Posts Tagged: tumblrize

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There’s been a bit of a shitstorm the past few days over TechCrunch blogger turned venture capitalist M.G Siegler’s defense of Path, a social networking company that the CrunchFund (a VC firm where Siegler is a partner) invested in. Dan Lyons (probably best known for his alter ego Fake Steve Jobs) skewered Siegler well enough. Siegler’s rant about the failings of tech journalists is mostly a distraction, a cover for the real issue: the cavalier attitude startups, including one that Siegler’s firm invested in, have towards privacy and security of its users (who are, generally, the product and not the customer).

But Siegler did touch a nerve when he talked about the poor quality of so much tech journalism. It’s nothing new, the problem has been there for everyone to see for the past few years. AOL’s official policy was exposed a year ago by Business Insider, a company notorious for following a similar content farming model. There’s even an entire book now dedicated to helping people create reasonable “info diets” (a subject near and dear to my heart, though I’ve not yet had time to read it).

It’s a real problem, and Siegler, to his credit, admits that he was was one of the worst offenders during his time at TechCrunch. Now he’s part of a whole new problem exemplified by the CrunchFund and PandoDaily, but that’s not what I want to write about today. Nor do I want to focus on the high speed production of numerous low quality blog posts. That’s a long standing problem that’s been plain to see for quite a while, a product of a flawed business model for journalism and “content” in general. We’re trying to solve the business model problem at SiliconAngle, but I think there’s a deeper issue at play here.

Since The Verge published its best tech writing of 2011 list I’ve been thinking about the fact that no tech blogs actually made this list, unless you count VC Dave Pell’s blog. But none of the usual suspects - TechCrunch, VentureBeat, ReadWriteWeb, GigaOM, etc. Why is this? Part of it may be the pressure to constantly pump out new posts, multiple times a day, which leaves little time for writers to do in-depth journalism and quality writing. But I think there’s something else to it. Jay Rosen has written about the ideology of the mainstream political press. I think there’s an ideology of tech blogging, and I think that ideology reduces the overall quality of reporting. I think it’s the ideology of “the scoop.”

There are huge pressures to post a story first. Not only does it get you on TechMeme, but probably more importantly it gets your story more traction in social media, from Twitter to Reddit to Hacker News. Speed is the name of the game. It’s tempting to blame speed itself as the problem, but I think it’s this scoop mentality itself.

Adrianne Jeffries of BetaBeat (who I worked with briefly at ReadWriteWeb) put it best to me a while back: most of these “scoops” are things that everyone is going to know about soon anyway. The Kindle Fire, a new Google feature, the latest round of funding for a startup - all of this this is stuff these companies actually pay people to promote eventually. By racing to be the first to tell the world about some companies future announcement, we’re actually competing to serve as PR people for the companies we’re reporting on.

Update: Jay Rosen has helpfully categorized four types of scoop. What I’m talking about here is the different between “enterprise scoops” and “ego scoops.”
I’m not opposed to chasing this sort of scoop - I do it too. But it’s not the end all be all of doing journalism. In fact, in many cases there’s little to no journalism being done. The easiest way to be first is simply to break a news embargo - something that used to be an official policy at TechCrunch (I’m not sure whether it still is). I’m not sure this really counts as a “scoop,” but it’s one quick and dirty way to approximate one, and it’s one that requires nothing but re-writing a press release and publishing before any one else does.

Most of what we think of as “scoops” are at least a bit more involved than breaking an embargo. Unless the journalist gets lucky and overhears some execs talking about something in line at a Silicon Valley burrito joint, there’s some measure of source development going on behind the scenes of a scoop. Source development is one dimension of journalism, and it’s a very important one. Still, most of the scoops I see are still pretty shallow. A source inside a company tells a journalist about a forthcoming product, service or other announcement coming from the company. The journalist writes down what the source said and publishes it. There’s little other research or fact checking going on (Mike Arrington allegedly went to great pains to verify that his scoops were legit, but that’s apparently not common practice, and I have my doubts about how he actually sourced his scoops). Maybe there’s some speculation about whether this product will actually be competitive against a comparable product from Apple, but that’ll be it. Once the source spills the beans, this sort of post can be done very quickly, in hours or even minutes. There are a few counter examples, like when bloggers dogpile on a company that makes a mistake - I guess that helps us feel like we’re fulfilling our “watchdog” role. But the vast majority of scoops are product announcements. It’s still a far cry from the “muckracking” we expect from political journalists.

Why is this a problem? It creates an artificially low expectation of the time it takes to do journalism (if you can write a post about some forthcoming Twitter function in an hour based on a scoop from an insider, why spend more than that on a “non-scoop”?), it limits tech journalists ideas of what stories are and are not worth covering and it limits the role of the tech journalist to shilling for the companies they cover. It makes our role into professional waiters-for-something-happen rather than professional investigators or explainers.

Now let’s take a story from The Verge’s list as an example: Ken Auletta’s New Yorker story on Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. There’s no “scoop” here. No new Facebook features, no juicy gossip about Mark Zuckerberg, no IPO date. But there’s tons of insight into Sandberg, into what women experience in corporate America, and into Facebook as a company. Auletta likely spent days, probably weeks, researching and writing this piece. It’s the sort of quality stuff we all say we want to see more of, but few of us actually do. Partially of course because we don’t have the time, we’ve got posts to write and post TODAY. But partially, I think, because we don’t recognize the *story* here because it doesn’t fit with our ideology of the scoop.

It might not be fair to ask daily tech blogs to do the same sort of long form journalism that high brow magazines do, any more than it would be fair to ask a local daily newspaper to be Harper’s. But I think the contrast between scoop-driven tech blogs and the way other publications handle tech stories is illuminating because it shows a difference not just in the number of words or time spent on a story, but a difference in the type of story. There’s actually an opportunity for PR here, which I talked a bit about this in an interview on Sam Whitmore’s Mediasurvey (it’s behind a paywall, alas), and have a half-written blog post waiting to be finished.

The thing I’d like to see is a greater variety in the type of story, and a shift from the scoop mindset of quick hits about a new product to a mindset that sees technology journalism as more encompassing.

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The answer, apparently, is no. The Awl looked through the cost of different New York Times best sellers from the past seven decades and comparing the costs using a tool from Bureau of Labor Statistics to convert all the costs into 2011 money. The conclusion? Hardcover books have cost roughly $30 2011 money since 1951, with the exception of some large outliers in 1971.

The article concludes:

And it’s good that we’re doing this now, as the uncertainty looming over the publishing industry is unimaginably big. Both the competitive pricing and release patterns of e-books and the ascendance of Amazon and similar e-tailers (okay, just Amazon, really) threaten to change the business of book publishing into something that will be completely unrecognizable on an historical basis. All this at a time when even members of the Fourth Estate are railing against the horrors of bookstores, even the independent ones. (Needless to say, I disagree with him in a manner that involves the use of profanities: support your local bookstore.) I hope this is not the case, but maybe only James Patterson can save us.

The Owl: How Much More Do Books Cost Today?

(via Matt Staggs)

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Demo by Brian Wood

Brian Wood, of Channel Zero and DMZ fame:

Everyone I know loves comic shops. Everyone I know who makes comics, especially creator-owned comics, is hurting, financially. EVERYONE is bleeding, its a bad time. So to what extent does digital as a publishing format represent an additional revenue stream, one on top of print sales through shops, one that can ease some of the suffering? […]

Over the last few days Dark Horse was compelled to clarify what their digital plan was, in terms of pricing, correcting the perception that their comics would be sold digitally at 1.99, much less than the print versions. I have access to the CBIA, a retailers forum, and the pushback was intense, and included overt threats of drastically lowered orders and even total boycotts of the line. Did I mention everyone is bleeding? I get the frustration. […]

Not sure if this plan is scrapped or not, but I am not the boogeyman here, and when I see these boycott threats, still being issued even after Dark Horse clarified their plans… well, its hard not to feel like an innocent bystander, a bit of collateral damage. My new books at risk even before they launch. Christ, I’m just trying to make it all work out for everyone.

Brian Wood: The digital question mark

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David Pescovitz

Media Magazine is running an interview with David “Pesco” Pescovitz on the subject of the future of attention:

What do you think about the ability to process more concurrent streams? Do you think we’re adapting our brains to be able to process more at the same time?

I don’t think our brains are necessarily changing. But I think we do develop new skills. It started with wanting more information, and being forced to deal with it and make sense of this onslaught that has led to a habit, basically, where we want more and more of it. Or, we think we want more and more of it. I actually think that, as we spend more time in these sort of fast-paced, virtually mediated experiences, there’s going to be this quest for authentic, visceral, focused, immersive and, in many ways, singular experiences. I don’t think sitting down and reading a book or watching a two-and-a-half hour art film are going away any time. I actually think that we’re going to see a renewed appreciation for those kinds of experiences, as they become more rarified.

Are we becoming addicted to information supply?

I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know what addiction really means. That’s within the realm of psychology and medicine. I can certainly say that I feel a sense of twitchiness when I don’t have access to my email during long meetings. And I don’t think that is necessarily a good thing. So, I guess you could probably argue that that’s a form of addiction in some way. Then again, maybe it’s also what was once an addiction. I mean, I think things change. As technology changes, the mores surrounding that technology change. Usages change. And it adds up to the way the world turns.

Media Magazine: The Future of Attention: A Conversation with David Pescovitz

My interview with Pesco is here.

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Summary: Disclosure of conflicts of interest isn’t enough, in fact in may make matter worse. But conflicts of interest may also be inevitable. Integrity is what matters, but that’s hard to measure.

Disclosure: I work for SiliconAngle, a TechCrunch competitor.

I love transparency. I think it’s an important for governments, and institutions like the press, to be as transparent as reasonably possible. I also agree with Jay Rosen that if the “view from nowhere” - the faux-objectivity of the mainstream press - were replaced by “this is where I’m coming from” we’d all be better off. Everyone has biases, and it’s better to get those out of the way than to pretend they don’t exist.

But transparency isn’t a cure-all.

In the debate over Michael Arrington’s “Crunch” branded venture capital fund, many suggest that Arrington if discloses to his potential conflicts of interest, and therefore his biases, that will be good enough. In fact, that might be better than pretending to be objective. But is this the case?

A Little Background

Long story short: Michael Arrington founded the popular tech blog TechCrunch. Other people also write for it, full time. Last year AOL bought TechCrunch. A few months ago Arrington announced he would start making some investments in the same sorts of tech startups that TechCrunch covers. And last week the CrunchFund was announced - a venture capital fund run by Arrington and backed by AOL among others. Arrianna Huffington, who has managed content at AOL since the Huffington Post was acquired, balked at the idea of Arrington staying on as co-editor and contributor at TechCrunch while also running a VC fund. Arrington has apparently been fired, but I’d advise checking Google News and Techmeme for updates, as that may no longer be the case.

Not many people, at least in the articles I’ve seen, point out that another prominent tech blog, Om Malik, also balances tech investing with journalism. Malik is a partner at True Ventures and GigaOM. GigaOM is also funded by True Ventures. Whenever GigaOM covers a True Venture backed company, or a competitor of a True Venture backed company, the article will carry a disclosure along these lines: “Company X is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.”

There’s at least one big difference between True Ventures and CrunchFund, however. The CrunchFund is seeded by several other VCs - it’s practically a who’s who of Silicon Valley funders: Sequoia Capital, Redpoint Ventures, Kleiner Perkins, Greylock Partners, Austin Ventures, Accel Partners, Benchmark Capital, Andreessen Horowitz, Kevin Rose, Yuri Milner and Ron Conway.

That means that Arrington could have more complicated conflicts of interest - he won’t just be investing in companies, he’ll be receiving capital from other VCs which have their own sets of investments.

The Trouble with Disclosure

As Arrington pointed out a while back there are many different types of conflict of interest. For example, Kara Swisher of AllThingsD is married to a Google executive, a fact she is consistent about disclosing. But is this more of a conflict of interest than investing in companies?

And as TechCrunch writer MG Siegler writes in the comments of that post, it isn’t always feasible to disclose everything:

How many tweets by investors making conflicted statements are ever disclosed? Very few, if any. Should they be? Why is that any different than a blog post? Because it’s shorter? That doesn’t really make a lot of sense.

Granted, it would be pretty impossible to regularly do this with Twitter’s 140 character limit, but maybe a follow up tweet should be used? Annotations? But if we start doing that, how far does this have to go?

Does Disclosure Make Things Worse?

At least one study has found that disclosing conflicts of interest leads to worse behavior and worse decisions. That’s only one study, but it should call into question the assumption that transparency, even if it could be achieved, is a cure all. But, given that at the very least almost every professional journalism outfit at the very least has sponsors, no one is free of conflicts, even if all the writers are single, have no friends and no investments.

A Matter of Integrity

One reason I think few people bring up Malik with regards to Arrington’s situation is that, in general, people trust Malik more. I can’t think of any examples of Malik abusing his position at GigaOM to advantage a company he has invested in. Malik has a history as a journalist for Forbes before starting GigaOM. I really don’t know what his reputation from that period is, but I’m guessing he had a good reputation to get where he is today.

So why don’t people feel the same way about Arrington? I can think of one particularly uncomfortable post from Arrington: his post about Flickr and Hunch founder Caterina Fake. Arrington told her he was planning a story about her next startup, and instead of replying to Arrington’s e-mail, she went direct on her own blog. In essence, scooping him on her own story. Arrington lashed out.

Gizmodo’s Mat Honan writes:

Explicitly, it’s clear what he’s saying: If you, Mr. or Ms. Startup founder, don’t play ball with us, we will fuck you over. But the implicit stuff is more insidious to me.

Arrington is acting as if he’s above the mudslinging by not revealing details. But the problem with that stance is that had he not brought up the “sordid situation,” how would anyone have even known there was mud to be slung? Thanks to his word choice (“sordid”) it comes across as old-school slut shaming. Merely by revealing that there is some unspecified scandal, he’s already doing damage to her reputation, even while acting as if he is taking the moral high ground.

And in the act of saying he won’t write about the details, he slyly is letting Fake know that he could. I would take that as an implied threat.

He’s also recently threatened the New York Times.

So yes, Arrington has crossed the line at least a couple times. However, I haven’t seen any evidence of pay for play, or of him black listing companies or anything like that. For the most part I think he gets a lot more flak than he’s earned. And had Arrington not been fired, I don’t think the CrunchFund would have changed much. Arrington’s integrity, or lack thereof, is independent of these potential conflicts.

Update: Former TechCrunch writer Duncan Riley writes that Arrington does indeed maintain a blacklist and play favorites on TechCrunch:

At TechCrunch, Arrington lets you believe you are picking your own posts (and sometimes you do.) But there are other things that don’t quite fit the model. At TechCrunch, it’s made very clear who you are allowed to write about, and not write about. For example, companies that appeared at rival conferences to TechCrunch 50 (now TechCrunch Disrupt) were off limits. I was often given suggestions by Arrington to write about companies based on his friendships, or people who were friendly to him (and at times sponsors.)

Siegler repeats the classic Arrington line that sometimes we criticize our “friends,” but that’s all part of the show. It is, and always has been the veil of legitimacy TechCrunch has traded on. But I know that at my time at TechCrunch, biting friends was only ever ordered, and only when what they were doing was so blatantly bad it needed calling out. I think any time TechCrunch has written a negative post about Loic Le Meur is a classic example. Kevin Rose was never a TechCrunch friend as I saw it, so it’s a touch weird at Siegler brings him up. Robert Scoble is the classic example: Arrington and Scoble were the best of frenimies: one day we’d be backing him, and the next day we’d be putting in the boot. But the orders as to which way we wrote about Scoble always came from the top.

The reality is, as it always has been, is that TechCrunch has traded off favors and back scratching. TechCrunch has always barred or banned people, startups or sites it doesn’t like (for example, we could steal a story from Mashable but NEVER attribute it.) Siegler can scream editorial independence from the rooftop, and maybe he won’t write about a company he really doesn’t like (I hope that I never did) but likewise I’d bet money that he’s written about many a company that Arrington has recommended to him.

Furthermore, it’s entirely possible for writers without any pre-existing conflicts of interest to abuse their positions or otherwise behave unethically.

What Is To Be Done?

Unfortunately, “integrity” is a hard thing to enforce on the Internet. Companies can fire writers and editors, but those individuals can always start new blogs if they can’t find established venues. If this whole this whole thing had happened while TechCrunch was still independent, there would have been no one to fire Arrington. There’s nothing stopping, say, Pete Cashmore from starting a “MashFund” at this point.

I’d like to think that the market would punish deeply unethical writers, but in these days of tabloidification I’m not sure.

One thing I can say is that it’s more important than ever now to call out unethical journalism. Naming and shaming is the best strategy we have right now.

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The Pentagon is asking scientists to figure out how to detect and counter propaganda on social media networks in the aftermath of Arab uprisings driven by Twitter and Facebook.

The US military’s high-tech research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has put out a request for experts to look at “a new science of social networks” that would attempt to get ahead of the curve of events unfolding on new media.

The program’s goal was to track “purposeful or deceptive messaging and misinformation” in social networks and to pursue “counter messaging of detected adversary influence operations,” according to DARPA’s request for proposals issued on July 14.

Physorg: Pentagon looks to social media as new battlefield

See also:

The Air Force’s “persona management” project and its blog comment propaganda project.

Cass Sunstein’s “cognitive infiltration” proposal.

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I haven’t had much to say about the News International hacking scandal. But I’m really interested in how other News Corp owned media are covering it. The Wall Street Journal is burying it, for example.

But Fox News is taking a more aggressive approach. Boing Boing’s Rob Beschizza points out a Fox and Friends appearance by PR rep (though as far as I can tell, not a PR rep for News Corp?) Bob Dilenschneider. Dilenschneider’s spin is unbelievable (emphasis mine):

Bob: The NOTW is a hacking scandal, it can’t be denied. But the real issue is, why are so many people piling on at this point? We know it’s a hacking scandal, shouldn’t we get beyond it and deal with the issue of hacking? Citicorp has been hacked into, Bank of America has been hacked into, American Express has been hacked into, insurance companies have been hacked into, we’ve got a serious hacking problem in this country, and the government’s obviously been hacked into, 24,000 files. So we’ve got to figure out a way to deal with this hacking problem.
Host: The company has come forward to say that it happened a long time ago, at a tabloid, in London, someone did something really bad and the company reacted. They closed the newspaper, all those people got fired, even though 99 percent of them didn’t do anything.

Bob: And if I’m not mistaken. Murdoch, who owns it, has apologized, but for some reason, the public and the media going over this, again and again.

Host: The piling on!

Bob: It’s a little bit too much. The bigger issue is really hacking and how we as the public going to protect our privacy and deal with it. I would also say, by the way, Citigroup, great bank. Bank of America, great bank. Are they getting the same attention for hacking that took place less than a year ago, that News Corp is getting today.

[They recap other news; China, martians, debt default, etc.]

Host: … We’re teetering on default, and what to they do? They’re talking about this.

Bob: … and we’re dealing with something that happened in London over a decade ago. I don’t quite understand it.

What Dilenschneider seems to be doing is trying to confuse the issue in the minds of Fox’s viewership, many of whom may not be familiar with what the scandal actually entails. Dilenschneider seems to be trying to trick the viewers into thinking that News of the World was the victim of hacking instead of the perpetrator.

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Here’s a panel on comics as journalism with Sarah Jaffee of Grit TV, Erin Polgreen of Media Consortium and Graphic Ladies, Matt Bors of cartoonmovement.com, nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist Susie Cagle, and comic-book graphic-mixologist Ronald Wimberly.

(Thanks Ian)

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"Why are we still consuming news like it’s 1899?" Huh asks in a blog post this morning. "I want to rethink how we read breaking news," he told me by phone today. He’s talking with a small group of well-known media innovators and sent us a first wireframe he’s playing with. He’s got some very interesting ideas. […]

The ideal system would help media outlets present news to readers that is genuinely new to them, from diverse perspectives, with time, veracity and a living editorial process all emphasizing maximum value from the reader’s time. I do wonder if that’s really what people want, but Ceiling Cat may know best, after all.

ReadWriteWeb: Cheezburger CEO Planning WordPress-Style News 2.0 Software

He has some interesting ideas indeed. Check out the wireframe at ReadWriteWeb.

Related:

Why Wikipedia beats Wikinews as a collaborative journalism project

The “Context is King” section of 5 Media Trends to Watch

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Does the web make us smarter or dumber?

If you haven’t heard, information technology iconoclast Nicholas Carr has a new book coming up called The Shallows. The basic case he makes is this: the Internet is altering our brains and making our thinking wider but more shallow.

Carr makes a compelling case, and it’s time for web professionals to start thinking about how we can fix the problem.

Carr lays out his argument in a new piece in the Wall Street Journal. He’s also made the case in this Wired article.

The WSJ is also running Clay Shirkey’s response to Carr - or actually, they may have just asked him whether the Internet was making us stupid, because Shirkey’s piece doesn’t seem to specifically address Carr’s arguments and it doesn’t mention Carr at all.

Jonah Lehrer has a review of Carr’s book as well.

I haven’t read Carr’s book yet, so I’m having to go on reviews and Carr’s Wired and WSJ pieces. But I haven’t seen any critic of Carr’s yet make substantial argument that Carr is wrong about what’s happening to us. Lehrer compares Carr’s concerns about the Internet to Socrates’s concerns about writing. But Socrates didn’t have the sort of evidence Carr does. Nor was Socrates making quite the same sort of argument Carr is.

Weirdly, Lehrer points to two studies that show that video games may improve certain cognitive functions, such as sustained attention. Carr mentions these studies himself in his WSJ article. But the web is not a video game. I spend tens of hours per week on the web. I rarely play video games (maybe I should start). And the effects of the web, and of multitasking, are what Carr is talking about.

Shirkey is right to point out that the public at large never did read much, or spend much time on the sort of intellectual endeavors Carr is concerned with. They spent most of their time watching TV. YouTube comments aren’t evidence that people are becoming more stupid, YouTube just provides stupid people a platform they’d never been afforded before. And the Internet gives many people something more to do with their “cognitive surplus” than watch TV. Not that public libraries weren’t there before, and not that self-publishing and zine-making weren’t around before, but the Internet makes a lot of tools and information more accessible and appealing.

But what about the minority of us who do want to read longer works of text and think deeply about them? Are better understanding, deeper thinking, and sustained attention worthy pursuits? I think so, and Carr makes a compelling argument, backed up by scientific research, that our abilities to do these things are being diminished.

One argument I’ve seen made at different times, starting with Douglas Rushkoff’s Playing the Future, is that our shorter attention spans and tendency to multitask are actually cognitive evolutions - improvements in our ability to scan information. But we’re not getting better at multitasking - we’re actually getting worse. Carr cites a study that showed frequent multitaskers were actually worse at multitasking than infrequent multitaskers. I’m reminded of a study that made the blog rounds in 2005 that showed that multitasking was worse than marijuana on people’s job performance.

There are some questions we can ask and problems we can start working on right now:

What strategies, short of complete dis-engagement from the Internet (which I don’t think Carr advocates) can we adopt to preserve our attention spans? Periodic disengagement? Deliberate, daily monotasking? Zazen? More disciplined web surfing strategies? People in the “lifehacking” community have been working on things like this for years.

What can those of us involved in creating the web - as writers, designers, developers, publishers, etc. do to improve the experience of reading online. Can we makes sites and write content that actually help people focus?

For example, Carr suggested putting links at the bottom of articles instead of inline. I think that’s an over simplistic solution, but I think we can be more strategic, more mindful of how we integrate links into our texts (for this article, I put background info at the top, and added in the occasional additional link as necessary, and will include a few things at the end). I don’t know yet what the best solution will be, but I do believe that we ignore Carr’s research at our own peril.

Additional resources:

Readify a browser plugin that can “Carr-ify” web pages, among other things.

My comments on Carr’s Wired article

Carr’s article about moving links to the end of an article