September 27, 2004

N2H2 (censorware company) PR "statistics" in news article

The infamous example of lying with statistics from censorware company N2H2 appeared yet again in a news article:

Workplace porn: alive and well
Friday, September 24 2004
by Deirdre McArdle

Filtering technologies can also play a part in protecting both companies and their employees from inappropriate material. ...

Perhaps the biggest mistake firms can make is to do nothing to stop this growing problem, and it is just that: a growing problem. "Internet and e-mail usage is continuing to grow, as is the number of adult websites online," said Wisdom. The scale of growth of these adult websites is phenomenal: filtering software company said that there were more than 260 million pornographic web pages on the internet in 2003, compared to only 14 million in 1998.

Now, what is the use of my pointing out that the numbers quoted here rely entirely on the censorware company's own words, with no check as to their honesty? That any implication about "a growing problem" should be placed in the context of the fact that the relative proportion of "pornographic web pages" has arguably not changed at all? (that is, relative to the total web). Who is reading? Who cares?

Give my marginalization, the people hearing me about censorware are generally either a tiny number of hardcore fans, in which case nothing is gained by my going over the topic again, or, oppositely, those who don't care, such as censorware company employees (really - practically, these are some of my most dedicated readers!). Remember the N2H2 legal case - I can't risk a lawsuit for any decryption research.

This is one example of why I have such a dim view of the blog blather. My voice is nowhere near the reach of N2H2's flacking. Preaching to the choir is useless from the standpoint of having any effect.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in censorware | on September 27, 2004 11:36 PM (Infothought permalink) | Followups
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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Remember my post yesterday? Kos took his small audience as encouragement (not "be happy with your station") and proceeded to build it. You see your audience size as something to be ashamed of. Please, don't be ashamed of me.

I, and probably your other readers, apply an "anti-complaining" filter to extract the interesting stuff from your writings. Complaining about the small size of your audience doesn't help grow the audience. Write the interesting stuff.

Maybe you could ask your audience if they have any ideas about how to check the censorware company claims. It seems that checking on the sizes they report could be done by sampling the web and counting. Over a short time one should be able to notice a "phenomenal" growth. I don't see that this would run afoul of DMCA or other laws. The sampling code could be licensed under the GPL to encourage additional fact checking.


Posted by: Fred at September 28, 2004 07:15 AM

Fred, I'm not "ashamed", please, no offense meant. But the numbers are what they are. There's a problem with what I call the
"bang your head against the wall" argument. I can't grow my audience, because my efforts are not sustainable.
Kos was working the political ranting angle. There's a huge audience for political ranting. There isn't much support for tech freedom fighting.

Yes, I am frustrated, because if I write interesting censorware stuff, IT WON'T BE HEARD!
(no, the teeny-tiny fan audience does not suffice here :-().

I regard this as an indisputable statement of fact, after what happened with the DMCA exemption. It's unpleasant. It's disheartening. But it seems to be true as objective evidence.

Consider what happened with an earlier statistical study, where results critical of censorware were attacked, but support was given via a front-page Slashdot article defense. Now consider, very seriously how Slashdot is unlikely to defend me!

This isn't only complaining. It's examining how my anti-censorware work has been destroyed.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at September 28, 2004 10:14 AM

Well, yes and no. Your direct audience is fairly small (and likely to remain so). But you do/can have influence, as indicated by those with larger readerships who have cited your work.

I'm acutely aware of the difference between quantity and quality: My zine has a modest readership (in absolute terms), but there are strong indications that it's read by people who matter (in the field).

Similarly, I'm (almost certainly) preparing a formal publication on policy/technology intersections in libraries (which will certainly be informed by your work); it will directly reach a fairly small audience (a subscription medium) but will have more impact than its direct numbers.

Bottom line--and, of course, I'm suspicious of the blog blather as well (and still don't run one)--it's quality of readership that matters, not quantity.

Posted by: Walt Crawford at September 28, 2004 11:06 AM

Walt, there's what I call a "second approximation" to the argument - obviously, e.g. a law journal doesn't have nearly the circulation of a national newspaper, but can be more influential due to the nature of its audience. But I'm not a part of the system, in the sense that I'm not making a law/policy career. In fact, it's extremely off-putting to me to see others getting the high-priced consulting jobs, the prestige, the press-platform, the funding - while I labor in obscurity and pay out of my own pocket. Just on the off chance I might have some effect. It's not worth it.

The key mathematical aspect is that the activism work is not costless - in time, in stress, in foregone paying work, in negative reputation, and so on.

Now, I realize that statement might be taken as useless complaining. But the mathematics of it is stark.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at September 28, 2004 12:18 PM

I can't disagree: That's a calculus each of us needs to make for themselves (sorry about the grammar). I wouldn't argue with your decisions, for you, at this point in your life.

It's easier to "give back" and branch out later in life (e.g., when you're an old fart like me), after establishing reasonable comfort in paying occupations. Then, if the extra effort is influential but not remunerative, it's no big deal. Or if it becomes a big deal, maybe you stop. (Legal risks are another issue, and you don't see me urging you to keep taking them, since you also don't see me taking such risks!)

As to whether those extra efforts ever can turn out to be remunerative as well as influential, since you were interested in my "monetization" half-hearted efforts: it's a crapshoot, but sometimes things can work out. The voluntary-donations thing isn't going to make me wealthy--so far, enough to pay for about half a day of a cruise--but there have recently been side-effects that are more promising. Not wealthy-making, but significant by my modest standards. That doesn't help your situation.

Posted by: Walt Crawford at September 28, 2004 09:01 PM

I think one of the issues that you need to face is not the "I have a small audience" problem, but the question of "Will new readers stick around for more?"

That's where I feel a bit frustrated. I have pointed several people to your site, and their response has been along the lines of "interesting stuff, when you get past the pity-party." They see the same "gems" that we do, but it is often wrapped in self-referential defeatest "but no one listens!" complaints.

Personally, I understand where you are coming from. I've been reading your site a while, and have taken the time to go back and check out the history of what happened. But new readers aren't going to do that unless they are hooked by the narrative. A year or so ago, the narrative seemed compelling to me. These days, it doesn't.

When you get a Slashdot/Lessig/whatever spike, the content that is on the page _today_, not the archives, will determine who stays and who dismisses you. The flippant answer is obviously "write more interesting stuff", but that's of no help at all. All I can really say is that the core readership is already familiar with the issues behind your cessation of censorware research and the hijacking, so pounding that drum doesn't enlighten anyone, and seems to drive away potential new readers.

Wish I had a solution, because you really do deserve to be read.

Posted by: Stephen Cochran at September 30, 2004 04:52 PM

Walt: Again, thanks for the sentiment - I'll send you some email about "monetization".

Stephen: I'm familiar with the criticism. When I started this blog, I had the notion that I'd follow the "unedited voice" concept, the bad with the good, because I was attempting to be between the news-echoer (where I have no special skill) and the pure diary (of no general interest). Hence the clause in the description header about "... an inside view of net-politics". It seemed like a good idea at the time. But in retrospect, it wasn't, from not grasping the privileges of celebrities and blogging gods.

Non-diary blogging is about being a freelance writer trying to be "discovered". Same hassles, sucking-up to editors, I mean A-listers, writing pulp entertainment, I mean popular rants, and being told nobody wants to hear about the trials and tribulations of the unsuccessful writer.

I'm basically giving up. Because it's clear I'm never going to be given the support and backing that's needed to move higher, and hoping to win the lottery isn't a productive strategy.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at September 30, 2004 06:24 PM