Did social media make the situation in Ferguson better or worse?

Nothing highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of social media quite like a breaking news event, where rumors and misinterpretations appear alongside official accounts and expert analysis in a giant stew of instant commentary. That’s been the case ever since a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, and it continued on Monday night following news of the decision by a grand jury not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

In what even some legal experts said was an unusually combative speech about the decision not to charge Wilson with a crime, St. Louis county prosecutor Robert McCulloch spent a considerable amount of time — before he even got to announcing the decision — criticizing social media and “the 24-hour news cycle” for complicating the Brown case.

That opening statement sounds like, “None of this would be a problem except the Internet.”

— James Poniewozik (@poniewozik) November 25, 2014

According to McCulloch, erroneous witness accounts that were circulated through social media — including some that said Wilson shot Brown in the back while he was standing over him, or that he was killed while he had his hands raised in surrender — made it more difficult for the grand jury to come to a decision, and exacerbated the tension in the community.

A double-edged sword

Is there some truth to the prosecutor’s criticism? Of course there is. Twitter and Facebook inevitably extend the reach of false information and incorrect assumptions, just as they do with true information and correct assumptions. That’s the reality of a world in which anyone can publish their thoughts instantly and potentially reach a large audience, and it has always been a double-edged sword — as incidents like the hunt for the Boston bomber have shown.

If it wasn’t for Twitter, millions may never have learned Michael Brown’s name.

— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) November 25, 2014

As more than one person has pointed out in response to McCulloch, however, that same ability has also allowed more information about the Ferguson shooting to emerge than would ever have been possible before — including information that the police department and the district attorney’s office might not want circulated, such as eyewitness reports and evidence.

Those same tools have also allowed black residents of Ferguson and plenty of other towns across the United States to talk about what it’s like to lose loved ones in police shootings, or to live in fear of their lives, or to not have their version of events taken seriously because they are the wrong color or because they are not from a police family, as Ferguson prosecutor McCulloch is.

In the early days following the shooting, a number of different versions of the events circulated: some said Brown wasn’t threatening at all, and that Wilson shot without provocation, or that he killed the teenager while he was running away. Autopsy results were released that showed young man had been shot 12 times, including what appeared to be several shots to the head, and that seemed like too many for an incident involving an unarmed man.

According to the testimony and evidence presented to the grand jury, many of these stories have turned out to be untrue — there is no evidence that Brown was shot in the back, and there are injuries and other signs that show he struggled with Wilson while he was in the police car. Some witnesses said he was charging towards the officer when he was shot.

That said, almost all of the evidence and testimony confirms that Brown was shot more than 10 times, and that he was unarmed — and that he was at least 30 feet away and probably more when the final shots were fired and he collapsed in the street and died. In other words, for many the central truth of the case has been proven: Wilson shot and killed an unarmed black teen even though his life didn’t appear to be in imminent danger.

More info is better

In an earlier time, much of the information about the case would only have come to light months or even years later, as a result of leaks from the prosecutor’s office or interviews with eyewitnesses and jurors — if it ever came to light at all. Were things better then? It’s likely that police departments and district attorneys think so, but it’s not clear that this kind of freedom of information (both correct and incorrect) has been a net negative for society.

As it has with so many other events, such as the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt or the more recent demonstrations in Turkey and Ukraine, social media connects us to others who are experiencing things we may know nothing about, and allows us — if we want to — to gather much more information than we would have had before, and to come to our own conclusions about who is right and who is wrong.

That may take effort, but it is more possible than it has ever been. And while it may make it difficult for grand juries or police departments, as the Ferguson prosecutor argued in his speech, in the long run more information is almost always better — especially when it comes from people who are the closest to the situation. What we choose to do with that information once we get it is up to us.

Is the web dying, killed off by mobile apps? It’s complicated

As more and more apps become multibillion-dollar businesses — from WhatsApp and Instagram to SnapChat and Slack — it’s tempting to see them as replacing the web, or taking over from it. This helps explain the periodic outbreak of articles about how “the web is dying,” like the one Christopher Mims wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal. But the truth is that, as is often the case when someone says a certain kind of behavior is dying, it’s a lot more complicated than such headlines suggest.

In his piece, Mims repeats many of the same arguments we’ve heard before about how apps have come to dominate our activity as mobile usage has grown. Instead of using web browsers, we go to task-specific apps, and these are in many cases “walled gardens” that benefit a single corporation and don’t play well with others — either in terms of the data they collect or in terms of links to other sites:

”Everything about apps feels like a win for users — they are faster and easier to use than what came before. But underneath all that convenience is something sinister: the end of the very openness that allowed Internet companies to grow into some of the most powerful or important companies of the 21st century.”

The “web is dying” meme has been around since at least 2010, when Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson wrote a feature entitled The Web is Dead: Long Live the Internet, which talked about the rise of apps for services like Facebook, Twitter, Pandora and Netflix. It warned about the move from “the wide-open Web to semi-closed platforms” and called the web “an adolescent phase subsidized by industrial giants.”

The web pie is growing

There were a number of problems with the Wired story, however — including the fact that the chart it used contrasted the growth of video traffic with the decline of “web” traffic, even though most of that video traffic was coming from websites and web-based services like YouTube, Hulu and Netflix. But the phenomenon it was describing was definitely a real thing, and in fact has only accelerated with the growth of apps like Instagram and WhatsApp, which don’t even have traditional websites.

As Zach Seward at Quartz notes, the Mims piece makes a common mistake by implying that the size of the web pie is finite — in other words, that mobile apps are stealing market share or user attention from the open web or the traditional browser, and therefore the web is dying. But the size of the web pie is arguably still growing rapidly, which suggests that apps are stealing attention from other things, including various kinds of offline activity.

Also, a number of people — including tech analyst Ben Thompson — have pointed out that a huge proportion of the time spent with mobile apps is devoted either to games or to various forms of instant messaging. Since neither of those things has ever relied that much on the web (or at least on the desktop browser), they aren’t really a conclusive sign that the web is being killed off by apps. As Thompson put it in a guest post at WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg’s blog earlier this year:

”The more interesting juxtaposition raised by Flurry’s numbers is not apps versus web, but games and social versus everything else. YouTube and other entertainment apps form a solid percentage of what is left (8%), but the remainder is a mishmash of utilities, productivity, the aforementioned news, and, of course the web.”

But one of the biggest flaws with the “web is dying” argument is that it assumes that apps themselves don’t drive more traffic to the open web — which they clearly do. Social-networking apps like Twitter and Facebook in particular, which consume a huge proportion of the mobile app time of many users, are at least in part about sharing links to content, and while many of these apps open links in their own in-app browsers, that still counts as web traffic.

The rise of silos

One of the concerns that Mims mentions, which Wired also hinted at in its cover story, is that the rise of apps is dangerous because they are “walled gardens” both in design and philosophy, and therefore they are a potential threat to the open web. The web’s creator, Sir Tim Berners-Lee raised similar concerns in a piece he wrote for Scientific American in 2010, in which he described the web as being “critical to free speech” and a civil society.

That said, it’s worth pointing out that Lee’s criticisms — which are very valid — weren’t about apps per se, but about the desire on the part of companies like Apple and Facebook to control both the experience on their platforms and access to the data that they collect from users. This isn’t something specific to apps: Facebook behaves exactly the same way on its website. The app is just another way of accomplishing the same goal.

As I tried to point out in a response to the Wired piece four years ago, apps make sense for certain kinds of behavior, and likely always will — whether it’s games, chat-style discussion, sharing photos, or searching for maps and directions. In many ways, the desktop browser-based web was never really much good for those things anyway. But that doesn’t mean the web is dead, or dying. As Thompson put it:

”There is no question that apps are here to stay, and are a superior interaction model for some uses. But the web is like water: it fills in all the gaps between things like gaming and social with exactly what any one particular user wants.”

I’m certainly not arguing with the idea that the open web needs defending, or that we should be aware of the efforts of large corporations to force increasing amounts of activity and content into their silos — that is definitely an issue with Facebook in particular, and with others. But to blame all of that on apps is short-sighted, I think. Apps are just a symptom.

You can make a living from a thousand true fans — Ben Thompson is proof

Earlier this year, I wrote about Ben Thompson — who writes about technology and strategy at a blog called Stratechery — and his decision to launch a membership-based paywall. At the time, I wondered whether someone without the kind of national following that Daring Fireball’s John Gruber or The Daily Dish’s Andrew Sullivan have would be able to make such a plan work. As it turns out, the answer is yes.

In a follow-up interview, Thompson told me that while there were some touch-and-go moments in the early days of his plan, the subscription part of his model has worked out far better than he ever hoped it would. Membership signups and the associated revenue have “vastly exceeded my expectations,” he said.

The Taiwan-based blogger, who previously worked as a product manager for companies like Apple and Microsoft, said that he was hoping to get about 500 members to sign up in the first year, and his most ambitious dream was that he might get a thousand — a goal that was based on veteran technology writer Kevin Kelly’s advice about needing only “a thousand true fans” to survive as an independent artist. ”My realistic goal was 500 in the first year, and my sort of crazy goal was to get a thousand — and I did that in the first six months. I’ve actually gone quite a bit past that now.”

Direct to the reader

Those 1,000-plus members are paying $10 a month or $100 a year for access to what Thompson calls the Daily Update, which is a collection of several posts with his take on or analysis of topical events — such as singer Taylor Swift removing her songs from Spotify and the implications for the music industry, or the future of the Uber car service. Members can access the content online, or via email, or through a private RSS feed.

So Thompson will soon be bringing in over $100,000 from membership-based subscriptions, and has managed to get recommendations from fans like Gruber and Box CEO Aaron Levie along the way. He is now making the vast majority of his living from those memberships (although he also does some consulting on the side). He says he used to have sponsored posts, but they made up too large a proportion of the content — since he only posts a few items a day — and they involved too much administrative work.

Thompson also echoed something that Andrew Sullivan told me about his model at the Daily Dish, which is that he prefers to keep the relationship between himself and his readers as pure as possible — to feel as though he is working directly for them, and pleasing them is all that matters. ”I really like what it does for my incentives — my pay comes from my readers, so my job is to just deliver a kick-ass daily update every day and to write great stuff for the blog. What I like about it is it’s very clear: it feels like people value what I have to say, so what you’re getting if you subscribe is more of what I have to say.”

Since I wrote that initial post, Thompson says he has simplified the model even further, to the point where there is only one level — the $10 a month/$100 a year level. In the beginning, he had three levels of support, including one that gave readers things like a T-shirt, as well as a higher level that cost $30 a month or $300 a year, and included private meetups and the ability to email Thompson directly and get advice or analysis. Those have been dropped.

The internet is good for media

The membership structure now is much simpler (those who had paid $300 were given the option of either a refund or a credit, or to donate the excess to Thompson — about 20 percent chose the latter, he said). But the blogger notes that without those initial members paying $300 for a year, he wouldn’t have had the money in the bank with which to continue, or the confidence that he would be able to survive. “They were like my VC investors in a way,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Thompson said that while he is still making less than he did as a product manager at a tech company, he is making more than enough to live on, since his costs are so low. And that’s one reason he wanted to talk about his success, he said — because it might encourage someone else to try it, and because it might help counter some of the prevailing narrative in the media world about how the internet is going to be the death of newspapers and therefore of serious writing or journalism.

”It’s striking to me how many people in the media only see the internet as a bogeyman, and completely fail to see the potential that it enables — what I’m doing would be totally impossible without the internet. Yes, the world is going to look totally different than it did during the glory years of newspapers, but we have only scratched the surface of what’s possible.”

As Thompson notes, he is not exactly getting rich from his blog, and whether he will still be able to make a living from it a year or two from now is unknown — but it is encouraging to see someone without a built-in national audience succeed with such a strategy, just as it’s encouraging to see people like my friend Jesse Brown succeed at crowdfunding a podcast, or see Contributoria and Beacon having some success with their direct-to-readers model. Let a thousand funding models bloom.

Social media and breaking news: Why authenticity trumps authority almost every time

There were a number of panels at the Web Summit in Dublin this week that talked about media and journalism, but the one that included VICE News, Time Inc. and Storyful was the discussion that has stuck with me — mostly because of a comment that Storyful founder Mark Little made about the paradigm shift that we’ve seen over the past few years involving real-time social media or “citizen journalism.” Among other things, Little said that “authenticity has replaced authority” when it comes to news, and especially what journalists like to call breaking news.

That makes for a great sound bite — you can tell that Little used to be a TV correspondent before he started the company — but what does it actually mean? For me at least, it means that many people (not all, of course, but many) are willing to pay more attention to sources of information that they believe are close to an event, rather than to traditional sources of sober, objective second-hand or third-hand information. In this scenario, Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat are the platforms that stand to gain, and traditional media like newspapers or even television mostly lose.

This isn’t going to be the case in every situation, but when it comes to breaking news about a specific event, in the initial stages of that event attention is always going to flow to the sources that are closest to the action, even if — and this is the really important part — the “authority” or credibility of those sources is in question. As Little put it during the Web Summit panel:

“Now people can bypass us using a camera phone and a social network, and the means of production have been completely overturned. Now everyone out there is a creator of content, and our job is more as managers of an overabundance of content.”

Dial up the immediacy, dial down the authority

We’ve seen this happen time and time again, whether it’s during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere, or in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, or any of the mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S. over the past couple of years. Even if the information is flawed and inherently untrustworthy — at least by the standard journalistic definition — people flock to it, share it, discuss it, and engage with it. It might not be the kind of behavior that media outlets would like to see, but it’s what happens. And it’s going to continue to happen.

This is an analogy I’ve used before, but it’s almost like people have two dials in front of them that they can use to filter or change the information they get: one of them says “speed” and/or “immediacy” on it, and the other one says “facts” and/or “authority.” And what many people do, using services like Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, is dial the first one up as soon as something newsworthy happens.

Please read the rest of this post at Gigaom