Five Things: January 25, 2024

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Gen Z Loves Libraries | Velocity of Content

We speculate that people are not connecting Libby to their local public libraries. They’re using the Libby app to access ebooks and audiobooks, but they’re not aware that their local tax dollars supporting local libraries are funding Libby ebooks and audiobooks or their access to them.

I love that my former Panorama Project research colleagues (via Portland State University), Drs. Noorda and Inman Berens, have continued working on library-related research after our Immersive Media & Books 2020 Consumer Survey established a solid foundation for the methodological rigor and contextual perspective that is usually missing from most publishing and library-related research. I’ve previously referenced their insightful work on the Digital Public Library Ecosystem 2023 report, and I was particularly thrilled that they added an ethnographic component to their research into generational trends, which builds and expands on our original research and offers actionable takeaways.

The interview includes a number of quotable insights, but the one about Libby connects directly to what I wrote last week about the downsides of libraries making their OverDrive collections the centerpiece of their digital services, which often leads to Libby (or even worse, Kindle) becoming the source readers credit for providing them access to ebooks, rather than their own local library.

Are you aware of which digital services your local library offers and who provides them? Poke around their website and you might be pleasantly surprised, or disappointed, depending on what you’re looking for. In either case, reach out and let them know what you think because they can’t serve your needs if they don’t know what they are.


Teaming is hard because you’re probably not really on a team | Benjamin Tarshis and Jonathan Roberts

Real teams are thoughtful. Team members argue, and they push one another to do better. Real teams require nimble leaders who prioritize building connections within the team. They create clear boundaries that reinforce a strong sense of trust. They have a shared purpose and clear norms. And, importantly, they produce a collective output.

As the wave of misguided layoffs continues across various industries, I wonder how many of the people being let go were told at some point, and believed, that they were on a team? Companies of all sizes, from scrappy startups to humungous corporations, love to talk about culture and teamwork — the sports and war metaphors are the worst, most often used by executives who’ve experienced neither — but those values are rarely visible when the CEO screws up and layoffs become the tactic to delay accountability.

Tarshis and Roberts do a great job of clearly defining real teams, working groups, and teams-in-name-only, the latter two of which are what most people usually find themselves part of. Being on a real team in the workplace is a rarity, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with effective working groups — as long as you know the difference. The sooner you recognize you’re actually on a team-in-name-only, though, the less likely you’ll be taken by surprise when a senior executive’s incompetence leads to you losing your place on the fake team they’ll continue to fake lead.


I Don’t WANT To Write About Sad Things | Luke Plunkett

As sound as my defence of this website was, though, in a “winning an argument against an imaginary person in the shower” kind of way, something about what this reader said stuck with me regardless. In having the frequency of sad and angry blogs pointed out to me like this I thought, man, I sure would love to write about things that made me—and you, I hope!—feel good.

Aftermath is the latest example of a “worker-owned, reader-supported news site,” typically launched by journalists laid off from mainstream media outlets and/or the digital upstarts that were going to replace them. Similar to Defector, it’s basically a group blog with an ideological hook, in this case covering video games from a highly personal perspective with a bit more journalistic rigor than an avid fan’s blog or YouTube channel would have. Also similar to Defector (and individual blogs), it’s heavily reliant on readers connecting with a particular vision for media and/or individual voices, because the publications themselves are usually too small to match the scope of their former employers — for better and worse.

Plunkett’s post caught my attention because it highlights the line between op-eds and news coverage that’s been ridiculously blurred in the Internet era. The previous blog revolution ultimately ended up with a lot of prominent bloggers finding homes as columnists for mainstream publications or drifting to other platforms (Twitter, YouTube, Twitch, TikTok) that had attracted larger audiences than most blogs ever did. The last few years have seen the pendulum swinging back to individual voices, driven by layoffs in media hitting editorial teams particularly hard. Substack’s email-your-blog sleight of hand has been one of the main beneficiaries of that shift, but there are several other platforms for newsletter-centric publications, while Lede appears to be slowly establishing itself as a platform for small media organizations doing more than newsletters and smart enough to not get tricked by Medium again.

It’s kind of sad that many of the people who jumped on Substack in its early days, often after being laid off from a job disrupted by advertising and incompetent executives, helped build it into a compelling platform they could use to make a living, only to have the rug pulled from under them again as they’re now being forced to choose between finding another platform or staying put and supporting Nazis. (see next entry)


Why Platformer is leaving Substack | Casey Newton

Substack’s tools are designed to help publications grow quickly and make lots of money — money that is shared with Substack. That design demands responsible thinking about who will be promoted, and how.

It’s been two months since Jonathan M. Katz brought Substack’s Nazi problem to mainstream attention via The Atlantic, and a month since nearly 250 Substack users publicly demanded clarity from the company about their official stance on monetizing Nazis. It’s a stance Substack executives had been crystal clear about in the past, but the open letter was an attempt to give them another opportunity to change as it included an implied threat that the participants might abandon the platform. It was a legitimate threat for some, and a hopeful bluff for others.

As of today, some prominent users have followed through on that threat, including Newton, who arguably had more at stake in the decision than most people. His explanation of what happened, what was at stake, and what ultimately led to his decision to leave is a good long read, particularly for insight into Substack’s attempts to drive incredulous media support, something they’ve been very good at in the past.

It’s worth noting that Substack’s Nazi problem is just the tip of the iceberg; the easiest alley oop they could have asked for, and they whiffed. The much larger group of misinformation agents they platform, promote, monetize, and in some cases subsidize (The Free Press), are an even bigger problem, especially as we head into an election year that promises to be the biggest shitshow we’ve ever seen.


The Intelligence Illusion: stepping into a pile of ‘AI’ | Baldur Bjarnason

The Intelligence Illusion is a book I had to write because I needed to understand the technology and its implications. I began my research with an open mind and even a few ideas for projects but ended up convinced that generative models are, all else being equal, one of the worst ideas to come out of software in recent years.

Bjarnason’s book, The Intelligence Illusion, was my favorite read last year, and he’s been one of my favorite voices in tech since I first encountered him back in my DBW days. Half of what he writes about usually goes way over my head, but he’s one of the reasons I “know enough to be dangerous” when it comes to dealing with developers, and even more so, executives who get their tech insights from LinkedIn and Forbes.

He’s recently been writing a post-mortem on his various projects from last year, and this one struck me for a few reasons.

I hate that he might have even momentarily regretted researching and writing the book that was such an invaluable read for me and others, but I absolutely understand where he’s coming from. Having a contrarian view of anything in the midst of its hype cycle is always a risk, especially if that thing is the center of attention within the industry you work in, but those contrarian viewpoints — as long as they’re well-informed and coherently presented — are of critical importance. Without it, the “inevitable” narrative gains traction and potentially becomes self-fulfilling.

I’m also glad he decided not to become an “AI pundit” to sell more books, even though I’d specifically encouraged him to pitch something to Publishers Weekly last year to counter their disappointingly incredulous coverage of AI at almost every turn. He unpacks why in the post, concluding: “Doing the coldly entrepreneurial thing would have made me miserable.”

As someone who has [maybe way too often?] had a contrarian view on a few things that almost surely cut me off from certain opportunities, I get it. I stopped blogging at one point because I was basically tired of writing about sad things in media here, but then let that become my “brand” on Twitter for several years. Ultimately, you have to be true to yourself and deal with the consequences, or as my tattoo says, “Go with what is. Use what happens.”

If you’ve read all of this, I highly recommend that you treat yourself to a copy of The Intelligence Illusion. I can’t guarantee you’ll like it as much as I did, but I can guarantee you’ll be much better informed about an important topic that isn’t going away anytime soon. We don’t need more AI pundits, we just need more informed people challenging bullshit narratives and snake oil pitches.

PS: They said NFTs were inevitable, too. And the pivot to video. And ebooks. And [insert your favorite over-hyped new shiny]. They are wrong more often than they’re right, but the most vocal advocates always have a vested interest in convincing you they’re right, because what they’re pushing is never INEVITABLE unless you believe it. Don’t be a useful idiot!

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2 thoughts on “Five Things: January 25, 2024

  1. Re: teams (and, if only symbolically, the terrible software of the same name that more and more companies are pushing as a more controllable alternative to Slack), I am legitimately finding a way to send that article to my bosses anonymously, if only as a preventative measure. Most problems I’ve had at past jobs have stemmed from shiny-smiled insistence that a Work Group was actually a Team, but with none of the connective tissue necessary to support such a creature; it was definitely a contributing factor to the colony-collapse in which I was laid off with 500 others earlier in the year following the arrival of a new CEO whose LinkedIn listed him as an “influencer”.

    None of this is complaint, my new job rules, but I see some familiar wolves creeping at the edge of the firelight and I do not intend to be anybody’s Scooby Snack this time.

    Good work!

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