Tag Archives: founder

A pale white man shows us what journalism is

My weekly Loose Wire Service column.

Is the Internet replacing journalism?

It’s a question that popped up as I gazed at the blurred, distorted web-stream of a press conference from London by the founder of WikiLeaks, a website designed to “protect whistleblowers, journalists and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public”.

On the podium there’s Julian Assange. You can’t make a guy like this up. White haired, articulate and defensive, aloof and grungy, specific and then sweepingly angry. Fascinating. In a world of people obsessed by the shininess of their iPhones, Assange is either a throwback to the past or a gulf of fresh air.

WikiLeaks, which has been around for a few years but has, with the release of mounds of classified data about the Afghan War, come center stage.

Assange doesn’t mince his words. He shrugs off questions he doesn’t like by pointing his face elsewhere and saying “I don’t find that question interesting.” He berates journalists for not doing their job — never

something to endear an interviewee to the writer.
But in some ways he’s right. We haven’t been doing our job. We’ve not chased down enough stories, put enough bad guys behind bars (celebrities don’t really count.) His broadsides may be more blunderbuss than surgical strike, but he does have a point. Journalism is a funny game. And it’s changing.

Asked why he chose to work with three major news outlets to release the Afghan data, he said it was the only way to get heard. He pointed out that he’d put out masses of interesting leaks on spending on the Afghan war previously and hardly a single journalist had picked it up.

Hence the — inspired — notion of creating a bit of noise around the material this time around. After all, any journalist can tell you the value of the material is less intrinsic than extrinsic: Who else is looking for it, who else has got it, and if so can we publish it before them.

Sad but true. We media tend to only value something if a competitor does. A bit like kids in the schoolyard. By giving it to three major outlets — New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel — Assange ensured there was not only a triple splash but also the matchers from their competitors.

So Assange is right. But that’s always been like that. Assange is part of — and has identified — a much deeper trend that may be more significant than all the hand-wringing about the future of the media.

You see, we’ve been looking at media at something that just needs a leg-up. We readily admit the business model of the media is imploding.

But very little discussion of journalism centers on whether journalism itself might be broken. Assange — and others – believe it is.

The argument goes like this.

The model whereby media made a lot of money as monopolistic enterprises — fleecing advertisers at one end, asking subscribers to pay out at the other, keeping a death grip on the spigot of public, official or company information in the middle — has gone. We know that.

But what we don’t perhaps realize is that the Internet itself has changed the way that information moves around. I’m not just talking about one person saying something on Twitter, and everyone else online reporting it.

I’m talking about what news is. We journalists define news in an odd way — as I said above, we attach value to it based on how others value it, meaning that we tend to see news as a kind of product to grab.

The Internet has changed that. It’s turned news into some more amorphous, that can be assembled from many parts.

Assange and his colleagues at WikiLeaks don’t just act as a clearing house for leaked data. They add extraordinary value to it.

Don’t believe me? Read a piece in The New Yorker in June, about the months spent on cracking the code on, and then editing video shot in Iraq.

In a more modest way this is being done every day by bloggers and folk online, who build news out of small parts they piece together —some data here, a report there, a graphic to make sense of it. None of these separate parts might be considered news, but they come together to make it so.

Assange calls WikiLeaks a stateless news organization. Dave Winer, an Internet guru, points out that this pretty much is what the blogosphere is as well. And he’s right. WikiLeaks works based on donations and collaborative effort. Crowd-sourcing, if you will.

I agree with all this, and I think it’s great. This is happening in lots of interesting places — such as Indonesia, where social media has mobilized public opinion in ways that traditional media has failed.

But what of journalism, then?

Jeff Jarvis, a future-of-media pundit, asked the editor of The Guardian, one of the three papers that WikiLeak gave the data too first, whether The Guardian should have been doing the digging.

He said no; his reporters add value by analyzing it. “I think the Afghan leaks make the case for journalism,” Alan Rusbridger told Jarvis. “We had the people and expertise to make sense of it.”

That’s true. As far as it goes. I tell my students, editors, colleagues, anyone who will listen, that our future lies not so much in reporting first but adding sense first. And no question, The Guardian has done some great stuff with the data. But this is a sad admission of failure — of The Guardian, of reporting, of our profession.

We should be looking at WikiLeaks and learning whatever lessons we can from it. WikiLeaks’ genius is manifold: It has somehow found a way to persuade people, at great risk to themselves, to send it reams of secrets. The WikiLeaks people do this by taking that data seriously, but they also maintain a healthy paranoia about everyone — including themselves — which ensures that sources are protected.

Then they work on adding value to that data. Rusbridger’s comments are, frankly, patronizing about WikiLeaks’ role in this and previous episodes.

We journalists need to go back to our drawing boards and think hard about how WikiLeaks and the Warholesque Assange have managed to not only shake up governments, but our industry, by leveraging the disparate and motivated forces of the Internet.

We could start by redefining the base currency of our profession — what news, what a scoop, what an exclusive is. Maybe it’s the small pieces around us, joined together.

The Red-faced Blue Frog

What’s intriguing about this Blue Security/Blue Frog episode, where angry spammers attack the anti-spam company with a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack, which in turn directs traffic (unwittingly or wittingly, it’s not clear yet) and temporarily brings down blog hoster TypePad, is this: The guy behind Blue Security, Eran Reshef, is founder of Skybox, a company “focused on enabling the continuous enterprise-wide assessment of vulnerabilities and threats affecting corporate networks.”

This is at best somewhat embarrassing for Reshef, and for Blue Security, at worst it exposes him and the company to ridicule and lawsuits. Getting involved in battling spammers is not a task taken on lightly, and the one thing that Blue Security had going for it was that it seemed to know what it was doing. Users download software and register their email addresses in a central database. Spammers are encouraged to remove those email addresses; if they don’t, the software will respond to subsequent spam by visiting the website advertised and automatically filling the order form. If enough people have the software running this, in theory, creates an overwhelming amount of traffic for the spammer and brings their business to a halt. Blue Security now says it has tens of thousands of members.

But then came last week’s attack. Reshef initially said that that no such DDoS took place on the www.bluesecurity.com server, something contested by some analysts. He has since said that a DDoS did take place, but against operational, back-end servers  and not connected to his company’s front door. This, he said, he only spotted later. He says that when he redirected traffic to his blog at TypePad there was no DDoS on the bluesecurity.com website; that, he says, came later. This appears to be borne out by web logs provided to TechWeb journalist Gregg Keizer.

Blue Security’s handling of this raises more questions than it answers. Many are highly technical and not ones I understand. But there are some basic ones. Was the company not prepared for spammers to retaliate? Did it not have any procedures in place? Why did it redirect traffic to TypePad without informing them first? Why did it not coordinate closely with its ISP? And why, given Reshef’s expertise on DDoS attacks with Skybox, was he not able to spot the DDoS attack on his backend servers?

The “Danger” of Wikipedia: “volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects”

An interesting piece in Editor & Publisher on The Danger of Wikipedia, that quotes a USA Today piece written by John Seigenthaler, a retired journalist who served as Robert Kennedy’s administrative assistant in the early 1960s, says that a very personal experience has convinced him that “Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool”:

Seigenthaler writes that a “biography” on the site posted by an anonymous author libeled him when it offered the following unsourced statement: “For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven.”

As the founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, Seigenthaler is not known to be an advocate of restricting the right of free speech.

Indeed, it’s hard to understand why Seigenthaler’s alleged role appeared in his biography. I could find no reference to him at all in the JFK books I have, and there’s nothing, at least obviously, online about it. Clearly it was a deliberate piece of falsification, and, to Wikipedia’s credit, it has investigated the case. The point made there is that there isn’t much one can do about chasing down vandals working via Internet Service Providers “with providers who use proxies and dynamic IP addresses to give their users complete anonymity.”

That’s not enough for Seigenthaler, and the story relates his frustration in trying to find out who had libelled him, and Wikipedia comes in for a bit of a pounding:

Seigenthaler disputes Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales’ assertion that the site’s thousands of volunteer editors operate a quick self-correcting mechanism. “My ‘biography’ was posted May 26. On May 29, one of Wales’ volunteers ‘edited’ it only by correcting the misspelling of the word ‘early,'” Seigenthaler writes. “For four months, Wikipedia depicted me as a suspected assassin before Wales erased it from his website’s history Oct. 5.”

Seigenthaler concludes with the following: “And so we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research — but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects. Congress has enabled them and protects them.”

Well, yes. In a way I can appreciate his frustration (and you wonder how many more libels there out there in Wikipedia-land). But I fear he overreacts. The fact that there were no edits of the page for four months — and that it took him four months to find it, or for someone to point it out to him — has more to do with how little the page was read, I suspect, than with the invidious nature of the enterprise. I’m not saying that things couldn’t be improved — indeed, according to a poster on Slashdot, some improvements are in the works in the field of validation — but I think it’s harsh to say the the universe is “populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects”. Peppered with, dotted with, sprinkled with, scattered with, speckled with, strewn with; perhaps. But overall the sum of human knowledge is significantly increased by the volunteers of Wikipedia.

X1 Goes Pro

The guys at X1, one of the best search programs I’ve seen, say the program is now official.

Mark Goodstein, founder of X1, says the software is now officially out of beta and is available at a 50% discount for those in the know (i.e. people who read this blog, among a few others.)

It’s looking in good shape, and definitely worth trying out. It might not have enough features for hardened users, and it’s still not perfect, but if you’re just someone who needs to find a file, an email, an attachment or a contact, it’s a godsend.

It updates itself automatically and does so without too much fuss and grinding about, so your search for something will include a document you only finished a few moments before.

Update: No Dead Horses Around Here

  Further to my mention of Phlogging/moblogging, whatever you want to call it, just received an interesting email from Elan Dekel, founder of Fotopages. Elan reckons “we are experiencing a watershed moment. First of all the Internet is so accessible, even in dictatorships (we even have a fair number of Fotopages from Iran!), and digital cameras are so cheap, that (a) mass media has really become democratized – ie. everyone can get their message out to the world – and build relationships via the web with supporters and readers all over the world, and (b) it will be really hard for a dictatorship to keep its atrocities secret. Quite amazing in my humble opinion. In any case its fun to be a part of it.”
 
 
Interesting stuff. And if you thought all this sending photos to a website was phlogging a dead horse (sorry, couldn’t resist that), here are some sites that show something of what Elan is talking about (and his comments):
 
http://moja_vera.fotopages.com (an american soldier in iraq, who uploads photos from the “front line”. I find it amazing – this is the first time that soldiers on the front line can broadcast their day to day experiences and their personal view of the situation, in real time).
 
http://salampax.fotopages.com (this is Salam Pax’s Fotopage - the blogger from baghdad)
 
http://geeinbaghdad.fotopages.com (Gee – an Iraqi photographer).