I've done a couple more interviews since the launch of The Daily Portal, and they both turned out pretty well. I joined Alex Arena on his 15 Minutes With... podcast to talk about my plans for the site. I also did an article-length interview with Micah Singleton for the relaunch of Current Editorials, where I got a chance to talk more generally about where web publishing is going.
I just opened The Daily Portal.
It's a web publication about the future we're making and what it's doing to us.
I'll post true stories about people and relationships, work and play, art, science, design, and technology, with a little bit of spirituality sprinkled in. It's the stuff we're all thinking about lately.
It doesn't work like a blog. Each issue of The Daily Portal is a collection of posts that go together. If you follow the site, you'll get links to the latest issue when it comes out. The goal is to work up to publishing a new issue every weekday.
The Daily Portal is a seasonal site. The coverage will be planned in seasons that last a month or two, and they'll be pre-announced, so you can see what's in store. That doesn't mean there won't be stories between seasons, though.
For now, it's the preseason, which means I'm experimenting out in the open. I've still got plenty of features of the site to build, and I'm also way at the beginning of planning Season 1. I'll keep you well informed about upcoming seasons. In the meantime, just subscribe, enjoy, and tell me how you like it.
This publication will be my main thing for the foreseeable future. I'm just building up a head of steam in the preseason, but the plan, as I explained in detail on CMD+SPACE with Myke Hurley, is to crowd-fund the seasons. Season 1 is already shaping up to be a barnburner, but it'll be a few months yet.
I've got other business plans that I think are pretty interesting, too, but they have to be built first, and it will take a while. But I'm not getting distracted by delusions of sustainability. I'm thinking about impermanence. That's the true nature of things, anyway.
I'm using this site to try out my wildest dreams about how publishing on the web can work. If I only get to do a season or two before it's time to move on, I'll consider it a smashing success. Even just in the past three months, I've learned more about what I want to be when I grow up than I did in the rest of my career so far. The whole point is to learn.
And I hope we all learn something. This site is for you, really. I give you The Daily Portal. I hope you enjoy it.
I had the great honor of joining Mighty Myke Hurley on the CMD+SPACE podcast today. We discussed The Daily Portal, my departure from ReadWrite, the truth about @NextTechBlog, and the future of web publishing.
This is a story about people being nice to each other. I hope it's reassuring to people like me trying to find a way to Make It in this uncertain era.
Well, this is exciting.
I have a bit of news, O readers of my work blog. After a year and a half of tech bloggery, I'm leaving ReadWrite. My last day is February 15.
No, I don't have anything lined up. I'm starting my own thing.
What? That's crazy! I know. Read on. You'll see.
I'm not leaving because of ReadWrite. I'm leaving in spite of it. I've stuck around there because I love the site's attitude. ReadWrite(Web) has always been known as a straight-talking site, and that's why I fit in there. And lord knows Dan Lyons is a straight talker.
The current crew is more than capable of taking the new name and the new design and turning it into a new phenomenon. In particular, keep your eye on Taylor Hatmaker. That's a skilled MechWarrior right there.
I think I've done my duty as part of the ReadWrite legend. I'm thrilled at how my colleagues and the readers have taken to the ReadWrite Pause series. I don't know how all these tech blogs popped up without one of them thinking to write regularly about what technology is doing to people, but I'm so glad we started.
And remember Homeless Hotspots? That was a pretty crazy story.
I've had my tantrums about name-brand tech blogging. I've also had my fun at its expense. I don't think it's much of a service to humanity, generally speaking (with some eminently notable exceptions). I mean no disrespect to the people who do it well. I admire their skill at steering a loud and unruly conversation. I just don't think I'm cut out for it.
I've wanted out for a long time. But I wasn't going anywhere until I had a plan. I do now.
So what's next?
The Daily Portal
I'm starting a website.
It'll be called The Daily Portal. It will live at TheDailyPortal.com. You should follow it on Twitter, Facebook, and/or Tumblr. I wrote a bit about it a couple weeks ago, and the response was surprisingly awesome. That post is all I'm going to say for now — outside of more cryptic tweets, tumbls, and Facebook posts — other than that I'm doing it.
Well, and this: It's not a tech site. It's much broader than that. It will be built around a model I've come up with while watching the way blogs work for the past few years. I want to see if it can be done.
I'm building it from scratch. That will be worth the experience no matter what happens. And I'm going to take my time and do it right. My vision of it is so clear. I think you'll love it.
And hey, if you're really interested, you might want to sign up for the mailing list for some early, secret messages.
While I build the site, I'll be tweeting and tumbling as usual and writing more frequently on Everything is ablaze! I'll also be reading a ton of useful things, which you can follow, too. Web readings show up on Twitter on @AblazeReads. Books will be on readmill.com/ablaze, which I just discovered and about which I am psyched.
To anyone who made it down this far, thank you.
It fills me with awe that people on the Internet follow what I do, and I can't thank you enough for being out there and talking back to me. I just hope what I'm doing helps. That's why I'm starting this new thing. I want to do more to help.
In exchange, your feedback is what helps me. When I threw this Daily Portal idea out there after a weird day at work, I couldn't believe how well it was received. I kept trying to get people to talk me out of it, but they kept talking me into it instead. So here we go. I'm doing it. Keep talking to me.
I didn't want blogging to be like this, to be honest. I didn't want it to be so much like publishing. I thought it was going to be more like talking to each other.
But at massive scale, it seems like money has the effect of making all forms of online communication just mediocre enough to exist. Blogging, talking, photography, whatever it is, it's all available to everyone now in just-awful-enough form.
Investors realized that mundane communication could be made into a mass medium supported by advertising, and we got "Web 2.0" social networking. That competed with High Publishing for attention. The competition squeezed on the ideals of both kinds of communication, the line got hazier and hazier, and now it's all a big blur: communication, publishing, marketing, advertising.
What's the difference between those things right now? I'm begging you for an answer to that question.
There's a wide, hazy line between communication and entertainment. That's the line walked by online media industries. Communication is useful and entertainment is fun. People pay attention to a message to the extent to which it's either useful or fun. Who can blame them?
Now that we're "fully mediated," as the founders of ReadWrite's parent company like to say (pun intended), every single second of the day is an opportunity to mediate someone. That's mediate as a verb meaning "to inundate with media," in case that wasn't clear.
Attention is scarce. Communicators and entertainers are in an arms race to spend effort and money capturing attention. If your message isn't more useful or fun than everything else when it reaches it's recipient, it was a waste of your time. So news, entertainment, marketing, all of it goes for the lowest-hanging fruit.
Welcome to the downward spiral of making shit for the Internet.
I wanted blogging to be more like Ender's Game. In that fictional future, the web is this giant global coliseum of ideas that compete through the dazzling rhetoric and personality of their authors' characters. If the character is good enough, the networks pay you just to be that character, to syndicate it around the world. All the champions write back and forth to each other, and the world watches.
In that book's vision of future media, the author's identity is not important, just the message. In fact, the two blogger characters are pseudonymous kids. That's why I started when I was a teenager. I wanted to be like Demosthenes and Locke.
In 2003, two high school friends and I started a Movable Type blog on WiredOpinion.com, (which we shouldn't have let expire, so we could have sold it to Wired Opinion, but that's another story). We used our real first names, but we didn't reveal our ages or identities. We just wrote about the 2004 election season. We had our points of view, and we wanted to be part of the conversation. And we were.
I'm not saying that world is over. There are a few pseudonymous characters like Kontra who are doing it solo, driving the conversation in their fields, and those in the know hang onto their every word. It's still theoretically possible for anyone to join the conversation. But isn't it telling that Join The Conversation™ sounds like a cynical buzzphrase from a digital marketing firm?
I don't think we've lost our chance to have this kind of web. But we might have to dig it out of the rubble. At the moment, all the media money is being thrown at rebuilding the old world all over again, and the prognosis isn't good.
The Web We Lost
Maybe Anil Dash can help. He helped make Movable Type (back when he was at Six Apart, which is now Say Media, which is ReadWrite's parent company. But no interests were conflicted in the making of this blog post). I read his posts in December about the web we lost and how to rebuild it, and I couldn't help but feel guilty. Here I am "shovel-blogging," as Merlin Mann calls it, and people like Dash who were part of the invention of blogging are just slowly shaking their heads.
So I asked him how this came to be.
Jon: Why has the web as a market — and the tech audience in particular — come to favor a press comprised of enthusiast brands rather than one of independent experts blogging together?
Anil Dash: It seems like the online media market has forced formerly-independent writers to band together simply because of the business models around advertising (and to a lesser degree, subscription), which only worked at scale.
Though we may be in the waning days of the traditional page view-based economy, advertising networks basically only work if they're bundling together a big number of writers/creators, and that's easier to do on a few sites than across a lot of independent sites.
Jon: Is there a way we can use this centralized press relationship to bring about a better web instead of just maintaining the status quo?
AD: It seems like it must be possible to hack the current cycle of coverage where a huge number of me-too companies pay a small number of PR flacks to spam an even smaller number of key media outlets.
Part of me imagines independent voices joining together into something akin to the web rings that used to be popular in the early days of the web, and having a centralized pitch queue where inbound requests for attention are shared between them in a way that makes the pitches public.
Hopefully shame would be a good enough deterrent to raise the quality of some of the pitches, and similarly the peer pressure of other writers working in parallel would force the worst writers to improve their skills.
Jon: It strikes me that there's a parallel between the enthusiasm for this kind of content and the enthusiasm for the kinds of content delivery we've gotten in this era of the web. That is, "The Web We Got" has info silos full of ready-made, processed content, and "The Web We Lost" was better organized for independence, collaboration, and expertise. Does the nature of pro-blogging emerge from the more fundamental economics of the web? And does that mean we have to change the whole web business if we want to change the press?
AD: Yep, seems like your question here touches on the point I arrived at at the start — our industry gets the journalism that its media economics optimize for. Fortunately those economics are being radically shifted, so maybe that will lead to a new period of innovation and some fresh voices.
That sounds beautiful, but there's so much inertia preventing us from getting there. There's just so much attention out there to be mined, and the marketing forces behind the media companies are scrambling so hard to get at it. How's that going for them?
Old Media Monsters
The flexible form of the blog has been adapted to the fossilized, utterly finished media empire mentality, emulating the old media brands that were big and strong enough to survive the digital transition (so far). But the results are so goofy. Look at team tech blogs. Look at us. Why are there dozens of us? What are the differences between us? I see a red one, a green one, a blue one, an orange one. Are there any more substantive differences?
Well, sure. There are different people at each one, each with different talents (although so many of us [but not me!] have worked at multiple others previously). These brands — if they even have enough character to deserve to be called that — are all stages for a rotating cast of characters. But are these characters the least bit interesting? No. They're Nerds Like Us™. But that's a ruse. Real nerds have their own blogs, write about what matters to them, and don't have to prove anything to anyone. Tech Bloggers™ are attention farmers. We don't do nerdy stuff for a living. We do entertainment stuff about nerdy stuff.
Tech blogging started as a form of personal blogging just like the political blogging I was doing as a kid. The tech blogs that are still interesting are still exactly the way they were then. Others, like ours, went big and sold out. We took the guise of the medium developed by the real nerds, and we turned it into what tech blogs are now: enthusiast brands, umbrellas for confederacies of barely informed writers tied together into a mutant super-organism.
This is what is called Tech Journalism™. What is journalism?
We're All Journalists Now
I read a lot more about media than I do about tech, to be honest. And why shouldn't I? Like I said, that's what I actually do, as opposed to what I do it about. And much of the pixels spilt about media these days are spent on the scary, French-sounding word Journalism™.
Journalism™ is something very important that big, ad-supported entertainment/classifieds ads companies used to subsidize in order to command more respect. It was a public service to get to the bottom of things and tell the truth, an essential function in a democratic society. When the sources were few and the demand for attention was relatively low, it was a good thing for media companies to spend money on. In the Fully Mediated™ world, it's not so clear.
Some tech bloggers love to call themselves Journalists™. Others refuse that lofty mantle. I could go down a deep rabbit hole right now talking about what is or is not Journalism™.
But I'm not going to. It doesn't matter.
Journalism™ is an elitist stick to beat people with. Do you know what the word journalism means? I mean, what it literally means, like in the French words it's made of? It means "writing down what happened today." Now that we're Fully Mediated™, we're all writing down what happened today all the time. We're all journalists now. If we all do the right things, spend our time in interesting ways, and write about it, we'll have good Journalism™.
As old media business models race to the bottom, we'll eventually figure something else out. Maybe it will work like the clean, well-lighted über-web-ring Dash describes. Whatever the case, the problem is more basic than a problem with Journalism™. All communication is awash in noise. These days, the signal gets out by old fashioned word of mouth. No matter what kind of communication we do, all we can do is concentrate on making good signal. We'll make it sustainable once we figure out how. We have to.
This is what I tell the uncountable number of people who want to get on the blogger stage. I can't tell you how many emails I get from people who are doing the exact same thing I do every day, but doing it in obscurity, wanting to know how to "get into blogging." I tell them, "Go out, talk to people, get their stories, write them up, then publish them. People will notice, and then they'll hire you. That's what I did."
Photos by Jon Mitchell (except Anil Dash's headshot)
I wasn't the only blogger intrigued by Dick Wisdom's uncovering of some shady affiliate marketing sites registered to Maria Popova, Good Blogging advocate, mastermind behind Brain Pickings, and co-creator of the Curator's Code. I've been a fan of her quality-driven approach for a long time, so it was a bit shocking to see the kinds of spammy stuff Mr. Wisdom found publicly attached to her name.
The sites are all designed for gaming search engines, and that's sort of the opposite of Curation with a capital C. It's spam. Some of it has to do with health questions, which, as my frien-tor Mat Honan said, tends toward a serious issue of messing with search quality. So I was concerned. I didn't like thinking of a blogger I respected as a potential spammer.
And on the other hand, choosing blogging as a career is not exactly a guaranteed home run. Having a side business is understandable. But not so much a sketchy one.
So anyway, I talked to Popova, and she didn't want to speak on the record, but it's okay. There are plenty of ways for us to understand and misunderstand what this was on our own.
Helpful person Sudama Adam Rice tweeted me an interesting example, which I was too much of a n00b to remember. WordPress itself got tangled up in all kinds of shady affiliate marketing stuff in its early days, and it was all just a misunderstanding... apparently.
The WordPress explanation was that, basically, software to help search-optimize stuff the right way needs lots of testing. And because of how freaking complicated Google is, it's easy to screw up and do it the completely wrong way.
Now again, the substance of my conversation with Popova is off the record, and I'm not going to blow that. But if you look at the stuff Mr. Dick Wisdom found, you'll see that the sites are old, and many of the domains are about to expire. If they're renewed, then we'll have more questions for Popova. But if they aren't, I think it's reasonable to assume that someone who wants to make a career on the Web will dabble in all of its arts to learn how they work. I'll say that, given what I've seen, I could believe that's all there is to it.
This could also be a top-secret money-making scheme, but then why would someone who is otherwise quite good at Internet forget to anonymize the WHOIS listings? In any case, we'll see in a few months when the domains expire, as they are set to do.
UPDATE 11/28: Well, Popova took all the sites down. That doesn't look so great. I guess that settles that, though!
I read this TechCrunch post about banning PRserve with some interest, because I had an interesting email exchange with Chris Barrett, founder of that agency, some months ago. I'll just post the emails in full. I think they'll be instructive to people in this industry.
From: Dan Frommer
Subject: Fwd: Hi Dan - Intro and Pitching process for RWW
Begin forwarded message:
From: Chris Barrett
I just wanted to reach out and say hi. I was wondering what the best way to pitch RWW would be? I have a PR for startup agency and this past year we have worked with startups and founders from Neil Patel and KISSmetrics to Ryan Holmes at HootSuite to many startups going through Dreamit Ventures and TechStars incubators.
We never send the same pitch out to dozens of tech outlets. We like to be super targeted and as much as we can pitch exclusive pitches to individual tech outlets.
Most of my clients prefer to have us pitch TechCrunch or Mashable first, but I'd love to start to offer them the opportunity to pitch RWW on some of their exclusives. What would the best process be for this?
Would you also be open to receiving pitches if TC or Mashable runs the story first and we allow RWW to be the 2nd story within the hour of the initial story going live?
What is the guest post pitching?
Let me know! Just want to figure out the best way to work with your team!
We've placed over 200 tech stories this past year and would love to add RWW to our outreach!
Here is the email I sent Chris in response:
Dan Frommer passed your note along to me, and I want to make sure you get a thorough answer to your questions.
We are opposed to the very idea of story "placement" by PR. We do not care about embargo times or "firstness." Most importantly of all, we are not interested in writing the same stories as anyone else.
We do our own reporting, we find the stories that interest us, and we reach out ourselves. We do happily read incoming pitches from start-ups, but we're only doing so to look for relationships with companies and individuals who seem interesting, and those are rare. In short, we almost never get our news from unsolicited email.
We don't have any interest in the vast majority of things published by TechCrunch, let alone Mashable.
We have no interest in scripted launch events, nor do we care about usage statistics from a single product unless they are statistically significant. We only run infographics if they're prepared by trained scientists. I would estimate that we are interested in less than 5% of the email PR pitches we receive.
As far as what we do cover, think of it this way: We write about trends, not products. Tech products and companies for us serve as examples of trends in the economy and society, not as the core of a story. We'd rather watch something unfold over a long period of time than write about a brief snapshot of it. Check out this guide I wrote to pitching ReadWriteWeb, and feel free to circulate it widely amongst your colleagues:
I hope that helps. If it sounds like we can work together, I look forward to it. But please be respectful of our time and unread-message counts. We're very busy reporting, and we don't have time for incoming email that doesn't help us do our jobs.
Thanks for reaching out,
Thanks for your email and I'm sorry if the email came off rude in anyway.
I never pitch an outlet that we haven't had prior contact at... and I truly appreciate you taking the time to respond to the email and letting me know what RWW looks for in stories.
I'll be sure to let you know if I have any clients who are part of a larger trend that would be a fit for RWW.
Thank you so much for your time!
Sounds good, Chris.
Why should there be any more to it than this?
Everybody knows that news embargoes are the stupidest thing about public relations. They’re the stupidest thing about journalism, too, especially in tech. Since we’re too swamped and/or lazy to do our jobs and go find our own stories, we accept these embargoes and perpetuate the dull cycle of reader-hostile PR recycling.
Well, embargoes are over if you want it. I’ve got a solution. But first, just for fun, let’s belabor the problem, so we can really get in the mood to solve it.
The embargo problem
In the absence of news, spin doctors create scarcity around scripted events, exploit journalists’ insipid obsession with firstness, spoon feed them dollops of fluffy pseudo-information, and so graciously grant the journalists permission to do their jobs at a mysterious time selected by arcane astrological methods. That’s not how life on Earth works, but it’s status quo here in the attention farming business.
Every company thinks they’re an Apple or a Google or a State Department, someone who actually controls the discourse. So they hire a PR agency to write their bombshell press releases about their new augmented reality mobile coupon-sharing network, email blast it out to reporters and tell us we can’t break their [BREAKING NEWS] until 6:31 a.m. Eastern time.
When the appointed time rolls around, a dozen blog posts about the same exact information appear simultaneously on different websites, redundant with each other, as if the information just spontaneously manifested itself.
And the readers, who are not idiots, much as the people spamming them wish they were, wake up to a feed clogged with copies of the same information and utter the sacred syllable, “MEH.”
And that’s what happens if it goes well, which it frequently doesn’t. Someone posts the story early and “breaks” the embargo. So what’s everyone else supposed to do? They publish right away if they’re nervous people, or they scrap the story, dashing the poor PR person’s dreams against the rocks.
Then the thousands of twitchy early adopters who read this kind of blog post all rush to click the link, which is either dead, or the company is still testing the site it’s launching in less than 24 hours, which promptly crashes under the nerd strain. Or nothing bad happens, and some people get to see a website a few hours before PR said they were supposed to.
No matter which scenario unfolds, everyone is pissed off now, the journalists, the PR firm, and the company. And why? Over what? Did the blogger do something maliciously? If the post went up three minutes early, maybe, sure. First! But no, usually they posted inadvertently because they screwed up trying to convert 6:31 a.m. into Pacific time and type it into their CMS.
And when the mistake is made, and the post is live, the offending journalist is left to contemplate his future on the PR blacklist, wondering, “Why the fuck was I going to publish this while everyone in the world is asleep, including myself?”
Why do embargoes exist?
Insofar as anyone has derived a logical answer to the question and attempted to explain it to me, here is why embargoes exist:
Unfortunately, not all companies can “get” as much “press” as they think they need to maintain the buzz while they do the nitty gritty work of building their business. So they and their PR teams identify points in their development cycle that they can use as landmarks — a new hire, a funding round, an app update — and they decide to script news events around them.
The thinking is that the embargoed information will seem exclusive, enticing reporters to write about it, and that the lead time will give everyone a chance to write a good story instead of rushing it out when the news is already out there.
Why embargoes don’t work
The first fallacy in the embargo idea is that companies need to “get press.” If the information is worth finding, people will find it. Bloggers will even write about it. When an upstart company — one without de facto press clout, like Obvious Corp. — has news to share, it posts it on the company blog. Blog posts have a way of getting around the Internet. You know, when they matter.
The second embargo fallacy is that incremental company news is what people want to read. Again, the best companies in the world are exceptions to this, but every company thinks it’s the best in the world.
Companies love their products, and that’s beautiful. But people who aren’t steeped in that company’s particular problem all day only need to know a few things: does the product work or not, should they buy it or not, and, in some charismatic cases, who made it. Embargoed press releases and scripted 30-minute PowerPoint meetings do not give journalists adequate answers to these questions, so these kinds of stories don’t help readers.
Helping readers, may I remind us all, is the only thing that matters to anyone involved in this transaction.
The third embargo fallacy is the one that burns me the worst as a journalist: the quality argument. I assure you, the luxurious 36-hour window provided to us by PR is not freeing us to work extra hard on this story. It’s letting us bang it out in the exact same amount of time, schedule it, and forget about it, so we can get on to the nine other stories we’re working on.
You find that disrespectful? Suck it. We’ve got work to do. You know what’s disrespectful? 200 emails a day about the exact same thing you’re emailing us about.
And the icing on the cake is the feeling of watching an embargoed story go up, feeling kind of proud of it, since this company wanted to talk to little ol’ me, and then seeing the other sites’ stories pop up. Oh, there’s one. There’s another one. Shit. I am complicit in spamming my readers.
It is out of this feeling that my solution arises.
The solution to embargoes
The solution to embargoes is not for journalists to merely refuse to accept them. We can’t. We have to accept them before we see the information, and what if it really is interesting? The reality is that, half the time, it’s kind of interesting-ish, and we have to make the Faustian bargain of skipping it and missing out or writing it and trying to be the best of 15 posts about the same thing, a status that does not really exist.
The solution all journalists want is for PR to grant us exclusives. If your little newslet is so perfect for me, just give it to me. Do your homework, figure out who the best reporter in the world is on your particular topic, and give it all to him or her.
But that will almost never happen. It’s too much work for PR without enough “press.”
So here’s the solution. It’s in journalists’ hands. Before you accept an embargo, demand to see the press list. Ask the PR person which other reporters and publications he or she is pitching for this story.
If they don’t tell you, whoops, no story. If they do, you’re armed with the ability to do something interesting.
PR might not know the skills and aptitudes of particular reporters, but reporters do. They read each other all day every day. They know how each person on that list will cover the news. They can anticipate it and react to it. Advanced knowledge of who might write this story would give reporters the only thing their readers want from them: a distinguished take on the news.
In a good world, this would snap everybody out of it. Journalists would be able to accentuate the differences between each other. This would separate the pack, it would make PR’s job of identifying the right writers easier, and it might even accelerate the future of journalism away from commoditized information and toward the value of differing voices.
Is this a good world? Will PR ever give reporters the press list? I don’t know. It will take balls to ask. I’ll have to deal with getting left out of some stories.
I guess I’ll just have to find my own things to write about.
Did that really just happen?
Last Friday, I was driving home from an awesome visit to Google HQ. I had three mind-blowing conversations, which I could turn into great articles at my leisure, in the bag. As I drove, I was listening to John Gruber and Dan Frommer talk about all manner of tech things. Dan has been a super-cool editor-at-large for RWW, and it made me feel a little company pride hearing him banter with the Chairman.
When I got home, satisfied after a great week of work, I opened up my RSS reader to see what I'd missed. Lack of time to read is starting to get me down. I have to think about output so much, now that I'm full-time and in the SAY Media office, that I have precious few opportunities to actually read and think.
So it was pretty jarring to see a RWW link from the Chairman right there at the top. The headline was "Apple’s Brilliant Boondoggle: MacBook Pro Retina Display," and Gruber's caption was, "Is this a prank? I'm being pranked here, aren't I?"
I hadn't read this post by Antone Gonsalves, an experienced freelancer, which had gone up the day before. I knew it existed and what it was about, but I expected it to be minor, slightly contrarian, but uninteresting. But Gruber doesn't link unless there's something going on, and his caption did not inspire confidence.
Then I checked the traffic on the site.
So needless to say, I read the post after that, and I was horrified. I found it empty. Devoid of substance. It felt like the author had taken an intentionally contrarian stance, delicatedly avoided unhelpful evidence, and chosen analyst quotes to stand in for himself. And the trolls were hurling stones in the comments.
Then my phone started vibrating.
People I like, people whose opinions about technology matter to me, were upset. They thought we were whoring for page views. They were criticizing the whole site, and they were associating me with the damage. I had nothing to do with it, but as the full-time Bay Area reporter, or as the guy who hangs out on Twitter the most, or whatever, I was implicated.
My first move was to tweet a moral insurance policy.
Oh. It’s one of those days when someone who isn’t me writes something about Apple on RWW that gets dookied on by @gruber, and he’s right.— Jon Mitchell (@ablaze) July 14, 2012
I had to distance myself right away. I could feel my weekend getting sucked away down the Twitter toilet. So I came out and said it: Gruber was right, this post feels like a prank, I don't agree with it.
But the shit rain kept coming down.
I emailed the editors next. I told them how I really felt, and I proposed that we retract the story. They weren't having it. I learned that this post had genuine support. There was no cynical traffic ploy here. The editor of the story thought the argument needed to be made and stood behind it.
That made things more complicated for me. The problem is, the critics howling about the post would never believe it. They would think of us as trolls no matter what. I didn't want my name attached to that.
The next move I made was selfish, but I made it anyway. I disavowed the post in the comments.
"I just want to say on the record that I completely disagree with this post and didn't have anything to do with it. I hate to have to do this, but I feel like I do."
A few comments later, I made my objections more explicit.
"Please don't go. This is a trolly post that I don't endorse at all, and I really regret that it made it through our editorial process. I love that we all get to write from our own perspective, and I love when we disagree with each other constructively, but I just have to disavow this one."
The reaction to that comment was interesting. Lots of commenters took the opportunity to express their righteous disappointment with our publication by saying things like, "In doing so, you at least prevent me from writing off RWW entirely."
This was clearly a bit of a drama-queen performance on those commenters' parts. But the reaction carried over to Twitter, and the response felt more genuinely positive there to me.
@ablaze I love that you went ahead and voiced your disagreement. I don’t really follow RWW daily, but that made me want to start. Classy.— pobregizmo (@pobregizmo) July 14, 2012
.@pobregizmo I love writing for a site where I feel free to disagree. That’s the best thing about RWW. Widely different voices.— Jon Mitchell (@ablaze) July 14, 2012
The way this went down made me feel better. I felt my response reflected positively on the site for which I write. If I hadn't handled this as carefully, it would have looked like protecting my ego and throwing my colleagues under the bus. That would have been a tragic mistake.
Unfortunately, from the inside-RWW perspective, I had still crossed the line. That would matter more later.
Still, having felt like I'd repaired some damage, I got back on the email thread with the editors, told them I washed my hands of this, and I went to bed.
The Next Day
When I woke up, Marco Arment had weighed in.
"This clickbait article is sadly, unintentionally hilarious," Marco wrote. He proceeded to tear the weakest part of Antone's argument into tiny little pieces, which was justified and well done. And then he threw in this line at the end, which burned pretty darn good:
"ReadWriteWeb is better than this, and they should be ashamed to have published it."
At this point — Saturday morning, remember — the only people still talking about this were media Twitterati, but boy, were they talking about it. It's always fun for tech bloggers when another tech blog does something dumb, because they get to vent all their Schadenfreude built up by hating the dumbness in which we all engage.
I think Brian Lam is right when he talks about how many of us feel like we have to write some stuff we don't like. I think we don't like that stuff because it smacks of the same disingenuousness — real or perceived — for which Antone's post got busted.
But it's my personal mission to never engage in page-view-mongering ever, at all, under any circumstances, and that's actually the reason I took the full-time job. I heard SAY Media and our editors talking about bringing back substance to tech writing, so I signed up. This is precisely what sucked so badly for me about the Retina Display debacle. I felt like my site had trolled and been caught trolling.
And Marco had said exactly what I had said myself: we are better than this.
But he's a writer from the outside. That gave other outside writers permission to start saying it, too. And that's when things got ugly.
Now, I love just about every blogger colleague I've ever met, and I want to meet all the rest of them. I feel instant camaraderie with them. They don't feel like competitors to me. On the good days, we're all trying to do the same thing. We're trying to get to the bottom of the tech stories that matter because we want to understand them. It's easy for me to celebrate the good work of others, even on other sites.
As a pleasant side-effect of doing enough of that, even as a relative newcomer, I've made friends. I've got a pretty close circle of (quote-unquote) "competitors" with whom I frankly discuss the tech blogging climate, often publicly on Twitter. On Saturday, there was a sort of sharky edge to that water-cooler talk. People wanted me to write a story. They wanted controversy. They wanted a fight.
I wasn't going to give them the satisfaction. It was fucking Saturday, and I didn't start this fracas. I tweeted as much, and then I went out and had a life.
I’m sitting here stewing in that pulsing headache that makes people blog on Saturdays.I realize this is a waste of life.Nope.— Jon Mitchell (@ablaze) July 14, 2012
The Next, Next Day
That night, I had a crazy dream.
Just had a straight-up Steve Jobs visitation dream. I worked for him under my manager, Harrison Ford. Jobs grilled me about prayer books.— Jon Mitchell (@ablaze) July 15, 2012
In the day that followed, this happened:
"First, I'd like to thank all the readers who commented on our post. Some of the criticisms made me cringe, such as being called a 'link-baiting whore,' while other remarks were more insightful and worth taking seriously. But whether the comments were for or against the post, I'm humbled that so many people took the time to participate in such a lively discussion. Because of that, we want to explain our reasoning further."
And I was like, AWWWW, HELL NO.
Instead of retracting the first post, posting some kind of brief acknowledgement of the controversy, or just letting it die, the editors had allowed Antone to double down. And it wasn't that the second post was nearly as bad. It was that he said "We."
So come into this moment with me.
Now Antone has implicated me. He has put all of us in this story, myself included, even though I explicitly excluded myself. Now people in the comments are asking Antone, "Who is this 'we' of whom you speak? Is it just you and your editor? Or is all of ReadWriteWeb?"
Even in hindsight, I'm not sure I had a choice but to do what I did. I reiterated:
"Again, I wish I didn't have to do this, but the 'we' Antone mentions at the top of this post does not include me. I don't stand behind any of this stuff regarding the Retina MBP, personally."
But it had all gone to hell by that point already. In his takedown of the second post, Marco wrote:
"[I]t says a lot about ReadWriteWeb that they’d allow someone so blatantly unqualified to write two inflammatory Apple articles with their logo on top."
This would be the theme of the night as the men of technology media bro'd down on Twitter while other people weren't watching. At one point, Marco suggested that, if I disagreed with these tactics so much, I should quit my job.
I thought that was a ludicrous, dickish thing to say, and I told him so, although my response was pretty dickish in its own right:
@marcoarment Oh, that’s over the top. Antone might have fucked up his own career, but the blowback on me will end when the Internet forgets.— Jon Mitchell (@ablaze) July 16, 2012
And the situation sped further downhill from there. There was a whole long bloggergasm about whether or not this would affect my career (thanks for your concern, bros), and there's no need to revisit it. But by the end of the second day of this shit, I had been straight-up attacked, so I went into the work week (as opposed to the work weekend) intending to defend myself.
The Next, Next Day and Next, Next, Next Day
Suffice it to say, the situation in the office on Monday was tense. The editors felt I had crossed the line by commenting on the stories themselves. To be clear, they were fine with me expressing vehement personal disagreement. What they didn't like was the fact that I explicitly distanced myself from the team on the site.
I was able to hear that. I think they were right. But I still wasn't willing to swallow these posts. I expressed the desire to write a counter-argument. The editors all agreed, and I spent the whole day Monday reporting on it.
My counterpoint went up Tuesday morning, but the drama wasn't quite over. My editor approved it, but the editor of Antone's post did not like that I leveled such a thorough line-by-line criticism of a colleague's work.
We paced around a lot that day as we hashed out how we felt about our handling of this. It was a tempest in a teapot, ultimately, and even though it sucked, it was good for our process.
Four Days of Arguing About Computers
Honestly, I was pretty proud of the argument I made. But as I wrote about this computer, I couldn't shake the feeling that a humongous amount of drama had blown up over something utterly mundane. So I included some language in my post scolding people who fight about the screen resolution of computers. That's the part I regret. It pissed off the bees in the comment section, for one thing.
But the icky feeling goes deeper than that for me, and I think it's what I'm going to spend the next phase of my career working on. Is the meaning of a computer a big deal or not? Is the passion that flared up this weekend inspired by anything real?
If so, I should care this much, and I should use my position to help people apply that passion for technology to their work and life.
But part of me suspects that it wasn't real, that consumer tech has become sort of religious and alienating. I don't want to play into that. I don't want to be consumed by it myself. But I lost a whole weekend to talking about a computer I don't even have or want, and I can't really believe it.
Over the summer, ReadWriteWeb will undergo some major changes. We’re redesigning the site and the experience, and we’re zooming out our coverage. In the meantime, we’ve already changed how we write, and that change will only accelerate. If you want to pitch stories to ReadWriteWeb from now on, here’s what you need to know:
1. We’re going for an expanded audience.
People used to come to ReadWriteWeb for developer-focused, highly technical news and information. We’re not getting rid of that. On the contrary, we’re bolstering those efforts on our sections, Mobile, Hack, Cloud, Enterprise, Biz and Start. That’s where the hackers, founders, CTOs and investors will find trade stories, and that’s where you should pitch them.
The main site on ReadWriteWeb is for everyone embracing the digital age. It’s not for users of a particular platform, and it has no threshold of expertise. We describe our audience to ourselves this way:
Our readers are people who recognize the power of networked technology and actively maximize that power in their lives.
That “actively” part is the key. We write for anyone who cares enough about this stuff to do something about it.
So if you’re about to pitch a story to us, make sure to answer this question: “What can you do with it?”
2. We’re moving beyond the Web.
We’re paring down what we do to its essence. Digital, two-way information technology has changed everything, and that’s what we care about. The Web is assumed to be a part of it now, and we don’t want to limit ourselves to writing about the Web itself. Newspapers didn’t marvel about the wonders of the printing press for very long.
We’re writing about how technology is changing the world. The technology itself is the heart of the story, but for us, it’s usually not going to be the headline. The launch of an app is not inherently exciting to us. Its potential for changing the way we live, work, play, or communicate very much is.
So is a groundbreaking discovery in biotech or energy production. So is the race between technology and climate change. So is the dawn of commercial spaceflight. Incremental updates to an app for sharing filtered photos or broadcasting where you ate lunch? Not so much.
3. Our site is not a blog.
We’re not being pretentious here. Surely, some of what we do can be classified as “blogging.” But that’s just a method of reporting, and there are lots of ways to tell a story on the Web. We’re going to try them all.
We’re a publication. We make a package of great stuff to think about. Some of it will be up-to-the-minute. Some of it will be pondered over the weekend. Some of it will only make sense 15 years from now. If you want to pitch a story to be part of that, think bigger than blog posts.
The vast majority of embargoed tech news is a commodity, and we’re not playing that game. If it’s worth reading about at 9:01 AM Eastern on the dot, it’s worth reading about tomorrow. All we care about is how this news changes the world for wired-in people.
We’re more interested in following something for a while than in writing a fire-and-forget post about it. If your company sounds cool to us, we’ll want to watch it grow, evolve, interact with its users, respond to competition, hire, fire, acquire or be acquired. We’ll write about it once if the story is good. If the story is still good in a month or two, we’ll write about it again.
4. We’re still a tech site.
We still plan to be a destination for people to find out what’s happening in tech. We won’t miss anything big. But we’re going to take our time to write a thoughtful take. We’d rather be last and best than first to re-write a press release.
We’ll explain what the news means for all the stakeholders. If your news matters to lots of people, it will matter to us. But keep this in mind: We care about people, not page views. Technology news is raw data to us. It’s the unrefined output of a rapidly accelerating future. We’re here to make sense of it, not just churn it out.
I reckon it's time for an update!
ReadWriteWeb is about to become ReadWrite. It will be a big change. We're growing the scope of what we cover. I firmly believe it will be for the better.
ReadWrite is not going to be a "tech blog" anymore. We're just going to write about the future. If that sounds vague, it's because it is. We have much turmoil to go through before we hit our rhythm. We just know we don't want to clog the Internet with pointless tech speculation, breathless start-up stories, and incremental app updates.
Even though the name and site change will happen soon, the shift will be gradual. We have lots of pieces to put into place. Some of those pieces are new people. There will be news on that front soon. I wish I could share it today, but I'd better not. It'll be really, really good, I promise.
As for me, my job remains the same, but my life is about to be profoundly different.
Next week, I'm moving from Portland down to Oakland to become the first ReadWrite reporter on the ground in the Bay Area. I've been flying down more and more often lately, and now it's time to just make the move. We're still a widely distributed team, and that's the fun part. We'll keep it that way. But with our editors operating out of SAY Media HQ in San Francisco, it makes sense for us to start having an in-person news presence there.
Until recently, Portland was sort of our de facto U.S. home, with lots of the current and former crew based here. But managing editor Abraham Hyatt has moved to the Bay since the SAY acquisition, and it looks like I'm next. I've loved living in Portland for the past two years, and I was just starting to feel like a part of its vibrant tech scene. I'm going to miss it here.
Fortunately, ReadWrite will still have a PDX presence, now that Taylor Hatmaker has joined us. She rocks. Klint Finley has also returned to write a few posts a week for the ReadWriteHack channel, and I'm so pleased about that. Since the ReadWrite main site is about to get much broader, Hack will be the dedicated place for the nitty-gritty hacker stories for which we've always been known.
ReadWrite will still have a home in Portland, and I'm sure I'll be back from time to time.
As much as I will miss Rip City, though, I can hardly contain my excitement about moving to the Bay. It's obviously an important place to be for someone who covers tech, but that's far from the only reason I'm moving.
It's the heart of Burning Man culture. I hope my involvement with the Burning Man organization will grow deeper over time. It's an important outlet for me. I block off the 10 days around Burning Man as my chance to go off the grid. I always come back with great stories, so my bosses tend to let me go. I even wrote about it on RWW last year. But the chance to write for the Burning Blog is the creative outlet that makes me the happiest. I want to keep doing it forever.
The Bay Area and points north is also where my own tribe of people is starting to form. For two years now, I've lived a largely virtual life. I moved here with one friend, had a couple more here waiting, but for the most part, I've been interacting with my tribe online. It's been quiet and interesting, but I'm ready for that to be over. I have a ridiculously high concentration of friends in the Bay, and it will be beautiful to be able to spend time with them in the real world. Hopefully, it'll lead me to tweet less.
But I've made some key connections here in Portland, and I'm going to miss those folks. I want to extend a special farewell and thanks to Lynnette and Ken of Neighborhood Notes for welcoming me and letting me help them make stuff. They opened the door for me into the local tech and media scene, and I can't overstate how valuable that was.
And to the rest of the connections I've made in PDX, especially those that feel like they're just starting to form around these "work parties" we've been having at Geoloqi HQ, I'll miss you, but we'll stay in touch. There are great things happening here, and I'm going to love watching from a distance. When you come visit the Bay to raise millions of dollars to help you save the world, let me know you're in town, and when I come back to Portland to cover your world-saving news, we'll make a grand time of it.
My heart is heavy at the thought of finishing this goodbye. I think that's why I'm running on so long. But it's time to go. Thanks to Portland itself. You've been a great home. I've walked through the soles of two pairs of shoes getting to know you, and I've got hundreds of curious little Instagrams by which to remember it. I'm already looking forward to the feeling of coming back to visit. Let's make sure it's soon, okay?
Goodbye, Rose City.
Hey, Bay Area.
All I can say is, I take heart in the fact that I was moved to write about “content” on the same day as MG Siegler. If you don’t buy what I had to say, take it from someone who knows eminently what he’s talking about.
The only thing I can offer is the advice to take everything you read in the technology press with a grain of salt. Perhaps several. The likelihood that at least part of it is nonsense is very strong. And stronger by the day.
I hate that blogging is a quantitative business. I’m not talking about eyeballs and page views here. You gotta eat, right? I’m talking about assembly-line creativity. X blobs of “content” per day.
I hate that assembly-line blogging arises out of resignation to the notion that people won’t read. If we produce only one or three excellent stories per day, not enough people will read them, the thinking goes. We’re better off constantly updating, constantly getting in the Internet’s face like a mosquito, so that irritated people will occasionally slap. It isn’t true of a quality audience, but the thinking holds.
I hate that the assembly of blog posts is treated as a competitive industry. Pro bloggers behave as though page views are scarce. That’s a poor description of reality. Attention is scarce. Page views are the freest, most abundant thing on the Internet. But the assembly-line blogs have all fallen into the same patterns, because they all must meet their quotas. On the path of least resistance, they all cover the same things. Thus, the headline becomes the most important part of the article.
I hate that blogs develop fatigue because of the grinding nature of their business, so that no energy is left to experiment. We go with what works and can make only small and frivolous adjustments. Joke headlines. Infographics. “Hey, let’s use more pictures!” Giveaways. References to bigger, more viral flavors of the day.
This is not a limitation of the blog medium. It’s a failure to take advantage of its simplicity. The blog is the minimal tool of the real-time, social Web. And this is what I love about blogging.
I love that the blog is a blank box. A practiced blogger can abuse the box into holding many kinds of shapes. An expert blogger can reconstruct the entire box. One only needs to be a hack Web designer to be a world-class blogger of shapes.
I love that any number of digital skill sets can be used to color in a blog’s shapes. A blogger can be a writer, a photographer, a filmmaker, a podcaster, a musician, a painter, alone, in combination, or all at once.
I love that the costs of producing a blog are so minimal that those who are good at it can make a living.
I love that so many developers, designers, engineers and companies have put so much work into making the blog accessible from all kinds of devices in all kinds of places. The shapes on a blog can be multi-dimensional, able to re-flow themselves into differently sized containers and be valuable in all of them.
I love that all the great science-fiction writers are right: a high-tech future without high-tech storytelling would take us nowhere.
Last week was the first time I'd ever been called for jury duty. I put it on the RWW team calendar weeks in advance. I figured I'd miss one day at my desk. I'd spend it sitting in a waiting room, voraciously reading Twitter and shouting from the sidelines. I was wrong. I was chosen for a jury trial that lasted all week. I sat in the voir dire session, answered questions honestly, and before I knew it, I was in the booth.
Before long, I could tell why I was chosen. It was a civil case, and practically all the character evidence was in the form of email, Facebook and Myspace posts. That's all we had to juxtapose with the in-person testimony and figure out who was telling the truth. It was a bit embarrassing at first. What did this have to do with justice? But that became clear. There are lots of new lessons to learn about being civil in an online society, and judges and juries are how we common-law countries work that stuff out.
As a result of the stupid-ass embargo culture, I found out on Twitter this morning that ReadWriteWeb has been acquired by SAY Media. I don't know anything about this company, so I have no preconceptions. They say we're going to get a site redesign, and that sounds great. I look forward to seeing the wireframes.
We were told of a surprise 7 a.m. meeting midday yesterday and given no more information than that. I was certain acquisition was at hand, but I could not imagine by whom. Now we know, I think.
I'm excited. I love the spirit of our team, I think it's full of great writers, and I'm glad we'll get a chance to grow our platform. I mean platform not the way tech blogs use it — meaning something involving computers and stuff — but in an older sense. I'm at ReadWriteWeb because it's a group blog full of strong voices. We have our own takes on things. That's what I want out of a site, and I think it's what readers want, too.
I'm thrilled that Dan Frommer will be joining us. I look forward to learning from him. It sounds like the team will be expanding, too. If we get more comrades as crazy as we are, you can look forward to a good time.
I hope this deal means that SAY finds value in our voices. If that's the case, I'm flattered. Honored, even. I've only worked for fledgling organizations before (save for a one-year stint in the Providence, RI school department, but let's not talk about that). Working for a bigger company will be a new experience, and I love new experiences.
I read Erick Schonfeld's post about the deal with some interest, and I agree with his analysis. In order to be a free media company with a big reach, you have to be an ad company, too.
That's okay with me. It might make your journalist's nose itchy, but so be it. As I've said on Twitter before, I have foresworn the title of Journalist in this position. I'm a storyteller, or at least I aspire to be. I tell the story of the Internet and how it connects humankind. Of course I'm responsible to be fair and accurate when writing true stories. But we're in service of the future, not the present. That's not journalism; it's an agenda.
There are agendas inherent in writing about technology. I think they're good agendas. We write in favor of the Web Itself and for the best possible technology for accessing it. It's the platforms, if you will, that matter to us, and the best things built upon them get covered. That's the difference between tech blogging and PR; our allegiance is to the future, not to any product.
So if I can keep doing that, that's great. Honestly, I don't really care about the technology in and of itself. I'm not a Technologist. I'm not an engineer or a developer. I'm a writer. I care about the story. As long as the story is good and people are listening, I'll keep telling it. I look forward to seeing how SAY Media can support good storytelling. Here's the story SAY and Richard, our Commander-In-Chief, are telling about the deal:
I think that's a pretty good story. I'll keep listening. If the story gets boring, I'll be bored, too. I don't let myself stay bored for long.
UPDATE 12/16: I've had more chances to see SAY's way of doing things, and I'm profoundly impressed. Check out this bold blog post from SAY's president about why they wanted us. I'm so much more excited now.
My Internet friend Jamie and I have started a podcast. It’s called The Dock Podcast. Like, the dock on the main screens of Apple devices where the apps go. But also like a tranquil place to sit and watch the waves.
On The Dock Podcast, we discuss what people do with their technology and how they do it. We’re interested in workflows and playflows alike. We happen to be Apple people, but we’re open to anything with circuits. If you do something cool, and you use a computer to do it, we want you to come on our show and talk about it.
We’ve got three episodes so far. It’s just Jamie and me in those, but we’ve got some great guests lined up, and you’ll hear about them.
- Episode 0 – Let’s Get This Out Of The Way
- Episode 1 – iPhone Part 1: Bloody Cheeseburgers
- Episode 2 – I Hate Times New Roman
Please do visit us on iTunes and leave a rating. We want to reach the people and help them make their stuff work better.
We love you!
Something I love about the ReadWriteWeb team is that we’re all contemplative people. We aren’t as hyper as some of the higher-volume sites. We love to sit back and think about the implications of what we’re doing while our coffee steams up our glasses.
As a result, we each get to write some posts that indulge our curiosity and teach us, along with a few readers, about little, hidden aspects of the Web. These posts don’t go viral, usually, but I think we all find them well worth our time. They’re also usually more long-tail kinds of posts, as opposed to daily news — things that are worth reading for a long time to come.
I’ve decided to create a new kind of post on this blog to highlight a few of my favorite recent RWW stories. Look for the recycling symbol (♻). There won’t be any regular timing for these; I’ll just post them when I feel the spirit.
Here are my choices for today:
- 10/11/11: Love of Control Has Made Tablets Indispensable
- 10/ 7/11: This Is Your Brain on 3D Ads
- 10/ 6/11: Google Maps Adds New Crowdsourced Maps of Afghanistan, Iraq & Elsewhere
- 09/30/11: KarmaGoat: Support Your Causes By Selling Your Stuff
- 09/26/11: Thoora is Your Robot Buddy for Exploring Web Topics
As always, you can follow my RWW posts from my author page via RSS or just as a bookmark. Thanks for reading, Internet friends.
When I got the chance to cover Steve Jobs' resignation as CEO of Apple, I was thrilled. It was a legacy I was honored to recap. But today, I had to write the post I never wanted to write. Steve Jobs has passed away at the age of 56.
Steve Jobs was the inventor of the machines that powered my imagination. When I was little, I used to cut images out of computer catalogs and tape together my own Macintoshes on paper from my parents' printer tray. I've been playing with Macs since I could read. They got me all the way through school. My entire career has been made on two Macintosh computers. I wouldn't be able to be who I am without Steve Jobs' contributions to humankind. None of us would. He changed everything.
Mr. Jobs, I owe you so much. I hope you change the next world as much as you changed this one.
The Real Zack Morris published a lament about the state of computing today that actually brought me to tears:
The real secret they won’t tell you, heck, that I think is only dawning on a few people, is that today’s computing can’t take us into the future. It can’t provide true artificial intelligence or bring the kind of multiplication of effort that hackers take for granted to the masses. Computer science has utterly failed to tackle the real world problems, things like automating jobs so people don’t have to work, or working hand in hand with humans to explore solutions we have trouble seeing ourselves. We are so far from a Star Trek-style future utopia that it breaks my heart.