Category Archives: Media

A response to “The End of Twitter”

I really enjoy and usually agree with much of what Joshua Topolsky has to say about the world of tech and media but felt compelled to respond to his New Yorker article “The End of Twitter”

I wanted to annotate it with Genius but for whatever reason, wasn’t able to, so I’ll post sections I want to respond to here:

It wasn’t that long ago that I — and many other people I know — would have argued that Twitter was more than just another social network.

I’d argue it still is, there’s not really a strong argument here about what’s changed that would make that not the case. The article seems to focus on the financial and organization issues the company has had but not the service itself. Which, for someone like me, a self-admitted power user, who would normally scoff at major changes, hasn’t found any changes so drastic as to scare me away. The same utility that attracted me remains.

A lack of rigor in verifying reliable sources made information suspect or confusing. More troubling was the growing wave of harassment and abuse that users of the service were dealing with — a quagmire epitomized by the roving flocks of hateful, misogynistic, and well-organized

This contradicts the previous paragraph. (you’ll have to go and read it, I’m not going to copy and paste the whole article) Just a moment ago you were fine with the rawness of the feed but suddenly you’re not. I don’t know of any social media platform currently that plays an editorial role in choosing what’s accurate and what is not.

Facebook has surpassed the company by orders of magnitude, but it’s hardly Twitter’s only foe. Instagram, WhatsApp, and even WeChat all now have more individual users than Twitter does. Snapchat has almost caught Twitter, too.

You can’t on one hand complain about noise, a by-product of growth, and simultaneously cite a lack of growth. As a user, it doesn’t matter to me if Twitter grows to the size of Facebook, since at the current size it provides a tremendous utility. Were it to grow, I would simply want to continue to manage feeds my way, even if new users get a custom experience tailored by Twitter based on their behavior. It’s not difficult to offer both and I actually believe, in words and deeds, this is Twitter’s opinion as well.

In Facebook’s case, the company has demonstrated its mastery of product focus and long-term commitment to user experience.

Not exactly. Facebook Paper was a huge flop, they’ve had to reverse major changes to the NewsFeed several times, and in fact almost all internal products developed haven’t taken off. They’ve mainly innovated, product-wise, by acquisition, not by internal development.

If users get abusive on Facebook, they’re dealt with.

This isn’t backed up by any evidence. I would cite users who don’t agree with this but that too would be anecdotal. Since I am not the author of this piece, I think it’s incumbent for the author to actually back up his thesis that Facebook is a utopia for users looking for a harassment-free experience.

Unsurprisingly, the company’s stock has lost about fifty per cent of its value over the past three months.

I’m not sure Wall Street is the best measurement of if a service is useful or not. Is Twitter currently being run as a business that makes Wall Street happy? Obviously not, but again, I don’ think that’s an indication that people like the service or not.

…the service could run for another four hundred and twelve years with current losses.)

Which contradicts the title of this article, which is: The End of Twitter.

it’s not difficult to see a future in which Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, or even a newcomer like Peach (yes, I am citing Peach) focus enough on real-time news that they obviate the need for Twitter’s narrow, noisy, and oft-changing ideas about social interaction.

It is, actually difficult to see, since none of these services were developed with the intention of being Twitter. Their users use those services because they’re offering something else that isn’t Twitter. Citing Peach seems like troll-bait, so I’ll just ignore that one.

If Facebook wanted a Twitter-replacement stand-alone app, they would have done it by now. I don’t think they’re interested in being in that business, for whatever reason. Perhaps the same reason they dumped Parse, it distracts from their main focus. (I wrote Fabric instead of Parse here originally, thanks for the heads up, Jana!)

This is especially notable to all of us in the world of media, the people who fill these services with highly valuable and hotly traded “content,” such as the piece you’re currently reading. Social media is a scale game or a product game, and Twitter is failing at both.

Is there any evidence to back up that media companies aren’t still publishing to Twitter at the same pace? I certainly don’t see individual journalists using Twitter less, in fact seems quite the opposite. It still is the #1 way I get news and before anywhere else.

Rumors currently swirl (and have been all but confirmed by Dorsey) that the service, best known and best loved for its tight hundred-and-forty-character limit — an economy that often forces clarity — will begin allowing ten-thousand-character Tweets with multiple images or video content.

But the experience will still start with a 140-character message, so while Twitter will allow you to go deeper, you’re still forced to provide what makes Twitter special, a short message that travels wide and can be quickly received.

That doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. There are hundreds of millions of dedicated users (I count myself among them) who still see tremendous utility in the service.

This goes back to my earlier argument. I don’t care if Twitter is a multi-billion dollar company, I just want Twitter to be what it has always been for me. Hundreds of millions of users is a big deal, it doesn’t need to be the size of Facebook to be a sustainable business, it can be a great, but smaller business that provides the tremendous utility it already offers.

The company just needs to find the right way to show the power of those connections to a bigger audience, and the value of that audience to advertisers and partners. Not a simple task, but for Twitter an unavoidable one.

It doesn’t have to, but it wants to, but ultimately it could still be a very successful smaller business for a highly engaged audience. If Josh’s thesis would have been focused on the business, I would have a hard time disagreeing with him. The results (at least in the short term) look bleak, but I don’t agree that Twitter today is any less useful, or essential, than it ever was. I am still a hardcore user and fan.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Circa was an atom in the universe of Semantic Web and Structured Journalism. I’d like to think we created a Big Bang, which resulted in apps like NYT NowWSJ’s “What’s News”Yahoo’s News Digest and countless others. However, we didn’t create the concept, we just built upon it and hopefully took it further than it had been executed, or conceptualized before.

We were preceded by folks like Chris and Laura Amico at Homicide Watch and the LA Times Homicide ReportReg Chua at Reuters has been at this for years, Bill Adair of Politifact, journalist and computer scientist Jonathan Stray, and Zach Seward at Quartz, whose earlier work at WSJ preceded ours. We took cues from Zach’s work at Quartz as well. Adrian Holovaty was talking about this as far back as 2006!

Where I think Circa took a step forward from Homicide Watch and Politifact and others — was the idea that we could add structure to ANY story. Not just those that were in their wheelhouse (homicides, political statements). It was the idea that we could take ANY story and add a structured element to it — even if the only structure was “this item read, this item unread.”

Circa wasn’t and isn’t arrogant enough to think we came up with all the concepts we built upon, we integrated some and invented others. The important thing is that we acknowledge those who came before us and their work that helped us move the ball further down the field.

I do think there are a few concepts that Circa created and executed upon that were truly “inventions” in the sense we came up with new concepts and executed on them, when others had not before. If you think I’m wrong, I’d be happy to listen but here goes. Among them:

Following the long arc of a story through atomic elements

The concept of atomizing news was not something Circa invented but the idea of using those atoms, apply metadata to them and allowing a reader to follow discrete stories which would only push to you the atomic units you had not already read had not and has since not been done before. You could follow the evolution of stories that went on for days, weeks, months and even years without ever re-reading anything you already knew. If you forgot the background information, you could still scroll back up or down and read the story as if you were coming to it fresh. We satisfied both new readers and longtime followers at the same time.

It’s such a great concept that the New York Times recently thought of it too!

The Particles approach suggests that we need to identify the evergreen, reusable pieces of information at the time of creation, so that they can be reused in new contexts. It means that news organizations are not just creating the “first draft of history”, but are synthesizing the second draft at the same time, becoming a resource for knowledge and civic understanding in new and powerful ways.

Reusable, completely customizable atomic story elements

The first point is in service of the story. This concept is in service of being able to present discrete elements of the story anywhere.

This is the basis of what is now becoming a big deal in publishing. Facebook’s Instant Articles and others are ushering in a way of taking existing stories and serving them up in more lightweight formats for specific usage. Intially the application is smartphones, but soon likely wearables and others.

Circa built everything that comprised an article in a way that it wasn’t a slave to the container you were consuming it in. This actually goes several steps further than what Instant Articles and others are doing (as far as I can tell) and allowed us to easily port and manipulate very granual story elements into limitless destinations.

Oh look, the New York Times just thought of that too!

Finally, the recent proliferation of new devices and platforms for media consumption creates new pressures for news organizations to programmatically identify the pieces of information within an article. Consider every new platform and product to which news organizations currently publish their content, and how each of those outputs requires a different format and presentation.

A publishing platform that made our team more efficient

Circa’s staff writers and editors used a completely homegrown CMS called KPS (knowledge publishing system) and were in the process of building its next generation platform, which was revolutionary. I hope we might be able to reveal all the elements of that system someday, but that decision is no longer in my hands. I can tell you that KPS allowed us to easily reuse, rearrange and add metadata to discrete atomic elements of the stories we built and allowed us to publish faster and more accurately than many of our better resourced peers.

But if Particles were treated as their own first-class elements that were encoded, tagged, and embeddable, contextual information would be easy for a journalist to find. All kinds of newsroom tools could be built to allow journalists to leverage the rich body of previous reporting to make their jobs easier and more efficient.

Sounds familiar.

I think what the New York Times is conceptualizing is exciting and interesting but it’s also something that we and others have discussed and executed on already. It would be great if that was simply acknowledged.

This concept builds on ideas that have been discussed under the rubric of the Semantic Web for quite a while

…and I don’t think that is quite sufficient, as far as an acknowledgement.

The app world needs to be wild and free like the web

We reached an inflection point long ago. The vast majority of users prefer apps over mobile web as they continue to prefer mobile over desktop in increasing numbers.

The problem is that the folks who create what we consume don’t have the same ability to create and iterate with the same flexibility and ease when building and tweaking apps as we do building and tweaking web experiences.

There needs to be some quality control to make sure apps aren’t doing malicious things, like secretly take over your microphone or grab your contact list, but if we can check all those boxes, there ought to be a better process in place to get updates out to market much faster.

We’re going to spend more and more time away from the web and more and more on our phones and in apps, and if that’s the case we should be able to cultivate the same creativity, the same messiness, the interconnectivity and immediacy that the web provided.

The web is not dead and it will not die but we’re beyond the point of wondering if we live in an app-driven world. We’re there and we’ve been there for some time now.

The question now is how do we make that world as wonderful as the web is?

Transparency and Process Journalism

(I wound up expanding on this idea in an op-ed for the L.A. Times, which you can read here)

There’s two schools of thought when it comes to publishing news.

There’s the traditional approach, where you take your time and make sure you have multiple named sources you’re personally and directly in contact with. That is, in my mind, the best possible way to ensure you’re getting your facts straight.

The second school relies on several factors:

  1. Direct single sourcing (named official at Dept of Defense told me)
  2. Reliance on third party sources (New York Times reported through (named source)
  3. Reliance on third party unnamed source (New York Times reported through senior government official.

We see a lot more of the second school these days than the personally acquired source and that leads to less reliable reporting. Worse yet, there’s often no accountability or a documentation how the story evolved over time as better sources emerged.

The traditional method of reporting has become less common as new media outlets rely on aggregation of sources. Even traditional reporting relies on a combination of both personally acquired sources and a mix of aggregated reports.

What’s usually lacking from either of these methods is a way for the reporter to provide to the reader the ability to understand how the story evolved. An “Editor’s Note” that appears at the top or bottom of the post seems insufficient. Something like NewsDiffs can be useful but doesn’t plug directly into the existing website (if it could, that might be a good solution.)

What would be ideal is a way for the reader to turn on the corrections/changes made by clicking a link at the top of the post that turns the post into a “track changes” mode, which shows the updates made over time. You might even allow the reader to see what the story looked like on a particular day. In addition, it would be useful to simply give the reader the ability to follow the story and be alerted each time it gets changed or corrected. We did exactly that with Circa, but it would be even better to see it built into existing media properties.

This transparency builds greater trust between the reader and the publisher. It also reclaims something that is becoming lost when readers are led to many places through social media rather than relying on a single publication: loyalty. If I am given the ability to track a story over time and understand I’ll be told if something changes or is corrected, I’m more likely to go back to that same source which I’ve subscribed to.

It’s no longer sufficient to think you can change a story and think nobody will notice, you might as well be upfront with readers as the story evolves and allow them to stay connected to those changes as they happen. The alternative is hope nobody will notice only to have others explain how you’ve made those changes and tried to act like nothing happened, which serves to do nothing but erode credibility and trust in the publication.

Why I love ESPN’s redesign

ESPN was like Han Solo, dipped in design carbonite for years, but today, easily one of the best designed websites around.

What I love:

  • Clean card based design, easily transfers to mobile.
  • Puts my teams first.
  • First thing on the nav directs me to what’s going on right now.
  • The NOW ticker gives rich, but quick hits and makes generous use of tweets and other immediate social media.

Some dislikes:

  • Article page sidebar is too wide, and should be collapsable (maybe upon scroll.
  • Nav and scores up top become a bit too much on article pages, should collapse upon scroll.

What are you doing this for?

I know there are many folks in the media business who spend a great deal of time trying to figure out how to build a better mousetrap.

Mousetraps are not built for the benefit of the mouse.

I’m not interested in building mousetraps. I’m not interested in the type of A/B testing that wants to know what delivers the most pageviews, without regard for the actual content. I feel an obligation to respect people willing to give me their time and attention.

I decided I wanted to do this work because I want to better understand the world and I sincerely care about trying to help others do the same.

I know that may be naive, but I believe that doing things a certain way has consequences.

The generosity of David Carr

The impression David left on people is indelible. If you met him once, or if you knew him for years, he was someone you could not forget.

The voice, the sly smile, his corny jokes. David was incredibly kind and generous. He was also, as Alexis Madrigal said: “a bad motherfucker.”

I had admired David from afar for years, and I was not yet a professional journalist. I was someone who was writing for my enjoyment and by some stroke of luck found myself working at a company with a newsroom. One day in early 2011, I wrote something that caught David’s eye. He invited me to meet him for drinks (he had Diet Cokes) at Blue Room, a bar not far from our offices near the dreaded Times Square. I was lucky enough to meet his wife Jill that night for the first time as well.

He picked up what I posted and wrote a column around it. This caught the eye of folks on the other side of my office, and the rest led me to the career I have today. I owe the fact that I now get to do what I love in large part to David for taking the time to talk to me. This is true for so many other people as well.

David and I became friends over the years and I also have had the pleasure of getting to know his wife Jill, who David has admitted many times is far more impressive than he. He loved being a dad, and has raised three equally extraordinary daughters: Erin, Meagan and Maddie. He recently told me how odd it felt to have an empty nest, having just sent his youngest off to college. He was (it still doesn’t seem possible to refer to him in the past tense) an extremely lucky guy who balanced a very high profile job with #thissuburbanlife, as he would often tweet.

I would steal him away from the Times occasionally, but not nearly enough in retrospect, for lunch to talk shop. Media decoding would take place but mostly we spoke about life, marriage, fatherhood, and often cooking, like how he learned to bake his own bread (from Clay Shirky of all people.)

He graciously hosted me at his cabin in the Adirondacks and one of my favorite memories of him was sitting around the campfire, staring up at the stars, and listening to music. We even managed to hit a drive-in movie, which ran a oddly paired double feature of Ted and Brave.

We somehow convinced him once to go skeet shooting, which BuzzFeed somehow turned into a trend piece on how “gun culture won over east-coast liberals.”

Truth be told, we just thought it would be fun, and David was always up for an adventure.

A common refrain you’ll hear in the stories people will tell about David is that he made you feel comfortable. Sure, he was intimidating at first and intense. He could turn a phrase that often took a second to decipher. But once you settled in, you were under his spell. He knew how to get you to be sincere and at your least self-aware. He was unguarded which led you to be unguarded. This was also a key to why he was such a great reporter, along with the masterful way he could string words together.

I was watching him interview Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras just before I learned he had passed. As I watched the event, I could hear David coughing and I was concerned for his health. When we last spoke on the phone he simply said he was dealing with a really bad cold.

I had meant to tell him how much I enjoyed watching the event, I would have had one more chance to speak to him but I never made that phone call in time.

I can’t imagine a world without David in it and I really don’t want to.

All I can do is try to feel some comfort in the fact that the wisdom, kindness and generosity he gave will be paid forward by those who received it. I can hope that someday, beyond this world, I’ll be with my friend again.

But for now, goodbye David, and thank you.

No, Reddit won’t ruin journalism (or save it)

I’m not dogmatic about either side of the debate when it comes to using Reddit to crowdsource information that may lead to better understanding about live events. This isn’t limited to Reddit but is true for any platform available to the public where they can share what they’re seeing with the world. Yes, we all realize there’s the capacity to spread rumors, falsehoods, even smear and libel, which should not be taken lightly. We’ll need to work to find ways to avoid and deal seriously with this element. However we should not dismiss the usefulness of these platforms to be a window into what’s happening anywhere in the world at any time.

I’ve seen great things come out of Storyful’s Open Newsroom, mostly because it consists of pseudo-experts or at least people who have a great deal of respect for the basic tenants of journalism. They’re sharing content they’ve found through social networks that have the potential for high value to help the public better understand the current state of affairs in places like Syria, Bahrain, Egypt, and many more places that have varying degrees of 24/7 on-the-ground coverage. The Open Newsroom acts as a place for folks who care very deeply about “getting things right” to share what they’re seeing and talk amongst themselves and use the tools they’ve learned, both new tricks and old, to ferret out if what we’re seeing is true or false. This isn’t different than journalism as it existed 50 to 100 years ago, except we have the abilty to collaborate better and have access to better tools to verify the accuracy of reports. We have more material and we have more metadata.

Reddit, if the very serious issues of libel and rumor can be managed, can become another great source of information for those further up the chain, like Open Newsroom, to chew over and analyze. There are communities all over Reddit and it’s not accurate to paint them all with the same brush. Some will have stricter rules than others, some will be managed with greater accuracy in mind. We should encourage and nuture it, not dismiss and marginalize it.

It’s far from perfect but it has potential that should be given a chance to grow into what Open Newsroom has become.

Required reading: Lessons in crowdsourced verification of news from Storyful and Syria’s Reddit forum