed to Doge as soon as this story broke - almost as if Musk wanted to bury it.

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Reading blogs - anywhere but Feedly

I removed Feedly from my Get Blogging resource for people who want to read and write blogs.

If you’d like to read blogs, there are some great other feed readers recommended in the list. I start every morning with Reeder and NewsBlur.

Molly White has written a great summary of why I can’t endorse Feedly anymore:

In a world of widespread, suspicionless surveillance of protests by law enforcement and other government entities, and of massive corporate union-busting and suppression of worker organizing, Feedly decided they should build a tool for the corporations, cops, and unionbusters.

I cannot support union-busting in any form, and it’s very disappointing to see a tool like Feedly attempt to capitalize on corporations who would like to engage in this activity. So it’s gone from the list, and I’d like to suggest: while they offer this product and cater to this market, please don’t use Feedly.

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Community Survey 2023

A photo of lots of different people joining hands

It’s been a long time since I’ve run a survey. If you have 30 seconds, I’d love to know which technology and business topics are interesting to you - and how you’re thinking about tackling them. Every question is optional and anonymous - but if you have time, include your email address and I may follow up with you for a discussion and a small gift as a token of appreciation for your time.

You don’t have to be a regular reader of this site to respond to the survey. All opinions matter to me!

Click here to take the community survey - it will take no more than 30 seconds. Thank you!

I’ll discuss what I learned in a future post.


Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

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