a blog of data, dystopia and despair

  • Vanity Domain Names

    This past November, rising webhosting costs and general frustration with the inefficient setup of my server in the age of Git and source control prompted me to take control of my digital destiny.

    It took six excruciating months – blowing well past my New Year’s Eve goal – but eventually I successfully pushed all of my previously Wordpress-based projects to a static setup on Github Pages.

    Nothing highlights how many people don’t see your websites than taking them down for two months without hearing a word from anyone.

    But managing the half-dozen websites I host has never been easier or more robust and portable. While at times frustrating, the process was educational, fun and rewarding overall.

    In the process, I found myself needing to relaunch all of my websites. And what good is a relaunch without a makeover? My webhosting and personal tech got a serious upgrade over the past few weeks, including new hardware in my Macbook, a boost to Marshmellow on my phone, a fancy new server sitting in my apartment, faster Internet, a shiny new tablet and more. My whole techno landscape is shiny and new.

    After dragging my blogs through design hell, they joined the ranks of the flat, minimalist, mobile responsive sleek beasts roaming the web these days.

    Frey Hargarten, my primary resume-ish web project, is where most content I produce across numerous publications and platforms is aggregated, mostly for my own gratification and convenience, but also to expand my digital footprint in order to avoid cross-pollination with other people’s work or mistaken identity in search results.

    As Alan Moore famously said1, “If you are on a list targeted by the CIA, you really have nothing to worry about. If however, you have a name similar to somebody on a list targeted by the CIA, then you are dead.”

    I’m not super worried that a CIA wet team will assault my apartment. But even then, while my name is rare, it’s not unique.

    Jeff Hargarten is its most common permutation. Jeffrey Allan Hargarten if I were a snobby tweed-clad academic. Frey Hargarten if you were in a small circle that knew me during my lost years.

    There aren’t a lot of us Jeff Hargartens around. The story goes that those with my last name are all fairly closely related and come from the German Rhineland. So I pity the John Smiths, Jane Does and Alan Smithees2 of the world. Seriously, do parents want to constantly hear about their kids being found adrift in a river or directing B-movies?

    But while the Hargarten name is rare and of murky origin, I am not one-of-a-kind. There’s another Jeff Hargarten3 out there, a doppleganger of sorts. But he’s an older gentleman than I, meaning he’s not my good twin. He seems to own the company NORAM4 in Milwaukee and sells clutch brakes for bikes, tractors, go-karts, chainsaws and other things that would certainly kill me if I used them. There have also been rumblings of a couple others out there, and in the past I’ve been confronted with information related to a Jeff Hargarten who is most decidedly not me.

    The fact that I’m not one-of-a-kind in any way, shape or form – like most of humanity – enhances the importance for me to lay claim to my social media identity before anyone else. In this uber-competitive job market within a vastly expanding global digital community, personal branding is vital, and not in a Gwyneth Paltrow my-stuff-is-goop kinda way5, but rather where my work in unmistakably mine.

    Essentially, I had to upload myself online in Matrix-like fashion before anyone else could move into my piece of personal real estate. From there, it’s possible to define myself before anyone else does, to climb in the search results and craft my identity and brand name in order to hide my innumerable deficiencies.

    With the sheer number of articles I’ve written for various publications, and even some that I haven’t6, I’m already well-placed in a Google search.7 But that’s not good enough. My relative, that other guy – they can still be found hiding the tall grass of Jeff Hargartenia.

    I need social name command to thrive in my field because the unreal is becoming more real than the real.8

    What the Internet says we are has apparently become more important than who we actually are. What’s real has become secondary to online reputation and image. Vague postmodern memories of identity – mere echoes of people we haven’t really known or experienced – are more important in our Huxley-esque dystopian present than getting to actually understand another human being on a personal level. Ratcheting-up our number of followers, friends and subscribers vastly outweighs how many close personal relationships we maintain. While some Millennials might slowly be shifting away from this philosophy to reclaim real life one Instagram rage-quit at a time9, the necessity of maintaining an effective digital presence isn’t dissipating anytime soon.

    Back at the University of Minnesota a handful of years ago, the New Media and Culture class taught by @professorshayla (who incidentally shares a name with an online porn-star whom I couldn’t find after a lengthy search) we discussed the concept of hyperreality10 where our minds reinterpret what’s real upon encountering digital simulations of reality. Hyperreality is reality by proxy, our subconscious assignment of meaning to innately meaningless symbols substituting for a person, institution or object. Jean Baudrillard11 used the example of an insanely-detailed map of the world so accurate and large that it covers the world. As reality beneath the map crumbles, the simulation remains and few notice the world they’re living in is no longer the original.

    Of course, that leads to a brain-twisting journey through existential philosophy where the very concept of reality is questioned since what we see as real is actually just light-based signals translated by our brains, an insignificant sliver of an electromagnetic spectrum too vast for us to comprehend. Like Alice’s extended acid trip through Wonderland, the concept of what’s really real gets turned on its head before being decapitated by the Queen of Hearts.

    We’re already live in a world where curating our online personas takes priority over cultivating ourselves, where the our very essence and focus is uploaded into a frigid underground server room in the Silicon Valley (or Sweden12 and Iceland13 in the case of controversy). In that virtual cloud, information becomes immortal and our digital footprint, that hyperreal representation of ourselves, will persist long after our deaths.

    Cutting to the chase, I went to Namecheap to renew my domain names. Since I’ve already taken ownership of my Facebook page and @JeffHargarten, it seemed that just owning jeffhargarten.com was enough.

    But I’ve started considering an alternative, a unique take on my name and online identity, and have decided to gradually switch my online persona and professional bylines to Frey Hargarten, that permutation of Jeffrey from my past that’s now purely being exploited for cynical branding purposes. Jeff still exists in day-to-day “real” life, but online he will be submerged, leaving a mad scramble for power among my various relatives/dopplegangers.

    So now my main portal blog can be reached using jeffhargarten.com and freyhargarten.com, the latter of which will become my social media signature.

    Over time, this space will likely flesh into a fuller representation of my career to supplant previous interpretations of my name and digital presence.

    Either that, or I’ll get bored with it, neglect to update it regularly and just end up posting random tidbits interesting only to me. Actually, that sounds a lot more representative of who I am.

    1. “Alan Moore” Wikipedia. Link 

    2. “Alan Smithee” Wikipedia. Link 

    3. “Jeff Hargarten” LinkedIn. Link 

    4. “North American Clutch Corporation” Link 

    5. “Goop” Link 

    6. “Authors: Jeff Hargarten” Brainerd Dispatch. Link 

    7. “Google search results: Jeff Hargarten” Link 

    8. “Uncanny Valley” Wikipedia. Link 

    9. Hunt, Ellen. “Essena O’Neill quits Instagram claiming social media ‘is not real life’” The Guardian. November 3, 2015. Link 

    10. “Hyperreality” Wikipedia. Link 

    11. “Jean Baudrillard” Wikipedia. Link 

    12. “The Pirate Bay” Wikipedia. Link 

    13. “Wikileaks” Wikipedia. Link 

    Comments

  • Leave a Comment

    I report, write and design news things. I get a lot of feedback from readers. Some is good. Some is bad. Some is threatening, completely insane or both.

    At my publication, the emails and phone numbers of writers are attached to our content, so we occasionally get some quality one-on-one time with our readers. It can be valuable and enriching to get that kind of feedback. But other times, the interaction can be frustrating, and getting some people off the phone without being completely rude is nigh impossible. But for those who don’t like talking to people, the news media might be the wrong industry to work in.

    It’s the other kind of feedback that’s created a real problem though, one that’s been with us for a while and entirely borne of the digital age: online comments.

    Those two words fill many a digital editor with both dread and amusement and have simultaneously become a joke and a major concern in newsrooms across the world.

    The window of discussion on many comments often ranges from passive-aggressive to outright hostile and deranged, touching upon conspiracy theories, all the things we can thank or blame President Obama for and how every topic — no matter how seemingly benign — touches on political, cultural, racial, gender and other divisions.

    None of this is news to anyone, particularly those in the media.

    We frequently have had to shut down comment threads that have descended into personal attacks, threats and disgusting, bigoted language, only to have the same discussion move away from a political story and continue on stories somewhere like the Home and Garden section. There are some kinds of stories — particularly those involving crime or race — that simply have comments disabled from the get-go. And the emails sent to content listservs whenever we shutdown comments on a controversial story can lead to us being compared to Hitler via email, proving again and again the validity of Godwin’s Law.1

    The other law that frequently applies is Poe’s Law,2 where extreme views and parodies of those who actually hold such views can seem indistinguishable, devolving discourse into a mush pile of smirks and rage.

    This plague of trolls, hatemongers and other assorted habitually angry readers has prompted some major publications like Popular Science3 and Bloomberg4 to kill comments all together, while the Huffington Post5 and others vanquished anonymity in discussion sections. Some have chosen simply not to engage with the problem: Vox and the Verge launched without in-house comments at all. Newsrooms across the country are navel-gazing on what to do about this daily problem on their websites and social media pages.

    And therein lies a struggle as the free press deals with balancing open dialogue against the public incitement of hatred by commenters taking place on their digital turf. Journalism, the only profession explicitly protected by the First Amendment, has to delicately walk the line between protecting the spirit of its sister rights and protecting itself and its readers from a groundswell of hateful and oftentimes personal commentary.

    The issue might be“resolved” across the pond where the European Court of Human Rights ruled in summer 2015 that news websites can be fined for the content of their comments sections.6 But in the United States, that would be a dicey solution.

    Of course, First Amendment rights pertain to the government’s ability to make and enforce laws and don’t necessarily apply to private entities. But for journalism, which is viewed as a public trust — aka the Fourth Estate — there does seem to be an implicit expectation of free and open communications that run both ways between media entities and the citizenry they claim to serve.

    In a culture full of safe spaces and growing sensitivity and awareness of oppressed and marginalized communities, it’s easy to forget that vitriol can be a constructive part of public discourse. Pathos, Ethos and Logos are each important parts of making an argument with different impacts on different audiences even if they can sometimes descend into ad hominem attacks

    That’s not an excuse for racism or bigotry or threats or illegal content, of course. Those things we could do without. But even trolls and the harshest of pundits can make a point.

    Those looking to strike a compromise to keep comments sections while reducing the poison found therein have advocated axing anonymous comments7, which about 25 percent of people have made.8 Research does show that people are more likely to say horrible things about individuals and groups if they can hide behind the shroud of an anonymous screen name.9 Surely if they have to stand by their comments with their real name and perhaps even their photo, discussions would moderate themselves.

    That logic seems sound. But upon entering the fray of the endless digital rage war, that proposition starts to lose steam. One has to look no further than Facebook on any given hour to see people have absolutely no problem making the same kinds of dreadful commentary using fully identifying credentials. It’s lead to media organizations, even those that have abandoned native commenting threads, to hire stringers or assign editors to constantly police Facebook comments — which can be an exhausting and repetitive exercise.

    There have long been tensions between the advocacy of free speech and a social desire to crackdown on hate speech. Every time the Westboro Baptist Church shows up at a soldier’s funeral, there are always those vocally wishing their presence wasn’t legal. SCOTUS hasn’t outlined restrictions on hate speech like they have against defamation, fighting words, incitement, obscenity and other First Amendment exceptions. Part of that is rooted difficulties defining exactly what hate speech is.

    So where do we draw the line? When it comes to discussion communities, on one extreme rests sites like 4chan with nearly complete anonymity and few posting rules. On the other extreme are mainstream news websites that have disabled comments entirely. And when it comes to trolls themselves, there are those merrily playing devil’s advocate trying to push discussions and reveal people’s attitudes and kneejerk reactions — and then there are the racists, bigots and assorted crazy people spewing threats and hatred that promote a chilling effect on constructive discussion.

    Is there a middle ground?

    I have no idea for certain and smarter people than myself may eventually come up with some good solutions. A couple things cross my mind though that are drawn from my own experience:

    1.) For several of my childhood years, I was a moderator for gaming-related bulletin boards — yeah, good ol’ BBS, a long-forgotten yet still-present throwback compared to today’s social media landscape. Boards like those I worked for and sites like Something Awful — a granddaddy of online communities — knew that digital communities thrived best when those who care the most about them were allowed to tend them. The best and most constructive commenters were promoted to community moderators and bestowed powers to police threads and to wield their banhammers with discernment. They knew who the real destructive elements in the community were and who were merely the harmless trolls poking the bear. They had a vested interest in keeping communities going and actively shepherding constructive, on-topic commentary. Some — including myself — even got paid a little something, depending upon the website.

    I have seen it tried at various new media websites but lack the data to know how well it worked.

    Is it a model that can be adopted in a world of Disqus, Facebook-driven comments and other social media platforms? It’s hard to say and might require some adjustments to commenting platforms, and perhaps it’s better suited for websites that have retained in-house commenting systems.

    But I’m interested to know whether it’s worth a try to combat a growing problem of toxic commentary while preserving the constructive, open discussions vital for our democracy.

    2.) I’ve also kicked around the potential value of installing a quiz at the end of each article that would-be commenters must answer before posting.

    It’s been clear over the years that the worst comments I get on my articles are from those who clearly have not read a single word of the piece beyond perhaps the headline. Could a basic quiz about facts from the story act both as a filter against those who just want to incite hatred while also providing a brief cooling down period before people write anything?

    Many comment threads seem to be drowning in ill-conceived hot takes and staggering misconceptions about the subject matter, which cause emotions and words to run wild. Maybe being required to take a moment to breathe and ponder before posting could help?

    These suggestions could be completely off base, but might be ways to mitigate at least some of the hatred while preserving online discourse surrounding the news.

    Further discussion welcomed. Feel free to leave a comment.

    1. “Godwin’s law” Wikipedia. Link 

    2. “Poe’s law” Wikipedia. Link 

    3. LaBarre, Suzanne. “Why we’re shutting off our comments” Popular Science. September 24, 2013. Link 

    4. Bode, Karl. “Bloomberg Latest To Kill Comments Because Really, Who Gives A Damn About Localized User Communities?” TechDirt. February 2, 2015. Link 

    5. Soni, Jimmy. “The Reason HuffPost Is Ending Anonymous Accounts” The Huffington Post. October 26, 2013. Link 

    6. Vaas, Lisa. “News sites can be held responsible for user comments” naked security. June 18, 2015. Link 

    7. Wallsten, Kevin and Tarsi, Melinda. “It’s time to end anonymous comments sections” The Washington Post. August 19, 2014. Link 

    8. Beaujon, Andrew. “25% of people have posted anonymous comments, Pew finds” Poynter. September 5, 2013. [Link](http://www.poynter.org/news/mediawire/222912/25-of-people-have-posted-anonymous-comments-pew-finds/0 

    9. Santana, Arthur D. “Virtuous or Vitriolic: The effect of anonymity on civility in online newspaper reader comment boards” Journalism Practice. Vol. 8 , Iss. 1,2014 Link 

    Comments

  • Can we finally stop relying on primary polls?

    The Iowa Caucus results1 were yet another example of what many of us data nerds have been insisting upon for a long time: polling the presidential primary season – especially in the early stages– is an increasingly worthless endeavor.

    Hillary Clinton in 2008 was seen as inevitable and unbeatable in the Democrat primaries, according to polls, until she wasn’t and fell to Barack Obama. The polls showed Mitt Romney was slated to beat Obama in 2012, until he didn’t. Strategists and pundits leaning on single polls like a crutch for political analysis mocked statistician Nate Silver for his extremely accurate 2012 elections predictions based on polling aggregation and analysis, plus other weighted factors.2 The 2014 midterm was disastrous for media polling as GOP victories swept across the country. Then, of course, the 2016 Iowa Caucus and likely the caucuses and primaries that follow have demonstrated support for certain candidates are undervalued while others are exaggerated when viewed through the lenses of rolling and aggregated polls.

    The data is too sparse and unreliable and the methodology suspect in an age where landline phones near extinction and Internet surveys are only slightly more believable than Internet polls.

    There was a heyday for election polling spanning the 20th Century, when willing participants were more common and more easily reached. But barring a shift away from outdated, inadequate or underfunded research models, polling seems to be in crisis and simply cannot be relied upon as a trustworthy means of taking the electorate’s temperature.

    Pollsters well recognize3 this reality as more people use unlisted cellphones and increasingly don’t take the time to answer surveys, meaning that conducting quality research has become more difficult and expensive. This narrows the demographics of respondents to those older and less technologically connected, which is increasingly unrepresentative of the electorate.

    I had hoped media organizations would have been given more pause when Gallup, which has tracked horse races since it accurately predicted Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 landslide, announced it wouldn’t be engaging in primary polling4 this election cycle due to significant mismatches between reporting and outcomes.

    There is a difference between a poll being accurate and one being predictive. Did the 600 people polled tell the truth about their candidate preferences? Probably, so the poll could be fairly accurate within the scope of the sample. But where the wheels fall off that bus is when media pundits and analysts try using such a snapshot to predict a race’s outcome when people start voting, and I would argue there simply isn’t enough reliable information to make that leap, especially in cases where actual voter turnout5 isn’t being accounted for.

    Many data journalists and statisticians, including the aforementioned Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, have been maligned for suggesting Donald Trump is unlikely to win the GOP nomination and that his soaring national poll numbers are likely inflated. This may or may not prove to be true. But Iowa was the first salvo showing Silver is probably more right than not, since Trump and Ted Cruz’s fortunes were reversed from expectations and Marco Rubio’s totals were significantly higher than polling aggregates suggested.

    Source: HuffPost Pollster

    I would argue any resemblance between the media’s polling and actual vote counts in primaries and caucuses is purely incidental. Even if we argue that aggregate polls for the Democratic race in Iowa showed a clear, narrowing trend line between the top two candidates over time, none suggested the series of coin tosses Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders found themselves engaged in. It was never supposed to be this close according to what the constant flow of media polls suggested.

    Source: HuffPost Pollster

    We only have Iowa under our belt thus far this primary season, so sure, every other state could somehow fall into line with horse race trends reported by various media outlets. But I’m not holding my breath.

    Ann Seltzer – hailed as the best pollster in Iowa for the Des Moines Register, who has a very good track record6 – showed a comfortable Trump caucus win in her final survey result (though Cruz has led the pack at various points over the last few weeks and the drill-down suggested he was more popular). Rather than a knock on a very good pollster who has done well in a very hard to gauge state7, the Register’s poll uncharacteristically missing the mark simply adds to growing doubts about the practice of horse race polling overall and further suggests that Gallup knows something many media outlets aren’t really widely acknowledging: primary polling is rather inaccurate.

    Do I have a solution to close the gap between primary polls and voting outcomes, a golden measurement to predict political futures? No. And there are pretty good polls and surveys out there outside of the realm of early presidential races. Plus, as the campaigns wear on and the field narrows into the general election, polls become slightly more valuable and even more predictive – though even then aren’t beyond suspicion.8

    Rather than tossing election polls out as utterly worthless just yet, I instead simply append a mental asterisk to new numbers and don’t let them guide my expectations. Because beyond the realm of data there are other, better indicators to determine how elections, nominations, primaries and caucuses will turn out – like waiting for people to vote.

    1. Amanda Cox, Alicia Parlapiano and Derek Watkins. “Iowa’s Democratic Caucus Results, Precinct by Precinct” The New York Times. February 2, 2016. Link 

    2. Taylor, Chris. “Triumph of the Nerds: Nate Silver Wins in 50 States” Mashable. November 7, 2012. Link 

    3. Zukin, Cliff. “What’s the matter with polling?” The New York Times. June 20, 2015. Link 

    4. Shepard, Steven. “Gallup gives up the horse race” Politico. October 7, 2015. Link 

    5. Phillip, Abby. “ 

    6. Enten, Harry. “The Best Pollster In Iowa Just Released Its Final Survey — How Accurate Has It Been?” FiveThirtyEight. Janury 30, 2016. Link 

    7. Silver, Nate. “Iowa Is The Hardest State To Poll” FiveThirtyEight. February 1, 2016. Link 

    8. Clement, Scott. “Gallup explains what went wrong in 2012” The Washington Post. June 4, 2013. Link 

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Datamancy is the work of Frey Hargarten, a data journalist and artist.

Don't take my word for anything -- do lots of research instead. My work here is offered under the Creative Commons license.

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