All posts in “Tech Column”

The problem with human moderators

If Big Tech in 2018 already has a theme, it’s that social networks are passive platforms no longer. Since the new year, both Facebook and YouTube have stepped up with new guidelines and processes to manage — and in some cases police — content on their networks.

All of this started well before the new year, of course. Twitter has been following through on a lengthy project to both clarify its content policies and take a more active role in saying who and what is allowed on its platform, most recently with its so-called “Nazi purge.” The current trend arguably started with Reddit, when then-CEO Ellen Pao pushed for tighter control of harassment and revenge porn on the site.

This digital reckoning now feels inevitable, but it was hastened by events over the last year. Anger at the big networks reached a crescendo last year after Facebook — the most influential of the bunch — was widely criticized for hosting fake news and politically charged ads with virtually no oversight. But while the old system of letting algorithms sort things out was clearly flawed, the networks’ re-assertion of the role of gatekeepers is worrisome, too.

In the case of YouTube, the changes, announced yesterday, mostly involve demonetizing (that is, removing the ads from) videos from creators under a certain view time or subscriber threshold, which sounds fine. However, what the relatively clinical blog post doesn’t discuss is the new way YouTube will deal with big partner accounts: Human moderators will review their content — all of it — turning off monetization on any specific video they may find objectionable.

Coming in the wake of Logan Paul’s infamous visit to Japan’s suicide forest and his subsequent, numerous apologies, it seems clear this introduction of human moderators is intended to head off incidents exactly like that. Presumably, if this system had been in place then, the moderator would have raised a hand and said, “Uh, guys…?”

Let’s be clear about what we’re talking about here: Demonetizing isn’t the same thing as deleting. This isn’t censorship per se, though it is sending a message to creators about what content is acceptable and what isn’t. The thinking is that, over time, YouTube creators will post less of the demonetized stuff and more videos that “contribute positively to the community,” in the words of YouTube’s Neal Mohan and Robert Kyncl.

It is sending a message to creators about what content is acceptable and what isn’t.

Isn’t that a good thing? Maybe, but if it were as simple as enforcing YouTube’s community guidelines, a bot could do it, and we already know that doesn’t work. With humans involved, it raises a different set of questions: Who are these humans? What qualifications or biases do they have? And what exactly raises a red flag in their minds?

The answer to that last question will likely vary depending on the answers to the first two. It doesn’t help that most terms of service and community guidelines are purposely vague to give moderators wiggle room. In the case of Twitter, which used to have an unofficial label as “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” the policies have even been contradictory, and the network itself has sometimes appeared unsure why certain tweets are flagged, accounts suspended, or verification stripped.

This isn’t a case for zero censorship. There are things virtually everyone would agree shouldn’t be on a network as popular and public-facing as Facebook or YouTube. Neo-Nazis spouting hateful ideology, graphic depictions of violence, direct threats — they all need to go.

But audiences have been clamoring for more content policing beyond just the most extreme. And by and large, the networks have acquiesced to the demand, staffing up to review more content by hand since algorithms can only do so much. But the companies are only as good as the humans they hire, and the job of content moderator is largely a thankless one — the daily slog of viewing vast amounts of objectionable content has a psychological toll attached.

The companies are only as good as the humans they hire.

Historically, the big tech companies haven’t been good at human intervention. In 2016, human moderators at Facebook were accused of purging conservative news from its trending topics section. It also removed a historic photo from the Vietnam war that same year, justified its decision, then reversed it. Twitter’s CEO has basically admitted its enforcement policies have been a mess. Even Google, generally thought to be the most algorithmically driven of the bunch isn’t immune from human failings: Back in 2012, it tried to challenge Facebook’s social media dominance with Google+, its own social network, and deliberately put companies’ Google+ pages higher than their Facebook pages in search results.

Put simply: We shouldn’t trust Twitter, Facebook, Google, YouTube, or any other private tech company to create a system that consistently punishes bad actors based on a common standard. Humans are driven by biases. Systems can help correct for those biases, but we can’t judge without knowing what those systems are. And if they don’t work as intended, that could leave us with a worse problem than when we started: turning each network into its own massive filter bubble, where anything deemed offensive is purged.

Every platform is now a content cop on the beat. Maybe they always were, but when you make loud public statements that you’re going to start more actively policing content, it means more calls to the police. That’s going to inevitably mean more users getting kicked out of these networks, some as big as Logan Paul.

On the surface, that may feel OK. YouTube can afford to lose a few big personalities, and maybe it should. The more difficult question is what do such actions say about the network? When users are punished for offensive content, what do those users’ sympathizers and supporters think — those who might not agree with inconsistent applications of poorly worded policies? How do they start to think of YouTube (and Twitter, Facebook, etc.)? How do they express their uneasiness, and where do they start spending their time?

I don’t know the answers to those questions. But I do know simple math: The more things you push out of a bubble, the smaller it’ll get. And you might not like what forms alongside it. 6427 cfdc%2fthumb%2f00001

Whatever you do, don’t watch ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ in 3D

“Let the past die. Kill it!”

Kylo Ren’s calm, yet threatening monologue from Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi (this isn’t a spoiler — it’s in the trailer) couldn’t be more apt for the 3D version of the movie. It sucks. It’s the worst way to watch Rian Johnson’s flick.

3D movies — as a format in movie theaters — need to die. Movie studios should kill them. But they won’t unless we, moviegoers, grab Ren’s tri-bladed lightsaber and stab this technology in the heart and twist it until 3D’s lifeless body falls off the catwalk and into the abyss.

A colleague invited me as their plus-one to an early screening of The Last Jedi hours before it premiered in U.S. theaters and I was beyond pumped until we made our way into the ridiculously fancy iPic Theater — the place had reclining seats, complimentary popcorn, and on-demand food services at the press of a single button — at Fulton Market in New York City.

Mouth agape at the VIP theater experience, my heart sank as I looked down on the table between our private seats and saw the worst thing to ever go hand-in-hand with movies: 3D glasses.

Oh, God!

In all the excitement of getting to watch The Last Jedi early, I didn’t even realize we’d be watching the 3D version.

I felt a rush of déjà vu. It was at that moment that I knew I was going to be disappointed. Not because the movie wouldn’t live up to all the hype, but because the visual experience was compromised.

You see, I had been in this very same situation before. Two years ago, I had nonchalantly walked into a 3D showing of The Force Awakens on opening weekend thinking how awesome it was to not have to sit in a theater packed with hollering fanboys only to leave unimpressed by the movie.

It wasn’t until I had rewatched The Force Awakens in 2D a few days later that I realized why it was such a letdown on the first viewing. It wasn’t because the movie was mostly a remake of A New Hope but with new characters. It was because I had seen it in 3D.

3D turned a fun and entertaining movie into a sack of garbage. It robbed The Force Awakens of its vibrant visual essence.

What I saw through my 3D glasses wasn’t J.J. Abrams’ grand vision, but a dim and muddied up version with gimmicky 3D effects that didn’t impress at all.

And that movie dread reappeared as I slipped on my 3D glasses and The Last Jedi’s opening crawl appeared on screen.

The Last Jedi looked nothing like what I was seeing through the 3D glasses.

I tried to give the 3D version the benefit of the doubt — maybe the technology had gotten better in two years? — but that optimistic view didn’t last very long. About 30 minutes of unimpressive 3D effects, I flipped the shades up to see what I was missing, and, oh, what a difference I saw.

The Last Jedi looked nothing like what I was seeing through the 3D glasses. Instead of blacks and grays, the planet Ahch-To was bright, rich and very green. Rose Tico (played by Kelly Marie Tran) wore a jump suit that wasn’t colored dark poop brown, but was actually a yellow-greenish tan. Same goes for Porgs.

And OMG, I could see more distinct outlines and details between the First Order’s starships and the blackness of space. 

The difference was just so drastic that I would have taken my 3D glasses off and watched the whole movie and all of its greater dynamic range if not for the whole double-vision image on the screen.

So much of our experiences are impacted by color. It influences how we think and how we feel. It sets the mood for everything. In 3D, color takes a backseat to silly depth effects, and that’s a real shame because all of the beauty of the cinematography and production design is stripped of the fundamental characteristics that connect you to it.

The Last Jedi is shot beautifully. Johnson and his crew went all-in on the visuals, creating set and character designs that beg for your full attention. Watching it in 3D is a disservice to all the work that went into sweating the cinematic details. You might as well be watching the 2D version with sunglasses on (you’d save yourself the extra cost for 3D, too).

Image: Corbis via Getty Images

There was a brief period where 3D was The Chosen One. It was supposed to bring balance to the movie industry. It was supposed to be the next big thing for moviegoers, and really up the video ante.

But it wasn’t. It’s trash. And the worst thing is that the overpriced money-grab continues to exist. Some people blame Asia, where 3D movie revenue from ticket sales is growing. But that growth is artificial. In Asia, 3D movies are often the only viewing option, so it’s not like anyone gets much of a choice.

In the U.S., 3D is on the decline, but it’s far from dead. So long as people keep paying to see blockbuster movies in 3D, Hollywood’s gonna keep dishing them out, even when it knows the format is inferior to the plain 2D version.

Thanks to 3D, I now have to watch The Last Jedi again in 2D to take it in properly, just like I did with The Force Awakens. I just know it’ll be less disappointing when I can actually see what’s really happening. 

Don’t be like me. Do the right thing and stop supporting this crap. TV makers have all but abandoned 3D as a selling point for their flat screens. Even Nintendo, the company that once pushed 3D games on its 3DS has essentially given up on the eye-popping format with 2DS XL.

3D is on life support and it wants its plug pulled. Let’s do the humane thing and disconnect it. 84ef 7814%2fthumb%2f00001

Facebook killed the Ticker and that’s a bad sign for News Feed

Time is up for Facebook's Ticker feature.
Time is up for Facebook’s Ticker feature.

Image: bob al-greene/mashable

When it comes to your News Feed, Facebook knows best. 

That’s the message the social network has been broadcasting pretty much since it introduced the first version of its News Feed algorithm in 2011.

Six years later, and the company has only doubled and tripled down on that message — data rules all and Facebook certainly has more of that than anyone else. So who better to understand your exact preferences — right?

Unfortunately for Facebook, though, many of its 2 billion users would like a little more choice in the matter. (Just look at the number of people who still complain about the News Feed algorithm showing old posts.)

That group was unfortuntaely hit with some bad news this week when it was confirmed that Facebook quietly killed an old feature that gave some of that choice back to users. News Ticker, a feature introduced alongside Facebook’s algorithmic feed, is no more. 



Image: facebook

Depending on how long you’ve been on Facebook, you may not have known that the feature — which provided a sort of real-time look at friends’ Facebook activity — even existed. Still, to many, Ticker was the last best way to view a strictly chronological feed without Facebook’s algorithms.

To be clear, it is still possible to sort your News Feed by what’s most recent, but even with this feature, Facebook makes it clear that it’s not really what you’re supposed to do. On desktop, if you opt to sort by “most recent,” you need to re-enable this setting each time you open the website. 

And, even if you do, the “most recent” version of your News Feed is slow and laggy — hardly ideal if you want the kind of instant updates you used to get with Ticker. So while the feature may not have been the site’s best known or most used, it still had a substantial following (just look at the Facebook help thread on its demise).

Which brings us back to why removing features like Ticker is a bad sign for News Feed in the first place: it puts Facebook’s preferences above those of users, sending the message that the company’s data and algorithms rule above all else. And that’s not great for anyone, except Facebook.

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When smartphones come to church, you know nowhere is safe

I’ve attended church with my family for my entire life, but I’ve noticed a stark change in the last few visits to our non-denominational Christian congregation: A startling number of people around me spent the sermons glued to smartphones and tablets.

Even my dad, a classic Midwestern disciplinarian, pulled out his iPhone and put it on his lap for easy access right as I was turning mine off for the first time that week. He and the others that I spotted through some good old-fashioned pew snooping weren’t using their gadgets to scroll through Twitter or play Candy Crush, though — they were following along with the pastor in the pulpit as he read passages in the Bible, which happens often in non-denominational services focused on interpreting and applying scripture to daily life.  

Smartphones are inescapable in nearly every facet of modern life, but for me, the church was the final, sacred, screen-free space. I work with tech every day, wear a smartwatch 24/7, and typically sleep with my phone, so I use service as an opportunity to meditate on faith with no chance of being interrupted by push notifications. I admit that I’m worried about succumbing to temptation, too; it would be all too easy to flick through Instagram to check out my friends’ Sunday morning brunch pics instead of concentrating on the message.

Apparently, my tech-free worship policy is becoming uncommon. Faith and technology are far from incompatible — nuns are huge on Snapchat, y’all — but bringing an active link to the internet directly into the inner sanctum on the Sabbath, where the “earthly” world is actively pushed aside for communion with God, was jarring for me.

Unsurprisingly, Bible-centric apps have caught on with Christian audiences. Other faiths have their own apps for their holy books and ceremonies, too — but by far the most popular of them, YouVersion (nearly 300 million installations to date), is designed for Protestant Christians. The free app offers hundreds of digitized translations of the sacred text and more in an experience more akin to a modern lifestyle brand than a stuffy religious tome, replacing leather bound, gilded-paged King James version with the phones congregants already carry with them everywhere they go.

The popularity of the app would be astounding to someone like Martin Luther, who famously translated the text in the 16 century so common (literate) people outside of the clergy could read it. A free app is the ultimate realization of that effort to bring the Word to the masses, even if its potential impact isn’t immediately apparent to those of us who’ve grown accustomed to living with the world’s information at our fingertips. 

The Gospels’ message wasn’t meant to be bound to the physical media on which it was transcribed, but the book has become a potent symbol in its own right. Part of my aversion to an app-based scripture experience is the veneration I have for the actual object — receiving a physical copy of the Bible was a rite of passage for kids in our congregation, and I remember memorizing verses to earn my own. 

A modern Bible experience brings modern issues, too. YouVersion collects user data like location tags, verse highlights, and other info (like other apps, to be fair) and hasn’t updated its privacy policy since 2012. There haven’t been any reported security issues with the app and it doesn’t bombard readers with ads, but users might be more willing to trust a faith-based app than a program from other publishers. That background doesn’t mean that they’re not in line for the same experience. 

This gadget-filled worship phenomenon points to changing perspectives within communities of faith, which should be heartening to anyone worried by the dropping service attendance levels in the U.S. Modern life increasingly takes place online, and churches are making the jump, too. 

In New York City, international megachurch Hillsong has a massive social media presence, and I often see snapshots friends post on Instagram from its locations that look like they came from an arena rock show. Those pics could be even more effective in drawing new congregants and the interest of nonbelievers than old-school evangelizing — the FOMO is real. My own more traditional church back home, Parkside, even streams sermons online, helping me feel like I haven’t left the community even though I live hundreds of miles away.    

I finally tried the YouVersion app for pre-bedtime devotions and scripture study, and its convenience and utility has won me over. I can jump from standalone chapters to devotional studies without skipping a beat, making it easier to study my faith at home where other distractions can totally throw me off. 

One thing I’ll never do, however, is use the app in the middle of a sermon in church. My congregation’s pastor, Alistair Begg, agrees. 

“I am not a fan of using digital devices in place of one’s Bible when listening to preaching,” he told me via email. “There are enough distractions and hindrances without adding the temptation to check emails and text messages and sporting fixtures. Our Bibles, bearing our thumb prints and notes and quotes will be treasured by our grandchildren in a way that will never be true of our iPads.”  

Some things just need to stay sacred. 8d5b 3fb4%2fthumb%2f00001

These wireless earbuds made me want to wear headphones all the time

New York City is never quiet, but most of the city’s residents prefer to walk around with their own private soundtrack blaring in their ears. Nearly everyone you see on the street is perpetually in an aural bubble, separate from the outside world.

Wireless headphones make those bubbles even more pronounced without tethers to a separate device, and I think I’ve found the best pair for city life: Nuheara’s IQbuds, a set of “true” wireless buds with solid sound, touch controls, massive battery life, and augmented hearing features that put them in a class above just about anything else I’ve ever put in my ears.  

IQbuds bring out all the sounds in the big city.

IQbuds bring out all the sounds in the big city.

Image: lili sams/mashable

I haven’t always been so comfortable wearing headphones at all times, though. Their ubiquity in public spaces shocked me when I first moved to the city a few years ago, accustomed as I was to the Midwestern niceties of Ohio where we typically place a constant burden upon ourselves to be outwardly friendly in public. 

Even then, I remember thinking the surly earbud-wearing teens I saw were a troubling sign of millennial disengagement from the real world, isolating themselves with technology even when they were forced to break away from a screen.  

Then I moved to the city. Merely existing in public in New York is a particularly lonely endeavor, even though it feels to me there are roughly more people going about their business on one typical NYC block than the entire city of Cleveland. Keeping sane within the bustle with your favorite album or podcast isn’t rude or weird — it’s almost a necessity, providing some small measure of identity among the masses, giving one small factor of control in a world filled with subway delays and traffic jams.

I soon found myself popping in my basic Apple EarPods more often than not when I hit the streets. Slowly but surely, I was morphing into a headphone person — but I wasn’t quite ready to spend every waking moment out and about with them in my ears. While it was easy enough to just keep the corded buds in my pocket at all times, something held me back. I still felt uncomfortable at times in my bubble, wanting to be more available to the public at large.

IQbuds and their carrying case, which provides extra charging capacity.

IQbuds and their carrying case, which provides extra charging capacity.

Image: lili sams/mashable

My time wearing the IQbuds has helped me solve that problem. The buds have a killer feature that’s particularly valuable in the city — you can choose to turn the world on and off. The augmented hearing functions, activated via a simple tap, can be used to tune into the scene around you just as well as its noise-cancelling setting shuts sound out. Speech amplification can home in on someone’s voice to help you make out exactly what they’re saying over the constant noise in the background. 

I first experienced this on a crowded subway, totally by accident. I set the buds to their “Street” setting in their companion app (other modes include Home, Office, Workout, and Plane) and paused my music for a moment. I was able to hear the conversation going on four people away from me as clearly as if they were speaking directly to me. (Serial eavesdroppers, these are definitely the headphones for you.)

I’ve also used the setting to pick up friends’ voices better on a busy street. Instead of asking them to speak up, I was able to tap my right ear to help boost their voices above the din.

The sound from the IQbuds isn’t quite as rich as other wireless headphones I’ve tried, like Fitbit’s surprisingly competent Flyer, but Nuheara did a passable job here with solid bass and customizable settings for a tailored sound. I compared the IQbuds to Apple’s mega-popular AirPods, the current king of true wireless headphones, for a better sense of what they brought to the table. The layered guitars of Brand New’s “Can’t Get It Out” were more distinct on the IQbuds, and the ability to adjust the treble and bass made the listening experience much more enjoyable.  

You can adjust your personal sound profile in the IQbuds app.

You can adjust your personal sound profile in the IQbuds app.

Image: lili sams/mashable

The IQbuds’ carrying case isn’t as small as AirPods’ compact case, but it fits in my back pocket and provide a recharge when the buds are stowed away. Nuheara claims the whole rig provides 16 hours of Bluetooth streaming on one charge. I didn’t estimate my exact hourly usage, but I’ve been able to go for over a week without needing to recharge, which is great for an everyday carry earphone. 

IQbuds aren’t perfect, though. Sometimes when I put them back in the case, a piercing squeal of feedback eeks out, and the Bluetooth connection has cut out a few times. Then there’s the cost. The buds will set you back $300 — you can almost buy two pairs of the $160 AirPods at that price. The augmented hearing features are really cool, but many won’t be able to justify that much of an extra cost.

New York is a headphone town, and even with their flaws, IQbuds might be the best earbuds for the city. They have helped to finally turn me, completely and unreservedly, onto wearing headphones in public at every moment because I can tune the world out or welcome it in.     

Nuheara IQbuds

The Good

Good sound Great battery life Truly useful augmented hearing features

The Bad

Expensive Ear-splitting feedback quirks Some dropped Bluetooth connections

The Bottom Line

IQbuds are more expensive than AirPods, but they make up the difference with killer augmented hearing features and an impressive battery life. These could be your new favorite headphones.

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