Sips from the Firehose
A blog that seeks to filter the internet into a refreshing, easily-gulped beverage


Apr 22

Lesson from Reddit and the Boston Bombing — Don’t Stop Experimenting with Crowdsourcing

Posted: under Blogging, Blogs, Conspiracy Theories.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Is every crowdsourced “let’s catch the Bad Guys” effort inherently doomed to wind up as a witch hunt?

For a while last week, as we were all caught up in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, I was cheered up a bit by the efforts of Reddit and 4chan to try to figure out what they could do to assist in a positive way. It seemed like they were doing all the right things, in a sincere effort to help law enforcement by crowdsourced the efforts to determine who had planted the bombs. Right up front, Reddit said that racism, trolling, idiocy of any kind would not be tolerated. They even had as a “sticky” post up at the top of the page, a notice reminded everyone of the sad story of Richard Jewell.

For a while, it seemed like they might actually be able to contribute something. That maybe having tens of thousands of sharp-eyed internet sleuths poring over the mountains of photos, videos, and eyewitness reports might lead to what the pros call “actionable intelligence.”  Noted internet provocateur Jason Calacanis went so far as to say,

“Twitter is where all the smart and important people in the world spend their time, which means  instant coverage of these horrific events unfolds there in real time. Sure, there are spammers and idiots on Twitter, but smart people favor Twitter over any other social network by far.”

(snip)

Yet folks say, ‘Don’t speculate’?!

Ummmm, that’s exactly what we need to do!

Sometimes the rules change. Sometimes dogma needs to be flipped: ‘Shut up and let the cops do their job’ in the case of a terrorist attack is EXACTLY wrong.”

But very quickly, the idiot side of the internet took over, as 4channers started inserting “Where’s Waldo” into the photos and mocking the efforts to sift through the assets to find something of use, while outlets like CBS started wringing their hands over the fact that hordes of people on the web had self-deputized, and were now possibly (because who knows? It’s the unruly internet, after all!) out of control.

CBS news doubts the effectiveness of amateur internet sleuths

CBS news was not a believer.

But the apology today from Reddit makes it clear that whatever clear intentions we started out with, no matter the warnings posted to try to ward off the kind of unthinking, hysterical shaming/assumptions of guilt … at the end of the road, we wound up at the same old familiar virtual lynching tree.

reddit boston bomber thread taken down

Like two vast and trunkless legs in the sand, this is all that remains of the once-great campaign to find the Boston Marathon bombers.

A few years ago, reddit enacted a policy to not allow personal information on the site. This was because “let’s find out who this is” events frequently result in witch hunts, often incorrectly identifying innocent suspects and disrupting or ruining their lives. We hoped that the crowdsourced search for new information would not spark exactly this type of witch hunt. We were wrong. The search for the bombers bore less resemblance to the types of vindictive internet witch hunts our no-personal-information rule was originally written for, but the outcome was no different.

Of course, the traditional media is now pretty much hanging on the rim, whooping it up over the mistakes made on Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, etc. And the digital media are firing back at the well-publicized errors at CNN, the NY Post, AP, and Fox News (whose coverage could have had poor Zooey Deschanel wondering if she was about to be sent to Gitmo with a sack on her head).

From 4chan to the front page. Not such a short journey, after all.

So what’s the real takeaway here? Well, the hard fact that I keep coming back to is that there were hundreds of thousands of people spending hours of their lives, obsessively poring over photos and videos. In some cases, this can lead to killers being found, mysteries being solves, and the innocent being set free.

In this case, it did not.

That does not mean that we should slam the door on crowdsourcing and leave everything to “the professionals.”

Look, we’ve got The People Formerly Known As The Audience no longer willing to sit passively and just let “news” wash over them. They want to be involved. They want to react. They want to DO SOMETHING. Send money, travel to New Orleans and man a bass boat with a rescue crew, build tents in Haiti, pepper their congressman with Tweets … whatever.

Philly-reddit apologizes for Boston witchhunt

This generation grew up playing video games. You push the buttons on your digital device, and stuff on the screen in front of your face reacts. This paradigm is powerful. That’s why kids, including me, back in my [*wheeze*] youth loved playing them. They make you feel involved, empowered, in charge, filled with agency. Pick a phrase.

This genie is not going back into the bottle. No matter how much all the scolders tut-tut, the impulse of human beings to get off their asses and do something when they see something that moves them deeply, is going to continue. It will continue not just in the safe and societally acceptable channels of sending money/volunteering (and I think the mountains of teddy bears sent to the parents in Sandy Hook are misguided). This impulse is inevitably going to continue to play out in the digital realm, where we increasingly spend so much of our attentionshare.

Nobody really covered themselves in glory this past week.

Nobody really covered themselves in glory this past week.

The genie is not going back into the bottle. Nor should it.

Our jobs as journalists/media professionals are to figure out how better to make this impulse actually turn into something productive. I give Reddit a lot of credit for actually pitching in and helping.

Apropos of this: over the weekend, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsome was at the Los Angeles Book Fair, plugging his new book “Citizenville,” all about Government 2.0. He answered questions about what he thought the intersection of technology and society can and should do and told a great story about the virtue of trying. Paraphrasing here:

“I own a hotel in Reno that was built back in the 60s. It’s old-school, so it has no air-conditioning. In the summer, to keep it cool, we open the doors to let the breeze flow through. The problem is, the mosquitoes also come in.

“Well, we had a night clerk. He was a little … strange. Like you’d pretty much expect from a guy who chooses to work the 2 a.m. shift. So he comes up with an idea to try to solve the mosquito problem. He goes out and gets a whole bunch of catfish and stocks them into the ponds surrounding the hotel, that were the breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

“A day later, I get a call from one of the managers. He’s freaking out – ‘There’s blood everywhere! Blood and meat and torn flesh in the hallways! Something terrible happened here! I gotta go!”

“And then he hangs up. I’m freaking out. Wondering if the Manson Family somehow got loose and went Helter Skelter all over my hotel.

“And then I get the callback. Turns out the catfish really didn’t feast on the mosquitoes the way it was planned.

“But the raccoons? They feasted on the catfish. They went into such a frenzy, they were running through the halls of the hotel, ripping apart and eating the catfish they were easily catching out of these ponds. Looked like a massacre.

“The manager says, ‘So we fire him, right?’

“I said, ‘Hell no! Give that man a raise! At least he tried to solve the problem. He didn’t sit around, waiting for someone else to try to solve things. He saw a need and he jumped in and tried to fix things.’

“Granted. His solution didn’t work. But at least he tried something new and different.

“And that’s how the award for ‘Best Failure’ was born.”

 

That, in a nutshell, is how I feel about not only the attempts by ordinary citizens to help find the Boston Bombers … but the fact that Reddit is trying to work out the acceptable rules for how to run a crowdsourcing project that adds value to the response to a tragedy. If nobody tries anything until we have it all perfect … then nothing will ever get done.

If you want a more formal response to media coverage of the Boston bombings, you can check out the Poynter “4 Takeaways” list.

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Jan 12

NMX – Blogger Tools

Posted: under Blogging, Blogs.
Tags: , , , , , ,

The blogging community is notoriously hard to please. Check out the vitriolic tweets directed at the poor victims who dared to sit onstage at the close of the NMX convention, talking about “Inventing the Future.”

Check out the silvery television-headed robots:

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Despite the rather ugly tone at the end, there were some creative attempts at serving the pajama-clad tech nerd lynch mob:

First, there were the somewhat shellshocked crew behind the counter at the BlackBerry booth. They were apparently laboring under the misconception that there are actually talented developers in the world that, given a choice, would pour their time and energy into creating an app for their platform.

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If there is a clearer indication that upper management at BlackBerry is delusional and out of touch, I haven’t seen it.

The signs plaintively exhort the fictional mobile developers to “blog about it!” Not sure if publicly acknowledging that you’ve just wasted your time & effort on a platform that’s got one foot in the gave and the other on a banana peel should be seen as a complicated cry for help, or a confession of bad business judgement.

Next, the folks at Readz, promising “Simply Beautiful Tablet Publishing.” I’ve been grinding my mental gears on the various tablet-publishing solutions for the past two years, most recently with Atavist, iBook Creator, and the Adobe Digital Publishing Suite. What I’ve learned is that these tools promise much, but run headlong into the contradictions inherent in this chaotic new space.

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For example, there are the crazy quilt screen resolutions, video formats and typographic specs. Ad then there’s the whole horizontal/vertical screen orientation layout problem. IBook Creator is particularly ugly and opaque on this issue — your layout will look fine one way, but flip the iPad the other way, and some elements will show up and others … won’t. No rhyme nor reason to it either.

Meanwhile, the InDesign files churned out contain such spaghetti code that you are directed to open them in Dreamweaver to clean up the CSS3 and HTML 5.

I’ll give Readz a spin, even though they inexplicably have “Wilson” the volleyball from Castaway as part of the booth decor.

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I did like the quirky spirit displayed by the WordPress “Happiness Bar,” where they touted the fact that the WordPress platform is being used by everyone from giant corporations to “your dad’s book club.” The folks there were talking about vague plans for better ecommerce plugins.

If someone were to come up with an open-source PayPal, that would really rock a lot of worlds. The challenges would be enormous – whenever there’s money involved on the web, you WILL get haxxors. It’s inevitable. Then again, getting out from under a corporate monolith that is vulnerable to pressure (such as in the Wikileaks case) would be a step in the direction of international press freedom.

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Next up, Raven. I’ve been looking at them for a while – they’ve been struggling for a long time, trying to compete with Radian6, Crimson Hexagon, et al. They seem to be engaged in a re-branding pivot, trying to go to the low-end blogger side of the spectrum, to sell us indie freaks the long-awaited way to monetize our audience(s).

They’re offering a 30-day free trial, and that alone differentiates them from the competition.

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UStream was one of the big sponsors for the conference, and they (allegedly) worked to fatten the backhaul pipes so that the bloggers in attendance could all either upload live streaming video of themselves, or download everyone else’s livestreams. Which is kind of a strange thought-exercise: an entire conference room full of people all looking at themselves looking at each other on their ubiquitous tablets.

I’ve worked with clients over the past few years to use UStream to give their fanbase and users access to live events. Where it starts getting tricky is when you want to archive the events and make them available to the audience later, or even store them on your own site’s multimedia library.

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Jan 08

Inventing the Future at BlogWorld

Posted: under Blogging, Blogs, Digital Migration.
Tags: , , ,

Somehow, I expected more of a mad scientist’s lab, with chortling henchmen. Or hench-Americans, as I hear they prefer to be addressed….

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It is always dangerous to give a group of bloggers (should that be “a flamewar of bloggers”?) a stage and a microphone, and dare them to get pretentious about predicting The Next Big Thing.

UPDATE: the always irascible bloggers have deemed the event a FAIL because of the lack of interactivity. Also: keyboard pants?

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Nov 22

Real-Time Coverage of Nerve Gas Rumors (via Storify)

Posted: under Blogging, Blogs, Digital Migration.
Tags: ,

Once again, I’m using the social media-aggregation tool Storify to work up a story using the Twitter feeds of reporters & protesters on the scene. This time, it’s in Tahrir Square, where the confrontations between the police and the citizens (fed up with the emerging military dictatorship) are taking a darker turn.

 

I put this together in about 5 minutes, after following the increasingly alarming messages coming out of #Tahrir via @acarvin. Knowing what I do about nerve gas (VX and/or Sarin) and mustard gas (whose effects I saw myself in the wheezing of my great-uncle Pete St. John, who had gotten a dose on the Western Front in WWI), it freaked me out that the Egyptian military may have taken such a drastic step.

It turns out that they were perhaps using some kind of new tear gas – one that is invisible, but that still stings like a sonofabitch. If you’ve clicked the link above, you were taken to a page of clinical data from autopsies of British soldiers killed by gas in WWI. Grim, grim reading. Basically, the gas causes chemical burns all over your body, and you die from choking on the ragged, torn-up lung tissue that you cough up as you drown in your own blood.

Yeah. Fun times. There’s a reason we as a species have reacted with horror at anyone using these kinds of chemical weapons ever since.

Anyway, the rumor mills flew into hyperspeed on Twitter & social media, and you could see the rise and fall of the meme (fostered by a Twitter account purportedly belonging to Mohamed El Baradei) of chemical weapons use.

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Jun 24

Applause lines and final thanks

Posted: under Blogging, Blogs, Digital Migration.
Tags: , , , ,

Here’s a short audio file i recorded at the close of the Civic Media conference this week at MIT. I’d like to add my own thanks to the sentiments expressed herein; thus was a fabulous antidote to the general malaise afflicting so many of our traditional media brethren…

http://audioboo.fm/boos/395702-final-thoughts-and-thanks-at-civic-media-conference-at-mit-media-lab

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Apr 21

How to Fix Your Hacked WordPress Blog (part 2)

Posted: under Blogging, Blogs.
Tags: ,

A 12-step program to get your blog so’s it can go out in public again

…when last we left the hacked blog, it had managed to delete the phony users and admins, and the permalinkspam was gone.

Jump ahead to last week, when I noticed that my Google AdSense boxes were always full of creepy advertising for boner pills.  I have been playing with all kinds of plug-ins lately, trying to find something that will work well to “mobilize” this site.  I wondered if any of them had done something to my header, so I clicked on “View page source” to see …

evil javascript code

The list of links to sites underneath the noxious javascript ran for page after page. No woder my site loaded so sluggishy!

Great. Just great.

I know enough about Javascript to recognize when someone is being deliberately tricky about what they’re doing. The code in the window above uses the “Array” function, where all manner of short codes are stuffed in there to make nasty function calls and run a script that pulls in content and hides it out of sight in my header.  This code then puts in the hypertext links such as the ones shown above (to some poor sap at a school whose computer is being used as a relay station for porno-pharma traffic).

Time to move to the next step in the program:

8. Made a list of all the plug-ins and started deleting them one by one

One of the really good rules for trying to fix something going heinously wrong on your computer is to start backtracking. Figure out what the last thing you did was, and try to undo it.

In this case, it was the plug-ins. I figured maybe someone had either gotten hacked, their plug-in was the way for a ‘sploit (hacker-speak for an “exploit” — a vulnerability in the software that they can worm their way through) to get into my scrupulously up-to-date blog.  So I cacked all the plug-ins, and the next morning, opened up the Dashboard to find that the evil code was back in the header file.

9. No amends – only more evil code in the header

This happened two more times. It was time to start going through the PHP code line-by-line to try to figure out what the hell was going on.  I used the editing tools that are integrated into the Dashboard on WordPress — to little avail.

I was starting to really wonder if the infection had reached the core PHP server, which would be epically bad news.  I fired up my FTP program and started going through the library files. And there, I worked the next step:

10. I inventoried the files in the php-admin folder and admitted I had missed some pieces of the infection

I had to go through all the images for my blog postings, month by month, to find these little files.  Even so, I damn near missed them – except that their edit dates were out of step with the dates that I uploaded the images.

Deliberately misspelled -- but fiendishly close enough to actual words so that you might just miss them.

Check it out – they spelled “footer” as “fotter.php” so that it kinda blends in, but won’t break the blog. Like any good parasite, it knows that if it kills the host, then the blog won’t be up and functioning, and the little baby tapeworms won’t get to feast on the ill-gotten pharamaspam revenues that come from the links stuffed into my blog.

I also found a .gz file deep in a totally separate subdirectory under my wp-admin folder.  I won’t show you the screengrab of that one, since it has some other identifying information in it.  But again, as you look through all your folders and subdirectories, just keep an eye out for something that looks like it doesn’t belong.  Think of the method that astroners use to find comets: they alternately flash big pictures of the sky, and look for the little dots that are strobing.  Those are the points of light that are in slightly different positions from one frame to the next.

The problem also goes a bit deeper into some of the files on the PHP server; the links in the previous post will take you to pages that explain, far better than I could, how you can search for the vile infected strings of Javascript. Part of the problem is that they take advantage of a “reverse” function – where the commands are spelled out backwards, and then the server is instructed to read them that way. It looks again like gibberish to human eyes, but to a machine, it means “Stuff the trojans in here!”

Look for files that are wildly differing in size than they should be.  If you do open them up, do it in a Text reader – not a Word document. Word probably won’t execute the Java code if it’s just pasted into a page as pure text, but man, with this stuff, it pays to be careful.

11. Prayed and meditated that I had at long last, cleansed the scourge from my blog

At this point, I’ve spent more than three days in all, fine-tooth-combing my blog and all the associated PHP, HTML and image files, folders, subcategories and god knows what all. I’m beat. Either I’ve gotten it or I haven’t, and it’s time to call in someone who is better at this than me.

And then on Sunday – I opened up the blog in my browser and hit “Page Source” … CLEAN!

And now for the last step (and I have tried to keep these steps at least vaguely in line with the instructions for AA and other 12-step programs):

12. Having had a blogging awakening, I try to carry this message to other bloggers, and practice the following principles with all my WordPress installs

I hope you’ve managed to get some learnings out of this strange screed. I know the presentation has been a bit quirky, and to be honest, about halfway through I realized I was pretty much beating the metaphorical dead horse into goo. But the point of all this is that I could have avoided all this pain, not had about 6 months of blog postings tainted and probably really awful Google page-rankings, if I had just kept the site properly updated.

When WordPress or other software does a critical release – for God’s sake, download and update it. The thing is, when they do a major release and bugfix, they have to publish exactly what bugs they are fixing. Which is like a paint-by-numbers for the hackers out there. They know exactly where and what the hole in the software was, and can start churning out botcode to take advantage of updating sluggards (like me).

Well, I have seen the light. no more slacking off on updating – and no more willy-nilly experimentation with fancy plugins on a site that I use for my business.

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Apr 20

How to Fix Your Hacked WordPress Blog

Posted: under Blogging, Blogs.
Tags: ,

A 12-step program to send your out-of-control blog to rehab

If your blog has been hacked, your first indication is when it starts acting like it’s in the late stages of particularly noxious drug addiction. Your once mild-mannered blog is a now a nasty Hollywood tart, reeling around, blowing toxic breath in random stranger’s faces, accosting people in the street and making depraved sexual suggestions, showing up at high-society events and flashing its naughty bits, and letting complete strangers fondle its database and cram noxious javascript code into its secret places.

Disgusting!

At this point, you can either choose to slaughter and revive your blog (i.e. delete everything and do a clean re-install), or roll up your sleeves and start hunting down the rogue bits of code that are turning your blog into Britney/Lindsay/Paris. No matter what, you should back up your WordPress blog by using the WP-DB-Backup plugin.

However, there is no guarantee that even if you go for the nuclear option, that the virus snippets won’t have wormed there way somewhere into your database, and will just pop up again (which is what they did to me – repeatedly) when you restore from the backup. This is why I reluctantly armed myself with some PHP manuals and started digging around in the guts of my blog.

If your blog has been infected for a while, it may have already affected your Google page rankings; in some of the links above, you’ll see that they started getting de-listed by Google because they looked to the bots like pr0n0 spammers. It can take quite a while to recover from that; the whole thing reminded me so much of the by-now ubiquitous Hollywood paradigm of getting clean & sober that I broke it down into a 12-step program.

Step 1: Realize that we have a problem; then admit that we are powerless over what our blog is doing, and that is has become unmanageable

The first notice I got that some of the WordPress blogs that I use (and administer for others) had been hacked was when this strange code started showing up in the permalinks.

Kinda strange, right? Looks at first glance like some little bug with the extended permalinks function...

xxxx

Usually, when you choose long permalinks, that’s to give Google’s bots the chance to find & index your content correctly.  But no prob, I thought: just go on in to Edit Post mode, and delete the code and re-save it.

Curious. I saved it with the real permalink and it turned up with some strange gobbledygood at the end anyway. Wonder if that’s having any kind of effect on the blog. Better check it in Google Reader.

Step 2: Come to believe that we are going to have to take serious action to restore the blog to sanity

Holy Sh-Nikes! Where did this come from?

Man, you never want to see this associated with your blog. This is screaming sirens, flashing lights, all spelling out "VIRUS ALERT!"

If you don’t get a jolt of adrenaline at seeing something like this where your blog contents are supposed to be, you don’t understand the gravity of the situation. This kind of pharmaspam is absolutely deadly; it usually comes from Eastern European hackers, and it means that the infection is serious.

Step 3: Made a decision to appeal to the higher powers – Google (and the WordPress codex, as we understand it) to find the answers

One of the first things that I found was a long thread about how hackers register themselves as users.

Sure enough, look at the number of users. Also look at the number of admins.

Step 4: Made a searching and fearless inventory of the renegade users

I went through page after page, hoping that I would be able to figure out which were the responsible, decent users, and which ones were the identities of the various spambots that were using my blog like a passed-out sorority girl in Satan’s frat house.

A lot of them were easy to spot – they had the various names for the erectile dysfunction drugs as their “@blahblah” addresses.

5. Admitted to ourselves that we had been remiss in updating the blog

OK. I admit it. I was afraid to update the blogs because we’d installed some customized plugins, and I didn’t want to have to futz with them if they broke. Saved some real time, eh? Now I was spending hours going through my blog(s) trying to figure out what had happened.

As you can see, I started this whole process back when WordPress was still at revision 2.8.4.  Oh, the shame!

6. Became entirely ready to get rid of these freeloaders

Cry havoc! And set loose the delete function!

7. Ruthlessly removed the false admins

These were where the hackers put their admin identities. All the way down at Z, where I had to trudge through hours of checking and deleting the other users to get to them. While I was in here, the hackers were trying to get back in to add more users. It was a race to see who was faster...

I couldn’t believe that the hackers were trying to add more users to the pile, to slow me down. I managed to delete enough of them to get down to the Z’s, where their admin identities were hidden. And then I deleted those. Success!

…or so I thought.

CONTINUED IN PART 2…

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Jan 30

Bailout Cash for Newspapers? A Cure That Would Only Worsen the Underlying Disease…

Posted: under Blogs, Digital Migration, New Marketing, new media, Newspaper Deathwatch, Politics & New Media.
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

I posted this as a comment here, already, but it bears repeating.

While the concept of a bailout for newspapers (and allegedly for good journalism) seems attractive at first blush, I fear that in practice, the billions in bailout funds would suffer the same fate as the billions bestowed upon the banking industry.

That is, they would be swiftly pocketed in the form of “well-earned bonuses,” and only a few crumbs would make it down to the level where the money would actually do any good.  While I’m not in the “burn baby, burn” camp the way many other digital triumphalists have been (and there’s at least a faint whiff of that hereabouts), I think that dumping fat stacks on media conglomerates will not solve the underlying problems of the crumbling of business models.

Now then – a Manhattan Project (of sorts) to build solid business models to support quality journalism? That would = the hoary “teaching a man to fish” paradigm.

I know faith in The Invisible Hand is in short supply these days (and where it can be found, it’s usually being in the stocks in the town square, being pelted by posters on Angryjournalist.com), but the fact is that there is a demand for something to perform the function of information dissemination that newspapers do/have done. If the Drug Wars have taught us anything, it is that where there is a demand, and money is attached to that demand, there will correspondingly be a supply.

This is all growing out an essay on the op-ed page of the NY Times and chittering in the Twiterverse, as the nervous journalists see the vultures staring downward, and big guy in the hood with the scythe striding through the newsroom.

By endowing our most valued sources of news we would free them from the strictures of an obsolete business model and offer them a permanent place in society, like that of America’s colleges and universities. Endowments would transform newspapers into unshakable fixtures of American life, with greater stability and enhanced independence that would allow them to serve the public good more effectively.

o-rly-2Well, allow me to respond to that one.

Not to get all Reagan on you, but that is complete and utter madness. Newspapers are so important, so crucial to our lives, that it is the duty & obligation of the government to preserve them?

Wow.

OK, it’s a given that journalists have something of a Messiah Complex.  You have to have something else going on psychologically to get into this low-pay high-stress field. But this is really crossing the line. And making an unfortunate conflation between the newspaper industry and good journalism – yes, it gets done at newspapers, and there are some magnificent examples of this. But the industry is asphyxiating itself, and dumping wads of cash on it will not solve the underlying problems.

Government intervention here would create more problems than it would solve. Allison Fine is onto this issue:

So, the fundamental premise of the need to endow newspapers and preserve them at public expense is that false information exists on the Internet? Of course it does, as it does on TV, on the radio (should we also consider endowing Rush?) in magazines, and in many, many newspapers. Which media would the authors like to choose as being least likely to contain false information? And which medium do they think did the best job of  bringing the lies and corruption of the Bush Administration to light — hint, don’t look at newspapers, Josh Micah Marshall and his Talking Points Memo website would be a much better bet.

So, the fundamental premise that only newspapers can hold government accountable is specious. But that isn’t my biggest issue with the article. It is the naive assumption from those outside of the nonprofit sphere that 1) nonprofit status is intended for companies that don’t have a viable business model, and 2) raising billions of dollars in endowment funds is doable, particularly in today’s economy.

If anything, the effect of billions spent on preserving the newspaper format as it is, without any changes, will mean that we’ll all be getting print products dumped on our doors that are increasingly ad-free.  Yeah, there will be a number of advertisers who will still be there because the eyeballs are there.  But the trends of readership of mass print products are not heading up (niche and community newspapers are another story).

Worst of all, the preservation of a business model that is clearly no longer functional will suck the oxygen out of the room for the products that should (and are, in some cases) being developed to do the job that newspapers have done.  Artificially propping up newspapers in their current form will stifle the innovation in the marketplace, and long-term, only make the inevitable collapse worse.

We’re kinda seeing that take place in the real estate and credit markets right now. The government artificially propped up the economy for eight years with crazy spending and stupid low interest rates.  Instead of hard work & ingenuity to produce real growth, it was Free Money Day Every Day, as real-estate speculation in areas like Scottsdale, Las Vegas, Miami & L.A. led to the “$30,000-a-year millionaire” who made $10,000 in arcane mortgage kickbacks every time he/she signed his/her name to a loan document.  The results of that are the global economic meltdown we see occurring right now.

Meanwhile, driven by the market economics, ESPN is starting to experiment with setting up a disaggregated local blog network to cover sports at a granular level.

ESPN sees the writing on the wall. In their industry they need strong stories to promote sports and strong sports to drive interest to their stories.  A fan that is underserved by his newspaper is less interested in following his team on ESPN.  Additionally, there is big advertising money for ESPN if it can become the resource for local sports.

This is a long term proposition, however. Even the mighty ESPN cannot yet afford to hire 30 beat writers to cover each NBA team. Instead it is working towards its goal by teaming with independend bloggers in a win/win/win proposition.  The bloggers have a chance at monetizing their efforts, ESPN can become the central resource it wants to become and fans can get the information they want as a new, viable local sports media business model starts to thrive.

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Jan 28

TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington Attacked & Spat On; Online Troll Behavior Crossing Over Into Real World

Posted: under Blogging, Blogs, new media, Online Video.
Tags: , , , , ,

I can’t decide if this is one of those “sign of the deteriorating times” type stories, wherein I get to pontificate about how the free-for-all, no insult too depraved, “culture” of the internet has led to yet another sad incident …

…or if it’s a function of the pressures being put on start-ups by the generally shitty global economy, which is starting to incite people into truly depraved acts of violence

But either way, it was shocking & sad to read that TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington announced today that he has been the victim of death threats, and now this:

Yesterday as I was leaving the DLD Conference in Munich, Germany someone walked up to me and quite deliberately spat in my face. Before I even understood what was happening, he veered off into the crowd, just another dark head in a dark suit. People around me stared, then looked away and continued their conversation.

(snip)

Something very few people know: last year over the summer an off balance individual threatened to kill me and my family … Seeing my parents fear for their lives and not understand how or why their son was in this position changed me, made me a much less forgiving person in general.

Around the blogosphere, this has shocked and appalled other bloggers, some of whom might now (justifiably) wonder if a post of theirs might inspire some violent borderline personality into staking out their house.

It starts small. Small, but nasty, nonetheless.

It starts small. Small, but nasty, nonetheless.

Meanwhile, in today’s LA Times, this article about the prevalence of what has come to be known as “snark” in online culture, in a review of a book by the same name by New Yorker film critic David Denby. His take on why this mode of communication (otherwise known as GD&R – for “Grin, Duck and Run”) has become so prevalent:

The Internet is the greatest revolution in democratic practice since popular suffrage. Everyone knows that, and I am just as dependent onthe Internet as anyone else. In the wake of a democratic revolution like that, there’s both an enormous explosion of information and expression, much of it useful or fun, and also an explosion of pent-up rage, social anguish, resentment, bilious, other-annihilating nastiness, prejudice and all the rest of the dark side. If that stuff is destroying conversation threads, screwing up people’s…

…reputations, spreading around unchecked rumor or just snark, it’s worth pointing to it and saying, “Stop lousing up my revolution.” The point of the book is to protect the best kind of humor by criticizing the worst.

…of course, the Times itself has been guilty of – well, shall we say – vivid off-the-cuff commentary itself.

Still, the larger point here is one that is important.  In all my stops as a New Media consultant in the last few years, the one issue that animates the local reporters/editors the most is the attacks on them by anonymous internet trolls.

Arrington says that:

On any given day, when I care to look, dozens of highly negative comments are made about me, TechCrunch or one of our employees in our
comments, on Twitter, or on blogs or other sites. Some of these are appropriately critical comments on things we can be doing better. But
the majority of comments are among the more horrible things I can imagine a human being say.

Actress Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered by an obsessed fan who tracked her down, showed up at her doorstep, and shot her in the heart.

Actress Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered by an obsessed fan who tracked her down, showed up at her doorstep, and shot her in the heart.

Even a cursory search confirms that Arrington takes his shots. This is the Dark Side of internet fame.  You can see it in the message boards, in the comments section on any YouTube video that reaches a certain level of popularity.

Back in 1989, one of the very first celebrity stories I had to cover in Los Angeles, remains one of the saddest & most disturbing stories.  The murder of Rebecca Shaeffer, a lovely young actress by obsessed stalker Robert Bardo. I can see some clear parallels between that case, and the way that online attacks are escalating into offline violence.

This was a murder that really changed things in Los Angeles; the DMV rules were changed so that you could no longer get someone’s address by merely doing a search on DMV records to get the address off their driver’s license. And the Threat Assessment Department of the LAPD was formed, at least in part, in response to this murder.

One of the things that I learned from covering that case (other than that it sucks to be a reporter tasked to go to a funeral and try to get quotes from sobbing family members), is that wackos and obsessed fans follow an escalating behavior pattern.  They start making threats, at first rather timidly.  As the response to their threats fails to completely shut them down or punish them enough, they then begin to escalate their attack patterns.

The next stage – the one that Arrington is at, I fear – is what the LAPD shrinks called, “the humiliating encounter.” Basically, the stalker has an encounter with the person they are harassing that results in humiliation – either for the victim (they spit on their face) or the stalker (the studio security guards grab him, handcuff him, and frogmarch him off the lot).

In any case, this encounter then becomes the focus of whirling obsession for the next interval.  The stalker sits and broods, going over the encounter in his head, over and over again, fantasizing about what he would have done differently, inventing a whole new encounter … only this next one will be far darker, far more violent.

There is going to have to be a fundamental shift in the way conversations are conducted on the internet.  If a tech blogger – not someone in the political sphere, where the contentious nature is well-known – has to take a month off & flee to a beach to be able to deal, then clearly, the writing is on the wall.

This paragraph is probably going to become much more important in the years to come:

In California, under the stalking laws passed after this attach, a stalker is defined as “someone who willfully, maliciously and repeatedly follows or harasses another victim and who makes a credible threat with the intent to place the victim or victim’s immediate family in fear of their safety.” There must be at least two incidents to constitute the crime and show a “continuity of purpose” or credible threat.

UPDATE:

Paul Boutin, over at The Industry Standard, says that the hating has been growing for quite a while:

The most common accusation was that TechCrunch sold endorsements of startups, either in exchange for advertising buys on the site, or for outright cash payments.

This is important: None of these claims ever checked out. Sources would claim to know someone who knew something, but these mystery witnesses never showed up to tell their stories to a reporter. Arrington’s success, both as a blog-era publisher/writer and a startup businessman, inflames less successful entrepreneurs and journalists with off-the-scale envy. How does he do that?

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Oct 24

Sarah Palin and “Colors”: A Lesson in Image Control

Posted: under Blogging, Blogs, journalism, New Marketing, new media, Online Video.
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One of the key moments in “Colors” came when “Pacman,” the young hothead cop (Sean Penn) was incorrectly identified as the guy that mistakenly shot an innocent black kid during a raid gone wrong.  The word came down that the gangs, in retaliation, had “green-lit” Pacman for a retaliation payback assassination.

The other gang strike force cops protested that it wasn’t Pacman that had done the bad, stupid shooting – it was actually a cop who was Pacman’s enemy, and that they should tell the gangs the truth.

Bob Hodges (Robert Duvall), the grizzled old cop, says basically, “What difference does it make? If they think he did it – he did it.”

What does this 20-year-old gang movie have to do with the much-maligned Republican vice-presidential candidate?  Well, stick with me here. 

After watching Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, and in the interviews airing this week on NBC, it’s becoming increasingly clear that she’s not a complete and total doofus. Yeah, maybe she’s not a total policy wonk, able to spout off the import-export stats on Burkina Faso off the top of her head, but she’s clearly not as bad as her public image would lead you to believe. 

She can talk coherently, when she’s not so over-coached and micro-managed – it’s the panicking handlers’ fault that she comes off as a malfunctioning robot, spouting nonsensical phrases.  She’s never going to be one of our leading governmental minds, never going to have a memorial dedicated to her next to Jefferson or Lincoln … but she’s also not quite the drooling, babbling dimwit she appears to be.

It’s also clear that that doesn’t matter.

Palin arrived on the scene, basically a blank slate, tabula rasa.  The rollout of this new product at the GOP convention was greeted with a lot of fanfare – and initial euphoria.

In product marketing terms, the packaging was great.

The problem was that McCain’s handlers had nothing prepared beyond the initial product rollout.  Big initial marketing push, lots of glitz & glamor, the American people take the product into their homes …

…and that’s when the troubles began.

See, they really hadn’t thought this whole thing through.  They hadn’t prepared for what was going to come next.  In much the same way that the invasion of Iraq was botched because nobody who was (allegedly) in charge stopped to ask, “And then what? After we destroy the Iraqi army and take over the country … then what?  What’s going to happen next?”

In retrospect, this all becomes sickeningly clear.

Again, in product terms – the American people took this into their homes and tried to figure out what made it tick. The media, doing their jobs, tried to figure out what this newcomer to the scene was all about.  And, in response, the Republican party had prepared … nothing.

You’d think they’d have the equivalent of what NBC does for the Olympics for the athletes – little pre-shot segments of the athlete at home, in training, interviews with family and coaches talking about the dedication that was needed for this underdog athlete to brave the odds and pursue her dreams… c’mon, you can see this in your mind’s eye already, right? All leading to a flatteringly lit scene with the athlete sitting in a loveseat with her adoring husband in front of a cozy fireplace, talking about the day she almost succumbed to her self-doubts, but (choking up a bit here), her faith in herself and the support of her family (stifled sob) carried her through…

If that had happened in the three weeks after Palin was introduced to us, we’d be having a completely different conversation about this election right now.

Instead, there were the disastrous interviews with Katie Couric, which led to the skits on Saturday Night Live.  After the first skit, there was still a chance that Palin might be able to turn things around.

And then came this little gem from last night:

This pretty much sealed it.

Palin’s image is now cemented.  She’s a doofus who, along with her fellow odious doofus, George W. Bush, is costing McCain his shot at the presidency.
 

It doesn’t matter anymore if she’s not what we think she is. In much the same way that it no longer matters whether or not Al Gore invented the internet, or Dick Cheney personally subjects prisoners to torture. 

We think they do, so they do.

A lot of this damage was caused by the ham-handed way the McCain campaign dealt with the New Media. They’ve been late to that party this entire campaign. I don’t know if that’s because McCain doesn’t understand this medium, doesn’t care, or if the handlers that were so adept at playing the media back in ’04 have gotten fat & lazy with their successes.

And yeah – the selection of Palin without having a plan to deal with What Comes Next is indeed an indictment of McCain and his decision-making process (one of the key objections that just won’t go away). Snap decisions that later wind up being disastrous? I think we’ve had just about enough of them these last eight years…

In the movie Colors, Pacman is saved only because a prisoner rats out the plot to kill him, and the gangs attention then turns to silencing the rat.  I don’t see any possible equivalent on the horizon that can save Palin, particularly in light of the recent revelations about her shopping habits, the cost of her makeup person, the fact that she and her husband are having to testify under oath today in “Troopergate,” and damn, just about everything else.  Her image has been set, the die is cast, and from this point forward, all information that comes out that affirms our collective perception of Palin as a moron will get accepted and spread around, while contrary information is buried under the weight of all the “Can you believe what just came out of her mouth this time?”

Oh yeah – for safety’s sake – here’s the segment from Colors that I linked to above – damn YouTube links have been kinda sketchy lately.  Enjoy the cheesy party scene.  I can’t figure out if the redheaded kid is Carrot Top, or the villain from “Children of the Corn.” Both?

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