Marc Andreessen on Edward Snowden, acts of treason, mass surveillance and Silicon Valley

While freedom-of-information advocates and critics of the U.S. government’s policies on mass surveillance were busy celebrating the 1st anniversary of Edward Snowden’s massive NSA leaks, venture capitalist and former Netscape founder Marc Andreessen was pushing a somewhat different message. In his view, Snowden is a traitor whose acts — along with the resulting confusion they have created about what the NSA is doing — have endangered U.S. foreign relations and U.S. companies, and therefore he shouldn’t be celebrated as a hero.

Andreessen made some of his remarks in a video interview with Andrew Ross Sorkin for the CNBC show Squawk Box (which is embedded below), and then followed up later with a discussion on Twitter, which I have edited into a Storify module and also embedded below. In the video, which is also embedded below, Andreessen says Snowden is clearly a traitor for leaking the NSA documents to then-Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald and his partner, filmmaker Laura Poitras:

Obviously he’s a traitor — if you look up in the encyclopedia ‘traitor,’ there’s a picture of Edward Snowden. He’s like a textbook traitor, they don’t get much more traitor than that… Why? Because he stole national security secrets and gave them to everyone on the planet.

It’s not clear whether Andreessen is right about the open-and-shut nature of Snowden’s case, however: as a number of legal experts pointed out during the Twitter discussion, treason typically requires that the accused gives aid or military secrets directly to the enemy, whereas Snowden gave his information to the media (this issue of “aiding the enemy” and whether it includes the media came up in the trial of Chelsea Manning for leaking documents to WikiLeaks).

Andreessen also says in the video that he found the shock with which most people greeted the NSA revelations to be surprising, since spying is what the organization was designed to do from the very beginning:

If you actually followed the NSA, if you actually read the books and the articles and understood the history of the NSA, I think you’d generally assume that they were doing pretty much everything that has come out… I thought they were spying, I mean that was my impression… I thought everyone knew that.

Following the interview (which Gawker Media suggested was designed primarily to bolster the value of the giant technology companies that Andreessen either invests in and/or partners with), the Netscape founder was questioned on a number of points by veteran technology journalist Dan Gillmor, as well as Tow Center fellow Alexander Howard and a number of others, including me. Gillmor began by asking whether Andreessen was more upset that U.S. companies were hacked, or that this was revealed to the world by the Snowden documents.

Puzzled by your logic, @pmarca — are you more upset that US is hacking US-based companies to spy or that it was revealed to the world?

— Dan Gillmor (@dangillmor) June 5, 2014

In the discussion that followed, Andreessen argued that the understanding of what the NSA does was warped by the initial reporting on the Snowden slides, which suggested that companies were voluntarily providing carte-blanche access to their servers. Subsequent reports have said that companies like Google and Facebook only provide the information that is required under government orders, although the exact process by which this occurs remains somewhat murky.

Andreessen also argued that much of what Snowden did involved the surveillance of non-U.S. citizens, and that in his view this is exactly what the NSA is supposed to be doing, and therefore not the kind of illegal or even immoral behavior that would justify a whistleblower like Snowden revealing the information in the way he did:

Not everyone agrees, however: Howard, for example, noted that mass surveillance of any kind raises free-speech and human rights issues, and others noted that the behavior of the U.S. government was of interest to its people regardless of who exactly was being spied on. Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation called Andreessen’s views “abhorrent,” while Greenwald argued that by the same reasoning, disclosures about torture at the Abu Ghraib prison shouldn’t qualify as whistleblowing because the victims involved weren’t U.S. citizens.

Andreessen said that the issues raised by the NSA’s behavior were complicated — since recording the phone calls or other activity of foreign agents often involves capturing the behavior of American citizens as well — and that collecting and storing “metadata” about online behavior was also not a black-and-white question. The Netscape founder also pointed out that his company, the first browser maker, was a vocal advocate of strong encryption.

In the end, as one user pointed out, the question of whether Snowden is a traitor or a hero — that is, whether his leaking of the NSA documents was justified because of the behavior it revealed on the part of the government — is largely a side issue: ultimately, the important question is whether snooping en masse on U.S. citizens is wrong, and if so what should be done about it. And that question has yet to be answered, by either Marc Andreessen or anyone else.

Images courtesy of Flickr user Petteri Sulonen and All Things D

While others shut down comments, the NYT wants to expand them

If there was a ranking of popularity for online behavior, internet comments would probably wind up somewhere just below pop-up ads or auto-play videos. Seen by many as a haven for trolls and spam, a number of sites — including Popular Science and Bloomberg — have gotten rid of them. But there are still those who believe allowing readers to comment is a worthwhile endeavor, and the New York Times appears to belong to this group: instead of getting rid of comments, the paper says it plans to expand its commenting features and invest more resources in them.

Community editor Bassey Etim told public editor Margaret Sullivan that in contrast to some other organizations, the Times sees the readers who leave comments on its site as a “celebrity class” of users, and wants to give them more features and recognize their contributions. How exactly it plans to do that isn’t clear, but Etim said the number of Times stories that are open to comments will increase — from an average of about 20 each day to more than twice that (opinion columns are almost always open).

Unlike many of the other organizations that have chosen to kill off their comments — including Re/code, Reuters and The Week — the New York Times apparently doesn’t believe that social-media networks such as Twitter and Facebook can take the place of reader interaction directly on the Times site. As I’ve tried to argue before, the fact that those tools exist should be seen as an addition to traditional commenting, not a replacement for it. In addition to the Times, sites like Quartz, Medium and Gawker have been experimenting with ways of improving comments rather than killing them.

Those are real readers

Another common argument made by sites that have chosen to kill their comments is that the people who post comments aren’t a publication’s “real” readers, and/or make up such a small proportion of the readership that they don’t really matter. Bloomberg’s online editor Joshua Topolsky, for example, said that the site would not have comments after a redesign because the number of people who would be served by them was so minuscule:

”You’re really talking about less than one percent of the overall audience that’s engaged in commenting, even if it looks like a very active community. In the grand scheme of the audience, it doesn’t represent the readership.”

This kind of comment ignores a number of things, however: One is that an active community of readers should never be ignored, even if some of them behave badly from time to time (and in fact that kind of behavior only increases if you ignore them). And the second is that even if the number of people who comment is low, the number of readers who pay attention to comments is arguably a lot higher — given the traditional social-media rule of thumb that says 90 percent of people read or lurk, with only one percent taking action.

New York Times innovation report cropped

New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, who spent part of her column discussing the problems that readers have with the NYT’s comments — including having comments not show up, or not being able to post them from the West Coast because a story has already been closed to new comments — said she believes that comments are a key part of the newspaper’s relationship with its readers. While the Times system is not perfect, she said, “reader commenting is one of the best ways for The Times to stay close to its readers and what they care most about.”

The NYT isn’t the only major publication that believes comments have value: Aron Pilhofer, the head of digital for The Guardian in London — and the former head of the digital team at the New York Times — said at the recent News:Rewired conference that he believes media organizations who choose to shut down their comments are making a huge mistake:

”I feel very strongly that digital journalism needs to be a conversation with readers. This is one, if not the most important area of emphasis that traditional newsrooms are actually ignoring. You see site after site killing comments and moving away from community – that’s a monumental mistake… readers need and deserve a voice. They should be a core part of your journalism.”

The audience-development team at the Times is said to be working on a number of potential enhancements to the commenting function at the paper, changes that are expected to build on some earlier features and experiments with added functionality — such as the introduction of “verified commenter” status in 2011. Verified commenters are selected by the Times based on their previous behavior and can post comments without having them be moderated before they appear (the paper has a moderation team of about 13 people).

As I argued at the time, the verified-commenter feature could have been the first step in getting some devoted Times readers to “level up” or become more involved in a community of readers at the paper, a relationship that could then be monetized in a number of ways. The Times is also a partner — along with a number of other media organizations such as the Washington Post — in a project being run by the Mozilla Foundation, called The Coral Project, which is building an open-source platform for reader interaction, including comments.

In the age of niche media, everyone still really wants to be mass

One of the best things about the web is that it has meant an explosion of choices when it comes to media, especially recently — with the rise of BuzzFeed, the launch of sites like Vox and Fusion, and blog networks like Gawker. And of course we still have all the old places too, like the New York Times and Washington Post and The Atlantic. If anything, we have too many places publishing great content for anyone to keep up.

And that brings up a related problem, which Purdue University doctoral student Frederik De Boer wrote about in a recent blog post. In a nutshell, De Boer said that his problem with many of the new-media sites that have popped up over the past year, such as Fusion — which was launched recently by the Fusion network, a cable channel co-owned by Disney/ABC and Univision that caters to millennials — is that they share a certain sameness of content.

”It just isn’t about anything in the way that the site’s founders and editorial people clearly want it to be. You can write a manifesto, and you can have some sort of goofy TV channel side-piece going on, and you’re still another site publishing people writing about news and politics and culture and sometimes sports. And in that, you’re joining every other website that publishes about news and politics and culture and sometimes sports.”

A striking sameness

De Boer goes on to talk about other sites such as Slate and The Atlantic, the revamped New York Times magazine, the New Republic, Vox and several others, and his point (at least as I understand it) is that each of these sites is producing something very similar to its competitors — the names may be different, and each site has something or someone that might stand out from time to time, but for the most part they are each covering the news in politics, culture and sometimes sports in a very similar way.

Reading newspapers

Some of De Boer’s specific criticisms feel a bit like a drive-by-shooting: the New Republic, for example, consists of “the same stuff, written by every non-white male [new editor] Gabriel Snyder could find to exorcise the vengeful presence of Marty Peretz’s farting ghost,” while Vox has “a new-fangled invention called the card-stack — an innovative approach which allows webpages to link to other pages.” The Awl is described as “a lot of the same stuff, brought to you by the emotion sadness.”

Those sarcastic descriptions aside, however, I think De Boer makes a good point, which is summed up in the title of his post: “Unless your site is about one thing, it’s about everything.” If your site doesn’t have a unique focus, or a theme or defining vision when it comes to what you cover and when, then you are going to look like everyone else. And that’s not a good thing. ”I no longer know what a website means as an identity, unless that identity is a specific subject. I know what Guns and Ammo is. I know what Road and Track is. (I know what Redtube is.) I don’t know what Fusion is.”

That’s not to say everything is mass-oriented, of course. Sites like Search Engine Land and Skift are aimed at a niche market, and while they may not get as much publicity, they are arguably better businesses in many ways. Other sites such as The Information — which charges $400 a year — are clearly aimed at niche readers as well. But most of the attention in the media sphere seems to go towards the sites with the really big numbers, like BuzzFeed or Gawker.

A drive for revenue

It’s ironic in many ways, but there’s an ongoing tension within the online media industry: Even though the web allows individual writers or groups of writers to target very specific audiences and be successful doing so — as the tech blogger Ben Thompson has been able to do with his site Stratechery, for example — there is still a huge amount of pressure (both perceived and actual) for sites to be as broad as the mass media they have replaced.

newspaper boxes

Much of that pressure comes from an advertising-driven revenue model, which is driven by the need for large numbers, of pageviews or unique visitors, etc. My friend Josh Benton at the Nieman Journalism Lab is right that some of this comes from the fact that BuzzFeed and Vox are VC-funded and therefore need scale. But on top of that, there is internal pressure for a broad or large audience, because it makes those who are writing and publishing feel as though their work has more value. Says De Boer:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”These places run good writing. I’m not disputing that. I’m just saying that they are always launched with fanfare about what makes them different, but I’m not sure that you can ever maintain that kind of vision as an actually-existing publisher unless your site has a very specific, subject matter-based focus.”[/blockquote]

The risk is that because you can write about anything, you feel like you should write about everything. But to the extent that your content feels as though it could have appeared at any one of a dozen different sites, that’s bad — it makes it dramatically less likely that anyone will a) remember your site or b) deliberately choose to go back there.

With more and more people finding content through social networks and sharing, there’s already a declining likelihood that they will remember where a specific piece of news or commentary came from. Do you really need to make it even harder by writing about all the same things every other site is, or presenting them in the same way? That just leaves you chasing the drive-by, click-through audience, and that has to be the worst business in the world.

Two great examples of how journalism has changed for the better

Are we living in a golden age for journalism, or is it the Dark Ages? There’s nothing that gets a group of media types going like that question, which is kind of an updated version of a perennial favorite: “Are bloggers journalists?” Obviously, the kind of upheaval that leads to mass layoffs at papers like the Chicago Sun-Times or the loss of $500 million in ad revenue for the New York Times is nothing to sneeze at.

But it’s important to take note of the good things that the web has brought as well — and the best is that journalism has been freed from its confines, and is available to anyone, anywhere, at any time. And that can be very, very powerful.

Everyone likes to point out when this state of affairs fails in some way: like when Reddit users identified the wrong man as the Boston bomber in 2013, for example, or when a network of media sites perpetuate obvious hoaxes and misinformation because they care more about clicks than the truth, something Craig Silverman described in detail in his recent report for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

Sometimes it works

But I think it’s also worth pointing out when “citizen journalism” — or networked journalism, or whatever we want to call it — really works, and a couple of great examples of that have come to light recently. One of them is related to a project that I’ve written about: namely, the open Ukrainian vehicle tracking database that British investigative blogger Eliot Higgins and his team have been putting together through his Bellingcat website, which tracks the movements of Russian troops and machinery in and around Ukraine.

BellingCat project

Eliot, as I’ve mentioned before, has no formal journalistic training and no background in media whatsoever. But starting from his flat in Leicester, England in 2011 — where he blogged under the nom de plume Brown Moses — he became an expert in Syrian weaponry and terrorist activity by studying YouTube videos and networking with other self-taught experts. His research was cited by New York Times writer C.J. Chivers, and helped confirm that the Syrian government was using banned weapons.

Gathering evidence

In a similar way, the open database of vehicle sightings in Ukraine that Eliot and his team at the Bellingcat site have been putting together — using photos and videos and eyewitness reports of vehicles, blast craters and burn marks that have been posted by residents — has produced some fairly strong evidence that Russia has been firing missiles and other weaponry into Ukraine from inside Russian territory, despite repeated government denials.

The second example comes via a piece in the New York Times magazine, which will be published in print this weekend but is already available online. It tells the story of a group of residents who live in one of the worst slums in Rio de Janeiro — a group that calls itself “Papo Reto,” meaning “straight talk.” Armed only with cellphones, they have been documenting police violence in the Rio favela, at great personal cost, because the Brazilian media apparently isn’t interested.

Ribeiro predicted that at some point the police would turn on the crowd. They wanted to be on hand when it happened. “Tonight, this protest will be on the news, but I doubt any of the big television stations will show the police doing anything wrong,” Ribeiro said.

NYT magazine Rio feature

In both of these cases, there is a key reason why amateur journalism is required: in Ukraine, it is difficult for media outlets to devote the kind of resources that would be required to document every sighting of every Russian vehicle, or spend weeks analyzing different types of missile, or the blast marks that they leave when they are fired from a truck. Crowdsourcing of the kind Bellingcat does isn’t just a nice addition to existing coverage, it adds a crucial missing element.

In the case of the Rio favela, the existing media doesn’t seem interested if a few people happen to die suspiciously, since that happens all the time — but it is of extreme interest to the residents of the Complexo do Alemão slum, and also to human-rights groups like Witness, which is trying to help more “citizen journalists” document that kind of behavior in similar situations.

In a similar way, Twitter and other forms of social media have become crucial pathways for information in countries like Turkey, where most of the traditional media are either uninterested in the activities of the government or censor themselves because they don’t want to rock the boat. Twitter has become so important that Turkey has tried to ban it, and has pressured the company to block content — including the account of an alternative newspaper (to its credit, Twitter refused).

Are there flaws in citizen journalism? Of course there are. Is there a downside to giving everyone a video camera and a Twitter account and telling them to become reporters? Definitely. But there is also a massive upside to doing so, and examples like Bellingcat and Papo Reto in Rio de Janeiro make that point better than I ever could.

The viral content problem: Many people don’t care whether it’s true

Craig Silverman, the author of a book about journalism and fact-checking called Regret The Error and a column by the same name at the Poynter Institute, has come out with a major report on the problem of online hoaxes and misinformation, a study he did for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. It is an impressive survey of how the desire for pageviews and online “engagement” compels many online media outlets to distribute fake news.

In the pre-amble to his report, Craig (who I should note is a friend) points out that while we usually expect news organizations to disseminate “quality, accurate information” about the world around us, many media companies — and not just digital upstarts but traditional ones — persist in distributing questionable information, even when they suspect it is false: ”News websites dedicate far more time and resources to propagating questionable and often false claims than they do working to verify and/or debunk viral content and online rumors. Rather than acting as a source of accurate information, online media frequently promote misinformation in an attempt to drive traffic and social engagement.”

Recent examples of hoaxes are legion, and many of them have been debunked on a site that Craig started called — an attempt to create a kind of crowdsourced verification engine that can latch onto hoaxes and determine quickly whether they are true or not. From snow on the pyramids in Egypt to a woman who allegedly had three breasts, every month or so seems to spawn a fresh batch of questionable news reports, many of which show up on some of the leading news websites such as CNN and even Reuters.


As Craig notes in his report (which I encourage you to read if you care about this topic), hoaxes and rumors are not new to journalism — there have been outlets that specialize in that for as long as there have been newspapers, whether it’s the British tabloids or the National Enquirer. But a combination of factors have led to the explosion of misinformation we see all around us, including the rise of the social web and the 24-hour news cycle. Silverman uses the example of the disappearance of Malaysian flight 370:

”The drive to fill the empty space with something — particularly on cable news — was partly human nature, and also partly dependent on the need to meet the public’s insatiable demand for information. All of us — journalists and the public — sought to understand what had happened. But facts were sparse. So we engaged in collective sensemaking and rumor propagation to fill the void.”

Fake news goes viral

In effect, we are all CNN now: Every website that wants to attract an audience, no matter how large or how small, feels the overwhelming pressure to be first with a news report — regardless of how questionable it might be. And the more salacious or titillating that report is, the more likely an editor is to hit the publish button, and to hide his or her doubts behind a question-mark headline or the phrase “reports say.” And then many of those sites will double down on this strategy by running stories about how their initial reports were false.

newspaper boxes

Occasionally, the tension between wanting to be first with a report that people might click on and wanting to be accurate bursts out into the open. In his report, Silverman mentions a discussion in 2013 between Gawker founder Nick Denton and one of his then-writers, viral specialist Neetzan Zimmerman — who at the time was responsible for posts that drove tens of millions of unique visitors to the site, by reporting on whatever was going viral on dozens of social networks. At one point, Zimmerman says:

”Most viral content demands from its audience a certain suspension of disbelief. The fact is that viral content warehouses like BuzzFeed trade in unverifiable schmaltz exactly because that is the kind of content that goes viral. People don’t look to these stories for hard facts and shoe-leather reporting. They look to them for fleeting instances of joy or comfort. That is the part they play in the Internet news hole.”

Who cares if it’s true?

As part of his report, Silverman talks about the psychology behind why we all participate in distributing hoaxes and rumors and questionable information — and we definitely all do it, even journalists. I freely confess that I have retweeted news stories or headlines or reports that I haven’t verified, even though I am regularly humiliated for doing so. Usually it’s because I am in a hurry, and the report seems so interesting that I don’t bother to check.

In many cases, we re-publish and distribute these reports because on some level we want them to be true. We want to believe that a woman who posed for a photo in Iraq with a rifle is single-handedly leading a battalion against the forces of ISIS. Why? Because it would make a great story. And that’s why the single best advice for journalists — or anyone else, for that matter — when it comes to news is “If it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t.”

This photo posted to Twitter shows the so-called Angel of Kobane, who allegedly killed hundreds of ISIS soldiers -- reports that have since been discredited
This photo shows a female fighter known as the Angel of Kobane, who allegedly killed hundreds of ISIS soldiers

In other cases, however — and I would argue that this is a much larger problem than media companies redistributing false information — the vast majority of people simply don’t care whether a report is true or not. They are going to share it anyway, because it is funny, or touching, or creepy, or disturbing. In other words, it sparks some kind of human emotion. Fusion writer and former Reuters columnist Felix Salmon described this well in a piece he wrote in 2013: ”The reasons that people share basically have nothing to do with whether or not the thing being shared is true. If your company was built from day one to produce stuff which people want to share, then that will always end up including certain things which aren’t true.”

The lines have blurred

This is the one big issue with attempts at crowdsourced verification, whether it’s or Facebook’s recent announcement that it is trying to crack down on hoaxes that get spread via the social network: Facebook’s attempt in particular relies on people to click a button and flag something as a potential hoax — but most people are never going to do this, not just because it takes effort on their part, but because they probably don’t even care whether the report is true or not. They will share it anyway.

In the old days, when media came to us via certain distinct channels — a newspaper, a TV network — it was easy to distinguish fact from entertainment, or gossip from truth. Certain outlets could be trusted, and others couldn’t. But now, the media we consume comes at us from all directions, and the original source isn’t always obvious. And factual news content blurs into entertainment content until everything looks the same.

In effect, we are all trying to figure out whom to trust and when, and the barriers between us and the sausage-making process known as journalism have been removed. That means it’s not just up to media organizations to fix this problem — although they definitely play a major role — it’s up to all of us as news consumers.

Here’s why platforms like YouTube shouldn’t remove ISIS videos

Almost every week, it seems, we have a new case in which social platforms and media outlets — which are increasingly becoming the same thing, in many ways — are faced with a difficult choice: Should they post that video of someone being beheaded, or some other horrible thing? Or should they save users and viewers from seeing it by never publishing it, or taking it down if it’s posted? In the most recent case, YouTube chose to remove a video of a Jordanian pilot being set on fire by ISIS, while Fox News published it.

The argument in favor of not publishing such videos — or taking them down when they are posted — is fairly obvious: Namely, that it’s horrific, and many people will be offended by seeing it, especially the family and friends of the victim. Also, these videos are essentially recruiting tools for ISIS, and so many argue that by publishing them, Fox News and others are aiding the enemy.

Assuming these things are true, what justification could there be for arguing that media outlets should publish them, or that YouTube and Twitter and Facebook are wrong to remove them? At the risk of agreeing with Fox News, I think there are a couple of good reasons. One is that there’s a public interest in allowing free speech, even speech we disagree with or find abhorrent. In fact, the real test of our commitment to this principle is whether we defend someone’s right to say offensive things.

Freedom of speech

One common response to the free-speech argument is that platforms like Twitter and YouTube and Facebook are private companies, and therefore they don’t really have any commitment to uphold free speech, because the First Amendment only applies to actions taken by the government. But this doesn’t really hold water for a number of reasons: for one thing, freedom of speech is a principle many believe is worth upholding even when it doesn’t apply to government — that’s why there were “Je Suis Charlie” marches.

Papers with 'I am Charlie' displayed are left near candles at a vigil in front of the French Embassy following the terrorist attack in Paris on January 7, 2015 in Berlin, Germany.
Papers with ‘I am Charlie’ displayed are left near candles at a vigil in front of the French Embassy following the terrorist attack in Paris on January 7, 2015 in Berlin, Germany.

Also, media outlets like the New York Times are private companies just the same as Facebook is, and yet most people see these traditional media entities as having a public duty to freedom of information and free speech. So why doesn’t YouTube have the same duty? Why do we complain when the New York Times hides important information, but we don’t see it as a breach of social responsibility when Facebook takes down pages with information about Syrian chemical weapon attacks, or breastfeeding videos?

There’s a clear risk to handing over much of our free-speech rights to private platforms like Facebook, or even Twitter — a risk that critics like Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Rebecca MacKinnon of Global Voices have written about. How do we know what they are removing, or why? You may agree with their decision to not show a beheading video, or to filter Google searches so that “How do I join ISIS?” doesn’t come up, but what else are they hiding from you for your own good? You don’t know.

A duty to be informed

But free speech isn’t the only reason why I think we should be pressuring YouTube and Facebook not to remove this kind of content. The second reason was summed up well by Sylvie Barak — when I asked on Twitter whether such videos should be banned. She (and several others) argued that it is our duty as citizens to be as informed as we can be about the behavior of groups like ISIS, especially when we are committing significant military resources to fighting them:

@mathewi also, during the Holocaust, many Germans claimed they “didn’t know” the horrors of the death camps. With ISIS, we know.

— sylvie barak (@sylviebarak) February 4, 2015

Piers Morgan made essentially the same argument in a post he wrote about why he forced himself to watch the video of the Jordanian pilot being set on fire: he said he felt it was necessary in order to fully appreciate the barbaric nature of ISIS — something he said wouldn’t be accomplished by just reading a description of the incident. A writer with the Times of Israel made a very similar casein a piece she wrote about watching the video.

My friend Andy Carvin wrote a post recently in which he talked about wrestling with the issue of whether to link to or embed this kind of content — something he ran up against during his time reporting on the Arab Spring uprisings. Such behavior is horrific, he said, and yet there are dozens of cases in which media entities have made the decision to show similar things: naked children running from U.S. napalm attacks on Vietnam, for example, or American soldiers dead on a beach.

The argument in these cases is that there is a social duty that trumps the digust such images produce: that people need to see this kind of behavior in order to appreciate what is happening in the world — either what is being done to our citizens by others, or what we are doing to someone else. Isn’t that a duty that should apply to Twitter and Facebook and YouTube as well as the New York Times? And if not, why not? If you want to see the video in question, there’s a Fox News version here.

Brown Moses launches crowdsourced tracking of troops in Ukraine

I’ve been fascinated with the work of British investigative blogger Eliot “Brown Moses” Higgins for some time now, in part because he is a classic example of how someone with the right skills and motivation can use the social web to function as a journalist with little or no professional training. Last year, Eliot created a site called Bellingcat to build on the work that he and others are doing around real-time verification, and now the team has launched a project designed to develop a crowdsourced database of military activity in Ukraine.

Higgins and Bellingcat have been working on identifying and cataloguing movements of armored vehicles, troops and other activity in and around Ukraine ever since Russia started interfering in that country and then subsequently annexed the Crimean peninsula. In one of the site’s major efforts to date, it used social media and various other tools to help confirm that Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was taken down by pro-Russian separatists with a BUK M1 missile launcher last July.

Real-time verification

The site did this using much the same process that Higgins (whom I consider a friend) used when he was the first to confirm that the Syrian government had used cluster bombs against its own people in a series of attacks. By correlating images and video clips — which in many cases were posted by militant groups themselves — with locations from Google Earth and other sources with data about the area and military hardware, Higgins was able to establish how the attacks occurred, and the specific types of weapons that were involved.

BellingCat project

For the Ukraine project, Bellingcat has created a real-time database of Russian and Ukrainian military movements, with photos and geographical location information, and has opened that database up for anyone to contribute to. For verification, the team is using its own expertise as well as a service called Checkdesk, a live-blogging platform that was started by social-technology group Meedan and won a Knight Fund challenge last year. And the data behind the project is all being hosted publicly through a site called Silk, which allows anyone to see, embed and potentially even modify the data.

As a blog post at Bellingcat describes, the project was jump-started with the data that Daniel Romein put together while trying to confirm when and how Flight MH17 was attacked. But Bellingcat team member Veli-Pekka Kivimäki says the site didn’t want to just post a photo or location every time there was a new confirmed sighting of troops or vehicles in Ukraine — it wanted to create a database that would grow and evolve with each new piece of information.

BellingCat project2

In an email message, Eliot said the project brings together a bunch of things he has been trying to do since he started the Bellingcat site, such as giving others who want to develop the same kinds of skills the tools to start learning with: ”By using Checkdesk, we hope to build a community of open source and social media investigators, helping them build their skills and knowledge by participating in a live, on-going project. We’re collecting, verifying, and presenting the information in an as open way as possible.”

Using Silk as a data platform means the information about military activity and identification of vehicles and weaponry can be continually updated, Higgins said. And because of the way Silk works, anywhere the representations of that data are embedded — whether as maps or image galleries — will automatically be updated when new information is added.

BellingCat project3

“There’s already a lot of people working on collecting and geolocating these videos, so we know there’s plenty of information out there already, it just needs to be collected in one place,” Higgins said. Bellingcat team member Kivimäki notes in the blog post that the hope is to “build a large data set that can be mined to make entirely new discoveries.” So, for example, a group of vehicles was seen travelling towards the Donetsk region in June, and similar vehicles were seen in Ukraine the same day — were they the same ones?

The data hosted in Silk is broken down into three categories: Sightings contain links to whatever media is available — whether it’s photos or video — along with data like location, type of equipment, etc. These can also be grouped. Another category is equipment, which contains a list of the different kinds of weapons and vehicles that have been seen. And the “unique units” category collects items that have been conclusively identified, via licence plate or other ID.

Plenty of media outlets are tracking and reporting on what’s happening in Ukraine — but Higgins is the only one I can think of who is taking a completely open approach, not just with his reporting, but with all of the images and videos and geographical data related to that work, to the point where anyone can embed and/or contribute to it. That’s a model more media companies could stand to adopt, in my view, and a great example of the benefits of crowdsourced verification and networked or “citizen” journalism.

Guardian digital editor is right — ending comments is a mistake

No one seems to like web comments any more, at least not in the traditional media anyway. Websites like Reuters and Re/code and Popular Science and Bloomberg have gotten rid of them, and plenty of media insiders have been cheering this movement on, since they see comment sections as cesspools. So it’s nice to hear someone like Guardian digital editor Aron Pilhofer say killing off comments is a “monumental mistake.”

In a talk at the News:Rewired conference in London, Pilhofer — who used to run the digital team at the New York Times, before joining the Guardian last year — said that many traditional newsrooms are failing to take full advantage of the web’s ability to create a two-way relationship with readers, and that this is a crucial element of what journalism has become in a digital age. As he put it: ”I feel very strongly that digital journalism needs to be a conversation with readers. This is one, if not the most important area of emphasis that traditional newsrooms are actually ignoring. You see site after site killing comments and moving away from community – that’s a monumental mistake…. readers need and deserve a voice. They should be a core part of your journalism.”

Open journalism

Pilhofer talked about how the Guardian looks at its audience, which is as a partner in its journalism, through projects like Guardian Witness — a site where readers can suggest story ideas and also become involved in the reporting of them — which emerged from its repeated experiments in “crowdsourcing.” For the British paper, the concept of “open journalism” as a dialogue between reporters and readers has been a central part of its mandate under outgoing editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger.

paidContent Live 2013 Alan Rusbridger Editor in Chief The Guardian
Alan Rusbridger, Editor in Chief, The Guardian paidContent Live 2013 Albert Chau /

The fact that I agree whole-heartedly with Pilhofer probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been reading Gigaom over the past few years: I’ve argued repeatedly that real and ongoing engagement with readers — which involves more than just a passive “Here’s our content, please click on it” kind of relationship — is a crucial part of what journalism is now, in part because this trusted relationship with readers is the only real asset that media companies have left to monetize in an increasingly competitive landscape.

Projects like Guardian Witness are the kinds of things that all media companies should be doing more of, Pilhofer said, because reader engagement is “a huge resource we are largely ignoring” as an industry. That’s the bottom line: not so much whether a newspaper or news site has comments or not, but whether it is trying to reach out to its readers in any real way and make them part of its journalism. Or do they just see the audience as a giant click factory?

All readers matter

Whenever I try to make this point, someone inevitably says that of course they want to have a relationship with their readers, but comments aren’t the way to do it, because they are just a cesspool of bad behavior — and/or because the people who post in the comments aren’t their real readers, as Bloomberg editor Joshua Topolsky argued in an interview about the site’s redesign: ”You’re really talking about less than one percent of the overall audience that’s engaged in commenting, even if it looks like a very active community. In the grand scheme of the audience, it doesn’t represent the readership.”

Community generic

Topolsky’s is a common response to comments: “Those people aren’t our real readers, so we can afford to ignore them, and pay attention only to the people who choose to be on the social networks that we frequent, like Twitter and Facebook.” But what about the people who don’t want to have their comments tied to their identity on Facebook — or the readers who choose not to belong to those social networks at all? They in effect become second-class citizens, whose opinions or input aren’t wanted or valued.

On top of that problem, the readers who are on those networks still have to seek out the commentary on the stories they are interested in discussing. Tools exist to pull responses from Twitter and Facebook back into a comment section on a news site, but few publishers use them. It seems that most would rather outsource their commenting — and by extension, their relationship with their readers — to these third-party networks.

But comments are unfixable, right? Or at least, without spending huge amounts of time and resources on them. That’s another common response when anyone proposes that they not be killed off. But some sites have shown that it is possible to improve them without an enormous resource commitment: Digiday wrote recently about how comments at Salon improved dramatically once someone started to pay attention to them, and took a few steps to encourage good behavior.

Comments aren’t the ultimate expression of community or a relationship with readers by any means. Social networks are also very powerful tools in different ways. But if you can’t figure out how to engage with your readers and build a community of some kind on your own website — around your own content — how can you expect any of your readers to take your commitment to that relationship seriously?

Ben Thompson: The one-man blog isn’t dead, it’s better than ever

Not surprisingly, the announcement by veteran political blogger Andrew Sullivan that he is retiring from active duty sparked a firestorm of blogging-related responses (including one from me) in which many argued that the days of the lone blogger are over — just like the days of the cowboy or the gentleman adventurer are over. Technology analyst and blogger Ben Thompson begs to differ, however: he says his site is doing better than ever, and that his success is proof that a subscription-based niche model for publishing can work.

I’ve written about Thompson a number of times before, because I think his attempt to build a business around just his writing is an interesting one: he launched his site, Stratechery, in April of last year as a fairly unknown blogger — certainly not a household name, even in tech circles — with a tiered “freemium” subscription plan that was based primarily on long, analytical blog posts and a daily newsletter with similar content.

Within about six months, he had over a thousand subscribers paying him $100 a year for access to his newsletter (the shorter daily posts on the website are free). That meant an annual revenue run-rate of about $100,000 — enough to make it a living, along with some speaking and consulting, and tentative proof that a “thousand true fans” model like that envisioned by Wired editor Kevin Kelly could actually work on a practical basis.

Niche readers will pay

In a response to the “blogging is dead” meme that was triggered by Sullivan’s announcement, Thompson says that he just passed the 2,000-subscriber mark, which means he now has a revenue run-rate of about $200,000 a year (the “churn” rate, or the rate at which subscribers drop off, is less than 10 percent he said). And this proves a niche model that serves a specific interest group will work, Thompson argues — as well or better than a model that relies on mass advertising revenue.

”I am, of course, acutely aware that there is a tradeoff when it comes to the subscription business model: by making something scarce, and worth paying for, you are by definition limiting your number of readers. Stratechery, though, serves a niche, and niches are best served by making more from customers who really care than from milking pennies from everyone.”

In fact, Thompson argues — and I agree — that Sullivan’s own success helps prove this case as well: in just a year, the Daily Dish blogger managed to convince more than 30,000 subscribers to contribute money, and by last year was pulling in close to $1 million in revenue solely from subscriptions. That may look sad compared to the revenues of a site like BuzzFeed or Vox, but it’s an amazing success for a small blog.


The core of Thompson’s argument is that the more niche and targeted your content is, the better off you are likely to be with a subscription model (The Information, a business and technology site started by former Wall Street Journal reporter Jessica Lessin, is another good example). Sites like Vox and BuzzFeed have to go broad, Thompson says, but that ultimately means that advertising revenue is your only real option, and making that work requires hundreds of millions of pageviews (unless you go after a very specific topic niche like Daring Fireball blogger John Gruber does).

In a sense, the blogging world — or even the world of online publishing as a whole — has bifurcated to create what I call a barbell effect: sites or even publications like newspapers that are huge and broad and have powerful brands will likely succeed, because they can make advertising work. And those that are small and targeted (either by topic or by geography) will likely also be fine. Everything in the middle, however, is in for a world of pain.

Vox’s Ezra Klein and BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith may argue that size and scale is the only route to success, says Thompson, but that isn’t the case — there is room for the one-man (or woman) blogger as a lifestyle business as well:

”I almost feel compelled to note that my conclusion – and experience – is the exact opposite of Klein’s and all the others’: I believe that Sullivan’s The Daily Dish will in the long run be remembered not as the last of a dying breed but as the pioneer of a new, sustainable journalism that strikes an essential balance to the corporate-backed advertising-based scale businesses that Klein (and the afore-linked Smith) is pursuing.”

Not everyone will be able — or will even want to — put in the kind of work required to maintain such a site, as Thompson admits. After all, Sullivan’s departure didn’t come because his model wasn’t working, but because he was simply worn out. But for those who do want to pursue this individual model, the Stratechery blogger argues that the potential for them to do that, and to be successful at it, is larger than it has ever been.

Blogging is very much alive — we just call it something else now

All it takes is the retirement of one blogger — namely, Andrew Sullivan, founder of The Daily Dish and long-time thorn in the side of the liberal blogosphere — and the social web explodes with a mixture of praise, recriminations, eulogies for the death of blogging as we know it, and righteous indignation about whether he was one of the first or not. I don’t think Andrew’s departure is the end of the world, but I confess that it did make me stop and think about the nature of blogging, and where it has gone, or is going.

One of the reasons it made me think is that Andrew (who I consider a friend) said he decided to stop blogging in part because the pace of publishing multiple items a day had worn him down after 15 years, and he was getting too old for such things. As I looked through his bio, it suddenly occurred to me that I am a year older than he is, although I have only been blogging regularly for about 10 years or so (I had a website that I posted links to before that, but didn’t think of it as a blog). But enough with the self pity!

Blogging as business

The other thing that got me thinking was the wide variety of reactions to Andrew’s decision: some said it was about time, since he had become a parody of himself, while others said they would miss his willingness to debate. Some said blogging as we know it died a long time ago, when blogs started to become businesses (as Gigaom and many of its contemporaries such as TechCrunch and Read/Write Web did). But others said that the spirit of blogging lives on, through people like blog pioneers Dave Winer, and Jason Kottke, and Andy Baio.


BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith is one of those who argues that blogging is gone forever, a case he advanced in a long (blog) post in which he described his own adoption of the medium as a way to rise up through the media ranks as a reporter, using early political bloggers like Josh Marshall (who hasn’t retired, but continues to run Talking Points Memo) and Sullivan as his assignment editors, pursuing stories that they were interested in. But in the mid-2000s, he says, things had already started to fall apart:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”First, Josh Marshall made a rational decision that destroyed these silent assignments and ultimately undercut, in a way, the influence that he and the others wielded. He started building his own aggregation, and then reporting operations, linking first to their own back page, capturing the audience, and sending a trickle rather than a flood of traffic.”[/blockquote]

In other words, Ben is saying that some bloggers stopped thinking as much about being part of a larger ecosystem — one in which they linked to and sent traffic to other bloggers, and in turn relied on their resources and links — and started thinking about becoming their own independent media entities instead. In effect, they turned inwards, and became more concerned with creating their own content and building up their readership, and turning that into a business.

Conversation vs. viral

At Vox, co-founder Ezra Klein talks about something else that he thinks helped accelerate this transformation: namely, the rise of the social web, and platforms like Twitter and Facebook. In a market where the most important thing is to have your content “go viral,” he argues, there is less and less value in what blogs used to specialize in, which was a kind of multi-threaded, networked conversation (and the gradual decline in value of blog comments has arguably been a part of the same phenomenon).

”At this moment in the media, scale means social traffic. Links from other bloggers — the original currency of the blogosphere, and the one that drove its collaborative, conversational nature — just don’t deliver the numbers that Facebook does. But blogging is a conversation, and conversations don’t go viral. People share things their friends will understand, not things that you need to have read six other posts to understand.”

Old typewriter

In a piece for The Daily Beast, another early blogger whose opinion I respect — Ana Marie Cox, the founding editor of the Gawker blog Wonkette — writes about Andrew’s decision as mostly being a stylistic choice, since he will presumably continue to write in other forms. She also says that she never really understood why there had to be a specific term for writing online. “A blog is a tool or a medium, it’s not a thing one does,” she says. In other words, it was just a term for a specific form or style of writing.

The voice of a person

I’m not sure I agree with Ana Marie, however. The blogs that I have always liked, and continue to like — like Jason’s or Andy’s or John Gruber‘s, or Union Square Ventures’ founder Fred Wilson’s blog, which is a classic of the genre — all conform to Dave Winer’s description of blogging as being “the unedited voice of a person.” That lack of a filter, and the back-and-forth with other bloggers that usually resulted, was what made blogging magic for me, and still does, even though it is much less common than it used to be.

But where I think Ana is right is that these elements of what we called blogging are all around us now, in a thousand different ways. When blogs first showed up, there was no other economical way to write and share your thoughts and hear from other writers or readers, but now they are everywhere. We can tweet and Snapchat and Instagram, and post things to Facebook or Google+ or Medium or dozens of other places. As she puts it:

”Today, the advantages and limitations that shaped blog writing into an even notionally recognizably form don’t exist. Blogging was once the fastest form of one-to-many publishing available; today, there’s a kaleidoscope of options: Facebook (which in the early days of blogging was still limited to people will specific .edu addresses), Instagram, Vine, Twitter, Snapchat, things the kids are using that I haven’t heard of.”


Blogging is everywhere

Clinging to a specific form like blogging is an anachronism, Ana argues — like wearing spats, or driving a Model T roadster when there is a perfectly good Porsche in the garage, or referring to driving as “Model T-ing.” And she has a point: publishing on Medium or Facebook is as easy as blogging ever was, and probably has the chance to reach orders of magnitude more people. Newspapers like the New York Times have done away with many of their blogs, and incorporated that content into the paper.

At the same time, though, I miss the days when you could reliably find the writing or thinking of a specific person in one place — their blog. And as I mentioned in a previous nostalgic look back at the “good old days,” one of the best parts of that era was that you owned your own real estate, rather than renting it from Facebook or Twitter or Medium. That’s why I enjoy movements like the Indie Web, which is trying to recover some of that, and the connectedness that the early blogosphere shared.

Ana is right that the spirit of blogging — the desire to share your thoughts or links or commentary with the world, in something approaching real time — lives on, and in fact is far more widespread and available than it ever was. And that’s undoubtedly a good thing (even if it has led to an alarming increase in noise). But it can’t stop old farts like me from getting a little misty-eyed when someone we admired decides it is time to hang up their blogging tools and put the Model T back in the garage.