Posts about Internet

Guardian column: Making mistakes

Here’s my Guardian column this week — about making mistakes and corrections online — in full:

The internet speeds up the dissemination of not only information but also misinformation. So what are we to do about this? Regulate? Legislate? Complain? Ignore? Or respond?

Consider the experience of Tim Toulmin, director of the Press Complaints Commission, when the BBC responded tartly. On my site and on the MediaGuardian podcast, I called Toulmin – with apologies, dear readers – a “Brit twit” for thinking that one could regulate this vast conversation, which is what blogs really are.

Only problem is, Toulmin didn’t say that. He told me by email that if he had, he might have understood my moniker for him. But instead, he complained to the BBC and to me, making reference to damage and lawyers. Both of us clarified what we wrote. And Toulmin told his tale in last week’s MediaGuardian.

The internet can be better at corrections than old media. A fix can be attached to an error where it occurs, and many online denizens pride themselves on confessing missteps faster than their print and broadcast counterparts. But the internet can also be worse – online, errors can spread wider faster and take on a longer half-life. I wish we had a technical solution – that everyone who linked to an incorrect article could receive an alert and correction.

The internet brings a fundamental change to the relationship of publisher and subject: now the subject can publish, too. So Susan Crawford, a professor at New York’s Cardozo Law School and a member of Icann, the board that oversees internet structure, has blogged that in this era, “libel law seems much less relevant – rather than sue, you can just write back”. A commenter on my blog responded that some bloggers boast larger audiences than others, so this playing field isn’t as level as it seems: “On occasion, a weak target can become a cause célèbre.” True. But I still argue that libel law was built for an era when few owned the press and the doctrine must be updated to account for the democratised and accelerated means of response today.

Should blogs subscribe to a code of conduct? I don’t think so (and neither does Toulmin). Again, blogs are mostly just people in conversation and I don’t wave a code when I talk to my neighbours and friends; I know that my integrity rests on my credibility. On the other hand, when I argue that bloggers who commit acts of journalism should enjoy the rights and privileges of professional journalists, how can I say that they should not suffer the same regulation? Well, for me, that’s easy, because as an American first amendment absolutist, I bristle at any attempt to regulate speech.

And I do fear that in their efforts to protect truth, legislatures, courts and self-appointed industry watchdogs could chill speech in new ways. If the people fear retribution without the legal resources that the owners of presses have, they will either shut up or hide behind the anonymity the internet allows. That would be a tragedy.

We need to recognise that the internet alters how media operate. Blogs – whether written by professionals or amateurs – tend to publish first and edit later, which can work because the audience will edit you. In this medium, stories are never done; rather than turning into fish-wrap, they can grow and become more factual and gather new perspectives, thanks to the power of the link and, yes, the correction.

We all make mistakes. We’re human. And the internet makes our humanity more apparent than polished print and broadcast do. So we need to modify our expectations of media, tune our scepticism, update our laws, restrain our regulation and enhance our technology. We are left, though, with the same ethic of the error we have always had: it’s wrong to make them and right to correct them, and you get a bonus for apology. So, Mr Toulmin, I’m sorry.

Virtual Lebensraum

The German tabloid Bild is starting an English-language newspaper called AvaStar in Second Life. It will sell for 150 Linden-Dollar (42 cents) and will include ads from real advertisers with real dollars. That’s one way to expand your readership: adding virtual readers. [via Medienlese]

See also stats on Second Life’s growth.

What I need is for someone to create Second Life for Dummies and Old Farts.

Little big man

Michael Arrington loses it in the comments on his own blog, attacking his friend Dave Winer, Rafat Ali, and me. This all seems to spring from his odd, fetishistic hate of The New York Times.

The Times introduced a simple little feature allowing/encouraging readers to recommend stories on Digg, Facebook, and Newsvine. It’s not terribly new; Gothamist has a similar feature letting people add links to Del.icio.us or Yahoo. I claim no credit for the feature but I do like it and I did suggest it a few months ago; I’m sure I was not alone. (Disclosures: I’ve been consulting for About.com at the Times Company and The Times Company invested in Daylife, where I am a partner, and where Arrington and Winer also invested.)

A writer on Arrington’s TechCrunch reported the addition of the Times feature under a headline with curiously uncalled-for snarkiness: “New York Times Surrenders To Social News.” In the comments, many TechCrunch readers respectfully called them on the attitude. Winer did likewise. That awoke Arrington from his bear’s hibernation and he growled:

Dave, I’m wondering out loud if your support for the NYT stems primarily from their support for RSS and their occasional links to you. As an occasional (but always unlinked-to) source of breaking news to the NYT, our respect for them doesn’t go quite so far. They are in the middle of a war for their life, and they are doing just about everything wrong.

And then:

Sure. RSS is important. But the NYT is an ethically bankrupt institution. I have first hand evidence, being trashed by them at a conference (which was subsequently mischaracterized), but there are other examples, too: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/11/24/nytimes_two_point_nought/

You, Jarvis and Rafat Ali are sucking up to them to further your own agendas. I don’t think that’s a good idea in the long run. In the case of Jarvis and Ali, this loyalty has resulted in outright fabrications.

Fabrications? Them’s fighting words, big fella. But I have the DVD and plenty of reliable witnesses to Arrington’s meltown and effort to bully The New York Times, which ended with The Times demanding and getting a sheepish apology from him. As I said here, bullies always back down.

At Arrington’s site, Winer tried to get the discussion back to a civilized track:

Hmmm.

I don’t think this deserves a response other than I doubt it’s true about Jarvis and Rafat, and I know it’s not true about me.

Back off dude, you’re in over your head.

But Dave failed. Arrington continued: “Wow. You are completely lost Dave.”

I would have said all this over at Arrington’s site, but he then cut off the comments, even though they hadn’t turned nasty — except from Arrington himself. Bullies can be wusses, too.

: See also Matthew Ingram’s post and Valleywag’s coverage of the latest Arrington meltown here and here. I’m glad Denton et al drew my attention to Arrington’s snitfit. I wouldn’t have noticed it otherwise. I stopped reading TechCrunch long ago. My loss, missing scoops like “Talkster Launches Presence-Based Service For The Enterprise” and “Jott to Convert Cell Phone Calls to Text” and “Add Text Bubbles To Videos” and “Wordie Is Like Flickr Without The Photos” and “Web App Provides Virtual Fitness Support.” Web 2.0 is so, well, 1.0.

Twit no more

See Tim Toulmin, head of the U.K. Press Complaints Commission, responding to the dustup created when he was misquoted as wanting to regulate bloggers. I was among those stirring dust but I corrected that when Toulmin properly complained. Says Toulmin:

Last week I read on one of the political websites about some twit who had said that a voluntary code of practice for blogs was needed. How absurd, I thought. Bloggers are hardly a homogenous profession; they operate in a naturally self-regulatory environment where inaccuracies can quickly be corrected by other posters; they have (sometimes) transnational followings, yet different countries have different cultural standards; it would be a bureaucratic nightmare to enforce; there is no proven need for one and so on.

But then – horrors! – I saw that this viewpoint was ascribed to me, with some predictably unflattering remarks. The American blogger Jeff Jarvis took to MediaGuardian’s weekly podcast to fulminate against my stupidity. Thousands of bloggers globally rounded on the suggestion, deploying all manner of exotic language.

I’m thinking about writing my Guardian column this week about the means and rights of response and correction in the internet: what’s working and what’s not. Also: Whether libel laws are outmoded when there is a new means of response (credit: Susan Crawford). And what happens when courts — nevermind regulators — attempt to define and treat blogging as media and thus threaten to put a chill on simple conversation? But on the other hand, if we bristle at subjecting blogs to the restrictions of media then can we still claim press protections for bloggers’ acts of journalism? And are codes of conduct worth the pixels they’re written in? Your thoughts?

Bad guys winning

The Times confirms what many of us had suspected, that spam has suddenly exploded again as the assholes who send it found new ways around filters. Anyone who thinks that spam is a problem that has been or will be solved with technology alone is wrong.

One born every minute

The Million-Dollar Home Page guy has his next stunt. Amazing how you can make a career out of gimmicks.

The net’s voice in the election

I think the internet brought more change to the biorhythms of American politics in this election than the last, but in more subtle ways that we can only now begin to measure.

Start with this: Wouldn’t it be ironic if the netroots’ excommunication of Joe Lieberman led the Democrats to lose a seat and not quite get control of the Senate? It won’t matter much in reality, of course. Lieberman’s still a Democrat, whether some Democrats want him or not.

But there’s a lesson here for newly empowered popular movements and for political parties. It’s just not clear yet what that lesson is. Does the law of unintended consequences rule: A movement rose up to purge Lieberman from the party but ended up losing one for the party? Or does this demonstrate to party leaders that they can’t lose control of their parties? Can they still? The people and the power brokers have to figure out who’s on top.

And:

YouTube allowed anyone with a camera to report on any candidate and so now any misstatement gains toxicity and speed; this is the true viral politics.

The speed of politics has changed, just as the speed of media did before it. Dan Rather couldn’t wait 11 days to correct his mistake. Allen and Kerry couldn’t wait hours to back off their media malaprops.

The voice of politics has changed, not just because the people can now be heard in our blogs but also because we can cut through the nonsense of media coverage with the no-nonsense attitude of comedy news. On YouTube, you can remix and mock any politician. Anyone can be Jon Stewart. Everyone can call bullshit. I hope we are starting to see the death of the dutiful voice of politics in America.

Yes, this was an incredibly ugly, TV-run election in many races (including our Senate race in New Jersey) but I believe that we will see an ever-declining influence of television and political advertising on TV in future elections. They will find new ways to get ugly in new media.

Newspapers’ new boss: Google

Saul Hansell reports in The Times on Google’s test of a new advertising sales marketplace for newspapers.

Is it a good idea? Of course, it is. It is an idea the newspaper industry should have taken on itself 10, no 20 ago. It’s not just about the internet. It’s about finding ways to serve small local advertisers with self-serve sales and new locally focused products. It’s also about finding ways to bring together newspapers into national networks that can sell demographically targeted ads to new marketers. Oh, the industry tried with the doomed New Century Network but it failed because newspaper people are used to working in monopolies; they are not used to thinking like their customers or working together. And that is a major reason they are now in free fall. It’s not the internet’s fault. It’s their fault.

And turning over ad sales to Google — strengthening Google over their own brands, as Hansell’s story points out — only reveals the bankruptcy of their own strategies and soon businesses. Oh, if I were running a newspaper (fat chance), I’d probably sign on, too, because there’s little time and less choice. But it is only an indication of what Google can do and newspapers can’t.