Shared posts

21 Jan 11:44

Imagine a world without ads targeted by personal information

by DHH

Elephants wouldn’t be killed for their tusks if there wasn’t a demand for ivory. We can do all sorts of things to discourage poachers, but as long as the market is there, the killings will continue.

Likewise, the flood of privacy scandals involving Facebook, ad exchanges, and other privacy poachers all tie back to the same root cause: Personal information is valuable because we use it to target ads.

But what if you couldn’t do that? Then the personal information would cease to have value, and the flood of privacy scandals would stop (or at least greatly diminish).

The world of commerce spun around just fine in the era before ads could be targeted by personal information. When ad buyers would place their spots based on context. Got a new car to sell? Put an ad on a website that talks about cars. Maybe it wasn’t as efficient, or maybe it was. Either way: The societal price we pay for allowing ads to be targeted is far too high.

We’ve placed all sorts of other restrictions on advertisement, so it’s not like this is a new thing. You can’t advertise tobacco products in many places. Some countries restrict advertisement against children. Regulation like this works.

Just try to imagine that world without ad targeting. It’s hard to imagine that it wouldn’t be a better one.

21 Jan 11:38

The Future Is Just A Videotape Recorded By The Past

by Warren Ellis

Okay, my mind has been fully broken by discovering monochrome publicity stills from the very much technicolour 1979 Star Wars-knockoff flick THE HUMANOID. Because in monochrome this frame looks like nothing more than a Soviet-era black and white science fiction film.

Found on this site here.

I can’t stop looking at it. I really don’t want to do nostalgic or atemporal stuff any more, it feels wrong for the moment, but that image is like a leak from a lost cinematic universe where Tarkovsky cut his teeth on a space movie. There’s like twelve stories encoded in that one image. Bizarre.

I stole the title for this post from a piece by Lordess Foudre.

17 Jan 14:12

Regina Lund spår

by Hexmaster
- Instagram: @sannanielsenofficial

Kring årsskiften brukar profetior om det kommande året dyka upp. De rör sig hela vägen från genomtänkta analyser av händelseutvecklingar till rent snömos. Den senare kategorin står våra så kallade medier för, de som säger sig ha kontakt med andevärlden, kunna tolka horoskop, tarotkort och allt vad det är.

Regina Lund är en av dem. Hon har länge kombinerat skådespeleriet med bondfångeri, vilket kommenterats i den här stilen:
I tidningen Hänt Extra svarar hon varje vecka på människors frågor om avlidna närstående. Det är stark läsning, särskilt om man tänker på att det sannolikt finns människor som tar det hon säger på allvar.
- Alex Schulman: Lunds texter måste upphöra att publiceras, Aftonbladet 25 januari 2015
Jag har framgångsrikt arbetat som clairvoyant, clairsentient, clairaudient, andlig vägledare, tarotläsare och healer/medium i snart över sju år utan att få ett enda klagomål från en enda av mina klienter.
- Regina Lunds genmäle publicerat i samma kolumn

Nu har hon fått ett klagomål från en "klient". Om än en ofrivillig sådan.
Hänt Extra prydde omslaget med en rubrik om Sanna Nielsens gravidlycka. Men artisten är inte gravid – och artikeln byggde på Regina Lunds spådom. 
Nu riktar Sanna Nielsen skarp kritik mot tidningen. "Det är rent påhitt", skriver hon i ett Instagraminlägg.
- Linn Elmervik: Sanna Nielsens ilska mot Hänt Extra – efter gravidrubriken, Aftonbladet 15 januari 2019

Även om skymningspressen kanske inte ska kasta den allra första stenen när det gäller publicering av hittepå så brukar deras övningar i genren inte vara fullt lika hämningslösa som "när jag tonar in mig på Sanna blir jag illamående som man blir när man blir gravid".

Sen är det lite lustigt att läsa om det mediala blajet i Medievärlden, den 16 januari 2019: Hänt Extra ber om ursäkt för fabulerat gravid-påstående.

En annan lustig detalj är att när jag nu försöker tona in mig på Regina Lund känner jag mig också illamående. Men det beror knappast på någon graviditet, verklig eller inbillad.
17 Jan 13:26

“Brand purpose” is a lie

by Brian Millar

This week, Gillette joined the noble ranks of Purposeful Brands with a new ad. It suggested that a decent chap should call out toxic masculinity where he sees it, which was something a departure from their output of three decades: phallic symbolism that would make Sigmund Freud choke on his cigar.

On the one hand, you could see where Gillette was going. It’s been slashing prices, squeezed by Dollar Shave Club on one side and Generation Beardy Boy on the other. From a strategic point of view, the ad made total sense. There’s just one thing. Purpose is something you believe, not something you make up one day as a marketing strategy. Its social media mentions flooded with women complaining that Gillette’s razors for women are pink and cost more. For a company that makes shaving kits, Gillette didn’t seem to have looked in the mirror.

In recent years, companies have been told that they need a purpose, a reason for existing beyond making money. Consumers look for authenticity, and prospective employees want to work somewhere that makes the world better. “Purpose” has been touted as the key to 21st-century success by both the Harvard Business Review and Fast Company.

Johnson and Johnson claims, “We put the needs and well-being of the people we serve first.” Starbucks exists “to inspire and nurture the human spirit–one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.” State Street made a statue of an empowered little girl facing down Wall Street’s bull.

With the world’s top companies staring nobly into the middle distance, it seemed to be the dawn of something magnificent: capitalism with a soul.

LOL, just kidding.

State Street underpays women. Starbucks paid no U.K. corporate tax for three years on sales of £1.2 billion  (about $1.5 billion), thus failing to nurture my local neighborhoods by paying for police, social services, or even street sweepers. Johnson and Johnson kept 98% of its cash offshore in 2017–almost $42 billion. If you wriggle out of paying the taxes that cover your customers’ healthcare and education, you don’t really care about the well-being of the people you serve.

Brand purpose is at risk of losing any meaning; it’s already being hilariously mocked.

We need genuinely moral companies to exert their power and tackle the big problems of the day. Besides, high-mindedness can make a company a ton of money. It has done so, over and over again, for centuries.

Learn from the Quakers

When Queen Victoria was still young and athletic, two brothers took over their father’s cocoa business and started making chocolate bars. Their surname was Cadbury so–spoiler alert–this is a success story. They outgrew their factory in the U.K.’s industrial heartland of Birmingham, so they began planning to build a bigger one. They bought land, lots of land; far too much land for a chocolate plant. They had a vision for a factory in a garden, and a town that would grow in that garden. George Cadbury decreed that, “one-tenth of the Estate should be laid out and used as parks, recreation grounds, and open space.” Those spaces weren’t just for Cadbury’s employees. They were for everybody.

George and Richard Cadbury were Quakers. They believed that wealth was meaningless unless you used it to raise the living standards of others. It’s a concept called the Commonwealth, something Quakers exported to America. Quakers have proved remarkably successful in business, founding Barclays and Lloyds, two of the U.K.’s biggest banks, Clarks (of desert boot fame), Nike, and even Sony.

All these companies had founders who believed in a commonwealth, who wanted to create a tide that floated many boats, not just their own. Centuries before anybody said the words “brand purpose,” these companies had it–and flourished because of it. Quakers were honest. Quakers were straight dealers. Quakers paid their debts. There’s a great documentary about them here–but don’t watch it yet, I’m just getting to the good bit.

Right now, purpose is often left in the hands of ad agencies. Every second brief begins, “In a world where everybody is increasingly polarized, at least they can come together over [insert client’s product here].”

It would be better to set the senior management an exam question: What is this company’s commonwealth, and how do we help it to prosper? Patagonia treats the environment as a commonwealth: There’s no point in making great outdoors clothes if the outdoors has become a climate-baked hellscape. It donated its $10 million tax break to environmental charities. If you can easily identify your commonwealth, then you probably had a purpose all along. If you can’t, then I’d advise you to spend some time watching the documentary above.

Cadbury was sold to the food-processing giant Mondelez in 2001. In 2017, Mondelez U.K. managed to pay £122,000 ($157,000) of tax on sales of £1.65 billion ($2.12 billion). Its purpose states that it will be, “Right for our communities as well as the planet.” Yeah, right.

Brian Millar is the cofounder of Paddle Consulting, a company that collects data about the things that people love on the internet. @paddlepowered

 

17 Jan 07:23

Feministisk astrologi

by Hexmaster
Vad tror du är viktigt att tänka på när man skriver feministiska horoskop?
– Först behöver vi vara medvetna om att det råder en vithetsnorm inom både västerländsk och österländsk astrologi. Läran är också väldigt hetero och könsnormativ. Jag utgår från individen och dess energi när jag tolkar stjärntecken och planeter – det är det viktigaste.
- Vår nya astrolog Anitha Cocktail ger 12 förslag till förändring, Bang 4/2017

Hur resonerar man på "Sveriges största feministiska och antirasistiska tidning" när man väljer att ta med astrologi? (En lika förutsägbar som irrelevant sorts kommentarer på den frågan jämför ovetenskapligheten hos astrologi med den man uppfattar hos genusvetenskap m m.) Vad spelar normer av ena eller andra slaget för roll när själva läran är trams?

RFSU:s tidning Ottar har skrivit om new age inom feminism m.m. Bang och dess husastrolog nämns särskilt. Men jag blir inte mycket klokare.
När konstnären Anna Zingmark verkar som astrologen Anitha Cocktail i tidskriften Bang kretsar förutsägelserna och insikterna inte kring politik, utan om personlighet och drivkrafter i allmänhet. Däremot genomsyrar en queer analys alla hennes läsningar. Anna Zingmark vill öppna upp för den kunskap hon menar att läran rymmer.
– För mig är det viktigt att det alltid finns ett kritiskt tänk kring arketyper och normer och strukturer. Att inte stanna upp i trötta tolkningar är en fråga om respekt för den här tusenåriga läran. Jag utgår från individen och dess energi när jag tolkar och väljer bort ofräscha vithetsnormer och heteronormer, säger Anna Zingmark.
- Jenny Damberg: Magi mot mörkrets makter, Ottar 21 maj 2018

Här finns en del intressant. Som om intresset för astrologi verkligen ökat nämnvärt på sista tiden.  Eller den vanliga bortförklaringen i stil med att "spådomarna" i själva verket är analytiska samtal, och horoskopen, korten eller kaffesumpen bara medel för att nå målet. Men det man ger med ena handen tar man tillbaka med den andra. Varför skulle man annars visa respekt för en gammal lära?

Men det är fortfarande en öppen fråga hur de feminister resonerar som tycker att astrologi och feminism hör ihop.

17 Jan 06:46

★ Pentagram’s ‘Range of Possibilities’ for Slack

by John Gruber

Coincident with the announcement of Slack’s new branding, Pentagram posted some of the work they did for Slack. For example, this image showing seven takes on a new identity (alongside the old one). What they’re showing is shockingly bad work. I can’t believe Pentagram would present some of this to a client, and it’s even harder to believe they would show it publicly.

Exhibit A:

Proposed Slack logo based on Apple's hand-wave emoji

Slack uses colons like that for entering text shortcuts for Slack’s emoji-like “reaction” stickers. E.g., type :wave: and it’ll be replaced by a hand-waving sticker. No one who doesn’t use Slack would know that; many people who do use Slack don’t know that, because they have visual ways for choosing stickers; and even for people who do know what those colons represent, why in the world would anyone think they belong in the logo? And the actual waving hand in Pentagram’s proposal isn’t Slack’s artwork, it’s Apple’s emoji. And why would a hand-waving emoji represent Slack as a logo? It makes no sense and looks like someone spent 30 seconds making it in TextEdit. It looks more like a tweet than a logo.

Exhibit B:

Proposed Slack logo with a green @ symbol.

Where to even start with this gem? Why green? Why a monospaced font? (The lowercase L in this font looks a lot like the digit 1, which makes the whole thing look like a bad password — “s1@ck”. Why an “@” symbol? Slack already was strongly identified with a standard punctuation character — the “#” hash mark. If anything, the “@” in the middle of “Sl@ck” is reminiscent of an email address — but Slack’s entire raison d’être is to serve as a superior alternative to email for group and team collaboration. Slack is not at all like email but can be a replacement for email. Whoever crapped this logo out clearly didn’t even know what Slack is.

Then there’s this collection of monochrome marks, with the caption “Logo explorations for the octothorpe”:

A 7×4 grid of proposed “octothorp” marks.

Only one of these 28 marks resembles an octothorp/pound sign/hash mark/whatever you want to call “#” (row 4, column 2). Maybe two or three if you squint. None of them are good marks. Most of them are terrible. This one looks like a man bouncing a ball behind a barber chair:

A monochrome “octothorp” mark.

Pentagram proposed an ad using the new identity conceptually based on chat bubbles — and perhaps that’s what those squirts in the corners of the new logo are supposed to represent. (To me they look more like this.) But Slack doesn’t use chat bubbles. I suppose this new identity might presage a UI overhaul in which Slack will display chat bubbles, but if not, it again suggests Pentagram doesn’t even use Slack.

If I were on Slack’s marketing team and Pentagram showed me these proposals, I’d look around the room for hidden cameras, presuming that I was being pranked. If I weren’t being pranked, I’d be furious, because this is the oldest trick in the designer’s book — making one real proposal and then a bunch of throwaway garbage proposals to create the illusion of multiple directions for the client to choose from, and assuming the rube client will happily accept the real one and consider themselves smart for knowing which one was the best.1

Louie Mantia spent 10 minutes doodling and came up with a mark that:

It’s not finished work but it’s a better start than anything Pentagram proposed. What Pentagram has revealed indicates a total disregard for what Slack is and was — a brand which users have genuine affection for — and their new mark is nothing more than an unmemorable, unpleasant shape.


  1. I’d be furious as well if I were being pranked. ↩︎

14 Jan 07:36

Utbrändhet

by Erik Stattin

Anne Helen Petersens artikel “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation“, som utifrån personliga erfarenheter av utbrändhet försöker hitta samhälleliga förklaringar till varför unga bränner ut sig, har väckt en massa uppmärksamhet. Även för en 45-årig X-generationist väckte den en hel del igenkänning och den radda av förklaringar hon anför fick åtminstone mig att tänka till en del kring kanske slarviga antaganden om “millenial”-generationen. Rekommenderad läsning. Här något som särskilt resonerade hos mig:

That realization recast my recent struggles: Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young. Life has always been hard, but many millennials are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which it’s become hard for us.

11 Jan 09:12

Procreate’s Undo Gesture Is Open Source

by John Gruber

Procreate:

The two-finger tap to Undo was first released in Procreate 3 for iPad back in 2015, but we actually first developed it for Procreate Pocket. Undoing an action is one of the most critical input methods we use today, and we needed a method that wouldn’t clutter the interface or disrupt the core experience. We went through dozens of designs until we realised we should treat the entire screen as the Undo button - resulting in a simple gesture that could be invoked any time, anywhere.

Two-finger tap to Undo has become one of Procreate’s most instinctive and essential gestures.

It’s also one of our most-stolen features (over a dozen apps and counting), and we’re fine with that. In fact, we’re giving it away. Seriously. We’ve put together a sample project covered by the Simplified BSD License, which means you can add to or modify it as you wish.

Whether you’re one of our competitors, or in an entirely different field, please feel free to grab the project below. Take it, use it, and give your users the most instinctive Undo and Redo method available.

I love this attitude.

Just a few days before they posted this, I wrote about how iOS still hasn’t gotten Undo right. Two-finger tap is really great for drawing apps. I’m not sure it’s great in other contexts, like text editing, though. But it’s certainly better than shaking the damn device.

11 Jan 08:34

Journalister som fejkar med flit

by Hexmaster
We extended normal human trust to someone who basically lacked a conscience... We busy, friendly folks, were no match for such a willful deceiver...
- Redaktör Charles Lane om en kollega som visat sig vara en bedragare

I december 2018 erkände journalisten Claas-Hendrik Relotius att han fabricerat fakta, intervjuer, citat och annat i en lång rad artiklar, främst men inte enbart i den tyska tidningen Der Spiegel.
In recent years, DER SPIEGEL published just under 60 articles by reporter and editor Claas Relotius. He has now admitted that, in several instances, he either invented stories or distorted facts.
- The Relotius Case: Answers to the Most Important Questions, Spiegel Online

Relotius var inte någon marginell murvel utan en av de främsta i facket. Han hade en lång och lysande karriär med en mängd tyska och internationella priser i bokhyllan. Vidare har Der Spiegel, där Relotius haft en fast anställning sedan 2017, ett mycket högt anseende.

Vad som kan förbluffa är att Relotius kom undan med så mycket så länge. Tidningar med liten täckning och/eller dåligt anseende skulle kunna – eller vad säger jag, kan – komma undan med hittepå i stort och smått ganska länge. Men fejkade artiklar i Europas största tidningar? Varför reagerade ingen?

Jodå, visst reagerade folk. Men vad hjälpte det? Som när en av Relotius kolleger fick erfara att man inte ostraffat utmanar en stjärna:
In the dispute with and surrounding Relotius, [Juan] Moreno risked his own job, at times even desperately seeking to re-report his colleague's claims at his own expense. Moreno would go through three or four weeks of hell because his colleagues and senior editors in Hamburg didn't initially believe that Relotius could be nothing more than a liar.
- Ullrich Fichtner: Der Spiegel Reveals Internal Fraud, Spiegel Online 20 december 2018

Även i dessa dagar, då det talas mer om källkritik och faktagranskande än någonsin (ofta på ett sätt som ger intryck av att det är en ny spännande uppfinning), finns det ansedda publikationer som inte vill höra talas om att de skulle ha gjort något fel. Man granskar ofta, gärna och skickligt samhälle, politiker, företag och så vidare, men inte varandra. Att uppmärksamma fåniga skrönor som vanligt folk delar på Facebook är en sak, att ta svåra samtal med kolleger som slarvar eller rentav hittar på en helt annan.

Är det skråandan som trumfar källkritiken? Eller vill man inte erkänna att man blivit lurad?

Citatet som inledde denna bloggpost gäller inte Relotius. Charles Lane, erfaren redaktör på den ansedda The Washington Post, berättar om Stephen Glass, en stjärnjournalist vars fabriceringar gick ännu längre än de som hittills avslöjats hos Relotius. Av den sårade tonen, liksom Morenos gatlopp, framstår det som glasklart att fall som dessa kommer att fortsätta dyka upp lite då och då.

04 Jan 10:42

Apple’s Precarious and Pivotal 2019

Photo by Julian O'hayon on Unsplash
Go to the profile of M.G. Siegler

The results are in. Actually, they’re not in. And that was a major problem yesterday for Apple.

You see, the company had to do something they almost never do. They had to revise their earnings guidance.¹ Downward. The stock was halted. Yikes.

Today, the stock is down nearly 10%. Tens of billions of dollars have been shaved off of Apple’s market cap, literally overnight. The company is now the 4th most valuable corporation in the world. That sounds like a great thing until you remember that until recently, it was the most valuable company in the world — and for much of the past several years, this was the case by far.

Yesterday was a nightmare scenario for any public company. But it’s almost unfathomable that this happened with Apple. For years and years, this is the company that not only beat their earnings guidance (not to mention Wall Street’s expectations) quarter after quarter, they crushed them.²

I mean, this is the company which celebrated becoming the first trillion dollar company just this past August. What a difference a few months makes.

Tim Cook’s letter to shareholders on the matter is fascinating. On one hand, he makes a very simple case: chalk it up to China. A bad economic situation exacerbated by a trade war has created a perfect storm of sorts, undoubtedly for many companies operating in the country. Yet many U.S. companies don’t operate in China the way that Apple does. It’s their third-largest market. So yeah, this was always going to hurt.

On the other hand, all of that could have been explained in one or two paragraphs. Cook’s letter is nearly 1,500 words long.

I offered up some initial thoughts in a tweetstorm on the matter yesterday (embedded below), but it’s worth diving a bit deeper into what’s going on. Or actually, just zooming out a bit, to summarize. Because to me, the interesting bits are about what’s going on with Apple beyond the China situation.

While the bad miss on the quarterly revenue and the revised statement surprised me, the underlying issues that Cook hints at do not. They point to something we’ve known for years: it was always inevitable that the law of large numbers would catch up with Apple. More specifically, with the iPhone — perhaps the greatest product from a business perspective in history. And that appears to have happened. Finally.

Two paragraphs in Cook’s statement stand out to me:

In addition, these and other factors resulted in fewer iPhone upgrades than we had anticipated.

This is a big deal. Almost mentioned as an aside; love it. And:

While Greater China and other emerging markets accounted for the vast majority of the year-over-year iPhone revenue decline, in some developed markets, iPhone upgrades also were not as strong as we thought they would be. While macroeconomic challenges in some markets were a key contributor to this trend, we believe there are other factors broadly impacting our iPhone performance, including consumers adapting to a world with fewer carrier subsidies, US dollar strength-related price increases, and some customers taking advantage of significantly reduced pricing for iPhone battery replacements.

Again, there’s the weaker-than-expected iPhone upgrades data point. But with a bit more detail this time.

Starting at the bottom, the battery replacement point is sort of wild. Not the point itself, but that Cook would include it. I mean, how big of an impact could that possibly have on the bottom line? If you believe Cook — and he later reiterated this point on CNBC — quite a bit. And that’s why it’s crazy that he included it in the statement. Because it points to one of two things:

First, it suggests a favorite conspiracy theory about the company: that they degrade the batteries on purpose to make more money. I don’t actually believe this, but a lot of people do. And when no less than Tim Cook now highlights such a stat in this context, who can blame them?

Second, and more likely, the battery replacement issue suggests that many people are no longer upgrading iPhones because they’re now “good enough” and everyone is more than happy to just pay a bit more for a better battery.

Obviously, neither of these are good scenarios for Apple. And I’m honestly not sure which is worse!

Continuing up the paragraph, we get to the part about “US dollar strength-related price increases” — yes, this is Apple complaining that the price of their products are too high! That’s funny, but it’s also serious: they are actually acknowledging there may be a price ceiling for the iPhone. This was, I believe, part of the premise of the “$1,500 iPhone” (the most expensive variety of the iPhone XS Max) — to test such upper boundries, like velociraptors testing electric fences. Consider it tested! And they’ll remember!

And then there’s the real standout part of the paragraph: “consumers adapting to a world with fewer carrier subsidies”. Once again, this translates into English as: we pushed the price of the iPhone too far. And whereas before, such prices were obfuscated by things like carrier contracts, that world is shifting. And Apple hasn’t shifted fast enough or strongly enough to account for this. More on this in a bit.

Two other key takeaways from the statement: just how many times Cook mentions Apple’s Services business, and the continued talk of Apple’s installed base of active devices. Unsurprisingly, these are directly related. Apple continues to grow their base to… upsell them services.

This has been a key narrative for Apple for the past couple of years now. And in 2018, it was clearly elevated to a main talking point time and time again. The reason why is obvious: growth. Services is the one area Apple can rely on for not just some growth, but for big growth. It’s also an area Wall Street happens to find sexy at the moment. See also: Microsoft’s turnaround.

The problem is that as good as the Services business is becoming for Apple, it’s unlikely to replace the iPhone as the key cog of Apple’s overall business anytime soon.³ And this means Apple is unlikely to grow as a whole anytime soon. Sure, there may be some quarters of growth here and there, but as this current situation makes clear, the era of unabated growth is over.

The iPhone has simply been too good of a business. And it’s hard to see what tops it. Certainly in the near term. If Services is to carry Apple in the future, it will likely be only after years of relatively stagnant iPhone revenue growth mixed with a rising overall market. In other words, time and the broader world will have to catch up. And then Apple can have their “Microsoft Moment” — a services-based resurrection of growth.

By the way, this seems like a much more likely scenario for Apple than say, a pair of AR glasses, or even a car product eclipsing the iPhone business. I wouldn’t sleep on Apple Pay, but Apple buckets that under Services as well!

All roads lead to Services for Apple, as Cook makes pretty clear in his statement. And if you’re looking for growth — which Wall Street always is — look no further:

Our non-iPhone businesses have less exposure to emerging markets, and the vast majority of Services revenue is related to the size of the installed base, not current period sales.
Services generated over $10.8 billion in revenue during the quarter, growing to a new quarterly record in every geographic segment, and we are on track to achieve our goal of doubling the size of this business from 2016 to 2020.

Again, growth simply thanks to the installed base. And did he mention there’s also growth in Services in China? Yes, yes he did:

Our results in China include a new record for Services revenue, and our installed base of devices grew over the last year.

But the path to this Services future isn’t quite as straightforward as Cook makes it seem. Apple’s history has been selling excellent hardware coupled with great software at fantastic margins. The Services themselves are a mixed bag, at best. If this is the key area of growth for the company, and they’re not truly great at said Services, there’s a risk of rot from within.⁴

Going back to the post-carrier-contracts world, another seemingly telling part of Cook’s statement:

We can’t change macroeconomic conditions, but we are undertaking and accelerating other initiatives to improve our results. One such initiative is making it simple to trade in a phone in our stores, finance the purchase over time, and get help transferring data from the current to the new phone. This is not only great for the environment, it is great for the customer, as their existing phone acts as a subsidy for their new phone, and it is great for developers, as it can help grow our installed base.

This is fascinating! Cook is basically making a case for the end of buying phones at full price each year and instead, a world in which you pay Apple in perpetuity to constantly get the new iPhone. This is — wait for it — a service! The name is even right there for the taking: iPaaS — iPhone as a Service.

And it’s a service Apple already has, in the form of the iPhone Upgrade Program! Unfortunately, it’s not a great service right now — I’m a member — as it’s largely outsourced to a third-party, Citizens Bank. Cook is suggesting that Apple is going to put a lot more emphasis here. Which makes a lot of sense, both to help continue to obfuscate the true price of the iPhone, but also to keep that all-important base of users locked in.

It’s also Apple’s most interesting inroad to an “Apple Prime” offering. That is, an all-encompassing suite of services you pay Apple for — just like Amazon Prime, with all that offers from an Amazon-perspective.

I had thought it was going to be a longer road to get there simply given how much Apple would have to charge for it to make sense if they’re going to include an iPhone each year. And Apple clearly thought this would and should take longer as well! But Cook’s comments — “undertaking and accelerating” — suggest a more robust iPaaS is now a priority.

An easier path would be Apple Music, mixed with their forthcoming TV offering, the new subscription news offering, alongside some iCloud storage space, no doubt. Maybe even Apple Care? But to be truly differentiated and to be meaningful to Apple’s bottom line, I think you need to throw Apple’s core, their products, into the mix. Which sounds great. But again, expensive.

All of the above points to a rocky year ahead for Apple, but also a pivotal one. The transition from the iPhone company to a Services company is now officially underway. It is clearly happening earlier than Apple had planned. How will Apple adapt to this new era?

As I wrote four years ago:

Apple has skirted the “law of large numbers” by continuing to grow the iPhone business. And there’s undoubtedly still more room for growth — especially in places like China. But what about other products?

The time has come to answer such a question.

¹ It had apparently been 15 years — early into Steve Jobs’ second era at Apple. A very different company than it is now.

² Some might say they were sandbagging the numbers, but even when Apple switched to more accurate forecasting, they still beat their own numbers time and time again.

³ Whereas Apple is now doing about $10B in services revenue a quarter — which really is insanely great — they’re doing something between $40B — $50B in iPhone revenue a quarter. Put another way: projections have Apple doing $100B in annual Services revenue by 2023 — meanwhile, they’re tracking to do north of $200B in annual iPhone revenue right now.

⁴ Speaking of, I do believe there’s a larger issue there with Apple failing at little things that is eroding brand trust. This is also inevitable at the scale at which they now operate. But it’s still an issue. Apple has been slipping

02 Jan 10:51

I Was A Cable Guy. I Saw The Worst Of America.

Sarah Maxwell for HuffPost

I can’t tell you about a specific day as a cable tech. I can’t tell you my first customer was a cat hoarder. I can tell you the details, sure. That I smeared Vicks on my lip to try to cover the stench of rugs and walls and upholstery soaked in cat piss. That I wore booties, not to protect the carpets from the mud on my boots but to keep the cat piss off my soles. I can tell you the problem with her cable service was that her cats chewed through the wiring. That I had to move a mummified cat behind the television to replace the jumper. That ammonia seeped into the polyester fibers of my itchy blue uniform, clung to the sweat in my hair. That the smell stuck to me through the next job.

But what was the next job? This is the stuff I can’t remember — how a particular day unfolded. Maybe the next job was the Great Falls, Virginia, housewife who answered the door in some black skimpy thing I never really saw because I work very hard at eye contact when faced with out-of-context nudity. She was expecting a man. I’m a 6-foot lesbian. If I showed up at your door in a uniform with my hair cut in what’s known to barbers as the International Lesbian Option No. 2, you might mistake me for a man. Everyone does. She was rare in that she realized I’m a woman. We laughed about it. She found a robe while I replaced her cable box. She asked if I needed to use a bathroom, and I loved her.

For 10 years, I worked as a cable tech in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. Those 10 years, the apartments, the McMansions, the customers, the bugs and snakes, the telephone poles, the traffic, the cold and heat and rain, have blurred together in my mind. Even then, I wouldn’t remember a job from the day before unless there was something remarkable about it. Remarkable is subjective and changes with every day spent witnessing what people who work in offices will never see — their co-workers at home during the weekday, the American id in its underpants, wondering if it remembered to delete the browsing history.

Mostly all I remember is needing to pee.

And I remember those little glimpses of the grotesque. I’ll get to Dick Cheney later. The one that comes to mind now is the anti-gay lobbyist whose office was lined with framed appreciation from Focus on the Family, and pictures with Pat Buchanan and Jerry Falwell, but whose son’s room was painted pink and littered with Barbies. The hypocrite’s son said he was still a boy. He just thought his sundress was really cute. I agreed, told him I love daisies, and he beamed. His father thanked me, and I wanted to tell him to go fuck himself. How the fuck do you actively work to ensure the world’s a more dangerous place for your beautiful little kid? But I didn’t ask him that. I just stood and glared at him until he looked away. I needed the job. I assumed his kid would grow up to hate him. 

Maybe the next job that day was the guy whose work order said “irate.” It’s not something you want to see on a work order. Not when you’re running late and you still have to pee, because “irate” meant that the next job wasn’t going to be a woman in lingerie; it was going to be a guy who pulled out his penis while I fixed the settings on his television.

I know after that one, I pulled off the side of the road when I saw a horse. Only upside of Great Falls. Not too long ago, Great Falls was mostly small farms and large estates. The McMansions outnumber the farms now. But there are still a few holdouts. I called the horse over to the fence, and he nuzzled my hair. I fed him my apple. Talking to a horse helps when you can’t remember how to breathe.

Maybe that “irate” was an “irate fn ch72 out.” Fox News. Those we dreaded. It was worse when the comment was followed by “repeat call.” Repeat meant someone had been there before. If it was someone I could call and ask, he’d tell me: “Be careful. Asshole kept calling me ‘boy.’ Rather he just up and call me a [that word]. Yeah, of course I told them. Forwarding you the emails right now. Hang on, I have to merge. Anyway, it’s his TV. Dumbass put a plasma above his fireplace. Charge the piece of shit ’cause I warned him. Have fun.”

I’d walk in prepared for anything. There was sobbing, man or woman, didn’t matter. There were the verbal assaults. There were physical threats. To say they were just threats undermines what it feels like to be in someone else’s home, not knowing the territory, where that hallway leads, what’s behind that door, if they have a gun, if they’ll back you into a wall and scream at you. If they’ll stop there. If they’ll call in a complaint no matter what you do. Sure, we were allowed to leave if we felt threatened. We just weren’t always sure we could. In any case, even if we canceled, someone else would always be sent to the same house later. “Irate. Repeat call.” And we’d lose the points we needed to make our numbers.

The points: Every job’s assigned a number of points — 10 points for a “my cable’s out” call, four points to disconnect a line, 12 to install internet. We needed about 120 points a day to make our monthly quota.

A cut cable line was worth 10 points, whether we tried to fix it or not. We could try to splice it if we found the cut. Or we could maybe run a temp line. But you can’t run one across a neighbor’s lawn or across a sidewalk or street. That’s what happened with the guy who was adding a swimming pool. The diggers had cut his line. I knew before I walked in. But he still wanted me to come stare at the blank cable box while we talked. I did because the Fox News cult loves to call in complaints about their rude techs.

The tap, where the cable line connects, was in a neighboring yard. There was a dog door on the back patio of that yard. I like dogs, but I’m not an idiot. I told him it would be a week, 7 to 10 days to get a new line. He said through his teeth he needed an exact day. I gave him my supervisor’s number. This whole time, his wife was in the kitchen wiping a clean counter.

I was filling out the work orders and emailing my supervisor to give him a heads-up on a possible call from a member of every cable tech’s favorite rage cult, when his wife knocked on my van window. She stepped back and called me “ma’am.” Which was nice. Her husband with the tucked-in polo shirt had asked my name and I told him Lauren. He heard Lawrence because it fit what he saw and asked if he could call me Larry. Guys like that use your name as a weapon. “Larry, explain to me why I had to sit around here from 1 to 3 waiting on you and you show up at 3:17. Does that seem like good customer service to you, Larry? And now you’re telling 7 to 10 days? Larry, I’m getting really tired of hearing this shit.” Guys like that, it was safer to just let them think I was a man.

She said she was sorry about him. I said, “It’s fine.” I said there really wasn’t anything I could do. She blinked back the flood of tears she’d been holding since God knows when. She said, “It’s just, when he has Fox, he has Obama to hate. If he doesn’t have that ...” She kept looking over her shoulder. She was terrified of him. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just need him to have Fox.” I got out of my van.

The neighbor with the possible attack dogs wasn’t home. The next-door neighbor wasn’t either. But I looked up his account. I got lucky. He didn’t have TV service. I pulled up his modem on my laptop, perfect signal. There was an attenuator where the cable connected to his house-wiring to tamp down the signal — too much is also a problem. I got enough running a line from the neighbor’s house to theirs so the asshole would be able to get his rage fix from Hannity. I remember leaving a note on the neighbor’s door, some ambiguous lie about their internet service being urgent. I figured the neighbor might be more understanding about internet service than Fox. I sure as fuck was.

Maybe the next job was unremarkable in every way. I liked those jobs. Nothing to remember but maybe a cute dog. Maybe a few spiders. But I’d gotten used to spiders. I don’t feel mosquito bites anymore either. If the customer worked any sort of manual job, they’d offer me water. I wouldn’t usually accept. But it was a nice gesture.

Blue-collar customers were always my favorite. They don’t treat you like a servant. They don’t tell you, “We like the help to use the side door.” They don’t assume you’re an idiot just because you wear a name tag to work and your hands are calloused. The books on their shelves aren’t bound in leather. But the spines are cracked. Most of them, when you turn on the TV, it’s not set to Fox. They’re the only customers who tip.

Maybe the next job I had to climb into an attic. Maybe it was above 90 outside and 160 up there. I’d sweat out half my body weight, and my skin would itch like hives from the insulation the rest of the day. At some point, I’d blow something black out of my nose. You have to work fast in an attic. You don’t come down, not all of these customers would even bother to see if you’re at medium rare yet. If the customer had a shred of humanity, you could ask to reschedule for the morning.

Humanity is rarer than I imagined when I first took the job. One woman wanted me to shimmy down into a crawl space that held 3 feet of water and about a foot to spare under her floorboards. A snake swam past the opening. She said it wasn’t a copperhead. Like I fucking cared.

We had a blizzard one year — a few, really. Snowmaggedon and Snowverkill and Snowmygod, I think WTOP named them. We had to work. I went to one call where the problem was dead batteries on a remote. They didn’t think batteries were their responsibility. The next, they wanted me to replace a downed line. Yes, that’s the power line in the tree, too. Well, sure the telephone pole’s lying in the street, but we figured you could do something. I didn’t explain why I didn’t get out of my van. I took a picture and sent it to my supervisor with “Bullshit.”

Most of the streets were blocked. Thirty-five inches is a lot of snow. A state trooper told me to get the fuck off the road. My supervisor said, “We can’t. We do phone so we’re considered emergency service.” I didn’t have any phone jobs. No one else I talked to did either.

The supervisors made a good show of pretending to care that we made it to jobs. The dispatchers canceled everything they could. The techs, we didn’t talk much. Every so often someone would mic their Nextel to scream: “This is bullshit! They’re going to get us fucking killed!” And someone else would say, “They don’t care, man. They won’t have to pay anyway. They’ll piss test your corpse and say you were high. Motherfuckers.”

“They’ll fucking care when I plow my van through the front of their building.”

“Dude, I’m gonna ram the next little Ford Ranger I see.” Supervisors drove Rangers.

“Fuck that. I’m ramming a cop.”

“Bitch, how you gonna know what you’re ramming? Can’t fucking see the snowplow in front of me.”

I couldn’t respond. My voice would stand out. We had to hope for the humanity of others, the customers, because corporate didn’t care. They didn’t have to drive through a blizzard. The blizzards, I remember.

The other days, they all blended together. Let’s go back to imaginary day. Maybe next I had the woman with the bull mastiff named Otto. I don’t remember much about her because I like bull mastiffs with their giant stupid heads. I told her I needed to get to her basement. She said, “Do you really? It’s just it’s a mess.” (That’s never why.) I explained the signal behind her television was crap. The signal outside her house was great. With only one line going through the cinderblock wall, there was probably a splitter. She was taller than I am. That’s something I remember because, like I said, I’m tall. And probably a useful trait for her considering what I found next. I told her what I told everyone who balked about their privacy being invaded: “Unless you have a kid in a cage, I don’t fucking care.” Kids in cages were an unimaginable horror then. A good place to draw a line.

This is a good time to say, if you’re planning on growing massive quantities of marijuana, look, I respect it. But don’t use a $3 splitter from CVS when you run your own cable line. Sooner or later, you’ll have a cable tech in your basement. And you’ll feel the need to give them a freezer bag full of pot to relieve your paranoia. Which is appreciated, don’t get me wrong. Stoners, I adore you. I mean it. You never yell. I can ask to use your bathroom because you’re stoned. You never call in complaints. But maybe behind the television isn’t the most effective place to hide your bong when the cable guy’s coming over.

Anyway, Otto’s mom laughed and said, “Not a kid.” It took me a second. She went down to get his permission. And I was allowed down into a dungeon where she had a man in a cage. I don’t remember if she had a bad splitter. So that was probably early on. After a few years, not even a dungeon was interesting. Sex workers tip, though. 

Sarah Maxwell for HuffPost

Maybe my next job was a short little fucker who walked like a little teapot and who beat his kids. Sometimes you can tell. Some of us recognize the look in their eyes, the bite of fear in the air. He followed me into the office. And he rubbed himself against my ass when I leaned over to unplug the modem. I let it happen that time. Sometimes you know which guys you can’t fight back against.

There were a lot of those. Those I never forgot. They seep into your skin like cat piss. But you can’t shower them off. It’s part of why I didn’t mind most people assuming I was a man. Each time I had to calculate the odds of something worse against the odds of getting back to my van.

One of those creeps, his suit cost more than my car. I can’t fathom what his smile cost. He had an elevator in his three-story McMansion. Maybe he thought he owned me, too. I broke his nose with my linesman’s pliers. Nice heft to those linesman’s pliers. He’d called me a dyke. I hope I ruined his suit. I lost the points.

I made it back to my van. My van became my home, my office, my dining room. I was safe in my van. In my van, I could pull off near a park for a few minutes, smoke a cigarette, read the news, check Facebook, breathe until I stopped shaking, until I stopped crying. That’s only if there was someplace to pull over, preferably in the shade. We were monitored by GPS. But if I stayed close enough to the route, I could always claim traffic. This was Northern Virginia. There was always traffic.

Maybe that’s why I was running late to the next job, and my dispatcher, my supervisor, another dispatcher and the dispatch supervisor called to ask my ETA. No, that job canceled.

Irate doesn’t always mean irate. Sometimes it just means he’s had three techs out to fix his internet and not one has listened to him. They said it was fixed. He was bidding last night on a train. It was a special piece. He’d seen only one on eBay in five years. One. He showed me his collection. His garage was the size of my high school gym. But his sensible Toyota commuter box was parked out front. His garage was for the trains. He had the Old West to the west. And Switzerland to the east. But the train he wanted went to someone in Ohio because his internet went out again and he lost the auction. He wasn’t irate. He was heartbroken, and no one would listen.

I remember he started clicking a dog-training clicker when I said the signal was good behind the modem. He said he was sorry. The clicker helped when he was feeling overwhelmed. I said I should probably try it. My dentist didn’t like the way I clenched my teeth. He said, “They all come here and say it’s OK, but it goes out again.”

This was probably around the time my supervisor realized I was pretty good at fixing the jobs the guys couldn’t, or wouldn’t. And really good with the customers who’d had enough. The guys looked at cable as a science. Name a channel, they’d tell you the frequency. They could tell you the attenuation per 100 feet of any brand of cable. The customers were just idiots who didn’t know bitrate errors from packet loss. I looked at cable like plumbing, or something like that. I like fixing things. Some customers were idiots. Most just wanted things to work the way they were promised. This guy’s plumbing had a leak. I didn’t pay attention in class when they explained why interference could be worse at night, or I forgot it soon after the test. I knew it was, though. So when he said the problem only happened at night, I started looking for a leak. One bad fitting outside. Three guys missed it because they didn’t want to listen to him. Because he was different. Because he was a customer. And customers are all idiots.

I remember training a guy around the time I was six years in. He’d been hired at $5 more an hour than I was making, 31 percent more. I asked around. We weren’t allowed to discuss pay. But we weren’t allowed to smoke pot and most of us did. We weren’t allowed to work on opiates either. We were all working hurt. I can’t handle opiates. But if I’d wanted them, there were plenty of guys stealing them from customer’s bathrooms. I could’ve bought what I needed after any team meeting.

That’s the thing they don’t tell you about opiate addiction. People are in pain because unless you went to college, the only way you’ll earn a decent living is by breaking your body or risking your life — plumbers, electricians, steamfitters, welders, mechanics, cable guys, linemen, fishermen, garbagemen, the options are endless.

They’re all considered jobs for men because they require a certain amount of strength. The bigger the risk, the bigger the paycheck. But you don’t get to take it easy when your back hurts from carrying a 90-pound ladder that becomes a sail in the wind. You don’t get to sit at a desk when your knees or ankles start to give out after crawling through attics, under desks, through crawl spaces. When your elbow still hurts from the time you disconnected a cable line and your body became the neutral line on the electrical feeder and 220 volts ran through your body to the ground. When your hands become useless claws 30 feet in the air on a telephone pole and you leave your skin frozen to the metal tap. So you take a couple pills to get through the day, the week, the year. If painkillers show up on your drug test, you have that prescription from the last time you fell off a roof. Because that’s the other thing about these jobs, they all require drug tests when you get hurt. Smoke pot one night, whether for fun or because you hurt too much to sleep, the company doesn’t have to pay for your injury when your van slides down an icy off-ramp three weeks later. I chose pot to numb my head and body every night. But it was the bigger risk.

I probably should’ve stolen pills. It would have made up for the fact I was making less than every tech I asked. They don’t like you talking about your pay for a reason. Some had been there longer. Most hadn’t. I was the only female tech because really, why the fuck was I even doing that job? Because I didn’t go to college. I joined the Air Force. They kicked me out for being gay. I’d since worked at a gay bar, Home Depot, Starbucks, Lowe’s, 7-Eleven, a livery service, construction, a dog groomer and probably 10 more shitty jobs along the way. Until I was offered a few dollars more, just enough to pay rent, as a cable guy.

My supervisor hadn’t known, said he didn’t know our pay. But he said he’d take care of it, and he did. He said the problem was my numbers were always lower than most of the guys. All those points I mentioned. So my raises over the years had always been lower. The math didn’t quite work. But it was mostly true. My numbers were always lower. Numbers were based mostly on how many jobs we completed a day. On paper, the way we were rated, I was a terrible employee. That I was a damn good tech didn’t matter. The points were what mattered. The points, I’m realizing now, were why I spent the better part of 10 years thinking about bathrooms.

The guys could piss in apartment taprooms, any slightly wooded area, against a wall with their van doors open for cover, in Gatorade bottles they collected in their vans. I didn’t have those options. And most customers, I wouldn’t ask. If I had to pee, I had to drive to a 7-Eleven or McDonald’s or grocery store, not all of which have public bathrooms. I knew every clean bathroom in the county. I knew the bathrooms with a single stall because the way I look, public bathrooms aren’t always safe for me either. But they don’t plant a 7-Eleven between the McMansions of Great Falls. One bathroom break and I was already behind.

The guys could call for help on a job. No problem. If I called, some of them wouldn’t answer. Some I’d asked before and taken shit for not being able to do something they couldn’t have done either. One of them told me my pussy smelled amazing while he held a ladder for me. One never stopped asking if I’d ever tried dick. Said I needed his. And for the most part, I liked to tell myself I could handle their taunts and harassment. But I wasn’t calling them for help. Sometimes I’d have to reschedule the job because there was no one around I could ask for help. Rescheduling meant I’d lose even more points that day.

So my numbers were lower than the men’s. I never had a shot at being a good employee really, not by their measure. Well, there was one way.

I worked with an older guy, a veteran like me. I usually got along with the veterans. He was no exception. Once, after I explained why I called him for help, he told me that he understood. He said he found vets were less likely to treat him like shit for being black. Higher odds they’d worked with a black guy before. That made sense. But when I asked him how he kept his points up, seeing as how he worked slower than the other guys, he said he clocked out at 7 every day. Worked the last job for free. It brought up his average. I wasn’t willing to work for free.

One year, though, the company tried a little experiment: Choose a couple of people from each team, let them take the problem calls, those jobs a couple of techs had failed to fix, and give them the time to actually fix the problem.

Time was the important thing. Time is why I can’t tell you what day or week or year a thing happened. Because for the 10 years I was a cable tech, there was no time. I rushed from one job to the next, sometimes typing on the laptop, usually on the phone with a dispatcher, supervisor, customer or another tech. Have to pee, run behind, try to rush the next so the customer doesn’t call and complain you’re late, dispatch gives the call to another tech, lose the points. The first few years, I was reading a map book to find the house. Then crawling down the street, counting up for 70012 because I needed house number 70028 but no one else on the street thought it important to put numbers on their house. They’d tell me I needed to pick up my numbers. One more bad month and I was out of a job. Maybe you can understand why I avoided canceling anything but the most dangerous jobs.

After a few years, I spent most of my days off recovering. I’d get home and couldn’t read a page in a book and remember what I’d read. I was depressed. But I didn’t know it. I was too tired to consider why I couldn’t sleep, why I stopped eating, why I was so ashamed of what my life had become.

Sometimes at night, when I couldn’t sleep, I’d think of the next 10 years doing the same fucking thing every day until my knees or ankles no longer worked or my back gave out. I thought maybe the best thing that could happen was that if I got injured seriously enough, but not so seriously I’d forget the synthetic urine I kept in my lunch cooler, I could maybe try to survive on workers’ comp. Most mornings, I woke and it took a minute to decide. Do I want to die today? I guess I can take one more day. If I just make it to my day off. I tried to go to school for a while. But I was too tired to learn coding. And anyway, I missed most of the classes because I’d have to work late.

That one year, though, being a cable tech wasn’t all that bad. I’d start in the morning with a couple of jobs. And the rest of day, they’d throw me one problem job at a time. And I had all the time in the world to fix them. It’s how I became the Cheneys’ tech.

My supervisor called and said, “Look at the work order I just dropped you. You’re gonna thank me.” I recognized the name: Mary Cheney, the former vice president’s daughter. I didn’t know why he thought I’d thank him. I called him back. “What the fuck are you doing to me here?”

“I thought you’d be happy. They’re lesbians.”

“Dude. They’re married.” He didn’t say anything. I said, “Google her and tell me you still think you’re doing me a favor.”

He said I was just pissed because they were Republicans. I said I was pissed because Dick was a fucking war criminal. He called me a communist. Said a couple of guys had been out. Internet problem. Read the notes. I didn’t actually have a choice. But with the pressure off to complete 12 jobs a day, I found I could actually have fun at work, joke with my boss about whether or not the Cheneys constituted a favor just because, hey, we’re all lesbians.

Mary Cheney wasn’t home. Which was good. The further I was from Dick, the more likely I was to keep my mouth shut. Her wife was friendly and talkative in the way old people are friendly and talkative because they haven’t had a visitor since Christmas. The house had a few problems. I’d fix one. She’d call my supervisor and I’d have to go back to fix another. But I finally got it fixed.

A few months later, my boss called and started with, “Don’t kill me.” He was sending me to Dick Cheney’s. Dick was home. 

He had an assistant or secretary or maybe security who followed me around while I checked connections and signal levels. I’d already found a system problem outside. I just wanted to make sure I never had to fucking set foot in that house again. Dick walked into the office while I was working. He was reading from a stack of papers and ignored me. I told the assistant it would probably be a week or so. I’d put the orders in. He had my supervisor’s number.

He said something to the effect of, “You do understand this is the former vice president.”

Cheney looked up.

Sarah Maxwell for HuffPost

I panicked and said the first thing that came to mind: “Yeah, well, waterboard me if it makes him feel better. It’ll still take a week.” And I walked out.

It was my last call that day. I drove the entire way home thinking of a hundred better things I could’ve said. Finally, I called my supervisor and told him I might’ve accidentally mentioned waterboarding. He laughed and said I’d won. He’d stop sending me to the Cheneys’. I don’t actually know if they ever complained. If they did, he never mentioned it.

That was the year I met a Russian mobster whose name was actually Ivan, a fact that on its own made me laugh. There were rumors of mob houses. The guys said they’d been to others. My original trainer pointed one out in Fairfax and said, if you have to go in there, just don’t try to see shit you don’t want to. I pressed him for details. But he wouldn’t tell me. I thought he was full of shit.

The Russian mob house was off Waples Mill Road. It was a massive McMansion, looked like a swollen Olive Garden. I parked behind a row of Hummers.

Ivan was a big kid with cauliflower ears. He met me at the door. Told me, “Please follow.” I followed him to an office. Same collection of leather-bound books on the shelf in most McMansions. I think they come with the place. The modem was in the little network closet. The signal looked like they had a bad splitter somewhere. (Remember what I said about cheap splitters?) I told Ivan I thought there was a bad splitter somewhere. I needed to check the basement. He said, “Is not possible.”

I said, “I can’t fix it then.” He didn’t say anything, and I wasn’t clear on where we were with the language barrier. So I added, “No basement, no internet.”

He seemed worried. Kept looking at the door. Looking at me. Like a puppy trying to figure out where to pee, a large, heavily tattooed puppy. I said, “Look, unless you’ve got a kid in a cage, I don’t fucking care.”

He nodded and said, “You stay. I ask for you.” I told him I’d stay. I heard him down the hall. Heard Russian, garbled words. A couple of doors opened and closed.

Ivan came back and opened his paw to show me a gram bag of coke. He’d helpfully brought a caviar spoon. He said, “You must taste.” I actually laughed. He seemed sad that I was laughing. I told him: “Look, I can’t. I’m at work. I’ll take it home, though, for tonight.” This was one of my first jobs that day. I did not want to find out what climbing a telephone pole felt like on cocaine.

He said, “No. You must taste.” This time he emphasized the word “must.” I told him I get sinus infections. (This is true and extremely annoying.) He didn’t understand. I pantomimed and explained a sinus infection in words like “nose, coke, bad, no breathing.” This made him happy. It was a problem he could fix. “Stay.” I was the puppy now.

He came back with a little round mirror and a little pile of coke. He said, “This is better. No cuts.” I was just standing there. I really couldn’t figure out what to do. I hoped this was some weird mob thing like when every Russian I’d ever met forces you to do vodka shots and then you’re friends. But I’m not great with vodka. And I’m really not great with coke. Drugs affect me.

He stepped closer and he looked older and very sad. He said, “I am trying to say, is safe for you if you taste. You do not taste, is maybe not safe for you now.” I figured it was probably his job to kill me and he honestly felt awful about it. I took a bump.

He was visibly relieved. He smiled all goofy and lopsided and said, “OK. Yes. This is smart decision you make.” And he took me to the basement.

I think my heart attack started on the stairs. It was good, though. Best heart attack I’d ever had. I could hear it. I didn’t know my eyes could open that wide. Which didn’t help me see.

They had a bunch of sweet gaming computers lined up on a table. But with no internet, all the guys were hanging out on a couple of sofas watching soccer. The World Cup was on. One of the guys pointed at me and asked Ivan something. Ivan said, “Yes, of course.” I understood that much Russian. And the guy gave me a thumbs up, said, “Good shit, yes?” I agreed that it was good shit. And I changed their splitter and got the fuck out of there.

We got a new regional manager after that. He called me “young lady.” I told him not to. My old vet buddy said he’d called me an entitled dyke after I left the room. The company was bleeding money with the whole “no one fucking needs cable anymore” thing. And I was back to chasing points. Eventually, my ankle went out.

I remember my last day. There was a big meeting. I hated these. The only potential good part was that they’d play happy messages from happy customers about their cable tech. If you got one, you got a $20 gift card to Best Buy. I got lots of calls, mostly because little old ladies liked me. I programmed their remotes. They never played mine in the meetings because no one ever figured out what to do about customers thinking I was a “nice young man.” That last meeting, they gave a guy an award. For 10 years, he’d never taken a sick day, never taken a vacation day. He had four kids. I thought maybe they’d have enjoyed a vacation. But that mentality is why I was never getting promoted in that company.

I couldn’t go back after surgery. My ankle never healed right. I needed a letter from HR to continue my disability. Just a phone call. But they moved their HR team somewhere else. They never answered my emails. So I work at a gay bar. The pay is shit. But I like going to work. I don’t spend my nights worrying about where I’ll pee. And no one has called me Larry in years.

Lauren Hough was born in Berlin and raised in seven countries, and West Texas. She’s been an Air Force airman, a green-aproned barista, a bartender, a livery driver and, for a time, a cable tech. Her work has appeared in Granta, Wrath Bearing Tree and The Guardian. She lives in Austin, Texas. 

02 Jan 08:22

Working On Dying in real life

Working On Dying in real life
A Philly production family is bringing internet rap’s most haunting sounds to the mainstream.

The Loosie Man has a small family of animals at his Northwest Philadelphia house, the same one where he grew up and where he now pays the bills. Right now, the 22-year-old producer and DJ takes care of two cats, two dogs, and two rats, one of which technically belongs to Lil Uzi Vert. The rapper sent his team to Petco to buy the rodent, along with an elaborate cage set-up, during a late night studio session but had to go on tour soon after, leaving him behind with Loosie. “Rats are social animals,” Loosie says. “They get depressed when they’re by themselves. They can actually die from loneliness.”

As he explains this, Loosie sits about eight miles away in a studio surrounded by F1LTHY, Oogie Mane, Brandon Finessin, and Forza, the other members of the production collective Working On Dying. Walking in here is like entering into a time warp — minutes and hours seem to pass by unreasonably fast, with no regard for the events of the outside world. As the evening turns into night, the spot is full of activity: Oogie Mane sits in the middle of the room getting a haircut, F1LTHY fields phone calls, and Brandon is in the control room tweaking a hypnotizing loop that shakes the walls. Loosie moves to a couch off to one side, watching a Primitive Technology video on YouTube, where an Australian man builds a thatched-roof hut using nothing but stones and foraged materials.

For the last two years, the five of them have made this space, located in a cavernous building where Chinatown ends and North Philly begins, their nearly round-the-clock headquarters. During the first decade of the millenium, The Roots rented the same studio, and the walls are reminders of its history and its current function. On one side of the large entry room, there are plaques from Usher, Mariah Carey, Musiq Soulchild, and other major artists who recorded there and in the larger studio down the hall; the opposite wall is covered floor-to-ceiling in graffiti. There’s still plenty of open wallspace, where, in the near future, the Working On Dying producers hope to mount their own plaques. But in the meantime, they’ve left their mark: in red paint, near the door to the control room, there’s a tombstone painted with an upside down cross and the letters “WOD.”

The members of Working On Dying have been gathering around computer screens and passing each other video game controllers for the last six years and, for some of them, much longer than that. F1LTHY, the oldest at 26, and Oogie, the youngest at 21, are brothers, and they share the same husky frame and rounded features. Early on, F1LTHY put Oogie on to music — Three 6 Mafia and Outkast, as well as Black Sabbath and Rise Against — and introduced him to skateboarding. In middle school, Forza moved a few houses down from them, and they all started skating together, later bringing in Brandon when Oogie and Forza met him in ninth grade at Northeast High School.

F1LTHY started making beats in 2012, inspired by SpaceGhostPurrp’s Blackland Radio 66.6 and the constant output of overlooked internet rap pioneers Metro Zu. After half a year of working with FruityLoops, he taught Oogie the basic principles of the program. Brandon, who had been trying to make Philly party music instrumentals, and Oogie shared their knowledge with each other. Forza was still dedicated to skating and playing football at the time but came to them wanting to learn about a year later.

Making beats is usually a solitary activity, one that only yields worthwhile results after hours and hours spent alone in front of a computer. But the members of Working On Dying all learned their craft by committee and started creating in much the same way. As they saw Atlanta’s 808 Mafia doing around the same time, they built off each other’s growing knowledge and ideas together as a group. “Nothing was forced,” F1LTHY says. “This was just regular friendship and we all ended up being good at what we do.”

Loosie, who was rapping at the time as Declan?, met F1LTHY and Oogie through their godbrother Jarek. They all began making music in the basement of F1LTHY and Oogie’s mom’s house, alternating between games of Super Smash Bros. and the one computer they shared between the five of them, with a propane heater and cases of Yuengling to keep them warm in the winter. “I would have strangers come through to the studio to record, we was getting drunk,” F1LTHY says. “My mom was pregnant at the time and then had a baby. Looking back on it, she was real tolerant.”

It was Loosie who came up with the name Working On Dying during one of the darkest times in his life. “My father died of cancer the day after I turned 18,” he says. “I was in a car, I had a glass of whiskey, driving, and I was like, Shit, I’m really working on dying right now.” The phrase became the title of a mixtape they made in the basement and released on SoundCloud at the beginning of 2014. It was full of airy synths — indebted to ambient composers like Klaus Schulze and Erik Wøllo, who they were listening to at the time — and rolling hi-hats paired with a capellas from Lil B, Gucci Mane, and a TED Talk about death in the 21st century by intensive care specialist Peter Saul. The name stuck, and though it came out of the depths of unhappiness, it was never meant to be flagrantly morbid. “It’s like saying you’re alive: living, breathing, drinking, smoking, working on dying,” F1LTHY says. Loosie adds: “It’s just a humble reminder.”

Around the same time that Working On Dying first started making music together, Meek Mill was rolling out his debut studio album and Philly’s rap scene was still very much geared toward the cyphers where he had first cut his teeth. F1LTHY, Oogie, Loosie, Brandon, and Forza instead looked to the internet, where they found a community of like-minded collaborators and listeners. “People were so stuck in that Philly shit,” F1LTHY says. “I was like, ‘Fuck all that, I’m down to work with whoever.’”

F1LTHY reached out to Black Kray of Goth Money Records — the D.C. and Virginia-based label that draws inspiration equally from classic Cash Money and No Limit and the dark, lo-fi stylings proliferating on SoundCloud — and the tripped-out Miami group Snob Mobb. Though they would go on to work with Grande Marshall and Asaad, two Philly rappers who also harnessed the internet’s budding rap scenes to reach beyond the city, it was those initial online connections that propelled Working On Dying forward. F1LTHY sent beats, booked Goth Money and Snob Mobb for shows in Philly, and, most importantly, pulled up to collaborate in person. “I had to be around and show face,” he says. “People gotta see you’re a real person — you can’t just be an internet nerd sending shit over.”

As the sound of their production evolved from spaced-out ambient to something more fast-paced and muddy, their frequent collaborator BOOTYCHAAAIN coined a new term for the type of music they were making: tread. The characteristics of the subgenre are slowed-down samples and melodies and high-tempo, often distorted, percussion. Tread began to catch on among SoundCloud’s outsider rap circles, but it wasn’t until they went out to L.A. in 2016 to stay at Lil Peep, Nedarb, and Lil Tracy’s house, and played a warehouse show out there, that they started to realize they were having a real-life impact.

On the night I arrive in Philly, Tracy is performing at Working On Dying’s monthly party series, Tear Drop, and the whole crew gets there around 9 p.m. The average age at the show seems to be about 16, and the wristband area, for the 21-and-over crowd, is nearly empty when we arrive. Backstage, Tracy and his manager greet them; Zubin, a singer and close Working On Dying associate, sits on the couch next to the producer and artist Fantasy Camp; and young Matt Ox paces around close by, a veil of blue hair sticking out below his hood and covering his face. But within 20 minutes of their arrival, Oogie gets a phone call and immediately takes an Uber back to the studio with Brandon and Forza while F1LTHY and Loosie stay behind. “They’d always rather be at the studio than out at shows or parties,” F1LTHY explains.

Back at the studio a few hours later, the scene looks much the same as it did before, though it seems like each person in the room has rotated one seating position over. At midnight, someone realizes that “New Patek,” the highly anticipated song that Lil Uzi Vert teased with a dance video on Instagram in June, was just released as a single. It feels like a moment: the song plays from the TV in the front room and from the speaker system in the studio at the same time.

Three-quarters of the way into the track, there are two loud bangs on the door and, as if on cue, Uzi bounds into the room. Wearing a cashmere purple turtleneck and studded black leather shoes, he’s in full diva mode. He tells Brandon to cut the song off and then, after the room goes silent, decides he wants to hear it again. When Working On Dying’s manager, Finesse, digs at him, asking why “New Patek,” which is produced by Dolan Beats, dropped before their songs together, Uzi scrunches up his face. “Because it didn’t make my album,” he fires back, referring to the single. Irritated that when he came by earlier, the guys were at their show, he throws a heavy stack of yellow-banded bills on the floor with a powerful thud — it looks to be around $100,000 — and storms back to the larger studio down the hall. One of Uzi’s associates trails behind him, stooping down to collect the pile of cash on the way out. It’s time to get back to work.

For the past year, when he hasn’t been on the road touring, Uzi has spent his time recording here with the Working On Dying production team for his second studio album, Eternal Atake. Snippets of their music together, ripped from Instagram Live streams and remastered by dedicated fan pages, have been floating around the internet for much of 2018. Oogie says these fan accounts tag him in posts and spam him for updates on unreleased songs almost every day. Brandon estimates that they’ve recorded over 100 songs with the rapper in the last 12 months.

Oogie, Brandon, and Forza went to high school with Uzi at Northeast, and they remember him drawing crowds in the cafeteria during dance competitions at lunch. Forza played youth league football with him on the Northeast Outlaws and says he had the same disregard for what other people thought even then. “Uzi used to go to practice in Jeremy Scotts — like, actually play football in them jawns,” he recalls. Oogie had production credits on the rapper’s first two mixtapes and their recent work together is a sign that the relationship has come full circle. “I seen him when he ain’t have shit, and he seen me when I ain’t have shit, so it’s different and it’s special,” he says. “I think he was waiting for niggas to make a name for ourselves.”

The video for Matt Ox’s song “Overwhelming,” produced by Oogie Mane, was made to go viral: the fidget spinners and the preteen sing-song rapping about being “posted in the trenches” quickly added up to something that was beloved, reviled, and watched over and over. Forza first found Matt on a Philly rap promotion page on Twitter, and the rest of the group agreed that he had huge potential. They began sending him beats, helping him record, and shooting his videos. F1LTHY knew exactly the sort of phenomenon he had on his hands when he first saw the final cut for “Overwhelming” at the beginning of 2017. Matt was written about in The New York Times; two months later, he had signed to a major label.

For Working On Dying, Matt Ox became the bridge from internet cult hero status to the music industry. When the labels started calling, F1LTHY soon realized he was in over his head. He decided to reach out to Finesse, a former rapper who rented the studio next door to Working On Dying when they moved out of the basement and into a warehouse space in Philly’s Kensington neighborhood. Finesse was signed to The Roots associate Dice Raw in the mid-2000s and has over a decade of experience in Philly’s rap scene. He also has a masters degree in business, and he set about registering an LLC, hiring lawyers, and getting their paperwork in order. With F1LTHY as his partner, Finesse helped turn Working On Dying into a full-fledged company.

“Overwhelming,” with its bubbly melody line and uptempo drum pattern, also propelled Oogie Mane forward as the crew’s breakout talent. In contrast to his outgoing older brother, Oogie is much more reserved and introverted. The members of Working On Dying can easily identify each other’s strengths — Brandon makes crazy melodies, Loosie is the most versatile, Forza has perfected the distorted 808, and F1LTHY is a relentless innovator. But they all agree that Oogie is good at everything. “I just like learning,” Oogie tells me. “And I trust my output. You can’t ever be wrong when you’re trying shit.”

When OB O’Brien, a longtime member of Drake’s inner circle, reached out to source beats for the Toronto rapper, Oogie thought the whole thing was fake, but he sent over a pack of old beats he had made in 2015. It all began to feel very real when Drake followed him on Instagram and sent him a DM, saying they had a hit together; Oogie no longer had the stems for the track and had to completely remake the beat to send to Drake and 40. “I’m Upset,” the resulting collaboration and the third single from Scorpion, signified a quantum leap for Working On Dying as a whole. After years of producing for some of SoundCloud’s most unconventional talents, they’d landed on a platinum-certified album from rap’s biggest name.

Oogie now finds himself in a leadership role within the collective. He’s the most sought-after Working On Dying producer at the moment, and he’s been frequently traveling to L.A. to collaborate and record with Future, Key!, and more. Finesse refers to Oogie as Working On Dying’s “head of production” and, when Oogie goes to studio sessions, he brings the whole crew’s beats along with him. “It changes everything in a good way and it’s a lot of pressure at the same time,” he says of his expanded position. “I want to be able to put on and make sure everything goes right. It’s good pressure.”

For almost 24 hours, there was a pair of green patent leather Prada sneakers hanging from a telephone wire on a desolate street in North Philly. As Loosie filmed the process on an iPad, Yola — a slim, heavily tattooed artist who’s a consistent presence in the Working On Dying studio — tossed them up there on his second try, turning around to face the camera with a celebratory “Tuh!” Yola helps Jarek, Oogie and F1LTHY’s godbrother, design the collective’s ever-expanding line of clothing, and the collections they drop on their website usually sell out quickly. He had painted a character he calls “the Yola monster” in white on the shiny leather, putting his own mark on the designer shoes for the resourceful Instagram follower willing to make the 20-foot climb.

In Working On Dying, everyone brings their own creative flare to the table. Along with the clothing brand and production crew, Working On Dying is also a record label, a publishing company, and a management team. Finesse has made sure they’re in full control of every piece on the board. “I don’t want them hustling, I don’t want them working, I want music to be their job,” he says. “I wanted to create an environment where they can really work freely because I know what it’s like to be a part-time musician.”

Even as rap producers have increasingly become stars in their own right, battles over proper credit and compensation are more and more contentious in a digital age where many collaborators never meet face-to-face. Working On Dying have set themselves up for longevity, maintaining control of their studio and owning their own publishing. As the work they’ve done over the past year starts to get released, they’ve ensured that the infrastructure beneath them is rock solid so each of them can benefit. “Every check we ever got we bust like eight ways,” Finesse explains.

Early in Finesse’s career, during The Roots’s prime years, he was an intern at this same studio. He remembers their late manager, Rich Nichols, telling him about the most creative and exciting era of the group, when all the producers and musicians lived between two houses in South Philly, and how their jam sessions there led to all of The Roots’s early hits. “I always said if I had the opportunity, I would keep it in that spirit,” he says.

Finesse wants to keep the young core of the group living and working together in Philly for at least another year before they leave their hometown for L.A. or another city with more industry opportunities, if they so choose. “It’s not a financial thing, it’s an emotional thing,” he says. “As long as they have personal space, and they have freedom, and they respect each other, it’s gonna work. They still need each other. They’re not ready to live by themselves yet and still live this life. This life is a lot.”

Though there are more artists to work with in L.A., Oogie prefers the chemistry in Philly, where he can be close to the friends that have always been his best creative partners. The collective aspect of Working On Dying has always made each individual better at what he does, whether they were first teaching each other how to use FruityLoops or recording with Lil Uzi Vert. “If I didn’t have these guys around me I probably would’ve forgot who I was already,” Forza says. “I grew up with these people. I know them more than I know half my family.”

Oogie, Brandon, and Forza were already all living together when Finesse came into the picture — he just needed to find the funds to get them out of the rough area of North Philly where they were staying. They first moved to the quiet suburb of Manayunk and then, at the end of this past summer, found a new place in the upscale downtown neighborhood near Rittenhouse Square.

Between back-to-back trips to L.A. and Atlanta, and long hours in the studio, Oogie has hardly set foot in the new Working On Dying house, a three-story brick building on a quiet, tree-lined street. Inside, the large rooms are bare save for a few distinct touches: Tekken action figures still in their packaging in the living room, beds and air mattresses, a few TVs, and pieces of Yola’s art — painted plaster Buddha heads and abstract characters on canvases — are placed intermittently throughout. Oogie is covering the considerable cost of rent on his own right now until the rest of them can help out.

The house was built 266 years ago and, in the second half of the 20th century, it belonged to the artist Emlen Etting. There’s a mural painted by Etting that covers an entire wall on the top floor, depicting a large, colonial-style house and a big lawn filled with eerie white statues. Supposedly, the painting has something to do with a Philadelphia art world feud Etting had decades ago. “He was basically painting his opps,” Yola explains. The woman they rent from told them that the house is haunted — doors will open and close at random and the lights go haywire at times — but none of them have seen any supernatural occurrences yet. And, besides, they’re all pretty sure it’s a friendly ghost.

17 Dec 11:15

Yellow Vests stand for and against many contradictory things, but are united in opposition to oligarchy

by Cory Doctorow

From a distance, it's hard to understand the nuance of the mass "gilets jaunes" protests that rocked France; with one in five French people identifying as a yellow vest and more vests marching in Basra, Baghdad and Alberta (and with Egypt's autocrats pre-emptive cracking down on the sale of yellow vests ahead of elections), it's clearly a complicated and fast-spreading phenomenon.

The complexity stems in part from the leaderless nature of the group; participants claim they have no formal membership structure and no formal policy-setting mechanism. They're like Anonymous: an "ensemble" (to use anthropologist Gabriella Coleman's very useful frame). You become a yellow vest by putting on a yellow vest. An action is a yellow vest action if people in yellow vests do it.

(This leads to tortured phrasing, as in Caroline Haskins's excellent Motherboard piece, where each yellow vest action is attributed to "certain Yellow Vest protestors" -- this will be familiar to anyone who followed Anonymous.)

So while the original yellow vest protests kicked off over a proposed fuel tax, the actual views of individual yellow vesters are hugely variable. There are factions that want cheap petrol, and factions that want subsidies for a green new deal that will let them get off petrol all together.

But what unites them -- and other yellow jackets around the world -- is rage at oligarchic policies, whether these are aimed at fighting climate change or addressing other problems. French President Emmanuel Macron decided to fight climate change in France by taxing the poor, while transferring masses of wealth to the billionaires who are responsible for the climate crisis, slashing inheritance taxes and weakening labour protections.

This is the neoliberal model for fighting climate change: start from the premise that the rich will not accept any limits on their power, and put the screws to everyone else, on the theory that they have no political power to push back.

Even the yellow vests who are most in love with petrol are really pushing back against neoliberalism: they live in rural France, where de-industrialisation, depopulation, and a gutting of services and hollowing out of towns means that cars are an absolute essential for their daily lives. Taxing fuel is taxing the means of existence.

For years, the French economist Thomas Piketty has warned that we have attained levels of inequality last seen in the days before the French started building guillotines. Today, yellow vests are literally erecting guillotines in Paris.

Anti-neoliberalism has two faces: the right-wing critique (which agrees with neoliberals that some people are better than others, but worries that the wrong people are getting ahead -- think of the American right's hostility to welfare expressed through the incorrect belief that brown people are its primary beneficiaries); and the left-wing critique (which sees universal sufferage and broad prosperity as the key to a better world).

Recent anti-neoliberal movements like the Tea Party and Occupy fit well into these categories, and during their heydays, it was obvious that their policies and grievance overlapped in many places. Today, left-wing anti-oligarchs like Bernie Sanders sometimes win support from people who were once sympathetic to the Tea Party, who recognize that his platform requires holding the looters they despise to account.

The yellow vests seem like a coalition of those two strands of anti-oligarchy, and that's why they're so hard to pin down. They're not a movement that can ever hold power, because they have fundamental disagreements about what kind of world they want to make. But they're a movement that can bring power down, because they're united on what's standing in the way of those worlds.

The WTO did not add $1,700 in annual income to American households. New global markets did spread consumer benefits most everywhere, but they were less often accompanied by human rights or democracy. And our invasions in the Middle East so destabilized the region that multiple nation-states simply dissolved into hell-zones of chaos and nonstop violence. This led among other things to a refugee crisis that is part of the plotline in recent European upheavals.

Folks like Boot and fellow ex-neocons David Frum and Bill Kristol are now rebranding themselves as anti-Trumpers and would-be leaders of #Resistance. They seem to be asking for one last shot. Kristol even let slip that a post-Trump plan for America might be “regime change in China.”

These dolts don’t seem to get that a gasbag like Trump only became a plausible political choice after decades of false promises and misgovernment by people who think we should be ruling the world in pith helmets, and lack the sense to avoid saying things like “What’s wrong with elitism?” out loud.

Their evangelical insistence on pushing centrism — which is just a nicer word for “trickle-down economics” — is what got us into this mess in the first place.

The French Protests Do Not Fit a Tidy Narrative [Matt Taibbi/Rolling Stone]

‘Eat The Rich’: Still a Popular Idea in French Uprisings, Especially With the Yellow Vests [Christopher Dickey/The Daily Beast]

The Paris ‘Yellow Vest’ Protests Show the Flaws of Capitalism [Caroline Haskins/Motherboard]

(Image: ActuaLitté, CC-BY-SA)

12 Dec 10:36

Why Netflix could have lost Friends — and what it means for the future of streaming

by Todd VanDerWerff
The Friends are here. But for how long?!

Whatever comes next will probably look a lot more like the expensive cable bundles that cord-cutters tried to escape.

A great panic recently swept across the internet. Friends was leaving Netflix!!

For a portion of the first few days of December, the popular sitcom’s landing page on the streaming network noted that the show would no longer be available as of January 1 because the contract that Netflix signed to begin streaming Friends in 2015 was due to expire.

But on Monday, December 3, Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, dismissed Friends leaving the service as “a rumor” (albeit one apparently started by his own company) and the language about Friends leaving the network was pulled. Netflix confirmed that the show would remain part of its streaming catalog “throughout 2019.” All was well!

The hue and cry over the threat of Friends leaving Netflix was similar to the hue and cry over a piece of big Netflix news from the week before, when the service unceremoniously canceled the Marvel superhero series Daredevil — the network’s fourth most popular original show, by some estimations — on Thursday, November 29. In short, people were mad at Netflix for not making sure that Friends would be available to stream in perpetuity, just as people had been mad at Netflix for canceling the show.

Their anger made sense in the case of Daredevil, because it was Netflix that decided to pull the plug on the show. But it made a lot less sense in the case of Friends, where Netflix has little say over whether it retains the show’s streaming rights if WarnerMedia, the company that consists of Warner Bros., HBO, and Turner and which controls the rights to Friends, isn’t interested in extending its deal.

And if subsequent comments from the CEO of AT&T, the parent company of WarnerMedia, are any indication, then the nonexclusive deal that Netflix cut to keep Friends streaming is one that should concern anybody who has cut the cord to save money on cable TV. The streaming era is on the precipice of becoming just as expensive as the cable era. And both the Daredevil cancellation and the Friends deal explain why.

Netflix, explained

Netflix red envelope Karen Roach/Shutterstock
Remember Netflix’s red envelopes? Here’s an artistic representation of them!

Though it’s easy to forget, Netflix began its life as a direct-mail DVD rental service. It bought thousands of movies and TV shows on DVD, then shipped them through the mail to customers all over the country. But it was not making those movies and TV shows or manufacturing those DVDs. It was purchasing them from the studios that produced them and shipping them directly to you, so you could watch them and then return them. And while Netflix not making the content it was providing isn’t a perfect metaphor for how the company operates in the streaming era, it’s going to get us close enough.

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, Netflix quietly began locking down the rights to stream much of the content it was also purchasing on DVD. If you were on Netflix’s streaming service in, say, 2011, it was kind of a remarkable era. It felt like everything was there. In reality, Netflix’s streaming catalog was a pale shadow of what the company had in DVD inventory, but back then, the various companies that controlled streaming rights to films and TV shows didn’t see why they should be so concerned about selling those rights for a song.

And so Netflix streaming became an endless scroll of programs, from recent movie hits to schlocky stuff that budget studios were just happy to have somebody pay any money for at all. For media nerds who didn’t like leaving the house — and who also didn’t mind the often shoddy video quality of Netflix’s early streaming platform — it was heaven.

This was also the era when TV networks started to realize how much value there was in making sure their shows were available to stream on Netflix or Hulu (the only other major streaming competitor in existence in the early 2010s in a form that more or less mirrors its current one).

The classic example has always been Breaking Bad, a show whose ratings struggled to justify its renewal for several seasons, but also a show that concluded its run with more than 10 million viewers tuning in for its finale. Series creator Vince Gilligan has cited the show’s presence on Netflix as a big part of its audience development.

But by putting their content on Netflix, the studios were also accidentally creating a competitor that had eyes on being just like them. Beginning in earnest with the launch of House of Cards in February 2013, Netflix soon began producing its own original programming. (Lilyhammer, a mostly forgotten mob series that was technically the first Netflix original, was an overseas acquisition.)

However, the company wasn’t (yet) set up to produce that original programming all on its own, so it also signed contracts to purchase exclusive streaming rights to certain programs coming from other production houses. In the case of three early Netflix successes, those houses were Media Rights Capital, which owns House of Cards; Lionsgate Television, which owns Orange Is the New Black; and Tornante, which is run by former Disney head Michael Eisner and owns BoJack Horseman.

These companies have always controlled the other rights to their programs, which is how, for instance, both House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black have landed on DVD, while BoJack Horseman airs in reruns on Comedy Central. Netflix has no control over what happens to these series after they first run on Netflix.

Meanwhile, Netflix has continued to buy streaming rights to existing content from other networks and studios. It has made blockbuster deals for NBC’s The Blacklist, much of the programming on The CW, and old hits like Friends. And while there’s no hard data on whether Netflix subscribers watch all, some, or none of the network’s original programming, what evidence we have suggests there’s still a lot of viewing of old favorites on the platform. It’s not hard to imagine that old favorites may even account for most of what subscribers watch. (At least one survey of UK Netflix subscribers concluded that Friends was the most-watched show on the service in that region.)

Netflix responded to the early problem of not controlling all of the rights to some of its biggest original hits first by spending more money to lock down exclusivity for shows it bought from other studios (like a blockbuster deal for the drama Bloodline, which fizzled after three seasons). But eventually, it started making more and more of its own shows. If it owned the programs outright, then nobody would be able to pull them from the service for as long as Netflix existed.

Making your own shows is expensive, however. And as companies like WarnerMedia began to realize just how valuable all those Friends reruns really were, they started thinking about building their own streaming services. Which made it seem sillier and sillier to let Netflix have access to their shows, even for limited windows of time. After all, did people subscribe to Netflix because they were loyal to Netflix? Or was it because Netflix made it so easy to watch their favorite shows?

Put another way: Would you still subscribe to Netflix if it only had Netflix originals? It’s a question you might be asking yourself in five years.

And all of the above brings us to the events of the past couple of weeks.

How Daredevil’s cancellation and the Friends deal are the same story about the rapid reinvention of an entire industry

Daredevil Netflix
So long to Daredevil.

Netflix’s business model doesn’t require it to attain a virtual monopoly on the entertainment landscape in the near-ish future, but it would sure help. The company is, in essence, in the process of turning itself from a video store, which had to maintain a symbiotic relationship with movie studios, into a studio itself. But because it also controls its own means of distribution, it can, effectively, evolve into an entire media ecosystem of its own, provided it has enough programming that you want to keep watching.

Companies like WarnerMedia and Disney (which controls the rights to Daredevil through its ownership of Marvel, which produced the show for Netflix) are currently betting that your loyalty to their various programs and films is ultimately going to prove more sustainable than your loyalty to Netflix. Hence, when both companies start their own streaming services in the near future, they’re likely going to feature many programs that were popular on Netflix — but are no longer available there.

This bet makes a certain amount of sense! It’s hard to argue against the cultural omnipresence of Mickey Mouse and Star Wars, of Friends and Superman, especially when Netflix’s biggest pop culture icon is probably Stranger Things, a huge series but a drop in the bucket compared to, say, Game of Thrones (whose rights are controlled by WarnerMedia’s HBO).

Netflix, meanwhile, has also started to jettison shows produced by other studios while it simultaneously attempts to shore up its own production arm and holds onto a handful of key programs from other studios that people are fond of (like Friends or The Office). The chief beneficiary of this strategy has been Hulu, which is a joint venture of several different studios and has been scooping up abandoned Netflix licenses left and right, especially in a huge 2017 deal with 20th Century Fox (which itself will almost certainly become part of Disney) that netted it dozens of shows and more than 3,000 episodes of TV.

Netflix, in essence, needs to ensure that the original series it produces itself are the centerpiece of its strategy, because it has no real control over what ultimately happens to so many of its other shows. American Vandal (produced by CBS Studios) and Daredevil (produced by Marvel) are examples of shows that Netflix will eventually, someday, have to renegotiate the rights for, and like all networks, the service is getting cagier about renewing and picking up shows it doesn’t make itself. (Read more about this here.)

Understandably, the complicated morass of corporate wrangling that goes into a streaming contract is something that few viewers are aware of, even if you watch to the end of the credits to see who produced the show, rather than letting autoplay start the next episode. So when Netflix cancels Daredevil or seems to be slacking on renewing its deal for Friends, it’s easy for viewers to leap to the conclusion that “Netflix is doing something stupid!”

But also of note in the Friends deal is what AT&T chair and CEO Randall Stephenson ultimately revealed at the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference: that the show is no longer exclusive to Netflix. This means that not only can WarnerMedia sign a deal to license Friends to Netflix, but it can also put Friends on its own streaming service, which is expected to launch in late 2019.

And Netflix’s deal for Friends expires in 2020. So who’s to say WarnerMedia won’t just take back Friends’ streaming rights entirely at that point? If you really want to watch Friends and this future WarnerMedia-affiliated platform is the only place to get it, it might become much more tempting than a Friends-less Netflix.

This crisis is looming for Netflix in particular, but also for Amazon, for a proposed new streaming service from Apple, and for whatever’s going on with Facebook and YouTube’s forays into original programming. (Hulu looks like it’s about to be owned by Disney, thanks to the proposed Disney/Fox merger, which would give it a parent company with massive pockets and a massive entertainment library.)

Both Netflix and Amazon are huge, with many subscribers, but it’s not clear to outside observers how many of their customers are subscribing because they want to watch programs that the platforms don’t control the rights to.

Netflix, which invested at least $8 billion in programming this year, certainly has the money to compete, but making TV and movies is an expensive proposition, and it sure helps when you’ve got access to back catalogs full of stuff that people already know they love. That’s true for Disney and WarnerMedia especially, and true for the other handful of big studios and networks to a slightly lesser degree. So what happens when all of them launch their own streaming services, each of which will have one or two of your favorite shows?

It strikes me as inevitable that cord-cutting consumers will eventually return to the place they were trying to escape when they subscribed to any given streaming network — and in that place, they’ll likely find an expensive monthly bill that bundles together a bunch of different services and keeps escalating in price as more and more are added.

And since cable companies currently control a lot of the US’s broadband connections and have experience in grouping channels into tiered packages, they’re probably going to end up at the forefront of whatever this new movement looks like.

This evolution won’t take years. With both Disney and WarnerMedia planning to launch their services in 2019, it’s likely going to happen in a matter of months. The cable bundle died so its souped-up younger brother could live.

11 Dec 14:37

The political tribalism of Andrew Sullivan

by Ezra Klein
The problem with Andrew Sullivan’s diagnosis of political tribalism.

Sullivan’s essay on political tribalism shows he’s blinded by his own.

I knew when we launched Vox that there would be criticisms I didn’t anticipate, but I’ll admit, I never foresaw one of them being that writing explainers doesn’t satisfyingly replace the role of religion in people’s lives.

Yet here we are:

But the banality of the god of progress, the idea that the best life is writing explainers for Vox in order to make the world a better place, never quite slakes the thirst for something deeper.

Rats. Foiled again!

That’s Andrew Sullivan writing in New York magazine, and while the column caught my attention for that line, which I will now have needlepointed on a pillow, the broader piece is wrong in more important, less amusing, ways.

Sullivan claims that the modern West has lost Christian practice and gained, in its place, a monstrous political tribalism. It’s a looping, strange argument in which he stitches together eloquent reflections on the hollowness of human existence, musings about electronic distraction, and concerns that an ethos of materialist progress has replaced an appreciation of metaphysical awe, all to end in a slashing justification of his own political resentments.

To be clear, I have no interest in litigating anyone’s faith. What I am interested in is American politics, and in this essay, Sullivan offers a nostalgic analysis of our current problems that has become popular among a certain class of pundits — David Brooks calls Sullivan’s essay a shoe-in for his annual Sidney Awards — but that doesn’t hold up to the slightest scrutiny, and in fact displays the very biases it laments.

Let’s begin here, with Sullivan’s thesis:

Liberalism is a set of procedures, with an empty center, not a manifestation of truth, let alone a reconciliation to mortality. But, critically, it has long been complemented and supported in America by a religion distinctly separate from politics, a tamed Christianity that rests, in Jesus’ formulation, on a distinction between God and Caesar. And this separation is vital for liberalism, because if your ultimate meaning is derived from religion, you have less need of deriving it from politics or ideology or trusting entirely in a single, secular leader. It’s only when your meaning has been secured that you can allow politics to be merely procedural.

To put this more simply, Sullivan is saying that Christianity lowers the stakes of political conflict. A politics moderated by Christianity is merely procedural because the fundamental questions of human dignity have been answered elsewhere.

Absent the calming effects of Christianity, he continues, Americans look to politics to find their meaning, and that escalates the stakes of political conflict. Politics ceases to be procedural and becomes fundamental. Boundaries must be drawn and tribal membership policed. This is Sullivan’s diagnosis of our current divisions. He writes:

Now look at our politics. We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong. And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.

This is a relentlessly ahistorical read of American politics. America’s political past was not more procedural and restrained than its present, and religion does not, in general, calm political divides. What Sullivan is missing in these sections is precisely the perspective of the groups he’s dismissing.

But if Sullivan’s essay fails as historical analysis, it succeeds as a metaphor for our times. What he has done is come up with a tribal explanation for political tribalism: The problem is not enough people like him, too many people unlike him. Speaking of what he calls American’s “political cults,” Sullivan writes:

They do not believe in the primacy of the individual, they believe the ends justify the means, they do not allow for doubt or reason, and their religious politics can brook no compromise.

Political tribalism is first and foremost a psychological phenomenon, a way of looking at what you’ve defined as your out-groups and seeing in them something very different from what you see in your allies. Yet even as Sullivan decries political tribalism, here is his theory of it: A decline in people practicing his form of Christian faith has led to a rise in “political cultists” who find their ultimate meaning in politics, who will stop at nothing to achieve their political goals, and who cannot be reasoned or compromised with.

This is not an analysis of the thinking deepening our political divides, but a demonstration of it.

When was American politics merely procedural?

The simplest objection to Sullivan’s narrative is that American politics has never been merely procedural — and, indeed, the more procedural it has felt, the more fundamental its internal conflicts have often been.

The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer put it well in our podcast conversation. “A lot of what people nostalgically consider eras without tribalism are in fact moments in American history where people of color, particularly black people, have been deprived of political power, and so things like ethnic and racial lines became less salient.”

I have written about this before, but politics was certainly not mere proceduralism in the country’s early years, when new arrivals from Europe drove out the Native Americans, brought over millions of enslaved Africans, and wrote laws making women second-class citizens.

Presumably, Sullivan isn’t thinking of the runup to the Civil War, either. He can’t possibly be describing the Civil War itself as a period of procedural politics calmed by Christian practice. There’s no way it could’ve been the bloody aftermath of the Civil War, when Southern whites reestablished control of their territory through a campaign of state violence and political repression.

That brings us to the 20th century, when partisanship did indeed ebb as the Dixiecrats’ commitment to white supremacy scrambled the parties ideologically. But this was hardly a calm era in American politics. For much of the 20th century, the right to vote was, for African Americans, no right at all. Lynchings were common. Freedom Riders were murdered across the American South. Suffragists were beaten and tortured for seeking the franchise. National Guard members fired on, and killed, student protesters at Kent State. Police had to escort young African-American children into schools as jeering crowds shouted racial epithets and threatened to attack.

“What happens when this religious rampart of the entire system is removed?” asks Sullivan. “I think what happens is illiberal politics.”

Here, too, the evidence contradicts his thesis. The consensus is that American politics was far more illiberal in our past than in our present. The Varieties of Democracy project, which has been surveying experts on the state of global democracies since 1900, gave the US political system a 48 on a 1-to-100 scale in 1945 and a 59 in 1965. It was only after the civil rights movement that America began scoring in the 70s and 80s, marking it as a largely successful democracy.

The US has lost a couple points in the past few years, to be sure, but its 2017 rating was still 73. The era Sullivan looks back on fondly was, by almost any measure, more illiberal in its politics and more fundamental in its conflicts, in part because the meaning of America — who got to participate in it, and whose claims it heard — was so deeply contested.

But if Sullivan’s sense of history is wrong, it’s not unusual. He looks back on American history and sees a politics of becalmed proceduralism, which was often — though certainly not always — true for white men. He looks around now and he sees identity politics everywhere, political cults warring over fundamental questions of dignity and belonging.

This speaks to a paradox of American politics: It often feels most stable when it is least just, and it often feels least stable when progress is being made. This is a point Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt make powerfully in their book How Democracies Die:

The norms sustaining our political system rested, to a considerable degree, on racial exclusion. The stability of the period between the end of Reconstruction and the 1980s was rooted in an original sin: the Compromise of 1877 and its aftermath, which permitted the de-democratization of the South and the consolidation of Jim Crow. Racial exclusion contributed directly to the partisan civility and cooperation that came to characterize twentieth-century American politics. The “solid South” emerged as a powerful conservative force within the Democratic Party, simultaneously vetoing civil rights and serving as a bridge to Republicans. Southern Democrats’ ideological proximity to conservative Republicans reduced polarization and facilitated bipartisanship. But it did so at the great cost of keeping civil rights — and America’s full democratization — off the political agenda.

Sullivan’s essay is animated by animus at the “woke” warriors he loathes. “‘Social justice’ theory requires the admission of white privilege in ways that are strikingly like the admission of original sin,” he writes. That’s one way to put it.

Another way to put it is that social justice theory encourages the consideration of privilege in order to prevent people from being so blinded by their own perspective that they look at America’s political past and declaim this the era in which we departed from political proceduralism and collapsed into illiberalism.

The “No true Christian” problem

An alert reader, absorbing Sullivan’s thesis, might notice another problem: Doesn’t religion regularly escalate the stakes of politics beyond proceduralism? Indeed, in many of the periods I’ve mentioned, Christianity was the handmaiden of political escalation, for both great good and great ill. Sullivan himself gestures toward one side of this reality, writing that “it was Christianity that gave us successive social movements, which enabled more people to be included in the liberal project.” And today, there’s no single group that supports President Trump as intensely as white evangelicals.

Ah, but Sullivan has thought of this:

Their leaders have turned Christianity into a political and social identity, not a lived faith, and much of their flock — a staggering 81 percent voted for Trump — has signed on. They have tribalized a religion explicitly built by Jesus as anti-tribal. They have turned to idols — including their blasphemous belief in America as God’s chosen country. They have embraced wealth and nationalism as core goods, two ideas utterly anathema to Christ. They are indifferent to the destruction of the creation they say they believe God made. And because their faith is unmoored but their religious impulse is strong, they seek a replacement for religion. This is why they could suddenly rally to a cult called Trump.

There’s a logical fallacy called the “no true Scotsman” problem. As the handy website YourLogicalFallacyIs.com (ain’t the internet grand?) explains, “in this form of faulty reasoning one’s belief is rendered unfalsifiable because no matter how compelling the evidence is, one simply shifts the goalposts so that it wouldn’t apply to a supposedly ‘true’ example.”

I am not here to judge anyone’s religion, and I’ve been moved many times in the past by how Sullivan writes of his faith. But as a matter of political analysis, Sullivan is trying to close a gaping hole in his argument by defining his Christian practice as true and competing interpretations, no matter how widespread they are, as aberrant. That’s a fine hobby, but it’s not a useful interpretive lens for understanding America’s past or guiding our future.

To state the obvious: Christians were found among both the abolitionists and the secessionists, the segregationists and the Freedom Riders. Study the moments of maximum collision in America’s past and you will find them thick with godly rhetoric and devout believers. Political rhetoric in America is filled with signifiers of Christian identity, and it always has been. It is absurd to suggest that Christianity was somehow less of a social and political identity in the past.

Towards a better explanation of political tribalism

Sullivan is grappling for an explanation of rising political tribalism, and there, he may want to dispense with the introspection and explore the work of people who actually study it, like political scientist Lilliana Mason. Her work shows that groups’ behavior hardens when identities stack on top of each other and weakens when they pull in different directions.

All else being equal, a 62-year-old white, Christian Democrats who lives in rural Montana will loathe Republicans less than a 23-year-old Hispanic, agnostic Democrat who lives in Los Angeles. A young, conservative atheist will be more open toward liberals than a conservative evangelical (which neatly solves the mystery of Trump’s intense support among the Christian right).

Polarization is rising, and to the extent that Sullivan senses a hardening of tribal lines, he’s not wrong. But the driving force here isn’t the waning of Christianity but the politicized sorting of it, and much else. Married white Christians made up 80 percent of voters in the 1950s, and were evenly split between the two parties; today, they make up less than 40 percent of voters, and they’re overwhelmingly concentrated in the Republican Party. The parties have similarly organized around race, geography, and even age.

“The two parties are now divided over race and religion — two deeply polarizing issues that tend to generate greater intolerance and hostility than traditional policy issues such as taxes and government spending,” write Levitsky and Ziblatt. Their work finds what seems obvious: Adding religious identity into political conflict often makes it worse, not better.

The particular pathologies of politics in an age of rapid demographic and cultural change are serious and worrying. Indeed, I am working on a book trying to understand them, and my main lesson, so far, is that mapping the workings of a sociopolitical system this complex, this human, is maddeningly difficult. It demands humility of us all. That is not to say that all groups are equal, that all ideologies are the same, or that some actors are not worse than others. But if our explanation for political tribalism takes the form of “it’s everyone else’s fault,” more likely than not, we have gone awry.

06 Dec 07:32

52 Things Learned in 2018

by Jason Kottke

Consultant Tom Whitwell is back this year with 52 things he learned in 2018.

4. 35% of Rwanda’s national blood supply outside the capital city is now delivered by drone. [Techmoran]

13. US nuclear testing between the 1940s and 1970s may have killed as many Americans (from radioactive pollution) as were killed by the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. [Tim Fernholz]

26. Men who’ve experienced earthquakes are willing to take more risks and gamble more. Women show no such effect. [Chie Hanaoka & co]

51. Vanilla pods now cost $500/kg, roughly the same as silver. Madagascan farmers have briefly become vanillionaires, causing chaos in areas where the nearest bank might be a day’s walk away. [Annah Zhu]

Check out his lists from 2017 and 2016.

Tags: lists   Tom Whitwell
22 Nov 09:18

Fistikerade särskrivningar

by Hexmaster
Ordet finns inte med i SAOL. Och det lär dröja så länge som det inte går att hitta mer än ett (1) belägg. Men någonstans tänker jag att det borde väl finnas fler som använt ordet? Fistikerad.
En så fistikerad, kvantitet av kvalité
i höga glas fyllda med Saint Tropez
- Elin Hellström, iNTIM: Saint Tropez (2015)


Hur nybildningen än uppstått så hade det hade knappast varit första gången som en särskrivning gett upphov till ett ord, även om jag just nu inte kommer på något exempel.

Apropå de omskrivna särskrivningarna så finns det massor av folk som tror att man enbart ägnat sig åt sådant hitom 2000. Det är så fel som det kan bli.
Tidtals, särskildt på 1870-talet, har särskrifningen drifvits till en beklaglig ytterlighet, så att vanliga och tydliga sammansättningar sönderdelats. Ännu i senare hälften af 1880-talet får man se sådana orimligheter som "biljett kontor", "filt hatt", "grof smed", "i akt taga", "i akt tagelse", "knapp handel", "lama själar", "rak salong", "stats kontoret", "universitets stad" o. d.
- Nils Linder, Regler och råd angående svenska språkets behandling i tal och skrift (1886)

19 Nov 14:11

How the media should respond to Trump’s lies

by Sean Illing
President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally at the Southern Illinois Airport on October 27 in Murphysboro, Illinois.

A linguist explains how Trump uses lies to divert attention from the “big truths.”

President Donald Trump has hacked the media.

As Vox’s Ezra Klein argued recently, the press is in a lose-lose situation — and we all know it. Trump thrives on opposition, and often the media plays right into his hands, feverishly chasing every lie and half-truth he utters or tweets.

George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at UC Berkeley and the author of the 2004 book Don’t Think of an Elephant, recently published an article laying out the media’s dilemma. Trump’s “big lie” strategy, he argues, is to “exploit journalistic convention by providing rapid-fire news events for reporters to chase.”

According to Lakoff, the president uses lies to divert attention from the “big truths,” or the things he doesn’t want the media to cover. This allows Trump to create the controversies he wants and capitalize on the outrage and confusion they generate, while simultaneously stoking his base and forcing the press into the role of “opposition party.”

I reached out to Lakoff to talk about Trump’s media strategy, but also, more importantly, about solutions. If the president has indeed turned journalistic conventions to his advantage, how can we, the media, respond constructively?

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Can you lay out for me in simple terms how President Trump manipulates the media?

George Lakoff

He manipulates the media by constantly tweeting and saying more and more outrageous things. The media says, “Well, we have to cover the president. We have to repeat what he says.” But there is no real reason this has to happen. Journalists could, if they choose to, ignore the president’s tweets.

Sean Illing

What, then, would you have reporters do? Ridiculous or not, what the president of the United States tweets or says has real-world consequences, so it’s not quite that simple.

George Lakoff

I wrote a book called Don’t Think of an Elephant, which makes the point that if you negate a frame, you activate the frame. When Trump says something and people working in the media deny it, they’re helping him. But they don’t realize that they’re helping him.

There’s another possibility. Journalists could engage in what I’ve called “truth sandwiches,” which means that you first tell the truth; then you point out what the lie is and how it diverges from the truth. Then you repeat the truth and tell the consequences of the difference between the truth and the lie.

If the media did this consistently, it would matter. It would be more difficult for Trump to lie.

Sean Illing

So you’re saying that instead of amplifying the president’s message by repeating it in the course of debunking it, we should focus on his tactics and talk about the truths he’s trying to suppress.

George Lakoff

Well, not just talk about the truth he’s trying to suppress. The truth sandwich is more than that. It shows the difference between the truth and what he’s saying — putting the truth first, and then putting it afterward, and talking about its consequences.

People say, “Oh, well, here’s the real fact.” That doesn’t really matter because Trump is getting his frame out there first. What he’s trying to do in each of the tweets he sends out is to frame something first and then repeat it.

Notice that when you repeat something, you’re strengthening it in people’s brains. The more a neural circuit is activated, the stronger it gets. Trump is using certain communicative tactics that are very sophisticated and he doesn’t realize it.

“Democrats believe in what is called enlightenment reasoning — that if you tell people the facts, they’ll reach the right conclusion. That just isn’t true.”

Sean Illing

I take your point, but I wonder if Trump is just kryptonite for a liberal democratic system built on a free press. If someone is truly indifferent to the consequences of lying, if they welcome negative coverage and are backed by a base primed to disbelieve inconvenient facts, I’m not sure there’s much we can do to contain that person once they’ve ascended to power.

George Lakoff

It’s difficult; I know it’s difficult. But I don’t think it’s impossible. It has to do with the media not being willing to be manipulated by Trump, not being willing to say, “Oh, we have to report everything he says.”

If his tactics didn’t work, he wouldn’t be able to manipulate people the way that he has.

Sean Illing

So you’re saying that the president has created a situation in which journalists, by merely doing their jobs, are reinforcing his entire communications strategy.

George Lakoff

Right. That’s where we’re at, but you see, there’s still a question of what the media’s job is.

Many journalists still assume that language is neutral, that you can just repeat language and it’s completely neutral. In fact, language is never neutral. Language is always framed in a certain way, and it always has consequences.

If in the process of reporting, you simply repeat the language Trump is using, you’re missing what’s going on.

Sean Illing

But if the president spreads malicious lies, those lies have consequences. Take the recent shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue. Trump helped popularize a conspiracy theory about George Soros funding a caravan of illegal immigrants, and an extremist took that claim seriously and acted on it.

Isn’t that a strong case for why we have to expose or challenge lies?

George Lakoff

I totally understand, but simply exposing the lie about the Soros conspiracy theory doesn’t work, because to call it a lie is to repeat it, to repeat the content, which strengthens it in people’s brains. If I say don’t think of an elephant, you think of an elephant.

Sean Illing

So how exactly should the media have responded in this case to the Soros conspiracy theory tweeted by the president?

George Lakoff

By not reporting it.

Sean Illing

At all?

George Lakoff

Not one bit.

Sean Illing

The president has 55 million Twitter followers and a vast conservative media-industrial complex that will happily amplify his comments. Nothing the rest of the media does will change this. Is there a solution to this problem?

George Lakoff

Well, it’s not a simple solution, and your point about the conservative media is a good one. But you have to have a media that is engaged with what I call truth sandwiches and that repeats them — that’s all you can do.

“Language is never neutral. Language is always framed in a certain way, and it always has consequences.”

Sean Illing

Why do Republicans seem to be doing much better in terms of framing the debate?

George Lakoff

A lot of Democrats believe in what is called Enlightenment reasoning, and that if you just tell people the facts, they’ll reach the right conclusion. That just isn’t true.

People think in terms of conceptual structures called frames and metaphors. It’s not just the facts. They have values, and they understand which facts fit into their conceptual framework. You can’t understand something if your brain doesn’t allow it, if your brain filters it out in terms of your values.

Democrats seem not to understand this, and they keep trying to employ reason as a persuasive vehicle. I wish Enlightenment reasoning was an accurate model for how most people think and judge, but it isn’t, and we better acknowledge that fact.

Sean Illing

So on some level, you’re saying that Democrats have to accept that they’re playing a different kind of conversational game, in which truth and falsity are irrelevant. If that’s the case, what use is there for a free press, or for discourse at all?

George Lakoff

Well, that’s why the truth sandwiches are important. Let me say one more thing that’s really crucial in this respect. Kellyanne Conway talked about alternative facts at one point, so the phrase comes from her. When I heard that, it occurred to me that there’s a sense in which she’s right.

If you’re someone who shares Trump’s worldview, there are certain things that follow from that worldview. In other words, certain things have to be true, or have to be believed, in order to sustain that worldview. The things that aren’t actually true but nevertheless preserve that worldview are “alternative facts” — that’s what Conway was getting at, whether she knew it or not.

The conservatives use those alternative facts all the time, and so does Trump. If he’s talking to his base, he’s talking to people who have already bought into a picture of the world, and his job is to tell them things that confirm that picture — and he knows they’ll believe it for that very reason.

I think we have to understand “alternative facts” in this way, and understand that when Trump is lying, he’s lying in ways that register with his audience. So it may be lying, but it’s strategic lying — and it’s effective.

Sean Illing

Do you think the media is going to be able to adapt and figure this out, or do you think it’s going to persist in aiding Trump in the way it has?

George Lakoff

I’m an optimist. I think the media can get out of it. But I don’t know if it will.

Journalists don’t study the field of cognitive science. They don’t study how brains actually work and how the mind works. Cognitive science is a field that is not widely reported on, but it needs to be, because journalists cannot serve the public if they don’t understand basic facts about the human mind.

The sorts of things I’m saying have to be repeated over and over — it has to be argued. The evidence has to come forth.

This story was originally published on November 15, 2018.

19 Nov 07:43

How to Talk to People, According to Terry Gross

Image
Terry Gross says that “Tell me about yourself” is the only ice-breaker you’ll ever need.CreditCreditDaniel Dorsa for The New York Times

Terry Gross says that “Tell me about yourself” is the only ice-breaker you’ll ever need.CreditCreditDaniel Dorsa for The New York Times

It’s fair to say Terry Gross knows some things about talking to people. The host and co-executive producer of NPR’s “Fresh Air” has interviewed thousands of personalities over the course of her four-decade career.

It all started in the early 1970s, when, floundering a bit in her post-college life, she landed a gig at WBFO, a radio station in Buffalo. There she would call subjects and interview them for the program she hosted, “This Is Radio.” She moved to Philadelphia in 1975 to host “Fresh Air,” the brainchild of a colleague from WBFO.

Ms. Gross brings a combination of empathy and rigorous preparation to the job. “I read, watch or listen to as much of the person’s work as possible, so I have an understanding of what makes them, or their story, important,” she said. “I try to clarify in my own mind why this person matters, and why it’s worthy of our listeners’ time.”

One thing she does not allow of her interview subjects, however, is input on the edit. “When the interview is over, you don’t have a chance to call back and say, ‘Well I like my answer to this, I don’t like my answer to that, can you edit that out,” she said. (As someone who has been interviewed by Ms. Gross, I would like to say that I wish I hadn’t insisted that her cats hate her. That said, I never asked for my comment to be removed from that particular episode of “Fresh Air.”)

In a subsequent chat, our roles reversed, Ms. Gross offered her thoughts on how to have a good conversation.

Those are the only four words you need to navigate a potentially awkward conversation, whether on a blind date or at a cocktail party. Ms. Gross avoids asking more pointed questions (for example, “What do you do for work?”) that presume information to be true.

The beauty in opening with “tell me about yourself” is that it allows you to start a conversation without the fear that you’re going to inadvertently make someone uncomfortable or self-conscious. Posing a broad question lets people lead you to who they are. As an interviewer, Ms. Gross’s goal is to find out how her subject became who they are; as a conversationalist, make that goal your own.

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Ms. Gross in the WHYY studios in Philadelphia. “A good conversationalist is somebody who is fun to talk to,” she said.CreditDaniel Dorsa for The New York Times

Interviewing a person and having a conversation with them are two different things, but a common thread that can help you to excel at both, according to Ms. Gross, is “being genuinely curious, and wanting to hear what the other person is telling you. I can respond to what somebody saying by expressing if I’m feeling sympathy or empathy, and explaining why.”

“A good conversationalist is somebody who is fun to talk to,” she said. Ms. Gross, it’s worth noting, is very funny. If you can’t be funny, being mentally organized, reasonably concise and energetic will go a long way in impressing people.

Most of us will never find ourselves in the position of being interviewed by someone like Ms. Gross, but most of us will certainly find ourselves in the position of being interviewed by someone. Preparation, she says, is key. “It helps to organize your thoughts beforehand by thinking about the things you expect you’ll be asked and then reflecting on how you might answer,” she said.

A place where this can be especially helpful, particularly when meeting someone for the first time in a social setting, like a date, is considering how comfortable you are with opening up on certain topics. “It’s helpful to think through where your boundaries are, so that you’re not paralyzed agonizing over whether you’re willing to confide something or not.”

In a job interview, organizing your thoughts by thinking about the things you expect you’ll be asked and reflecting on how you might answer can help you navigate if things start to go badly.

Ms. Gross offered help for how to handle a job interview that’s going badly. “If somebody is asking you questions and you don’t feel that you have a strong response for it, say, ‘let me share an experience.’” From there, you can share an experience that points to your talents and areas where you excel.

An interview is a two-way street, which can be hard to remember when you’re the applicant who desperately wants to land the gig, but Ms. Gross gently reminds us that as an interviewee, you’re there to do some sussing out of your own. What is the job really like? What would be expected of you? Being prepared, too, can help you avoid getting caught off guard, or help you to more easily pivot the conversation to a subject that you’ve prepared yourself to talk about in a way that plays to your strengths.

“Well, I don’t think it is in my self-interest to tutor people on how to dodge a question,” Ms. Gross said. But, when pressed — perhaps regretting the previous advice she gave to this interviewer about how to get people to answer questions they don’t want to answer (“keep asking”) — she suggests using honesty. Say, “I don’t want to answer that,” or, if that’s too blunt, hedge with a statement like, “I’m having a difficult time thinking of a specific answer to that.” Going the martyr route with something like, “I’m afraid by answering that I’m going to hurt somebody’s feelings and I don’t want to do that,” is another option.

Ms. Gross wishes that everyone would pay attention to other people’s body language. “Try to pick up on when you’ve kind of lost somebody’s attention,” she said. That way, you can avoid boring your fellow interlocutor to death or holding someone up from getting to wherever they may actually need to be. If the person engaging you in ceaseless chatter won’t take the hint, Ms. Gross again recommends honesty. “Well, there’s the truth, which is I’d love to talk some more, but I’m really late,” even, she says, if it feels rude to cut things off. “If a person is being insensitive to you, you don’t have a commitment to be beholden to their insensitivity.”

Ms. Gross prefers to interview artists and creators over politicians, and she approaches those baskets of interviewees differently. Politicians, she believes, “owe us an answer,” and so she, in her own very Terry Gross way will “keep asking and re-asking and asking, and maybe I’ll ask it in separate ways, and maybe I’ll point out that they haven’t yet answered the question.” She prefers, however, to interview people who work in arts and culture, and offers those subjects more leeway to set parameters for the conversation. “I tell people that if I ask them anything too personal they should let me know and I’ll move on,” she said. “I want the liberty to ask anything with the understanding that if I’m pushing too far, my guest has the liberty — and they know they have the liberty — to tell me that I’m going too far. And once you told somebody that, you’ve committed to it, and you better fulfill the commitment.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page ST4 of the New York edition with the headline: A Master Class in the Fine Art of Conversation. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
19 Nov 07:30

I Found the Best Burger Place in America. And Then I Killed It.

The way Stanich sees it, he has two options: he can either partner with another restaurant operator to open it back up, or he can franchise. Both options are on the table, and he needs to decide what to do, but until that time, Stanich’s will likely not re-open. And no matter what happens, in all likelihood, the Stanich’s that had been open since 1949, the Stanich’s that I fell in love with, then clumsily broke like Lennie with the puppy in Of Mice and Men, will never be the same again.  

And that fact is the thing I can’t quite get past. That a decision I made for a list I put on the internet has impacted a family business and forever altered its future. That I have changed family dynamics and relationships. And it could very easily happen again.

I’ve been asking myself what the other side of this looks like. How do I do this better? Is there a way to celebrate a place without the possibility of destroying it? Or is this just what we are now -- a horde with a checklist and a camera phone, intent on self-producing the destruction of anything left that feels real, one Instagram story at a time?

Clearly, I don’t have an answer. I understand there are larger forces involving tourism and technology and society writ large at play here, and I’m not enough of a hypocrite to turn this into a morality play about the internet and the consequences of our actions, but maybe if we were all as kind to each other as Steve Stanich has been to me, we might just survive this apocalyptic puddle of shit we currently find ourselves in.

Before I left, Stanich told me he had one more thing to show me.

He walked me out behind the office to the vast green of the Rose City Cemetery. There, not more than twenty five yards away, lay the graves of his parents, George and Gladys Stanich. As we stood and stared down at the black gravestone, Stanich told me a story about how his parents had started the restaurant in 1949 to help pay hospital bills after he was born prematurely. He was wistful and philosophical and clearly in pain, but it wasn’t a pain he wanted to reveal to me in detail, and I wasn’t one to ask anything of Steve Stanich except forgiveness, so I tried again to apologize for putting in motion a series of changes he wasn’t asking for. He looked at me for the first time since we were out at his parents grave, and gave a quick nod, then he started to hobble off back towards the restaurant.

He’d forgotten, he said, to close it back up.  

14 Nov 07:31

Dear Jeff

by DHH
You could blow up the extractive motive if you wanted to

I‘ve been thinking about your regret minimization framework for making decisions lately. I don’t recall whether I read about it in an interview, or if you shared it with Jason and me in person in those early days after your involvement in Basecamp. But regardless, I think you’re currently making bad decisions that you’re going to regret. Maybe even decisions that we as a whole society will come to regret.

It doesn’t have to be like this. You’re literally the richest man in the world. Markets have suspended disbelief for decades, and let you rule as you see fit. It’s well within your power and purvey to change course.

The HQ2 process has been demeaning if not outright cruel. At a time when politicians are viewed as more inept, more suspicious, and more corrupt than ever, you made city after city grovel in front of your selection committee. They debased themselves in a futile attempt to appeal to your grace and mercy, and you showed them little. The losers ended up worse than where they started, and even the winners may well too.

For what? Extracting a few more billions that Amazon does not need in subsidies? If you tilt your perspective a little, I think you’ll be able to catch the optics that the richest man in the world asking for tribute like this is an ugly one.

Amazon is Jeff Bezos. You can’t cover decisions behind committees or other shareholders. You hold the reins, you reap the lion’s share of the rewards, and thus you’re accountable for its actions.

As many great conquerors in history, I’d be surprised if you didn’t care about establishing a legacy. I mean, you clearly already have. But there’s still time to shape that legacy into something more than the man who killed retail, extracted the greatest loot from its HQ cities, and who expanded the most monopoly holdings the fastest.

Rather than keep asking what cities and countries can do for Amazon, maybe start asking what Amazon can do for them. Be magnanimous. Be responsible.

Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the smart thing to do. The better business move. At some point people are going to have had enough, and when they figure out a way to channel that discontent into political action, they’re going to come looking for the heads of those that did them the most egregious wrongs.

I know it doesn’t look like that big of a risk right now. People still seem to trust Amazon more than most of the big tech companies, but that’s a lagging indicator. The clouds are gathering in the distance. It starts with a few pioneers calling for antitrust action, and then one day you wake up, and that’s what the whole world wants.

It’s hard to be proud of having you as a minority owner in Basecamp right now. Maybe there’s even a tinge of regret. I’d very much like to minimize that.

Jeff owns a minority, no-control stake in Basecamp (the company that Jason and I co-own). For the first few years after purchasing that, Jason and I would meet or talk to him about once a year. It’s probably been 7–8 years since we spoke with Jeff directly last. If we get another chance, this would be the most pressing topic.


Dear Jeff was originally published in Signal v. Noise on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

13 Nov 07:21

‘An Unshakable Humanism’ — Michael Chabon on Stan Lee

by John Gruber

Michael Chabon, on Instagram:

Some people are influences. Others — a rare few — rearrange the very structure of your neurons. Stan Lee’s creative and artistic contribution to the Marvel pantheon has been debated endlessly, but one has only to look at Jack Kirby’s solo work to see what Stan brought to the partnership: an unshakable humanism, a faith in our human capacity for altruism and self-sacrifice and in the eventual triumph of the rational over the irrational, of love over hate, that was a perfect counterbalance to Kirby’s dark, hard-earned quasi-nihilism. In the heyday of their partnership, it was Stan’s vision that predominated and that continues to shape my way of seeing the world, and of telling stories about that world, to this day.

There’s something apt about Chabon using a primarily visual medium like Instagram as an outlet for the perfect words to remember a man whose life’s work was writing for comic books.

23 Oct 08:44

iPhones are hard to use

I once wrote a user manual for a handheld engine-diagnostics module for Daewoo cars. I know “hard to use” when I see it. iPhones are hard to use.

  • On two occasions on the same bus route, I couldn’t stand to watch late-middle-aged persons (eyeglasses perched on forehead in one case) struggle to read their iPhones. I took hold of their phones for a moment each (I got permission) and brought up the well-hidden screen for text-size selection. They picked the bigger fonts they’d needed all along. They were so grateful it was embarrassing.

  • The same thing later happened, though not on a bus, with an 85-year-old who was also struggling.

  • Another senior knows he can send a text message to a certain phone number containing the ID number of a bus stop, but had no idea that was the worst possible way to get a transit prediction, nor that transit predictions could work everywhere, nor what to do if he were in an unfamiliar place and/or could not find the number of a bus stop.

    (How did this senior learn to use his iPhone? He asked his wife how to do things. He also thought he had to use the Gmail app to read his Gmail.)

  • My almost-blind friend upgraded from an iTouch to an iPhone 8, then couldn’t check his voicemail for weeks because iPhone keyboards and keypads randomly change or invert their colours and he simply could not see or locate the number buttons.

    Light keypad, then dark keypad with Voicemail title

    Before and after calling voicemail

  • What was obviously an itinerant Filipina nanny or maid on the way to a temp gig stopped me to ask where a well-hidden street with a hard-to-pronounce name was. “Huh?” I said. She opened her iPhone X (which had then just been released) and showed me its map. She had no idea she could ask the phone for directions. (And only after I saw the map did I understand the name she mispronounced.)

  • I had to tell someone who uses his Apple Watch for notifications and daily fitness tracking that his watch could give him directions and that his phone had a Health app. I had to explain to him how to search for it.

Very advanced, very tuned-in people learn about, and learn how to use, new Apple features by watching them being demonstrated onstage during Apple keynote events.

Then there’s everybody else.

Don Norman told us several times several years ago () that iPhones hide their functions. Apple never admits it makes mistakes. The next time you hear Tim Cook or somebody recounting a tale of a guy who crashed his car and was able to call a paramedic using his Apple Watch, think instead of millions of people who cannot use their phones for basic or truly serious needs.

With an alleged one billion “iOS devices” in use over a decade, Apple’s mistakes are the butterfly effect writ large. Anything that people could get wrong, or simply not know about, will be gotten wrong or will go unknown by tens of millions.

It’s a 1½-way street

In the iPhone context there are things you should reasonably expect are possible without any reflection (my iPhone has a calculator). There are things that should have been obvious in retrospect (my iPhone can give me directions).

Yet sometimes people just need to learn the basics. There are people who Google “Facebook” to go to Facebook. (They don’t know what a browser address bar is despite its having stared them in the face for a decade, and also don’t know about bookmarks.) There are people who know what address bars are but not search bars, so they go to google.com for every search. (Cf. the browser Find command.)

You shouldn’t be afraid of your phone. You shouldn’t feel inhibited from just trying things out. But we are. Me, too.

Two absolute necessities

And they’re both hidden.

Text size

Larger text screen with third-to-last option selected If Apple actually cared about accessibility (it does not), on the setup screen for every iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch would be a step you could not skip wherein you have to choose your preferred text size. And it would state explicitly that if you have to pick a size that seems a bit too big or one that’s a bit too small, go bigger.

This function relates to blindness less than you might expect. Blind people don’t all need things blown up huge. My blind friend mentioned above needs normal-sized type. This issue relates to hundreds of millions of middle-aged people with presbyopia, the aging-related inability to focus that got its name three centuries ago. (It’s inability to focus. Nothing you can do will bring the object into focus without moving it or adding a lens.)

If – further – Apple were committed to diversity (it is not), middle-aged persons would be involved in product and software development and would be present to kick up a fuss when they themselves cannot read the products they created. (Or their complaints would actually be heeded.)

Constant intrusive reminders of wifi networks

Even just yesterday I saw the hundredth or thousandth person instantly and reflexively and uncomprehendingly dismiss the alert box that jumps up whenever you aren’t near a wifi signal you’ve logged into while there are other networks to choose from. (I stood next to a friend once and took the phone out of his hand to turn this function off. I did not get permission but I did it anyway.)

If anything in the Apple “ecosystem” reeks of the kind of Windows autism that repels Macintosh supremacists, it is every iPhone’s insistence on interrupting you just because you passed by a wifi router.

Try this experiment. Take any kind of ride through an urban setting passing coffeeshops or dense residences like high-rises and condos. (Or just businesses. Everybody has wireless Internet.) Hold your phone and pretend to do something with it. You’ll be interrupted endlessly.

I say again: Everyone dismisses this dialogue instantly, with no knowledge of what they’re doing or what it was doing, and with no memory of having done it. It’s a special kind of annoyance akin to dissociative anæsthesia, in that you may not know what just happened but you sure as shit don’t want to relive it. Yet you will: It’s on by default. (And it’s too maddening for a screenshot here.)

Security (of the person)

  • Because Apple calls its passwords passcodes, nobody has any clue at all that you can use an alphanumeric password instead of a string of six digits. (Like 000000?)

    The terminology is painful across the board. “Numeric passcode” and “password” and “alphanumeric passphrase” and “alphanumeric” are all terms we shouldn’t have to use.

    The interface biases you almost irrevocably toward a numeric passcode instead of a password. My blind friend had no idea what was going on one day when my login screen came up showing a keyboard.

    Note that passwords are so unusual there was a time when you couldn’t log into your phone if you were Greek and used one. Yes, it stands to reason that passwords don’t have to use the characters on an American computer keyboard. Even Apple did not know that for a while.

  • Seniors love iPads, but seniors and unhealthy people in general have a serious pressing need to fill out the Medical ID section (not obvious) in the Health app (also not obvious). Exactly the people who need this function are the least likely to use it. We cannot, and should not, rely on these seniors’ grandkids or caregivers to do it for them.

    Fill out these fields and not only could a paramedic, or just a bystander, learn what medical conditions you have if you’re unconscious, they can phone your emergency contacts (and also call an ambulance via 911 or local equivalent). Somebody could steal your phone while you’re lying half-dead on a sidewalk, but somebody else could give you a serious headstart on getting your emergency taken care of.

  • Few know that Siri and Maps can give you spoken and written directions. Even explaining it that way is too dry and abstract. I’ve had to say the following to people who visibly do not understand when I tell them their phone can give them directions: “If you ever get lost, hold the button down and say ‘Get me home.’ You can also hold the button down and say ‘Where am I?’ ”

    I have had to use both of those features. Within broad limits, there is no need to get lost ever again if you have an iPhone. Now specify for me how many people know that.

  • You really need to tell the phone, and/or Siri, who you are and who your family members are. This involves creating a contact card (what’s that?) for yourself and linking to it. Then all your family members need their own cards, and you have to laboriously specify their relationships to you.

    I insist this is not an optional or nice-to-have feature. If you have chest pain, you have to be able to hold the button down and say “Call Charlie” or “Call my wife.” (God help us if Siri asks which Charlie to call.)

    Another friend really did have chest pain in a foreign country and it never occurred to him to call anybody. So in fact, Apple, a trillion-dollar corporation, has to put considerably greater resources into telling people how to set up their phones for emergencies so they will actually use those phones then. Again, this means forcing people to do it upon setup and making it exceedingly clear, in writing and in video, what their phones can do for them when they need their phones the most.

    As a simple example any non-autist could have figured out over the last half-decade of iPhone development, say the following to Siri: “I’m in trouble.” Or try “I need help.” Shouldn’t those do something useful?

    Further, if you set up a contact card and identify yourself as the owner, anyone can ask Siri “Whose phone is this?” if they find your lost phone.

  • Last but not least, almost nobody knows you can designate some correspondents as “VIP,” so that their messages and E‑mails really get in your face. It’s also so hard to do that I have to Google it every time.

Seriously advanced security features like two-factor authentication (which kind? Apple offers two) are exactly the sort of thing only experts who don’t need them will ever set up.

“Basic” features few understand

Observing what are dismissively called “normal people” (or “users”) for more than a decade, the one thing iPhone owners are proud they know how to do is force-quit apps. They also know how to set a ringtone and choose atrocious wallpaper.

And that’s it. But they aren’t to blame.

  • People kind of don’t know that they can swipe up or down from top or bottom of screen. As an example, I certainly almost never see anybody turn wifi on or off that way (it’s almost always through Settings). They certainly don’t know what Control Center and Notification Center are by name. (They also don’t know what their iSight camera is. They don’t know what Springboard is, and shouldn’t have to. But do they know what the home screen is?)

  • Swiping from left and right edges is barely known as being equivalent to Back and Forward commands.

  • You can directly manipulate almost anything on the lock screen. (They don’t know it’s a “lock screen.” They don’t know what they’ve done to their phone is “lock” it. They know they haven’t turned it off, exactly, except for the minority who completely power down their phones every single time they stop using them. Again, my blind friend was one of those people at the outset – because he believed what a Windows/Android user had told him about “battery life.”) They don’t know that those aren’t pictures on their screen but objects that can be manipulated.

    Exception: Music or podcasts, because the play/pause icons are self-explanatory. But try getting someone to clear a meeting reminder, or respond to a message, right from the lock screen. Only experts know that.

  • Press-and-hold is completely undiscoverable except by accident. (But is that “3D Touch” or is it “press and hold” or might it be “press deeply”?)

    What can press-and-hold do that people don’t know about?

    • Directly move a scrollbar. (Fails most of the time due to tiny narrow hotspots you’re expected to hit on the first go.)

    • Show a magnified absolute-centred duplicate of nearly anything onscreen you cannot actually manipulate, like whatever is in the title bar. (Try pressing and holding on the battery icon.)

    • Reader Mode in Safari, hugely useful in and of itself and nearly unknown. (Tap to activate; hold to customize.)

    • Copy and paste. I insist that few know this function exists.

    • Scroll to the top by tapping the clock. (Who would possibly discover that by accident? Somebody had to tell me about it.) Of course there’s no system-wide way to scroll to the bottom, because obviously that will never come up, because obviously no Apple software engineer has had to get to the very end of a list of 250 wedding guests in a hurry.

  • Move apps around. Creating a folder by dropping one app onto another is the second-worst interface feature of iOS. (Nº 1 with a bullet is undo; see below.) Pressing and holding on apps is what people do by accident.

    In fact, pressing and holding happens only by accident for non-experts.

  • Did you know drag-and-drop exists on iPhones? I do. I can’t get it to work half the time. It requires a lighter press than 3D Touch but more than a tap.

HONOURABLE MENTION: If somebody told you your Home button was going to wear out, hence you turned on AssistiveTouch, you were lied to. (That lie will have been expressed in Chinese. I have never seen a disabled person with AssistiveTouch turned on. Only people with broken screens and ethnic Chinese use it, in my direct observation and according to popular lore.)

Diabolical interfaces

  • The user interface for call waiting (another example) not only is confusing on its face, it’s impossible to use while you’re talking on the phone and after you realize there’s another call coming in and while you’re trying not to miss that call (or are annoyed because your phone interrupted you).

  • You can search your iPhone. Whole categories of items cannot be found (e.g., photos with real filenames), but you can search. You just have to know the following sequence:

    1. Find a spot in Springboard (what’s that?) with no apps or folders.

    2. Pull down. (Not from the top of the screen.)

    3. Type your search term.

    It turns out you can swipe left (in most languages) from the home screen and Search appears there, too – but, due to banner blindness, it’s functionally invisible with the avalanche of coloured and vibrant items below it. I know it’s there and I basically never see it.

  • The two hardest things to get onto or off of an iPhone: A photo or an URL.

  • The simplest task that is functionally impossible to do (also on Macintosh): Play exactly one song.

If experts who get paid to cover Apple do not know a feature exists, it does not

The most advanced Apple experts – one, actually – had no idea the following was possible. And, as with so many features, the right way to demonstrate them is via video, not a written explanation.

You can select lots and lots of photos.

  • Albums in the Photos app are opaque and basically go unused; that’s why Camera Roll had to be reinstated after it was removed for our own good.

    Still, go into any album. (Except shared ones, and except a few other kinds.) Hit the Select button. Tap the first photo. Touch and don’t lift your finger from the next photo, then drag immediately to the end of the row. Keep dragging straight down through rows to select more rows.

    Selecting many photos (11 with checkmarks)
  • Need to deselect a few? You can. Just tap them again (and you can drag through them).

Now you see with Adobe Lightroom has a select-all checkbox.

Lightroom with Select checkbox

But Apple does know, at a preconscious level, that selecting many or all pictures is an issue: In the Recently Deleted album, whose location changed in iOS 12 such that I couldn’t find it, you can Delete All in two presses.

(Fun fact: You can drag and drop photos in some albums, which I discovered by getting the sequence wrong that I just listed above.)

Advanced features few understand

  • AirDrop.

  • Apple Pay. Inscrutable and scary even in countries that have had chip cards forever, like Canada.

  • What a Share menu is, and the fact you can reorder such menus and remove items you never use. (Much more important with big fonts because the menus side-scroll.)

  • Remove the suggestion bar on your keyboard, which (again, after a decade) I have seen actually used only in Chinese and Japanese keyboards where you have no choice in the matter. (People can see it. They just do not use it.)

  • Remove “apps” from Messages (that row of icons just below your text-entry field – nobody knows what they’re called, and few use or want them).

  • Home screen (with shirtless dude in pup hood) showing AssistiveTouch menu with home button, undo, other items The gold standard here is Undo. You have to shake your iPhone (or giant iPad Pro) to undo an action. You discover this by accident as you get up from a restaurant table with your phone in your hand, only to be greeted with an Undo Typing dialogue box. Unless you are an expert, you have no idea what just happened.

    If you really want and need the Undo feature, turn it on with AssistiveTouch. But AssistiveTouch itself has a diabolical user interface.

    [Yes, I have a Home button in my AssistiveTouch, as there are weird force-quit scenarios (yes, I force-quit apps) where it’s the only thing that works.]

Siri is hard to use

Like you, I can’t get Siri to set something up correctly on the first go more than three-quarters of the time. You shouldn’t have to talk a certain way to a virtual assistant. After this many years, he should understand you; he does not. (Siri is an Australian male.)

Set up an appointment with Fred tomorrow at two
“Which Fred?”
If it’s near midnight, he’ll ask you which day you mean
If you aren’t a savage and are using a 24-hour clock, he will get the time right no matter what you say
Set up an appointment for nine
Tries to make it for 21:00, not 09:00, when people generally have “appointments”
Set up an appointment for tomorrow at two
“Let me know if you want to make any changes.” “What does that mean?” “Sorry for being obtuse”
It turns out you can laboriously change any part of an item: “Change the time to 2:35”; “Change the title to ‘Late lunch’ ”

Genuine nice-to-have features

  • Have your phone say out loud who’s calling you. This one is so pressing even David Pogue wrote about it. (Settings ☞ Phone ☞ Announce Calls.)

  • Change how Messages depicts the name of your contacts. Generally you just want first name or nickname, yes, not first name plus last initial? (Settings ☞ Contacts ☞ Short Name.)

  • The only people who need their screen to “lock” within only a few seconds are those in high-security jobs (and wary teenagers). Almost everybody else can function better with a lag time of several minutes. (Settings ☞ Display & Brightness ☞ Auto-Lock.)

Did you know there’s a user manual?

In the iBooks (or is it Books?) Store you can download an iPhone User Guide for each major software version. There are usually iPad and sometimes iPod Touch user guides, too.

Once you do that (you won’t), you’ll find that almost nothing I have described here is covered. It does mention the ability to announce who’s calling you, but buries text size in the accessibility gulag, recapitulating the entire problem.

I sat and stewed about this posting for months. If nothing else, I need to keep it from becoming a script for a YouTube video about “hidden features” in iOS.

iPhones are hard to use.

(See also: My setup.)

23 Oct 06:33

11 B2B Copywriting Tips to Boost Your Content's Engagement Right Now

B2B copywriting is an investment. You’re spending time and money producing copy, and you want a high ROI–including supercharged brand awareness, greater lead acquisition, and high-quality conversions, right?

That’s why it’s important to understand the reach and engagement achieved by each piece of published copy. For example:

  • How many visitors did it direct to your site?
  • How many read the post and for how long?
  • What percentage of readers engaged with or shared it?

Analyzing a post’s engagement metrics might be disappointing. It’s tough to see the ROI of a post fall short of your goals–especially if you’ve spent hours of your time (and cash) to piece it together.

But, there is a solution. With a little bit of time and effort, you can spruce up your content to start getting the results you want.

Here are 11 B2B copywriting tips to take your content from zero to hero:

1. Know who you’re talking to

One of the most integral B2B copywriting tips is to know yourself and the audience you’re targeting. You can’t dig deep into your audience’s pain points (and ultimately generate conversions) if you haven’t got the basics covered.

Your copy–whether it’s a blog post or complex whitepaper–should reflect your understanding of your industry, and of your customers’ needs and problems.

Take Dropbox, for example. They make it easy for users to backup, share, and collaborate on files. It’s a tool that’s invaluable for businesses. But when Dropbox launched, the company had a tough time getting potential users to understand the service.

So what did Dropbox do?

They created a video that explained the product, and how it solved issues its audience faced.

Included in the video are a number of inside jokes and easter eggs that appealed to the intended audience—a tactic that went over swimmingly (and can be duplicated in written copy, too):


But knowing that the software was still prone to bugs, Dropbox launched a private, closed beta to test its product.

The result? Within a day, Dropbox’s users went from 5,000 to over 75,000, and has surpassed 5oo million to date. But they couldn’t have done that without a through understanding of their customer’s pain points, and solving them through the content they created.

You can do this by creating your own buyer personas through surveying your top customers. You could ask:

  • What made you purchase this product?
  • Which problem were you trying to solve?
  • What are your biggest challenges?

Make your buyer personas a focal part of your content marketing strategy, and don’t write a single piece of content without looking at it first.

Otherwise, it’s a complete waste of time.

2. Compile a style guide

A style guide holds the rules that your content should follow.

But why is it so important? Simply put: A style guide is the only way to maintain consistency across your entire content marketing strategy–regardless of who’s writing it.

Without it, it’d be tricky to keep content on-brand and recognizable.

It’s also important if you’re outsourcing your writing. While you may be your brand’s sole copywriter right now, if your brand wants to increase its output, they’ll need to hire a copywriter that creates on-brand content.

When creating a style guide, you may want to default to something that’s already well-known and used, like the Associated Press Stylebook or Chicago Manual of Style.

You may even elect to adopt some “house rules,” specifying which established conventions are okay to break (and how), what dialects to write in, and what tone of voice your brand uses.

Who knows—with a style guide in place, you might even be able to take a vacation!

Every business creating content *needs* a style guide. Here's why--and how to create your own. Click To Tweet

3. Learn from your competitors

In many cases, your competitors have already done much of the groundwork of figuring out which B2B copywriting tactics work (and don’t work) for your target audience.

By capitalizing on the foundations they’ve laid out, you can save time and money.

First, head over to some of your competitors’ websites. Which competitors most closely resemble what you offer or have a solid hold on your ideal audience? It’s those who you want to focus on and learn from.

Then, click through their content and take note of their SEO. Are they receiving high-quality backlinks? Which keywords are they targeting? Do they drive much organic traffic?

Use a tool like SEMrush to find this data:

b2b copywriting tips - use semrush to copy competitors
Source

(Noting the keywords that bring you to their site is an copywriting hack—especially considering how time-consuming and hit-or-miss it is to figure which keywords work for your niche or industry.)

You may not be able to outrank your competitor without much effort, but there’s a chance they’ve overlooked a popular keyword that you can rank for.

Also look at the tone, messaging, and format of your competitor’s content. Does their copy resonate with your audience? If they’re failing to provide relevant data and case studies, there’s an opening for you to better serve your market by performing some research.

Staying aware of what your competitors are up to will help you write strong and unique copy that outshines theirs.

That’s the goal, right?

4. Craft a killer headline

What’s the first thing you notice when you load up a blog or see a post shared on social media? The headline, of course–it’s one the most important elements of any type of content, especially blog posts.

That’s because 80% of readers only read the headline before moving on to something else. It doesn’t matter how much blood, sweat and tears have gone into writing your copy if you lose the attention of 80% of would-be readers at the headline.

You need to craft a powerful, compelling, and interesting headline that pulls readers in and says, “Hey, this is something you need to read.”

This can be done by steering clear from clickbait-style headlines. Sure, clickbait gets the clicks—but it’s at the expense of annoying and turning away readers who expect something specific, only to get disappointed.

That won’t do any favors for your user experience or bounce rate.

Instead, your headlines should:

Your headline should also reflect the type of copy you’re writing. Lists acknowledge that a given number of items are included within so a reader knows exactly what to expect.

(Bonus: Stick to an odd number if possible–studies show they tend to perform better.)

A killer headline can even go a long way toward making your content go viral. So, don’t push it to the bottom of your content priority list.

You only have 37 seconds to grab your readers attention. @elisedopson shares how you can demand it in just five. Click To Tweet

5. Get to the point… quickly

Businesses don’t have time to waste; wasted time is wasted money.

Your customers don’t have time to waste, either. They’re not going to wade through fluff to get to the point. We’re busy people.

The statistics prove it: Most readers spend 37 seconds reading an article, on average. You’ve got a tiny window to intrigue them, demonstrate that you understand your niche and your audience, and explain what solution you’re offering.

Feeling the pressure?

Readers also need to immediately identify the value in your copy.

What insights, data, or advice are you offering that they can implement in their own business? Can you give them a unique strategy that sets you apart from the competition, and puts your brand at the forefront of their mind?

A fantastic way to do this is to tell stories in your content. It’s a B2B copywriting technique that allows you to highlight the benefits your customers reap from your product, boosting the chances of conversions from it.

Fancy an example? Check out how Backlinko craft the introductions to their blog post for time-short readers:

b2b copywriting tips - introduction to blog post

No fluff, and certainly no promising the world.

Your content should be the same. Make the most of your readers’ time by cutting through the chaff to provide real, verifiable, and useful information–your reputation will benefit.

Remember: You don’t have long to prove yourself!

6. Write like a human, not a robot

Somewhere along the line, B2B copywriting got a reputation for being boring. Words like “generate”, “leverage” and “low-hanging fruit” are expected at any given second, but we’re smashing that reputation.

Have fun with your content.

The people reading your content are, in fact, real people with sense of humor; not robots.

Fellow freelance copywriter Megan Rose agrees. She says:

“You need to use common jargon for the industry, so you’re speaking their everyday language, but you’ll want to avoid overdoing the technical terms that are less familiar and make it harder to follow.”

Take a look at this snippet I took from Sales and Orders’ Google Express resource page:

how to make b2b copywriting more fun

I’ll bet that sentences makes you chuckle, and breaks down the idea that Sales and Orders is a fun brand–not one that’s professional 24/7. (Because let’s face it, nobody is.)

At the risk of making English majors everywhere gasp in terror, B2B copywriting is also no place for some of the more stringent rules of writing. Granted, you should never litter your copy with “lols” or “u” in place of “you,” but you can overlook some common rules of grammar, such as:

  • Starting sentences with “and”, “but” or “yet”
  • Writing one-sentence paragraphs
  • Using slang (only if your customers use it, too)
  • Writing in the first person
  • Crafting complete sentences

The bottom line is:

You may be leading (or part of) a multi-million dollar business, but guess what? You’re still human. Your customers are too.

There’s a reason why even digital assistants like Alexa and Siri have some semblance of personality. And, injecting personality into your writing or brand voice helps readers relate to you on a personal level.

That’ll do great things for your conversion rates.

“You may be leading (or part of) a multi-million dollar business, but guess what? You’re still human. Your customers are too.” Click To Tweet

7. Don’t be afraid of using humor

You don’t need to be a professional stand-up to add some humor to your copy. In fact, peppering a few puns and jokes throughout your content can really spice it up and engage your readers.

Remember what we said about our B2B audience being people, too?

A report by Sprout Social discovered that 75% of consumers appreciate brands who use humor–so if you’re not adding a few LOLs (copywriting rule broken) into your content, you could be missing out.

The best part? Your name doesn’t need to be Jim Carrey to inject humor into your copy, either.

Much of your humor can be drawn from your experience and industry insight. Your knowledge and expertise can be a font of humor through which to relate to your audience and spruce up your copy.

Just take Volvo, for example.

(This doesn’t need an explanation; the video tells all.)

Although I fear that you’ll think I’m overreacting, I balled at this video until my jaw ached.

It shows me that Volvo have a sense of humor and they’re a relatable brand–while giving my stomach muscles an exercise, in the meantime.

8. Keep readers interested by writing with an active voice

Blog posts will be better if they are written in an active voice.

Writing in an active voice makes your blog posts better.

Notice the difference in those two sentences?

This goes hand-in-hand with my advice to write like a human, but it’s a B2B copywriting tip that stands on its own, too.

The passive voice (or talking in the past tense) is boring. Worse, it’s generally more clunky and overly professional. It has its time to shine in sterile fact-based reporting, but it’s not the best way to represent your B2B brand.

Stick to using the active voice instead.

Not only does the latter cut down on your word count, but it keeps readers interested in what you have to say. You’re not lulling them to sleep as if they’re reading a governmental memo or academic research paper.

…The college days are over.

The college days are over... Stick to using the active voice in your content, as @elisedopson explains: Click To Tweet

9. Use case studies and hard data

You can spend all day preaching about the features and benefits of using your product or service, but without supporting facts, all your effort will be wasted.

Why? The answer is simple:

Before a customer parts with their hard-earned cash, they want cold, hard evidence that your solution works.

That’s especially true for B2B buyers, who have complex purchasing processes before they hit the “buy” button on your website. They’re unlikely to checkout and make off-the-cuff decisions, and need to make it’s 100% essential before they pitch the case to their finance managers.

However, you can make that argument easier for them by conducting original research.

Original research is a powerful way to generate data-driven content—content that’s yours and yours alone, and answers your readers’ burning questions, like this data compiled by Buzzsumo:

using original research for b2b copywriting

One survey found that 18% of survey respondents cited original research as the most effective form of content marketing.

Gareth Hancock, Copywriter at That Content Shed, agrees:

“Back up every report you cite and stat you use by linking to sources. It’s adds legitimacy and credibility. Plus, it strengthens your argument.”

That’s because original research builds your authority, establishes credibility, and reveals a challenge or opportunity your audience hasn’t yet thought of. You’re aiding a customer through the sales funnel by answering their known and unknown questions and presenting a tried-and-true solution.

10. Write only as much as you need to

Long-form content outperforms shorter content by over 40%, and blog posts ranking on the first pages of Google are over 2,450 words in length:

seo content length

…But that doesn’t mean you need to stuff unnecessary words into all the copy you write.

SEO best practices are always changing, but high-quality content will always reign supreme. That’s why my ninth B2B copywriting tip is to write only as much as you need to–avoiding fluff at all times.

Let’s put this into practise.

Have you ever looked up a recipe only to click on an article and face an overbearing wall of text in which the author rambles on about a personal story, when all you want to do is bake some cookies?

It’s frustrating.

You don’t want to do the same, and bombard your audience with 2,000+ words of content if their question can be answered with 500. Stick to the subject and stay on topic.

Leave the long-form content to take its place for ultimate guides, where readers know (and expect) to be faced with walls of content.

Otherwise, take one point, or answer one overarching question–and then finish.

Content tip: Don't bombard your audience with 2,000+ words of content if their question can be answered with 500. Yes, long-form is good for SEO, but it doesn't always hit the mark for user experience. Click To Tweet

11. Include a powerful call to action

Your content may be chock-full of data, research, and information but, ultimately, you want readers to do something at the end of your post. That could be anything from:

  • Subscribing to a newsletter
  • Downloading a lead magnet
  • Contacting a sales rep
  • Entering a giveaway
  • Leaving a comment

But without a powerful call to action, readers aren’t encouraged to take the next step through your sales funnel.

90% of website visitors will read your CTA, so you’ll need to make it a good’un.

Much of the advice I’ve given you already applies to writing a powerful CTA. For example: An effective CTA should include power words and highlight the benefits of following through with the action.

Subscribe to my newsletter” is boring and falls short of inspiring you to click-through, right?

Instead, use psychology tactics in your copywriting and craft a more effective CTA, such as “Show me how to get more leads”. It tells readers, “Hey, click here and take the next step for more of this…”, and passes them further into the sales funnel.

Here’s a fantastic example from Shopify, encouraging readers of their blog post to sign-up for a free trial using the words “free” and “no credit card required”–solving two pain points of their target customer:

b2b call to action - shopify example

Like with headlines, writing a powerful CTA will take some time and effort (you might need to split-test the heck out of them), but the results speak for themselves.

Take your B2B copywriting to the next level

The content you’re creating is a crucial aspect of building your brand’s authority and generating leads–you already know that. But by implementing these B2B copywriting tips, you’re setting your sights on a better ROI for your efforts, and making your content the best it can be.

Remember to write for humans, inject personality into your content, and ditch the rules you were taught in English class.

It can take time to see results, but trust me when I say it’ll be worth it.

18 Oct 06:13

The Wizard of Q

In 2006, when the internet was younger and seemed to hold untapped artistic possibilities, I was asked to write a serial novel for Slate. The subject of the “book” was up to me, so I chose themes that seemed appropriate to the new medium: high-tech surveillance, cultural fragmentation, selfhood eroded by scrutiny. I imagined people reading my dark tale surreptitiously at their office computers and feeling almost as hunted as the characters, who were a mix of anarchists and federal agents, omniscient spies and hapless nobodies. I titled the novel The Unbinding and filled it with experimental devices—specifically, scores of hyperlinks—meant to hasten a Great Leap Forward for fiction. One of the hyperlinks took you to a video of a metal band from Scandinavia playing a sped-up, scary-sounding cover of Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man.” How I thought it might help the story I no longer recall. I may have stuck it in just because I could.

The Unbinding was, needless to say, a flop. Few people ever found it on the web, and fewer still bought the printed version that followed (in which the hyperlinks appeared in bold but were functionally moot). Not surprising: it was borderline incoherent. When I started the book, I had a notion that I would use current events to shape the plot. It was a clever idea but not a good one. Fashioning a tale without an ending, a tale that swerved as the headlines changed yet retained its inner logic, was a stunt I simply couldn’t manage. I wrote it in installments, week by week, laying down a railroad track to nowhere. I should have called the project “The Unhinging,” since writing it nearly sent me around the bend.

To console myself for my failure I concluded that the internet and the novel were natural enemies. “Choose your own adventure” stories were not the future of literature. The author should be a dictator, a tyrant who treated the reader as his willing slave, not as a cocreator. And high-tech flourishes should be avoided. Novels weren’t meant to link to Neil Diamond songs or, say, refer to real plane crashes on the day they happen. Novels were closed structures, their boundaries fixed, not data-driven, dynamic feedback loops. Until quite recently, these were my beliefs, and no new works emerged to challenge my thinking.

Then, late last year, while knocking around on the internet one night, I came across a long series of posts originally published on 4chan, an anonymous message board. They described a sinister global power struggle only dimly visible to ordinary citizens. On one side of the fight, the posts explained, was a depraved elite, bound by unholy oaths and rituals, secretly sowing chaos and strife to create a pretext for their rule. On the other side was the public, we the people, brave and decent but easily deceived, not least because the news was largely scripted by the power brokers and their collaborators in the press. And yet there was hope, I read, because the shadow directorate had blundered. Aligned during the election with Hillary Clinton and unable to believe that she could lose, least of all to an outsider, it had underestimated Donald Trump—as well as the patriotism of the US military, which had recruited him for a last-ditch battle against the psychopathic deep-state spooks. The writer of the 4chan posts, who signed these missives “Q,” invited readers to join this battle. He—she? it?—promised to pass on orders from a commander and intelligence gathered by a network of spies.

I was hooked.

Known to its fan base as ­QAnon, the tale first appeared last year, around Halloween. Q’s literary brilliance wasn’t obvious at first. His obsessions were unoriginal, his style conventional, even dull. He suggested that Washington was being purged of globalist evildoers, starting with Clinton, who was awaiting arrest, supposedly, but allowed to roam free for reasons that weren’t clear. Soon a whole roster of villains had emerged, from John ­McCain to John Podesta to former president Obama, all of whom were set to be destroyed by something called the Storm, an allusion to a remark by President Trump last fall about “the calm before the storm.” Clinton’s friend and supporter Lynn Forrester de Roth­schild, a member by marriage of the banking family abhorred by anti-Semites everywhere, came in for special abuse from Q and Co.—which may have contributed to her decision to delete her Twitter app. Along with George Soros, numerous other bigwigs, the FBI, the CIA, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (by whom the readers of Q feel persecuted), these figures composed a group called the Cabal. The goal of the Cabal was dominion over all the earth. Its initiates tended to be pedophiles (or pedophilia apologists), the better to keep them blackmailed and in line, and its esoteric symbols were everywhere; the mainstream media served as its propaganda arm. Oh, and don’t forget the pope.

As I read further, the tradition in which Q was working became clearer. Q’s plot of plots is a retread, for the most part, of Cold War–era John Birch Society notions found in books such as None Dare Call It Conspiracy. These Bircher ideas were borrowings, in turn, from the works of a Georgetown University history professor by the name of Carroll Quigley. Said to be an important influence on Bill Clinton, Quigley was a legitimate scholar of twentieth-century Anglo-American politics. His 1966 book Tragedy and Hope, which concerned the power held by certain elites over social and military planning in the West, is not itself a paranoid creation, but parts of it have been twisted and reconfigured to support wild theories of all kinds. Does Q stand for Quigley? It’s possible, though there are other possibilities (such as the Department of Energy’s “Q” security clearance). The literature of right-wing political fear has a canon and a pantheon, and Q, whoever he is, seems deeply versed in it.

While introducing his cast of fiends, Q also assembled a basic story line. Justice was finally coming for the Cabal, whose evil deeds were “mind blowing,” Q wrote, and could never be “fully exposed” lest they touch off riots and revolts. But just in case this promised “Great Awakening” caused panic in the streets, the National Guard and the Marine Corps were ready to step in. So were panels of military judges, in whose courts the treasonous cabalists would be tried and convicted, then sent to Guantánamo. In the manner of doomsayers since time began, Q hinted that Judgment Day was imminent and seemed unabashed when it kept on not arriving. Q knew full well that making one’s followers wait for a definitive, cathartic outcome is a cult leader’s best trick—for the same reason that it’s a novelist’s best trick. Suspense is an irritation that’s also a pleasure, so there’s a sensual payoff from these delays. And the more time a devotee invests in pursuing closure and satisfaction, the deeper her need to trust the person in charge. It’s why Trump may be in no hurry to build his wall, or to finish it if he starts. It’s why he announced a military parade that won’t take place until next fall.

As the posts piled up and Q’s plot thickened, his writing style changed. It went from discursive to interrogative, from concise and direct to gnomic and suggestive. This was the breakthrough, the hook, the innovation, and what convinced me Q was a master, not just a prankster or a kook. He’d discovered a principle of online storytelling that had eluded me all those years ago but now seemed obvious: The audience for internet narratives doesn’t want to read, it wants to write. It doesn’t want answers provided, it wants to search for them. It doesn’t want to sit and be amused, it wants to be sent on a mission. It wants to do.

From November on, as his following on 4chan, Reddit, Twitter, and other platforms grew, Q turned his readers into spies and soldiers by issuing coded orders and predictions that required great effort to interpret and tended to remain ambiguous even after lengthy contemplation. The messages often consisted of stacked one-liners that looked like imagist poems. They radiated mystery and portent. Take this example from March 3:

Who controls the narrative?

WHO wrote the singular censorship algorithm?

WHO deployed the algorithm?

WHO instructed them to deploy the algorithm?

SAME embed across multiple platforms.

Why?

Why is the timing relevant?

Where is @Snowden?

Why did ES leave G?

To initiates, this set of clues (Q’s audience calls these “crumbs” and strives to “bake” them into “bread,” meaning plain En­glish) alludes to an elaborate range of incidents related to Trump’s war on the Cabal and to the Cabal’s war—doomed to fail—on us, the innocents. “ES,” for instance, is Eric Schmidt, the former executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, whose resignation had been linked in previous posts to covert dealings with North Korea, in Q mythology a CIA puppet state and a center of trafficking in drugs and sex slaves. The insidious censorship algorithm is the work of Edward Snowden, who isn’t a whistle-blower but a double or triple agent of murky allegiances who works with Twitter’s Dorsey in some obscure capacity to keep the citizenry blind and muzzled.

Preposterous, huh? Well, the Q people don’t think so. Indeed, they feel we’ll soon come over to their side, once we understand the true relationship between Q’s crumbs and the subsequent news events that the crumbs predicted. The North Korean peace talks, for example, which some students of Q saw coming last winter. Or the scandalous revelations about Facebook’s illicit peddling of users’ data. “Do you believe in coincidences?” asks Q repeatedly, and the answer he obviously wants is no. That’s why his minions labor to make connections between such disparate phenomena as the flight paths of jumbo jets and the alleged escape plans of A-list fugitives. “Expand your thinking,” Q exhorts his legions, particularly when they falter in their cryptography or lag in their online detective work. He’s the author as case officer, tasking slow-witted readers with enigmas whose solutions he already knows but insists that they discover on their own.

And his posts aren’t all nonsense. Some are quite uncanny in the way they anticipate the headlines. On March 9, he told his troops to watch for “liquidity events” in the stock charts of social media companies. Days later, Facebook fell into disgrace and suffered a sizable market sell-off. Then there are the intriguing correlations between the posts and the president’s Twitter outbursts, which Q would have us think are synchronized with split-second precision. The proofs he offers involve comparing time stamps, and mathematically minded Qbots swear by them. That they’re willing to fuss with such puzzles is a testament to the compulsive power of Q’s methods. By leaving more blanks in his stories than he fills in, he activates the portion of the mind that sees faces in clouds and hears melodies in white noise.

Could Q have actual foreknowledge? Was he somehow the oracle he purported to be? Having followed the posts for months now, I wish I could summarily dismiss them, but so outrageous is our current reality, so reliably unpredictable and odd, that it does not seem impossible to me that there might exist an internet seer stationed in the White House whose job is to brief lowly geeks on global intrigues. My friend Matthew, who saw combat in Afghanistan and has reported on intelligence issues, believes that Q may be the result of psyops conceived to maintain morale among Trump’s base. The trick, he says, is to fashion a mental filter that will make Trump’s losses look like victories, his missteps like chess moves, his caprices like plans. After all, if most news is fake, as Trump insists, the real news must be hidden out of sight. Q claims to offer glimpses of it, along with warnings about what would happen if we beheld it all at once. To wake in an instant to the Luciferian horrors of the Cabal’s perverted machinations would be like rushing forth from Plato’s cave—blinding, debilitating, maybe deadly. Instead, Q leads us gently toward the light, a patient guide, like Virgil was to Dante.

One night this spring, in northwest Arkansas, Matthew and I stayed up past midnight interpreting several recent posts from Q that trembled on the verge of clarity, seeming to offer highly privileged insights into a crisis rumored to be forthcoming. I sat on the couch. He paced. We thought out loud, competing to crack the message and setting different values for different variables. We argued our cases as the night slid by; we raved away in an ecstasy of guesswork. Q was being good to us. Q was delivering everything we craved.

Q is part fabulist, part fortune-teller, holding up a computer-screen-shaped mirror to our golden age of fraudulence. He composes in inklings, hunches, and wild guesses, aware that our hunger for order grows more acute the longer it goes unsatisfied. Q calls the vista he’s gradually revealing the map, and he knows how badly his people crave it, which is why he doesn’t disclose in one fell swoop Trump’s strategy for national salvation. A hope fulfilled is also a hope exhausted. Tension and foreboding, on the other hand, are thrills that keep on thrilling, for fear can never be fully put to rest. Even if his followers’ dreams come true and the Clintons, Podestas, Schmidts, and Dorseys are hustled off in chains to distant gulags, and even if Kim Jong-un is released from the CIA contract that requires him to play a nuclear madman to keep the world off balance so America’s spymasters can rule it, one can never be sure the Cabal won’t rise again. And it will, of course, since that’s what archfiends do: rise from the dead.

The novel is the same way. It dies and dies so it can live and live. The Q tale may be loathsome and deeply wicked, a magnet for bigots and ignoramuses whose ugly dreams it caters to and ratifies, but as a feat of New Age storytelling I find it curiously encouraging. The imagination lives. A talented bard can still grab and keep an audience. Now for a better story, with higher themes. Now for the bracing epic of recovery that the dark wizards have shown us how to write. 

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11 Oct 06:30

Self-doxxing

by mathowie

Thought experiment: is it possible to write a paragraph about your life so filled with minor but important facts that someone could figure out how to answer every challenge question possible and retrieve your password from almost any system on earth? Screenshot 2018-10-10 16.18.55.png

(to be clear, nothing above is true)

03 Oct 07:55

When Security Researchers Pose as Cybercrooks, Who Can Tell the Difference?

by BrianKrebs

A ridiculous number of companies are exposing some or all of their proprietary and customer data by putting it in the cloud without any kind of authentication needed to read, alter or destroy it. When cybercriminals are the first to discover these missteps, usually the outcome is a demand for money in return for the stolen data. But when these screw-ups are unearthed by security professionals seeking to make a name for themselves, the resulting publicity often can leave the breached organization wishing they’d instead been quietly extorted by anonymous crooks.

Last week, I was on a train from New York to Washington, D.C. when I received a phone call from Vinny Troia, a security researcher who runs a startup in Missouri called NightLion Security. Troia had discovered that All American Entertainment, a speaker bureau which represents a number of celebrities who also can be hired to do public speaking, had exposed thousands of speaking contracts via an unsecured Amazon cloud instance.

The contracts laid out how much each speaker makes per event, details about their travel arrangements, and any requirements or obligations stated in advance by both parties to the contract. No secret access or password was needed to view the documents.

It was a juicy find to be sure: I can now tell you how much Oprah makes per event (it’s a lot). Ditto for Gwyneth Paltrow, Olivia Newton John, Michael J. Fox and a host of others. But I’m not going to do that.

Firstly, it’s nobody’s business what they make. More to the point, All American also is my speaker bureau, and included in the cache of documents the company exposed in the cloud were some of my speaking contracts. In fact, when Troia called about his find, I was on my way home from one such engagement.

I quickly informed my contact at All American and asked them to let me know the moment they confirmed the data was removed from the Internet. While awaiting that confirmation, my pent-up frustration seeped into a tweet that seemed to touch a raw nerve among others in the security industry.

The same day I alerted them, All American took down its bucket of unsecured speaker contract data, and apologized profusely for the oversight (although I have yet to hear a good explanation as to why this data needed to be stored in the cloud to begin with).

This was hardly the first time Troia had alerted me about a huge cache of important or sensitive data that companies have left exposed online. On Monday, TechCrunch broke the story about a “breach” at Apollo, a sales engagement startup boasting a database of more than 200 million contact records. Calling it a breach seems a bit of a stretch; it probably would be more accurate to describe the incident as a data leak.

Just like my speaker bureau, Apollo had simply put all this data up on an Amazon server that anyone on the Internet could access without providing a password. And Troia was again the one who figured out that the data had been leaked by Apollo — the result of an intensive, months-long process that took some extremely interesting twists and turns.

That journey — which I will endeavor to describe here — offered some uncomfortable insights into how organizations frequently learn about data leaks these days, and indeed whether they derive any lasting security lessons from the experience at all. It also gave me a new appreciation for how difficult it can be for organizations that screw up this way to tell the difference between a security researcher and a bad guy.

THE DARK OVERLORD

I began hearing from Troia almost daily beginning in mid-2017. At the time, he was on something of a personal mission to discover the real-life identity behind The Dark Overlord (TDO), the pseudonym used by an individual or group of criminals who have been extorting dozens of companies — particularly healthcare providers — after hacking into their systems and stealing sensitive data.

The Dark Overlord’s method was roughly the same in each attack. Gain access to sensitive data (often by purchasing access through crimeware-as-a-service offerings), and send a long, rambling ransom note to the victim organization demanding tens of thousands of dollars in Bitcoin for the safe return of said data.

Victims were typically told that if they refused to pay, the stolen data would be sold to cybercriminals lurking on Dark Web forums. Worse yet, TDO also promised to make sure the news media knew that victim organizations were more interested in keeping the breach private than in securing the privacy of their customers or patients.

In fact, the apparent ringleader of TDO reached out to KrebsOnSecurity in May 2016 with a remarkable offer. Using the nickname “Arnie,” the public voice of TDO said he was offering exclusive access to news about their latest extortion targets.

Snippets from a long email conversation in May 2016 with a hacker who introduced himself as Adam but would later share his nickname as “Arnie” and disclose that he was a member of The Dark Overlord. In this conversation, he is offering to sell access to scoops about data breaches that he caused.

Arnie claimed he was an administrator or key member on several top Dark Web forums, and provided a handful of convincing clues to back up his claim. He told me he had real-time access to dozens of healthcare organizations they’d hacked into, and that each one which refused to give in to TDO’s extortion demands could turn into a juicy scoop for KrebsOnSecurity.

Arnie said he was coming to me first with the offer, but that he was planning to approach other journalists and news outlets if I declined. I balked after discovering that Arnie wasn’t offering this access for free: He wanted 10 bitcoin in exchange for exclusivity (at the time, his asking price was roughly equivalent to USD $5,000).

Perhaps other news outlets are accustomed to paying for scoops, but that is not something I would ever consider. And in any case the whole thing was starting to smell like a shakedown or scam. I declined the offer. It’s possible other news outlets or journalists did not; I will not speculate on this matter further, other than to say readers can draw their own conclusions based on the timeline and the public record.

WHO IS SOUNDCARD?

Fast-forward to September 2017, and Troia was contacting me almost daily to share tidbits of research into email addresses, phone numbers and other bits of data apparently tied to TDO’s communications with victims and their various identities on Dark Web forums.

His research was exhaustive and occasionally impressive, and for a while I caught the TDO bug and became engaged in a concurrent effort to learn the identities of the TDO members. For better or worse, the results of that research will have to wait for another story and another time.

At one point, Troia told me he’d gained acceptance on the Dark Web forum Kickass, using the hacker nickname “Soundcard“. He said he believed a presence on all of the forums TDO was active on was necessary for figuring out once and for all who was behind this brazen and very busy extortion group.

Here is a screen shot Troia shared with me of Soundcard’s posting there, which concerned a July 2018 forum discussion thread about a data leak of 340 million records from Florida-based marketing firm Exactis. As detailed by Wired.com in June 2018, Troia had discovered this huge cache of data unprotected and sitting wide open on a cloud server, and ultimately traced it back to Exactis.

Vinny Troia, a.k.a. “Soundcard” on the Dark Web forum Kickass.

After several weeks of comparing notes about TDO with Troia, I learned that he was telling random people that we were “working together,” and that he was throwing my name around to various security industry sources and friends as a way of gaining access to new sources of data.

I respectfully told Troia that this was not okay — that I never told people about our private conversations (or indeed that we spoke at all) — and I asked him to stop doing that. He apologized, said he didn’t understand he’d overstepped certain boundaries, and that it would never happen again.

But it would. Multiple times. Here’s one time that really stood out for me. Earlier this summer, Troia sent me a link to a database of truly staggering size — nearly 10 terabytes of data — that someone had left open to anyone via a cloud instance. Again, no authentication or password was needed to access the information.

At first glance, it appeared to be LinkedIn profile data. Working off that assumption, I began a hard target search of the database for specific LinkedIn profiles of important people. I first used the Web to locate the public LinkedIn profile pages for nearly all of the CEOs of the world’s top 20 largest companies, and then searched those profile names in the database that Troia had discovered.

Suddenly, I had the cell phone numbers, addresses, email addresses and other contact data for some of the most powerful people in the world. Immediately, I reached out to contacts at LinkedIn and Microsoft (which bought LinkedIn in 2016) and arranged a call to discuss the findings.

LinkedIn’s security team told me the data I was looking at was in fact an amalgamation of information scraped from LinkedIn and dozens of public sources, and being sold by the same firm that was doing the scraping and profile collating. LinkedIn declined to name that company, and it has not yet responded to follow-up questions about whether the company it was referring to was Apollo.

Sure enough, a closer inspection of the database revealed the presence of other public data sources, including startup web site AngelList, Facebook, Salesforce, Twitter, and Yelp, among others.

Several other trusted sources I approached with samples of data spliced from the nearly 10 TB trove of data Troia found in the cloud said they believed LinkedIn’s explanation, and that the data appeared to have been scraped off the public Internet from a variety of sources and combined into a single database.

I told Troia it didn’t look like the data came exclusively from LinkedIn, or at least wasn’t stolen from them, and that all indications suggested it was a collection of data scraped from public profiles. He seemed unconvinced.

Several days after my second call with LinkedIn’s security team — around Aug. 15 — I was made aware of a sales posting on the Kickass crime forum by someone selling what they claimed was “all of the LinkedIN user-base.” The ad, a blurry, partial screenshot of which can be seen below, was posted by the Kickass user Soundcard. The text of the sales thread was as follows:

Soundcard offering to sell what he claimed was all of LinkedIn’s user data, on the Dark Web forum Kickass.

“KA users –

I present you with exclusive opportunity to purchase all (yes ALL) of the LinkedIN user-base for the low low price of 2 BTC.

I found a database server with all LinkedIN users. All of user’s personal information is included in this database (including private email and phone number NOT listed on public profile). No passwords, sorry.

Size: 2.1TB.

user count: 212 million

Why so large for 212 million users? See the sample data per record. There is lot of marketing and CRM data as well. I sell original data only. no editz.

Here is index of server. The LinkedIN users spread across people and contacts indexes. Sale includes both of those indexes.

Questions, comments, purchase? DM me, or message me – soundcard@exploit[.]im

The “sample data” included in the sales thread was from my records in this huge database, although Soundcard said he had sanitized certain data elements from this snippet. He explained his reasoning for that in a short Q&A from his sales thread:

Question 1: Why you sanitize Brian Krebs’ information in sample?

Answer 1: Because nothing in life free. This only to show i have data.

I soon confronted Troia not only for offering to sell leaked data on the Dark Web, but also for once again throwing my name around in his various activities — despite past assurances that he would not. Also, his actions had boxed me into a corner: Any plans I had to credit him in a story for eventually helping to determine the source of the leaked data (which we now know to be Apollo) became more complicated without also explaining his Dark Web alter ego as Soundcard, and I am not in the habit of omitting such important details from stories.

Troia assured me that he never had any intention of selling the data, and that the whole thing had been a ruse to help smoke out some of the suspected TDO members.

For its part, LinkedIn’s security team was not amused, and published a short post to its media page denying that the company had suffered a security breach.

“We want our members to know that a recent claim of a LinkedIn data breach is not accurate,” the company wrote. “Our investigation into this claim found that a third-party sales intelligence company that is not associated with LinkedIn was compromised and exposed a large set of data aggregated from a number of social networks, websites, and the company’s own customers. It also included a limited set of publicly available data about LinkedIn members, such as profile URL, industry and number of connections. This was not a breach of LinkedIn.”

It is quite a fine line to walk when self-styled security researchers mimic cyber criminals in the name of making things more secure. On the one hand, reaching out to companies that are inadvertently exposing sensitive data and getting them to secure it or pull it offline altogether is a worthwhile and often thankless effort, and clearly many organizations still need a lot of help in this regard.

On the other hand, most organizations that fit this description simply lack the security maturity to tell the difference between someone trying to make the Internet a safer place and someone trying to sell them a product or service.

As a result, victim organizations tend to react with deep suspicion or even hostility to legitimate researchers and security journalists who alert them about a data breach or leak. And stunts like the ones described above tend to have the effect of deepening that suspicion, and sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt about the security industry as a whole.

29 Sep 09:18

Facebook Security Bug Affects 90M Users

by BrianKrebs

Facebook said today some 90 million of its users may get forcibly logged out of their accounts after the company fixed a rather glaring security vulnerability in its Web site that may have let attackers hijack user profiles.

In a short blog post published this afternoon, Facebook said hackers have been exploiting a vulnerability in Facebook’s site code that impacted a feature called “View As,” which lets users see how their profile appears to other people.

“This allowed them to steal Facebook access tokens which they could then use to take over people’s accounts,” Facebook wrote. “Access tokens are the equivalent of digital keys that keep people logged in to Facebook so they don’t need to re-enter their password every time they use the app.”

Facebook said it was removing the insecure “View As” feature, and resetting the access tokens of 50 million accounts that the company said it knows were affected, as well as the tokens for another 40 million users that may have been impacted over the past year.

The company said it was just beginning its investigation, and that it doesn’t yet know some basic facts about the incident, such as whether these accounts were misused, if any private information was accessed, or who might be responsible for these attacks.

Although Facebook didn’t mention this in their post, one other major unanswered question about this incident is whether the access tokens could have let attackers interactively log in to third-party sites as the user. Tens of thousands of Web sites let users log in using nothing more than their Facebook profile credentials. If users have previously logged in at third-party sites using their Facebook profile, there’s a good chance the attackers could have had access to those third-party sites as well.

I have asked for clarification from Facebook on this point and will update this post when and if I receive a response. However, I would have expected Facebook to mention this as a mitigating factor if authorized logins at third-party sites were not impacted.

Update: 4:46 p.m. ET: A Facebook spokesperson confirmed that while it was technically possible that an attacker could have abused this bug to target third-party apps and sites that use Facebook logins, the company doesn’t have any evidence so far that this has happened.

“We have invalidated data access for third-party apps for the affected individuals,” the spokesperson said, referring to the 90 million accounts that were forcibly logged out today and presented with a notification about the incident at the top of their feed.

Original story:
Facebook says there is no need for users to reset their passwords as a result of this breach, although that is certainly an option.

More importantly, it’s a good idea for all Facebook users to review their login activity. This page should let you view which devices are logged in to your account and approximately where in the world those devices are at the moment. That page also has an option to force a simultaneous logout of all devices connected to your account.

26 Sep 13:08

Viral Twitter threads are the latest scam designed to sell you garbage

by Rebecca Jennings
A man opens Twitter on his iPhone.

Beware of “relatable” Twitter threads.

Normally the most annoying thing you’ll see in the replies to a viral tweet are the people firing off creepy and/or rude comments to the writer. But if you scroll down far enough, one increasingly common phenomenon you’ll find is a link to a sketchy website trying to sell you garbage.

Apparent scammers have recently been using seemingly empowering, relatable tweets to go viral, then threading them into a crafted story whose conclusion is a link to sign up for, say, a three-month weight-loss teatox program.

On September 15, a now-defunct account with the username @ashleyeats tweeted the following: “you ever see a girl in denial about being in a toxic relationship and want to grab her by her face and tell her how much better her life will be once she comes to her senses :/ that shit is the absolute worst to just stand by and watch after you’ve been through it all yourself...”

The thread, which managed to get an astronomical 83,000 retweets, continues for another 30 posts, weaving a story about “Ashley’s” struggle with her ex-boyfriend, who’d control her actions and force her to eat in front of him, thereby causing her to gain weight. It includes dozens of photos and videos documenting the weight fluctuations of a woman who is presumably Ashley, who is also presumed to be in an abusive relationship.

But as the story continues, the focus is more and more on Ashley’s weight loss progress, which she claimed was due to a mysterious program she’d seen floating around social media. She then includes videos of a woman reviewing a weight loss program, though the women in the photos looks suspiciously different from the previous photos.

 Twitter
A cached version of the since-deleted viral thread.

That’s because neither of the women is Ashley at all — most of the photos had been stolen from a cam girl on a fetish site, while the videos of the woman reviewing the shakes were ripped from a YouTuber named Vanessa Blanco.

Despite the initial positive response (Twitter tends to reward a weight-loss narrative), users were pretty quick to realize once they got to the final few tweets and clicked the links that it had all been a scam to sell Therma Trim, a shady diet supplement.

It’d be easy to dismiss the @ashleyeats thread as just another part of the world we live in today, one where celebrities use their influence to shill dubious products all the time, and conclude that we simply have to be more aware about how viral marketing practices target us. But just because both of those things are true doesn’t mean this type of advertising doesn’t have serious consequences. And it isn’t the first time this has happened.

The untold consequences of viral scam threads

The account @ashleyeats may have been suspended, but the story isn’t over for the cam girl from whom she stole the photos, which provided the bulk of the emotional potency in the thread. The model, who specializes in feederism, a fetish involving eating and weight gain, spoke to Motherboard under the condition of anonymity. She said that not only was she outed as a sex worker to her friends and family, but that her weight loss was in actuality a result of anorexia and cocaine abuse.

“The whole situation has really freaked with my sense of privacy and paranoia, because this fetish is VERY private to me and taboo to the rest of the world really. I’ve had multiple of my friends send me the thread and I had to tell them about what I’ve been doing and all in all, it’s really embarrassing,” she said.

Plus, the entire story rests on a likely fake account of emotional abuse as a way to sell a product that is, in all likelihood, a dangerous laxative. As others on Twitter have noted, the thread is also deeply fatphobic and preys on young women’s anxieties about weight. And yet, these reasons likely contributed to how far the thread was able to travel.

The @ashleyeats account was suspended and the thread has been deleted, but as Motherboard noted, numerous other accounts, such as @ashleysjourney, sprouted up in its place and tweeted the exact same thread, gaining thousands of retweets before they too were taken down.

A similar thread went viral last month, when a user named @chaobella tweeted “i love when dudes from high school hit me up like ‘i don’t know why we didn’t talk when we were younger’ umm because y’all made fun of me? a thread...”

This one uses a similar tone as that of @ashleyeats — it’s presumed to be written by a woman who, once upon a time, had experienced bullying or abuse, and seems like she’s interested in helping others. In both cases, the “twist” is that bullying or abuse no longer happens to her because she lost a dramatic amount of weight. And it too ended up using stolen photos, in a scam to sell Nutra-SX Garcinia Cambogia, another sketchy weight loss pill.

People have always attempted to capitalize on viral success

To be fair, social media posts that happen to go viral are almost always met with a reply from the original poster with a link to something they want to get more eyeballs on — their Instagram handle, YouTube page, or, as is so often parodied, their Soundcloud account. The difference is that in the cases of @ashleyeats and @chaobella, they’re threads that are specifically constructed to go viral, but are done under false pretenses using predatory tactics.

There can, however, be a little bit of a gray area here. Last year, a tweet from a woman named Dorthy Holmes went viral that depicted the baby shower of her best friend, Chelsie Collins. “Nobody showed up to my best friends baby shower. Just my boyfriend and me :(” it read, accompanied by four photos of empty chairs and tables and the expectant mother looking despondent.

The tweet evoked enough sympathy to garner more than 16,000 retweets before it was deleted, but in that time span, Dorthy had published Chelsie’s Walmart gift registry and a link to her PayPal. According to reports at the time, more than 350 gifts were purchased for Collins, which is also around the time people started getting suspicious. One Twitter user claimed to have called the restaurant where the shower took place and said that all 12 guests had indeed showed up, leading to numerous accounts claiming the whole thing was a scam.

In an interview with Select All, however, Holmes and Collins said that even though more people did eventually arrive, at the time it was posted it was all true. Holmes said that she originally wrote it “to fuck with my online mutuals” and that Collins received less than $100 anyway.

Then there was the #PlaneBae saga from this past July, in which a woman used her riveting yet deeply intrusive viral thread about a couple who seemed to be flirting on a plane to ask for a film deal and a job at BuzzFeed. Though she eventually apologized, it was difficult not to see the situation as someone attempting to secure fame and money by invading the privacy of two unsuspecting strangers. The photos might not have been stolen from a cam girl or a YouTuber, but the couple never asked for their likenesses and activities to be dissected on the Today show.

Accounts can easily mimic the tone of viral tweets to sell you stuff

Though the perpetrators of #PlaneBae and the sad baby shower didn’t seem to engineer their virality in an effort to sell stuff, those who do can easily mimic the tone and voice of viral tweets in a way that makes their marketing seem more organic.

@HornyFacts, a handle with more than 4 million followers that tweets stereotypically relatable content about sex and relationships such as, “date idea: just come over and sleep, that’s it,” recently retweeted an account posing as NBC News that claimed a mysterious new drug would soon be available to try. (The account, which has since been suspended, seemed to exist solely to shill the same pill.)

 @hoegivesnofucks/Instagram
A t-shirt sold by an affiliate of the popular meme account @hoegivesnofucks.

The practice isn’t limited to Twitter, either. Popular meme Instagram accounts pretty uniformly make their sponsored ads look like any other meme on their page, for everything from their own merch to sketchy lash gel to dubious vaginal steaming products. So it’s no surprise that now, people selling weight-loss programs are taking the practice one step further by adopting the tone of elaborate viral threads.

All this goes to show that pretty much every time something gets even remotely popular on a social media network, scammers will find a way to make money off of it — without any concern for the identity and privacy of others.

20 Sep 12:43

Products mocked as “lazy” or “useless” are often important tools for people with disabilities

by s.e. smith

From banana slicers to sock sliders to pre-peeled oranges.

On a June episode of his show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver went in on a product called the Sock Slider. While discussing the same topic on the Hannity Show, he took a moment to highlight the dwindling number of companies willing to associate themselves with his news program — ”My Pillow, Recticare cream, and of course, the Sock Slider.”

Audience members roared with laughter as Oliver rolled footage of a Sock Slider ad, featuring people moaning and groaning dramatically as they struggled to put on their socks before trying out the device and beaming at the ease of use. The camera cut back to Oliver chuckling to himself as he mocked the device and the people who use it.

You’ve probably seen examples of these kinds of “useless products for lazy people” before. Things like banana slicers, egg separators, jar openers, buttoners, tilting jugs for dispensing liquids, and much more are the subject of constant amusement on the internet: “Who uses these kinds of things?” “You don’t need an avocado slicer.” These products are typically positioned as “useless” in scathing roundups of products no one could possibly need, representing little more than wastes of plastic and resources.

Imagine being unable to slice a banana over your morning cereal because your hands are paralyzed or joint contractures make it hard to grip both the banana and the knife. If you’re a baker who loves making cakes, what would you do if you couldn’t separate an egg by casually cracking it on the edge of the bowl and using the shell to tease the yolk and white apart? The inability to perform these kinds of activities independently can have huge consequences for people with disabilities.

A variety of impairments can make these tasks challenging, including hand tremors or weakness, paralysis or paresis, limited range of motion, arthritis and other joint conditions, chronic pain, neurological disabilities or stroke, developmental disabilities, and amputations. These issues may be congenital or acquired or even temporary. Some people, for example, just need support while they recover from surgery or injuries. And so those products Oliver and the internet at large enjoy mocking? Not so useless after all.

“Useless” products can actually spell independence

”If I didn’t have that silly piece of plastic with ropes, I wouldn’t be able to put socks on,” says Emily Ladau, a disabled advocate, writer, and speaker with Larsen syndrome, a congenital skeletal disorder. (She’s talking about a similar device, not the exact as-seen-on-TV gadget.)

Ladau, who uses a wheelchair for mobility, cannot bend over to put on socks. Without a “sock putter-onner,” as she calls it, she would be forced to rely on the assistance of a personal care attendant (PCA) to put her socks on every morning. “Something that people think is a silly piece of plastic is one of the reasons I don’t need a PCA when I travel.”

Ladau, like other people with disabilities, is used to seeing late-night hosts, internet memes, and people on social media mocking the “silly pieces of plastic” that can be life-changing. For her, the sock slider and an extended shoe horn represent freedom; imagine being literally unable to put on socks unassisted before leaving the house on a cold winter day, and not being able to slip your socked feet into a pair of sturdy boots on your own.

Sometimes, living independently as a member of the disability community means having to rely on a little help, and in many cases, a gadget can be very useful. Help may also take a human face: Personal care assistants, aides, home health attendants, and other direct service professionals are vital, though there’s also a heavy social expectation that family members provide unpaid caregiving labor, a practice many people with disabilities oppose along with other exploitative labor practices.

If you can’t use your hands to open a jar of pasta sauce, does that mean you should live in an institution?

In many cases, wasting these services on tasks that people could perform with the assistance of a gadget is not very efficient. Nor do people with disabilities necessarily want to use such services this way.

Kim Sauder, a disability scholar and advocate, notes that people with disabilities may not want to be forced to wait for help with tasks like peeling oranges; there’s something very dehumanizing about the thought of just wanting a snack and being stymied by a rind you can’t remove on your own. Plus, says Ladau: “I get frustrated by the notion that I should always be okay with asking for help. I’d like to try to use my own solution.”

And attendant care is expensive, costing a median of $45,000 annually in 2015, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Few people pay this cost out of pocket: Instead, it’s typically part of the Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) benefits provided to the disability community and older adults under programs like Medicaid and Medicare.

For those who use these government programs to pay for part or all of their services, there’s no guarantee that officials will authorize enough work hours to provide all the assistance someone needs. The amount of benefits provided is dependent on a “needs assessment” in which an evaluator meets with a disabled person to determine the extent of services they require. Many people with disabilities complain that these assessments tend to understate the amount of care they need, taking a “budget-driven” approach.

Furthermore, being unable to perform tasks independently can force people into institutional settings if they lack the support systems needed to survive. Whether you call them useless inventions, lazy products, or pointless gadgets, says Greg Hartley, a faculty member at the University of Miami’s physical therapy department and president of the Academy of Geriatric Physical Therapy, a component of the American Physical Therapy Association, these tools can enable people to lead their lives on their own.

“[Instead of having] to go to someplace that requires a lot of assistance and ultimately a lot of money, these little things can make huge differences in people’s quality of life, enabling them to be independent and have a sense of self-worth,” Hartley says.

Unwittingly, critics of “useless products” are sitting at the core of a battle the disability community has been engaged in for decades: The right to live in their communities, and to receive the services that enable them to do that. If you can’t use your hands to open a jar of pasta sauce, does that mean you should live in an institution? Republicans attacking Medicaid funding have HCBS squarely in their sights, a policy change that could be devastating to the disability community.

But for those complaining about cost overruns, pushing people into institutions is also bad economics. In 2012, the National Council on Disability found that HCBS is less expensive than institutionalization, and you can see why: Many of these products cost less than $40, while institutionalization can cost more than $300,000 annually in some states, much less affordable than attendant services. (Although many people with disabilities argue attendants should be paid more.)

An adult sippy cup won’t make the difference between staying at home and going into an institution — and the government certainly won’t pay for it — but it can sit at the cusp of a slippery slope between being able to live independently and being forced into institutional care.

Some of the most useful products for people with disabilities weren’t developed with them in mind

Products like the banana slicer, pizza shears, or similar items, says Hartley, can be especially useful for people who can’t safely or comfortably use knives. That can include people with disabilities who have impairments that make it hard to grip and direct their movements, as well as older adults struggling with arthritis and declining hand strength. These products can also help with cooking in less-accessible spaces: A wheelchair user who is using a cutting board on their lap because they can’t reach the counter may not want to use a knife.

Still, not all of these “useless inventions” were developed with the disability community in mind. Monique Haas, of the Hutzler Manufacturing Company that makes the infamous banana slicer, explains: “We are trying to look at what would make life in the kitchen easy for anyone and everyone. We do have a lot of one-handed things, just because it is easier to use one hand.”

While the product became the subject of mocking commentary in the early 2010s, she says, it had already been in their product line for a long time. And in case you’re wondering, the company has a sense of humor about its cult status. “If you read the reviews on Amazon, you will be rolling with laughter. They are really creative, they are really funny.”

These universal design practices are something people with disabilities are aware of. Sauder sometimes likes to turn the conversation back on people who make fun of convenience devices. If an egg separator or a shower chair is “useless,” “I expect you to take things out of the oven without gloves,” she says.

Unfortunately, she notes, the shaming around such items tends to push people with disabilities to try to do without, something Ladau notices as well. “Sometimes I feel like I’m deterred from making some of these purchases,” she says, “because I think society has this mindset that it’s all just another gimmick.”

People with disabilities themselves often end up filling the gaps for those who haven’t or can’t access professional services. They swap tips and tricks for products that have worked for them, like using household tongs as convenient reachers. (Tongs are another item Ladau often includes in her luggage, much to the confusion of the TSA.)

This kind of innovative repurposing of tools for accessibility purposes is common in disability spaces. Sometimes no viable product exists at all, and at other times the commercial version comes with an “accessibility tax” that makes it far too expensive.

Take, for example, people with disabilities who started using iPads as communication tools instead of cumbersome and expensive purpose-built tools covered by Medicaid. The Allora Speech Generating Device, for example, starts at $6,000. An iPad Mini can cost less than one-tenth the price, with no lengthy delivery time and a much easier interface. Buying a robot vacuum cleaner can cost a few hundred dollars, which more than pays for itself when the owner doesn’t have to rely on an aide to do light housekeeping.

The internet makes it easier than ever for context to be stripped away

The internet can have a flattening effect on the way humans view each other. On social media, people jostle for the most memeable, shareable, viral content, and don’t consider the consequences. Sauder notes, for example, that a tweet making fun of peeled and packaged oranges has gained notoriety multiple times, even after people with disabilities have criticized the sentiment behind the original “joke.” Each time it pops up in Sauder’s timeline under a new name, it goes viral all over again.

It’s easy to strip content of both context and empathy, whether intentionally or otherwise. And with the speed of distribution and the internet’s love of screenshots, everything is forever. When content mocking the disability community — like memes about ambulatory wheelchair users getting up to grab something high at the store — spread like wildfire, commentary from the affected community is rarely attached. This has a dehumanizing tendency, creating a world that rewards judgmental, snappy commentary and eliminates nuance.

When viral content dips into commentary about people’s identities, it can take on sinister overtones that cut both ways — a tweet mocking a low-vision person reading a book on the train can hurt just as much as inspiration porn that uses people with disabilities as Very Special Object Lessons. (Think “what’s your excuse” posters featuring disabled athletes, or “heartwarming” viral stories about disabled children.)

For the disability community, that thing the internet mocks may be a lifeline. And pushing back on these attitudes, Sauder says, can be exhausting.

Imagine losing the use of your left arm in a stroke and then seeing people mock the buttoners, zipper pulls, and other tools you use to get dressed one-handed. It’s not just that people with disabilities have a use for items like these and are tired of hearing that they’re wasteful or silly: When the need for such products is called into question, it can exacerbate social divides that contribute to larger policy issues that keep people with disabilities from public life, whether it’s the frenzied call for straw bans, claims that complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act is too onerous, or applying work requirements to Medicaid.

A sock slider, it turns out, is never just a sock slider.