Thoughts on #Ubergate

The media is up in arms over Uber because they threatened to dig up dirt on the personal lives of people in the media who don’t write nice things about them. They aren’t taking it lying down, either. They are deleting the app everyone! I repeat: THEY ARE DELETING THE APP. That’s as severe as it gets for tech journos.

Now, the real reason they are deleting the app is because intimidating the press is a shitty thing to do. That’s reason enough. Even though some media outlets do dig into the personal lives of tech executives (ahem, Valleywag), most don’t — at least proactively.

Lumped in with all the real reasons are two other reasons. One of them is privacy — which I’m going to leave alone for the sake of brevity — and sexism.

For months now —and if you’re in the tech press, you have no excuse to NOT know this — there have been plenty of stories about Uber’s highly suspect to downright crappy, sexist advertising and company culture.

And now, of course, Uber’s getting piled on with other stories of crappy things that they’ve done that the media chose to ignore until they were the ones being threatened.

All of this is just a reminder that the press can, and often is, self-serving to a tremendous fault. That the reason that Uber got away with a lot of these other stories is because they were swept under the rug for more favorable coverage. The people who actually were paying attention and had an issue with Uber’s sexism abandoned the platform months ago. People pretending like this was the straw that broke the camel’s back? Really? Don’t play that.

Believe me: I don’t feel bad for Uber executives. Nobody should, even if you feel a little bad for the drivers stuck in the mess. The media, with their pronouncements of deleting apps and retreading old, buried stories, are as much enablers as they are the victim here. Just let the record show that very few of them were unwilling to take two seconds to delete the app and another minute to find an alternative when they were being horrible competitors or sexist jerks.

It was only when members of the media were directly threatened by an Uber exec that the anti-Uber rage caught its predictable storyline. That only serves to give tech companies one lesson: do whatever else you like, but don’t rock the tech press honey pot.

This Surprising 20 Second Video Explains the Decline of Journalism

Sorry, you were tricked. There is no video. But before you go, you should realize that when you click on stories with this kind of title, you’re always being tricked.

When people talk about consumption in the US, they often talk about the mindless stuff we buy. The biggest offender in these critic’s minds are these Black Friday type of events where people stand in line for hours to save a few hundred dollars on a bigger TV. And there is even more outrage about stores that are open on Thanksgiving now for shopping.

When I think about awful consumption patterns though, I think the way we consume information about our world. I don’t want to sound too much like a guy who thinks you should get off his lawn, but while the internet has the great potential to free information from the bounds of corporate or government control, it also has the ability to play to the lowest common denominator.

This isn’t a recent phenomena, either. Upworthy is one of the worst offenders of playing to this demographic (and has a spoof article generator to show how formulaic the whole system really is) but it would be unfair to leave out sites like Buzzfeed, Viral Nova, or even, at times, The Huffington Post.

I think there is something great about getting to the point quickly, or working on provocative titles that invite a reader into a story. There’s also something about being entertaining or funny. But look at this title: “This Surprising 20 Second Video Explains the Decline of Journalism.”   Or this one “This Puppy Taught Me More In 1 Minute Than Anyone Else Has Done In A Lifetime.” What do you get out of that? Do you really think you can get to the core of the decline of journalism or life itself in less than a minute?

Of course not.

Yet, we see these types of articles get traction with readers, time and time again. For example, The Atlantic is running a big series on how energy usage is shifting. None of the articles over the last month have more than a few hundred shares. Meanwhile a post about how Hawaii will ruin you on The Huffington Post has over 10,000 shares.

We can do better, right?

There’s no easy solution and there might not be one at all. We’re not going back to having three TV stations and one local newspaper (and I don’t think that is better).

It’s easy to blame young people for this trend but young people have never consumed the most news (and, at least anecdotally, that’s not who I see sharing this vapid nonsense). While social media contributes to it, there’s always been a market for this and there probably always will be.

Unfortunately, it comes at a time when dollars for advertising are already tight. Journalists will have to decide if they want to go down this path, consumers have to decide if this is the type of media they want to support, and advertisers will have to decide if eyeballs are all that matters.

No, I Don’t Care if Yahoo Lets Their Employees Work From Home or Not

NigelTufnelThe biggest HR story of the week has attracted so much attention, it is now completely impossible to avoid. Yahoo decided late last week that it would stop allowing its employees to work from home.

Everyone freaked out.

Why?

  • The trend has been to allow more flexibility, not less
  • Some employees were promised this perk
  • Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer isn’t a good mom; therefore, suck it parents
  • Yahoo just wants to get people to leave
  • They should know how to manage people without looking over their shoulders
  • We’re going backwards! This isn’t progressive!

I’ve received no less than three press releases calling attention to the situation which means this issue has already jumped the shark.

The best part about those press releases? Each of them came to a different conclusion based on “studies” and “data.”

Let me take this snark level to eleven: If Marissa Mayer burned Yahoo’s Sunnyvale headquarters to the ground, I wouldn’t look for some deeper meaning to that action. Outside of a few people I know there that I would personally feel bad for, I wouldn’t think that it is indicative  of some trend of CEO’s burning their corporate headquarter buildings to the ground. I wouldn’t be playing armchair psychologist trying to figure out what drove her to do it. I wouldn’t be writing passionate articles about how she made a huge mistake and that CEO’s shouldn’t be burning down their corporate headquarters. I wouldn’t write that she is anti-feminist because she prefers burning buildings to the ground instead of, well, not burning them to the ground, I suppose.

Do you get it yet?

Burning a company’s headquarters to the ground is way worse (and much more psychotic) than making people who are paid money by you come into work at an office and be physically there for a set period of time. And if I can’t be bothered to care about the former, I certainly won’t care much about the latter.

Marissa Mayer knows more about Yahoo’s problems than any of you yahoos and has a lot more skin in the game than anyone else (except maybe a few institutional shareholders). That’s not reason alone to trust her but it certainly should be enough to stop inventing crazy ideas about why this is happening and look at the move in context:

  • Yahoo is hurting
  • They don’t know what they don’t know
  • They brought in Mayer to fix it
  • This is not indicative of a larger trend

Will Yahoo lose some people? Yes. Do you seriously think that they didn’t know this going into it? Yeah, I don’t think so.

I love working from home and if this impacted me unexpectedly, I wouldn’t be super happy about it. But it also wouldn’t be a news story and certainly nobody would be making wild claims about my boss and his motivations.

Unless he burned down our headquarters, of course. Then, at least he would make the emergency services report.

Undoing The Social Media Revolution

It was cold. We had just left a lovely seafood dinner overlooking Elliot Bay in Seattle and the wind picked up. I put my wife’s jacket on her and I stepped out from underneath the building overhang.

“Hey, it stopped raining!”

It was good news for a December night. I grabbed her hand and we walked briskly down the damp Seattle sidewalks toward the symphony hall. In a few minutes, we’d be listening to Handel’s choral masterpiece Messiah.

As the symphony opened, I slowly started to realize that we were having one of our best weekends ever at home and I was feeling guilty for it.

You see, this happened the day before. It’s unbelievably tragic and the twisted nature of the whole event still makes me sick and leaves me with a lot of unresolved questions.

Right after it happened, Twitter, Facebook, and the media went into overdrive. After about an hour, I checked out of Facebook and Twitter. I followed some of the news on cable but they were doing an awful job.

My wife works four days a week so we were discussing it since she was home. We probably discussed it for over an hour. We don’t have kids but we are close to a few little ones. And we have a multitude of friends and family who are teachers, almost all at the elementary level.

I peeked my head in to Twitter once or twice over the weekend. Same thing with Facebook. And I’m glad that’s all I did. It was distressing and the response made me question the social revolution altogether.

My friend Laurie wrote a great post about it that mirrored my thoughts nearly completely. In it, she says:

After the shootings in Newtown, I wonder if social media plays any positive role. All the early news reports were wrong. My friends and colleagues responded swiftly to the tragedy by posting commentary and pictures of their children on Facebook. Some offered poems. Others offered prayers. Many are now descending into stupid political battles.

At an important time like this, what the universe demands is action. I looked at my own aggregated newsfeed and felt like a shared article or a picture on my timeline would not do any good. And for those in my life who might actually know someone who was injured, I worried that my own personal expression of sadness — mixed in with shoddy news reporting — might do some harm.

And there it is. Read the whole thing, though.

Of course, social media takes its toll on more than just tragedies. I think about how everyone seemed ground down by the election, the debates and nine months of bullshit advertising and news reporting. Social media made it worse. I’m not afraid to have a frank discussion on politics but doing it in 140 character sound bites is more aggravating than anything.

People wonder what the relevance of blogging is in an age of Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram? Thought. Real, actual thought before you share them with the world. Not sound bites, not sharing a funny picture, not a short update for friends and family or some rumor or innuendo that takes two seconds to send out.

The same thoughtlessness that the media displayed in trying to be first rather than being right in such a critical story is the same sort of thoughtlessness that goes into sharing articles that you don’t know are vetted or retweeting information that is uncorroborated.

The media should know better and it was a shameful display.

But if we are going to talk about a social media revolution though, we should talk about what kinds of responsibilities that holds with it. That means you can’t share a Morgan Freeman quote without verifying it first. That means you can’t share an untruthful image with a description of what issues the murderer had without understanding and knowing that for a fact. It also means you think about empathy, respect, timing and appropriateness of your message before you post it.

Right now, the media is in a confused and awful state. They don’t know how to handle day-to-day news, much less tragedies like this. And when I opened Twitter and Facebook, what I saw wasn’t a replacement for the media and it wasn’t a revolution in any way. It was an angry, frightened, sad, confused and, ultimately, noisy and overwhelming place.

I really like having Twitter and Facebook. Really. And when it works the way it should, it’s a great place to be.

This weekend wasn’t one of those times though. It makes me think social media still has a long way to go in its supposed revolution. At the very least, we either have a long way before we refine these platforms to encourage meaningful and responsible sharing or that we reconsider the realistic limits and boundaries of what any multi-million user social networking platform can do.

It Is Time To Shake Up Tech Journalism

Tom Foremski takes a brilliant stab at the tech media in this piece from last week. To quote:

Tech journalism has become tedious product journalism where printing the spec sheets for mass produced consumer products is celebrated as a great story and where there appears to be little understanding of bigger picture stories about how our digital technologies are transforming our industries, cities, and our societies, at a pace and scale that’s never been seen in our history.

While tech companies, including Intel and Apple, are partly to blame for the rise of product journalism, because their news releases are essentailly product spec sheets, there’s also another factor at work. The impact of digital technologies on the media industry is causing a massive disruption in its business models.

While I was at TechCrunch Disrupt last week, I spoke to a ton of interesting companies (from all over the world) who were doing cool things with technology. As I browsed through e-commerce apps from Peru, I wondered what it would be like to cover this sector. If you go to the author pages of major online tech publications, you’ll see the kinds of stories an individual has to cover.

I was bummed. Who wants to deal with the subject of technology in this way? Who wants to deal with any story that way?

The problem goes beyond product journalism though. In cases where journalists or columnists do take a stand, it is on topics too lazy to even comprehend taking a stand on. If it isn’t a doomsday prediction for a company, it is a light understanding of the laws concerning tech issues or a weakly framed argument that will help attract fan boys from all sorts of tech camps to drive conversation on awful topics.

Tech personalities who raged against this laziness now actively participate in it.

And yet, it feels like the same thing we’ve talked about in a lot of areas of journalism: how do you change it? Is there a market for a more thoughtful tech media outlet? And if so, who can help bring it to market (or transform one of the existing publications)? I have to believe that one well-funded tech outlet that does things the right way would help raise the bar a bit.

Beyond Winners And Losers

Every story has to have a winner and a loser. And in case you missed the recent news, the latest loser is electronics-maker Samsung. The reason? Well, 1.05 billion reasons. In short, a jury found they broke certain patents that Apple holds.

When you do that, you get in big trouble. While Samsung is actually one of the more profitable handset makers, over a billion dollars is still a lot of cash.

So, Samsung loses?

Well, maybe. Maybe not (via Groklaw):

This story is far from over, in other words, and while Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, waxed philosophical about the trial, and saying that it was about values, not money, one important US value is that the jury fulfill its responsibilities, one of which is to read and make sure they understand and follow the jury instructions they are given. I believe Cook would agree that trials are supposed to be fair, with everyone doing their part. If this jury thought they knew the right result without instructions, and if they hurried so much they made glaring mistakes, and they did, and all in Apple’s favor, something isn’t right in this picture.

It’s a long read. It’s a really long read. And if you dive into some of the comments? Well, it will take some time.

That’s not my point, though. In our rush to crown winners and losers, we lose a ton of context and nuance that actually make the case really intriguing. I know it is cliché to talk about how crazy-busy the world is and that we all could use a bit more time to digest the world around us.

We obviously can’t dive into every issue that deeply. But at the very least, we should dive deeply into some issues. Especially ones of particular importance to yourself. Get to know an issue deeply. Better yet, be a resource for someone who is interested in diving deeper into a particular subject.

Discovery vs. Affirmation? What Are You Looking For?

It happens to the best of us. I saw this while on a call and posted it to Facebook in three seconds with a “Who thought this was a good idea?” remark. About five minutes later, I realized my mistake. It was a spoof.

It was an error of affirmation. I assumed it was real because it affirmed a lot of what I believed about oil companies, mega-marketing big bucks, the misappropriation of social media, and crowd-sourcing, and all of the other stupid suggestions that consultants who have no idea about this stuff generally do.

I’m definitely not perfect when it comes to this but it’s something I try to avoid in my professional life. I’ve been hearing two, three, four or more sides of the story since my time in HR. People lie. It’s cynical, yes. But there’s a bigger problem: it happens everywhere.

Politics is the easiest example. Some of the biggest charges typically leveled at politicians is that they are hypocrites, they don’t come through on their promises or that they aren’t always honest. So if you are partial to a particular candidate or cause, it’s probably pretty likely that you’ll see a lot of the other guy doing the lying and not so much your gal. And everyone in politics lies.

I’m not out to change human nature, though. People are always going to do that and it is pervasive.

What is annoying is seeing it from both professional journalists and people who play a similar role (whether you’ll call them bloggers, new media dudes, influencers or thought leaders). In tech journalism, it is easy to see PC guys, Apple guys, Android guys, and Windows phone guys as they go around and cherry pick stories and facts that affirm their version of the truth. In sports, you see the same thing as a writer who is pursuing a story might be more open to suggestions that affirm the facts already found.

Of course, it happens in, what should be, factual news stories. Oftentimes, it is the lazy analysis or editorializing that gets to me the most. Maybe it’s because lazy affirmation is popular or accepted but I can’t be the only one who skips posts and articles from people who can’t leave the cheerleading session to give serious attention to contrasting facts, right?

Crickets

Perhaps it is popular for a reason. Since people are naturally ones to take a side, it is easier to identify with heroes or villains (or likeminded vs. non-likeminded in a lesser extreme). We love watching a Paul Begala or Skip Bayless, even when we can predict the words that are going to come out of their mouth. Whereas real analysis and discovery takes skill and chops to make work (and readable or watchable), being an affirmer to all things in one point of view can be easy, even for a hack. Arguing is easy, not acknowledging contrasting facts is even easier.

I’m a free market guy. I know you have to get eyeballs. But there’s also a reason why I’ve turned off cable news, talk radio and sports commentary (even a lot of pre and post-game stuff, unless Charles Barkley is involved). I do appreciate actual reporting and analysis. The idea that you’ll go out there, collect facts, stories and quotes with an open mind, analyze it thoroughly and then write a story or editorial based on that discovery?

It’s going away.