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Links: December 2018

George Bush, Who Steered Nation in Tumultuous Times, Is Dead at 94

I like this Bush obit as a crash course on the political forces that shaped the world during my formative years.

24 Ways

Always delighted to see this advent calendar of web design articles light up my RSS feed every December.

The Fun Is Back in Social Media…Again!

TikTok probably feels a lot like Flickr or Twitter in the early days, where everyone is exploring and the users are all kind of doing the same things with it. As networks get bigger, they reach a point where there isn’t just one big group exploring the same space together. Instead, you have many big groups who have different goals and desires that all need to fit under one roof (essentially, politics becomes necessary)…and that can get messy, particularly when the companies running these apps want to appeal to the widest possible audience for capitalization purposes.

Lynn Fisher

Lynn’s annual portfolio redesign is always an event, and this year’s Bob’s Burgers homage is a doozy. Don’t miss her case study of the project, which will make your brain hurt so good. I often wonder if the laborious passion project I’m working on is a waste of time, but projects like Lynn’s push me to keep going.

Be the Villain

Few things in this world are intrinsically altruistic or good—it’s just the nature of the beast. However, that doesn’t mean we have to stand idly by when harm is created. If we can add terms like “anti-pattern” to our professional vocabulary, we can certainly also incorporate phrases like “abuser flow.”

The Planet Has Seen Sudden Warming Before. It Wiped Out Almost Everything.

The image at the top fills me with awe and dread. 200-million-year-old creatures from a real-life H.R. Giger world.

Keep Math in the CSS

I like this idea. Lately I’ve been moving my Sass math into calc/variable configurations like the ones Chris Coyier describes here.

Björk: Björk

Today I learned that Björk recorded her first album in 1977, at the age of 11. I had no idea she did so much before she was in The Sugarcubes!

Influencers Are Faking Brand Deals

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Lifestyle blogging is all about seamlessly monetizing your good taste and consumer choices, which means it can be near-impossible for laypeople to tell if an influencer genuinely loves a product, is being paid to talk about it, or just wants to be paid to talk about it.

What Happens When Facebook Goes the Way of Myspace?

When Time, Inc. purchased Viant in 2016, for $87 million, the company bragged that its “vast pool” of data, derived largely from Myspace, would help its new parent company build a “data set that rivals industry leaders Facebook and Google.”

Viant now belongs to Meredith, another magazine company, which is trying to sell it once more. Your Myspace profile might be mostly gone, but Myspace’s profile of you may have been haunting you, through targeted ads around the web, ever since.

The advertising data exposed in a user’s personal Facebook archive is, of course, just a sliver of what is available to the company. Facebook’s real profile of who you are — the one that it uses to fill your feeds and show you ads — is far more comprehensive. The company’s relentless accumulation of user data isn’t just a grab for power or a default behavior. It’s a long-term investment. You may forget Facebook; it could happen sooner than you expect. But it’s not likely to forget you.

Catholic Church in Illinois Withheld Names of at Least 500 Priests Accused of Abuse, Attorney General Says

In lieu of forcefully venting my extreme anger, I’ll just say I am, as always, amazed at how it coexists with a complete lack of surprise.

“Institutions that do not have a history of unilateral, proactive transparency” is a weird way to euphemize “rapist safe houses.”

Visualizing the History of Fugazi

I’m so into this. I wish every band could be this well documented. If you’ve ever endured one of my diatribes about the sorry state of music metadata, these are the kinds of explorations good data enables.

How Much of the Internet Is Fake?

For a period of time in 2013, the Times reported this year, a full half of YouTube traffic was “bots masquerading as people,” a portion so high that employees feared an inflection point after which YouTube’s systems for detecting fraudulent traffic would begin to regard bot traffic as real and human traffic as fake. They called this hypothetical event “the Inversion.”

And not only do we have bots masquerading as humans and humans masquerading as other humans, but also sometimes humans masquerading as bots, pretending to be “artificial-intelligence personal assistants,” like Facebook’s “M,” in order to help tech companies appear to possess cutting-edge AI. We even have whatever CGI Instagram influencer Lil Miquela is: a fake human with a real body, a fake face, and real influence.

Contrary to what you might expect, a world suffused with deepfakes and other artificially generated photographic images won’t be one in which “fake” images are routinely believed to be real, but one in which “real” images are routinely believed to be fake — simply because, in the wake of the Inversion, who’ll be able to tell the difference?

What’s gone from the internet, after all, isn’t “truth,” but trust: the sense that the people and things we encounter are what they represent themselves to be. Years of metrics-driven growth, lucrative manipulative systems, and unregulated platform marketplaces, have created an environment where it makes more sense to be fake online — to be disingenuous and cynical, to lie and cheat, to misrepresent and distort — than it does to be real.

A Woman’s Rights

When Ronald Reagan was governor of California, he signed one of the most liberal abortion laws in the land, in 1967. As late as 1972, a Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Republicans thought that the decision to have an abortion should be made solely by a woman and her doctor.

But after Roe, a handful of Republican strategists recognized in abortion an explosively emotional issue that could motivate evangelical voters and divide Democrats. In 1980, as Mr. Reagan ran for president, he raised the cause high, and he framed it in terms of the rights of the unborn.

How a Crowdsourced Novel Became a Young-Adult Obsession

Wattpad holds special appeal for Todd because it enables writers with backgrounds like hers—writers whose books would otherwise “never see the light of day because their names aren’t known, or they don’t have whatever following, or they don’t have experience in publishing”—to share stories that resonate with readers, regardless of whether those stories charm literary editors in New York. She worked with Simon & Schuster to publish her first book outside the After series, a retelling of Little Women called The Spring Girls. But she argues that publishing houses—“kind of an old machine”—are accelerating their decline by failing to consider a wide range of voices or offer young readers relatable protagonists. “The content that they’re pushing on young people is not what they want to read.”

Rather than outlining her books—“it just messes up my entire story”—she prefers to “write socially.” With After, she’d review the comments on her most recent chapter and then tweak the story’s plot: If readers finished the section feeling happy, she’d throw in a twist to make them sad. If they were incensed at Harry, she’d have Tessa misbehave. “I had feedback every day, all day,” Todd said. “I always just felt like a puppet master playing with everybody’s emotions and doing this with the characters.” Wattpad is going even further by analyzing data on its stories—including sentence structure, vocabulary, readers’ comments, and popularity—in an effort to deduce exactly what makes a book succeed. In time, it may try to automate the editing process.

There’s something to be said for democratizing distribution and bypassing gatekeepers, but this is more design than art. Market research, user testing, focus groups, pandering. Still, it’s not without value:

After’s breed of graphic hyperrealism has largely been purged from young-adult fiction, says Lizzie Skurnick, a writer and editor of YA novels and the author of Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. (Todd more specifically identifies as a “new adult” author, a burgeoning category that emerged from self-published authors’ attempts to bridge the gap between Nancy Drew and Fifty Shades of Grey.) For years, Skurnick says, books for kids and teens were read mostly by kids and teens. But Harry Potter elevated the genre into a family affair, and parental supervision did precisely what it always does to sex. “There has been a sanitization. The YA of my era—of the ’70s and ’80s—was able to be explicit, because no one was looking at it,” Skurnick told me. “Readers hunger for anything they actually experience.”

What Is Glitter?

So: what is glitter?

A manipulation of humans’ inherent desire for fresh water. An intangible light effect made physical. Mostly plastic, and often from New Jersey. Disposable by design but, it turns out, not literally disposable. A way to make long winter nights slightly brighter, despite the offshore presence of Germans. An object in which the inside of a potato chip bag meets the aurora borealis.

Why Did America Give Up on Mass Transit? (Don’t Blame Cars.)

Service drives demand. When riders started to switch to the car in the early postwar years, American transit systems almost universally cut service to restore their financial viability. But this drove more people away, producing a vicious cycle until just about everybody who could drive, drove. In the fastest-growing areas, little or no transit was provided at all, because it was deemed to be not economically viable. Therefore, new suburbs had to be entirely auto-oriented. As poverty suburbanizes, and as more jobs are located in suburban areas, the inaccessibility of transit on a regional scale is becoming a crisis.

The only way to reverse the vicious cycle in the U.S. is by providing better service up front. The riders might not come on day one, but numerous examples, from cities like Phoenix and Seattle, have shown that better service will attract more riders. This can, in turn, produce a virtuous cycle where more riders justify further improved service—as well as providing a stronger political base of support.