Tools Of The Trade

How I Audited My Daily Media Habits And Improved The Way I Read

I’ve thought a lot about how to have a good media diet, and ensure that I read only the best stuff. Here’s how I dodge bad articles and collect the best.

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April 2015

This piece was originally published at the tech site Gigaom at the beginning of 2015.

Creating web content is incredibly easy — but filtering content is really hard. In late 2014, I realized I was reading too much bad content. I felt enraged by some of the articles I clicked on, because they were such a thoughtless waste of my time.

I got so frustrated that I decided to invest serious effort in fixing the problem on my end, instead of fruitlessly swearing at my laptop.  I hoped to determine what’s non-optimal about my media habits, and how I can improve them.  So I audited my habits (with a spreadsheet and everything!) — and what I learned might surprise you!

Current Clickbait Solutions

I’m not alone in my anger about clickbait and my desire for a better media diet.  There’s plenty of mocking commentary about this, like The Onion’s satirical site ClickHole, or the amazing Twitter feed Saved You A Click by Jake Beckman.  Beckman helpfully summarizes the answer to one clickbait headline per tweet:

It’s becoming an arms race: One side makes ever-sneakier clickbait… while the other side makes ever-better filters.  Much of this stuff get spread via Facebook, yet Facebook knows that it’s a threat to user satisfaction, so the company is working to make the News Feed algorithms less vulnerable to bad content in clever packaging.

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One Dollar At A Time: The Ultimate Guide To Earning Money From An Internet Audience

This guide is for writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, game creators, and anyone else who wants to raise money from their audiences. I discuss Kickstarter, Patreon, self-publishing, and many more tactics and tools.

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October 2014

Everyone knows that the creative businesses have changed. You can still get huge book deals, record deals, and other deals — but those business models are not the only answer anymore. Now independent creators can reach their fans directly.

One dollar at a time picture by doctorwonder

We’ve all heard the Kickstarter success stories. But not everyone knows all their options. Talented creators are using Patreon, self-publishing, and many other tools to raise money one dollar at a time. This guide will explain and describe the best ones!

(If you’re new to my site: Hi! I’m Lydia, a writer and media strategist. I have personal and professional experience with these tools and I’ve helped other people figure them out, too. If you want my advice or help for your project, feel free to leave a comment or contact me directly.)
 

Important Note:
This Is The Wild West

Before I cover all the options, I’ll point out that these tools are evolving rapidly. And there’s more change to come.

I hear about new relevant startups every week. The almighty Google just announced that they’re developing features that allow fans to fund their favorite creators on YouTube. This is on top of Google’s other new service, which sells music through YouTube.

I’ve heard suggestions that Apple’s $3 billion purchase of Beats happened because Beats could become “a platform for artists to build businesses.” And even Lady Gaga’s social network, Backplane, just recreated itself as a monetization tool for creators.

Click to tweet: Twitter is starting to offer its users the ability to sell directly to their followers!

Meanwhile, over in China, people can already sell directly to their audience on Chinese social media platforms like WeChat. And Twitter will soon offer its users the ability to sell directly to their followers! I’m so excited that this is happening — I’ve been hoping Twitter would do something like this for a long time.

So the future is bright! But let’s talk about what creators can do right now! For each strategy below, I describe some current tools that cover it. Then I give pro tips for using them.

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Why You Shouldn’t Share That Awesome Infographic

A friend sent me an infographic from a sketchy “medical degree information website” … and I learned that sometimes, good people pass on bad Internet pages that make money for bad people.

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May 2014

A friend recently sent me an infographic that supposedly shows that doctors make less in lifetime earnings than teachers. Unsurprisingly, the infographic is controversial. It also went viral and has been Liked on Facebook over fifteen thousand times.

I am not impressed by this infographic, and I could write a whole post dissecting its statistical silliness, but that’s not the point here. More importantly, this infographic is just one piece of a vast and sketchy clickbait empire. Everyone who links to this dumb infographic is helping a clever, unethical man make money. His name is Ryan Caldwell, and he’s been playing this game for years.

This wouldn’t bug me so much if Caldwell were giving out decent information. But he’s not, although his website calls itself an “independent online publication dedicated to providing accurate and useful information for prospective students considering a career in medicine.” And my smart friends are passing this on! Some of them are doctors and teachers!

Red Flags That Tipped Me Off

Many small, sketchy aspects of the site made my hackles rise. But I’ll just tell you about the big red flags:

The infographic is hosted at BestMedicalDegrees, which does not list any authors, editors, or other names anywhere. There are no names on the website’s main page, the About page, or the Contact page. Most of the articles list “Editors” as the author. I saw the name Yvonne McArthur on a couple of posts, but she has no biography on the site. If Yvonne exists, BestMedicalDegrees doesn’t offer any way to find her elsewhere (like a website or Twitter link).

BestMedicalDegrees also has an irritating “Rankings Methodology” page that says: “We rank schools and degree programs based on widely accepted measures of market reputation, academic quality, student satisfaction, and value, as well as our own editorial judgement.”

“Editorial judgment?” “Widely accepted?” Are they even saying anything at all?

Anyway, by the time I went through all that, I knew the site was nonsense. So I checked the registered owner of the site, using its publicly available Whois record, and I found a name: Ryan Caldwell. I didn’t have to work hard to figure out the details after that, because as soon as I Googled Caldwell’s name, I found this blog post from 2011 that described one of his other viral hits.

Caldwell routinely makes viral sites that pretend to be information sources about schools. On those sites, he links to school-related organizations, and those organizations pay him an affiliate fee for each person he refers. Voilà!

In fact, from Caldwell’s perspective, I’m guessing that being mildly inaccurate is valuable, because that will just get people riled up and send more attention his way.

Why My Smart Friends Helped This Guy Make Money

My friends are really smart people (hi friends! I love you!). Why are my smart friends forwarding this thing around?

I guess most people are unfamiliar with how online content makes money. Also, maybe people are lulled by the lack of ads at BestMedicalDegrees; maybe people assume that an ad-free site won’t be profit-driven. And maybe people are less critical about media that does not appear to be “political,” or that doesn’t have an obvious “agenda.”

But I’m hardly the first person to make this point, and I won’t be the last: When you pass on a piece of content to your friends, you are helping spread its influence or earn money for its creator — even if you’re saying something negative.

Are you sure you want to do that? Do you even know who the creator is?

One of my favorite things about the Internet is that it’s relatively easy for people with zero established reputation to work their way up, solely by being awesome. And personally, I really enjoy great content marketing. But people like Caldwell are not even close to legit. So don’t reward them by passing on their stuff.

For the record, I tried sending a note through the BestMedicalDegrees Contact page — I said I was a writer working on a piece about the site, and that I’d love to talk to the editors. I received no response.

P.S. Hey, if you’re planning to link to BestMedicalDegrees, then I strongly recommend that you use DoNotLink when you do so. (To learn more about DoNotLink, here’s a great writeup.)

(Image credit to 401K 2012, who posted it on Flickr under a Creative Commons license)
 

I Didn’t Expose Him—But Last Year, Rapportive Showed Me @GSElevator’s True Identity

Months ago, a Gmail tool showed me the true identity of a snarky Twitter personality. The man was publicly exposed this week, and I’m not the one who identified him. But here’s how you could use the tool to expose someone — or protect yourself!

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March 2014

Months ago, I interviewed the snarky Twitter personality @GSElevator while researching a long report. Last week, I heard that the elusive and anonymous man behind @GSElevator had been unmasked. He even lost his book deal.

But I already knew who he was, because I — quite accidentally — had discovered his identity before I interviewed him.

I wasn’t even trying, so how did I do it? I used a Gmail tool called Rapportive. (Update: As of July 2014, Rapportive no longer works as described in this article. This is how it used to work, though.)

Rapportive is a great tool for journalists and other media folks. It digs through lots of data to show you the complete social media profile of each person you email. Here’s what it looks like in action:

This is a screenshot of me in Gmail, composing an email to my awesome friend Erin Polgreen. (I’m totally following Erin on Twitter, by the way, but sometimes Rapportive doesn’t show that properly.) As you can see, the tool dug up Erin’s many fabulous job titles, as well as a picture that’s associated with her, and links to a batch of social profiles. I got her permission before using this screenshot here.
John Lefevre
I love Rapportive and I use it all the time. I was using it when I sent a message to the email account on @GSElevator’s Twitter profile, and it unexpectedly gave me his name: John LeFevre. I even got a headshot!

I had no interest in exposing LeFevre. I just wanted to talk to him about @GSElevator. Plus, I have a soft spot for Internet anonymity, although anonymity gets scarcer every day. So I simply told LeFevre that I’d found his name connected through Rapportive, and I explained how he could fix that.

Then I asked for an interview — which LeFevre immediately granted. ;)

(Incidentally, in case you’re concerned about what your Rapportive profile might be showing, you can control that by downloading Rapportive to your Gmail account. Then you should type your own email address. When your own Rapportive profile comes up in the sidebar, you will be able to edit it. If you’re concerned about Rapportive gathering your data, there may be an alternative way to change your Rapportive profile without downloading the product — try contacting their Support people.)

I don’t know who gave LeFevre’s real name to The New York Times. One article claims that it took “weeks” to find his identity, but it doesn’t explain how they did it.

I also don’t know how Rapportive found his real name. Rapportive has a privacy policy in which they say that the tool only uses publicly available data. But of course, the truth is that the “public availability” of most data has become fuzzier and fuzzier, and it’s extremely difficult for people to know what they’re making public and what they are not.

I don’t blame Rapportive — although obviously, I think anyone who’s concerned about how they look online should check on their profile right away. Yet when it comes to privacy, that’s almost beside the point by now. This story is a useful object lesson in how data collection and correlation is making true pseudonyms hard. The level of tech-savviness required to maintain any pseudonym has gotten very high — and it’s only going to get higher.

Update: Someone asked me whether Rapportive paid me to write this post, or whether Rapportive is a client of mine. I don’t have any professional relationship with Rapportive; I just use their tool a lot.

Update 2: Mr. Elevator has a new book deal!

Update 3: Rapportive, which was recently purchased by LinkedIn, had my favorite features removed on July 31st. I’m currently testing alternatives such as Rapporto, Ark, FullContact, Vibe, Connect6, and/or Sansan (via this post by Alan Hamlett). If you have any suggestions, please let me know!