Putting Your Media on a Diet

When you type an address into your web browser and are brought to a web server, a lot of decentralized magic happens within the span of a few seconds. Through the web, we have an infinite media available to us.

It as though you have a beautifully-maintained bookshelf and run your finger along the spines of the books, and then pluck out the one you want. But the sci-fi part, which is more science than fiction today, is that the bookshelf has millions of virtual entries and the information you want is delivered to you instantaneously. Once this virtual book is delivered (once a website is loaded), it can be frequently refreshed with real-time updates, and it exists in a form that can be navigated, searched, read, spoken, heard, shared, saved-for-later, or even automatically analyzed and summarized.

This is a lot of power for each individual to wield.

That is a lot of text to choose from, with which you can train your brain.

And that is even if you put aside the world of paid digital books via Amazon’s empire of Kindle. By the way, this Amazon empire need not cost money to you in the US, as you can often gain (adequate) free access to it via your local library on the Libby app.

So, one thing is for sure: there are a lot of words to choose from when deciding what to read. But this also means that an individual faces a paradox of choice when they click into that blank address bar in their browser.

Will they, like so many others, ignore the address bar and the browser altogether? That is, despite having the “infinite bookshelf” at their fingertips, will they, instead, hit an app shortcut to one of the major passive content delivery platforms, like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, or TikTok?

Recent research from Pew suggests that major passive-consumption mobile apps are used by a majority of Americans, and, what’s more, that usage of the most video-forward of these (YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok) is nearly universal among people 18-29 years old. As for teens, 9 out of 10 of them are online (presumably via smartphones) every single day, and nearly 5 out of 10 are online “almost constantly.” This comes from a 2023 report.

If you read between the lines of these two reports, what comes into a focus is a culture of individuals addicted to video streaming devices in their pocket, filling inevitable moments of boredom with hastily- and cheaply-produced sights and sounds, rather than retreating to the world of written words. And, unsurprisingly, people are reading less.

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The Blog Chill

The film The Big Chill came out a bit before I was born, over 40 years ago, in 1983. The plot focuses on a group of middle-aged friends, perhaps in their late 30s and early 40s, who had attended the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor together. They reunite after 15 years, brought together by the tragedy and the funeral of their friend, Alex, who, we learn in the film’s opening, died by suicide.

The “big chill” of the title can be interpreted a few different ways. The numbing loss of the innocence of youth. The cold realization of the quotidian nature of adulthood. Or, the wintry blast of mortality, which comes as a shock to this group of old college friends, who had become used to a sort of humdrum comfortable existence, pursuing families and careers, and then being suddenly shaken out of it by the sad news of their old friend Alex’s passing.

There is a historical and generational aspect to the film, too. The college years, for this group, were the 1960s. A time of great idealism in the US. The counter-culture was the culture. They weren’t supposed to end up like their parents. But then they found themselves in the 1980s, yuppies of exactly the sort they feared they’d become.

One of the interesting aspects of watching this film today is that, being set in the 1980s, it lacks altogether the technopoly we see in our current lives in the 2020s. There are no smartphones nor social media, to be sure, but, what’s more, there is no computing or internet either.

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The Great Reckoning in Digital Attention

Note: At the time of this post’s publication, I was the founder/CTO of Parse.ly, a company that worked closely with major media companies on a real-time analytics platform.

The attention economy is broken.

Brands are spending billions of dollars on a complex digital ad ecosystem to influence consumers, but with often terrible results. Publishers, meanwhile, have never had bigger digital audiences — but they only earn a fraction of the revenue, mainly due to the power of the Google/Facebook adtech dominance.

Spending on Google and Facebook

Spending on Google and Facebook ads exploded between 2010 and 2016, as shown by the orange areas above. Google and Facebook also have about half of all the advertising revenue in the Internet category. It’s very likely that by 2020, that will be closer to 60–70%, with every other Internet publisher on the planet fighting for a shrinking portion of ad dollars.

Consumers — you and me — are the ones footing the bill. We see increasingly slow page load times for publisher pages which are bloated with ad tech vendor code; increasingly invasive ads from brands who are desperate to catch a click; and, a media trend toward outrage, rather than thoughtful debate.

NYC city street

On this last point: it is outrage, not truth, that prevails in an Internet economy built around attention capture and auction, which is how our programmatic digital advertising ecosystem works.

This is because outrage — through a quirk of societal and brain evolution — is more effective at capturing our time. Indeed, as we’ve been learning, outrage decoupled from truth is one of the most engaging forms of content on the web.
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The Internet is a cult generator

Noam Chomsky once gave a great answer on what he sees as the “purpose of education.” I hand-transcribed this quote because it was so good:


“Technology is basically neutral. It’s kind of like a hammer. The hammer doesn’t care whether you use it to build a house, or a torturer uses it to crush somebody’s skull. The hammer can do either.

The Internet is extremely valuable if you know what you’re looking for. I use it all the time for research, as everyone does.

If you know what you’re looking for — if you have a framework of understanding which directs you to particular things, and sidelines lots of others — then this can be a valuable tool. Of course, you always have to ask yourself, ‘Is my framework the right one?’ Perhaps you need to modify it from time to time.

But you can’t pursue any kind of inquiry without a relatively clear framework that’s directing your search and helping you choose what’s significant and what isn’t; what can be put aside; what is going to be pursued; what ought to be challenged; what should be further developed; and so on.

You can’t expect somebody to become a biologist or a doctor by giving the person access to the Harvard University biology library, and just say, ‘Look through it, you’re on your own.’ The Internet is the same, but just magnified enormously.

If you don’t understand or know what you’re looking for — if you don’t have some conception of what matters — then you’re lost. And you should always be willing to question your framework and make sure you’re not going in the wrong direction.

But if you don’t have that, exploring the Internet is just picking out random factoids that don’t mean anything.

Behind any significant use of contemporary technology is some well-constructed directive apparatus. It is very unlikely to be helpful — it is very likely, in fact, to be harmful.

It turns out, for example, that a random exploration through the Internet turns out to be a cult generator. Pick up a ‘fact’ here, another ‘fact’ there, and someone else reinforces it, and all of a sudden you have some crazed picture that has some ‘factual’ basis, but nothing to do with the world.”

–Noam Chomsky, transcribed from this YouTube video


This is why I am personally so careful about my internet media diet, which has been a topic of reflection on this blog going back to its creation in the 2000s. Stay healthily skeptical!

He Who Controls Traffic Reigns King

Note: This post was authored by Sachin Kamdar, my co-founder at Parse.ly, in 2016. It was written as CEO of the company and when he refers to “we” in the post, he is speaking about Parse.ly’s customers, most of which were independently-run top-ranked websites who were struggling to compete on the open web with the digital advertising and internet traffic duopoly held by Google and Facebook. It is hosted on my blog as an archival project for the MuckHacker group blog we started a few years back.

Last week we saw earnings reports from the two giants of the internet: Google & Facebook. Alphabet (formerly Google) beat expected earnings handily in Q3 2016 and announced a $7B buyback. Facebook did the same showing that a slowdown in user growth doesn’t equal a slowdown in revenue growth.
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The Twitter growth conundrum

Note from the future: this post written in November 2016. A lot has happened to Twitter (or, Twitter/X) since then. But, the fundamental analysis of Twitter’s growth dynamics outlined in this post continues to hold true even 8+ years later.

Twitter is the public Internet company everyone loves to hate these days. It’s not growing. No one wants to buy it. And people are genuinely confused: what, exactly, is Twitter? Is it a social network? A “micro-blogging” platform? A “live events destination”? A social data company?

Twitter 2011–2015 user growth.

I am one of Twitter’s active users, tweeting on topics such as analytics, Python programming, and the media industry, in which I work. In my day-to-day dealings with journalists, editors, social media managers, audience development folks, and others in the media industry, it’s clear Twitter has a special position among the professional class of media raconteurs.
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Simple and Universal: A History of Plain Text, and Why It Matters

My first computer did not have a web browser. But I remember using my first web browser (Mosaic) with some awe. It was the late 90’s and though the web was not nearly as beautiful or functional as it is now, it worked. It was clear — even to my young self — that there was something very special about it. The web had separated text from paper.

Mosaic wasn’t much to look at, but its potential was inspiring nonetheless.

You see, before the web, we were already exploring alternative forms of text, in the context of the “desktop publishing” revolution, whose killer app — especially in media circles — was QuarkXPress. However, even desktop publishing still had a conceptual model of printed pages of text. The “output” of desktop publishing tools was almost always a paper printer. The “publishing” part of “desktop publishing” was “printing”. QuarkXpress and Adobe InDesign fought an epic battle to determine who could generate the best-looking paper, most efficiently.
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You won’t know it when you don’t see it

The NYTimes wrote about a study on how the Chinese government mass fabricates posts on social networks to control public opinion. The studied group is the famed “50 Cent Party” (aka 50c).

Contrary to prior findings, these researchers reveal that these posts are not meant to confront or defend the government, but instead to distract attention away from timely political issues that could result in collective social action. Specifically:

… the 50c party engages in almost no argument of any kind and is instead devoted primarily to cheerleading for the state, symbols of the regime, or the revolutionary history of the Communist Party.

I’ve always thought the best propaganda blends in so well to its surroundings as to not draw any attention. For example, we all see political campaign slogans as discrete pieces of propaganda in the wild, and we can recognize them for what they are.

When we know somewhat was made to support a political campaign, it’s easy to put on one’s own “analysis cap” and cut it down from that perspective. We can detach ourselves from the message, and thus choose not to be influenced by it.
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What is a muckhacker?

Historical Context: back in 2013, I registered a domain and hired a designer to work on a logo for something called MuckHacker.com. I also registered a short domain to go along with it, https://muck.cc. The main goal was to launch my own group writer blog as a way to put myself into the same mindset as the publishers we were serving as customers at Parse.ly. The topical focus was going to be media criticism. This post laid out why I picked the name “MuckHacker”. Eventually, this project became a “Custom Domain” at Medium.com. But, over time, I relocated the “MuckHacker content” that was published over the years back to this blog. All the posts from the MuckHacker group blog, which operated from 2014-2017, can be found via this post listing with the “muckhacker” tag.


Some definitions of related terms may be helpful:

  • muck, n: something sordid or corrupt
  • hack, n: a colloquial term for a writer or journalist
  • hacker, n: an enthusiastic or skillful computer programmer, often associated with the Free Software movement
  • hacker, n: someone who seeks and exploits weaknesses in a computer system or computer network
  • muck, v: to mishandle or spoil something
  • hack, v: to cut with rough or heavy blows
  • muckraker, n: a writer who investigates and publishes truthful reports to perform an auditing or watchdog function

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The media and “objectivity”

Chomsky — the same one behind “Manufacturing Consent”, an excellent analysis of newspaper and TV journalism in the pre-Internet era — walks us through a structural analysis of modern media here:

There is a concept of “objectivity” to which journalists are supposed to adhere: report honestly what is “within the Beltway” — that is, what is considered acceptable by major power centers, state and private. Departing from that framework is “biased.” There are to be sure exceptions, but there extensive documentation showing that this framework is upheld with quite impressive consistency. It can be changed in so many ways.


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