February 12, 2012
This chapter is a free excerpt from You're Damn Right I'm a Fanboy: MG Siegler on Apple, Google, Startup Culture, and Jackasses on the Internet.
February 12, 2012
This morning, I woke up and read Nick Bilton’s weekly New York Times’ column. Nick is a friend and one of the best bloggers/writers/journalists out there. But with today’s column, he was way off base.
Having already said what I wanted to say about the Path situation, I debated if I should weigh in again. Then I read Nick’s column again. There’s a way to say what he wants to say, but he goes about it the complete wrong way. I felt like I had to respond.
But before I could, my CrunchFund partner Michael Arrington wrote almost exactly what I would have written, but in a more effective way. As a dog owner/lover, Michael thought up a great analogy: “So the belly is shown.”
Nick is trying to make a point about the increasingly lackadaisical mentality surrounding data protection in the digital world. Silicon Valley is his focus, and more specifically, Path.
The startup, which is a CrunchFund portfolio company, had already “shown the belly”, as Michael puts it, but damnit, Nick had a column to write! He could have, say, looked a little deeper into the matter and found the dozens of other apps — many of which are much larger than Path — doing the same thing. Apps that have been doing it for a long time. That actually would have made his point much stronger.
But that would have been more work. And work is hard. Path was served up on a platter, the homework already done. And even though Path has already unconditionally apologized and, more importantly, fixed the issue, it was time to dye their white flag red with blood.
But in attempting to do so, Nick went too far, and made some mistakes. Did he really imply that Path could be used to out dissidents in Egypt and Tunisia? Yep. Did he have a ridiculous fear-monger-ish title? Yep. (“So much data mining”?!) Did he really say that Path was sending the address book data completely unprotected? Yep; a point which he had to issue a correction about.
Nick completely overlooked the fact that the data was being sent via SSL encryption and instead compared it to sending private letters without envelopes (an analogy he later removed). He seemingly focused in on the fact that the data wasn’t hashed — which is an issue that some say needs to be fixed (and others actually disagree with) — but the HTTPS transmission is important. It’s something which shockingly few startups have used to transmit data in the app era, and the fact that Path did it right off the bat should show their legitimate good intentions for securing the data. Yes, Path was sending the letters without envelopes (hashing), but they were sending them via an armored car (SSL). Not completely secure, but pretty damn secure.
But again, going that deep into this story would have involved more work. And while I just picked on Nick for 500 words, this brings me to what I really want to talk about. Something which I’ve wanted to talk about for a while. Something which I’m sure I’ll continue to talk about.
In his story, Nick links to this ridiculous Gawker post on the Path issue from last week. The author of that post, Ryan Tate, rushed to publish what he thought was an awesome GOTCHA! Unfortunately, he also failed to do his homework. Yes, he had an email from Dave Morin saying that Path doesn’t store any contact data. As such, Tate jumped to the conclusion that Morin was lying to him in that email given the recent revelations.
The problem is that at the time Morin wrote the email, it was absolutely true. That’s because Path went through a complete transformation into a different app in the time since the email. Path version 1 did not store that data. Path version 2 did.
Tate was also forced to issue an update with the correction, but tried to explain that he was still right to write his story. Or something. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the story generated 35,000 pageviews. Facts be damned! Success!
This is increasingly the world we live in. That’s no secret. But it’s something I thought a lot about when I was deciding whether or not to move on from the tech blogging world as my full-time profession. I could see the writing on the wall. I could see the future, and it did not look good.
Unfortunately, it’s becoming clear to me now that I drastically underestimated how bad the situation actually is.
Over the past several months that I’ve been removed from the day-to-day of tech blogging professionally, I’ve gained some perspective from the other side of things. As an investor, I’m privy to information that I normally would not know. And more generally, people/startups are willing to share information with me that they never would have when I was a blogger, for obvious reasons.
At the same time, I’m still diligent about reading just about everything out there written about the tech world in an attempt to stay on top of things. And that’s where the problem comes in.
The sides are not aligned. At all.
Most of what is written about the tech world, both in blog form and old school media form, is bullshit. I won’t try to put some arbitrary label on it like 80%, but it’s a lot. There’s more bullshit than there is 100% pure, legitimate information.
The problem is systemic. Print circulation is dying and pageviews are all that matter in keeping advertisers happy. This means, whether writers like it or not, there’s an underlying drive for both sensationalism and more — more — more.
Read the stories that are published in the tech blogosphere tomorrow. Are most published because the writer put in a lot of work or original thought? No, most are published because more, more, more content leads to more, more, more pageviews.
Most are stories written with little or no research done. They’re written as quickly as possible. The faster the better. Most are just rehashing information that spread by some other means. But that’s great, it means stories can be written without any burden beyond the writer having to read a little bit and type words fast. Many are written without the writer even having to think.
I’m completely serious in saying that.
There will be 25 stories about Google TV or something else tomorrow which will all say basically the same thing. Maybe one or two of those stories will have actual insight or information. Maybe none will. If any do, it’s the exception, not the rule.
As one of the most prolific tech bloggers over the period of a few years, I was just as guilty of this as anyone. I had a job to do, and I did it. And to be honest, I saw absolutely nothing wrong with it at the time. And if you did, you just didn’t get it.
But now I have more perspective. I was wrong. I say this not to think I can possibly effect change in the industry, given the underlying motives: pageviews driving advertising, that would be impossible — but simply because it’s the truth. And it’s getting worse.
The problem with the content rush is twofold. First, no one — and I mean no one — can possibly be an expert in all the things they’re attempting to cover. Good writers in the space may know one company inside and out. Great writers may know two. The very best may know enough about three or four companies/topics to be an authoritative writer on them.
And yet, we often see bloggers writing 7 posts a day about 7 different companies and/or topics. And people read these stories as if they’re definitive posts full of insightful information. Ha. Most of them are bullshit.
Second, because the emphasis is on speed, even if a writer does know a lot about a company/topic, that takes a backseat. Writing a bland story with a few facts in 5 minutes is valued much higher than writing a good story in an hour. And that’s valued much higher than writing a great story over the period of a few days or god-forbid, weeks.
I hear over and over again things like, “did you read that post on FILL-IN-THE-BLANK-BLOG? Interesting, huh?” No, it wasn’t interesting, it was bullshit. That author had no fucking idea what they were talking about. They probably wrote it in 20 minutes and never thought about it again. If you asked the author about it now, they probably wouldn’t even remember half of what they wrote.
Just because a writer’s words appear on a popular site, people seem to think they are sterling bastions of sacred information. They’re not. They’re human beings that may not even know as much about a topic as you do. Whatever they do know, they probably know from reading one or two other posts by another writer who learned about the topic from reading one or two other posts.
Bloggers informing bloggers all the way down.
You cannot be an authority on 20 different topics. You just can’t. But people are trying to convey that they are. And there’s often a perception that they are. And this horribly broken system works from the perspective of the pageview machine.
And don’t think this only applies to blogs. Often things written about our industry in mass media publications are actually worse!
My favorite examples are when publications like The Wall Street Journal feel the need to focus on some “hot button topic” like privacy and end up writing the most fucktarded fear-mongering bullshit imaginable.
But. But. But. The Wall Street Journal wrote it. Or The New York Times wrote it. It must be true! That means dick. A human being wrote that story. A human being that likely knew very little about the topic before they started writing — and maybe even less after.
Two different situations lead to the the same problem.
1) We have bloggers who sometimes are deeply embedded in the technology community and have quite a bit of insight and understanding about one or two companies/topics. But they have to write 4 or 5 or 6 or more stories a day as quickly as possible to feed the pageview beast.
2) We have more traditional journalists who are not deeply embedded in the technology community in any way and/or are forced to write for a more mainstream audience and end up writing obscenely bland stories about technology that only a brain-dead geriatric could love.
Both situations lead to stories that suck and/or are bullshit.
And yet, very few people call bullshit on the bullshit. Why? A few reasons.
Some fear angering the content beast. If you do, who knows what nonsense they could lay on your lap next.
Plus, the river flows both ways. Those running companies need the press to spread word when they want to do some sort of push.
Press eat that shit up because they’re easy posts that are pre-packaged and require little thought. And the end result are Tweets/comments/Facebook posts about how “awesome” the story is. Dopamine! Backslaps all around! Everyone happy!
Others “in the know” of what’s really going on don’t speak up because they also know that ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Stories fade. New ones rise. Everything is forgotten in an instant. Roll with it. If anything, speaking up simply often makes things worse because it validates the original story in a strange way.
And then there are the people simply too busy or who don’t give a shit what the press says. That’s the right mentality in my mind since actions do always trump words.
But still, most people are human beings that do care when nonsense is being spread. And the nonsense is getting louder.
I offer no solutions because my honest opinion is that nothing will change where we’re headed. Increasingly, there are two realities in the technology space: 1) reality and 2) “reality”.
The best writers will fall away because the system will no longer favor what they do. Or they’ll break towards the bullshit and thrive, but we’ll all be worse for it.
The only thing I can offer is the advice to take everything you read in the technology press with a grain of salt. Perhaps several. The likelihood that at least part of it is nonsense is very strong. And stronger by the day.