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Jon Ronson, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”

jon-ronson-publicly-shamed‘I’m writing a book about public shaming,’ I told Clive. ‘With citizen justice we’re bringing public shame back in a big way. …’

If ever there was a chilling book on the impact of social media platforms, then Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed tops the list. This book is about ordinary people who were publicly shamed through an ill-timed and foolish tweet or a Facebook post, which unfortunately went viral, resulting in the “shamed victim” losing their jobs and becoming a recluse. Jon Ronson began to write this book when his identity was hijacked by spambot. He managed to wrest his identity back only after having publicly shamed the team which had created the spambot, otherwise they were determined to keep the infomorph alive, asking Jon Ronson to “play along”. It was after this personal experience of having publicly shamed the creators of a robot version of himself did Jon Ronson realise the power of citizen justice and democratization of justice. But this incident made him decide “the next time a great modern shaming unfolded against some significant wrongdoer — the next time citizen justice prevailed in a dramatic and righteous way — I would leap into the middle of it. I’d investigate it close up and chronicle how efficient it was in righting wrongs.” ( p.10-11)

This is exactly what he did. He documented a range of people who had been publicly shamed — from bestselling authors like Jonah Lehrer ( who continues to be represented by literary agent Andrew Wylie) for making up stories about Bob Dylan; a politician who had concealed his sexual orientation was shamed into going public about it; Justine Sacco who sent a tweet with a racist overtone and a couple of young men attending a technology conference who posted a seemingly innocuous joke about a dongle but with sexist underpinnings. He tracked many cases, meeting many of those people involved. His findings are disconcerting. ( Jon Ronson, 12 February 2015 , NYT “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life”  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/15/magazine/how-one-stupid-tweet-ruined-justine-saccos-life.html?_r=0 )

Many people who posted messages online did it on an impulse, under the mistaken belief the messages would be read by only their circle of acquaintances, familiar with their personalities. Little realising whatever content is created online rarely disappears and stoked by the mysterious ways in which the Google algorithms work posts can go viral with very unexpected consequences.  A link to a page or a post is like a nod of respect. If the page linking to the particular page has a lot of links to it then the page counts for more votes. The internet particularly social media platforms are like an echo chamber where the number of “likes” approving a post can push it to a high PageRank. “The Google algorithm prejudges them as well liked.” As Jon Ronson discovered the Internet is not necessarily about the individual but about the big companies dominating data flows of the Internet. It made Ronson wonder if companies like Google made money from destruction of Justine Sacco?

Could a figure be calculated? And so I joined forces with a number-crunching researcher, Solvej Krause, and began writing to economists and analysts and online ad revenue people. 

Some things were known. In December 2013, the month of Justine’s annihilation, 12.2 billion Google searches took place – a figure that made me feel less worried about the possibility that people were sitting inside Google headquarters personally judging me. Google’s ad revenue for that month was $4.69 billion. Which meant they made an average of $0.38 for every search query. Every time we typed anything into Google: 38 cents to Google. Of those 12.2 billion searches that December, 1.2 million people were searching the name Justine Sacco. And so, if you average it out, Justine’s catastrophe instantaneously made Google $456,000. 

But it wouldn’t be accurate simply to multiply 1.2 million by $0.38. Some searches are worth far more to Google than others. Advertisers bid on ‘high yield’ search terms, like ‘Coldplay’ and ‘Jewellery’ and ‘Kenya vacations’. It’s quite possible that no advertiser ever linked their product to Justine’s name. But that wouldn’t mean Google made no money from her. Justine was the worldwide number-one trending topic on Twitter. Her story engrossed social media users more than any other that night. I think people who wouldn’t otherwise have gone onto Google did so specifically to hunt for her. She drew people in. And one they were there I’m sure at least a few of them decided to book a Kenya vacation or download a Coldplay album. 

I got an email from the economics researchers Jonathan Hersh. He’d come recommended by the people who make Freakonomics Radio on WYNC. Jonathan’s email said the same thing: “Something about this story resonated with them, so much so that they felt compelled to google her name. that means they’re engaged. If interest in Justine were sufficient to encourage users to stay online for more time than they would otherwise, this would have directly resulted in Google making more advertising revenue. Google has the informal corporate motto of “don’t be evil”, but they make money when anything happens online, even the bad stuff.’ 

In the absence of any better data from Google, he wrote, he could only ever offer a ‘back of the envelope’ calculation. But he thought it would be appropriately conservative — maybe a little too conservative — to estimate Justine’s worth, being a ‘low-value query’, at a quarter of the average. Which, if true, means Google made $120,000 from the destruction of Justine Sacco. 

Maybe that’s an accurate figure. Maybe Google made more, or possibly less. But one thing’s certain. Those of us who did the actual annihiliating? We got nothing. 

( p.263-4)

Given this disquieting discovery, it is not surprising companies such as reputation.com have been established. They offer a “strategic schedule for content creation and publication…create a natural-looking activity online…a lot of accumulated intelligence” with the purpose of creating a bland internet presence for a person, preferably moving the negative posts to pages beyond the first page.

While I write this blog post, noted filmmaker Anurag Kashyap has posted on his Facebook page a long note about  his latest Bollywood film, Bombay Velvet. Critics have not been kind about the film but as a Facebook post points out, “there is a bit of schadenfreude of bringing him down a peg or two. (a few of them have are his fanboys, by the way.)” Noted journalist, Poonam Saxena, says “the negative chorus around the film reminds me of a lynch mob.” There is a term for this — “virtual lynching”.

A simple fact easily forgotten when navigating one’s way through cyberspace is that usually an online identity is a real person. So the online activity on a person’s social media timeline is more often than not a direct projection of their real personality. Under the mistaken notion that the Internet is a place where anything can be said  people make the classic mistake of revealing more than they should, especially when speaking to strangers. Truth is that the same rules and etiquette that exist in real world must be observed online too. In fact to err on the side of caution would be preferable since nothing is ever lost on the internet. By strewing these careless digital breadcrumbs as many of the people shamed discovered to their horror get embedded in a vast and intricate “surveillance” network, i.e. the Internet. There will always be people who will not allow the shamed person to forget.

In fact the extract published in the New York Times earlier this year about Justine Sacco was shared by schools too to alert parents and students to the consequences of irresponsible and inappropriate behaviour online. This is a fabulously disquieting book meant to be read, discussed and shared.

Jon Ronson So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed Picador, London, 2015. Pb. pp.280 Rs 599

17 May 2015

 

 

 

Literati: Diversity in books (6 September 2014)

Literati: Diversity in books (6 September 2014)

Jaya BhattacharjiMy monthly column, Literati, in the Hindu Literary Review was published online ( 6 September 2014) and in print ( 7 September 2014). Here is the url http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/literati/article6386263.ece. I am also c&p the text below.  The post from Malorie Blackman’s Facebook wall has been used with her permission. 

The 10-book challenge

There is a 10-book challenge circulating on Facebook. The idea is to put together ten books that have stayed with you as a reader. Reading the lists circulating on posts is an interesting exercise. There were the expected names such as Enid Blyton, P. G. Wodehouse, Jane Austen, William Golding, Graham Greene, Sue Townsend, Gerald Durrell, Ogden Nash, Ayn Rand, Henry Miller, Mary Stewart, L. M. Montgomery, Coetzee, Julian Barnes, J D Salinger, Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, Charles Dickens, Seamus Heaney, Douglas Adams and Michael Ondaatje. Those from or of South Asian origin included familiar names such as  Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Upmanyu Chatterjee , Rokeya S. Hossain, Rohinton Mistry, Khaled Hosseini, Mohsin Hamid, Khushwant Singh, Amitav Ghosh,  Salman Rushdie, Jamil Ahmed, Arun Kolatkar, Kiran Nagarkar and Qurrulatain Hyder. In translation there were a handful, many repeated often–Sukumar Ray, Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Haruku Murakami, Franz Kafka, Umberto Eco, Marjane Satrapi, Nikos Kazantzakis, Fyodr Dostoevsky, Orhan Pamuk, Mario Vargas Llosa, Leo Tolstoy, and Roberto Calasso.  Surprisingly Shakespeare, Valmiki’s Ramayana, The Bible, Hermann Hesse, Khalil Gibran, C. S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, A. A. Milne, Hemingway, Neil Gaiman, Goscinny and Uderzo’s Asterix and Obelix series, Herge, Bill Watterson, J.K. Rowling, Philip Pullman, J. R. R. Tolkein, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Paulo Coelho and J. M. Barrie were not mentioned as often as I expected them to be.  ( The names have not been listed in any particular order.) These catalogues are useful since they remind us of what makes “classic” literature. Yet there are deafening silences. I scoured lists from different regions, hoping to discover authors and books popular in those cultures—these could be in translation or different categories, titles that are rarely heard of overseas; it was not to be. Majority of the titles mentioned were of internationally established household names.

These games have their uses. Many authors are discovered through conversations. At the same time vast amounts of literature are not easily recalled. For instance, literature in other languages apart from English was rarely acknowledged and women writers continued to be in a minority. Children’s literature too was not often referred to all though many lists consisted of books read as children. Hence it is not surprising that there has been a call by many international writers to discuss diversity in books–a campaign started in May ( http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/ ). The hashtag –#WeNeedDiverseBooks and #diversityinbooks—on Twitter is worth reading for examples from around the world, across genres, languages and regions. An unfortunate fallout of this campaign was the racial abuse Malorie Blackman, Children’s Laureate ( 2013-15) faced in UK. As she wrote in a Facebook post “I talked about diversity in literature walking hand in hand with inclusion. I talked about the books for our children being more diverse so that we see more stories featuring children/YA with disabilities, travellers, LGBT, protagonists of colour, diverse religions, classes and cultures. Not once did the phrase in the banner headline pass my lips because I don’t think in those terms.” This was misrepresented in a banner headline as “Children’s books have ‘too many white faces’”. Since then the news corporation responsible for this story has apologized to her on Twitter.

Discovering authors

Nury Vittachi, author and keynote speaker at the recently concluded JumpStart pointed out that three out of four people are Asian or African.  So to find the young adult title The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a bestseller, selling more than 5.7 million copies, is curious. In fact it contributed to the success of Penguin Random House worldwide generating revenues of €1.5bn (£1.2bn) in the six months to June 2014. Surely there are other titles that have been equally well-received by readers, but not so prominent?

Discovering an author is a riddle, paradoxically not easily resolved even in the age of information. Altaf Tyrewala writes “How miserable it must be to want only what one wants. I don’t remember people being so disinterested in the unfamiliar. Folks these days seem annoyed when they encounter something that they haven’t already cross-checked, as if the perpetually connected sizzle of their web-wired lives precludes the possibility of anything still remaining unknown.” (“New and Second-hand”, Engglishhh: Fictional Dispatches from a Hyperreal Nation)

Last week while speaking in a panel discussion to celebrate “Kitaabnama: Books and Beyond” completing one year of programming on Doordarshan television, it struck me this series addresses many of these challenges that affect publishers—diversity, discoverability, and accessing new markets. Kitaabnama’s format of having a conversation in the first half, followed by an author reading in the second half, and allowing it to be multilingual, immediately opens a new world of literature to the viewers.

Today it is possible to discover books in many ways. For instance, Martin Amis’s new novel—The Zone of Interest–a holocaust comedy, set in fictional Auschwitz, failed to interest his regular German and French publishers and it may struggle to find readers overseas. Yet the buzz about it on the internet suggests otherwise. So discoverability and diversity in books is possibly easily overcome with multiple formats to disseminate information about books and access authors.

6 September 2014

Robin Sloan, “Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore”

Robin Sloan, “Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore”

That is super-depressing. If I made five million dollars selling books, I’d want people to carry me around in a palanquin constructed from the first editions of The Dragon-Song Chronicles. (p.99 )

Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
Web-designer Clay Jannon is a victim of the recession, desperate for a job when he discovers Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The management is looking for a clerk to manage the musty and mysterious bookstore on the night shift. It suits Clay perfectly little realising what he is committing himself to. From there unravels a fabulous, charmingly told, rich with details and imaginatively narrated, a story about a young man’s quest in unravelling the mysteries of the bookstore where he works. It is a delicious and intoxicating mixture of good fiction, fantasy, mystery, and most definitely about contemporary publishing, its history and the impact of technology over time. There are delightful conversations about bookstores, technology in print and publishing, ebooks and print books. For instance:

“I was under the impression they [young people] read everything on their mobile phones.”

“Not everyone. there are plenty of people who, you know– people who still like the smell of books.”

“The smell!” Penumbra repeats.”You know you are finished when people start talking about the smell.”

p.65

Robin Sloan wrote this novel while working as Media Manager at Twitter. It was inspired by a friend’s tweet that read ““Just misread a sign for a 24-hour book drop for 24-hour bookshop. My disappointment is beyond words.” He wrote it down and it became a 6,000 word short story a few months later. He published it on his website http://www.robinsloan.com/ . Eventually it was the prototype for this novel, a 2012 New York Times Bestseller title.

It is a satisfying read because the storytelling is intelligently done. It is an absorbing account of a secret society called the Unbroken Spine that has a cult following. Its members are determined to unravel the 500-year-old “Founder’s Puzzle”. Unbroken Spine was established by Aldus Manutius, fifteenth century publisher, who “believed there were deep truths hidden in the writings of the ancients– among them, the answer to our greatest question…– How do you live forever?” Upon his death Manutius left behind a book called Codex Vitae — book of life. It was encrypted and the key was given to only one person: his great friend and partner, Griffo Gerriszoon. A book that lingers with you for a long time afterwards is a treasure, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is one of those. 

There is a link that I came across. It is an online space about everything and anything related to the novel. http://readingmapofpenumbras24hourbookstore.wordpress.com/about-the-author/

Robin Sloan Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore Atlantic Books, Great Britain, 2013. Pb. pp. 290

1 Sept 2013

 

On “discoverability” in publishing. (PubSpeak, BusinessWorld, Aug 2013)

On “discoverability” in publishing. (PubSpeak, BusinessWorld, Aug 2013)

PubSpeak, Jaya

( My monthly column, “PubSpeak”, in BusinessWorld online. July 2013 is on “discoverability”. Here is the link to the orignial url http://www.businessworld.in/en/storypage/-/bw/publishers-search-tools-to-find-readers/r1013160.37528/page/0 )

Publishers’ Search Tools To Find Readers

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose on why it is the discovery of a book that ultimately matters for the business of publishing

How does a reader ‘discover’ an author/book? Today digital technology is rapidly becoming a unifying factor in the coming together of print and electronic forms of publishing. It is also responsible for the “discoverability” of a book. Traditional forms of discovery – curation in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, word-of-mouth recommendations, libraries, second hand bookstores, gifts, book reviews in newspapers and magazines and book clubs continue to be significant. Literary prizes too are important.

Chinaman
Caroline Newbury, VP Marketing and Publicity, Random House Publishers India explains the link well with reference to their author, Shehan Karunatilaka winning the DSC prize worth $50,000 in 2012 for his book Chinaman. “Any prize which supports both new and established writers is to be praised but the DSC Prize is a special case for its specific promotion of writing about South Asia,” says Newbury. “Since its DSC Prize win we have reprinted Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman and its prize-winning credentials definitely help bring it to a wider readership in India and beyond.”

Yet it is the popular modes of discovering a book including online reading communities like Goodreads and Riffles; advertisement banners in e-mails and on websites; automatic recommendations on online retail sites like Amazon, Flipkart; conversations and status updates in social media spaces such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest; following literary curators; bloggers; and even movie adaptations of a book.

50 Writers
Two books that I read recently – 50 Writers, 50 books: The Best of Indian Fiction and Reading New India: Post-millennial Indian Fiction in English, apart from being thought-provoking commentaries on literature, are a good way of discovering authors. The first is an anthology of essays discussing books from Indian fiction, across languages and the second a critique with a synopsis of the stories of predominantly commercial fiction. The texts complement each other well, but for a reader they are valuable for discovering fiction hitherto they have unheard of, especially since the fiction discussed is recommended by academics, authors, critics and literary tastemakers.
reading-new-india-post-millennial-indian-fiction-in-english

It is important to delineate the thin line between discoverability and promotion of a book. Discoverability would depend largely upon the gravitas of the book, the whispers that are heard about a book in various contexts. But promotions would be the marketing blitzkrieg created by the publishing houses. These could include the predictable book launches, panel discussions, and author tours, interviews in the prominent newspapers and participating in literary festivals. Now add to that list partnerships with coffee chains. Authors too are beginning to hire PR firms and consultants to strategise and create a media buzz for their books.

Last week two publishing professionals – Jonathan Galassi, head of Farrar, Straus & Giroux (http://www.vulture.com/2013/07/farrar-straus-giroux-jonathan-galassi-on-hothouse.html) and Anakana Schofield, debut novelist ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jul/25/anakana-schofield-how-to-write ) – raised the fundamental question about the meteoric rise in the number of writers, but where are the readers? It seems that for the first time in publishing, there are more writers than readers. It should be considered as a happy trend. More to publish, more to sell. But are there any takers? Or more importantly, how do you discover a book you want to read so that you will buy?

On 1 July 2013 Penguin and Random House announced that their merger had been approved. From 2014, the merged entity Penguin Random House is expected to be publishing 15,000 titles a year. Assuming these are all new titles of the front list, it will be a formidable stable of authors. But at the rate of publishing 41 books a day will only make it tougher to locate a title.

And if this is the scenario in English-language trade publishing how does the rest of publishing fare? Some of the other categories to be considered would be trade lists in other languages, translations, children’s literature, non-fiction, and of course academic publishing. All kinds of authors are struggling to be heard/ read.

And this conundrum of discovering an author or a relevant text extends beyond trade publishing to academic publishing too. Last week The Bookseller, a publishing industry daily, announced that “Google is to bring a textbook sale and rental service to the Google Play store this August in time for the Back to School season. The company announced it had partnered with academic publishers Pearson, Wiley, Macmillan, McGraw Hill and Cengage Google Play will offer textbook rentals and sales for up to an 80 per cent discount, the company has said, which is the same claim Amazon makes for its Kindle textbook rentals.”

This is similar to the CourseSmart model provides eTextbooks and digital course materials. It was founded in 2007 by publishers in higher education including Pearson, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill Education, Bedford, Freeman & Worth Publishing Group (Macmillan) and John Wiley & Sons. According to research firm Outsell Inc Online products accounted for 27 per cent of the $12.4 billion spent on textbooks for secondary schools and colleges in the US last year. Publishers like Pearson Plc and McGraw-Hill Education are also creating online versions of their texts, often loaded with interactive features, and selling students access codes that expire at semester’s end.

These alternative methods of discovering an author may be worth exploring. It is probably “easier” to experiment with dedicated platforms for textbooks where the selling price of a title is exorbitant. So, offering short-term licences (“access codes”) to academics and students to review, rent and (in moderation) print relevant pages creates a wider community of users.

Plus, it is increasingly becoming an important alternative source of revenue generation for publishing firms, although reservations exist about the adoption of a digital format by students, indications are that students prefer books. Whereas for trade publishers investing in platforms will be economically unviable unless you are Penguin and create Book Country. But for most others it will be an expensive proposition unless they opt for digital catalogues. Hence an online, interactive, cross-publisher catalogue service that supplements or replaces traditional hard-copy publisher catalogues like Edelweiss, whose tag line is “Finding your next favourite book is a lot easier”. As marketing executives say books are a low-cost product so media copies are distributed but it is the discovery of a book that ultimately matters for the business of publishing.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and columnist
@JBhattacharji