Viral bullshit as the new classifieds

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A very well-done post about viral bullshit on Gawker (et al) by Mathew Ingram really comes down to this: Journalism used to be subsidized by classifieds and fluff, now it is built atop viral bullshit. The argument: Sure, we serve crap — or cats — but that’s what brings in the traffic for the good stuff.

Quoting Gawker’s editor in chief, John Cook: “Part of our job is to make sure we’re writing about things that people are talking about on the internet, and the incentive structure of this company is organized to make sure that we are on top of things that are going viral… we are tasked both with extending the legacy of what Gawker has always been — ruthless honesty — and be reliably and speedily on top of internet culture all while getting a shit-ton of traffic. Those goals are sometimes in tension.”

Of course, that is a bankrupt model, for soon it becomes impossible to find the diamond in the sewage: the one decent, worthwhile, true report buried amid native advertising, viral bullshit, trolls’ comments, breaking rumors, and staff’s snark. Soon, the brand’s value is nil — but, hey, the traffic is humongous. And the advertisers still pay because we gave them a home for their bullshit and the faint though fraudulent promise that we can make them viral, too.

I think a new business model emerges from the swamp: the news outlet that tries, at least, to deliver the truth. That’s what all journalism fancies itself to be, of course, but the field would suffer in an audit of how much of that claim is true. I’m biased, but I’d say the Guardian is one outlet that is trying to live by that goal, though many will quickly point out that it won’t live if it can’t also have a goal of making profit.

At my journalism school, I was having a discussion about an unrelated matter the other day and as I railed on about a certain faux-news outlet that appeared to be all offal, a colleague smiled and said, “I love it, Jarvis, when *you* launch into a conservative rant about journalism.” Yes, I’m known as the guy who wants to open up media to the world to hear more voices and the cacophony of democracy, to equip anyone to commit an act of journalism, to confess our fallibility and admit that news is always in beta.

But I have long believed that the real job of journalism is to add value to what a community knows — real value in the form of confirmation and debunking and context and explanation and most of all *reporting* to ask the questions and get the answers — the facts — that aren’t already in the flow. The journalist’s and journalism organization’s ability to do that depends on trust over traffic.

In the earlier days of the web, I’ve argued that many made the mistake of thinking of the net as a medium and so whenever they saw a comment or mistake from a civilian, they thought the entire enterprise had been ruined as if The New York Times had published porn. No, I said, don’t expect the web to be a medium that’s published and packaged and polished. It’s just another streetcorner. At Broadway and 40th, you might overhear an idiot or see a drooler but you don’t propose to reject all New York because of that.

Too many would-be journalistic outlets today are making the mistake of thinking that they want to *be* the web, to hitch onto every speeding meme, riding it to … where? I think we can see where: to the oblivion where memes go to fizzle and die. Journalists would make a fatal mistake to think that they are viruses when what they should be are the leukocytes that kill them.

Attention v. relationship economy

Oddly, Google chief economist Hal Varian analyzes newspapers‘ problems and prescribes solutions strictly from an old-media perspective — based on attention to marketing messages — rather than an internet (namely, Google) perspective of relevance and relationships.

In a speech to Italian journalists, Varian says that “the basic economic problem facing news is increased competition for attention” and that newspapers must use such tricks as tablets and dayparts to get people to spend more leisure time with news so they can show them more ads (ignoring, for one thing, the fact that advertising abundance — championed by Google — lowers advertising prices and takes from newspapers the pricing power they once had). “The fundamental challenge facing newspapers is to increase the time people spend on their content,” Varian says. “More time reading the newspaper online translates into more online ad revenue.”

I couldn’t disagree more. Pardon me for suggesting to a Googler that we would be better off asking, what would Google do?

Google reinvented the advertising model, moving past attention as a proxy for intent (“if they see my ad I can convince them to buy my product”) and placement as a substitute for relevance (“men read the sports section and men buy tires, ergo we will advertise our tires in the sports section”). Google also killed the beloved myth of mass media that supported it for a century: All readers see all ads so we charge all advertisers for all readers. Google understands that users have variable value that is increased the closer it can get to delivering relevance and intuiting intent through signals — search, location, context, behavior as well as consuming content — which come from having a relationship of mutual value with the user.

The last thing newspapers should do is continue to try to shovel their old relationships, forms, and models into a new reality. No, don’t just sell space for messages to advertisers (for they’ll soon wake up and realize the pointlessness of the exercise). Don’t try to recreate old forms in new devices like tablets. Don’t measure the value of relationship as page views or time spent. Don’t think your primary value is manufacturing content that you then try to sell.

Newspapers and other former media outlets should become — as Google is — services that still inform — that is their core value — but now can use their own signals to learn about and return relevance to people as individuals and communities rather than masses, thus deriving greater value in the transaction.

For example, through my use of its Maps, Google knows where I live and work. My local newspaper doesn’t. When I ask for “pizza” in search, Google doesn’t give me a hundred archived articles with the word “pizza” in them but gives me the nearest pizza (soon, I hope, the best pizza, the pizza I’d most likely enjoy, the pizza my friends like with ever crisper relevance … and crusts). If my newspaper knew where I lived and worked — if it gave me reason to reveal that — it could target content to me the way it already tries to target ads. Why does *every* newspaper site still treat its home page as a one-size-fits-all print page when it could prioritize news that might be more relevant to me?

The reason: because newspapers still believe in the myth of mass media; they want to hope that with enough time you will look at all the pages they make and all the ads on them. That is the old attention-based media model Varian still recommends. This is also why newspapers continue to sell advertisers space for messages when instead they should be helping those merchants build better relationships with customers. But first, newspapers have to learn how to build relationships themselves.

That is the lesson Google teaches us. That is the new media market Google, more than anyone, created.

Protecting journalism v journalists

The Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton draws attention to the knottier issues around a proposed federal shield law for journalists and urges critics to be included in the debate about whether it is better to have a constitutional or merely a legislative protection.

I believe a shield law that protects job descriptions is fatally flawed. At a Knight event in Washington last week, investigative journalist Scott Armstrong argued strongly that the government will slice out exceptions to protecting national-security reporters. “More cases are emerging because it’s never been easier to leak or investigate leaks,” Newton writes. “Reacting to a new generation of digital whistleblowers, like Chelsea Manning, Armstrong said this administration began to treat all leaks ‘as if they were espionage cases.’ There have been seven leak cases under the Obama administration, and only four in all of history before; Savage called challenging informants the ‘new norm.’”

I worry that by requiring the journalist to work for a news organization or freelance for them or be a journalism student, many will be left out. But arguing to add more categories of people to the definition isn’t the answer.

The answer is to protect not the journalist but the act of journalism: that is, revealing information that is in the public interest.

Oh, yes, I know that would then include Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake, and Daniel Ellsberg — none of whom would qualify under the proposed law but every one of whom has revealed information of vital public interest, fueling the debate that democracy should welcome.

Until we are ready to stand behind that broad principle of information in the public interest as our definition of journalism, then I come to see that I stand with the shield-law critics Newton cites. For we do have a shield. It is the First Amendment. Asking Congress to modify and limit it is short-sighted and too much an act of self-interest by journalistic organizations eager to be protected themselves.

Let’s remember that ultimately, it’s not the journalists we are seeking to protect but the sources of that information. Now that those sources can share directly with the public, with or without journalists as mediators, then we must protect them as journalistic actors.

The spy trade

Here’s a slideshow of snippets from Wikileaks’ latest data dump: a collection of advertising material from private companies creating surveillance technologies for sale to governments and others.

(When you click on the post below, you’ll need to click on the images again to see the slide show.)


First, the good news

First, listen to this superb and profoundly disturbing segment by On the Media producer Sarah Abdurrahman about how she and her husband and other guests at a Canadian wedding were detained and mistreated at the U.S. border crossings in spite of their citizenship — American — and because of their religion — Islam.

Welcome back. I told you it well done, didn’t I? I’d be screaming bloody murder at such treatment but Abdurrahman kept her journalistic cool and curiosity, trying to get the facts and understand our rights, asking questions, in spite of never getting answers. People have been saying lately that Verizon picked on the wrong person in me. Well, U.S. Customs and Border Protection could not have picked a worse person to detain: a smart, accomplished journalist with an audience.

I would hope that CBP is humiliated by this and will change, but our government isn’t humiliated by spying on the entire damned world and won’t change that, so I’ll give up my hope. Nonetheless, this story is the perfect bookend to the Guardian’s reporting on the NSA, showing a government that is out of control — because its citizens can no longer control it. Well done, OtM. Thank you, Sarah.

Now the bad news. Next came a story that did have me shouting at the radio as geographer Jim Thatcher condemned major tech companies with broad brush — without specifics, without evidence or proof, only with innuendo — for the possibility they could be redlining the world and diverting users away from certain areas. “It’s hidden what they’re doing,” he said. If it’s hidden, then how does he know they’re doing it? Not said. Microsoft had a patent that could do things like this but Thatcher acknowledged that “Microsoft may or may not” every use it. They could.

Brooke Gladstone laments Google’s purchase of Waze for $1.3 million because “we are being sold for our data, it’s an old story.” No, I was using Waze at the very moment I heard that because (1) I get data of great value back, helping me avoid not opium dens but traffic jams and (2) I generously want to share my data with others who have generously shared theirs with me. This is an example of a platform that does precisely what news organizations should do: help the public share its information with each other, without gatekeepers.

Next, Thatcher says with emphasis that “theoretically” Google could charge coffee shops for directing us to one over another. Then Thatcher acknowledges that it’s not happening. It could. And he dollops on a cherry of fear about technology and “for-profit” corporations.

Don’t you smell the irony in the oven, OtM? You properly and brilliantly condemn the CBP for detaining Americans because they are Muslims and because Muslims could do terrorism even when they don’t. Then, in the very next segment, you turn around and needlessly condemn technology companies because they could do things some guy imagines even though he admits they don’t.

Those are two sides of the same phenomenon: moral panic, the unsubstantiated suspicion that some apparently alien entity — Muslims or (OMG!) for-profit technology companies — could upset the social order, a fear often fanned by media.

Put down the fan, OtM, and learn the lesson from Abdurrahman’s superb story that your role — you of all media outlets — is to throw cold water on such unwarranted fright-mongering.

Mind you, these two segments were surrounded by two more very good reports: one that gives us a guide for what to ignore in breaking news (so as not to fan flames) and another about how — surprise, surprise, surprise — technology can lead to good ends. I remain a fan and loyal listener of OtM. And that is why I humbly offer you a map to guide you away from a dodgy neighborhood called technopanic.

This is what prior restraint looks like

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Last night, while being interviewed by Charlie Rose with Janine Gibson and former NSAer Stewart Baker in New York, Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger pulled out of his jacket pocket a symbol of press freedom and attempts to muzzle it: a piece of the Mac that the UK’s spies from GCHQ destroyed in the paper’s basement. The rest is destined for a museum in London and the Newseum in Washington.

Verizon responds, and so do I

I just received a letter from Verizon’s VP and associate general counsel, William H. Johnson, to the acting head of the FCC Enforcement Bureau, Robert Ratcliffe, responding to my Nexus 7 complaint. I will respond below. First, Verizon’s stand:

In a letter to the Enforcement Bureau, Jeff Jarvis alleges that Verizon Wireless is violating its C Block obligations by declining to activate Mr. Jarvis’s Google Nexus 7 LTE tablet on its network. Verizon Wireless takes seriously its C Block obligations, and, as explained below, it is fully complying with them, including with respect to the device in question.

The Google Nexus 7 is a new tablet developed by Google. Google announced in July that this tablet will run on the Verizon Wireless network. The manufacturer of the Nexus 7 subsequently submitted the device for our certification process in August, and that process has proceeded apace. In fact, we expect final certification of the device will come shortly. Once the device is certified, we will work with Google to enable the device to be activated on our 4G LTE network within a matter of days.

Verizon Wireless’s certification process is fully consistent with the Commission’s C Block rules. Those rules require Verizon Wireless to allow customers to use their choice of devices, but they also recognize that this obligation only applies in the case of devices that comply with the provider’s published technical standards. See 47 C.F.R. § 27.16(b). The Commission recognized that providers may “use their own certification standards and processes to approve use of devices and applications on their networks so long as those standards are confined to reasonable network management,” and the Commission allowed providers flexibility in implementing these standards and processes.1 Verizon’s certification process for third-party devices like the Google Nexus 7 is a straightforward way to ensure that devices attached to the Verizon Wireless network do not harm the network or other users. Although Verizon Wireless uses one of the most rigorous testing protocols of any carrier, the process generally takes only between four and six weeks. Certification is done by third party labs approved by Verizon Wireless, and selected by the device manufacturer. Over the years, Verizon Wireless has certified hundreds of devices; information on the certification process is available to anyone at www.opennetwork.verizonwireless.com.

Verizon is committed to ensuring our customers have the best overall experience when any device becomes available on the nation’s most reliable network. Please let us know if you have any further questions on this matter.

In a letter I will shortly send to the FCC, I will ask: What is the definition of “open”? What is the definition of the Block C requirement that allows “customers to use the devices and applications of their choice”?

The industry definitions of openness and consumer choice across GSM carriers all around the world is quite clear: I take a device to Germany, say, buy a SIM, put it in the device, and if the frequencies of the antennae match, then it will work. Full stop. This works because there is an open standard that governs the process, not a closed “certification” process.

The Nexus 7 clearly has met these open standards. It has been approved by the FCC. It works on the networks of AT&T, T-Mobile, and GSM carriers around the world — any one of whom has much, much more experience with GSM than Verizon. As I and others have demonstrated, the Nexus 7 *does* work on Verizon’s network.

That is not the issue. The issue is that Verizon refuses to give me the immediate opportunity — using a device of my choice on an open network — to receive a SIM and add it to my shared data plan. As I noted in my complaint, Verizon agents used this as an opportunity to try to sell me Verizon tablets. That is a consumer issue.

That is in direct contravention of the spirit and letter both of the Block C requirements and the FCC consent decree of July 2012 against Verizon demanding openness and consumer choice on the network.

I continue to ask the FCC to bring clarity to this matter and to assure that Verizon will operate an open network on which the customers — not Verizon — have the power of choice.

Note well that the Nexus 7 is just the first of many devices sure to come to market from all over the world. That development is what was to be encouraged by the clause of the Block C requirements we are discussing. That cannot bear Verizon’s continued interference.

: LATER: I received a letter from Verizon responding to my FCC complaint and I responded in turn in the post above.

TelHell thus far

Notes on the Verizon fight, ongoing. The original post is below.

Here is my rant on This Week in Google:

The discussion continues. Here is the full show.

It took six days but a Verizon executive handling Verizon policy and external affairs, Libby Jacobson, finally responded to me there. But I won’t buy her company line.

The discussion around my posts on Google+ has been fascinating — vitriol against Verizon and a surprising level of customer support for T-Mobile and its service and data plans.

Here is where the saga began. Note how calm I am: I’m assuming this is just a bureaucratic screwup, not a willful act to violate the terms of the Block C spectrum auction and a consent decree against Verizon. I don’t hear anything over the weekend — understandable — so I wait until Monday to ask again.

I got confirmation that the device does work on Verizon’s network — it just *won’t* connect it. So I wrote the post below and crossposted it on Google+ with much conversation there.

Here is reaction to my FCC complaint against Verizon, which I filed with the Enforcement Bureau. Here was Verizon refusing to connect my unlocked device and trying to sell me one of their locked devices instead. I think that’s a violation of consumer law and I think I’ll go to the Federal Trade Commission on that.

I also posted a version of the tale on Huffington Post, where there is more conversation.

Related: Here is a Guardian story reporting that phone companies did not put up a fight when handing our data over to the NSA. Whose side are they on? And here’s a Verizon executive slamming Google and other technology companies for “grandstanding” when they defend our rights against the NSA and its spying. Again, whose side are they on?

I still have not heard from Google on this matter. I’m disappointed but I will keep trying.

I’ll keep the reports coming.

: AND: Here is the post Verizon erased (along with a few years’ worth) in which it promised to follow the open network requirements of the Block C auction (thanks to a Buzzmachine commenter for finding it).

: UPDATES: Continuing to update this post to keep a record of coverage.

* Josh Stearns at Free Press writes a wonderful post looking at Verizon’s larger venalities.

Verizon is working hard to undermine openness not just on wireless devices but across the Internet. In court last week, Verizon argued that it should be allowed to edit the Internet — blocking sites if it wants, or making them pay more to reach Verizon customers.

It’s all part of Verizon’s campaign to undermine the FCC’s authority to protect consumers online. This is like Exxon saying the Environmental Protection Agency lacks the authority to stop polluters from destroying the environment.

Jeff Jarvis has filed his complaint about Verizon’s blocking. It’s now up to the FCC to stop Verizon’s latest assault on open networks.

* Ars Technica also gives the matter good coverage. I disagree with their conclusion that Verizon will beat the regulators by approving the device soon. That does not wipe away their crime, which was delay and bogus certification.

* Consumerist points out that Verizon doesn’t know the difference between “can’t” and “won’t.