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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Internet's Invisible Sin-Eaters

In this month's Wired, Adrian Chen visits the Philippines to speak with professional content moderators—the people who scrub all the dick pics and beheadings from the world's biggest sites before they reach users' eyes. It's job that, he says, "might very well comprise as much as half the total workforce for social media sites." Sarah Roberts, a media studies scholar at the University of Western Ontario focusing on commercial content moderation, is quoted in the piece. They caught up over chat.

AC: One thing I would have liked to include in my piece was how you got interested in studying content moderation.

SR: Well, it's a pretty simple story. I was perusing the NYT one day and there was a very small story in the Tech section about workers in rural Iowa who were doing this content screening job. They were doing it for low wages, essentially as contractors in a call center in a place that, a couple generations ago, was populated by family farms. I call it "Farm Aid Country." I say this as a born and raised Wisconsinite, from right next door.

So this was a pretty small piece, but it really hit me. The workers at this call center, and others like it, were looking at very troubling user-generated content (UGC) day in and day out. It was taking a toll on them psychologically, in some cases. I should say that I've been online for a long time (over twenty years) and, at the time I read this, was working on my Ph.D. in digital information studies. I was surrounded at all times by really smart internet geeks and scholars. So I started asking my peers and professors, "Hey, have you ever heard of this practice?" To my surprise, no one—no one-had.

This was in the summer of 2010. Right there, I knew that it wasn't simple coincidence that no one had heard of it. It was clear to me that this was a very unglamorous and unpleasant aspect of the social media industries and no one involved was likely in a rush to discuss it. As I interrogated my colleagues, I realized that many of them, once they were given over to think about it at all, immediately assumed that moderation tasks of UGC must be automated. In other words, "Don't computers/machines/robots do that?"

Right. I actually thought that at least some of it would be done like that before doing this story. That was one of the most surprising things, how little is actually automated.

So that got me wondering about our propensity to collectively believe (I'd say it's more aspirational, actually—wishful thinking) that unpleasant work tasks are done by machines when so many of them are done by humans. As I'm sure you learned, and I did, too, content moderation of video and images is computationally very difficult. It's an extremely sophisticated series of judgments that are called upon to make content decisions.

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Bloodfeast: Scary White People Tacos

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Happy Horrors, my sisterwitches of The Mystical Menorrhea! How’s everyone’s ovaries doing? Me and mine are preparing for All Hallow’s Eve celebrations. I’m thinking about finally dressing up in the costume I’ve wanted to since the late 1990s–a box of tampons, like Kelly Macdonald’s character did in the movie Splendor–but alas, that might be too obvious. Still, I just want to pay Halloween homage to our cherished Female Curse!

Which brings me to this month’s Goddess feast, which is a quick and easy one. Being born and raised in Southern California, I’ve eaten my share of delicious authentic Mexican tacos. But sometimes, just sometimes, I get a craving for some white people tacos. You know what I’m talking about, those pre-made crunchy tacos that come with a no-fuss filling consisting of ground beef, cheese, lettuce, and tomato. These will be just like that which are also reminiscent of Taco Bell, sans the diarrhea (I HOPE).

When I was a kid, my mom (who is a sweet Filipino lady) made white people tacos using Pace Picante for the salsa, and ALWAYS mild. Now that is one thing I cannot fuck with these days. PACE! I am forever haunted by these commercials. So I won’t be doing you that dirty. We’ll be making some authentic salsa to slightly lessen the Caucasity of this dish. IT’S GONNA BE GOOD. READ MORE

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Anti-Slackism

75 years ago, Helen Hulick, kindergarten teacher and my personal hero, made women's fashion history. Called to testify against two burglary suspects, Hulick arrived to court dressed in her usual garb: pants. The sight was so distracting that the judge rescheduled her testimony, and ordered her to return in a dress. READ MORE

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In yesterday's municipal elections, there was a Vaughan, Ontario candidate for regional councillor. His name is Max Power.

He came in last place.

A Fractured Skull, a Lost Sense of Smell, and a New Job

rachelCan’t Take It With You #5: Rachel Bailey, Death-Skirting Optimist

This summer, my friend Rachel Bailey was working as a waitress in Athens, Ga., doing social media for some restaurants, writing when she could, but not as much as she wanted—just scraping by in a town where it’s easy, sometimes even fun, to just scrape by. But she wasn’t having fun. She’d been out of college a few years and had imagined something more for her 20s. She was feeling anxious, stagnant and just generally crappy about life. And then she hit her head in a piggybacking accident and almost died. And then things got better.

Rachel lost her sense of smell and is still slogging through (and mourning) that and a host of other cognitive side effects that may or may not sort themselves out in a year or so. But the accident also pulled her out of a rut she already knew she’d been wallowing in too long. In a roundabout way, it landed her a new job, a full-time position as a special events coordinator at a nonprofit in Athens (her first salaried position, which is great because she might soon have a hefty hospital bill to pay if her insurance company doesn’t play nice).

But things nearly turned out quite badly. Rachel initially delayed going to the hospital because she didn’t have a car and was weary of bumming rides from friends, and though she had insurance, she wasn’t sure what care it would cover. A good bit of brain-bleeding helped in these rationalizations, of course, but this really points to how our feelings about money and money-adjacent issues, which are so tied up in pride and self-respect, can filter down into matters of life and death.

Before Rachel and I talked on the phone recently, I already had a sense that she was optimistic to an above-average degree. But since the accident, it’s just off the charts.

"I’m less anxious and more secure in my relationships with people and more aware of my value as a member of my community and as a friend," she told me. "If the price I have to pay to gain that is that I had this accident, I just feel like the calculus works out in my favor in such an enormous way."

It’s enough to make me want to go out and crack my own skull! Agh, no, I am kidding. Very kidding. Most likely a brain injury will make your life worse not better and if you think you have a concussion—here are the signs—please seek medical attention ASAP. If you don’t think you have a concussion, read on. READ MORE

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The Three Best Villains from R.L. Stine's Fear Street

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Admit it: you barely learned how to multiply fractions because you were up too late every school night reading Fear Street books. Yes, it's absolutely shameful, but at least nobody can see how you just nodded solemnly at your screen.

While not targeted at a so-called female readership in the same way that, say, pulpy contemporaries like Sweet Valley High, R.L. Stine's YA thrillers were mini-backpack-sized estrogen magnets in the Midwestern bubble of my '90s youth. It's not too hard to guess why. The protagonists were almost always female, for one. But more than that, Fear Street's blend of teen melodrama and uncomfortable yet way-titillating PG-13 sexy bits and slasher-style gore fests acted like catnip to my generation. Angsty? Consumed by violent pubescent mood swings and, oh, like, a metric shit-ton of free-floating lust and longing that you're too young to do anything about? We were all there. R.L. Stine had our backs.

Horror is the ideal genre for puberty. It's the most unsatisfyingly horny time of your life and the period where you most feel like murdering a bunch of the people you know. Jokes! Ha! Ha? Fear Street gave pubescents of the '90s and early '00s improbably good-looking, under-supervised and car-possessing teenaged proxies for our pressure-contained preteen awfulness, as well as some pretty fantastic villains.

Each book in the series takes place in the vaguely New England-ish town of Shadyside, where high schoolers' bodies casually drop like rotting apples off a sick tree. Grisly murders encroach on standard teen-movie plotlines, inevitably creeping closer and closer to the main character. Eventually Stine sets up a dupe who's so obviously BAD that they of course couldn't possibly be the actual villain, and then a plot twist reveals an unexpected menace.

Some people I've talked to (and folks behind blogs I've read) claim to have figured out the formula, boasting that they were reliably able to pick out the killer pre-reveal in almost every book. I definitely can't make that claim. For me, each twist seemed like such a perfectly calibrated shocker that I considered writing R.L. Stine to beg him to tell me how he pulled it off. I also wondered whether he wasn't just a bit deranged. I really hoped that he was.

Stine is revamping the series for a new generation of sexually frustrated Baby Bad Bitches with sinister inner monologues, which is a good thing. But I can't help but look back fondly at the Fear Street I grew up with, the books that featured surprise villains who were extreme, deranged, and had their own landlines.

Here, dear readers, are three Fear Street with villains you just can't help but respect.
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Not That Kind of Death: An Interview With Caitlin Doughty

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I now know: when I die, I want to be buried naturally. I want my body to be wrapped in a shroud and placed in the earth, without the physical and financial burdens of embalming or cremation. But thinking about my own mortality has not always been easy for me: as a child, I kept myself awake at night with my fears about death. I decided to take control of this fear, and started educating myself on death: I wrote a paper on the economics of Ghanaian funeral rituals, I filmed a documentary with my father in a cemetery, and I started watching Caitlin Doughty's ‘Ask a Mortician’ series on YouTube.

Caitlin is a licensed mortician, the founder of The Order of the Good Death, a group dedicated to curtailing death phobia, and the author of her recently published memoir, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory. I talked to Caitlin about death positivity, women in the funeral industry, and why she hopes new death rituals aren’t compared to artisanal pickles. READ MORE

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New Season of 'Hot in Cleveland' Premieres November 5 at 10/9c

Brought to you to by TV Land 

TV Land’s hit sitcom Hot in Cleveland is returning for a sixth season on Wednesday, November 5 at 10/9 c. In the season five finale cliffhanger, Joy (Jane Leeves) was proposed to by three men. In the season six premiere, Joy has to choose between Simon (Craig Ferguson), Mitch (Tim Daly), or Bob (Dave Foley). 

Tune in to find out who will take Joy’s hand in marriage on the season premiere. For more information, visit tvland.com/shows/hot-in-cleveland.

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A Reasonable Conversation About Taylor Swift's New Album, Which Is The Best Album Ever

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JEN VAFIDIS: HI JANE. There is a new Taylor Swift album out today, and it is already totally undeniable. The first single is a #1 hit, the second single was #1 on iTunes within 10 minutes of its release, and Taylor has been teasing us via Instagram about these new songs for what seems like years. It’s only been a few weeks, but still. I love her, you love her, let’s talk about her.

JANE HU: When I tell people that 1989 is going to get me through the rest of 2014, I’m 100% not exaggerating. Even though the three pre-releases have really sent some MIXED SIGNALS about the feel of the album, T-Swift has never let me down before. I adore this album, but the leading track actually had me a little worried for a moment! READ MORE

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Good Vibrations

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I really loved this report on vibrators by Into The Gloss; everything should come with an emoji rating system.

Speaking of vibrators, I have a funny story for you... READ MORE

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Weekend Roundup / Open Thread

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<3 <3 <3 <3 Haley buys the best gifts. <3 <3 <3 <3

What a week! What a week. What a week. What a week. Let's see: we marched onward with the Halloween Advent Calendar, where we tried on some fancy Halloween costumes, saw some ghosts, made the Beyoncé jack-o-lantern of Williamsburg's dreams, celebrated our inner teen witch, visited a cemetery in every borough of New York, BROUGHT BACK ESTATE JEWELRY, wrote letters to Wednesday Addams, and ran into our old friends, the yogurt ghosts. We also chatted with Sylvia Plath and Katy Perry, saw Dear White People, checked in with Baba Yaga, profiled Cameron Diaz.

The Week With Your Editors: Haley moderated a panel for Rookie Yearbook Three (which you should buy!) (and can you nab me one too??? I keep forgetting) and looked fly as hell doing so. I really did buy some sweaters from Ann Taylor Loft, and I'm very excited about them.

Here are some ladies we think are ace: ghost whisperer Jenna Wortham wrote about Ubering while black, Anupa Mistry asked maybe the most important question of our time, which is "Why aren't there more movies like Love & Basketball?", and Mallory Ortberg collected some of the mom-est moments of all time, all of which are perfect, but particularly and terrifingly the comment by Jaya's mom, new Hairpin commenter. Do me a favor: call your mom this weekend and tell her I said hi. See you on Monday.

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Insight

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Ask a (Terrifyingly) Clean Person: Oozing Gourds, Glue Mishaps and Food Coloring Woes

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At Halloween, I bought a bunch of decorative gourds and tiny little pumpkins. These things are practically indestructible so I have had them strewn about my kitchen and dining room ever since. One of them started looking a tiny bit suspicious, so I checked them all.

One on my wooden dining room table that looked perfect from the top was totally stuck on with gross pumpkin mold and goo and stuff. So far I've thrown away the rest of the pumpkins and gently scraped off of the worst of the gunk, but there's still some gross stuff on there and a dark stain underneath. It is solid wood so I can sand it off if I have to but I'd rather not resort to that. Help?

Help is on the way! (And hiya, by the way. Long time no clean!) READ MORE

Is the Future of Comedy the Comedy/Drama Hybrid?

louie elevator 2In a recent Salon interview, Bob Odenkirk warns aspiring writers to “get out of comedy, because it’s about to collapse.” Sketch comedy, he says, is having its time in the sun now — what with YouTube, Comedy Central’s burgeoning lineup and the legions of theater sketch teams popping up all over — but the market is becoming saturated. What’s next then? He suggests that once the market tires of short sketches, it may turn to more long-form, dramatic material. “I do think that after sketch comes story,” he speculates.

And when you look at the TV landscape, that makes sense. (Plus, Odenkirk’s been ahead of the game for years. Why wouldn’t you listen to him now?) Louie and Girls, two shows that are nominally considered comedies but regularly flirt with drama within their svelte 30-minute timeframes, are setting the tone for many of the new comedies cropping up everywhere. Some of that influence manifests itself in different ways, whether it’s other series copping their surface premise (Maron), their intimate, semi-vérité style (Broad City, Looking) or their personal, insular subject matter (Transparent, Hello Ladies).

But regardless of exactly how each show borrows, the bottom line is that all these series are following Louie and Girls’ lead by digging beneath the obvious elements of comedy to explore the uncomfortable or painful issues that lie beneath any good punchline. In short, they’re acting more like dramas.  So that begs the question: are we entering some new era dominated by that nebulous thing known as the “comedy-drama”? READ MORE

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A Conversation Among Me, Katy Perry, and Sylvia Plath on Birthdays

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Editor's note: You may want to read this and this to get it, but, then again, there's nothing to really get.

Me: Hi, you guys! Thank you so much for coming today! I just got some really great advice from Taylor Swift and Langston Hughes about being 22, but my 23rd birthday is on Saturday, and... I don't know, I just really hate birthdays. So I figured I'd talk to you two, since all of our birthdays are so close together! #TeamScorpio! #TeamSexy! #TeamJealousObsessiveSuspiciousManipulativeAndUnyielding!!!! But anyway, birthdays: I just don't like the attention; I feel like it's undeserved. Am I being crazy?

Katy Perry, bouncily: I heard you're feeling nothing's going right.

Me: It's not that nothing is going right, I just feel silly for making a big deal out of my birthday. People should celebrate things that they do, not just things that happen to them.

Katy Perry, alluringly: Why don't you let me stop by? I hope you got a healthy appetite.

Me: I do. The only gifts I asked for were "various cakes." READ MORE