Thursday, January 11, 2018

My Christmas fighting the prnbot menace

It was the week before the week before Christmas and my social media apprentice was buzzing: "We got followed by [redacted]!!!!" in the same proud tones used when a healthy eating tweet gets retweeted by someone off of Masterchef. The name (unfamiliar to me) was rapidly annotated with a brief bio; something BBC related, youth-orientated, popular. Good for us, and duly I congratulated her and gave her the go ahead to follow back. I checked out the celeb later that day. Her stream was healthy, wholesome and positive. She looked good. All good, carry on, carry on.

Two days later, the first of them arrived. Love your tweet! You have a new follower! The apprentice was on leave, settling into her new-new-build. So I let the first few go by. When I cam back after lunch, there were 17 of them. And many of the profile pictures looked disturbingly... similarly... undressed.

Cleaning the Stream

We need to keep the stream clean as (in common with many professional users of Twitter) we are catering to the 13+ age-group. Kids and parents, professionals and teachers. Family friendly is the order of the day. It's pretty normal (if a bit annoying) to get a daily spatter of speculative marketing profile engagements - t-shirt sellers, lifestyle coaches, SEO-jockeys and the like. It's part of the Twitterverse.

This, though, this was something new, at least to me. As the song goes, new, and a bit alarming.

These accounts were not in the slightest bit family friendly. Each one was an identikit assemblage of quease-inducing porn clip-art, unsubtle 100 character come-ons, and links signalled clearly (using the same six or so unmistakable and nasty euphemisms) as leading to live-stream, hard-core pornography. They were all using the same phrases, the same images, and I had little doubt that their carefully scrambled link addresses (See LINK in BIO!!!!!??!!) were taking you to the same set of porn websites.

Weirdly, they all also seemed to be following a set of rules about what they were saying and showing. I was instantly reminded of the the ridiculous things people used to do to "get around" the Obscene Publications Act, missing the point that obscenity was intrinsic in what they were selling.

Sisyphus on the block and ban

Every new like or follow now has to be checked. The process, once I stopped clicking around like an idiot looking for the right report route, smoothed down to six quick clicks: check > options > report > categorise > subcategorise > block. Then I have to click again to get off the page.

By five in the afternoon, having spent most of it blocking and reporting identikit profiles, the flow seemed to be dying down. I assumed that given that the profiles were pretty obviously generated by an algorithm, it had stripped my Twitters off their follow list and moved onto less active accounts.

I also had my first set of progress reports back from Twitter - and in case anyone is in any doubt about this, selling pornography on Twitter breaks its Ts & Cs. Every account I reported was closed down promptly.

As will surprise absolutely nobody who has ever been in this situation, the following morning, the accounts were back again, and since then, despite the accounts having been closed down and down and down by Twitter, they have returned again, and again. Generating at a less panic-inducing two to four every day per profile, they are now just another editor job. Retweet, post, favourite, post again ---- and block and report the prnbots.

After every block and ban, there is a small notification from Twitter: thank you for making Twitter safer for everyone.

Drowning in a sea of slime

I'm fond of Twitter, possibly for fuzzy historical reasons that have no place in our current, chiller world. So my first impulse is to worry about Twitter, particularly since my googling and talking to people made it clear that I'm hardly as isolated case. The bulk inactive account hacks and malicious profile generation has been going on since at least 2015. That means Twitter has a had a while to come up with a coordinated response, akin to the algorithmic system Facebook uses to delete spam posts as they happen. This hasn't happened, and I can only think of a few reasons why this would be, and none of them are good for Twitter.

Possibility one: something about Twitter's data architecture makes it impossible to create dynamic identification of accounts or tweets mass generated from a short list of clearly malicious phrases and images. Not good news for Twitter - does it really want to be relying on human report? Most users never bother to report anything.

Possibility two: the account generation is coming in at such a scale and level of technical complexity and adaptivity that it is flooding Twitter's defences and commercial users (and their customers) are seeing a little bit of  the overflow of a much, much bigger problem. Again, not a good situation, given that Twitter has too little UI to just turn bits of itself off (as happened to Flickr's notes function, for example) until a suitable resolution is established.

Possibility three: Twitter is tolerating, allowing or even accepting their bots, the ones selling adult content included. It's maybe an indicator of how much of an image problem Twitter has that most people I spoke to assumed that they simply didn't care, or treated these accounts as a form of "free speech". I don't think that, but I think it's possible that they might see it as an environmental emanation of the medium, like flyposters on a hoarding or postcards in a phone booth. 

I can't really, though, so. Report, report, report. 




Monday, October 02, 2017

Jeremy, What's a boosted post?

I just got an email from the Facebook advertising team.

I get these because I was admin for a Facebook page while I was involved in a (successful) Kickstarter-funded comics project. I could take myself off the admin list but to de-admin yourself (as with so many things about Facebook Pages) you have to do a emotionally awkward things. Let me say right away that the other admin won't mind me having access. I'm 100% trustworthy. I may be involved again in the future. I'm an extra pair of expert eyes. My options are:

  1. Re-open contact with the other admin and negotiate my removal. Rejecting, awkward, and emotionally challenging for us both! 
  2. Remove myself as an admin.  Rejecting, awkward, and emotionally challenging for me now, and for the other admin when she notices later -  and probably quite hurtful, too.
So, you see the difficulty. I'll stay as admin, and take the emails and the bugging to promote posts (which, like so many things, isn't working as well as it used to) and we'll all be fine, probably....

But to get back to the email. The subject line was Jeremy, What's a boosted post? FFS, Facebook Ad Team, if you don't know, then we're all in trouble. I'm hoping you know!

Also, stop pretending to be my apprentice.  

Sunday, September 10, 2017

eternal downscroll and the downpage lacuna

I pull down the page, and pause. Pull down the page and pause.
While the content loads.
While the content loads,
while the page finds yet more page
below itself.

The tendons that link my finger to my wrist
slide through my carpal like elastic in a hood
puppet string my radius and ulna
to the very elbow

The muscles that balance my arm in quiet tension
Bunched over the bicep, taut across the tricep
Engaged, as my yoga teacher would say
to my ragged shoulder

All of these are begging me to stop,
and the neck too.

I pull down the page.
The scroll-bar catches, and lets go
There is more beyond the more
And more after.

My resource investigator brain
My hunter gatherer excitement
insists

The blank page
fills

Information transmits
spaced by whitepage lacunae

A tap, a click
a pause in the information flow
and then the delicious down-arrow saccade flutter
of information, arriving.
  

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

the spam filter falls out of sync with online registration requirements

Today's message is brought to you by the colour grey and the letters f, m and s,

Dear [Redacted]

I'm assuming what I am responding to is an automated marketing email that gets sent when someone has started the process of looking at a report but not registered. So I'm not especially expecting a response. However, I do in this circumstance have a thing to say, so I'm going to say it, even though I might be howling into the empty void of a shared inbox in an abandoned marketing department (though the individual name was a nice touch, [Redacted]).

Straightforwardly, I AM interested in looking at your reports. I was slightly disappointed to discover that I have to register my details to do so, but understand that information is often transactional; and be reassured that, though my password lists now run to eight pages, like most adults working in the sector I've grown hardened to this. So here I am, trying to register on your website right now, but it's not going well. Not because I'm unwilling to register (although I am, a little - if's cheeky to call something free when the cost is actually registration and consent to be marketed to) but because though I've certainly started the registration process, I really can't complete it.

The problem occurring is that your verification code emails aren't getting through our spam filters. Yes, yes, yes. I know. Check my spam folder. But in common with many large organisations nowadays, we don't have "spam folders" as such to check (well, I do, but let's leave that aside for now, your verification email won't be in it). Instead, emails considered to be potentially spam are quarantined at server and sent on at midnight for me to review and release if non-suspicious the following morning. It stops about half my spam and quarantines about the same amount of legitimate mail, which is annoying enough that I've put in a service call about it, but tolerable enough that when I was told there was nothing that could be done I accepted it, shrugged and carried on.

But it's just starting to quarantine verification emails, sometimes, now. You're the second site it's done it for. I did a thing for the last site, but for you, I've just let it sit for now. I'll come back to the problem tomorrow. 

If your verification links don't expire, I can just click it tomorrow morning. That would be pretty poor security practice though, and I would expect better of you, [Redacted], even though this bit of your service is barely more than an email-harvest to allow access to faully anonymised content. There's no help available, either specific to registration and log-on, or generally on the site, so any solution would need to be mine, and mine alone. I did, as you always do, that quick time cost vs. information benefit calculation and decided to shelve fixing it until tomorrow and then decide if I wanted to activate a workaround.

Then your email plopped into my inbox, offering to help me realise how many reports you had and how valuable they were, and how I really should register. Trying to win my heart, this with superlatives and oily with salestalk. I only say this, [Redacted] because you are a Marketing Manager, and salestalk is what you do. I mean no criticim. But you see, the trouble is, this spam thing I'm using, it's not something odd or boutique. It's one of the major, major solutions in use in big organisations. What I'm saying, [Redacted], is that it won't just be me. It's going to be lots of people, and this mail is going to go to all those people.

So please, check your stats. Revisit your registration story. And for heaven's sake, rein in or differentiate the follow-up emails. The user isn't always saying f*** this. Sometimes they are saying this is f***ed.

Sincerely,

[insert standard sig here]

Sunday, August 06, 2017

the day that moodgym went behind a paywall

Every two years, or so the joke went, I needed to go into the moodgym. Ever since a bad sequence, first with depression with cause, then with a trainee counsellor, and then with a very slow sequence of learning emotional management, I stumbled across the moodgym. It's possible that I was just in a receptive phase when I found it; or maybe it is actually better than the other tools, but it proved useful. Whenever the wobbles started to become a steady veering off the road, back into the moodgym I would go and get back in shape. I especially appreciated the opportunity to do without the counsellor; who needs a little additional social anxiety chucked into the mix?

I'd suggest it to people, from time to time. Although you had to role-play being an Australian university student, that in itself was weirdly soothing; the online equivalent of the disassociative finger-wiggle. The anonymous web-forms kept your secrets. You decided when you'd done enough, how deep to go, and what to explore.

The UK versions all charge. Most of these things charge, in fact, and I wondered if they were better. As someone with mild to moderate depression I can sign up for the right sort of studies to try them out, and I kept and eye out and applied for one. I was assigned to the control group, though, which got Moodgym (hey ho). Going in with a critical, reviewer's eye though, was interesting. It was relatively simple, but then so is emotional regulation. Like the old joke about healthy eating being communicable in a single sentence (eat moderately, not too much meat) healthy thinking is almost as straightforward (think positively, be kind, solve or set aside problems). The difficulty lies as ever with habits and habituation. The gentle repetitions of moodgym help deconstruct and reconstruct these. The simple, undistracting design was a relaxing retreat from the hyperstimulation of online activity. It was good, I said in my feedback. It helped.

So to 2017 and I suggest it, again, and later get a gentle email enquiry sent through. "Free?" it says. I go check and discover that this product developed with public money has been spun out into a commercial enterprise and that moodgym now sits behind a paywall. Bah. Over a million users worldwide, it boasts. Well. I bet that's gone down a bit from its peak years. It's still way cheaper than the UK's finest, the Big White Wall, and has the added benefit that at least we know what's inside it; Big White Wall's description could as easily describe Youthnet's The Mix, an online information website with peer support forums moderated by, well, youth workers for the Mix and health workers for Big White Wall. For the amount they're charging I'm assuming there's more to it than that, but for £24/month I'm not going to be finding out any time soon. In fact, for AU$39/year I'm not going to be finding out how Moodgym's revamp went.

Not to worry, though. There's an American charity (yes, sorry, you're still roleplaying) called Anxiety BC which is making effective self-help tools available freely online, and you can build up a pretty good programme using their tools. There is content for all manner of different individual situations (check tools from the adults section too) but here are three things that are basically useful for everyone:
No online forms, sadly. You have to use an app (Mindshift) or print out sheets of paper. So yes, I do miss the simple, low stimulation web-forms of Moodgym (athough redesign, so that may have changed) and its closed, tidy structure. But similar tools are still out there, and still outside the paywalls. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

an undifferentiated mess of atomic information items

This week's advice on better writing for the web included an unexpected moment of poetry, when a poorly designed page was described as an an undifferentiated mess of atomic information items.

The approved style (short sentences, subheadings, single concept, paragraphs chunked to clarity) is drummed into my style nowadays. As a creator of information content, I have to write. But writing, the web tells us is bad; not what the reader wants. We should use as little of it as possible.

This struggle between attention span and communication needs has lead us to a new homogeneity of current web-fashion. The previous, post-tablet, mobile first look I derided as noddy and big buttons has superficially grown up; bright colours are muted, pictures are bought from the classy end of the clip-art collection. But the pictures are very large, and there are almost no words, and destination actions are conspicuously absent, or come with a design shelf that makes it clear that this idea belongs to a previous iteration of the communication object.

This new look, perhaps all pictures, no facts or functions, is in part lead by the templating of the modern web service providers, and in part by a desire to have websites look current uber alles. The straight-out-of-the-box option is so simple, so quick, as fast to set us as an instagram feed; and does even less, until you start to shell out for premium features.

At least the page that is an undifferentiated mass of information items (and I do automatically start thinking about my university site, my authority site when I say this, because damn those sites are confusing until you learn them), but at least that site has information on it.

Beware the sirens of over-optimisation. At the end of the story, you're saying nothing to everybody, endlessly.

Monday, June 19, 2017

searching for yoga mats, sorted by price

I was trying to find a yoga mat on a leading online everything store (birthday present rather than for personal use) and after the usual frustrating first five minutes of trying to hone the search to actually include yoga mats my intended gift victim would enjoy, set the sorting to price high to low. Yoga mats topped out at a relatively modest £5K+, which shows how much the algorithm price wars have dropped off in recent years. In fact, a lot of the ads were for legitimately expensive items like inflatable and ultra-padded cheerleading mats, giant yoga mats to cover an entire room, and  yoga mat trolleys. Still a few people kicking it old-school though, with the list topped by three identical and utterly ordinary products priced in the thousands.

But it was when I set the pricing low to high (looking for carry straps I think) that the real surprise occurred. There were two or three yoga mat carry straps, but everything else was, I kid you not, teeny tiny tacky lacy strappy undies illustrated by all manner of pictures of professionally pleased to see you ladies. I was in the grip of a big EEEK already (mainly at the thought of the ads that would now be chasing me across the internet) when I spotted that adult items had been excluded from the search. Well, thank heavens for that, I suppose.

But what the heck is happening here? Time for five minute's thought:
  • Hypothesis #1: Some SEO scamp has tagged all the products in the store (it is all one store)  with Yoga Mat, presumably on the grounds that ladies who like yoga may also like skimpy pants.
  • Hypothesis #2: It is common practice to massively multiply tag penny items, on the assumption that people just go into a click-buy haze when they see such bargains.
  • Hypothesis #3: There is some alternative use for yoga mats of which I am not aware.

I clicked through to one of the more innocuous items to check it out, and what's been done is either sort of clever, in an annoying sort of way, or a result of automatic categorisation having gone wrong. It's also possible it's an exploitation of a known weakness, so essentially both.

Under special offers, possibly because there is no-where else to go when most of what you're selling is retailing at £0.01+ p+p, the seller has simply linked back to some site search pages, including best rated yoga mat reviews among  other outdoor and fitness categories. The category assigned, Sports > Outdoors > Fitness > Yoga > Mats, appears to have been lifted from this non-information in the special offer category.

While the seller is a mere # 69,166 in the Sports > Outdoors category, they are a surprisingly high #384 in Sports > Outdoors > Fitness > Yoga > Mats, suggesting that for some yoga fans at least, hypothesis #1 (or potentially, for some lingerie fans, hypothesis #3) does hold.

Hypothesis #2 I discarded by running a few more searches (shoe stretchers, pepper grinders, sugar mice, yoga bricks, door mats, watch straps, exhaustive search run fans). No other search terms had suffered this mass lingerie invasion.

Right then, onto the incorrect product information feedback forms.