Results tagged “bogusphere”

Gawker Reckoning

October 15, 2007

I've had the chance to follow Gawker Media since before it launched, really, and so it's been interesting to see a couple of items pop up recently about the direction of some of its titles and practices. The big story, of course, is New York Magazine's piece, which is appropriately petty, self-indulgent, and honest, as any piece about Gawker should be.

A lot of the complaints in the article seem to boil down to "but they're not nice!" and I have to say -- I think that's a completely fair criticism. Not that media has to be nice, but because journalism in many of its forms aspires to having a sense of social responsibility. I've had enough friends or acquaintances who've had their day (or week, or reputation) ruined by one of the Gawker blogs that I've gotten a lot less willing to say "oh hey, they're just trying to drive traffic". I'm all for snarky-smart assed blogging, I just think that emulating traditional media's willingness to destroy people who aren't villains isn't a strategy for long-term success.

From the New York mag story:

It’s long been known to magazine journalists that there’s an audience out there that’s hungry to see the grasping and vainglorious and undeservedly successful (“douchebags” or “asshats,” in Gawker parlance) put in the tumbrel and taken to their doom. It’s not necessarily a pleasant job, but someone’s got to do it. Young writers have always had the option of making their name by meting out character assassinations—I have been guilty of taking this path myself—but Gawker’s ad hominem attacks and piss-on-a-baby humor far outstrip even Spy magazine’s. It’s an inevitable consequence of living in today’s New York: Youthful anxiety and generational angst about having been completely cheated out of ownership of Manhattan, and only sporadically gaining it in Brooklyn and Queens, has fostered a bloodlust for the heads of the douchebags who stole the city. It’s that old story of haves and have-nots, rewritten once again.

The problem with this conveniently simplified narrative about Gawker's sites, particularly its flagship namesake blog, is that it's always accompanied by assertions that this sort of sniping is what blogs are about. This isn't just inaccurate, it's the kind of assertion that is easily disproven both qualitatively and quantitatively. But whether it's Gawker in NYC, Wonkette in DC, or Valleywag in the Bay Area, people who have loud mouths want to believe that news about them must truly be all the news that matters. Therefore, if the blog that talks about me and my friends is snarky, all blogs are snarky. Which is, you know, kinda obviously horseshit.

This hoary-but-false chestnut makes its requisite appearance in the NYMag piece in reference to Elizabeth Spiers and Nick Denton: "They didn’t exactly invent the blog, but the tone they used for Gawker became the most important stylistic influence on the emerging field of blogging and has turned into the de facto voice of blogs today." (Personal note to those who follow in the steps of Vanessa Grigoriadis: This is false. Stop saying it.)

The misrepresentation of blogging is especially tragic because not even all Gawker blogs are snarky. Case in point is the excellent Lifehacker, the best-written of all Gawker blogs, helmed by Gina Trapani. Since they're public, I don't feel too wrong pointing to her recent Twitters, one in praise of a recent attempt by Gawker editors to object to advertising encroaching on editorial on the site, and one celebrating Lifehacker's omission from the recitation of snarky Gawker sites in the NYMag story.

I'm not sure one of the best editorial talents at a publishing company should be reduced to celebrating such small victories. Don't get me wrong: Gawker gets a lot right. There's absolutely a value in speaking truth to power, and there is truly something noble in deflating the self-importance of the various industries that the Gawker sites poke holes in. My contempt for those who insult journalism by pretending it shouldn't evolve remains as strong as ever. At the same time, there should be a sense of social responsibility to the community of bloggers, if not to the traditional media. And to my mind, that means highlighting the humor, incisiveness, and lack of favoritism that made sites like Gawker such a breath of fresh air when they started. Put more simply, tearing apart the innocent bystanders in these industries isn't just bad journalism, it's boring blogging.

And really, as long as print magazines like New York Magazine are still quoting the likes of Julia Allison as an authority on blogs, there will be no shortage of material to poke fun at. But these points of reckoning should serve as useful milestones for making sure we're not becoming the worst of the legacy cultures we're trying to criticize.

Disclaimers, such as they are: I've got a million little connections and biases about this story. I'm an unabashed blog promoter, even after all these years, so I'm protective of the medium. I don't read many posts from Gawker blogs, but still have an inexplicable affection for them, and am quite pleased that at one point years ago, I think I knew almost everybody in the Gawker organization. I like Nick Denton, both personally and professionally, even though he exasperates me regularly and antagonizes my friends almost constantly. (And I certainly admire Nick's diplomatic abilities, which allow him to maintain friendships with people even as he's paid others to publicly embarrass them.)

I've known Liz Spiers for a few years socially, and may even have introduced her at Nick, at a MetaFilter meetup, of all things, and think she's underrated as a blogger. I consider Gina Trapani a friend (which will now be particularly awkward if that's not mutual) and I think indirectly had a hand in her meeting Nick as well. Gina is perhaps the most underrated high-profile blogger in the world. I'm a fan of Gawker editor Choire Sicha, and have a genuine affection for both his talents and charm. I pitched a fit earlier this year at Valleywag editor Owen Thomas because I think some of his pieces on the company I work for were full of shit, though we've since sorta made up and Valleywag continues to publish wacky and wrong articles about our work. I also like New York Magazine, though I only read it when someone sends me a link to a story. And both Gawker and NY Mag use Movable Type for parts of their publishing, which I work on and means I probably indirectly get paid from some of these sites. Batteries not included, your mileage may vary, my name is Anil Dash and I endorse this message.

Update: Can't believe I missed linking to this one, but Nick Denton weighed in, going predictably meta with the absolutely accurate assessment that traditional media has to stop using "bile" to refer to bloggers. I always use "unkind" -- it feels satisfyingly quaint.

The Enterprise, Apple, and Insufficient Ambition

August 12, 2007

The Premise: Anyone who creates technologies that aspire to have significant cultural or social impacts on the developed world has to focus on both our lives at home and our lives at work. Anything less is an abdication of potential, or a failure of ambition, and settling for less denies many people the chance to discover tools or technologies that can improve their lives.

I was struck by John Siracusa's 'Stuck on the enterprise', which he wrote a few days ago. His assertion:

Sure, Apple makes periodic overtures in to big business. It even redirects apple.com/enterprise to someplace sensible. But nearly every Apple product or service ostensibly aimed at enterprise customers can also be seen as a natural part of some other, "non-enterprise" market where Apple is strong (e.g., creative professionals).

Unfailingly, Apple markets only to the end user these days. ... What Apple does not do is sell products to corporate IT that are meant for direct use by non-IT employees. That is, desktop PCs, and more recently, cellular phones.

Siracusa then goes on to list a series of enterprise desires for phones that he claims look "quite different than the iPhone", mainly centering around manageability and predictability. This is followed by a contention that these aims are incompatible with usability.

This is, to be blunt, horseshit. It's apologist blathering to cover up a failure of imagination and ambition. And it's saying that people cease to become people when they're at work, and are instead Enterprise Employees. These are the excuses that let the tech industry off the hook for failing to engage as many people as it should be.

This leads to an alarmingly wrongheaded conclusion:

[T]he decision to ignore markets where you must sell to someone other than the end user is pretty high-minded (for a corporation). It's also perhaps the only way to ever create great products, products that customers actually love.

No, this decision is elitist and lazy. Here's the truth: You can meet all the (reasonable) requirements of an Enterprise while still creating a product that delights and inspires the people who make up that organization.

In fact, you have to do so.

The only tools that succeed in an enterprise situation are those which are so compelling that people choose to use them in their free time. Look at email, instant messaging, hell -- look at the telephone. These staples of business communication are so popular because they meet the "I want this as part of my life" threshold. They can even be so good as to inspire addiction, complete with withdrawal in their absence.

Movable Type on an iPhone If you create a tool as powerful as instant messaging, for example, you won't be able to stop adoption in the enterprise -- you'll just need to add enterprise features. And to those who proudly point out that the iPhone is "too cool to ever go to work", you can't also claim that enterprise IT will have to deal with it because it's popular. Unless you want to perpetuate the myth that we somehow transform into emotionless robots when we go to work, you have to acknowledge that Apple's going to make more and more improvements to accommodate them, and that's a good thing.

Of course, I have a dog in this fight. I'd advocated for years that blogging should be an enterprise tool, and helped my company ship Movable Type Enterprise, which was the first is the most popular enterprise blogging app around. I wrote a little bit about why in "Why do you care about business blogs so much?"

For the normal people, the ones who kind of maybe have heard of blogs, but certainly haven't tried them out yet themselves, discovering blogging as part of work will lead them to thinking about how blogs can change every part of their life. It's just like the millions of people who first used a web browser as part of their job, or the people who had an email address at work or school before they ever signed up for Hotmail or Gmail.

When I talk to companies about blogging, I ask them how their Knowledge Management or Enterprise Content Management deployments have succeeded. And they almost invariably mumble a bit about "it's sort of underperforming...". This is the dark outcome of people trying to draw a line between who we are at work and who we are at home. You end up with shoddy, compromised products like KM or groupware. And the folks in IT aren't unfeeling, tyrannical monsters; When I tell them "well, we'll give you LDAP integration, but it'll also have a UI that's easy enough that people choose to use these tools in their free time as a hobby", their eyes light up. They want to delight people, too.

That's the truth of it -- if you don't change the way people work, you can't claim to be changing their lives for the better. In the developed world, we spend most of our waking hours at work, and the impact is enormous. The success of PCs in the enterprise helped indirectly subsidize computers getting cheap enough to buy at home. The requirements for reliability and stability of a lot of enterprise software makes for better consumer user experiences. And of course, most of the shopping on eBay or Amazon or most of the ad-clicking on TMZ or Gizmodo happen while people are at work too. If the anti-enterprise advocates had their way, none of us would have web browsers at work, but we'd still be ideologically pure and stickin' it to the man. Yeah!

Except we'd be sticking it to ourselves, for 8 to 10 hours a day. If you believe in a technology, like I believe in blogging, or you believe in a company, like many fans believe in Apple, then expect more. Don't settle for compromises where we're supposed to have crappy tools for the work we do -- any good craftsman takes pride in using the best tools he can.

And above all, stop making excuses for the arrogant and exclusionary voices that want to limit promising new technologies to just those who can afford to pay for them at home, or who have the interest to chase down the latest tech. Everybody deserves to benefit from this stuff.

Web 0.0

August 6, 2007

I moved back to New York City at the end of last year because of my wife's work, and despite my love for my coworkers and the work they do. But the decision was made really easy by the fact that I was spending too much time with other people in the Bay Area and especially in Silicon Valley who apparently have different motivations from my friends and peers.

The New York Times gives us a depressingly close view of the emptiness of their world. I struggle to find a nice way to say this, but if your motivation isn't to make something meaningful, if you don't understand what it is to yearn for the creative impetus that is the core driver of interesting, meaningful, innovative work, or if your motivation is a big pile of money that won't ever make your children happy, then I implore you, I beseech you: Get out now. Clear room again for those of us that do it because we love it, that did it when there was no money in it, that can't not do it. Life's too short to work on something so insufficiently world-changing. And you're just getting in the way of those of us with work to do.

Meaningful Catches On

July 20, 2007

Two of the posts I'm most proud of having written last year are Making Something Meaningful and How do we judge our tools?. It looks like the sentiment behind those posts is catching on.

  • Nick Bradbury on Conserving your limited attention: "When I hear someone complaining about all the feeds competing for their attention, I have to wonder why they don't just unsubscribe from most of them."
  • Jeremy Zawodny on Getting off the hype treadmill: "I made an conscious decision to drop virtually all "news" sources from my subscription list that felt like breathless hype machines that provided little new insight."
  • And Steve Rubel, who seems to have gotten a lot of conversations started with the conclusion that "[T]he bigger story in the long run is how these sites change business and our society."
  • Mike Torres captures a related point about insularity, "It used to be fun watching the "A-list" bloggers discover the obvious things that folks outside the U.S., little kids, and even big companies have been tracking for months; sometimes years."
  • There was a nice nod from O'Reilly Radar last week, too.

And of course we visited the blogosphere's reality distortion field yesterday. Now we just have to see if this is just a blip of self-criticism, or if people actually want to change what they pay attention to.

And "Will It Blend?" Is Considered Introspection

July 19, 2007

John Scalzi shares a gem and kicks off a predictably stupid comment thread, based on an overheard coversation: “The problem with using the Web as a model for what’s really going on is that on the Web, Ron Paul is a presidential front runner and Serenity is the greatest science fiction movie ever made.”

A Theory

May 3, 2007

More people know how to crack the encryption on HD-DVD disks than own HD-DVD players.

Threatening to Kill Blogs

April 9, 2007

Five years ago, I got my first death threat for something I wrote on my blog. The same week, some of those readers called my boss and tried to get me fired. A number of others publicly asserted that I supported terrorism. All because they felt that's the appropriate way to respond to one of my blog posts that they didn't like.

It gets worse -- the Wall Street Journal's website chimed in later that week, maligning me by mocking words on my site, despite the fact that they were actually those of a commenter, not my own. Because the WSJ doesn't call its OpinionJournal site a "blog", some thought that carried the full weight and credibility of their print paper, and didn't realize that even a theoretically responsible bastion of journalism could participate in a blogosphere pile-on.

Three years ago, I ended up in the middle of another online fracas; No death threats this time, but perhaps that was because this had to do with my job and not my personal blog or politics. Still, the incident featured numerous threats of violence, against both me and my coworkers, usually in the form of "they ought to be beaten" coupled with an unabashed reveling in the fact that those making the threats were participating in an angry mob.

Conduct Unbecoming

With that context, it's not surprising to me in the least that the New York Times is finally covering the story of how we're dealing with the profoundly unkind place the blogosphere can sometimes be. Now, I should be clear: Though I may have been less certain in the past, I know in retrospect I was never in any real danger from any of these incidents. But it's hard to articulate the visceral, emotional impact of hearing a total stranger, especially an anonymous total stranger, wish you ill. This is true even if your rational mind knows it's likely just an empty threat.

The first incident I was describing was the result of criticisms I made on my site about the community on a political blog. Perhaps appropriately, one of the main points of contention on that site was whether mainstream muslims do enough to disavow and denounce the actions of the radicalized fringe of extremists. Interestingly, as far as I've seen in the half-decade since, there's never been a similar debate about whether to denounce the radical fringe of web communities.

But it's not limited to any one site, and the blame can't be placed on any one community online. When the company I worked for stirred up passions three years ago by changing the license on a software product, many of the responses that were angry took on a strikingly personal tone. Interestingly, the personal nature of the attacks was more vehement because we were a small company whose principals were known and could be addressed personally; People in corresponding positions in faceless multi-billion-dollar corporations, whose actions are theoretically much more far-reaching and potentially nefarious, are shielded from the vitriol by the sheer anonymity of their enterprise. Instead of being rewarded for being approachable, we are punished, whether in a personal or professional context.

There are countless recent examples to pick through, too:

  • Sweetney, one of the most popular blogs in the parenting community, was the victim of a site dedicated to disparaging mommybloggers. The incident, which involved some horrible images that were created by modifying photos of innocent children, galvanized the entire parenting blog community for days. Though these parenting sites often have more readers than popular technology/media bloggers, they are less frequently covered in mainstream press. As a result, the dramatic debates that ensued didn't end up with prominent stories in traditional media, and many who have participated in the debates over the past few weeks are unaware of the incident.
  • Even American Idol contestants have faced this issue: Chris Sligh, a former contestant in the current season, got death threats on his blog after posts that some perceived as slights against the show. "He attributes his toning down the jokes in recent weeks to hate-postings on his blog, telling reporters, 'I think it kind of scared me, quite honestly. I had people who were telling me that they hoped I’d die...'"
  • And of course Kathy Sierra's ordeal, which has had such an impact on her life and work that she's reached a crossroads with what to do in her career going forward.

Mend it, don't end it

Now, after those examples, it's important to point out that blogging has changed millions of lives for the better. At the same time, we've been ignoring the cost it exacts on many of its most dedicated practitioners and proponents.

Because, regardless of the circumstance of any of my own anecdotes, what's instructive here is the pattern: Threats, often violent threats, are a common part of public discourse in the blogosphere. Now, they're common in other parts of the web, and on public streets and at shopping malls and schools, as well. But this is the medium that I give a damn about, and it's the medium I want to help as much as I can.

Every single person I know who has a significant public web presence has been threatened at some point, and nearly every woman in that group has faced an online threat of sexual violence.

The solution requires all of us who care about this medium to first acknowledge the truth of this situation, recognize that this is our community's responsibility, make explicit that this behavior is unacceptable, and enforce consequences for transgressions. In short, we need to encourage accountability.

And here's the challenge -- every significant effort to encourage accountability raises the hackles of the libertarian core of the technology community. Most of these people are apologists for those who resort to violent threats in lieu of reasoned debate. You will find this group falsely describing accountability as censorship, regulation or "political correctness". They will deliberately conflate the issue of accountable speech online with some infringement on the right to free speech, or will misrepresent the effort as a requirement to "only say nice things". And they will disparage those who suggest such measures as feminine or weak, using euphemisms and slurs that reveal their inherent misogyny.

Where we go from here

I'm an imperfect ambassador for this message, and I'll be the first to admit it. I've worked on the effort to create technological solutions, supported those who've spoken up about the issue, and spoken about this concern myself to nearly the point of exhaustion. But I've been ill-tempered and flown off the handle a number of times myself -- I'm sure that, having written this, someone will rush off to document exactly how.

Despite the fact that it's a difficult topic to discuss, and despite the fact that it certainly isn't the sort of conversation that attracts lots of traffic and readership, I think it's important for all of us to try to show leadership in solving the probelm. I will not settle for having the reputation of a medium I care about be compromised by the few antisocial members of our community. I will also try not to allow myself or my peers to stay complacent about the issue, because there is far too much good created by bloggers and blogging communities.

Imagine if every person who got an a telephone line had to dread the day when some anonymous stranger would call them up and threaten them over a conversation they'd had. We certainly wouldn't be carrying mobile phones around with us everywhere we go, and there wouldn't be love songs about people waiting expectantly by the phone. Blogs can, and have provided as many meaningful moments in my life as phone calls ever have; In order to make sure that other people have that potential, too, we need to be active in stopping those who threaten the medium as a whole.

Related links:

Collecting Samples

March 6, 2007

Do you want links? Because I'll give you some damn links, I'm not afraid of you! I'm not afraid of NOBODY!

Dominant, a UC Berkeley alumnus who actually attended the much-publicized class on Shakur in the late '90s, says that he finds value in hip-hop studies, provided they take the long view. "With hip-hop and all black music, you can't talk about the art separate from a lot of other things," he says. "You can't talk about hip-hop as an art form without talking about the people, the economics, how and why it was made. You have to be pretty thorough."

Finding ways to teach and study hip-hop from within a university setting is not easy. "I worry that scholars like us get so obsessed with trying to justify hip-hop that we end up running in circles," says Berkeley grad student Felicia Viator, a DJ who's finishing up a doctorate in history.

  • Businessweek's Catherine Holahan looks at the unfiltered conversations that have sprung up in light of community changes after USA Today's recent web redesign. I don't know that I'd make a change in the cultural assumptions of a site at the same time as aesthetic/UI changes, because then you don't know which one caused everybody to lose their minds.
  • Ask the Wizard, written by Feedburner CEO Dick Costolo is, flat out, the best new blog of 2007. The thing I love about great writing is it makes the pervasive truths seem self-evident and even obvious. Plus it's actually funny, not another tech exec wearing a goofy tie and claiming to be full of ha-ha.
  • Dear Drew, have you considered changing the font on Fark's homepage?
  • This is the old Top 5% of all Web Sites graphic that used to be used by Point. Which was actually Point Communications, which was actually at pointcom.com, until it sold to Lycos during a period of the web's history 10 years ago that is apparently so old nobody caught the reference. Winning the meaningless award used to be accompanied by an email alerting you to the good news. I suspect Todd Whitney is not still toiling away at Lycos.
  • I spoke at the Northern Voice conference in Vancouver a little over a week ago, and there's video of my presentation up on the web, albeit with suboptimal sound. But it kind of gives you a feel for what we were all talking about, if you have the patience to sit through it. (My part starts about five minutes in.)
  • If you've somehow missed them, a few articles on the tech generation gap. Emily Nussbaum's excellent, definitive look at the distinctions between the technological expectations of those born before and after 1977 in regard to privacy seems like the coming-out party for the topics danah has been talking about forever. A simpler, but still compelling, Tim Bajarin piece in PC Magazine complements it nicely. And the WaPo sez colleges have lost track of students because the schools are still trying to use phones and email to talk to kids who only use Facebook and IM. Whoops.
  • Someday, me and Kal Penn in a steel cage match for Most Famous Indian in America. Someday.

learning from experience

June 27, 2004

One of the things I've learned of late is that, despite being a wonderful, generous community of truly warm-hearted people, sometimes the blog world likes nothing more than a good old-fashioned pile-on.

I thought about this looking at the (totally justified) hard time that Cory gave Fast Company over their dumb linking policy. If you look at the conversation, people act as if some lawyer gleefully rubbed his hands together and said, "How do we get this periodical to be an isolated island of unlinked misery on the web?" I'm guessing that's not the case.

Keep in mind, Fast Company is an organization that's smart enough to have a homepage that damn near validates as XHTML. They've had a real, honest-to-god weblog with comments running longer than almost any magazine. They even send Heath (and his amazing transcription skills) to various conferences so that people who can't attend can get a lot of the benefits of attendance for free on the web. In short, they're surprisingly clueful, especially for a mainstream business/general interest magazine. But people are assailing this part of their site's terms of service as if it were a concerted effort to be evil.

For Cory's part, I'm not criticizing his post about this topic at all. Cory's mandates are the openness of information, fighting the tyranny of bad law, and encouraging the free sharing of information. And he's doing what I do a lot, bitching about something that sucks, particularly appropriate as this is his bailiwick. I think I've got pretty good credentials for defending Cory's right to write about whatever he wants. But still, the reaction incited is one that's unproductive at best and unkind at worst.

Since I hate to complain without offering a solution, what I'd like to do is propose a new model for responding to the blogosphere's frequent and characteristic calls to action against Stuff That Sucks. First, read the link. Don't go being a slashdot flameboy. Read the thing that's being linked to. Second, we're good at collectively ferreting out information, so let's find the person responsible. There can't be that many people responsible for a terms of service document at a publishing company, and it's easier to get a revision made if we know who's going to do it.

There's a human benefit to finding out the person responsible, in helping to understand their circumstances and constraints. In almost all of these situations, there's someone who had to compromise for reasons that are totally reasonable. Maybe the guy writing this stuff was tired of fighting with his boss over it, and didn't have hundreds of emails from bloggers who'd back up his position. Maybe the woman who put this in place intended to fix it as soon as she got back from maternity leave, and figured who's gonna read a TOS document that closely anyway? Not all of us are lucky enough to have our licenses fisked by our audience.

So, once you've got information on what's actually happening, know who's responsible, and understood why they might have made this mistake, you've got what you need to make a change. We're bloggers, that means we self-organize pretty well. Be the person who starts the petition or explains how to contact the decision makers and provides a useful, non-confrontational template for how to get in touch with them. Provide a place where everyone concerned about the issue can TrackBack their complains, along with specific suggestions. (I can't take credit for that one, Mena nailed that idea.) And, believe me, people will read that feedback. Especially since it'll be the first Google result for either (1) their company name or (2) their name within a few days.

And then? Follow up. They'll make changes, as quickly as they can, though in most organizations that's not all that fast. Keep in mind, you're adding a task to their list that they didn't anticipate, and they probably already have a day job. My last request, though I suspect it's not likely to be adopted, is that people acknowledge the change when it happens. From personal experience, you can usually find about a ten-to-one ratio of complaints to acknowledgements of an improvement, in the best case. If you are the one on the receiving end and you get one tenth as much kudos as complaints, consider your work a success.

Now, all my blog posts are under a Creative Commons license, but this seems one of those ideas that can definitely be refined and expanded into a specific set of plans for action by the weblog community on almost any issue. So this post is completely public domain, and I hope you guys help direct all the energy of the various weblog communities into positive action more often.

I'd suggest a few things off the bat:

  • A PowerPoint plan of action so that executives or non-tech people can see how to use blogs for positive action
  • A how-to so that non-profits and other social organizations can leverage blogs for their campaigns
  • Some background documentation on the types of results bloggers have had (with everything from Trent Lott to the Star Wars Kid as examples)
  • A place to collect personal testimonials from people who've benefitted from blogger-inspired campaigns or who've changed their work or changed their ways due to input from the blogosphere

I'm proud of what we've done in creating so many different weblog communities, and I don't want our legacy to be one of having the positives overshadowed by our frequent, though understandable, tendency to be unkind or uncivil to those we're communicating with.

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