The tabloids online irritate me

I just read this article on CrunchGear and could not help writing something about what has been irritating me for quite some time now.

That article is an example of how the Internet and the smart (no sarcasm) reporting that happens on it, can really bring the core issues up to the so-called mainstream, and fast. And increasingly, traditional media outlets are picking up on blog trending topics, and we may finally have reached a critical mass where the tech blogosphere is almost as influential as mainstream media would be and in arguably, even more so. 

Part of the reason this change has come about, is that the mainstream press doesn’t have the resources to go deep into technical issues and topics. It is just not their core competency. The second reason is that a lot of these blogs are actually getting paid for these analyses and insights. So they are actually trying to dig deep and find sources, get “common person” feedback via their polls and comments and generally beefing up their research so they can provide genuinely good content for their readers and listeners. All this is great news for journalists as well as consumers/readers/listeners. The quality of what is put out on such blogs/sites is very very good.  

The tabloids

So what irritates me? The “tabloids” of the blogosphere. These are the blogs/sites who are trying hard to get the pageviews because that is their source of income. These are the sites who find it easy to come up with inflammatory headlines knowing fully well that they are bound to get the clickthroughs, and therefore get paid a ton. They don’t really care about the depth of their writing, the research, or in fact whether there is any truth in their reporting. They care about scoops even if they are untrue, they care about getting their readers all riled up because of some nonsensical headlines. I am not going to link from here but Silicon Alley Insider/Business Insider recently posted a headline “The odds are increasing that Microsoft’s business will collapse”, and Infoworld had a post about the upcoming Windows Phone 7 claiming we should not bother about it, it is a disaster. And that was without even seeing the system in action in person. Both those posts got a lot of pageviews I am sure and both of them did make it to Techmeme.

The Ad Model

The business model is the problem. If I start a blog and get syndicated ads say from Google, as long as I can generate pageviews, I am virtually guaranteed to get some ads and I have no accountability. I can publish any number of SEO-friendly articles and I will be able to generate the pageviews and ads to hopefully get paid well enough to continue writing as a job. The crucial pieces of this business are getting click-friendly headlines and SEO-friendly, buzz-worthy content in the posts. You know, like a tabloid in the newspaper/magazine world.

However if I were getting sponsors to my site I automatically become accountable. I know the sponsor is looking at their own ROI, their own brand image and that they will not tolerate anything that may tarnish either of those things. That way I am forced to be judicious in my writing and put some integrity into what I post. I am still going to try having a good headline to get the clicks, I am still going to try to get pageviews and I am still going to try to put SEO-friendly and buzz-worthy content. The difference is, now I am doing it as a service to known advertisers whom I actually refer to as sponsors. They are not just advertising on my site, they are actually sponsoring my site. And in that capacity, they have a right to check what I write and how I write.

The tabloids irritate me because they have a steady stream of anonymous advertisers which pay almost directly proportionately to the number of articles and pageviews. It is in their best interest to create headlines with a bunch of superlatives (best, killer, new king, destroys, collapse, end, etc), make up a story out of nothing, take an angle which is bound to polarize the readers and keep seeing any news item from that angle irrespective of the justifications, logic, truth, etc.

The spiral

Going back to the Antennagate story, one of the reasons the news became so widespread is how quickly it went from being one or two articles to the whole blogosphere talking about it. We are now in a frictionless medium called the internet where Techmeme, twitter and the like make it possible to get a small story noticed by a large group just through word-of-mouth, in a manner of saying. So what was reported by some commenters on some site became a full-on post with a question mark which then went from being a snowball into a huge avalanche.

The problem with this spiral though, is that it gives very little chance for fact-checking because everything is moving so fast. Now those tabloids can spin up a great juicy story and just with the headline, create enough momentum in this frictionless medium to make that made-up story become a so-called reality. Now we have people who have no idea where the story started, but who feel like they need to contribute something about it so their site gets picked up too in this spiral. So we have more fringe players getting into the spiral causing even more belief in the made-up story. And once it catches fire in the technosphere, the “mainstream” media picks it up and publishes their own take! Now, we have the common person getting hit with a story which may or may not be true at all. But it is enough to create fear, uncertainty and doubt in their minds, or on the flip side, cause them to believe something will happen “because everyone is talking about it”. The Verizon iPhone rumor is one good example of this phenomenon. How many times have people said they have a source who has confirmed it is coming and how many times have those dates passed?

Camp Apple or Camp Google?

Separately, for one reason or the other, we are seeing an intense polarization among the tech community in that you are a fanboy of one company/product or the other. And as a fanboy of one company, you are forced to start hating on anything the competitor does. This has created Camp Apple, Camp Android/Google and the favorite punching bags called Microsoft and Facebook. If you like the iPhone for example, you are almost expected to post something about why you like the iPhone better than the Nexus One or if you like the DroidX you are almost forced to write on why you dumped the iPhone and went with the DroidX. This is perhaps because everyone wants to justify their decision by putting the other system/company/product down rather than rationalize it by talking about the features and benefits of their purchased product. Every time a feature is praised, it has to be compared to the other company’s lack of either that feature or two other unrelated features, regardless of how useful those may or may not be.

This polarization is hurting us because then we start seeing such vitriolic writing, we could see luminaries write just for the sake of taking sides and start picking nits about the other system. These nits could then be picked up by the tabloids and made into a bigger “story”. Also, the tabloids could see that being fodder to start creating artificial rifts between two or more companies which, if unresolved at the personal level, could unfortunately escalate into something real. And these tabloid-style “scoops” are then sucked into the spiral, creating enough noise for the common man to start seeing these things in their morning paper via the mainstream media and therefore start believing them even more.

So what now?

I believe the bloggers should take it upon themselves and behave maturely and be responsible for their words. They cannot be playing to “vote banks” or in this case “reader banks”. Just because most of your listeners are techie, does not mean you say “Facebook is horrible because their so-and-so API is limited”.  Just because you cater to a techie crowd does not mean you state that “the iPhone sucks because it does not have widgets”. This techie crowd may be the first touch point but three levels later, some layperson may end up deleting her Facebook account or someone else would give up on getting the iPhone because of what “everyone seems to know for sure”. A good example? The iPhone4’s antenna issue has now become “the iPhone4 cannot make phone calls”. That is utter rubbish but who can stop that tidal wave now? It is already out there.

We need to have that journalistic maturity and since there is no certification required to publish an article, we need to make sure whoever writes, especially if they have a large readership/listenership (for podcasts/online shows), that they are aware of the fact that more than just techies may be getting this information. I know it is very idealistic thinking, but that is the only thing I can hope for, right?


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