A few days ago a friend sent me a link to an article on The Guardian's website. My friend's complaint was that it was click-bait, that it had been put together apropos of nothing substantial, just to attract comments.
He may be right, but I don't have a big problem with that. However, there are plenty of journalistic websites and articles on the web - professional, widely-read and influential websites - which I do have a problem with for the very same reason.
That may sound contradictory, so I'll explain myself.
On the same day that my friend sent The Guardian's article, I read this article on The Verge regarding Stephen Elop's departure from Microsoft. I won't go into the full detail of Elop's time at Nokia (after being hired from Microsoft) and then once again at Microsoft after their purchase of Nokia, but suffice to say, I don't agree with anything in the article. I fail to see why it has even been given that title, let alone top-billing on a site as popular as The Verge.
Confusingly, The Verge then had this article further down the page. This second article seems to suggest that Microsoft (and the remnants of Nokia's handset division) is better off without Elop.
The first article literally suggests that Elop's departure is the "final nail in the coffin for Nokia" whereas the second brands Elop a "Trojan horse, King of Thieves", suggesting good riddance to Elop.
So what's it to be? Does The Verge view Elop's departure as positive or negative?
My opinion on The Verge's dual aspect is that the website has no opinion. And herein lies the problem I have with many of the web's most popular websites: they're hugely influential, but written with an entirely personal facet.
So what is my problem with these sites? Is it their popularity? Not by itself, but that does exacerbate their influence.
Through great marketing and the prevalence of the internet and peoples' dependency upon it, technology has become the battlefield on which we define our identities. Indeed, the Apple vs. Android vs. Windows divisions have become sectarian. And it is amongst these divisions that technology-focussed writers are sowing their influence. This would be great if I felt that these websites were offering a balanced, informed and unbiased opinion, but therein lies the crucial point: I feel that the writers behind these websites are anything but balanced.
Take this article on TechCrunch entitled "Apple Just Canceled The Right Click", written minutes after Apple had launched their new 12" MacBook notebook with its 'Force Touch' touchpad. The author clearly believes that Apple have, in a single move, "revolutionized" something that every computer user does countless times a day.
Except that HP launched a notebook with that very same touchpad feature 2 months before Apple. TechCrunch obviously hadn't bothered to keep as up-to-date with HP's notebook launches as they do Apple's.
Nor, apparently, did they bother to do any research before publishing their own personal excitement.
So how many people read TechCrunch's article, or their tweets live from the event? How many people then share the authors' excitement? While I can't argue that the authors had no reason to be so excited, I do believe that a professional writer in that position should be relaying more fact-based coverage.
And how many people read that TechCrunch article and understood it to reflect the state of laptop technology? How many believed it to be 100% true when in fact it was merely a snapshot of the author's exuberance?
It's difficult to imagine a reporter for, say, the BBC or CNN getting as carried away.
Perhaps we're mistaken to regard these sites as news sites.
We expect that when we open a newspaper, say the Financial Times, to read about current affairs that we'll receive a fair, balanced perspective. We know that we can then turn a few pages further through the newspaper to the editorial in which the editor or a senior journalist clearly expresses that newspaper's take on events - clearly labelled as such. The editorial may walk a middle line or it may take a side, but this is the purpose of an article labelled as an editorial. Further still through the newspaper we find the columnists who offer their personal opinions.
But what has all this to do with that article on The Guardian's website? That article was clearly labelled as being written by a columnist; a columnist who had achieved that position probably not because of her opinion per se but because of her ability to hold her own opinion and to cleverly, lucidly and succinctly express that opinion with an interesting turn of phrase.
What these popular technology websites offer are essentially articles written by columnists. This implies - and I'd agree that it's fair - that these writers are able to, in my own words, "hold [their] own opinion and to cleverly, lucidly and succinctly express that opinion with an in interesting turn of phrase." And my problem with this is that these websites publicise themselves as technology news sites.
Indeed, The Verge even declares this in its Ethics Statement:
Our editorial content is written by individuals, and each article represents the opinion or view of the individual writers. Any opinion expressed in content that appears on The Verge is the opinion of the writer — whether an editor, staff member, or other contributor, and should not be construed as an opinion formally approved or endorsed by The Verge as a whole or by Vox Media as a company.
TechCrunch is a bit more vague. It refers to its writers as "contributors", though also says that it has "columnists". However, it's not easy to spot the different between these articles and what TechCrunch considers news.
It's not that easy to distinguish between what TechCrunch considers news and personal opinion. Source: www.techcrunch.com, found 21/06/2015.
The above image shows how TechCrunch differentiates between what it considers news and personal opinion. Mind you, TechCrunch doesn't actually state on their About page that this is a personal opinion. One would hope that this is the case because the author of that above article, MG Siegler, is a fairly high-up employee of Google, and other TechCrunch columnists are Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with personal investments.
Taking things to the extreme is Gawker Media. This is a company which owns several widely-read sites such as Gizmodo, Lifehacker and Jezebel. Gawker started with two freelance bloggers who were paid $12 per post. As the site grew more writers were taken on. In order to drive more 'click-throughs' Gawker paid bonuses to its writers depending upon the number of clicks, and even exhibited these 'click-through' numbers with each article.
Gawker's offices in New York. Image source: New York Times.
Clearly Gawker doesn't put as high a value on background research as it does volume readership. Indeed, as owner Nick Denton told the New York Times, "A lot of our traffic last year came from stories that we weren’t ultimately proud of".
But this hasn't been enough for Gawker Media. Over several years Denton spent an estimated $10M-20M building Kinja, a content management system which allows readers to contribute to the articles. In a blog post Gawker's former Editorial Director, Joel Johnson, suggests that this has been an attempt to "democratize journalism" and "was mostly a bulwark against needing to pay writers to create content".
So here's what it boils down to: what many people perceive as a "technology news" article is in fact almost entirely a personal column by the author. Almost exactly like this blog post. However, when you visit blog.andrewjameson.com and read the large, emboldened header text which says "Andrew Jameson" and "blog" one is left in no doubt that this is nothing as veracious as news.
And yet for millions of
technology fans people around the world these sites are visited multiple times a day to keep up to date with what's happening in what has become our popular culture. The content of these sites is perceived as news (most often, the subject is certainly newsworthy) but the truth is that the articles are, in some cases, even less balanced than this personal blog.
I'm not suggesting that these sites should be taken offline, simply that their articles should more clearly suggest that they offer an opinion - exemplified by The Verge offering two conflicting articles about the departure of a Microsoft executive.
Here's my final point: the writers on these pop-culture sites don't seem to me to be any more informed than the average technology fan, though they do seem to spend a lot of time on Twitter. Nor do they strike me as being better writers than the majority of well-read bloggers out there.
It strikes me that the reason so many people trust these sites and read what their writers have written is because the writers have been paid. And I think there's an implicit perception that payment endorses competency, and therefore that these writers are worthy of attention.
Is that democratic? Is that what the internet promised us?