Publishers’ crazy e-book prices

This article was originally published on Salon on October 6, 2010.

When America’s book publishers wrested control of e-book prices from Amazon earlier this year, I expected two results. First, prices would go up. Second, I’d buy fewer new Kindle books. I got that part right.

What I didn’t expect, however, was that publishers would be so incredibly foolish as to start raising e-book prices to the point that they were close to, and in a few cases above, the hardcover prices. Here’s a non-literary term for this policy: nuts.

I’ve been keeping loose track of this trend for months, and had noticed that some hardcover books were getting close to the Kindle prices. Then the barrier fell, as the New York Times reported this week, when at least two books actually were more costly to read on Kindle devices than the actual physical book.

How did this happen? It’s a classic Traditional Media vs. the Digital Age story. The key players are Amazon, the major book publishers and Apple.

Like other booksellers, Amazon buys physical books from publishers at a wholesale price, typically half the suggested retail price. And, like some other booksellers, Amazon sells the books to customers, usually at a small markup. There’s nothing stopping booksellers from selling below their costs, as “loss-leaders,” if they choose.

That’s not how it works with most e-books, at least not since most publishers went to war with Amazon last year. Amazon had been pricing many new bestsellers at $9.99 (I’ll refer to this henceforth as $10),below what it was paying the publishers. Amazon’s clear aims have been A) to get customers used to the idea that new books should cost $10 and not much more; and B) to become the unstoppable leader in book sales.

To the extent that Amazon has been trying to corner the market, I’m with critics (despite being a small Amazon shareholder) who don’t want that to happen; competition is more important than ever, especially when it comes to digital media, where it’s all too easy for monopolies to develop. But to the extent that Amazon wants to bring prices down to a level that bears some rational relationship to the fact that e-books cost much less to produce, I’m all for that.

After a bitter battle that saw Amazon behave with incredible arrogance — and with the help of Apple, which bought into the idea of higher prices for its iPad bookstore — the publishers wrested control of e-book pricing away from Amazon entirely. They went from a wholesale model to what’s called an “agency model” where they, not the bookseller, determine what readers will pay. (I’m wondering when the publishers will insist on an agency model for physical book sales.)

The agency model caused prices to soar on Amazon, with 50 percent hikes ($15 instead of $10) becoming all too common. Some vocal Amazon customers have been screaming from the rooftops about the new prices. Others, like me, said the hell with it and just stopped buying as many new books.

Now, sellers have every right to charge more for popular books, especially when they’re new. This is basic supply and demand. But the new pricing is also related to the publishing industry’s belief that it can charge higher prices for inferior products.

The kinds of books I download for my Kindle (more accurately, my Kindle reader on my Android phone) fall generally under the casual entertainment category. I buy a Kindle book the way I buy a movie ticket — for books, like most movies, that I’ll read or watch once and forget about. A physical book is more like a DVD — something I want to own and enjoy again and again.

So my Kindle purchases are like the books I used to buy in airport newsstands, such as mysteries, thrillers and semi-trashy novels that I’d sometimes leave in hotels or airplane seat-back pockets once I’d finished them. And once I got accustomed to reading e-books, I started doing something that had been out of character in the analog era: buying new books that, in print, were available in hardcover only. Why? The $10 price felt right. In fact, my new-book purchases soared.

What are the benefits of buying an e-book? The main one is portability. It’s genuinely great to be able to have all the reading material I could possibly want with me wherever I go.

But there are major drawbacks to e-books, at least the way Amazon and Apple sell them. They don’t really sell e-books; they merely let me read them, and in the process remove my rights to do what I want with what I’ve purchased. Amazon’s digital rights management system is, like that of the DRM employed by the entertainment industry for movies and music (thankfully disappearing with the latter), a system for restricting customer rights, and it’s bad news in every way.

The ability to give away or sell a used book is called the “First Sale Doctrine” in copyright law. But by sending me a digital file and tethering that file to a specific device, Amazon and the publishers have removed my right to transfer it, and thereby destroyed a portion of the book’s value. By all rights they should offer me a better price, considerably better, than the hardcover (or, for that matter, softcover) edition. Is a few hours’ worth of portability worth everything else I lose?

The Amazon price for many new hardcovers is now typically just a couple of dollars higher than the Kindle price. (Remember, Amazon sets the hardcover price but the publishers set the e-book price.) This means I could buy the hardcover, read it and donate it to my local library, and — after the tax deduction — come out ahead. I’d do even better taking the book to my local used-book store and getting cash.

For some readers those few hours of portability do seem to be worth it. Not for me: I’ve basically stopped “buying” new Kindle books, at least ones priced above $10 except in the rarest of circumstances, which is exactly once so far. (I needed a book for research and was far from the nearest bookstore, which didn’t have it in any event, and I felt I couldn’t wait several days for a delivery from Amazon.)

I do more reading than ever, thanks to e-books. I’m still buying new bestsellers when they’re $10. But there are tens of thousands of older books, many of which are free, that I can enjoy, too. And I’m perfectly content to wait again for cheap paperback versions of bestsellers, which I tend to buy in used bookstores that don’t send a dime to the publishers.

The publishing industry has pretty much gotten its way. I don’t see a big victory there for anyone.

Never believe a political ad

This article was originally published on Salon on October 4, 2010.

I have a suggestion for anyone who sees a political advertisement in the next month before Election Day. Assume it’s nothing but lies.

You should assume the falsehood of these messages because at least some of the people aiming them at you are too dishonorable to tell you where they got their money. They are opinion launderers. They are poisoning what’s left of the American political system.

Assuming the falsehood of all political advertising is the only short-term defense we can mount against this 21st century media plague: the onslaught of ads run by groups that have serious-sounding names but are often funded by unnamed people and corporations that want to tilt elections to their own ends.

Opinion laundering isn’t new. It’s been practiced by wealthy individuals and companies for years; read the New Yorker’s recent piece on the Koch brothers, the billionaire right-wingers who are “waging a war against Obama.”

Sometimes the rich and powerful do this in jaw-droppingly stupid ways, such as the 2001 case when Microsoft orchestrated a “grass-roots” letter-writing campaign to drum up support for its monopolistic excesses, a move that backfired when some letters to state officials were sent over the signatures of dead people. (I had some fun with that in the newspaper column I was writing at the time, asking readers for some more creative dead people than the ones Microsoft had used; my favorite was this quote from Buddha: “An OS is able if Microsoft releases it.”)

What’s going on now is the opposite of humorous. It’s dangerous.

It’s bad enough that the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens Unitedcase opened the floodgates to unlimited corporate money in the political arena. The case turned on the conservative majority’s excessively liberal interpretation of the First Amendment, though it’s important to recognize that the constitutional argument was not a trivial one.

Citizen United liberated what the Washington Post called “Super PACs,”or “independent expenditure-only committees” that have absolutely no restraints on the amounts they can raise from individuals and corporations and then spend to run attack ads. At least in theory, these groups are supposed to eventually report who gave them the money, the Post said, but the current system invites non-timely disclosure.

What’s absolutely disgraceful is the huge growth in 501(c)(4) nonprofit corporations, which require no disclosure at all. As the New York Timesreported in late September in a story focusing on Crossroads GPS, a Republican outfit that’s one of the prime movers in this category:

The rule of thumb, in fact, is that more than 50 percent of a 501(c)(4)’s activities cannot be political. But that has not stopped Crossroads and a raft of other nonprofit advocacy groups like it — mostly on the Republican side, so far — from becoming some of the biggest players in this year’s midterm elections, in part because of the anonymity they afford donors, prompting outcries from campaign finance watchdogs.

The chances, however, that the flotilla of groups will draw much legal scrutiny for their campaign activities seem slim, because the organizations, which have been growing in popularity as conduits for large, unrestricted donations among both Republicans and Democrats since the 2006 election, fall into something of a regulatory netherworld.

Neither the Internal Revenue Service, which has jurisdiction over nonprofits, nor the Federal Election Commission, which regulates the financing of federal races, appears likely to examine them closely, according to campaign finance watchdogs, lawyers who specialize in the field and current and former federal officials.

Politicians attacking each other directly have to say so directly in their advertisements. But the new advocates, the opinion launderers, can launch these attacks in slightly indirect ways, for example, attacking a target’s positions on issues in such a way that leaves no doubt that the goal is to unseat him or her.

Our political class refuses to mandate disclosure of donors, much less timely disclosure. (It’s too late if we learn that someone has spent millions poisoning the air if the election is already over, and that happens again and again.) Why should they? They’re being paid off, with campaign contributions among other benefits, by the interests that like the new system.

This is all about media, too. But media organizations aren’t giving this the attention it deserves. To be sure, there have been some honorable exceptions, mostly in newspapers. But in a rational world, a scandal of this size — the overt and covert buying of the conversation that will help decide our future — would be at least as important as, say, the latest evidence that a certain Senate candidate in Maryland had a colorful past.

One reason for the journalists’ inaction is obvious, and it parallels the political class’ refusal to deal with this: Hundreds of millions of dollars are flowing to big and small media companies in the form of political advertising. When you benefit from corruption, that’s a powerful reason to not notice, though it’s worth noting that newspapers have been somewhat more willing to take this on than broadcasters, which are raking in the biggest bucks.

In the absence of any action from Washington and most of the media, what can we do? Good-government and transparency groups have been working on this, primarily to push for more disclosure. And they deserve our thanks, but they’re not making much headway.

We’re probably too late in this election cycle to do much of anything proactive, but here are some suggestions.

First, we should find a way to crowdsource — that is, get the help of lots of people who can each contribute a small amount of time — an “expose the opinion launderers” campaign that outs these polluters. I’m not sure it’s even possible, given their exemption from disclosure, but we should at least try.

Second, those of us who care about restoring a shred of honor to politics should push lawmakers to require full and timely disclosure. Any donation over, say, $200 should be immediately put online upon receipt. If that amount is too low, I’m fine with raising it; the point is to expose the big opinion launderers, not average citizens who just want to make a point.

Third, as I said upfront, we should actively disbelieve everything we see at this point. Not merely discount it: Assume it’s a lie. When the people behind these things don’t want you to know who they are, they are either cowardly or dishonest. Probably both, and they deserve your contempt.

This story has been changed since publication: A photo caption referred to Karl Rove as a founder of the group American Crossroads. A spokesman for the group says Rove was not a founder and has no formal ties to the group.

Iran imprisons its blogfather

This article was originally published on Salon on September 30, 2010.

When I was working on my 2004 book, “We the Media,” I had a number of memorable conversations with Hossein Derakhshan. He was an Iranian by birth, and had moved to Canada, where he became a citizen. He was an early blogger and, more important, a catalyst for freer speech in his native land.

He’s been in prison since 2008, when he returned to Iran, believing that he would be welcomed home. Now he’s been sentenced to 19.5 years in prison for the crime of speaking his mind. It’s better than being executed, which was what prosecutors were demanding, but it’s still an absolute outrage.

As I wrote in 2004:

If Iran’s famously repressive political system ever sees true reform without suffering another violent revolution, the contributions of people such as Hossein Derakhshan will have played no small role. Derakhshan goes by the name Hoder. A 20-something expatriate who’d moved to Toronto after leaving Iran, he may have been the first Persian-language weblogger when he launched his site in December 2000. By tweaking some settings in the Blogger software configuration, “I could post and publish in Persian” — something that hadn’t been possible before, given the difficulties of using the Persian character set.

Emboldened, Hoder decided to help other Iranians set up their own blogs. “I published the simple step-to-step guide on Nov. 5, 2001, and wished 100 people could start blogging by one year,” he told me. “Then just after one month, we already had more than 100 Persian weblogs. It was unbelievable.”

Not as amazing as it would get, though. PersianBlog.com, a service created in 2002, grew to have more than 100,000 user accounts in less than two years. Hoder estimated that more than 200,000 Iranian blogs had been created by early 2004, though not all are written in Iran and many aren’t being maintained. Again, what matters most is what the Net made possible: Iranians, who live in a repressive country with strict controls on media, were able to speak out and access a variety of news and opinions.

The blogs are a cross-section of Iranian society. Many focus on topics people are not allowed to freely discuss in the nation’s media: relationships, sex, culture, and politics. They are a communications network for a repressed people and speak volumes about a regime that is struggling to control how modern technology is used by its citizens.

Like many of Hoder’s friends and colleagues in the blogging and citizen media world, I was surprised to hear that he’d gone back to Iran. Ethan Zuckerman explains:

His previous and widely documented travel to Israel made it likely that he would be prosecuted on returning home. Maziar Bahari, a Canadian/Iranian journalist who had previously been detained in Iran (in part because of an interview he did with The Daily Show’s Jason Jones), helped explain Hossein’s miscalculation. In aninterview with On the Media, Bahari explains that Hossein may have been promised by the Ministry of Intelligence that he’d be able to return to Iran safely. (Hoder began his blogging career supporting reformist politicians. Later in his career, he became concerned that the Bush administration would invade Iran, and he became an outspoken supporter of Ahmedinejad.) Once he returned to Tehran, members of the Revolutionary Guard chose to arrest Hossein, perhaps to send a message to anyone who would use digital media to organize politically. Bahari describes Hoder’s situation as “a clear case of the internal battle between the Revolutionary Guards and the Ministry of Intelligence.”

Would Hoder have gone back without assurances that he wouldn’t be prosecuted? I can’t imagine otherwise; he is not a stupid man. The double cross, if that’s what happened, is sadly unsurprising given the nature of the regime.

Hoder’s situation is hardly unique in the world. Journalists and promoters of free speech are under threat in more places than we can count.

As Ethan Zuckerman suggests, the most likely source of help at this stage is the Canadian government. But as journalist Cyrus Farivar has documented, the Canadians don’t seem especially concerned despite the fact that the man in prison for speaking is a Canadian citizen.  I hope more is happening behind the scenes.

AOL buys TechCrunch

This article was originally published on Salon on September 28, 2010.

Mike Arrington looked exhausted onstage at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference conference this morning.  At one point during a session with one of Silicon Valley’s major venture capitalists, he joked, “Something’s been on my mind this morning …”

In little more than half a decade, Arrington has founded and built TechCrunch into one of the most — maybe the most — influential technology news companies. Now he’s decided to cash out.

As speakers like Google’s Eric Schmidt held forth on the conference stage, buzz in the conference center was about the confirmation of rumors that Arrington has sold the operation, which includes what appears to be a highly profitable conference arm, to AOL. The terms weren’t disclosed.

AOL has been bulking up on content for some time now. A few years ago it bought a collection of blogs, including the popular tech blog Engadget, and it’s investing what looks like serious money in Patch, one of many competitors in the local-news site category that’s growing like topsy.

Arrington started out in Silicon Valley as a lawyer. With TechCrunch he created a record of pugnacious journalism and advocacy. Rumors were as much the rule as nailed-down facts, but he got enough that was right often enough and early enough to be a major force in the genre.

TechCrunch sites employ some excellent journalists. But I wonder how the overall operation will work if Arrington leaves (I assume he has a lock-up period where he has to stay before he can fully get his money out of the deal). Some media companies can do just fine without their founders; I suspect this isn’t one of them.

Hollywood wants to censor the Internet, and Congress is on board

This article was originally published on Salon on September 28, 2010.

UPDATED

A key U.S. Senate committee will almost certainly vote this week to censor the Internet. A fast-track bill designed to whack copyright infringement is vastly more than that, and if it’s passed and signed into law it will put America into a league with China and Saudi Arabia, among others, as a nation that makes sure most of its citizens won’t find information that a tiny, elite group deems improper for their eyes.

Who’s behind it? I hardly have to tell you that Hollywood and the rest of the copyright cartel have persuaded their acolytes in Congress that it’s time to clamp down, and hard. The cartel is absolutely indifferent to the collateral damage it would cause — and that damage would be enormous.

The bill, S. 3804, is called the “Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act” (COICA) — yet another dishonest conflating of infringement and counterfeiting, but that’s standard for lawmakers. A chief sponsor is, disgracefully, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who has stood tall for liberty in other contexts. But he’s been in love with Hollywood and its money for ages.

Here’s the text:


CombatingOnlineInfringementAndCounterfeitsAct1

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, among many groups tracking this bill, explains what’s happening this way:

Although (COICA) is ostensibly focused on copyright infringement, an enormous amount of noninfringing content, including political and other speech, could disappear off the Web if it passes.

The main mechanism of the bill is to interfere with the Internet’s domain name system (DNS), which translates names like “www.eff.org” or “www.nytimes.com” into the IP addresses that computers use to communicate. The bill creates two blacklists of censored domains. The first is longer, and includes any sites where the DOJ decides that infringement is “central” to the purpose of the site. The bill gives ISPs and registrars strong legal incentives to censor the domains on that list. The Attorney General can also ask a court to put sites on a second, shorter blacklist; ISPs and registrars are required by law to censor those sites.

If this bill passes, the list of targets could conceivably include hosting websites such as Dropbox, MediaFire and Rapidshare; MP3 blogs and mashup/remix music sites like SoundCloud, MashupTown and Hype Machine ; and sites that discuss and make the controversial political and intellectual case for piracy, like pirate-party.us, p2pnet, InfoAnarchy, Slyck and ZeroPaid . Indeed, had this bill been passed five or ten years ago, YouTube might not exist today. In other words, the collateral damage from this legislation would be enormous. (Why would all these sites be targets?)

What’s so dangerous that this kind of wholesale censorship needs to happen? The cartel members decided that they don’t like the laws and rules that already give them a way to take down material that infringes on their copyrights. They already abuse this right in wholesale ways, as you can see at the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse site, which tracks abusive takedown notices and other such acts.

Now they want to raise the ante, by taking down whole sites. As the EFF notes, COICA would invite the government “to censor sites even when no court has found they have infringed copyright or any other law.” Due process, schmoo process.

And don’t think the censorship will stop at these kinds of sites. Censorship is seductive, once it’s in place. It’ll expand relentlessly.

As usual in copyright battles, this has gotten almost no attention from what Sarah Palin calls —  accurately in this case — the “lamestream media,” which is typically AWOL when it comes to telling audiences about legislation that their own industry has a stake in. Many of the companies that run major media operations are part of the cartel, after all.

Hollywood and the music and publishing industries are nothing if not presistent about clamping down on the way we can use digital information. They are pushing us toward a world where we pay and ask permission for any use of anything they produce, a gross unbalancing of the long-standing traditions that sparked the greatest creativity the planet has seen. They’ve fought every new technology that they couldn’t control.

The industry has been emboldened during the Obama presidency, a time when many believed that we might move back toward a copyright system that defended rights on all sides. The president, as in so many other areas, has been a huge disappointment, because he led many in the field to believe he would work to restore that balance.

Web activist Aaron Swartz has organized an online petition to ask senators to vote down S. 3804. By all means join it, but do something else. Call and fax your U.S. senators, especially if they’re on the Judiciary Committee. They’re pushing some extremely bad legislation forward, and only you can stop it.

UPDATE: Thanks to the EFF and others who lobbied on behalf of Internet users, the bill did not come to a vote after all. This is, however, a temporary victory for pro-free speech people. Never forget that the copyright industry will push this again and again.

The second great migration to new media

This article was originally published on Salon on September 22, 2010.

Back in the Internet bubble days of the late 1990s, lots of journalists decamped from traditional news organizations to start or join dot-com companies. The early few were the real pioneers; as the decade wore on the people who bailed out of mainstream news organizations — which were doing well financially at the time but didn’t offer stock options except to a tiny number of senior people — were folks who in many cases saw a gravy train and decided to jump on it.

The bubble burst. Some of the early venturers, such as Gawker’s Nick Denton, who’d already done several startups before launching his blog network, stayed the course and prospered. But I’d bet that most of the journalists who’d bailed out decided that the comfortable embrace of a financially solid enterprise felt better than the high-risk territory of the startup.

This is background to a new and I believe more lasting movement we’re seeing from traditional media to new media (which is rapidly becoming old media in its own right). In the last few days, the Huffington Post hired two extremely prominent journalists from East Coast mainstays: Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, a political writer and columnist who’s probably better known for his TV appearances, and the New York Times’ Peter Goodman, a star of sorts in the economic reporting world. Meanwhile, Yahoo News hired Phil Pruitt, USA Today’s deputy managing editor, to run its politics section. A lot of this has been going on in the past several years, but this week feels like one of those times when the ground may actually be shifting under our feet in the media ecosystem. Why so?

Goodman told the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz (scoop for the old guard!) that writing in the Times’ news pages was “almost a process of laundering my own views, through the tried-and-true technique of dinging someone at some think tank to say what you want to tell the reader.” This prompted NYU professor and media critic Jay Rosen, who’s helped define a major problem with traditional media’s washing of actual voice and even honest reporting out of journalism, to tweet:

You get what this means, right? The View from Nowhere has become a liability in keeping newsroom talent

Scott Rosenberg, writing in his Wordyard blog and here on Salon, refined the implications today with a smart posting, expressing sympathy for the traditional media’s wish to offer an impartial take on the news. But his key insight is that the opportunity for old and new media people these days is to use actual human voice, amid much experimentation with journalistic forms, to bring valuable information to people who want something they can trust.

I’m also convinced that a big part of what’s happening is a sound one from a journalistic sense: That is, reporters want to be liberated from the lazy-journalism tyranny of the idiotic notion that there are two equal sides to everything — do a story on the Holocaust, get a quote from a neo-Nazi — and they grasp better than their old-media editors do that human voice is the heart of story-telling. When the Washingon Post tells its journalists to hide all human-ness from their public utterances, it’smissing an important part of our future.

But the larger trend, the one that isn’t about superstar journalists, is the secular economic trend: The traditional media are in big trouble and the media companies with money to spend are online. Watching AOL and Yahoo hire journalists is heartening; they see the opening, they don’t have the same cost structures (e.g. printing presses and distribution) and they suspect there’s an actual business in providing people useful information.

What we don’t know yet is the staying power of the new-media giants, much less startups. Yahoo and AOL, no less beholden to shareholders than the traditional organizations that have whacked their staffs in recent years, have low or zero insitutional tradition of quality journalism; if these media ventures don’t move the financial needle, they’ll be killed without mercy by the beancounters.

The traditional news industry forced this round of departures. Lots of the people who’ve moved into new kinds of media took buyouts. Some were laid off in the carnage that media organizations have created in their ranks these past few years. You’re hearing only about the famous ones, but this is a much, much wider trend.

And, vitally, online media companies aren’t the only ones hiring the journalists. Many more top reporters and editors are jumping to PR firms and think tanks and NGOs than ever before.

PR isn’t journalism, but it’s getting more social, and smarter PR people realize that they, too, have a stake in showing some integrity. Think tanks and NGOs increasingly are filling a journalistic role. This is not well enough appreciated by news media or consumers, but it’s a valuable part of the emerging information ecosystem.

Meanwhile, we’re seeeing a blizzard of startups with news potential; while few of them are hiring traditional journalists — most older journalists just don’t grasp what they’re trying to do — they are my major hope for the future once they realize that quality is going to matter to audiences that are growing desperate to find things they can trust.

The ecosystem is growing vastly more diverse. That’s the enormously good news.

Has Mark Zuckerberg grown up?

This article was originally published on Salon on September 17, 2010.

It’s as famous a story now as the founding of Microsoft, only we’re talking about the latest rule-the-world tech start-up: As a Harvard student, Mark Zuckerberg launched the company that will soon make him the richest 20-something of all time, the prime shareholder in a company that may have more influence on our society than any other in the online world.

But as this week’s profile in the New Yorker confirms, Facebook’s CEO was a nasty piece of work in college. As Jose Antonio Vargas writes, referring to instant messages that were found on Zuckerberg’s computer as he and lawyers prepared to defend against a claim (settled for $65 million) that he stole the idea for the site and prevented the originators from launching theirs:

Although the IMs did not offer any evidence to support the claim of theft, according to sources who have seen many of the messages, the IMs portray Zuckerberg as backstabbing, conniving, and insensitive. A small group of lawyers and Facebook executives reviewed the messages, in a two-hour meeting in January, 2006, at the offices of Jim Breyer, the managing partner at the venture-capital firm Accel Partners, Facebook’s largest outside investor.

The technology site Silicon Alley Insider got hold of some of the messages and, this past spring, posted the transcript of a conversation between Zuckerberg and a friend, outlining how he was planning to deal with Harvard Connect:

FRIEND: so have you decided what you are going to do about the websites?

ZUCK: yea i’m going to fuck them

ZUCK: probably in the year

ZUCK: *ear

In another exchange leaked to Silicon Alley Insider, Zuckerberg explained to a friend that his control of Facebook gave him access to any information he wanted on any Harvard student:

ZUCK: yea so if you ever need info about anyone at harvard

ZUCK: just ask

ZUCK: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns

FRIEND: what!? how’d you manage that one?

ZUCK: people just submitted it

ZUCK: i don’t know why

ZUCK: they “trust me”

ZUCK: dumb fucks

It’s easy to make too much of these kinds of things, and vitally important that we all recognize that we all do and say stupid things when we’re kids. But the cool, contemptuous arrogance in these IMs tells you a great deal about who this person was at the time.

Now he’s a few years older, and publicly regretting what he said (if not what he did) as a slightly younger man when, if Vargas’ anonymous sources can be believed (and the IMs we have seen don’t make us doubt), Zuckerman said “backstabbing, conniving, and insensitive” things. The question is whether we can trust him today. I want to believe that Zuckerberg has a) surrounded himself with enough people who have integrity; and b) has grown up, a lot. That’s a big leap, unfortunately, given the way Facebook constantly pushes changes in the terms of its deal with users, especially the way it pushes people to publish more and more of their most personal information.

The New Yorker piece, which does begin to humanize the Facebook chief, uncoincidentally hit the streets just days before the debut of an already well-known film about the early days of Facebook. The magazine’s piece quotes screenwriter Aaron Sorkin calling the picture a story about “a group of, in one way or another, socially dysfunctional people who created the world’s great social-networking site.”

Peter Kafka, who writes about media for the Wall Street Journal’s All Things Digital site, has seen it and starts his piece this way:

It’s hard to feel sorry for a billionaire. But here I am, feeling bad for Mark Zuckerberg. If you see “The Social Network” you’re probably going to feel bad for him, too.

I saw a screening of the movie last week, and can report back that it’s just as rough on the Facebook CEO as his people feared it would be.

Anyone who sees the film should have something clearly in mind: Some of it is pure fiction, as it’s based on a book whose author admits this, as Kafka notes. The thing is, we can’t be sure which part.

On that score, I also feel compassion for Zuckerberg. Sadly, people have a habit of going to biopics and pictures “based on a true story” and believing they’ve witnessed actual history. I don’t blame the filmmakers — this is a deep cultural flaw — but there’s something truly ugly about the way Hollywood takes liberties with history without prominently labeling the work as, say, possible truth or probable fiction.

Zuckerberg has told interviewers he doesn’t plan to see the movie. I hope, assuming he really doesn’t, that he’ll use the couple of hours to contemplate his outsize role in our world today, and likely tomorrow. Facebook is an awesome force at this point, and it’s still not clear that the company is being run by honorable grown-ups.

Microsoft Assists Russian Repression

This article was originally published on Salon on September 12, 2010.

Despots use the law to repress their citizens. The laws can be evil as written, or they can be so widely flouted that selective enforcement punishes the “right” people.

The Russian government has deployed the latter tactic, the New York Times reports today, by using a law against copyright infringement to go after dissidents. That’s bad enough. What should sicken Americans is that Microsoft is complicit in this campaign, according to the newspaper:

Across Russia, the security services have carried out dozens of similar raids against outspoken advocacy groups or opposition newspapers in recent years. Security officials say the inquiries reflect their concern about software piracy, which is rampant in Russia. Yet they rarely if ever carry out raids against advocacy groups or news organizations that back the government.

As the ploy grows common, the authorities are receiving key assistance from an unexpected partner: Microsoft itself. In politically tinged inquiries across Russia, lawyers retained by Microsoft have staunchly backed the police.

Interviews and a review of law enforcement documents show that in recent cases, Microsoft lawyers made statements describing the company as a victim and arguing that criminal charges should be pursued. The lawyers rebuffed pleas by accused journalists and advocacy groups, including Baikal Wave, to refrain from working with the authorities. Baikal Wave, in fact, said it had purchased and installed legal Microsoft software specifically to deny the authorities an excuse to raid them. The group later asked Microsoft for help in fending off the police. “Microsoft did not want to help us, which would have been the right thing to do,” said Marina Rikhvanova, a Baikal Environmental Wave co-chairwoman and one of Russia’s best-known environmentalists. “They said these issues had to be handled by the security services.”

The company put out a statement saying it would be looking into the situation and, if the company is to be trusted, to rein in its Russian legal team, among other actions. Believe this when you see it.

Microsoft isn’t alone in going beyond the standard tech-industry assistance for foreign repression. Typically this takes the form of obeying legal but odious orders from local authorties, as Yahoo did in China’s jailing of a dissident, an act for which it belatedly (and somewhat unconvincingly) apologized. Two years ago, Business Week published along and dreary list of U.S. companies that believe authoritarian rule makes for good markets.

What Microsoft seems to have done in Russia is disturbing in new ways, an overt and unusually slimy collaboration with tactics plainly aimed at stamping out dissent. Could the company be sending a more troubling message about its ethics and corporate culture? It’s hard to imagine a more ugly one.

I find myself hoping that top Microsoft executives such as Steve Ballmer and Ray Ozzie had no idea what was being done with their company’s help. The public statement is weasly and insufficient.

I hope these men will look in the mirror tomorrow morning, after the justified PR firestorm heading their way in the wake of the Times story, and realize how bad this is. And when they get to the office, I hope they’ll announce something better: their intention to crack down on the people who made this happen, at least the ones under their own control.

Google Instant turbocharges search

This article was originally published on Salon on September 8, 2010.

Calling Google Instant “revolutionary,” as its creators did when theylaunched it today, seems a bit much. Actually more than a bit — but I’m definitely going to be using it.

This is more than a new feature. It’s a clever and useful upgrade of Google’s fundamental search technology, turning the search page into something considerably more interactive than it’s been and offering real time-savings. The long-range implications are even more intriguing, as I’ll note below.

First, let’s look at what it does: You start typing in the search box. As you type you get instant results that Google suggests, based on what people searching for information have done in the past. Google predicts what you’re looking for and shows results below the search box. A drop-down list from the search box gives you alternatives, and as you select each the results below shift to reflect that choice.

This is powerful stuff, and not just because it’ll save time. It will, from two to five seconds per search, said Marissa Mayer, the Google executive who introduced the product and the team that created it. Do some multiplication — billions upon billions of searches — and it starts adding up to serious time.

There’s a different character to the way we search. We read faster than we type, and Instant uses the best elements of our human ability to scan text rapidly. The combination is a considerably more interactive search page, including what shows up below.

You need a modern browser — Chrome, Firefox, Safari or IE 8 — to use Google Instant, and it isn’t working everywhere even in the U.S. yet. The rollout will continue, first to Europe and then to the rest of the world.

A mobile version will arrive later this fall. I’m assuming it’ll hit Android phones first.

Other thoughts, and implications:

  • People will be using Google’s home page a lot more, at least until Google and the browser companies find ways — assuming they want to — to create popover windows that create roughly the same effect while not leaving the page we’re already on. Google is “working on it,” said Mayer.
  • You have to be logged in to use Instant. This means Google is going to get even more personal information from you; if you don’t think what you search for is highly personal you’re not paying attention. (UPDATE: I should have noted that while you have to log in to use it, you can also turn it off.)
  • Google takes a nannyish approach to what you are allowed to see. The first letters of words that are deemed violent, hateful or pornographic won’t produce instant feedback; you have to click the search button to find what you’re looking for. This creates an obvious problem. Google should give users an easy way to turn this off. The more people use this, the more Google is making decisions for us that it should let us be making — and a search product with this kind of market dominance shouldn’t have that power.
  • Over time, Google will surely learn more about what you and I want as individuals. So I’m guessing that the results it’ll show me will, more and more, differ from the ones it shows you. Is this a good thing or not? I’m not certain.
  • What all this means to search-based advertising and SEO — search engine optimization, what websites do to be more easily found by Google, Bing and other search products — is unclear. But consider this, for starters: The second page of Google results, and maybe even the bottom of the first page, is going to be much less relevant. If that doesn’t change the nature of search, and advertising based on search, nothing will.
  • If you’re the first brand or concept to pop up when someone types a letter — e.g. “b” gives you Bank of America (ugh) — you are an example of the SEO rich getting richer. These are the same results that showed up in popdown menus before, but Google is now guiding you, with the visual results below, to the top choices. This is a powerful feedback loop.

I’ll update as I learn more. I’ll also scan the Web for the best analysis I can find on this and post links below.

Washington Post’s faulty error correction

This article was originally published on Salon on August 31, 2010.

The Washington Post’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, took aim in hisSunday column at the kinds of small errors and sloppiness that torpedo trust in a media institution. He began:

A single major error can damage a news organization. But incessant lesser ones can be more harmful. Like a cancer, they gradually destroy credibility and eventually sever the organization’s bond of trust with its audience.

True enough, and as Alexander noted, the Post is getting more and more complaints about these mistakes. Whether it’s due to understaffing or burnout or something else, he said, “if this error-prone process is the new normal, it’s testing the loyalty of readers at a time when The Post desperately needs them.”

Because I spent years in the middle of the newspaper-making process, I have a fair amount of tolerance for small mistakes — typos and such — that are obviously related to time pressures. They’re very unfortunate, but they happen. In a digital world, they’re more manageable, because a swift correction can ensure that subsequent readers won’t see the goof, thereby limiting the damage.

I’m a lot less tolerant of a persistent refusal to correct mistakes, especially when they are not trivial. And as Alexander himself observed in a piece last December, the paper too often moves at a “snail’s pace” even after being notified.

In some cases, the snail seems to have died. A case in point is a flagrantly erroneous editorial written last October, on the day the Nobel Peace Prize folks announced they were giving President Obama the 2009 award.

Critics said the prize in this case, or at least at that juncture in Obama’s career, was a mistake, and the Post’s editorial board plainly agreed (as did I). But in making that point, the editorial writer undermined it. The writer said the prize should have gone instead to Neda Agha-Soltan, the Iranian woman who was shot and killed during the post-election protests in Iran earlier in 2009.

As many people, including the Atlantic’s Jim Fallows, pointed out, the only way to receive the prize posthumously is to die after the announcement that you’ve won. It’s in the rules and explained in the Nobel site’s FAQ.

I asked Alexander about this last October, and he said he forwarded my query to the editorial page editor. I got no further response, and the piece remains unchanged. I’m sorry to say that doesn’t surprise me anymore, because of where the error occurred: on the editorial page.

Despite its recent declines the Post remains one of America’s best newspapers, in part for brilliant work like its recent (and lamentably unheralded) series on our burgeoning culture of official secrecy.

But what makes the Post still worth reading is its news pages. They are separate from the editorial page operation, which is a notably weak part of the overall product. If you took an equal number of random Washington, D.C., citizens off the street and gave them the job of running the newspaper’s editorial and op-ed pages, you could hardly do worse. You might well do better.