The rise and fall of the pineapple as a sign of social status

It may seem strange to picture the humble pineapple as a signal of social standing, but for about two hundred years, in the 1600s and 1700s, it was exactly that. The trend seems to have started after pineapples were brought back by explorers from tropical climates, and then rich folk throughout Britain started growing them and displaying the results on their tables, to the point where the pineapple became a symbol of wealth. A hothouse-grown pineapple cost about £60, or roughly £11,000 in today’s terms, and plates decorated with leaves and pineapple symbols were created to hold them so they could be displayed as a centerpiece. King Charles II even commissioned a painting of himself being presented with a pineapple at court, reportedly the first such fruit grown on British soil (although other reports say it was brought back as a juvenile and ripened in Britain).

Concerned about wasting such high-value fruit by eating it, owners displayed pineapples as dinnertime ornaments on special plates which would allow the pineapple to be seen and admired but surrounded by other, cheaper, fruit for eating. These pineapples were expensive enough to warrant security guards, and maids who transported them were considered to be at great risk of being targeted by thieves. The 1807 Proceedings of the Old Bailey show several cases for pineapple theft, Dr O’Hagan points out, including that of a Mr Godding who was sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia for stealing seven pineapples.

Because the ever-aspiring middle classes were anxious to get their mitts on the fruit but could not afford to cultivate or buy them, canny businessmen opened pineapple rental shops across Britain, according to a history from the BBC. Companies began to cash in on the fruit’s popularity and as with many crazes, the market for pineapple-themed goods exploded. Porcelain-makers Minton and Wedgwood started producing pineapple-shaped teapots, ewers and jelly moulds. Ornately carved clock cases, bookends and paintings extended the trend from the dining table to other rooms in the house. But eventually, steamships started bringing tropical fruit to Europe in great enough numbers that pineapples were no longer scarce, and prices dropped to the point where anyone could have one — even poor people.

Should Google and Facebook be forced to pay for content?

Note: I originally wrote this for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

In a recent column for the New York Times, media writer Ben Smith wrote about how regulators in Australia and France are moving to force digital platforms like Google and Facebook to pay media companies directly for the content they carry from publishers, in the wake of new copyright rules set by the European Union last year. A number of other countries have also tried to do this, with varying degrees of success — Germany passed a law in 2013, but has had difficulty enforcing it, while Spain passed a similar law in 2014, at which point Google responded by shutting down its Google News service completely in that country. The rationale for these kinds of moves against the digital platforms, as Smith laid out in his column, is relatively simple: Google and Facebook took control of the advertising industry, and thereby destroyed the media’s ability to earn a living, which in turn has led to a decline in journalism.

But is this true? Or did Google and Facebook just take advantage of the the internet to offer a better product, something media companies could also have done? Why should they be forced to support companies that were in decline long before the internet? To discuss these and other questions, we used CJR’s Galley discussion platform to hold a virtual discussion with a group of experts including Ben Smith of the Times; Jeff Jarvis, director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY; Monica Attard, the head of journalism at the University of Technology School in Sydney, Australia; Ben Thompson, a technology and media analyst who writes a subscription newsletter called Stratechery; Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, who runs the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

Jarvis, a longtime defender of Google and Facebook and author of a book entitled “What Would Google Do?”, argued that the digital platforms are a huge benefit to publishers, because they send them traffic (he also noted that Facebook has donated money to support his work at CUNY). “God did not give newspaper publishers the revenue they had. It is not their eternal entitlement,” Jarvis said. “In the new reality of the internet, new competitors came to offer news companies’ customers — advertisers — a better deal, while publishers insisted on clinging to their old, mass-media business model with all its inefficiencies.” Smith, however, countered that Google and Facebook benefited from laws that helped them grow. “Copyright has been interpreted not to include headlines. Platforms don’t have liability for what is published on them,” he said. “Those aren’t natural laws, they’re just regulations written by legislators.”

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Sometimes even being owned by a billionaire isn’t good enough

Note: I originally wrote this for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Before COVID-19 put the final nail in a number of media coffins, one of the escape routes that many journalists dreamed about was for their organization to be bought by a billionaire. After all, the Washington Post seemed to lead an almost charmed life from the moment it was acquired in 2013 by Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive (currently the richest man in the world with a net worth of about $150 billion). While others were cutting back because of an ongoing decline in ad revenue, the Post continued hiring, because Bezos said that the paper was in “investment mode,” and didn’t really need to turn a profit immediately. But even billionaires often reach a point where the business part of what they are doing takes precedence — after all, that kind of thinking is why many of them became billionaires, and you didn’t. And what just happened at the Atlantic magazine is one of the latest examples.

David Bradley, the magazine’s chairman and former controlling shareholder — who sold the Atlantic to Laurene Powell Jobs in 2017 for an undisclosed sum — announced that the company is cutting 68 jobs, or about 17 percent of its staff, and instituting a pay freeze for those who remain (executives are also taking pay cuts). Of the editorial positions that are being removed, about half are on the video team, and the other half appear to be staff who worked for the Atlantic‘s event business, which — like many other media companies — it has been building up for some time as an alternative to advertising revenue. The coronavirus, as Bradley pointed out in his memo, has effectively nuked that business, and no one is quite sure if or when it will ever return. “We would have paused over furloughs instead of severance if we believed the positions were coming back,” Bradley said in his memo to staff.

All of these business realities are just that — reality. Anyone who has been following the media business knows that it was in poor financial shape even before COVID-19. But the Atlantic stands out in part because it has been firing on all cylinders, both in journalistic terms and in business terms. The magazine launched a paywall, and Bradley said that it has been very successful, bringing in 90,000 new subscribers in just the past month, for a total of 450,000. One of the reasons for that growth is likely the excellent journalism that the Atlantic has have been turning out, not just on the coronavirus — where Ed Yong has become a must-read for his in-depth, analytical takes — but on other topics as well. So this leads to the obvious question: if you are doing literally everything right, subscribers are growing, and you are owned by a billionaire (Powell Jobs is worth about $26 billion at last count), and yet you still lose almost 20 percent of your staff, what chance does anyone else have?

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Experts weigh in on Facebook’s new Oversight Board

Note: I originally wrote this for the newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Almost two years after it first started talking about the idea, Facebook finally announced the first members of its so-called Oversight Board, the “Supreme Court” that will — theoretically, at least — have the ability to overrule Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg when it comes to questions about whether certain types of content should be taken down or not. The 20 initial members were announced last week (there will be a total of about 40 at some point in the future, Facebook says), and they are an impressive group, including a Nobel Peace Prize winner, multiple experts in constitutional law, a former federal court judge, etc. But despite this pedigreed roster, there are still plenty of problematic questions about the board itself, including: How much power will it actually have? Is it just an elaborate PR effort designed to make it look as though the company is doing something, to keep regulators at bay?

We used CJR’s Galley discussion platform to host a virtual panel discussion on these and other related questions, with input from a number of journalists and other experts including Daphne Keller, a director at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society and former deputy legal counsel at Google; Steven Levy, Wired magazine editor-at-large and author of the recent book “Facebook: The Inside Story“; David Kaye, the UN’s special rapporteur for freedom of expression; Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and former head of security at Facebook; Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s journalism school, and Rebecca MacKinnon, a co-founder of Global Voices and founding director of the Ranking Digital Rights project the New America Foundation.

Levy said he first heard about the oversight board concept when Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, mentioned it as something he was mulling over, a way to address his often-stated remark that “You don’t want me to determine who gets to say what.” The veteran technology writer said his reaction to Zuckerberg has always been to say “you built this system and now you own it, including the responsibility for what’s on it,” but he admitted that he is intrigued by the idea that Zuckerberg — even in a small way — has “authorized an outside body to overrule him, a power that for all effective purposes, even his board of directors doesn’t have.” MacKinnon, however, noted that while the board’s membership is illustrious, “it cannot stop the exploitative collection and sharing of user data, or stop the company from deploying opaque algorithms that prioritize inflammatory content to maximize engagement.”

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