Tag Archives: Alexis Madrigal

Arianna Told Me To Write This Blog Post

Arianna Huffington at The Huffington Post:

I’ve used this space to make all sorts of important HuffPost announcements: new sections, new additions to the HuffPost team, new HuffPost features and new apps. But none of them can hold a candle to what we are announcing today.

When Kenny Lerer and I launched The Huffington Post on May 9, 2005, we would have been hard-pressed to imagine this moment. The Huffington Post has already been growing at a prodigious rate. But my New Year’s resolution for 2011 was to take HuffPost to the next level — not just incrementally, but exponentially. With the help of our CEO, Eric Hippeau, and our president and head of sales, Greg Coleman, we’d been able to make the site profitable. Now was the time to take leaps.

At the first meeting of our senior team this year, I laid out the five areas on which I wanted us to double down: major expansion of local sections; the launch of international Huffington Post sections (beginning with HuffPost Brazil); more emphasis on the growing importance of service and giving back in our lives; much more original video; and additional sections that would fill in some of the gaps in what we are offering our readers, including cars, music, games, and underserved minority communities.

Around the same time, I got an email from Tim Armstrong (AOL Chairman and CEO), saying he had something he wanted to discuss with me, and asking when we could meet. We arranged to have lunch at my home in LA later that week. The day before the lunch, Tim emailed and asked if it would be okay if he brought Artie Minson, AOL’s CFO, with him. I told him of course and asked if there was anything they didn’t eat. “I’ll eat anything but mushrooms,” he said.

The next day, he and Artie arrived, and, before the first course was served — with an energy and enthusiasm I’d soon come to know is his default operating position — Tim said he wanted to buy The Huffington Post and put all of AOL’s content under a newly formed Huffington Post Media Group, with me as its president and editor-in-chief.

I flashed back to November 10, 2010. That was the day that I heard Tim speak at the Quadrangle conference in New York. He was part of a panel on “Digital Darwinism,” along with Michael Eisner and Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen.

At some point during the discussion, while Tim was talking about his plans for turning AOL around, he said that the challenge lay in the fact that AOL had off-the-charts brand awareness, and off-the-charts user trust and loyalty, but almost no brand identity. I was immediately struck by his clear-eyed assessment of his company’s strengths and weaknesses, and his willingness to be so up front about them.

As HuffPost grew, Kenny and I had both been obsessed with what professor Clayton Christensen has famously called “the innovator’s dilemma.” In his book of the same name, Christensen explains how even very successful companies, with very capable personnel, often fail because they tend to stick too closely to the strategies that made them successful in the first place, leaving them vulnerable to changing conditions and new realities. They miss major opportunities because they are unwilling to disrupt their own game.

After that November panel, Tim and I chatted briefly and arranged to see each other the next day. At that meeting, we talked not just about what our two companies were doing, but about the larger trends we saw happening online and in our world. I laid out my vision for the expansion of The Huffington Post, and he laid out his vision for AOL. We were practically finishing each other’s sentences.

Two months later, we were having lunch in LA and Tim was demonstrating that he got the Innovator’s Dilemma and was willing to disrupt the present to, if I may borrow a phrase, “win the future.” (I guess that makes this AOL’s — and HuffPost’s — Sputnik Moment!)

There were many more meetings, back-and-forth emails, and phone calls about what our merger would mean for the two companies. Things moved very quickly. A term sheet was produced, due diligence began, and on Super Bowl Sunday the deal was signed. In fact, it was actually signed at the Super Bowl, where Tim was hosting a group of wounded vets from the Screamin’ Eagles. It was my first Super Bowl — an incredibly exciting backdrop that mirrored my excitement about the merger and the future ahead.

Jack Shafer at Slate:

I underestimated Arianna Huffington when she launched her Huffington Post in May 2005. I didn’t trash the site the way Nikki Finke did, though. Finke called Huffington the “Madonna of the mediapolitic world [who] has undergone one reinvention too many,” and slammed her site as a “humongously pre-hyped celebrity blog” that represented the “sort of failure that is simply unsurvivable.” And those were among Finke’s nicer comments.

Instead of critiquing Huffington’s debut copy, I speculated as to whether she was up to the job of “impresario.” In the scale of things, my write-up is more embarrassing today, now that Huffington has sold the Post to AOL for $315 million, than is Finke’s pissy take. Huffington has proved herself a first-rate entrepreneur, incubator of talent, and media visionary.

Felix Salmon:

My feeling, then, is that this deal is a good one for both sides. AOL gets something it desperately needs: a voice and a clear editorial vision. It’s smart, and bold, to put Arianna in charge of all AOL’s editorial content, since she is one of the precious few people who has managed to create a mass-market general-interest online publication which isn’t bland and which has an instantly identifiable personality. That’s a rare skill and one which AOL desperately needs to apply to its broad yet inchoate suite of websites.

As for HuffPo, it gets lots of money, great tech content from Engadget and TechCrunch, hugely valuable video-production abilities, a local infrastructure in Patch, lots of money, a public stock-market listing with which to make fill-in acquisitions and incentivize employees with options, a massive leg up in terms of reaching the older and more conservative Web 1.0 audience and did I mention the lots of money? Last year at SXSW I was talking about how ambitious New York entrepreneurs in the dot-com space have often done very well for themselves in the tech space, but have signally failed to engineer massive exits in the content space. With this sale, Jonah Peretti changes all that; his minority stake in HuffPo is probably worth more than the amount of money Jason Calacanis got when he sold Weblogs Inc to AOL.

And then, of course, there’s Arianna, who is now officially the Empress of the Internet with both power and her own self-made dynastic wealth. She’s already started raiding big names from mainstream media, like Howard Fineman and Tim O’Brien; expect that trend to accelerate now that she’s on a much firmer financial footing.

Paul Carr at TechCrunch:

We really have to stop being scooped by rivals on news affecting our own company.

Tonight, courtesy of a press release that our parent company sent to everyone but us, we learn that AOL has acquired the Huffington Post for $315 million. More interestingly, Arianna Huffington has been made Editor In Chief of all AOL content, including TechCrunch.

Now, no-one here has been more skeptical than me of AOL’s content strategy. I was reasonably scathing about that whole “tech town” bullshit and I was quick to opinion-smack Tim Armstrong in the face over his promise that “90% of AOL content will be SEO optimized” by March. Hell I’ve stood on stage – twice – on TC’s dime and described our overlords as “the place where start-ups come to die”.

And yet and yet, for once I find myself applauding Armstrong – and AOL as a whole – for pulling off a double whammy: a brilliant strategic acquisition at a logical price. As AOL’s resident inside-pissing-insider, I can’t tell you how frustrating that is. I can’t even bust out a Bebo joke.

An important note before I go on: I have no idea how any of this will affect TechCrunch. So far AOL has kept true to its promise not to interfere with our editorial and there’s no reason to suppose that will change under Huffington. That said, it would be idiotic to think that our parents’ content strategy – particularly the SEO stuff – won’t have annoying trickle-down consequences for all of us in the long term.

As I wrote the other week, I hate SEO. It’s bad for journalism as it disincentivises reporters from breaking new stories, and rewards them for rehashing existing ones. And it’s bad for everything else because, well, it’s garbage. But when discussing the SEO phenomenon privately, I’ve always cited the Huffington Post as the exception that proves the rule.

Arianna Huffington’s genius is to churn out enough SEO crap to bring in the traffic and then to use the resulting advertising revenue – and her personal influence – to employ top class reporters and commentators to drag the quality average back up. And somehow it works. In the past six months journostars like Howard Fineman, Timothy L. O’Brien and Peter Goodman have all been added to the HuffPo’s swelling masthead, and rather than watering down the site’s political voice, it has stayed true to its core beliefs. Such is the benefit of being bank-rolled by a rich liberal who doesn’t give a shit.

Ann Althouse:

What difference does it make? AOL as a brand meant something to me in the 1990s, but not now. Who cares whether AOL retains a semblance of political neutrality? In any case, mainstream media always feels pretty liberal, so why would anyone really notice. Now, that quote is from the NYT, so… think about it. The NYT would like to be the big news site that looks neutral (but satisfies liberals). HuffPo is the raging competition, which needs to be put in its place.

Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic

Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch

Kevin Drum:

Last night I saw a tweet saying that AOL was going to buy the Huffington Post for $31.5 million. Yowza, I thought. That’s a pretty rich valuation. Maybe 20x forward earnings? Who knows?

But no! AOL actually bought HuffPo for $315 million. I mentally put in a decimal place where there wasn’t one. I don’t even know what to think about this. It sounds completely crazy to me. The odds of this being a good deal for AOL stockholders seem astronomical.

Still, maybe I’m the one who’s crazy. After all, I haven’t paid a lot of attention to either HuffPo or AOL lately. I’m a huge skeptic of synergy arguments of all kinds, but maybe Arianna is right when she says that in this deal, 1+1=11

Peter Kafka at Media Memo:

So maybe AOL + HuffPo won’t equal 11. And maybe 10x Huffington Post’s reported 2010 revenue is a very pre-Lehman multiple. But the broad strokes here make sense to me:

AOL is pushing its workers very hard to make more content it can sell. HuffPo is a content-making machine:

Huffington Post still has the reputation as a left-leaning political site written by Arianna Huffington’s celebrity pals. In reality, it is most concerned with attracting eyeballs anyway it can. Sometimes it’s with well-regarded investigative journalism, and much more often it’s via very aggressive, very clever aggregation. And sometimes it’s by simply paying very, very close attention to what Google wants, which leads to stories like “What Time Does The Super Bowl Start?

However they’ve done it, it’s worked–much more efficiently than AOL, which is headed in that direction as well. AOL reaches about 112 million people in the U.S. every month with a staff of 5,000. The Huffington Post, which employed about 200 people prior to the deal, gets to about 26 million.*

AOL can start selling this stuff immediately:

HuffPo reportedly generated around $30 million in revenue last year, but that was done using a relatively small staff that sales chief Greg Coleman had just started building. AOL’s much bigger sales group, which has just about finished its lengthy reorg, should be able to boost that performance immediately.

AOL can afford it:

Tim Armstrong’s company ended 2010 with $725 million in cash, much of which it generated by selling off old assets. This seems like a relatively easy check to write and one that shouldn’t involve a lot of overlapping staff–AOL figures it will save $20 million annually in cost overlaps, but that it will spend about $20 million this year on restructuring charges. HuffPo is about four percent of AOL’s size, and several of its top executives are already stepping aside. (This is the second time in two years that sales boss Greg Coleman has been moved out of a job by Tim Armstrong.) The biggest risk here will be in the way that Huffington, who is now editor in chief for all of AOL’s edit staff, gets along with her new employees. On the other hand, morale is low enough at many AOL sites that it will be hard to make things worse.

AOL Gets a Really Big Brand:

There’s some downside risk to attaching Arianna Huffington’s name to a big, mainstream media brand, as her politics and/or persona might scare off some readers and/or advertisers. But two years after Armstrong arrived from Google, AOL still doesn’t have a definable identity, other than “the Web site your parents might still pay for even though there’s no reason to do so.” Being known as “the guys who own Huffington Post” is infinitely better than that.

HuffPo’s “pro” list is much shorter, but only because there’s not much to think about for them: Huffington, co-founder Kenneth Lerer and their backers get a nice return on the five years and $37 million they put into the company. And those who stay on get to leverage the benefits of a much larger acquirer–access to more eyballs and more advertisers. Easy enough to understand.

Dan Lyons at The Daily Beast:

No doubt Hippeau and Lerer and Huffington were drinking champagne last night, but the truth is, this deal is not a victory for either side. It’s a slow-motion train wreck and will end in disaster.

Listen to Nick Denton, who runs Gawker, which now becomes the biggest independent Web-based news outlet. “I’m disappointed in the Huffington Post. I thought Arianna Huffington and Kenny Lerer were reinventing news, rather than simply flipping to a flailing conglomerate,” he told me.

Denton insists he has no intention of ever selling Gawker, and he seems not-so-secretly pleased to see his opponents cashing out: “AOL has gathered so many of our rivals— Huffington Post, Engadget, Techcrunch—in one place. The question: Is this a fearsome Internet conglomerate or simply a roach motel for once lively websites?”

One big problem with the deal is that Arianna Huffington now runs editorial for AOL properties, which include tech sites Engadget and TechCrunch. Those sites are both accustomed to being free-wheeling, fiercely independent and fiercely competitive—so competitive, in fact, that recently they’ve been battling with each other.

Michael Arrington, who runs TechCrunch and just sold it to AOL a few months ago, is an abrasive, big-ego, sometimes obnoxious guy. He’s a friend of mine, so I mean this in the best possible way. But I can’t imagine him working for Arianna.

The other, bigger problem is AOL itself. AOL touts itself as a media company, but as Ken Auletta reported in The New Yorker recently, most of what AOL publishes is junk, and 80 percent of its profits come from a rather seedy little business—charging subscription fees from longtime users who don’t realize that they no longer need to pay for AOL service, and could be getting it free.

The other problem is that AOL’s chief executive, Tim Armstrong, is a sales guy. He ran sales at Google before he came to AOL in 2009. Nothing wrong with sales guys, except when they start telling people how to do journalism. Sales guys deal in numbers. But journalism is about words. Sales guys live in a world where everything can be measured and analyzed. Their version of journalism is to focus on things like “keyword density” and search-engine optimization.

Journalists live in a world of story-telling, and where the value of a story, its power to resonate, is something they know by instinct. Some people have better instincts than others. Some people can improve their instincts over time. The other part of storytelling is not the material itself but how you present it. Some can spin a better tale out of the same material than others.

But no great storyteller has ever been someone who started out by thinking about traffic numbers and search engine keywords.

Leave a comment

Filed under New Media

What The Hell Is Going On In Egypt?

The guest bloggers at Andrew Sullivan’s place are covering it.

Scott Lucas at Enduring America’s live blog.

Robert Mackey at NYT

Foreign Policy’s photo essay

Mark Thompson at Time

Paul Behringer at The National Interest:

The protests in Egypt against President Hosni Mubarak might be snowballing into something big. The New York Times reports “tens of thousands of people” protested in “several Egyptian cities,” tearing down posters of their autocratic leader in what organizers called the “Day of Revolution.” But, though there were clashes between protestors and security forces, and the government shut down Twitter access, Time magazine quotes one police captain as saying with a shrug: “We can contain them at any time.” See the Times‘s Lede blog for several video clips of the hubbub. The Washington Post is now saying that calm has returned to Cairo’s streets.

New York Times correspondent Mark Landler reports that the unrest across the region—Tunis, Lebanon and Egypt—has thrown a monkey wrench into the administration’s foreign-policy approach, downplaying the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda.” Brookings fellow Shadi Hamid agrees that Washington “is—at least in the short term—stuck,” and urges the Obama administration to “to ride with, rather than against, the tide of Arab popular rule.” Mother Jones‘s Nick Baumann gives a thumnail sketch of what’s going on here.

In the latest development, the Times of India is repeating a story that it says surfaced on a “US-based Arabic website,” that Mubarak’s son and potential successor, Gamal, and his family have fled to Britain along with Mubarak’s wife.

Juan Cole:

CNN estimates that at the height, the rally was 15,000 to 20,000 strong in Liberation Square (Maydan al-Tahrir), downtown Cairo. The rallies protested the high unemployment rate, high price of food, and long years of ‘emergency rule’ by President Hosni Mubarak, under regulations that suspend most civil and human rights on grounds of national security.

The pan-Arab London daily, al-Hayat [Life], wrote: Thousands of youth in Egypt yesterday disappointed expectations that the call for a “Day of Rage” put out on the internet last week would fail. Numerous big demonstrations were mounted in the center of Cairo and a number of provinces. This, even though the streets were thick with security personnel. Their attempts to disperse the demonstrators failed, but two bystanders were killed by gunfire in a provincial city. When demonstrators in Cairo started throwing stones at the parliament building, Egyptian police intervened with tear gas.

Egypt is of the utmost geopolitical importance. In one recent year, 7.5 % of all the world’s trade passed through the Suez Canal (and a much higher percentage of seaborne trade). Over 4% of world petroleum trade went through the canal. Egypt, with a population of 81 million, is the 15th largest in the world. A middle income country, it has the world’s 36th largest GDP in nominal terms, putting it ahead of Malaysia, Nigeria, Israel, and the Czech Republic. Egypt’s soft power in the Arab world, as its cultural center, and its peace treaty with Israel, make it a crucial ally of the United States. Unrest in Egypt puts a great many things in doubt that are important to the US. Were a government to come to power that was more hostile to Israel and more committed to the Palestinians, that development could roil the region.

I lived in Cairo for altogether about three years, off and on, know Egyptian Arabic, and have written two monographs and lots of articles and book chapters about modern Egypt. I was there in January, 1977, the last time the country was shaken by demonstrations on this scale. Seeing these events reminded me of the late afternoon I came out of a public lecture at the American University in Cairo onto Liberation Square, to find throngs in the streets and the sky darkened with debris. People were throwing rocks, bottles, pieces of wood. Young men were carrying friends on their shoulders. They taunted then President Anwar El Sadat. The demonstrations were caused by Sadat’s decision to listen to the International Monetary Fund and to cut subsidies on bread, other staples, and natural gas canisters, making all of them shoot up in price and harming the working and middle classes. After three days of rallies and fruitless government attempts to impose order, Sadat announced he was restoring subsidies, and Egypt calmed back down. Because it was purely a food price protest, it suddenly evaporated when the government met its demands.

Hundreds or thousands also came out in other cities yesterday. In Alexandria, a crowd of 1,000 called for President Hosni Mubarak to leave the country, as Zine Ben Ali departed Tunisia for Saudi Arabia. They taunted Mubarak “Saudi Arabia is waiting for you.”

The US embassy denied rumors that the president’s wife, Suzanne Mubarak, and his son Gamal and his daughter-in-law had fled the country on private jets.

Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic:

After reports this morning that Facebook and Twitter were blocked in Egypt, Facebook’s spokesperson Andrew Noyes says that they have not seen the signs of such an effort.

“We are aware of reports of disruption to service but have not seen any major changes in traffic from Egypt,” Noyes wrote in an email.

Of course, as we learned from the Tunisian riots, the government could have something else in mind altogether. In that case, the government had slipped malware in-between users and Facebook to steal their passwords.

I got one anonymous report that appeared to claim a similar operation was in the works in Egypt. A source wrote in saying “the ministry of Interior wanted to record all activist personal data” on Facebook and that “all activist information is now on the ministry server.” I’m digging in to see what else I can find.

Laura Rozen at Politico:

The Obama administration needs to “seize the moment” to grapple with the wave of anti-government protests sweeping through Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, several foreign policy scholars urged on Wednesday.

“My impression is that the administration has been basically closing its eyes and praying that it all works out, because anything else seems too hard and too risky,” said Robert Kagan, a foreign policy scholar at the Brookings Institution and co-chair of a bipartisan Egypt working group of former officials which has been urging the Obama administration to prepare for what comes after the regime of Egypt’s octogenarian ruler Hosni Mubarak.

“They can still swing to right side of this thing, but one thing I have been most struck by in meeting with [U.S. officials] at all levels over the past year is that as of yesterday, they have no plan in any direction” for how to deal with the anti-government movements sweeping through the Middle East, Kagan continued.

The official U.S. response to the remarkable events in Egypt and Tunisia – where the president of more than two decades, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country earlier this month amid a wave of anti-government street protests – has thus far been cautious.

“Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told journalists Tuesday, as Egyptian police continued cracking down on anti-government protests.

Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy:

The end of the Tunisian story hasn’t yet been written. We don’t yet know whether the so-called Jasmine Revolution will produce fundamental change or a return to a cosmetically-modified status quo ante, democracy or a newly configured authoritarianism. But most of the policy community has long since moved on to ask whether the Tunisian protests will spread to other Arab countries — Egypt, of course, but also Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Libya, and almost every place else. Most experts on each individual country can offer powerful, well-reasoned explanations as to why their country won’t be next. I’m skeptical too.

But I found it unsatisfying to settle for such skepticism as I watched the massive demonstrations unfold in Egypt on my Twitter feed while moderating a panel discussion on Tunisia yesterday (I plead guilty). As I’ve been arguing for the last month, something does seem to be happening at a regional level, exposing the crumbling foundations of Arab authoritarianism and empowering young populations who suddenly believe that change is possible. There are strong reasons to expect most of these regimes to survive, which we shouldn’t ignore in a moment of enthusiasm. But we also shouldn’t ignore this unmistakable new energy, the revelation of the crumbling foundations of Arab authoritarian regimes, or the continuing surprises which should keep all analysts humble about what might follow.

The arguments for skepticism are strong ones. Without belaboring the obvious, every Arab country is different. Each has a distinct political history and culture, a distinct political economy, a distinct demographic profile and urban geography. Many compelling articles have now shown precisely why Tunisia was different — its robust middle class, its highly educated population, its relatively small size, its ties to Europe through labor migration and remittances, its vulnerability to the global financial crisis, its particularly censored media, its relatively small and under-nurtured military, its relative insignificance to U.S. strategic interests. But those aren’t the only reasons to doubt that the Tunisian model can spread.

Another argument for skepticism is authoritarian learning. Simply put, most Arab regimes are quick studies when it comes to their own survival, and quickly adapt when challenged. Unlike tightly controlled Tunisia, states such as Egypt and Jordan have been grappling with protests movements for going on a decade now and have an all-too-rich experience with how to repress, divide, and defeat the new protest movements. Yesterday’s massive demonstrations in Cairo may have shocked everyone — outsiders, Egypt’s government, even the protestors — but in a country which has been rocked by pro-Palestine and anti-Iraq war protests, the Kefaya movement, the April 6 movement, the judges and lawyers protests, and massive labor unrest, the difference is in scale, not type. The same is true across many of the Arab countries which have struggled with restive societies over the last decade.

Dictators learn from each other, not just from the past. The Arab Summit last week displayed this very clearly. Every Arab leader is on red alert at the moment, determined not to repeat Ben Ali’s mistakes. They are frantically offering concessions on economic issues, reversing price rises and increasing subsidies. And of course they are ramping up the repressive apparatus, on the streets and online, to try to stop any snowballs from rolling before they get too big. The lesson most seem to have learned is not “be more democratic,” it is “be tougher.” No Arab leader seems likely to be taken by surprise, or to disregard the early signs of trouble. The success of Egypt’s protestors yesterday doesn’t mean that they won’t be violently crushed today.

And then, of course, there’s the international context. Where Tunisia may be relatively insignificant to the great international strategic issues in the region — Israel, Iran, Iraq, oil — other potential dominoes have a greater claim on the support of the world’s Realists. These authoritarian regimes are the foundation of the America-led regional order. For all the U.S. talk about democracy promotion, the goal has always been to strengthen and legitimize these allies — to prevent, not to nurture, the kind of popular mobilization exploding today. It’s not the least bit surprising that the Washington Post, which has obsessively focused on democracy in Egypt, today finds itself deeply worried by instability there and the strength of Islamists.

Finally, most of the regimes seem to retain the foundations of their overt strength. Oil prices are tolerably high, security services loyal, elections thoroughly manipulated, Islamists repressed, international support strong. In short, there are plenty of reasons to see Tunisia as a one-off.

And yet… it doesn’t feel that way. The scenes in Cairo yesterday stand as a sharp rebuke to any analytical certainty. The Egyptian regime was fully prepared, its security forces on alert and deployed, the internet disrupted and al-Jazeera largely off the table… and yet tens of thousands of people still poured into the streets and put together one of the largest demonstrations in contemporary Egyptian history.

1 Comment

Filed under Middle East

RT: Subpoena #wikileaks

Kim Zetter at Wired:

The U.S. Justice Department has served Twitter with a subpoena seeking information on an Icelandic lawmaker who has worked with WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, the lawmaker told Threat Level on Friday.

“I got the letter from Twitter a couple of hours ago, saying I got 10 days to stop it,” wrote Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of Iceland’s parliament, in an e-mail. “Looking for legal ways to do it. Will be talking to lawyers from EFF tonight.”

EFF refers to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit civil liberties group in the United States.

On her Twitter feed, Jonsdottir said the government is seeking an archive of tweets she sent out since Nov. 1, 2009 as well as “personal information” for her account. (See update below)

Josdottir told Threat Level that the request was filed under seal by the Justice Department on December 14 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia. This is the same jurisdiction where, according to previous press reports, a federal grand jury is investigating possible charges against Assange, with whom Jonsdottir has worked closely.

Glenn Greenwald:

It’s worth recalling — and I hope journalists writing about this story remind themselves — that all of this extraordinary probing and “criminal” investigating is stemming from WikiLeaks’ doing nothing more than publishing classified information showing what the U.S. Government is doing:  something investigative journalists, by definition, do all the time.

And the key question now is this:  did other Internet and social network companies (Google, Facebook, etc.) receive similar Orders and then quietly comply?  It’s difficult to imagine why the DOJ would want information only from Twitter; if anything, given the limited information it has about users, Twitter would seem one of the least fruitful avenues to pursue.  But if other companies did receive and quietly comply with these orders, it will be a long time before we know, if we ever do, given the prohibition in these orders on disclosing even its existence to anyone.

Jacob Palmer at GizmoCrunch:

If you’re wondering whether Twitter will fold or fight (with lawyers to back them up) after receiving the subpoena, the following clause from Twitter’s “spy guide” policy will tell you:

“In accordance with our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service, non-public information about Twitter users is not released unless we have received a subpoena, court order or other legal process document.” Such requests would only be valid if sent by law enforcement.”

So yes, they would most likely fold faster than Superman on laundry day. More on this as it develops.

Ryan Singel at Wired:

To Twitter’s credit, the company didn’t just open up its database, find the information the feds were seeking (such as the IP and e-mail addresses used by the targets) and quietly continue on with building new features. Instead the company successfully challenged the gag order in court, and then told the targets their data was being requested, giving them time to try and quash the order themselves.

Twitter and other companies, notably Google, have a policy of notifying a user before responding to a subpoena, or a similar request for records. That gives the user a fair chance to go to court and try and quash the subpoena. That’s a great policy. But it has one fatal flaw. If the records request comes with a gag order, the company can’t notify anyone. And it’s quite routine for law enforcement to staple a gag order to a records request.

That’s what makes Twitter’s move so important. It briefly carried the torch for its users during that crucial period when, because of the gag order, its users couldn’t carry it themselves. The company’s action in asking for the gag order to be overturned sets a new precedent that we can only hope that other companies begin to follow.

The decision would be laudable in almost any situation, and may even be unprecendented by a massive tech firm. The only other gag orders I can think of that were challenged in court were those served on the Internet Archive, on a small library and on Nicholas Merrill, the president of the small New York City ISP Calyx Internet Access, who spent years resisting a National Security Letter order seeking information about one of his clients.

Even more remarkable, Twitter’s move comes as a litany of companies, including PayPal, Mastercard, VISA and Bank of America, follow the political winds away from the First Amendment, banning donations to WikiLeaks. And Amazon.com voluntarily threw the site off its hosting platform, even though there’s nothing illegal in publishing classified documents.

By standing up for its users, Twitter showed guts and principles. Much of it is likely attributable to Twitter’s general counsel Alexander Macgillivray. As security and privacy blogger Christopher Soghoian notes, Macgillivray was one of the first law students at Harvards’ Berkman internet law center and at in his previous job at Google “played a major role in getting the company to contribute takedown requests to chillingeffects.org.”

Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic

E.B. Boyd at Fast Company:

Twitter’s general counsel comes out of Harvard’s prestigious Berkman Center for Internet and Society, the cyber law powerhouse that has churned out some of the leading Internet legal thinkers. The center was founded a little over a decade ago by none other than Charles Nesson, the famous defender of Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg. While at Harvard, Macgillivray helped teach a course on the law of cyberspace, along with Wendy Seltzer, a fellow at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy. Today Seltzer leads the Chilling Effects clearinghouse, a collaboration between several law schools and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which tracks legal challenges to lawful online activity.

After Harvard, Macgillivray worked as a litigator for Silicon Valley super-firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati before moving to Google, where he first spearheaded legal issues for products like Search and Gmail. He soon found himself enmeshed in the fractious Google Books lawsuit. Observers credit Macgillivray’s agile mind and creative thinking with architecting with the Google Books Settlement–a solution that both enabled Google to lawfully scan the contents of university libraries and to create a mechanism for authors and publishers to get their out-of-print books back into circulation.

Twitter wooed Macgillivray away from Google in the summer of 2009, and he now heads a 25-person legal team. Throughout his career, he has remained an avid student of Internet and intellectual property law, and calls himself a tinkerer of sorts–his personal website is called “bricoleur,” a French term he says refers to one who “[tries] things out until they figure out how to do something.”

Macgillivray also curates a Twitter list of the primary thinkers tangling with cyber issues, and he has occasionally returned to Berkman to guest lecture or speak on topics of the day. Coincidentally, a week before the DOJ subpoena, Macgillivray was tweeting about a government analysis looking at which criminal statutes might apply to the WikiLeaks-style publication of leaked classified documents.

Twitter has declined to comment on the original subpoena and the company’s fight to get it unsealed. What we do know is that the original order was faxed to Twitter on December 14. On January 5, the same magistrate who signed the first order, signed a new one, ordering the first to be unsealed. And on January 7, Twitter sent notifications to at least several of the holders of the accounts listed on the subpoena, telling them the company would respond to the order in 10 days, unless “we receive notice from you that a motion to quash the legal process has been filed or that this matter has been otherwise resolved.”

It’s reasonable to assume that Macgillivray is the person who either led or played a significant role in the thinking that resulted in the decision to challenge the secrecy aspect of the order. If so, it’s a smart move.

Vadim Lavrusik at Mashable:

The journalist cannot adequately promise anonymity on social sites like Twitter or others, but that won’t stop whistle-blowers from contacting journalists on those sites. Whistle-blowers will still reach out to journalists on those platforms because that’s where they are often most accessible. Therefore, it ultimately starts with protection from the platform.

Journalists may be able to offer some protection in knowing that the platform will not disclose source information. But this would take a serious restructuring of the current culture of companies that do not stand up for their users. Twitter’s move to notify its users is a step in the right direction.

But notification is not enough to provide protection to journalists whose information is being subpoenaed by a federal court. In the U.S., 36 states and Washington, D.C. have journalist shield laws — legislation that provides reporters a privilege to refuse to disclose any information or sources obtained during their reporting. The rest of the states either provide some protection or none at all. But because there is no federal statutory reporter’s shield law, Jane Kirtley, who teaches media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, says that in all likelihood, there would be no protection for a journalist being subpoenaed on a federal level.

Kirtley notes there are federal attorney general guidelines, which discourage the use of subpoenas against the press, but nothing to outright prohibit them as long as the attorney general approves it.

The case with Twitter and other tech companies is that these are not considered to be subpoenas for journalists’ records, so even if there is a privilege, it is unlikely to apply to these records, Kirtley said. This is a loophole that gives journalists little protection or right to protect themselves in their reporting while using such sites.

If a journalist refuses to disclose information to a government entity requesting it in an investigation, the court can simply go to the platform of communication to get the records. With many social media sites playing a vital role in news distribution and watchdog journalism, this requires a stand from those sites against disclosing such information in a broken system that once recognized the value of protecting journalistic integrity.

But ultimately, the privilege of shield laws should also extend to the social platforms hosting the information that is shared between whistle-blowers and journalists. And until there is a federal shield law for reporters, protection for such newsgathering will be nonexistent. This is the only way to fix the broken system. Platforms can only protect their users to a certain extent. It then becomes a legislative issue around the protection of journalists and the Fourth Estate.

Walker Frost at The American Scene:

Let’s rewind to November 2007. Yahoo had just complied with the Chinese government’s request for the IP information and e-mail records of Wang Xiaoning and Shi Tao, two Chinese dissidents who China accused of “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities.” Michael Callahan, the Yahoo’s executive VP and general counsel, was in Congress getting reamed by the late Tom Lantos (D-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, for the company’s gross moral failure: “Yahoo claims that this is just one big misunderstanding. Let me be clear—this was no misunderstanding. This was inexcusably negligent behavior at best, and deliberately deceptive behavior at worst.”

Yahoo’s response: “Like other global organizations we must abide by the laws, regulations and norms of each country in which we operate.”

“Why do you insist on using the phrase, ‘lawful orders?’” Lantos challenged. “These are the demands of a police state.”

Lantos even brought Shi Tao’s mother to the hearing, seated her in the front of the room, and told Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang: “I would urge you to beg the forgiveness of the mother whose son is languishing behind bars thanks to Yahoo’s actions.”

How the tables have turned.

Leave a comment

Filed under Technology

The Blog Post That Went ‘Round The Sphere


And his [Julian Assange’s] underlying insight is simple and, I think, compelling: while an organization structured by direct and open lines of communication will be much more vulnerable to outside penetration, the more opaque it becomes to itself (as a defense against the outside gaze), the less able it will be to “think” as a system, to communicate with itself. The more conspiratorial it becomes, in a certain sense, the less effective it will be as a conspiracy. The more closed the network is to outside intrusion, the less able it is to engage with that which is outside itself (true hacker theorizing).His thinking is not quite as abstract as all that, of course; as he quite explicitly notes, he is also understanding the functioning of the US state by analogy with successful terrorist organizations. If you’ve seen The Battle of Algiers, for example, think of how the French counter-terrorist people work to produce an organizational flow chart of the Algerian resistance movement: since they had overwhelming military superiority, their inability to crush the FLN resided in their inability to find it, an inability which the FLN strategically works to impede by decentralizing itself. Cutting off one leg of the octopus, the FLN realized, wouldn’t degrade the system as a whole if the legs all operated independently. The links between the units were the vulnerable spots for the system as a whole, so those were most closely and carefully guarded and most hotly pursued by the French. And while the French won the battle of Algiers, they lost the war, because they adopted the tactics Assange briefly mentions only to put aside:

How can we reduce the ability of a conspiracy to act?…We can split the conspiracy, reduce or eliminating important communication between a few high weight links or many low weight links. Traditional attacks on conspiratorial power groupings, such as assassination, have cut high weight links by killing, kidnapping, blackmailing or otherwise marginalizing or isolating some of the conspirators they were connected to.

This is the US’s counterterrorism strategy — find the men in charge and get ’em — but it’s not what Assange wants to do: such a program would isolate a specific version of the conspiracy and attempt to destroy the form of it that already exists, which he argues will have two important limitations. For one thing, by the time such a conspiracy has a form which can be targeted, its ability to function will be quite advanced. As he notes:

“A man in chains knows he should have acted sooner for his ability to influence the actions of the state is near its end. To deal with powerful conspiratorial actions we must think ahead and attack the process that leads to them since the actions themselves can not be dealt with.”

By the time a cancer has metastasized, in other words, antioxidents are no longer effective, and even violent chemotherapy is difficult. It’s better, then, to think about how conspiracies come into existence so as to prevent them from forming in the first place (whereas if you isolate the carcinogen early enough, you don’t need to remove the tumor after the fact). Instead, he wants to address the aggregative process itself, by impeding the principle of its reproduction: rather than trying to expose and cut particular links between particular conspirators (which does little to prevent new links from forming and may not disturb the actual functioning of the system as a whole), he wants to attack the “total conspiratorial power” of the entire system by figuring out how to reduce its total ability to share and exchange information among itself, in effect, to slow down its processing power. As he puts it:

Conspiracies are cognitive devices. They are able to outthink the same group of individuals acting alone Conspiracies take information about the world in which they operate (the conspiratorial environment), pass through the conspirators and then act on the result. We can see conspiracies as a type of device that has inputs (information about the environment), a computational network (the conspirators and their links to each other) and outputs (actions intending to change or maintain the environment).

Because he thinks of the conspiracy as a computational network, he notes in an aside that one way to weaken its cognitive ability would be to degrade the quality of its information:

Since a conspiracy is a type of cognitive device that acts on information acquired from its environment, distorting or restricting these inputs means acts based on them are likely to be misplaced. Programmers call this effect garbage in, garbage out. Usually the effect runs the other way; it is conspiracy that is the agent of deception and information restriction. In the US, the programmer’s aphorism is sometimes called “the Fox News effect”.

I’m not sure this is what he means, but it’s worth reflecting that the conspiracy’s ability to deceive others through propaganda can also be the conspiracy’s tendency to deceive itself by its own propaganda. So many people genuinely drink the Kool-Aid, after all. Would our super-spies in Afghanistan ever have been so taken in by the imposter Taliban guy if they didn’t, basically, believe their own line of propaganda, if they didn’t convince themselves — even provisionally — that we actually are winning the war against Talibothra? The same is true of WMD; while no one in possession of the facts could rationally conclude that Saddam Hussein then (or Iran now) are actually, positively in pursuit of WMD’s, this doesn’t mean that the people talking about ticking time bombs don’t actually believe that they are. It just means they are operating with bad information about the environment. Sometimes this works in their favor, but sometimes it does not: if Obama thinks Afghanistan is winnable, it may sink his presidency, for example, while the belief of his advisors that the economy would recover if the government rescued only the banks almost certainly lost the midterm elections for the Democrats (and was the death-knell for so many of the Blue Dogs who were driving that particular policy choice). Whether this actually hurts the conspiracy is unclear; those Blue Dogs might have lost their seats, but most of them will retire from public service to cushy jobs supported by the sectors they supported while they were in public service. And lots of successful politicians do nothing but fail.

This is however, not where Assange’s reasoning leads him. He decides, instead, that the most effective way to attack this kind of organization would be to make “leaks” a fundamental part of the conspiracy’s  information environment. Which is why the point is not that particular leaks are specifically effective. Wikileaks does not leak something like the “Collateral Murder” video as a way of putting an end to that particular military tactic; that would be to target a specific leg of the hydra even as it grows two more. Instead, the idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy’s information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire:

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

The leak, in other words, is only the catalyst for the desired counter-overreaction; Wikileaks wants to provoke the conspiracy into turning off its own brain in response to the threat. As it tries to plug its own holes and find the leakers, he reasons, its component elements will de-synchronize from and turn against each other, de-link from the central processing network, and come undone. Even if all the elements of the conspiracy still exist, in this sense, depriving themselves of a vigorous flow of information to connect them all together as a conspiracy prevents them from acting as a conspiracy. As he puts it:

If total conspiratorial power is zero, then clearly there is no information flow between the conspirators and hence no conspiracy. A substantial increase or decrease in total conspiratorial power almost always means what we expect it to mean; an increase or decrease in the ability of the conspiracy to think, act and adapt…An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot think is powerless to preserve itself against the opponents it induces.

In this sense, most of the media commentary on the latest round of leaks has totally missed the point. After all, why are diplomatic cables being leaked? These leaks are not specifically about the war(s) at all, and most seem to simply be a broad swath of the everyday normal secrets that a security state keeps from all but its most trusted hundreds of thousands of people who have the right clearance. Which is the point: Assange is completely right that our government has conspiratorial functions. What else would you call the fact that a small percentage of our governing class governs and acts in our name according to information which is freely shared amongst them but which cannot be shared amongst their constituency? And we all probably knew that this was more or less the case; anyone who was surprised that our embassies are doing dirty, secretive, and disingenuous political work as a matter of course is naïve. But Assange is not trying to produce a journalistic scandal which will then provoke red-faced government reforms or something, precisely because no one is all that scandalized by such things any more. Instead, he is trying to strangle the links that make the conspiracy possible, to expose the necessary porousness of the American state’s conspiratorial network in hopes that the security state will then try to shrink its computational network in response, thereby making itself dumber and slower and smaller.

Early responses seem to indicate that Wikileaks is well on its way to accomplishing some of its goals. As Simon Jenkins put it (in a great piece in its own right) “The leaks have blown a hole in the framework by which states guard their secrets.” And if the diplomats quoted by Le Monde are right that, “we will never again be able to practice diplomacy like before,” this is exactly what Wikileaks was trying to do. It’s sort of pathetic hearing diplomats and government shills lament that the normal work of “diplomacy” will now be impossible, like complaining that that the guy boxing you out is making it hard to get rebounds. Poor dears. If Assange is right to point out that his organization has accomplished more state scrutiny than the entire rest of the journalistic apparatus combined, he’s right but he’s also deflecting the issue: if Wikileaks does some of the things that journalists do, it also does some very different things. Assange, as his introductory remarks indicate quite clearly, is in the business of “radically shift[ing] regime behavior.”

Jesse Walker at Reason

Xeni Jardin at Boing Boing on the piece:

A close reading of a 2006 Julian Assange essay, useful for understanding the motivations behind Wikileaks.

Jonathan Holmes at ABC The Drum:

Though it may have been posted widely in recent months – I’ve been away – I came across it in a blog called Zunguzungu, written by a denizen of Oakland California called Aaron Bady. A couple of weeks ago he put up a post called ‘Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy’. His blog links to two documents by Julian Assange, titled ‘State and Terrorist Conspiracies’ and ‘Conspiracy as Governance’, written in November and December 2006 respectively. According to the UK Mail on Sunday‘s Jason Lewis, who quoted from the documents last August, they were written while Assange was at the University of Melbourne. I’ve not been able to verify their authenticity, other than by visiting the iq.org site myself and independently finding the second document here.

Anyway, if you’re interested in Julian Assange, I urge you to read both the Brady essay, and the Assange document. But if you haven’t time, let me summarise them as best I can.

Authoritarian states, argues Assange – and by that term he very clearly means democracies like the USA – are conspiracies, in the sense that they consist of a comparatively small number of people who ‘conspire’ to produce outcomes – economic, military, diplomatic – by sharing information, insights and plans which are not available to the people they are ruling and whose fortunes those outcomes will affect.

This is a bad thing.

Conspiracies need conspirators – some more important than others. But they also need the means to communicate secretly with each other, else there can be no conspiracy.

The computer age makes vast conspiracies possible – but it also makes them vulnerable. To quote from Assange’s introduction:

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline…

Or, as he puts it graphically elsewhere in ‘Conspiracy and Governance’:

When we look at an authoritarian conspiracy as a whole, we see a system of interacting organs, a beast with arteries and veins whose blood may be thickened and slowed until it falls, stupefied; unable to sufficiently comprehend and control the forces in its environment.

What becomes clear from Assange’s essay – which strikes me as both profound and somewhat deranged – is that he knows exactly what he is doing, and why. He knows that a great many of the cables that WikiLeaks is now producing – and which are being so enthusiastically peddled by the mainstream media – are not in themselves evidence of what most of us would term wrongdoing. But to the extent that they are profoundly embarrassing, they will force the United States to change its communications system. The SIPRnet, which, inexplicably, allows a junior soldier in Iraq (and apparently some 3 million others) to access an ambassador’s appraisal of a prime minister, or the State Department’s concerns about Chinese weapons sales to Iran, will have to be changed; readership of documents restricted; security procedures tightened; secrets kept more secret. There will be a higher ‘cognitive secrecy tax’.

David Dayen at Firedoglake:

This zunguzungu post on Assange’s motives is extremely important. He isn’t interested in preserving any current system; he quite radically wants to fundamentally change the capacity of governments he considers authoritarian to conspire in secret. He wants to bring everything out into the light and degrade their systems, as it were.

“To radically shift regime behavior we must think clearly and boldly for if we have learned anything, it is that regimes do not want to be changed. We must think beyond those who have gone before us, and discover technological changes that embolden us with ways to act in which our forebears could not. Firstly we must understand what aspect of government or neocorporatist behavior we wish to change or remove. Secondly we must develop a way of thinking about this behavior that is strong enough carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity. Finally must use these insights to inspire within us and others a course of ennobling, and effective action.”

Government is doing exactly what can be expected of it in reaction to this – forced to operate in secrecy, cut off from its fellow conspirators, it seeks to control the flow of information. That’s what’s at work in the attempt to arrest Assange and shut down his website. Governments need to be able to communicate with themselves, and Assange is breaking that down, or at least exposing it to scrutiny. So they want to crush the bug. The only entity that gets to have total information awareness is the state.

Robert Baird at 3 Quarks Daily:

Aaron Bady won the internet last week with his explication of a pair of essays Julian Assange wrote in 2006. Paddling against a vomit-tide of epithets and empty speculations that threatened to bury Assange under a flood of banalities, Bady proposed and executed a fairly shocking procedure: he sat down and read ten pages of what Assange had actually written about the motivations and strategy behind Wikileaks.

The central insight of Bady’s analysis was the recognition that Assange’s strategy stands at significant remove from a philosophy it might easily be confused for: the blend of technological triumphalism and anarcho-libertarian utopianism that takes “information wants to be free” as its gospel and Silicon Valley as its spiritual homeland. Noting the “certain vicious amorality about the Mark Zuckerberg-ian philosophy that all transparency is always and everywhere a good thing,” Bady argued that Assange’s philosophy is crucially different:

The question for an ethical human being — and Assange always emphasizes his ethics — has to be the question of what exposing secrets will actually accomplish, what good it will do, what better state of affairs it will bring about. And whether you buy his argument or not, Assange has a clearly articulated vision for how Wikileaks’ activities will “carry us through the mire of politically distorted language, and into a position of clarity,” a strategy for how exposing secrets will ultimately impede the production of future secrets.

As Assange told Time: “It is not our goal to achieve a more transparent society; it’s our goal to achieve a more just society.”

In his essays Assange makes no bones about wanting to “radically shift regime behavior,” and this claim to radicalism marks one difference between Wikileaks and, say, the New York Times. As Bady notes, however, by far the more important distinction lies in the way Assange wants to use transparency to cause change. The traditional argument for transparency is that more information will allow a populace to better influence its government. In this scheme, freedom of the press, sunshine laws, and journalistic competition are all useful for prizing loose information that government actors don’t want us to see, but none of them are ends in themselves. The information they reveal is ever only propaedeutic: it needs advocacy, elections, armed uprisings, or some other activity to make real political change.

Certainly some of what Assange wants to do with Wikileaks can be explained by this model, but as Bady recognized, the 2006 essays propose a more unusual–and more interesting–reason for leaking. “Assange is not trying to produce a journalistic scandal which will then provoke red-faced government reforms,” Bady explained, “precisely because no one is all that scandalized by such things any more.” In this sense, the “nothing new to see here” posturing that followed the release of the cables in some quarters was not only something Assange had expected: it was a reaction whose anticipation led him to formulate a strategy that differed even from progressive/radical muckrakers like The Nation and Counterpunch.


Push this redescription a step further, and you can see that what Wikileaks is trying to do to international diplomacy is not so different from what the mortgage crisis did to the economy. The cable-dump is the diplomatic equivalent of Goldman Sachs’s famous ABACUS CDO, the one it designed to go bust.

If this sounds like sabotage, well, that’s sort of the point. But it’s important to remember that unlike ABACUS, Assange’s attempted sabotage of the diplomatic economy of secrets was planned with the explicit aim of ushering in a new and better system. His 2006 essays paint him as the opposite of a nihilist, someone with a radical’s distrust of reform. Like those Marxists who hoped they saw in the financial crisis the first stirrings of a new and more just economic age, Assange looks to the diplomatic rubble he’s created for the promise of a new paradigm of government behavior.

That Wikileaks will have real-world effects is indisputable; they’ve already begun to show themselves. The real question, now, is whether those effects will look anything like what Assange hoped for them in 2006.

The financial analogy gives us reason to be skeptical. By rights the mortgage meltdown should have wiped out half of Wall Street. And yet two years after the worst of it, the banks that caused the crisis are enjoying record profits while the rest of the economy foots the bill: 10% unemployment, frozen federal pay, broke state governments, etc., etc., ad nauseam. The lesson of the crisis was unequivocal: power doesn’t have to play by rights. The State Department of the United States, we can be sure, is quite aware of this.

There’s a deeper sense, however, in which Assange’s 2006 third-order strategy for Wikileaks has to count as naive. His belief that secrecy is the fundamental source of power is a version of the classic category mistake of the internet age: to imagine that the “world” of information simply is the world, that there is no remainder, nothing left to of the latter to overflow or exceed or resist the former. (The Language poets made a similar mistake in suggesting that a stylistic innovation in poetry was predictably convertible into real-world effects.)

In a recent interview at the Guardian, Assange seems aware of this problem, all but admitting that his earlier emphasis on secrecy doesn’t fit the reigning power structures of the West:

The west has fiscalised its basic power relationships through a web of contracts, loans, shareholdings, bank holdings and so on. In such an environment it is easy for speech to be ‘free’ because a change in political will rarely leads to any change in these basic instruments. Western speech, as something that rarely has any effect on power, is, like badgers and birds, free.

This diagnosis strikes me as much closer to the mark than Assange’s earlier identification of government as fundamentally conspiratorial. But his earlier account at least had the virtue of justifying the leak of 250,000 secret diplomatic cables. Now the release seems freshly unexplained. After all, how, exactly, are publicized diplomatic cables supposed to affect the “web of contracts, loans, shareholdings, bank holdings and so on”? I don’t know, and I’m beginning to wonder if Julian Assange does either.

Charli Carpenter at Lawyers, Guns and Money:

Here are my reactions. First of all both Bady and Baird, who seem in agreement about Assange’s “clearly articulated vision” and offer a very helpful analytical typology to situate his ethics in relation to others like Mark Z, both discount the inconsistencies with which he has articulated that vision. If Assange truly fit the “third-order” mold when he wrote those essays, his thinking today seems to draw on all three discourses to fit his audience and the moment. He has said third-order types of things, but he has also said on the Wikileaks site  “transparency creates a better society for all people” and that “all information should be free” (ala Zuckerberg); he has argued at times that his goal is reform, not revolution; and as Baird acknowledges in a footnote, Assange’s Time interview reflected the second-order position.

If he has a consistent position, I’m not sure even Assange knows what it is. And considering that he is using the nuclear threat of releasing his entire archive (presumably irrespective of any harm minimization tactics the organization would otherwise claim to employ) as a bargaining chip to deal with his legal troubles, I have a hard time agreeing with Bady’s claim that Assange always emphasizes ethics.

But let’s suspend disbelief for a moment about whether Assange’s 2006 essays provide a useful road-map to his current position or political behavior, and simply examine his writings. What surprises me most is that Bady, and to some extent Baird, seem to accept many of Assange’s central claims. Here are several I find very troubling – even moreso if they indeed tell us something about his current agenda.

1) Assange Discounts the Importance of Secrecy For Good Governors, and Overstates the Impact of Leaks on Bad Governors.

In a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

I have already spoken to the value of discretion in good governance here, a set of points which I think weighs against Assange’s assertion that if you care about discretion, you must have something to hide.

But even if this weren’t true – even if eliminating the ability for the state to think discreetly were definitely a public good – there is another problem with Assange’s worldview: he believes that leaks will serve this goal.

“We can deceive or blind a conspiracy by distorting or restricting the information available to it… if an authoritarian conspiracy that can not think efficiently, can not act to preserve itself against the opponents it induces…”

“The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption.”

I am actually unconvinced, for what digital leaks do is encourage the state to avoid leaving a digital paper-trail, not to stop communicating entirely. Links can mean many things besides leakable documents. And what we know from studying genuinely authoritarian states is that they can think quite easily and behave quite murderously without a paper trail of any sort. This is in fact what makes it so difficult to prosecute the crime of genocide.

Therefore, I would imagine, in fact, that massive leaks actually do the reverse: make it impossible for those organs of government most willing to document their activities, within certain boundaries of discretion, to function. The true conspiracies to commit atrocious acts will simply go offline. Transparency of the type that would meet Assange’s goals would require a massive reverse panopticon inflicted upon civil servants that could capture their non-written activities and speech acts as well. This doesn’t strike me as a libertarian ideology – any more than the notion that those who value privacy must be hiding something and deserve what they get.

2) Assange’s Uses the Terms “Authoritarian” and “Conspiracy” in a Sweeping and Circular Way. Relatedly, Assange seems not to understand or even acknowledge the difference between authoritarian governments and democratic governments: for him, authoritarian is less a descriptive term and more a pejorative – one in terms identical to those of any powerful agent:

Authoritarian regimes give rise to forces which oppose them by pushing against the individual and collective will to freedom, truth and self-realization. Plans which assist authoritarian rule, once discovered, induce resistance. Hence these plans are concealed by successful authoritarian powers. This is enough to define their behavior as conspiratorial.

Note the circular reasoning. I guess my husband and are conspiring as “successful authoritarian powers” when we meet privately to discuss our differences on parenting strategies, because we know that airing those differences in the open will encourage resistance.

If you suppose that I am using the parenting analogy to blithely make a point, consider the examples of “conspiracies” that Assange himself uses in his papers: the Democratic and the Republican parties.

Now, Assange does define “conspiracy” as making “secret plans to commit a harmful act; working together to bring about a particular result, typically to someone’s detriment.” (In the second of his two essays, nearly identical to the original, he expands on the paragraph cited above with a modifier “working to the detriment of a population,” which suggests he realizes that it is only bad secrecy that is conspiratorial.)

But he does not define what to what kind of harm or detriment he refers, assuming (I gather) that to his readers it will be obvious. The consequence of this however is that just about anything and everything – families, firms, NGOs he doesn’t like, or entire political parties for example – could be labeled a conspiracy. He is also unable to distinguish the conspiratorial elements of large political groupings like parties or states from those elements attempting to bring about a positive result.

In short there is nothing in his essay that discusses the scope conditions for targeting a particular actor: presumably the fact that they are operating secretly and to someone’s dissatisfaction is enough to prove they are both authoritarian and conspiratorial.

Alexis Madrigal:

Leave a comment

Filed under Go Meta, New Media

Every Few Years, We’ve Got To Declare Something “Dead.” It’s In The Constitution Or Something.

John Hudson at The Atlantic with the round-up

Chris Anderson at Wired:

You wake up and check your email on your bedside iPad — that’s one app. During breakfast you browse Facebook, Twitter, and The New York Times — three more apps. On the way to the office, you listen to a podcast on your smartphone. Another app. At work, you scroll through RSS feeds in a reader and have Skype and IM conversations. More apps. At the end of the day, you come home, make dinner while listening to Pandora, play some games on Xbox Live, and watch a movie on Netflix’s streaming service.

You’ve spent the day on the Internet — but not on the Web. And you are not alone.

This is not a trivial distinction. Over the past few years, one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open Web to semiclosed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display. It’s driven primarily by the rise of the iPhone model of mobile computing, and it’s a world Google can’t crawl, one where HTML doesn’t rule. And it’s the world that consumers are increasingly choosing, not because they’re rejecting the idea of the Web but because these dedicated platforms often just work better or fit better into their lives (the screen comes to them, they don’t have to go to the screen). The fact that it’s easier for companies to make money on these platforms only cements the trend. Producers and consumers agree: The Web is not the culmination of the digital revolution.

A decade ago, the ascent of the Web browser as the center of the computing world appeared inevitable. It seemed just a matter of time before the Web replaced PC application software and reduced operating systems to a “poorly debugged set of device drivers,” as Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen famously said. First Java, then Flash, then Ajax, then HTML5 — increasingly interactive online code — promised to put all apps in the cloud and replace the desktop with the webtop. Open, free, and out of control.

But there has always been an alternative path, one that saw the Web as a worthy tool but not the whole toolkit. In 1997, Wired published a now-infamous “Push!” cover story, which suggested that it was time to “kiss your browser goodbye.” The argument then was that “push” technologies such as PointCast and Microsoft’s Active Desktop would create a “radical future of media beyond the Web.”

“Sure, we’ll always have Web pages. We still have postcards and telegrams, don’t we? But the center of interactive media — increasingly, the center of gravity of all media — is moving to a post-HTML environment,” we promised nearly a decade and half ago. The examples of the time were a bit silly — a “3-D furry-muckers VR space” and “headlines sent to a pager” — but the point was altogether prescient: a glimpse of the machine-to-machine future that would be less about browsing and more about getting.

Michael Wolff at Wired:

An amusing development in the past year or so — if you regard post-Soviet finance as amusing — is that Russian investor Yuri Milner has, bit by bit, amassed one of the most valuable stakes on the Internet: He’s got 10 percent of Facebook. He’s done this by undercutting traditional American VCs — the Kleiners and the Sequoias who would, in days past, insist on a special status in return for their early investment. Milner not only offers better terms than VC firms, he sees the world differently. The traditional VC has a portfolio of Web sites, expecting a few of them to be successes — a good metaphor for the Web itself, broad not deep, dependent on the connections between sites rather than any one, autonomous property. In an entirely different strategic model, the Russian is concentrating his bet on a unique power bloc. Not only is Facebook more than just another Web site, Milner says, but with 500 million users it’s “the largest Web site there has ever been, so large that it is not a Web site at all.”

According to Compete, a Web analytics company, the top 10 Web sites accounted for 31 percent of US pageviews in 2001, 40 percent in 2006, and about 75 percent in 2010. “Big sucks the traffic out of small,” Milner says. “In theory you can have a few very successful individuals controlling hundreds of millions of people. You can become big fast, and that favors the domination of strong people.”

Milner sounds more like a traditional media mogul than a Web entrepreneur. But that’s exactly the point. If we’re moving away from the open Web, it’s at least in part because of the rising dominance of businesspeople more inclined to think in the all-or-nothing terms of traditional media than in the come-one-come-all collectivist utopianism of the Web. This is not just natural maturation but in many ways the result of a competing idea — one that rejects the Web’s ethic, technology, and business models. The control the Web took from the vertically integrated, top-down media world can, with a little rethinking of the nature and the use of the Internet, be taken back.

This development — a familiar historical march, both feudal and corporate, in which the less powerful are sapped of their reason for being by the better resourced, organized, and efficient — is perhaps the rudest shock possible to the leveled, porous, low-barrier-to-entry ethos of the Internet Age. After all, this is a battle that seemed fought and won — not just toppling newspapers and music labels but also AOL and Prodigy and anyone who built a business on the idea that a curated experience would beat out the flexibility and freedom of the Web.

Matt Buchanan at Gizmodo:

Chris Anderson’s new Big Idea—that the open web is giving way to a mere transport system for closed or semiclosed platforms like Facebook or iPhone apps from the App Store—is not very new. In its current iPhone-y, app-y incarnation, it’s at least a couple of years old. Wired even participates in the very phenomenon it bemoans, with its very fancy iPad app. (Because it has to: “The assumption had been that once the market matured, big companies would be able to reverse the hollowing-out trend of analog dollars turning into digital pennies. Sadly that hasn’t been the case for most on the Web, and by the looks of it there’s no light at the end of that tunnel.”) And the general idea itself goes back even further—Wired proclaimed the browser was dead in 1997, as he points out.

It’s true that the open, free-for-all web is besieged, but in a lot of ways Anderson doesn’t mention, like the potential neutering of net neutrality principles or the ongoing bandwidth crimp that could hamper innovative-but-data-intensive services—and, in turn, push users toward the kind of boxed services (cable VOD or ISP preferred content) that has Anderson so nerve-wracked. Like Comcast giving preferred access to NBC’s content by not counting it toward your monthly data allowance (since Comcast owns half of NBC now), or Verizon speeding up YouTube over Vimeo. You can look at it as a hardware problem vs. a software problem—and if the hardware is screwed, so is the software.

Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch:

These shifts happen in waves. First the browser took over everything, then developers wanted more options and moved to apps (desktop and mobile), but the browser will eventually absorb those features, and so the leapfrogging continues. The ubiquity of the browser overcomes most of its technical deficiencies. Even in mobile, people will become overwhelmed by apps and the browser will make a comeback.

Rob Beschizza at Boing Boing:

Wired uses this graph to illustrate Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff’s claim that the world wide web is “dead.”


Their feature, The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet, is live at Wired’s own website.

Without commenting on the article’s argument, I nonetheless found this graph immediately suspect, because it doesn’t account for the increase in internet traffic over the same period. The use of proportion of the total as the vertical axis instead of the actual total is a interesting editorial choice.

You can probably guess that total use increases so rapidly that the web is not declining at all. Perhaps you have something like this in mind:


In fact, between 1995 and 2006, the total amount of web traffic went from about 10 terabytes a month to 1,000,000 terabytes (or 1 exabyte). According to Cisco, the same source Wired used for its projections, total internet traffic rose then from about 1 exabyte to 7 exabytes between 2005 and 2010.

So with actual total traffic as the vertical axis, the graph would look more like this.


Clearly on its last legs!

Matthew Ingram at Gigaom:

As with some of his other popular writings, Anderson seems to be coming to this realization rather late in the game, and has resorted to a sensationalized headline to grab some attention. We at GigaOM (and plenty of others who cover the web and technology space) have been writing and talking about the rise of the app economy — and particularly the rise of mobile apps thanks to the iPhone, as well as the iPad and Google’s Android platform — for more than two years now. As Om has pointed out on a number of occasions, the success of Apple’s iPhone and application store has accelerated the evolution of the web from a free-for-all to a selection of specific apps for specific needs.

Om’s favorite comparison is to the real world of home appliances: we don’t just have a single all-purpose appliance — instead, we have toasters and coffee-makers and can-openers and other devices that perform specific tasks. So, too, we now have applications for maps, applications for photos, applications for reading books, and apps for video and location-based “check ins” and dozens of other things. That doesn’t mean the web is dead; it means that the web, and the way we use it, is evolving. Instead of wandering around on the web looking for interesting websites by using services such as Yahoo or AOL, we’re using task-specific devices in a sense.

Anderson is right in a technical sense when he says that the web is “just one of many applications that exist on the Internet, which uses the IP and TCP protocols to move packets around.” But he also gets it wrong when he conflates the demise of the web browser with the demise of the web itself. Plenty of applications are using web technologies such as HTTP and REST, just as web browsers do. In a sense, they’re like mini-browsers for discrete applications, and although it’s almost a footnote in the Wired piece, HTML5 has the potential to allow developers to create (as some already have) websites that look and feel and function exactly like apps do. (For more on that, read our recent GigaOM Pro piece on the potential of HTML5.) Where does that fit in the “web is dead” paradigm?

It’s also worth noting (as others have as well) that the chart Wired uses with its story is misleading, or at least the way it’s being portrayed is misleading. (It also has the wrong dates, according to TechCrunch.) It shows the amount of total U.S. Internet traffic that different types of content have accounted for over the last decade (as calculated by Cisco). At the far right-hand side of the graph, video is seen as making up a large proportion of that traffic, while something called “the web” makes up a much smaller proportion than it did in 1995. But this does little to prove Anderson’s thesis, since the bulk of video is still viewed using websites such as YouTube and Hulu — and the fact that we have a lot more video traffic than we used to isn’t exactly a revelation.

Choire Sicha at The Awl:

Between 2000 and 2010, Americans with Internet access went from 124 million to 230 million.

(The world at large, by the way, went from 393 million Internet users to 1.5 billion, but let’s keep the focus on America, right Wired? Because we’re so much more interesting and also we buy iPads.)

Rob Beschizza made a related point extremely well. He notes: “According to Cisco, the same source Wired used for its projections, total internet traffic rose then from about 1 exabyte to 7 exabytes between 2005 and 2010.”

So, just in terms of basic Internet-using population in any event, as the “web use” “declined” by half over the last ten years as a percentage of use accorded to Wired, the real world activity presumably, at the same time, “stayed constant due to the doubling of the Internet-user” in the U.S.

Except use of the web blew up far more than that.

There’s a number of other questions I have about these numbers, which are almost the only numbers in the piece, apart from a claim by Morgan Stanley that in five years, more people will use the Internet over mobile devices than PCs.

For instance: doesn’t this chart measure data usage as traffic? Would that perhaps be why the “video” section is so swollen?

Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic:

The problem is Anderson’s assumption about the way technology works. Serious technology scholars long ago discarded the idea that tech was just a series of increasingly awesomer things that successively displace each other. Australian historian Carroll Pursell, in reviewing Imperial College London professor David Edgerton’s The Shock of the Old, summarized the academic thinking nicely:

An obsession with ‘innovation’ leads to a tidy timeline of progress, focusing on iconic machines, but an investigation of ‘technology in use’ reveals that some ‘things’ appear, disappear, and reappear…

Edgerton has the same flair for the flashy stat that Anderson does. For example, to illustrate the point that newer and older technologies happily coexist, he notes that the Germans used more horses in World War II than the British did in World War I. More prosaically, some of the electricity for your latest gadget was probably made in a power plant that’s decades old. Many ways to bind pieces of paper — staplers, binders, paper clips, etc — remain in common usage (“The Paperclip Is Dead!”). World War I pilots used to keep homing pigeons tucked inside their cockpits as communication tools (see above). People piloting drones and helicopters fight wars against people who use machetes and forty-year old Soviet machine guns; all these tools can kill effectively, and they all exist right now together.

But that’s not how Anderson presents technology in this article. Instead, technologies rise up and destroy each other. And there’s nothing you or I can do to change the course of these wars. This is the nature of technology and capitalism, and there is not much room for individual decisionmaking or social influence in the algorithm.

Ryan Tate at Gawker:

Where did this argument first appear? Funny you should ask!

  • Irony 1: Wired released its cover story package first to the Web, on Wired.com. You won’t find it in Wired‘s iPad edition, and it’s not out in print yet. The death of the web might be the “inevitable course of capitalism,” but it apparently pays better to deliver that news via a dying medium.
  • Irony 2: Revenue is up at Wired‘s profitable website this year, despite a fairly severe reduction in staff last year. Yet Anderson, who has no control over Wired.com, writes that most Web publishers haven’t been able to “reverse the hollowing-out trend of analog dollars turning into digital pennies… and by the looks of it there’s no light at the end of that tunnel .” That tunnel being the one Wired, itself, is not in, apparently.
  • Irony 3: At the same time, circulation — and thus revenue, almost surely — are down for Wired‘s iPad edition, which was approaching (and possibly even surpassing) 100,000 copies for the debut issue but has since fallen off — to less than a fourth of what it was, one source claims. However large or small the decline, it could certainly be corrected; dropping off from a big bang launch is common enough in print and online media alike.But Wired’s iPad tumble does raise the possibility that Anderson is speaking as much from his hopes as from his analysis when he writes, “We are choosing a new form of Quality of Service: custom applications that just work.” The iPad team belongs to Anderson, after all (unlike, again, the web team).
  • Irony 4: Isn’t this the guy who wrote a book called Free and noted, “You know this freaky land of free as the Web. A decade and a half into the great online experiment, the last debates over free versus pay online are ending?” Eh, maybe not so much; Anderson today writes, “Much as we love freedom and choice, we also love things that just work, reliably and seamlessly. And if we have to pay for what we love, well, that increasingly seems OK.”

To his credit, Anderson also runs a feature in which publishers Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle get the opportunity to basically tell the editor he’s nuts. (Battelle: “Splashing “The Death of the Web” on the cover might be, well, overstating the case just a wee bit.”) In the online package, Wired.com editor Evan Hansen does likewise (“the web is far too powerful to be replaced by an alternative that gives away so much of what developers and readers have come to love and expect”).

Like any provocative editor, in other words, Anderson has people talking. (See also this take from Rob Beschizza at BoingBoing and from blogging pioneer Dave Winer; TechMeme has more reaction.) Now we get to sit back and watch as the author/consultant/editor tries to explain why nearly the entire conversation about the Death of the Web is happening on the Seemingly Quite Alive Web. That should be, at the very least, entertaining.

1 Comment

Filed under New Media, Technology

Lady Gaga Lady Gaga Douche Bag Lady Gaga

Erik Hayden at The Atlantic has the round-up.

Molly Fischer at New York Observer:

After agent Andrew Wylie announced his plans to do ebook business directly with Amazon, Macmillan CEO John Sargent snarked that Wylie seemed to fancy himself a publisher.

But if agents do begin filling some of the roles traditionally played by publishers, what new skills will they need to learn? What resources will they require?

The first order of business, it seems, may be finding some good copy editors.

Yesterday, agent Robert Gottlieb of Trident posted a 480-word response to the Odyssey Editions news on Publishers Marketplace. By our count, it featured at least 10 typos or other errors. Excerpt:

It is one thing to advise a client as a traditional agent it is another to be in business with the client where their can be a conflict in interest. I can invision litigation between author and agent/publishers down the road. It is the nature of the times we live in today. 4. I don’t think giving any publisher/retailer exclusive rights to books serves the authors interest. From B&N to Walmart and the smaller shops authors works need to reach the widest available reader ship. . . . I like the way they are constantly looking to inovate. We are all living in exciting and challanging times in our industry and we are all going to see a lot more inovation and new ideas.

A corrected version is up now. Learning curve!

Gene Weingarten at Washington Post:

My biggest beef with the New Newsroom, though, is what has happened to headlines. In old newsrooms, headline writing was considered an art. This might seem like a stretch to you, but not to copy editors, who graduated from college with a degree in English literature, did their master’s thesis on intimations of mortality in the early works of Molière, and then spent the next 20 years making sure to change commas to semicolons in the absence of a conjunction.

The only really creative opportunity copy editors had was writing headlines, and they took it seriously. This gave the American press some brilliant and memorable moments, including this one, when the Senate failed to convict President Clinton: CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR; and this one, when a meteor missed Earth: KISS YOUR ASTEROID GOODBYE. There were also memorably wonderful flops, like the famous one on a food story about home canning: YOU CAN PUT PICKLES UP YOURSELF.

Newspapers still have headlines, of course, but they don’t seem to strive for greatness or to risk flopping anymore, because editors know that when the stories arrive on the Web, even the best headlines will be changed to something dull but utilitarian. That’s because, on the Web, headlines aren’t designed to catch readers’ eyes. They are designed for “search engine optimization,” meaning that readers who are looking for information about something will find the story, giving the newspaper a coveted “eyeball.” Putting well-known names in headlines is considered shrewd, even if creativity suffers.

Early this year, the print edition of The Post had this great headline on a story about Conan O’Brien’s decision to quit rather than accept a later time slot: “Better never than late.” Online, it was changed to “Conan O’Brien won’t give up ‘Tonight Show’ time slot to make room for Jay Leno.”

I spent an hour coming up with the perfect, clever, punny headline for this column. If you read this on paper, you’d see it: “A digital salute to online journalism.” I guarantee you that when it runs online, editors will have changed it to something dull, to maximize the possibility that someone, searching for something she cares about, will click on it.

I bet it’ll read “Gene Weingarten Column Mentions Lady Gaga.”

Lady Gaga.

Chris Rovzar at New York Magazine:

The headline that Weingarten says he carefully crafted for his column (appearing this weekend) was, “A Digital Salute to Online Journalism.” Online, it reads, “Gene Weingarten Column Mentions Lady Gaga.”

Michael Scherer at Swampland at Time

Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic:

Every writer and editor I know really liked an essay published this week by Paul Ford called “Real Editors Ship.” Of course we would: it makes the case for our value in our economy. Here’s the nugget of his thought.

Editors are really valuable, and, the way things are going, undervalued. These are people who are good at process. They think about calendars, schedules, checklists, and get freaked out when schedules slip. Their jobs are to aggregate information, parse it, restructure it, and make sure it meets standards. They are basically QA for language and meaning.

In other words, editors do the things for text that designers did for visual products. They standardize rules; they enforce consistency; they provide the key for the map; they make things right.

And yet, in recent years, they’ve seemed expendable, perhaps because they were still around. Now, though, they’re disappearing. Text goes online with less editing than it did at magazines or newspapers. More and more of us writers are working without regular editors. More and more people are writing without ever having been edited. Maybe now people will realize what editors did: their presence will be felt in their absence.

Here’s my analogy. We take good roads for granted in the US; our highway system just works, so you start to think of it almost as geology, almost immutable and close to eternal. But if you take a drive on the backroads of the Yucatan, the forest encroaches, large potholes appear out of nowhere, and the signage is indecipherable, regardless of your level of Spanish.

The Internet can feel like a jungle, and journalists are in the business of providing paths through the territory. Writers might blaze the trails, but editors maintain the roads. The vines are creeping and the potholes are growing. And maybe letting the road deteriorate is really the only way to make audiences and media companies realize the value of those whose names do not appear underneath the headline.

Update 12:32pm: This article has been updated to fix a couple of typos that only served to reinforce my point.

Meenal Vamburkar at Mediaite:

We don’t realize what we’ve had until it’s gone. In this case, it’s edited and polished prose. Editing is necessary in the same way that fact-checking is — yet in the 24/7 news cycle, it’s often overlooked in order to save time. Perhaps it’s because publishing something online feels less concrete than ink on paper, but that’s hardly an excuse. Just as this post will be edited before it is published, it makes sense that others should be too — even if they’re only online.

Paul Ford:

People often think that editors are there to read things and tell people “no.” Saying “no” is a tiny part of the job. Editors are first and foremost there to ship the product without getting sued. They order the raw materials—words, sounds, images—mill them to approved tolerances, and ship. No one wrote a book called Editors: Get Real and Ship or suggested that publishers use agile; they don’t live in a “culture” of shipping, any more than we live in a culture of breathing. It’s just that not shipping would kill the organism. This is not to imply that you hit every sub-deadline, that certain projects don’t fail, that things don’t suck. I failed plenty, myself. It just means that you ship. If it’s too hard to ship or you don’t want to deal with it, you quit or get fired.

I recently left zineland and did a bunch of freelance work and hooboy do people not know how to ship. A three-year project that yielded only 90-second page load; or $1.5 million down the drain with only a few microsites to show. And I’ve started to find myself going, God, these projects need editors. Editors are really valuable, and, the way things are going, undervalued. These are people who are good at process. They think about calendars, schedules, checklists, and get freaked out when schedules slip. Their jobs are to aggregate information, parse it, restructure it, and make sure it meets standards. They are basically QA for language and meaning.

But can they deal with character encoding issues when the parser breaks? Not really. They’re often luddites of the kind that calls the mouse a clicker, even the young ones. That said, I think there’re weird content times afoot. Google just acquired MetaWeb, which is not user-generated as much as user-edited content. (C.f. the Shakespeare page). Wolfram Alpha is purely about curating data sources and then calculating atop the restructured data. Wikipedia growth is slowing, but editing and tagging continue; the infoboxes are a wealth of semantic data. Meanwhile F——b—— and Tw—— (I can’t bear to write those words again) continue to dump forth information by the gallon, now tagging their core objects with all manner of extra metadata. Everything is being knit together in all sorts of ways. User-generated content is still king, because it generates page views and inculcates membership (the concept of the subscription being dead, the concept of the membership being ascendant) but user-edited content is of increasing importance because of what I call, having just made it up, “the Barnes & Noble problem.”

Until I was about 26 almost everything I wanted to read was in Barnes & Noble. Eventually they had less and less of what I wanted. Now B&N’s a place I go before a movie, and I get my books anywhere else. I’m increasingly having B&N moments with full text search ala Google. It’s just not doing the job; you have to search, then search, then search again, often within the sites themselves. The web is just too big, and Google really only can handle a small part of it. It’s not anybody’s fault. It’s a hard, hard problem.

Remember when everyone was into the idea that Google is a media company, back in 2008 when YouTube was two? Google is not really a media company as much as a medium company. Google creates forms—i.e. structured ways of representing data—and then populates them with search results. They’re the best at that. Google doesn’t do the best job making it easy to edit the nodes in every case (they can when they want, though—it’s easy to edit in Gmail, or upload a video), or even particularly want you to edit much of their data. Knol being the exception that proves that Knol is kind of eh. And I haven’t checked in on Orkut (the 65th largest website in the world) in quite a while.

Now, though, they’ve bought ITA (a very interesting company that has had tons of weird database stuff going on for a while) and Metaweb. So clearly structured—meaning edited, meaning user-edited—data is now going to be a big part of the web. There are going to be all kinds of new slots and tabs and links and nodes. And whether the users want this or not, it looks like they’re going to get it, and the state of NLP being what it is, not to mention NPC, humans will need to be involved. Unfortunate but true. (Then again I’ve been off in the high wilderness for five years; I have no clue what people think in Mountain View. I could just be blowing more smoke.)

The Semantic Web is basically the edited web, for some very nerdy take on editing. Which implies editors. Facebook has gone turtles all the way down. Django, Rails, and other frameworks make it possible to build custom-structured-and-semantic data acquisition tools with very little pain; Django’s admin, in particular, is optimized for exactly that sort of thing. Solr and related technologies make it possible to search through that structured information. And nearest to my heart there’s an insane glut of historical data, texts, and so forth, billions of human, historical, textual objects to come online from the millennia before the web. Plus a gaggle of history bloggers trying to contextualize it (the history bloggers are the best bloggers out there—but that’s for a different day). Dealing with the glut—and we must deal with this glut, because what is more important than sorting all human endeavor into folders?—will require all manner of editing, writing, commissioning, contextualizing, and searching. (Take a look at Lapham’s Quarterly to see one very successful approach, using paper and ink.) Fortunes will be made! Not mine, of course, because I lack the qualities that money likes, but someone’s. History is big business.

I see three problems with my idea. First, editors and journalists are mostly luddites, as already noted, and they don’t really hang out in places where you might think to hire them. (I think the Awl should have a jobs board; that would be perfect.) But I think this one can be solved: even my most technically mystified editor pals could be trained to use Freebase Gridworks. Add to that the willingness to schedule the living shit out of everything, the ability to see patterns, a total dedication to shipping, and willingness to say “no,” and you start to have this very interesting source of power inside your organization, especially given the changes coming in web content, where you need structure and connections in order to play with others. Editors can help you play nice. And they actually do understand standards, at least conceptually. If you tell them the line needs to end with a semicolon they will end it with a semicolon. Words into Type and ISO 8879 are of similar complexity.

Second problem: most editors want to be editing for print or broadcast, not for the web, which is still seen as slumming it. But that said more and more of the big-deal journalism is about aggregating data. Which means that more and more journalists are getting exposed to thinking in grids and bulk-editing and so forth. Or at least getting interns to do it for them. Which is interesting. Also, getting fired or taking a buyout helps people gain perspective on what they like doing; there’s that.

Third problem: I’ve worked on various big content engagements, and I’ve talked to a number of people with more big-content experience than me. And people agree that big orgs, even if they now have content problems, won’t hire editors, or enough editors, to manage their content. Think: museums, non-profits, giant corporations, government. I get very sadpanda when I see someone spend $500K plus deployment, development, and licensing costs on a Java EE-based multilingual platform incorporating a JSR-238 repository with a custom workflow/process approval engine. Because they could build out something for about 20 percent of that (or sometimes 1/2 a percent of that), and hire a few editors to wrangle the content. The content, were it approached strategically, could be of far higher quality—better SEO, more durable, consistent voice, vetted for legal compliance, primed for re-use. And you can make an end-run around workflow if you add versioning and reversion capability to your text fields (like Wikipedia), give most users the ability to edit, and give the editor full revert and publish privileges. Most CMSes are parasitic technologies dedicated to preserving the cultural and hierarchical status quo of their hosts no matter the cost, literally. People hear me whine about this and they say: Our case is different; we need to have a system that sends out seven thousand “todo” emails per day. And I grieve for the spirit of Work, killed by her evil child, Workflow.

That’s it. This of course is already too long because I don’t have an editor.

Mike Taylor at Mediabistro:

Without debating the quality assurance – related merits of dedicated style police, we can say that the forces governing the current state of media — limited budgets and the rapid-fire demands of Internet publishing — continue to work against the droves of unthanked and underappreciated guardians of syntactical propriety. Nevertheless, it’s comforting to know that the copy editing discipline is dormant rather than extinct.

Lori Fradkin at The Awl:

The word is douche bag. Douche space bag. People will insist that it’s one closed-up word—douchebag—but they are wrong. When you cite the dictionary as proof of the division, they will tell you that the entry refers to a product women use to clean themselves and not the guy who thinks it’s impressive to drop $300 on a bottle of vodka. You will calmly point out that, actually, the definition in Merriam-Webster is “an unattractive or offensive person” and not a reference to Summer’s Eve. They will then choose to ignore you and write it as one word anyway.

I know this because, during my three-plus years as a copy editor, I had this argument many, many times.

When I left to take a non-copyediting position at another company, I sent an e-mail to some of the editors telling them to spell it however they wanted going forward. I no longer cared. Which was kind of the case to begin with. I never had a personal investment in that space between the words, but as part of my job, it was my duty to point out that it should exist. It was a job that suited my tendency to worry about details, but one that also forced me to engage in unexpectedly absurd conversations.

I pretty much knew I wanted to go into journalism since I served as an editor on my high-school newspaper, the Three Penny Press, but what exactly I wanted to do changed throughout the years. Initially I thought I wanted to work for People, but then I realized that I am way too shy to approach famous people and ask them about their personal lives. Also, my desire to be their best friend would likely interfere with my ability to do objective reporting. Then I decided I wanted to work at a fashion magazine, a dream killed by The Devil Wears Prada, a friend’s internships in the industry and the acknowledgment that I’m not very good at putting clothing combinations together. (I like dresses for a reason.) But starting at some point in college, I aspired to one day, fingers crossed, work at New York magazine. I was a faithful subscriber, despite living in Evanston, Illinois.

It was my one-day-if-I-work-really-hard goal, but when I did the requisite round of informational interviews for jobs in New York, I paid a visit there as well. I was introduced to the copy chief, who oversees fact-checking and copyediting, and I mentioned that I was far more interested in the latter. The former, with its inherent asking-questions-of-strangers, makes me incredibly uncomfortable, even when it’s just “Are you still located at 123 Some Street?” Plus, I’d always had an eye for error: When one of my best friends in elementary school asked her mom what “f-u-k” meant because she’d seen it on the door to the bathroom stall, I helpfully jumped in: “I think you mean f-u-C-k.” You’re welcome, Friend’s Mom.

All of this is to say that I never necessarily aspired to be a copy editor. I enjoyed the experience—seriously, your job is to sit and read articles—but when my day-camp counselor asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I did not tell her that I hoped one day to correct who-whom mix-ups or determine whether “faucetry” was a real, dictionary-approved word. I told her I wanted to be a princess.

The job has its perks—an accumulation of random knowledge, for instance—but it also has its side effects when you unintentionally drink the copy Kool-Aid. Once you train yourself to spot errors, you can’t not spot them. You can’t simply shut off the careful reading when you leave the office. You notice typos in novels, missing words in other magazines, incorrect punctuation on billboards. You have nightmares that your oversight turned Mayor Bloomberg into a “pubic” figure. You walk by a beauty salon the morning after you had sex for the first time with a guy you’ve been seeing and point out that there’s no such thing as “lazer” hair removal, realizing that this may not be the best way to get to have sex with him again.

1 Comment

Filed under Go Meta, Mainstream, New Media