Archive for ‘Technology’

How Information Travels

By , 4 May, 2011, 3 Comments

For the past few days, I’ve been reporting round-the-clock on the Pakistani fallout of the bin Laden assassination. In the process, I’ve been able to play a small part in one of the fascinating side-stories of the assassination: the discovery of Sohaib Athar, an Abbottabad local who live-tweeted the sounds of the raid (helicopters overhead, then a massive explosion when one copter crashed) without knowing what he was hearing.

The Poynter Institute’s Steve Myers has done a great piece on how news of Athar traveled, and my role appears to have been, essentially, that I sit at the intersection of two networks: the network of people who follow news on Pakistan, and the network of American journalists, media critics and wonks. From the first network, I picked up early news of an unidentified helicopter crash in Abbottabad, and passed it on to Chris, who was visiting New York and watching the news alongside me. Chris did some clever sleuthing (more on that in a moment) to learn more, and came across Athar’s tweets. We both tweeted about Athar at around 12:38 AM on Sunday.

As Chris describes in his stellar post on the experience, my tweet happened to get traction (despite my having a relatively small follower base) because it went to my second network: American journalists, media critics and policy wonks who were, at precisely that moment, trying to get more information on the raid President Obama had described an hour before.

Chris’ role was different. He had the instinctive knowledge of technology to think of using Google Realtime to pull up tweets about Abbottabad from before Obama’s announcement, he recognized Athar’s tweets for what they were (a live account of the raid) and in describing them as such, provided the narrative frame that others could latch on to.

Here’s Chris’ account of what made Athar’s tweets so compelling:

Given a popular narrative of Bin Laden hiding in caves and the like, to find out he was living in a mansion somewhere so quiet, so genteel and so near to the heart of the establishment came as a surprise. The key thing that made Sohaib’s liveblogging from earlier in the day so compelling was that it was completely unwitting, mirroring our own disbelief that Bin Laden had been quietly residing in the Pakistani equivalent of Tunbridge Wells all these years, without any of us knowing. The story chimed perfectly with our own emotions. And because the story had been unwitting, it was also candid and honest, cutting through the hype and speculation that the 24-hour news stations were resorting to.

I agree with this, but I would add something else. At least for me, the power of Athar’s story was as a reminder that ‘war zones’ are also people’s homes. It brought to life the mundane details of daily life, and the poignant struggle of trying to live daily life–in Athar’s case, just to have a quiet work night–in one of the most dangerous and maddening countries on earth. As Athar told me when I interviewed him for Forbes, he moved to Abbottabad a few years ago from Lahore precisely to shield his family from the violence then engulfing the city.

What we saw in his tweets was a man who had run from the madness only to have it running after him. What we witnessed was the moment he realized it had caught up with him. That tension between what people really care about in Pakistan and the violence that prevents them from moving on with their lives, the bitter irony of life there, is something I’ve written on often. Yet no matter how much reporting I do, it doesn’t cease to affect me emotionally. And when, after the news about bin Laden had broken, Athar realized what had happened, and began to receive an avalanche of requests from journalists, he tweeted, “Bin Laden is dead. I didn’t kill him. Please let me sleep now.” For me, that’s an absolute punch to the gut.

Chris’ post makes another really great point about how Athar’s relationship to Twitter and his sudden celebrity progressed during the first 24 hours of the story:

As the story matured and his fame rose, Sohaib took on the role of citizen journalist, becoming a correspondent of sorts (not many other residents of Abbottabad are on Twitter, he remarked, it’s mostly Facebook). He conducted interviews on television, and ventured out into town to take photographs and report back on the mood in the town.This is a far cry from the cynical caricature of Twitter as an echo chamber – a place where nothing new is said and everything is relentlessly retweeted. As the story progressed, Sohaib came to the wider community’s attention and it in turned shaped his role in the affair. His relationship with Twitter evolved – it went from being a place to remark on the events that had taken place, to realising their significance, to realising his own significance, and then finally embracing it with intrepidness, intelligence and good humour. I might have been one small factor that sparked the process off, but I definitely can’t take any credit for the phenomenon he has become – that’s entirely to his own credit, and something that we should celebrate.

I’ve really nothing to add here, except to say that I think this is very much the ideal of how social media and citizen journalism is meant to work. Not everyone can grow into their new status as a one-person-broadcast-network with such speed and grace, which is why I’m so often skeptical of how it will evolve as a model, but Athar’s transformation is nothing short of a triumph.

Apocalypse 41: AOL Buys Huffington Post

By , 7 February, 2011, 3 Comments

Tim Armstrong’s game to make AOL a content company continues today with his $315 million acquisition of the Huffington Post. Deal details are here, but the key points are: the new Huffington Post Media Group will include HuffPo as well as AOL’s content sites, and Arianna Huffington will be its editor-in-chief.

I’ve been reasonably patient and benefit-of-the-doubt-giving about the new AOL, but this strikes me as a terrible idea. First, there’s the gap between how the two companies see ‘content.’ For all the heat it takes on the grounds that it doesn’t pay its writers (and that heat is deserved), the HuffPo is very much a place that believes there’s value to a publisher in originalreporting. The front page may still read like the liberal answer to Drudge that its founders had in mind, but of late, the site has made major expansions into more serious coverage, and I increasingly run into HuffPo reporters who are doing gumshoe work. It is much more than an aggregator with great SEO managers, though it is that too.

AOL when Tim Armstrong first took it over promised to be that, hiring a number of high-profile journalists from collapsing newspapers to work on a number of smart blogs, and even recruiting stringers as foreign correspondents. But in the last few months, the strategy has shifted. This presentation of AOL’s new metrics for success is pessimistic and unimaginative, a vision of digital media seems stuck in the noisy, SEO-obsessed world of five years ago. It’s certainly not a vision that’s compatible with the kind of place that HuffPo has grown up to be, nor with some of the more interesting elements of AOL’s current content stable. No surprise, then, that those elements are the first to be thrown overboard.

Second, the new ‘AOL way’ is all about mass appeal, and, as everyone knows, the Huffington Post is partisan project. I am not sure what is harder to imagine: that all of AOL’s platforms could conform to Ariana Huffington’s worldview, or that the Huffington Post could suddenly shift center, in the way that Armstrong and Huffington promised when talking about the deal to AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher.

Actually, the whole Swisher interview is worth watching, because it highlights these two culture clashes–on politics and on reporting–that make me skeptical of the deal: listening to Ariana and then Armstrong, it seems as though they are talking about separate mergers. AOL. has been down the dangerous route of a merger with a very different culture before, and it had disastrous consequences. It’s a shame it seems to be making the same mistake twice.

Too Little Too Late

By , 19 November, 2010, No Comment

Regulators in the US, UK, Spain, Italy, Germany, Canada and the European Commission are finally getting serious about privacy. First, there’s the bevy of cases and crackdowns recently introduced against Google’s Street View. Secondly, there’s the EC’s new privacy proposal, mandating that in the future companies ask such consent for all the data they take, and (more radically) make it possible for users to have it deleted at any time. They’re calling this the ‘right to be forgotten.’ [A direct response to Eben Moglen, perhaps?]

This is comforting news for those of us who have been talking about data and digital rights for some time, to be sure. But I am wondering it’s ultimately too little too late.

See, most of the major holders of user data online are–or are close to becoming–monopolies within their niche: Google in search and advertising, Facebook in social, etc. And it seems to me that the history of monopolies is that once they get in place, it’s very difficult, legally, to break them up and almost impossible to muster the political will for radically restricting their business practices when a massive majority of the populace are their customers. [Can you see I've been reading Tim Wu?] That’s one reason that I’ve been arguing for two years that the way to best Google on privacy was to take it to task on antitrust issues early on, before it became unbeatable.

But given we haven’t done that, it now seems to me that the best possible scenario is [and I can't believe I'm saying this] NOT to sue Google’s more offensive services out of existence, or to try and take it apart, but to essentially acknowledge it as a legitimate monopoly, and then slap it with a huge list of monopolist’s burdens: forbid it from further M&A activity, say, forbid them from collecting things like payload data, and mandate that all data-collecting services become voluntary, not at the individual level, because that’s now untenable, but at the municipal level. If the majority of a town’s population votes to be mapped, Google can photograph in the town. I think the municipal level is basically the smallest level that is still feasible, and the largest level that is still democratic. Is this a crazy idea?

As for the right to be forgotten, I regard it as pretty sound when I think of individuals and companies like Google or Facebook, but I am less convinced about how it might extend to other types of websites. Jeff Jarvis has correctly pointed out that a very broad reading of such a clause could lead to the idea that people can demand takedowns of news stories about them. Which is something that doesn’t make any sense to me, not least because news coverage is NOT something you consent to have written about you. It is not data YOU give away (and therefore own) but data which we as a society have decided can be collected involuntarily so long as you have the right to correct the record, and to extract a pound of flesh when the journalist is wrong. I’m inclined to say that the right to be forgotten should apply to everything except IRS and other federally mandated disclosures, and stories about you in the press. But I must admit that my sense of surety about these issues has declined the more I learn about them, so, please, sound off.

History Matters

By , 18 October, 2010, No Comment

I just posted this in a mammoth comment on Google Reader, but the comment is basically as long as the post its commenting on, so it really needs to be its own blog post. I was responding to Matthew Yglesias’ post on whether reading spoilers on books and movies and TV shows detract from the experience:

I think “spoilers” aren’t nearly as bad as people make them out to be. I knew Macbeth dies in the end before I read the play, I knew that Troy falls because they stupidly let a wooden horse full of Greek soldiers into the city walls, and I knew that things weren’t going to work out for Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky.

Foreknowledge doesn’t ruin these works or any other work of quality. If anything, it’s the reverse. If you look at a well-constructed story—be it Season 3 of the Wire or the Great Gatsby or whatever you like—I think you’ll find that knowledge of where things are headed enhances your ability to appreciate the mastery with which the story has been put together.

There is definitely something to the post, especially the bolded part, which is one of the reasons I so frequently re-read favorite works. But at the same time, I don’t like the way he’s lumped together this collection of great works from different eras. As I commented:

Apocalypse 37: AOL buys TechCrunch

By , 30 September, 2010, 1 Comment

a.o.l. has moved to acquire technology and business blog TechCrunch, as part of new CEO Tim Armstrong’s strategy to turn the company from an internet service provider into a stable of content sites, a digital version of a magazine holding company. TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington on his reasons for selling:

They run the largest blogging network in the world and if we sold to them we’d never have to worry about tech issues again. We could focus our engineering resources on higher end things and I, for one, could spend more of my day writing and a lot less time dealing with other stuff.

They already own many of the top technology blogs. They already have a huge sales team in place (although our own sales team kicks ass and is staying on). And they have an internal events group that we will be able to leverage.

From a product and business standpoint, it’s a perfect fit.

…AOL was very aggressive about one last important issue that really sealed the deal – editorial.

Tim told me that he doesn’t want whatever makes TechCrunch special to go away. He also said it was important that we feel free to criticize AOL when we think they deserve it. And the agreement we signed with AOL fully reflects this. In particular, we used the Twitter document scandal as a test. If the same thing happens with AOL in the future, we should feel comfortable posting those documents. And in that unlikely event, we will.

More information on the deal here.

I’ve been saying for some time that the future model is a kind of aggregation of niche sites under big name banners, including a.o.l.’s. And TechCrunch is one of the best niche sites out there. I disagree with much of what they write, because they get over-excited about each and every startup they cover. But the fact is, they also break more big tech stories than anyone, and I find that the site is pretty indispensible as a result. All in all, Armstrong has made a smart acquisition.

Why BlackBerry Got Banned

By , 10 September, 2010, 2 Comments

A few weeks ago, I had a fascinating conversation with a journo friend about the moves by several governments–first the UAE, then Saudi Arabia, then India–to ban BlackBerry because its maker (Canadian company Research in Motion) would not grant these states unencrypted access to users’ correspondence. Citing the locations of BlackBerry servers (in Canada and the UK) they alleged that Western powers could use the technology to spy on the East. Both privacy hawks and businesspeople cried foul, even more so when RIM agreed to open one server center Saudi Arabia and prepared to negotiate a deal with India to keep its business alive.

My friend wanted to know what the story was really ‘about.’ Was it–as the bans’ promoters insisted–about how much data our governments in the West already have? Was it about the fact that BlackBerry IS encrypted in the first place when so much other data is not (something many consumers seemed not to know)? Was it about the fact that democratic India was following the pattern set by more draconian regimes? Or, he was asking me, was it about something else entirely? Here’s what I told him:

“To my mind, these bans represent a kind of clash between the technology community’s perception of itself as being essentially above governments and the reality that all international business is subject to and inextricable from international politics. What is especially remarkable about this is the degree to which tech firms–which are still heavily consolidated in the U.S.–gladly do business with the U.S. government, while maintaining the idea of being essentially above regulation. In particular, there is a cozy symbiosis between the Valley and the defense establishment, and it leads some in the developing world to think of all tech firms as proxies for the U.S. government. Given that, it is also a story about developing country governments demonstrating the regulatory muscle not to be talked down to by the West, about showing–mostly to their own public–that globalization does not mean colonization. It’s also important to keep in mind that while BlackBerry messaging IS encrypted, it’s not that governments elsewhere in the world are necessarily more comfortable with that than the countries issuing these bans. Rather is is that here in the West, governments can often subpoena for access to specific correspondence if it is necessary for a court case. In countries where that kind of subpoena power doesn’t exist, governments might try to hack systems extrajudicially, and then if that fails, proceed to shut down what they cannot penetrate.”

One thing this story is NOT about, however, as the above should indicate, is privacy: we lost that a long time ago.

Smug Edition

By , 3 June, 2010, 5 Comments

Since I started writing professionally in 2005, I’ve covered a pretty wide terrain: from tech to media to energy to regulation to macroeconomics to international geostrategy. The upside of that is the rich and diverse set of experiences I’ve had. The downside is that I rarely stay on a beat long enough to see a company or person I’ve followed through their career.

This blog is great fun for me because I get to write about all my beats at the same time, to keep my fingers in multiple pies even when, professionally, I’m covering just one or two.

Today, I learned that Lending Club, a peer-to-peer loan site has hit the 10 million dollar mark in loans, secured its Series C round of funding and started to tap top talent from other e-businesses. I haven’t written about social media in a while, but way back in 2007, I wrote about Lending Club for BusinessWeek, where social media was my primary beat. I said then:

Apocalypse 33: News on the Dole

By , 1 June, 2010, 3 Comments

The FTC has released a report on the state of the news media, in preparation for a meeting on June 15. The FTC draws heavily on previous reports by the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism and the Columbia Journalism School.

To new media evangelists, the report suggests the government should protect old media organizations against dangerous digital forces, i.e. the evangelists themselves. And the FTC’s focus is traditional, The report defines journalism as original reporting in real, or very recent, time. This means newspapers and online news sites, but it does not include magazines or opinion blogs or most TV news.

Some bloggers think this line is arbitrary, but I disagree. Aggregators and analysts are beginning to find sustainable business models online, but the raw news they rely on hasn’t. Raw newsgathering is inherently inefficient, and has never been profitable. But in print, you can bundle in the money-losing news with the profitable commentary, the spinach with the candy. The web breaks the bundle. It’s no surprise that no one has figured out to monetize raw beat reporting—on its own—online. The FTC has not only chosen the most essential segment of media, but the one that, demonstrably, the market hasn’t figured out. That’s what the state should do.

The web-istas say the state has no business in journalism. But for most of history, and especially at times when new technologies were emerging, American journalism has relied on government support. Done wrong, of course, this is propaganda. But done right, it’s great. Jim Lehrer is still the best evening anchor. Enough said.

As for the FTC’s actual recommendations, I have mixed reviews:

In Defense of Anglophilia

By , 15 May, 2010, 1 Comment

Regular readers of this blog, as well as followers of my Twitter and Reader feeds, will know that for many months, I have been obsessed by the British general election. Earlier this week, my friend and True/Slant blogger Ethan Epstein chastised American journalists for over-hyping this story at the expense of more significant elections, like the August ouster of the Liberal Democrats in Japan.


To be sure, in their domestic political contexts, the recent Japanese or (I might add) Chilean elections were milestones that deserved better treatment from the media. But from the perspective of U.S. media outlets concerned primarily with American foreign policy, the British election carries weight.
Read More →

Apocalypse 32: Keeping News Alive?

By , 17 December, 2009, No Comment

I’ve been exploring the Google-NYTimes–WaPo venture Living Stories, a site that aggregates coverage of particular events in real-time. As one reader put it, this seems like something news organizations should have done long ago.
As a consumer of news, I consider this a potential tool, but it needs to have a much wider array of news sources to be truly useful: my challenge as a reader today isn’t keeping up with the New York Times’ coverage of Pakistan; it’s keeping up simultaneously with the Times and the Post and the Journal and the BBC and the Guardian and about as many local outfits.

There are already ways to aggregate news from all those places, and to sort news from each organization by subject, and even to sort news by topic once aggregated. All we need is a way for news organizations to monetize this process. A better idea might be for the news industry to adopt a uniform standard for tagging their stories that would be compatible with all RSS readers and reading devices. If they simultaneously adopted my suggestion on embeddable ads, they’d be able to own monetization of their content wherever it went, without reference to third-parties like Google.

Because even though ad revenue from Living Stories is to go to the news organizations, Google is still powering the site and organizing the ads—they still have access to all the user data involved and that benefits them elsewhere. The more that all news organizations’ content merges on sites like these, the more centralized and more powerful Google’s data cache can become.

Moreover, Living Stories, or indeed any subject-based aggregation strategy, doesn’t solve the critical problem facing journalism today: if given a choice to consume content by subject, it’s likely that readers will choose to keep up with regular developments in national politics, hyperlocal affairs, sports and culture. Foreign affairs, state-level politics, and economics are less likely to receive sustained attention—everyone is interested when there’s a major intelligence breakthrough, a corrupt governor or a case of corporate fraud, but no one wants to the read the months of daily stories that lead to big scoops in these areas. And there’s no way to know, in advance, which companies or which states or which countries will produce that scoop—you have to pay, blindly, for daily reporting on all of it. Who is going to do that now?

I don’t think Living Stories does much to help us there. Like many Google products—Gmail, Reader—I like this one, but it’s unclear to me if its good or bad for the news organizations involved.