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So…What IS It!? The Answer on the Niemanlab

The good folk at Niemanlab have been kind enough to offer a much wider platform for my musings…starting way back when I sometimes felt like all I had was musings. Now that we’re set to rollout what we’ve got and what we’ll be, it made all kinds of sense for all kinds of reasons to begin the rollout last week ovah ther at haavaad yaad…

here it is.

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Momentum v. First Impressions: Why Perfection is Not an Option

We have had a design glitch…or better, we have changed our mind on the layout of our signup page. The good news is that my partner Irene and I agree (as we tend to on most things, including design) that we have some reworking to do. But what we thought could be resolved quickly with the designer we were using, may now require a more substantial working over — and, it seems, a new designer. And that means a DELAY.

I have gradually gotten used to the fact that the calendar in my head (or even the one I stupidly declare out loud) is essentially worthless. The project has its own calendar. Still, when Irene warned me last night that the delay in question could be “weeks,” we inevitably launch into one of our by now weekly, er, lively conversations.

It is not that Irene is any less impatient than me. By nature, she is in fact probably more impatient. But there are two fundamental differences in our respective outlook on time.  The first, is that she has managed website launches before…and so the lessons I am learning about a project’s calendar, she has learned a dozen times before. She reminds me that no one has imposed any fixed deadlines, and repeats the importance of first impressions. She is right, of course.

Still….still. I have learned over the past year that a startup must also always measure up with its own limits. Of time, of costs, of people’s attention spans. I have learned this in the lonely days when this project had a lot less to show for itself (including Irene!). Perfection is not an option. The ball must keep rolling forward, even if you gotta keep kicking it up that Sisyphean hill…Momentum is everything. It is what we need to both solidify our standing and feed the imagination of potential partners, investors, consumers — and ourselves, the ones working on the damn thing every day. 

In a follow-up phone call near midnight, we are both a bit calmer. And back again on the same page. A) We can only have a layout of the signup page that truly satisfies us both. B) we need those forecasted “weeks” delay to be more like several days…Yeah, yeah: but just how many!?

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Zuckerberg’s Regret. After the Movie: On Facebook & Privacy & More

The Social Network, both the movie itself and the event of the thing, works on many different levels. The Hollywood and real-life versions of Mark Zuckerberg’s striking gold are certainly a story of our (changing) times, and the timing of the film’s release is spot on. Having taken a crack last week at FB & Privacy, ive got some quick thoughts to throw down since seeing the movie in a jam-packed theatre on the Champs-Elysees, sitting next to at least one person who is not one of the Facebook 500 million club. And she liked the movie too!?

HACKER REDUX.…the early scenes of Zuck cracking into the Harvard computer system to get photos of campus coeds makes a nice hacking/historical/cinematic/bookend with “War Games“. Hey, that was 27 friggin’ years ago…!? Since then, the image of computers/computing has gotten much more personal and much less scary *in a WWIII kind of way…and yet, clearly, the impact on our lives is immeasurably greater. Possible consequences in the future? Even scary ones? As incalculable as ever….

NOT THE DISCOVERY CHANNEL the pre-punctual rushing to the defense of Zuck, FB, the Church of the Social Web that’s been circulating around the, er, social web...is all fairly ridiculous. That a hollywood screenwriter didn’t set out to “understand” or “explain” something doesn’t mean he has misunderstood it. And in fact, it’s all mostly there: the changing nature of business, communication and relationships, and yes, privacy. And how these things also have NOT changed. Fictional Zuck trying to talk to his ex at the restaurant after he’s irreparably blown it has no computer interface involved. He is a hero of capitalism not interested in money, a social innovator who struggles with sociability. This is not about geeks v. non-geeks or revenge of the revenge of the nerds. It’s about the real-life creator of Facebook. You remember: 0 to 500 million is six years. Letting these contradictions seep out, rather than hit you over the head with it–that’s what storytelling…and filmmaking…should be about.

GENIUS MR. Z. My basic lack of knowledge about the internet is nothing compared to my total ignorance about the ins and outs of building computer hardware and software…But I’m gonna venture to say that the Facebook founder has got a bit of both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs: being able to understand how to build the things that people want to use, and the underlying architecture that supports it. The social aspect of computing technology is Zuck’s great invention. If 9 out of 10 nerd/geek/hackers are identified as such in part because of their difficulty in the broader social milieu (and/or desire to stay outside of it)…it then follows that the 1 out of 10 (1 in a billion!) who manages to understand the very elemental structure of the way we interact with each other is destined to design new methods and machines for doing so.

BUSINESS IS BUSINESS They say the real genius of Gates and Jobs is in how they built their companies. The Social Network gives a hint of Zuck’s prowess as a coming corporate titan. It’s a mix of tenacity, decisiveness, finding good people to work with. Much is made out of the fact that he doesn’t care about money. (Hey, there’s time!) But it’s not so strange that someone isn’t in business to get rich…there’s much else to be had: power, fame, revolution…and there’s a bit of all those in Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg.

PRIVACY, WHERE ART THOU? It’s ever more clear that this is much more than a side issue for Facebook, and the social revolution it is leading. In a certain sense the word ‘privacy‘ is the flipside/opposite of social. The more we share, the less privacy we hold on to, the more social the internet becomes — and the more of our lives we live on the internet — the more the very meaning of privacy is being transformed. That is Zuck’s revolution…and his business model. But it’s not a done deal. Facebook is still new, and habits can change. Platforms can shift. FB is still NOT Microsoft. Returning to my Friday night movie companion, who I will remind you, is not on Facebook. And neither are there any pictures of her…or our kids…on my FB page. I don’t know whether I agree with her diktat, but we’ll err on the side of privacy. She/we are the exception….for now. And the only thing the real life Zuckerberg has felt he had to apologize for is not any perceived invasion of privacy of 500 million, but stupid stuff he wrote on a blog when he was an anonymous 19-year-old student at Harvard.

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Why Facebook is in Bad Faith on Privacy: And Why They Will (and Should) Forge Ahead

This is my second attempt at becoming a real blogger. Keep it brief, dammit! Kick the urge to say too much, too cleanly. That’s not blogging: it’s two parts rambling, one part journalism. No good. From here on, as often as possible, i will try to just bang out these posts as single-topic hits, with a 300-600 word target length. Snapshots from my travels; Screen grabs from my brain… Ommm….ommm…channeling Dave Winer.

I begin in this new off-the-cuff & targeted format with one big topic: Facebook and Privacy. The latest instalment features the 500mln strong social network rejiggering the way FB Groups work, notably the blatantly Orwellian feature that someone ELSE can join you in these groups. I don’t think that’s even proper English, which is a sign that something is amiss. Jason Calacanis coined the phrase “force-join” for the occasion. Anyway you slice it, where I come from this is NOT cool. To say you can opt out of a group you’d been opted into requires a “when-did-u-stop-beating-your-wife” click of your keyboard. In fact it is not a GROUP, in the way the word is presented. Language matters. It’s like the pernicious inverse of the famous Groucho Marx line about clubs and members…??

This is not, as was suggested to me, like tagging photos. If you are in a photo, it’s because you were in fact in that photo. You may wish you hadn’t been, but you were. Even so, the first time it happened to me I was creeped out…and a bit pissed off…a shot of 16yrold ME holding my crotch in faux b-boy pose popped up in public circulation…via my Facebook page…via the Facebook page of a friend from high school who i havent seen since…er….high school. Yoda Zuckerberg would say: Ah, but look at you now… you are voluntarily offering it up here, in the public square SQUARED. And he is right, of course, as the pure force of his vision and his business move the goal posts on what it means to share, and to be private.

Revolutions in social norms — not to mention billion dollar businesses generated by a company of 20-somethings — don’t happen by playing by the rules. FB’s goal is not to win the internet, it is to BE the internet. Their internet is indeed a “social” one that requires people to be connected to each other in vast new ways..if they want to stay in touch, if they want to do business. Vanishing privacy is collateral damage.

I just saw a friend from high school whom I hadn’t seen in 20 years. She was coming through Paris with her husband on a trip planned just as she and I connected on Facebook. It was nice to see her, and we have Zuck to thank, I guess…We talked a bit about FB…I said I was on it mostly for professional reasons…and every once in a while I check people’s photos. “Yeah, me too,” she said. “I just snoop.”

That seems innocent enough. But we know new communication platforms have the power to change the very way we see ourselves. TV is still changing us. Check out this disturbing story in Italy where the mother of a missing girl was giving a live TV interview, and found out during the interview that her daughter was in fact killed.

What will the Facebook/Internet version of such a scenario be? Will the benefits outweigh the costs? Mark Zuckerberg, subject of an invasive biopic that is currently No. 1 box office movie, is not spending his time/energy making these calculations. Nor should he. He’s building his business, making his revolution. The boundaries are for the rest of us to set.

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The Diary I Never Kept: Old School Reporter Becomes Online Editor (Blogger…? not so much)

My pace in this space is slowing down. My first three months: 24 posts. The last three months:…errrr…. 5. I am not here now to apologize, nor blame Hurricane Earl, nor vow more regular entries from this day forward.

I knew starting out that I wasn’t a natural blogger, in the traditional sense of this modern pasttime-cum-profession. My initial burst of posts can probably be explained by an odd mix of self-consciousness (validation for my decision to open my own digital soap box) and lack of self-consciousness (an editor-less, free form space where I could choose both topic and tone). I was also in search of an outlet for the energy of the actual web project I was chronicling, and the need to start spreading the word.

But the output rate, which is still paltry compared to some, wasn’t bound to last. The truth is that I’ve always had my doubts about whether I was even a natural writer, tout court. Sure, the turns of phrase sometimes come pouring out, and in terms of both organization of thoughts and occasional moments of eloquence, I’m light years ahead in writing than in speaking. Uhh..? And what should be the plainest proof of all: I’ve managed to actually make a living by cobbling together sentences for major print publications. That makes me a writer. Right? But even as I made my way in this line of work, I was never driven by some primordial pangs to put it all down on paper, never filled separate notebooks with my musings, never kept a diary or wrote short stories in the midnights of my youth.

Ultimately though, my doubts about my scribbler proclivities were tamed by the understanding that a beat reporter is both more and less than a writer. More, as in more hours on the horn begging some police clerk or political flak to cough up some access or information…and Less, well, you get the idea. In both its higher and lower guises, hackdom calls upon the actual production of words as the final step in a multi-faceted, often rushed and unpredictable process. And as I thankfully learned sooner rather than later, the writing should always err on the side of utilitarian rather than Joycean.

This all comes up in the wake of a bunch of revelatory hemming and hawing by some smart online writer folk about twitter (microblogging) killing blogging with death by a thousand tweets. The takeaway line comes when Leo Laporte realizes that no one noticed that his buzz/twitter updates weren’t being posted. I was shouting into a vast echo chamber where no one could hear me because they were too busy shouting themselves. Without getting into the useless question about who qualifies as a writer, and who just a shouter: these are the folk that were indeed jotting stuff down (or shouting it out) in the 3 a.m.’s of their youth…and beyond. Folk like Laporte and Paul Carr and Dave Winer are lucky to have found an audience, and their sizing up the various platforms is just figuring out how to get heard…not, as it were, how to get writing.

But alas, this is not a digital (and sporadic) diary about writing…it’s about a guy who has made his living in the news business… trying to figure out how to continue making his living in the news business, as the walls appear to crumble all around. And more than ever I realize that this moment…and this project…are as much a way for me to pivot from reporter to editor. For the past few years, I’d realized how much I like working with other writers to improve their copy, and I’d become convinced that “why not me?” on story selection, packaging, et al. I’m sure there is much to learn, but I’d also seen one of my colleagues who I most identified with do it with aplomb and enjoying it to the hilt.

And if all goes well, my project would allow me to step across the threshold without having to jump into the scrum of an MSM middle management that must respond to an upper management forced to chase its proverbial tail and run for proverbial cover amidst those proverbial crumbling walls!?

None of this–nor even my proverbial cliches!?–means that my writing and reporting career is dust. I hope that stuff that I have written, and have yet to write, will one day see the light of day. But my focus is now elsewhere. And if you’re reading this, you may be in a similar position as I was one year ago: XX years of staff experience under your belt, facing a backward step to freelancer status, eyeing a new way in the new media jungle. There are lots of ideas, lots of energy, real opportunity, new ways to tell and deliver stories. Yes, you must be ready and able to do everything. You cannot avoid working hard on the business side of the equation. But on some basic level, the  same reporter/editor dividing line still exists. Which side are you on? Do you ache to write? To be heard? Or are you driven now by something else? The answer to that question may help you discover the right tree to plant in the proverbial digital media jungle. (Clearly, my writing needs an editor more than ever….)

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Nieman Lab post #5

HERE is the 5th installment of my monthly posts for the Nieman Lab on the future of journalism. More on partnerships…

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One Hack’s Response to ‘ProtoBlogger’ Dave Winer: The War is Over…And You Won (but we’re still here)

One of the things I love about Twitter is that it has finally connected me with some of the best blog posts out there…different topics, voices, lengths, frequencies. The atomized output of these one-man, one-woman information/expression machines are dropped into the stream alongside links to MSM articles, news flashes, op-ed pieces, and other, er, branded stuff…and of course the breakfast updates and bad jokes.

Within the confines of the magic 140 characters and hierarchylessness of the platform, there’s often no way of knowing which type of content source we will be routed to by that hyperlink. For various reasons, this is a good thing. But to start with, Twitter’s flat stream is simply an accurate expression of the times, that the passing flash of information is ever more its own marquee. Before I quickly get too far ahead of myself: let’s just say this is both the central point of this post…and an introduction to its subject.

Dave Winer is one of those digital names-in-light I’ve discovered via Twitter. He has a way of explaining our coming world of connectivity that is true to his visionary hacker origins…and written in the kind of stripped-away fashion that allows even us old world luddites to absorb (if not always full comprehend) it all. Indeed he may be most useful for those who get paid to communicate because of the form itself of his communication. He is both prolific and concise. He shares what is on his mind now with rounded thoughts that manage to seem both off-the-cuff and thoroughly reasoned. Typically circa 500 words, they are like prose screen grabs of whatever happens to be sizzling in his brain at the moment. For all that, and because he’s been doing it since 1997, the NYT tagged Winer the “protoblogger.”

As I already feel myself failing at the blogger’s need for both spontaneity and brevity (and the reporter’s vow to cozy up to no one)…let me just say Winer’s musings last week on why he doesn’t give interviews to reporters pissed me off in a major way. And that is the subject of this post.

Of course Winer has no obligation to speak to anyone, or give any professional category a free pass. He is free to share and even shout his opinions about what is broken in the ways the news has traditionally been gathered and spread. There’s plenty to say on these fronts. But this piece wasn’t really about that, was it? It was instead your basic roundhouse slap at those (and the numbers are indeed dwindling) who make a living reporting and writing traditional news stories.

From his experience, reporters are “almost always” misquoting, manipulating, unprepared wannabe Woodward-and-Bernsteins, as self-important as we are perpetually misinformed. This time that state-of-mind screen grab of his looked both filled with animus and rather intellectually lazy, with the air of score settling from some distant past. This is rebooting the  news in the sense of another Timberland to the groin. But this post is not about protecting/defending myself and my colleagues, and the work we’ve done in the past, but rather it’s about the future.

Of course when he writes of how having a blog liberated him from the need to spread his ideas/products through interviews, he is reminding us of a very basic shift in how access to the means of production of information is being forever transformed by the internet. But we already knew that. There has been a basic shift over the past few years even inside the deepest caverns of the MSM that, taken as a whole, this revolution will wind up a net win for the cause of democracy, economic development and creativity. And most of all, ain’t nothin’ gonna stop it…

So when Winer lumps “almost all” reporters into the same shit pile he is simply resuscitating what even a newbie to the digital space like me had considered a moot point, dusting off a dichotomy between bloggers and reporters –between blogging and journalism — that is yesterday’s news indeed.

Sure, large media companies — and even a few of my colleagues still holding on to their jobs — will do everything they can to sit on as much of playground kickball as they can. But all of us know that the game has changed forever. Or put another way: the real message to our esteemed Protoblogger is “Please come out from behind your screen: the war is over…and you won!” The sniping that continues — bloggers calling journos lazy shill=masters, journos taking cracks at bloggers’ for their pajamas and lack of gumshoe reporting — is usually just the by now rusty artillery to fight the same old personal feuds and battles that opinionated people have been and will always be fighting.

The real news that the Dave Weigel affair reminds us of is that smart young reporters who claw for access to the influential and ache for a wide audience, see blogs as the obvious fastest path to, eh, journalistic success.

The fight over terrain and resources is friendly fire, folks. We all seem to agree that being more informed, more accurate, faster, freer is the best formula for both better solo bloggers and newspaper staffers. The differences in the approaches and objectives of the different forms can only help to improve the work on one, and the other platform–and indeed, they are often the same person.

In general, we might say that the blogger benefits/suffers from the lack of a built-in structure looking over her, the journo benefits/suffers from having it. How can knowing that help them both? Instead, the real problem is that the brass upstairs is convinced by a wrongheaded conventional wisdom that calls for meat cleaver costs cuts…and more meat cleaver cost cuts…as the only short or long term solution for economic viability of whatever information is being produced. (And who can really blame them…until an alternative emerges?)

It’s telling that all the hemming and hawing from the fallout of Rolling Stone’s McChrystal article misses the fact that the article itself was the result of a major investment of time and money by the publication, and some damn good reporting by the reporter. And yes Mr. Winer, for all the breakdowns from McChrystal and his entourage, and debates about whether beat reporters shield their sources, producing that revealing an article required that Hastings ask lots of questions. (I don’t think McChrystal was sharing his thoughts on a blog…even if he had one, eh?) Is it the exception that proves the rule? Maybe. But how about some reflection on the exception to help improve the coverage by all.

Ok..if you are still with me, it is clear that I suck at this platform: too long, long-winded, meandering in my thoughts. And not quite opinionated enough. I needed to write it the minute after I read Winer’s original post last Tuesday. I was pissed off then, thinking about the good faith, if necessarily flawed, attempts I’d made over the years trying to figure something out on the fly by asking smarter, better informed people about it. Press interviews can take any number of forms, but they are also one of the fundamental tools out there to keep information flowing in a democracy. Even the face time (as we saw in McChrystal story) is often necessary, not Kabuki theater, as David Carr, a great reporter (who relies on sources all the time) chimed in on Twitter. Did he read the post?

But I waited, and my initial anger faded…even more so after I heard Winer talking about his post with Jay Rosen on Rebooting the News. On radio, Winer was less absolutist, less bitter, and I remembered as I listened that the written blog platform….and maybe my beloved Twitter too…have inherited from the news business a tendency toward sensationalism. “Some journalists” become “Almost all journalists…” Or maybe, he just needs an editor? Or maybe the point is the provocation? It is the right time, place, and platform to shake things up.

And indeed, the final revealing tidbit in all this is how, in the end, I wound up writing this post. I saw this Jay Rosen tweet last night, saying it was time to put a fork in the journos v bloggers debate, as referenced to a Joe Klein-Glenn Greenwald spat. (actually they are both both…). I responded with a dig at his “buddy” Winer. Two tweets later the protoblogger was encouraging this distracted hack to blog about it. That was last night. Maybe I ought to call him now….to ask out about the programming parameters necessary to keep my thoughts below 500 words/24 hours…or at least to drop this far-too-heavy hyperlink in his Twitter stream.

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