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Fact Checking in the Internet World

Photo credit: Adam Crowe

Like many other industries, journalism has undergone a vast paradigm shift in the last decade. Like advertising, the music and film industries, marketing, public relations and virtually all other professional fields, journalism has had to adjust to a new “immediacy” brought about by the Internet.

Now, by all reports, most people get their news from online sources and, while “online sources” are often venerable traditional media sources like the New York Times and the Washington Post, more often than not, blogs have become major sources of breaking news, and exclusive reports.

In fact, it was Pakistani IT specialist Sohaib Athar, now more famously known by his Twitter handle @reallyvirtual, who unwittingly live-tweeted the Osama bin Laden raid while Libyan rebels send on the ground status updates where traditional journalists have limited or no access. (Andy Carvin of NPR, known as @acarvin on Twitter,  has become somewhat notorious for his months-long curation of such tweets out of Libya, Egypt, Yemen and other Middle East hotspots).

There is no denying that the social tools available today have changed the face of journalism. Yet, despite these boons, it troubles me that basic principles of journalism seem to be consistently ignored.

At the end of the day, the practice of journalism (as with any industry) will evolve (and always have) with the tools and technology of the day. However, though practices may change, principles should never change.

One such principle is fact-checking. No matter who you are, or what era you’re in, fact-checking is rule number one in journalism. Don’t report until you have three independent sources is a good rule of thumb that is often ignored.

Case in point. The Wall Street Journal‘s All things D[igital] posted an article the other day titled, “Confirmed: Twitter Plans to Announce Photo-sharing Service This Week“. By all accounts, and history bearing witness, All Things D has been a reliable source of technology news since it’s inception. Founded by media moguls Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, it later became part of the WSJ family and has maintained a high level of journalistic integrity and excellence for years.

But something troubles me about this article. With a headline like this, it seems strange that this paragraph would then be included in the article:

I am indeed aware that D9 is the conference put on by this very site, but was not able to get sources to confirm the image-hosting announcement on the record. Twitter spokespeople did not reply for a request for comment on the matter.

Of course, the news did in fact turn out to be a true story and Twitter did announce on their official blog that they would be partnering with Photobucket to offer an image hosting service.

Notwithstanding, everyone seems to agree that this play has been a foregone conclusion for a long time. And TechCrunch did write a story speculating on the service. But even in that news announcement, there was no real substance with Alexis Tsotsis concluding the article with:

I’ve got no details on what exactly the photosharing URL shortener will be if any (Twitter has owned Twimg.com for a long time) or what the Twitter for Photos product will look like. Just that it’s coming, soon. And if they’re smart they’ll put ads on it.

No sourcing. No fact checking. No confirmation.

While the need for speed is certainly required in today’s immediate, persistent news cycles, it bothers me that articles are being written claiming confirmation when no confirmation exists and that articles are being written from a speculative perspective (no issues there, just call it that!) and being held up as fact.

Though the Twitter news ended up being accurate, I plead with All Things D and all other internet publications to do yourselves and the public a service and stay the main tenets of journalism. Respect is at stake.

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To Whom Much is Given, Much is Required (or, Scoble Syndrome)

Photo by Eric Skiff
Here we go again. Another day in the life of an ongoing saga between megalomaniac Robert Scoble and myself. In this chapter of this saga, I point out why I have figured out the key thing that he has repeatedly not learned… to whom much is given, much is required.

It started out this morning with Scoble (again) being on the losing side of a battle surrounding something on the web that he thought was so cool, he drove into the ground. This has happened a lot in the last 4-5 years I’ve known Robert.

It happened with Twitter when he jumped on early, amassed a huge number of followers because, let’s be honest, Twitter wasn’t very big in 2006 or 2007 as it is now, and it was easier to grab the spotlight then. Trust me. I know. I was there. He vocally “left” Twitter for Friendfeed when he wasn’t getting enough attention.

It happened later with FriendFeed where I made an early decision after months of use that the cliquishness and snippiness among the elite power users, Robert included, was something I just didn’t want to deal with. I deleted my account and Robert flipped. Ironically, Mike Arrington made a similar decision for different reasons and Robert flipped. It was ugly. Mike wrote a post likening FriendFeed to syphilis and Robert blew a gasket.

We often wondered, in those days, if Robert was a silent investor at FriendFeed because he was doing everything he could do prop the fading service up. He eventually relented and kinda maybe sorta possibly if you had one eye closed and a hand tied behind your back apologized to Mike and I.

Whatever. It’s not about the apology. It’s about narcissistic publicity grabbing tantrums and bloviating. That’s really the core.

It was thankfully peaceful for many months. Robert did his thing. I did mine. One would presume Arrington did his. There was little drama over such silly things, much less any instigations. It was, as they say, the Korean DMZ… still at war… but mainly peaceful.

Until this morning when Robert found himself on the losing end of a drama surrounding Quora. Quora is a new Questions and Answers service that allows users to ask questions and receive answers. Answers are rated up or down and the idea is a crowdsourced agreed-upon answer. The more people say, “Yes, that’s correct”, the more authoritative that answer becomes. It’s a living FAQ of the world. Pretty cool.

Until people start doing things their own way, redefining the service in the face of users and not at all in the right ways.

And while wisdom is the better part of valor, and listening more than speaking often diffuses the problem, Robert decided to “explain” his side of the story… because, you know, he can’t just accept his beatings and get on with life.

But in his explanation, he doesn’t actually take any responsibility and, in fact, pushes the blame on to everyone except himself. Watch as I share, in his words, what happened:

At first I tweeted just my answers to questions. This ensured that my answers would be seen by a pretty sizeable group of people and would gain at least some up-votes, which would ensure that my answers would appear at the top of comment threads. Later, after getting this pointed out to me as a negative bias, I would link to other people’s questions, without my answers, and to the entire question, so you’d see all answers. On Quora you do this by using the Twitter link on the right side of the page, not the one on the bottom.

Fair enough. He tried to work the system to make himself an authority… we all do… and modified his behavior to be a little more helpful when it was pointed out.

I broke convention by using photographs in many of my answers. More than anything this seems to have gathered the ire of the reviewers and others. I did it partly because I know that posts with photos and images get more audience and more consideration than posts without, but partly for fun, and partly to, well, get more upvotes. But Quora is already being seen as a place that’s free of photos and videos so this gathered a great deal of hate.

So he broke the expected behavior of the service for the purpose of self-promotion even after he was called out prior for behavior that was frowned upon. Okay, dude… Now you have to start wondering if you’re just plain holding it wrong.

Some of my answers were controversial and caused flamewars. Quora is a place that’s free of flamewars and controversy. Why? Because when it happens reviewers pull those answers out of the stream and mark them as “not helpful.” I’ve seen this happen many times, not just to my own posts, but where I’ve answered in a way that got a flamewar going I’ve seen my answers pulled out too.

So you expected that by someone asking a question, they were asking for editorial opinion? “What is the fuel economy of a 2010 Honda Accord?” does not sound like the invitation to have a debate over re-usable energy policy… as an example. Does it always have to be about you and your opinions?

I answered posts too quickly, Part II. By answering posts too quickly, and because I knew that first answers were treated better than following answers, especially if the quality of the answer is the same, I would answer first with a poor quality answer and then come back and improve the answer over time. Again, this behavior pissed off people who couldn’t type as fast, or live on the system. Not to mention they saw the first, poor quality answer, and made up their minds that I was a poor quality answerer.

So the people who couldn’t type as fast are at fault? Do you not see a problem with this deflection of blame? What the hell is wrong with you?

I was narcissistic and self promotional. It just leaks out of me. Why? Because I have 4,600 photos I’ve done on Flickr, 694 videos I’ve posted on YouTube, and the hundreds I’ve done on Building43, etc etc. and I pull upon that body of work to answer questions. Yes, many of these things augmented answers, but they pissed off people who don’t have a large body of photos, videos, and blog posts to call upon.

Let me count the millions of reasons why I’m important. You know, let me insert more editorial here from my own experiences. I keep my mouth shut more often than people think I do because I know that when I open my mouth people listen. I take that responsibility very, very seriously. So, as a result, unless I know I’m committed to backing whatever it is I have to say, I don’t say it. I fill the air with inconsequential stuff as opposed to putting my opinion behind some unthought out position that carries real weight. When I do, you’d better believe I’m doing it with the knowledge that I have a position of influence and power.

It’s not a game. It’s a responsibility. And you, Robert, don’t take your responsibilities as a leading voice in technology very seriously. You just don’t pay attention to your cause and effect. This is why this stuff happens to you. All the time.

Think about it before you respond.

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What Are You Not Telling the World Online?

Last year, there was a brilliant preliminary report that came out of MIT where two grad students decided to explore the idea of privacy implications based on omission. In other words, these students said that they could predict, with a high degree of accuracy, the sexual orientation and inclinations of people based on their activities, friends and, notably, omission of certain information on the social networks.

The study was called Project Gaydar and reported a high degree of accuracy in identifying the sexual orientation of people who explicitly did not share that on Facebook.

Using data from the social network Facebook, they made a striking discovery: just by looking at a person’s online friends, they could predict whether the person was gay. They did this with a software program that looked at the gender and sexuality of a person’s friends and, using statistical analysis, made a prediction. The two students had no way of checking all of their predictions, but based on their own knowledge outside the Facebook world, their computer program appeared quite accurate for men, they said. People may be effectively “outing” themselves just by the virtual company they keep.

In an age of renewed concerns about privacy surrounding Twitter, location-based networks such as Foursquare and Facebook’s new Places service, one wonders just how much information that you are not sharing is actually being shown to the world.

For instance, is it logical to deduce that when a persons tone online moves from gregarious to tame, they may be job hunting and wanting to put their best foot forward? Or maybe in the early stages of a new, burgeoning relationship? What can be surmised by a spate of new LinkedIn recommendations? Is a pattern of Twitter status update frequency something that can be reasonably used to deduce some meaning?

Many people are very cautious to curate their online identities in such a way that seems presentable to the outside world. They shape and form their identities for maximum benefit. But what are they not saying that is still being communicated?

My friend, and data monkey, Keith Casey and I are proposing a panel to explore this more at SXSW. We would love your vote to ensure we get selected. It’s a fun topic and one that is front and center in an age with increasing privacy concerns.

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