October 10, 2019

How the English Language's Disproportionate Influence Skews Global Narratives

No one questions English’s status as the world’s go-to language for business, tech, tourism and academia, but that popularity has also made it disproportionately influential on news. In a chapter of Hostwriter’s Unbias the News: Why Diversity Matters for Journalism, journalist, writer and managing editor of the Global Investigative Journalism Network Tanya Pampalone looks at how English’s prominent status can lead to skewing of entire narratives. We break down an excerpt of that chapter published for GIJN and look at how this inequality also means missed opportunities for interactions between the non-native and non-English speaking world, creative or otherwise.

By the Numbers

Kai Chan, a distinguished fellow at the INSEAD Innovation and Policy Initiative, put together the Power Language Index in 2016, which measures which languages in the world hold the most influence based on five key factors.

  • (G)eography: countries spoken, land area, tourists (inbound)
  • (E)conomy: GDP, PPP, Exports, FX market, SDR composition
  • (C)ommunications: Native speakers, second-language speakers, language family size, tourists (outbound)
  • (K)nowledge & Media: Internet content, feature films, Top 500 universities, academic journals.
  • (D)iplomacy: United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Supranational Organizations (SNOs).

Based on these factors, Kai presented the world’s top 10 languages, their respective number of native speakers and their score for each factor:

  1. English: 460 mil (G1, E1, C1, K1, D1)
  2. Mandarin: 960 mil (G6, E2, C2, K3, D6)
  3. French: 80 mil (G2, E6, C5, K5, D1)
  4. Spanish: 470 mil (G3, E5 C3, K7, D3)
  5. Arabic: 295 mil (G4, E9, C6, K18, D4)
  6. Russian: 150 mil (G5, E12, C10, K9, D5)
  7. German: 92.5 mil (G8, E3, C7, K4, D8)
  8. Japanese: 125 mil (G27, E4, C22, K6, D7)
  9. Portuguese: 215 mil (G7, E19, C13, K12, D9)
  10. Hindi: 310 mil (G13, E16, C8, K2, D10)

These numbers don’t include the number of non-native speakers. In the case of English, Kai’s research reports over 500 million people who speak it as a secondary language. Other figures place the total number of English speakers at between 1.5 and 2 billion people.

The Perceptual Impact of English

This staggering influence of a single language that came about through various blends of colonialism, commerce, religion, media, and education, extends into many industries including that of news.

In their analysis of 54 million news items from 4,708 news sources in 67 countries in 2015, researchers Lei Guo and Chris J. Vargo found that wealthier countries both attract most of the world news attention and are also more likely to decide how other countries perceive the world.

Miraj Chowdhury, the Bengali editor for the multilingual Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), points out how two newspapers in Bangladesh have circulations of over 500 million, yet the English-language Daily Star with only 50 million dominates the international narrative about that country.

Quality withstanding, it represents a situation where a single source disproportionately shapes a perspective not because of what it does, but simply because of what it is. This dynamic has profound effects on both the news and journalism industries:

  • A story isn’t a story until it surfaces in English: Journalists Ben Nimmo and Aric Toler wrote about the Russian journalists who exposed the troll factory back in 2013, before it was involved with American politics.
  • Awards can’t judge non-English assess properly: Unathi Kondile, South African editor of a Xhosa paper, points out how judges can only properly assess Afrikaans or English written content. This means submitting Xhosa content for consideration becomes a waste of time.
  • Applications based on English ability, not talent: Journalists have to submit applications to international conferences and fellowships in English, which does not reflect their journalistic talent but does affect their chances.
  • Translations skew perspective towards English readers: Journalists quoting non-English-speaking subjects might be forced to translate terms that have no common or accurate English equivalent. Similarly, emphasizing interviews conducted in English can mean a less than accurate picture.

Linguistic Privilege

Seeing the ‘p’ word might trigger a few eye rolls, but in the context of a globalized world, this one can’t be ignored because it applies to basically anyone reading this analysis and because it remains a source of inequality far beyond the world of journalism.

Linguistic privilege is yet another package of benefits we can unwittingly receive whether we’re native or near-native speakers of English. It’s also one we’re less likely to feel because after all, we’re all speaking the same language, right?

Yet we aren’t always speaking it on the same level. When we interact with people who are non-native speakers (especially with a poor command of the language) or people with impeded speech, it’s easy to forget how uneven things are. To give some examples of how “not all languages are created equal.”

  • “A language is a dialect with an army and navy”: Many regions have a prestige variant of language that is still held in a high standard such as Received Pronunciation (the “Queen’s English”) for the UK and General American English within the States. While there are actually many accents and dialects of English, only a handful that almost always includes those two, command the same impact. This is why they dominate ESL materials and the aspirational goals of many learners.
  • The cool factor: If you take English, pair it with digital media and package it with modern aesthetics, it makes for a very effective vector for spreading language and its associated culture (and potentially politics) — and for having it be received more readily. It goes without saying, English is not one of the most widely spoken and officially supported languages, it’s one of the coolest too.
  • Mobility: Of all the non-native languages we’ll see while traveling, there’s a much higher chance it’s going to be English. Even if native words are not translated for us to understand, having them transliterated for us to reference (such as on road signs) is already enabling us to travel and move around with ease.

The Key Takeaways

It’s very easy to dismiss the issues of non-native speakers as “well, you gotta learn English. That’s the way the world works,” but this attitude might only be accurate for so long. The number of secondary-language English speakers is rising daily, and more and more people are growing up speaking more than one language.

This isn’t a call to “stop being ig’nant,” and go out and learn a foreign language (though there’s plenty of other benefits in doing so, even if they’re not cognitive). It’s a reminder to recognize the place English still has in our globalized world, where that reputation came from and how that can skew entire dynamics.

So next time you find yourself in situations where English is the lingua franca between you and another person:

  • Dial back: This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to “dumb down” your language, but scale back the in-jokes, the pop culture references, the jargon and the slang. You might be understood better if you used less of them.
  • Slow down: We get it, it’s hard to be patient when time is money. But be aware of how stressful it is for some non-native speakers to try and communicate with you all the same. Consider slowing down when you’re speaking and process what people feel and intend versus purely the words they’re using when you’re listening.
  • Let them breathe: Similarly, if someone is translating for you on the spot, keep in mind that it is also a challenge and stress you don’t have the burden of. Let the person helping you know they can relax if you don’t need the play-by-play or be polite when you do want to know what’s being said.
  • Empathize: If there’s miscommunication, try to think from a communication problem-solving standpoint towards understanding and common ground versus whose understanding is to blame. Everyone’s seen the rude tourist who assumes they’ll be understood better by being louder, getting more irate and gesturing more wildly. Don’t be traveler.
  • Dig deeper: Assumptions already mess things up between native speakers, the same applies when communicating with non-English speakers. There’s no harm in asking questions to get the full story or more details. If there’s content or a good story on the line, it’ll be much better for it.

English, like a lot of cultural capital, is something that’s so widespread now that it becomes its own thing depending on the region. There are as many varieties of English as there are music genres.

In the case of a “foreign” accent, it often means another language is pulling on it, affecting the way it sounds and making it unique. Like with any sound outside of your comfort zone, it might sound strange and you might not appreciate all of its nuances, but recognize there’s a scene for it, one you gotta respect either way. Who knows, your next client, collaborator, friend or opportunity might come from it.

June 10, 2019

Hollywood is quietly using AI to help decide which movies to make

Los Angeles-based startup Cinelytic licenses historical data about movie performances over time and cross-references it with information about films’ themes and key talent, using machine learning to tease out hidden patterns in the data. Its software then lets clients swap out parts such as lead actors to see how the movie would perform across different territories.

Why the industry is overdue for the AI treatment

Cinelytic’s key talent comes from outside Hollywood. Co-founder and CEO Tobias Queisser comes from the world of finance, where machine learning has been embraced for its utility in high-speed trading to calculating credit risk. Further, Cinelytic co-founder and CTO Dev Sen used to build risk assessment models for NASA, another industry where risk assessment is especially critical.

However, Queisser says that the business side of the film industry is 20 years behind (still relying on Excel and Word) the production side that uses all kinds of high tech to make movie magic.

We’ve been here before

Cinelytics isn’t the first company to attempt to harness AI to predict and improve box office returns:

  • ScriptBook: Belgian company founded in 2015, promised to use algorithms to predict a movie’s success by just analyzing the script.
  • Epagogix: Similarly, UK-based company founded in 2003, uses data from an archive of films to make box office estimates and recommend script changes.
  • Vault: Israeli startup founded the same year promised it could predict which demographics would watch a film by track metrics such as online reception to trailers.
  • 20th Century Fox: Uses a system called Merlin to analyze shots from trailers for content and duration (among other things) and see what other movies people will watch based on preferences.
  • Pilot: Centers its machine-learning process around audience analytics to make box office predictions.

Why this might be good and bad for film

Good: AI saves people the effort of doing some of the things they hate the most, such as sifting through scripts the way a manager would be sifting through a mountain of resumes. This effectively separates the wheat from the chaff.

Bad: For aspiring writers seeking to enter the big leagues, even talented ones, their work might never see the light of day much less a set of human eyes if their story, original as it may be, isn’t attractive to the algorithm evaluating them.

Good: If the prediction models become accurate enough, studios big and small can breathe easier and be more confident with their investments in films, ensuring higher returns on investments and confidence from shareholders, meaning they stay in business longer.

Bad: If an AI-assisted selection process becomes widespread, we’ll see a drop in the diversity of big-budget films being produced as studios seek to cater to the whims of as many demographics as possible, potentially complicating or watering down movies.

Good: Because box office numbers among other end metrics reflect audience choices, AI recommendations from cold hard data could override human prejudices that prevent certain stories from being told or certain people from being involved in a production.

Bad: If followed too closely, those recommendations might mean a studio will get an actor with the biggest box office market draw they can pay for without regard to whether or not the actor fits the story.

At the end of the day

Big studios have to regularly produce films to keep the money coming in year-round by pushing the right audience buttons at the right time of year from summer blockbusters to holiday movies. Movies that are released to coincide with certain attendance patterns (like say, a horror movie in time for Halloween) are usually designed to be enticing and entertaining if forgettable and for these, there are plenty of ways AI can help set big studios up for the best possible numbers they can.

These films types are formulaic enough that allow for this kind of “drag-and-drop” production. An example of this would be family-friendly comedies with a “big dude with a big heart” that have appeared regularly throughout the past twenty-plus years: Arnold Schwarzenegger (Jingle All the Way), Vin Diesel (The Pacifier), The Rock (The Game Plan and The Tooth Fairy) and most recently, John Cena (Playing with Fire).

That said, it remains to be seen if studios will ever let AI override decisions from accomplished writers, producers, and directors whose track record and reputation give them the authority to choose a given actor or other artist to work with. Further, AI can only make predictions based on what has already been made and not how tastes and popularity will shift in the future—the result of many factors outside of a strictly cinema-centric data set. That’s something that requires insight and instinct, something that humans are still valued for.

April 8, 2019

Studio D's "The Little Book of Fixers" is a guide for those working on global projects

The Little Book of Fixers Field Institute

Studio D is a modern company aiming to bring clarity to the complex world around us. The multi-faceted studio is a combination of “discreet international research, design and strategy services to multinational clients with a global remit.” While most of their work is in service of large multi-national companies, they maintain several forward facing projects. These ongoing projects include The Fixer List, a network dedicated to high-level producers and fixers globally as well as SDR Traveller, some of the most innovative and functional luggage offerings out there. As an aside, you can also check out cool recycled tech bags here.

The Little Book of Fixers is a consolidation of Studio D’s efforts and interest in producing and running complex international projects. Hundreds of fixers have lent their expertise. These tips and tricks hone on the ability to find the appropriate help in foreign settings and the best practices to work with local communities.

Why we’re interested

It’s a challenge to create authentic and meaningful outcomes in foreign settings. Studio D’s expertise can serve as a reference point on understanding, respecting, and collaborating with locals. Without accounting for local nuance, the outcomes can sometimes be suboptimal.

The Little Book of Fixers is available now through the Studio D’s online store as well as Amazon for USD 34.

April 3, 2019

Apple News+ will probably be the final nail in the coffin for news publishing

Apple News Plus + will change publishing

Apple News+ might end up being the final nail in the coffin for global news publishing. Unveiled a few days ago, the new USD 9.99 subscription service will aggregate your favorite news sites and magazines all on your Apple devices. Much like iTunes and Spotify revolutionized the music industry, so too will the new news system. What might be a short term win for readers may spell the demise of a flurry of publishers.

Apple wants your money, bar none

Apple’s business model always relied on using software to generate subsequent hardware sales. For example, iTunes exists to sell you iPods and iPhones (and those AirPods you flex hard with). However, the company has experienced challenges recently. Between lukewarm product launches, abysmal sales and increasing competition, Tim Cook now needs to diversify more aggressively. The latest Keynote exemplifies this change: Apple wants to be a part of everything you do. Beyond News+, payments are next via this new card system that extends (directly or not) credit lines to existing customers. Services help generate recurring and steady cash flows from loyal customers, that way the Cupertino behemoth can rest easy/easier if sales don’t go as planned. As such, News+ becomes an extension of this vision, and that might be the problem.

War of the worlds

Why is this such a big deal? If you’ve ever heard of aggregation theory, you’ll quickly understand why this is such a game changer. Imagine buying a single subscription for the best content around instead of one source out of many. Rather than pick your favorite one and forgoing others, you can now get everything for a fraction of the total price. In theory, that’s neat for consumers who get more bang for their buck. It’s also great for Apple who now owns the relationship with consumers, rather than publishers themselves. Publishers get a share of revenue they perhaps never had access to after giving away a hefty 50% cut in exchange for eyeballs. Except it doesn’t work that way, because systems like News+ work roughly the same as Google and Facebook. At the click of a button, the aggregator can change how the algorithm works, sending creators in a pivot frenzy. You might even remember that famous “pivot to video” saga which ultimately sunk firms like Mic.

Publishing’s death bed

Publishers should be terrified. If media wasn’t hard enough already, top-firms will either need to get onboard with Apple or keep fighting on their own. Many sites already have paywalls to ensure sustainability, but News+’s competition changes everything. Media firms are seeing dwindling ad revenues as it continues to be eaten up by the same places. Everything becomes a catch 22: publishers either sign up for Apple News+, relinquish their customer relationship and half of their revenues but become accessible on a powerful platform or continue alone, risking extinction in the process. Just as most people either pay for HBO or Netflix, so will users with news. One might prefer the News+’s large catalog just a single NYT membership. That makes total sense from a consumer standpoint, but this tradeoff becomes the ultimate demise of publishing. In addition, it creates the wrong kinds of incentives, just as is the case with Facebook’s algorithm: potential fake news, clickbait and low hanging fruits. If publishers die off one by one, there will be very little journalistic sources left, eroding an already diminished pillar of free speech.

Change is partially self-inflicted

In scouring TechCrunch’s comment section, many readers point to the fact that the firm uses copious amounts of cookies and tracking software to generate display ads. People hate bad advertising as it creates terrible web experiences. That’s also why people download ad-blockers to get rid of the nuisance altogether. Users should be upset: cookies are a form of invasion of privacy, one way or another. You wouldn’t want someone following you around in real life: why would it be ok to do so online instead? Media firms have know this for years, and yet did absolutely nothing about it. That’s why Apple News+ is a welcome relief to many: a beautifully crafted experience offering the best content from the best sources, ad-free and for a nominal fee. The writing was on the wall a long time ago and News+’s arrival may just accelerate the process.

4th quarter solutions

MAEKAN recognizes that ads pollute and hamper an experience, something we truly care about when delivering excellent stories. So what are potential solutions to the problem? We don’t have a silver bullet, but we think users ought to be able to chose which ads they are fed, rather than get the creepy feeling that something they talked about randomly pops up halfway through their scroll. Turns out firms already listen to you, so why not instead take control instead? Some suggestions we came up with:

  • What if you could fill in a quick, weekly survey in exchange for an ad-free experience?
  • The friction point is minimal but the payout is high.
  • Users still help “pay” the platforms, but do so willingly and knowingly.
  • On top of that, direct feedback gives advertisers much more accurate data to work with and improve upon.
  • Technical challenges aside, this can be a happy medium which respects the integrity of both parties involved. Regardless, it might already be too late anyways, but it won’t cost anything to try.

Lessons from China

Compared to the West, China discovered the web mobile first. This means that most firms never had the real estate necessary to run display ads, to begin with, and that’s important. Chinese netizens are more than happy to pay for separate services online rather than aggregate everything in a single place. While you still have super apps, most Chinese people are comfortable paying for content digitally via e-wallets. That’s why podcasting is so big there, but its not the sole industry reaping the benefits of micropayments either. Since display ads were never a thing, content creators were always bound to make money in different ways. No one wants intrusive popups on their phones either. Perhaps there is still time for firms to transform internally using services like Apple Pay and regain financial control in different ways.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, Apple’s move is neither surprising nor good for publishers. From large platforms to the smallest, aggregation will likely reduce the size of the pie and put many more businesses on the street. However, it could be a harbinger for better things to come: this new change will hasten inevitable transformations. We just hope that the next iteration will benefit all parties involved and become a fertile ground for better content and conversations.

March 12, 2019

Venture Capital and publishing are more similar than you'd think

Venture Capital overlaps publishing

Venture Capital and book publishing have a lot more in common than you might think. According to Ethan Hirsch, the two worlds share many similarities including a focus on lopsided returns and bet-taking. As a result of increased competition and limitless supply, publishers continue to fight to attract the best writers as well as bring to life exciting books.

How Does Venture Capital and Publishing Compare?

To understand the comparison, it helps to comprehend what venture capital is. A VC pools money together to invest in small, unproven but high-potential startups. Depending on the startup’s development (ideation stage vs near full maturity), investors will fund and assess their stake over time. Early funding rounds include “seed” and “series A,” with subsequent rounds going all the way down to IPOs and full acquisitions.

Likewise, publishing firms will take a chance on up-and-coming writers to get their foot in the door. In contrast major publishers give large advances to more prominent writers in exchange for the rights to their books and future earnings. This is typically where things like royalties come into play.

Both fields have incumbents that tend to attract the best in the industry. Just as you’d expect A16Z to invest in Facebook (and get first dibs), you expect Crown Publishing to publish John Grisham or Michelle Obama’s latest book. The smaller firms need to fight and take bets on moonshots to become established incumbents, making success rates statistically lower.

Taking Bets

Just like smaller venture capital shops, publishers will typically pursue “blockbuster” strategies. Blockbuster means taking many small bets, expecting the majority to fail but for outsized returns on a handful. The same applies to VC: for every 10 businesses, 6 will fail, 3 will barely survive and 1 will be a major hit. This technique justifies the losses and helps propel these platforms upwards. Perhaps it’s not just startups and authors trying to win the lottery: VC and publishers are doing the same.

March 4, 2019

It's Freezing in LA! is a new magazine dedicated to climate change

It's Freezing in LA! Climate Change Magazine

It’s Freezing in LA! is an independent magazine aimed at addressing the messy discussion around climate change. The topic around climate change is complex but the discussion is often oversimplified. IFLA!’s goal is to find an appropriate middle ground between science and the emotions surrounding climate change.

The inspiration behind the magazine

Donald Trump’s iconic quote inspired the magazine title, “Ice storm rolls from Texas to Tennessee – I’m in Los Angeles and it’s freezing. Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!” Each magazine takes a clear visual theme ranging from heat maps in the debut issue to red smoke from November’s California fires in November.

The importance of a creative angle climate change

IFLA!’s goals are to round out perspective towards climate change in a time where people who wish to contribute to the conversation are often left with binary choices. But it goes without saying that this discussion requires a more empathetic approach that acknowledges the unique challenges and struggles faced by different people from various walks of life with socioeconomic as well as educational differences, for example. Above all else, the conversation should be introduced in a different light that can help participants understand more broadly how different groups are reacting to the global climate crisis.

See more and pick up their latest issues over at itsfreezinginla.co.uk.

It's Freezing in LA! Climate Change Magazine

It's Freezing in LA! Climate Change Magazine

It's Freezing in LA! Climate Change Magazine

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