Mister Rhodes Is Seeking Employment

The world of politics and media in the US is mildly aflutter this weekend after a man most people hadn’t heard of before ran an extended advertisement for his services. Ben Rhodes is President Obama’s deputy national security director for strategic communications, also known to some as “the Boy Wonder of the White House” and the New York Times magazine has a long profile of him. After some interesting background colour about just how an aspiring novelist ended up writing the President’s speeches and directing large chunks of American foreign policy, the piece gives an extended description of how Rhodes and his team shape and disseminate their message across the 2016 media landscape. It’s interesting enough that I even got my crayons out and attempted a chart.

A lot of the ire has been directed at the disdain Rhodes and his boss show for journalists who “literally know nothing”, how dishonest their selling of the Iran trade deal to the public was and how deeply cynical the administration’s playing of the message management game is. ‘Ben Rhodes, Liar’ says the Free Beacon . ‘A stunning profile of Ben Rhodes, the asshole who is the president’s foreign policy guru’ thunders Thomas E. Ricks in Foreign Policy. ‘Why the Ben Rhodes profile in the New York Times Magazine is just gross’ grumbles Carlos Lozada in the Washington Post.

Of these three (and there are plenty more out there), the last one is closest to my thoughts on the profile. There are lots of repugnant aspects to the piece, but none of it strikes me as particularly new. Perhaps it’s never all been stated so arrogantly and bluntly in one place before, but most of the media insiders complaining can’t be unaware of the access journalism game. And I certainly can’t think of a better, more high profile example of access journalism and all the trade offs it requires than the White House beat.

Some of the resentment may come from the methodology of message dissemination described in the piece, which does an end run around some formal, hard won relationships and uses social media to seed and spread the word. The use of Twitter is focussed on in the piece, with only passing reference to Facebook, but to my mind that’s where the really concerning black box stuff is happening.



So far, so straightforward. The message is decided on, willing hands help push it out through Twitter, with Price’s additional colour added. Other busy and probably desk bound journalists, using Twitter as a supplement and enhancement to traditional wire services write up the story and give it some presentable clothing, as they have seen it appear from multiple sources on Twitter. Then they in turn press publish.

The story appears on news websites but the numbers who read them there are falling. It also shows up on the publication’s Facebook pages and the machines get to work.

As an end user of Facebook, you’ve very little control over what you see in your feed, and very little ability to shape what Facebook’s algorithm decides you will see, when and in what order. There’s an increasing chance that a typical Facebook user gets much or most of their written news through Facebook. As an aside, Facebook would now also aggressively like their users to get much or most of their video news through Facebook. This will happen. Facebook has the scale to do this.

Anyway, back to the print story wending its way though Facebook’s entirely opaque plumbing – a wondrously complicated plumbing system liable to change on a whim. This story shows up in users’ feeds with the message present and correct from a large number of potential news sources. Window dressing around the message has been duly applied, so the stories from different outlets won’t be exactly the same.

The majority of American adults are Facebook users, and the majority of those users regularly get some kind of news from Facebook, which according to Pew Research Center data, means that around 40 percent of US adults overall consider Facebook a source of news.

(from Emily Bell’s ‘Facebook is eating the world’)

In addition to inscrutably dropping news stories from news organisations into users’ feeds, Facebook also does a little bit of curating of its own. The takeaway of concern for journalists here is obviously that Facebook is mostly interested in journalists as a means to train up its algorithms.news-flow-2016

None of the platforms, of which Facebook is indisputably the largest, can be neutral actors in this world. They create the algorithms which now decide which news is presented to which user. In this case, news that has one message from one source, although there is a comforting illusion of a diversity of sources.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this. After all, Mr. Rhodes is just advertising his availability for work next January. Prospective employers, if you’re listening, Ben would quite enjoy some time in the sunshine in California.


✩ Want You To Know: Get It Over With

WYTK header.png

It’s been a while, apologies for that but there was a serious amount of election ignoring, and then post-election to be done. My big pile of ignorage has probably never been so swollen. Yet still it continues.

Last night I listened to a live stream of a local Minnesota radio station. They were playing Prince‘s entire back catalogue in chronological order, interspersed with listener and staff anecdotes about him. Despite frequently being a garbagefire of despair the Internet can still amaze and move in surprising ways.

The ‘Purple Life’ mixtape on Mixcloud by Dave Wrangler and DJ Alykhan, done to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Purple Rain is worth squeezing into your earholes today. Next week’s New Yorker cover is beautiful.

Sort of continuing on that theme of what the Internet has wrought, this piece by Rex Sorgatz about growing up isolated in a very small town, leaving and returning is fascinating. There was no Internet so the source of knowledge was the library with subscriptions to a whole five magazines. Now everything has changed utterly, information-wise, whilst the town has mostly remained the same. There’s a great story about a scandal involving the naughty words in ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ as well.

Here are a few more things I’ve enjoyed reading over the last while, mostly about the intersection of media and technology.

Emily Bell wrote this piece about Facebook and the future of media and journalism, and it really sums up everything I’ve been thinking over the last few years about this. Tough times for publishers, certainly, but they have handed over control of the distribution of their product with barely a squeak of protest. As discrete items of content become separated from major media brands and appear free-floating in the streams of media consumers, where now for the brands?

There are huge benefits to having a new class of technically able, socially aware, financially successful, and highly energetic people like Mark Zuckerberg taking over functions and economic power from some of the staid, politically entrenched, and occasionally corrupt gatekeepers we have had in the past. But we ought to be aware, too, that this cultural, economic, and political shift is profound.

‘Don’t Trust Your CMS’ is a sobering look at the realities of publishing workflows inside media organisations. Learn to write in markdown folks.

“Can I share this video with my family?” ‘The Secret Rules Of The Internet’ delves into content moderation and the still haphazard and often exploitative way it is carried out.

While public debates rage about government censorship and free speech on college campuses, customer content management constitutes the quiet transnational transfer of free-speech decisions to the private, corporately managed corners of the internet where people weigh competing values in hidden and proprietary ways.

The New York Times gave an insight into how the media sausage is made nowadays with ‘How The Times Covers Breaking News: The First 12 Hours of the Brussels Bombings’. Eyewitness David Crunelle gave a rather startling view of this process from the other side of the newsdesk.

Worth Pondering


Eye Candy


‘Lost Parisian Cafes In Rainy Nights’

Totally Confused

Celebrity mountain lion, alsatians in totalitarianism, film dialogue broken down by gender and age, 38.0000,-97.0000 and making a bot that isn’t racist.

Yours etc., @loughlin


Think you know someone who might like to receive more emails like this? Then forward this one on to them so they can read the words below.

Hey! Want to be part of something hip and retro like a mailing list? Of course you do? Then head on over here to subscribe. I promise not to spam you or sell your email address to Facebook. Or Google. Or Twitter. Or anyone else at all.

Follow @WantYouToKnowHQ on Twitter for more bits and bobs.

Weekend reading

Secret of Googlenomics: Data-Fueled Recipe Brews Profitability

“Selling ads doesn’t generate only profits; it also generates torrents of data about users’ tastes and habits, data that Google then sifts and processes in order to predict future consumer behavior, find ways to improve its products, and sell more ads. This is the heart and soul of Googlenomics.” 

Students finally wake up to Facebook privacy issues

“young people are very engaged with the privacy settings on Facebook, contrary to the popular belief that their age group is reckless with what they post publicly.”

The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut

“I need my umlaut,” Blomkvist said. “What if I want to go to Svavelsjö? Or Strängnäs? Or Södertälje? What if I want to write to Wadensjö? Or Ekström or Nyström?”

Related to this, Stieg Larsson recently became the first member of Amazon’s ‘Kindle Million Club.

The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets

“We can segment it all the way down to one person,” says Eric Porres, Lotame’s chief marketing officer.

I think Mr. Porres may have lost the meaning of market segment (which implies groups sharing certain characteristics) in his excitement about his company’s technology. A question I’d be interested in is whether the law of repetition in advertising holds true for online ads that “follow people around the Internet”? A host of ads for Evony have followed me around the Internet for well over a year now and I have so far clicked on none of them. Context is also relevant here – will users be more prepared to click on ads on certain sites?



Facebook perspective

Here are a few sensible pieces on the whole Facebook privacy brouhaha.

The thing is, Facebook needs to generate some revenue from its user’s data soon. It seems that advertisers may be reconsidering their spend on Facebook, since by all accounts the conversion rates are quite poor. Walled gardens don’t last indefinitely.