Jefferson’s SOTU speech, word mapped at DUMBO arts festival. (Taken with Instagram)

Jefferson’s SOTU speech, word mapped at DUMBO arts festival. (Taken with Instagram)

Blog Wars, Ragetweets, and Journalistic Integrity

I’ve seen a spate of posts in my Twitter feed about a recent blog war between Marco Arment and John Gruber on the one side, and Joshua Topolsky of The Verge on the other.

I hate to add to the cacophony of voices weighing in on this, but there’s an interesting angle to the story that I don’t think many people have addressed.

(Full disclosure: I’ve contributed writing to The Verge, and gotten my fair share of links from Daring Fireball.)

I’ll spare you the exact details of the disagreement, but in summary:

  1. Marco links to a post questioning Engadget’s coverage of the remarkably iMac-esque HP Spectre One, which did not mention the design similarities. He lightly suggests that The Verge, Engadget, and other “gadget” blogs may be soft-balling reviews of competing products with Apple-inspired designs in order to maintain relationships with key sources.
  2. John weighs in with his own theory: that these same blogs are worried about invoking the wrath of the vocal subset of their readerships that is strongly anti-Apple.
  3. Josh Topolsky gets mad, and posts his own response to the charge.

Blogwars might make for good bloodsport on Twitter, but what I find really interesting about this disagreement is how it highlights the difference between blogging (as a sole enterprise) and writing within the structure of an editorial operation.

I’m posting this to my blog. I could have pitched it to one of my editors, but I chose to put it here instead. This post, by virtue of not being edited by anyone other than me, is a different post than it would be had I chosen the latter. There is no one catching my typos, or usage errors, or checking my facts. There is also no one listening to my argument and pointing out possible flaws I may have missed.

This means I am responsible for what I post here, and only me. If I get something wrong, I am to blame. It’s my name on the door. And I take that seriously, as I believe Marco, John, and Josh all do with their own personal blogs, and the writing they contribute elsewhere. It’s possible, even probable, that I might get some of the facts wrong in this post, or have holes in my argument, and I will likely hear about them through pithy comments in my Twitter mentions.

There’s more to editing, however, than just fact-checking and copy editing. Editors help writers consider the whole story. They make sure we do our best to write essays, not rants. They ask for more research when context is lacking, they question whether stories focused on one subject are actually part of a broader trend, they shoot down spurious arguments and poorly-chosen examples, and (at least in principle) they help to ensure that the writer tells the whole truth, as thoroughly as possible. After all, just because a writer got all of the facts write right doesn’t mean their facts make up the entire story. Truly accurate reporting lets the reader make up her own mind, and doesn’t ignore parts of the story to bolster a hypothesis or avoid calling attention to opposing viewpoints.

Is an editorial structure a prerequisite for “good” journalism (by which I mean “truthful”, “accurate”, etc.)? I can’t say for sure that it is, but I’d argue that some kind of feedback — preferably a professional editor — is needed. Friends, significant others, and family members can only give us their opinions as readers; an editor is trained to look deeper into the structure of our arguments and prose. There’s a reason why we place our trust in established media outlets, even if only those whose slant we agree with: they have solid, time-tested editorial teams working to tell the truth as accurately as they can. (How well they accomplish this at the moment is another debate, and beyond the scope of this essay.)

So how does this relate to the blogwars? Put simply, I think that Marco and John both went out on a bit of a limb, editorially speaking. I’m not saying they are wrong in their conclusions (without more research, I don’t think anyone can say either way), but I am saying that both of them hopped over the boundary between reporting and conjecture. To suggest, or even imply, specific and wide-ranging ethical misconduct among gadget blogs without presenting ample evidence to back up the argument is reckless at best, and malicious at worst. I’m not going to ascribe motive to either of them, and I greatly respect and enjoy Gruber’s reporting, and Marco’s technical writing, but I think they both dropped the ball on this one.

I’ll close with some words by Joel Johnson, who nailed the pain point eloquently in his post from earlier today [emphasis mine]:

As an admirer and near-daily reader of Marco and Gruber’s blogs, I am always disappointed when I see them set up a rhetorical trap for professional journalists like Topolsky and the Verge team: civil criticism can be tempered with generosity and inquiry. It is extraordinarily easy to presume the motivation and machinations of an entire industry–tech journalism, in this case–from the hazy distance being a lone pundit provides…

I hope for better from those I admire. And I find the cake-and-eating-it-too criticism from Marco and Gruber, who have the luxury of being respected tech journalists or plebeian pundits at their leisure, to be wearisome.

This is a major reason why bloggers get so much flack from the mainstream press. When there’s no one editing you, you’re free to say or imply whatever you want. There’s no one forcing you to consider all angles, or to reach out to the subjects of your reporting for comment and clarification, or to avoid jumping to conclusions based on incomplete evidence. Neither Gruber nor Marco reached out to The Verge for comment, or if they did neither mentioned it. While one might argue that their comments were fleeting, off-the-cuff, and not intended to be a serious accusation of corruption, their audiences don’t necessarily know that. And to be honest, I think most editors-in-chief would rather you call their mother a very nasty string of four-letter words than so much as joke that their team of reporters is being influenced by outside interests — a fact most reporters learn fairly early on in their careers.

If bloggers want to be considered equals with journalists, we have to start acting like them — even when no one is watching. That means holding ourselves to the exact same standards the press holds itself to with respect to disclosure, reporting facts and not conjecture, and giving a voice to opposing viewpoints in our storytelling. Many times our writing is the only thing many of our readers will read about a particular issue, and it’s our responsibility to give them as complete a version of the truth as we possibly can.

Distance Podcast

Get ready for my first appearance in podcast form on Episode 02 of the Distance Podcast:

Nick talks to Ben Jackson, an iOS developer and writer from New York City who contributed an essay, Hard Fun, to Distance 01. Topics include classy swearing (00:00), research directions in thoughtful online writing (01:25), innovations in the journalism industry (05:10), the importance and difficulty of data-heavy interactive pieces (11:30), journalistic impartiality and decision-making (13:01), sourcing it wrong in tech writing (19:28), reporters learning to code (23:18), the split between design work and writing (28:51), design identity at cocktail parties (30:15), writing before and after publication in Distance (34:21), how to pick a topic to write about (42:17), Ben’s dream job (43:59), and Pavlovian following (47:45).

We recorded this over Skype, so sometimes the quality drops out on occasion. We fixed nothing in post, including all the foul language, crosstalk, and feedback.

It’s been a long time since I’ve laughed as much as I did during this session with Nick Disabato. Grab the audio here.

Everything's amazing, nothing's perfect: exploring the limits of consumer technology

It’s certainly possible to produce a street-legal vehicle that’s capable of flight — both the PAL-V and Terrafugia are both working prototypes. But they’re a far cry from the Zemeckisian dream of shuttling your children through the skies to soccer practice. And what happens when your uncle has a few too many at Christmas dinner and takes off in his flying car? And what about rush hour? No one wants to end up stuck in traffic at a few thousand feet on limited fuel. Without the navigation systems that Boeing described in their initial feasibility study, these vehicles will never be cleared for anyone to use with just a few hours of driver’s ed and a road test — if you want to fly one of them today, you’ll need a pilot’s license.

In which I address the popular notion that consumer technology is as good as science can make it right now.

Speaking in Tongues

Privileging face-to-face conversation makes a virtue of proximity and reduces the wide world to a set of hyper-literal possibilities. It’s so obsessed with the real that it’s unrealistic, atavistic, and just silly. There is nothing like talking to somebody IRL, it’s true. There is also nothing like body language or like the feeling of being looked at when you want to be. But when it’s good there’s really nothing like sexting.

I am fascinated by the IRL fetish. And sexting.

Clubbin’ (Taken with Instagram)

Clubbin’ (Taken with Instagram)

Meanland: the radical terrain of social media

I was never trying to evade the subpoena (as I’ve mentioned, the possible consequences are minor). I’ve been much more interested in feeling out the contours of the avatar I use to walk through this space. Users can vanish without a visible trace in a second. I imagine if they switched their account name right before deleting it and registered the old name as a dummy user with the same information, even the state would have a hard time knowing what to ask for. Twitter is unlike flesh space in that a) you can change your name whenever you want and b) there’s an external system that secures each name to a user and respects your nominal choices as soon as you make them. So there is a @destructuremal ostensibly operated by aMalcolm Harris, but from minute to minute it could be anyone. By the time the subpoena goes through, they could be in Indonesia or be a child or a robot or an empty shell of useless data. In Twitter you never need be more than a name, and you can change it whenever you want.

Amazing story of how the legal system struggles to understand Twitter.

Filed under “irony”.

Filed under “irony”.

How White Is The New Internet?

But for all their power, little is known about the demographics of these users (often called "alpha geeks") other than their tendency to adopt new technology before the rest of humanity. Where do they live? What do they look like? How closely do they resemble the users who will follow in their footsteps?

To find out, we dug into the user bases of three recently-launched publishing platforms: Svbtle, an invite-only blog publishing network; Medium, a minimalist publishing platform from the Twitter dudes (also currently invite only); and App.net, an open infrastructure-level version of Twitter (open to anyone, but charges $50 a year). The results paint a portrait of typical early-adopters: white, male, and (at least in the case of Medium) mostly influencers based in major tech hubs.

My first data piece for BuzzFeed is an demographic study of early adopters. Read the stats, or skip to the methodology at the end to find out how I did it (and see the code on github).