Monthly Archives: May 2015

Twitter is under no obligation to host Chuck Johnson’s witch hunts

chuck johnson

I don’t always mind if people invoke the C word when referring to an instance in which a major social media or search platform bans a particular person from posting to it. Yes, Facebook or Twitter banning a user does not meet the technical definition of censorship given that they aren’t government entities and, as private corporations, are under no obligation to host anyone’s speech. But with some of the largest internet platforms — companies like Facebook and Google — wielding near-monopolistic influence in their respective industries, it’s not difficult to imagine troubling scenarios in which that influence is used to suppress speech. Last year, Metafilter founder Matt Haughey detailed the devastating impact that came when Google harshly punished his website within its index; his web traffic was eviscerated, resulting in him having to lay off staff members in order to stay afloat. It’s likely that a domain banning on Facebook would have a similarly calamitous effect on a news site. It’s possible to construct an argument, then, that these large social platforms should be more circumspect in banning users than, say, the New York Times is when deciding whether to ban commenters.

That being said, there are plenty of instances in which a social platform is not only justified in banning a user, but under moral obligation to do so. If we’ve learned nothing else from the GamerGate controversy that swept the web last year, it’s that open platforms like Twitter can be used to quickly form mass pseudonymous hordes who then lob death threats at targeted users, usually women. We’ve been treated to horrific screen grabs of Twitter users promising the most violent, misogynistic acts imaginable, often alongside the victim’s home address. This has led to calls for Twitter to improve its abuse prevention methods, methods that even Twitter CEO Dick Costolo admits are inadequate.

This brings us to Chuck Johnson, the conservative “journalist” whose Twitter account was permanently banned today. For the uninitiated, Johnson wrote for several prominent conservative news outlets before striking out on his own and launching Gotnews.com. Since then, he’s spewed some of the most misogynistic, homophobic, and racist vile imaginable, often under the guise of journalism. Within mere hours of the Amtrak train derailment that tragically killed eight passengers this month, Johnson, with virtually no actual information as to the circumstances of the crash, took to Twitter to claim that the engineer steering the train was black and that the derailment was a direct result of his affirmative action hiring. When it later emerged that the engineer was actually white, with nary an apology he shifted his attack, claiming that the engineer’s homosexuality made him predisposed to mental illness and then suggesting that was the cause.

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Of course being hateful and wrong, by itself, may not justify a permanent ban, but Johnson’s behavior went beyond merely marginalizing minorities. His “investigations” are often organized witch hunts that expose victims, many of whom aren’t public figures, to threats of violence. He has a predilection for declaring rape victims as liars and then offering bounties for identifying information, which he then publishes. After falsely claiming that two New York Times reporters had published the address of police officer Darren Wilson, Johnson then published the home addresses of those two reporters. The resulting death threats drove them from their homes. In the wake of the deeply flawed Rolling Stone reporting on campus rape at the University of Virginia, Johnson published the full name and other identifying information of Jackie, the potential rape victim at the center of the story. He then followed up that “reporting” by publishing a photo of Jackie, which then turned out to be a photo of a completely different rape victim, one who was then exposed to online harassment.

If you define “terrorism” broadly as using the threat of physical violence to silence particular kinds of speech, then it’s not hyperbolic to conclude that Chuck Johnson and his GamerGate brethren are terrorists. Their threats are clear: If you, a minority, use your voice to expose instances in which you’ve been marginalized, then we will threaten your privacy and cause you to live in fear for your safety. For that reason, Twitter is under no obligation to host and be a party to Chuck Johnson’s hate speech. In fact, it’s obligated not to.

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FULL DISCLOSURE: Want to know how I was paid to write this article? I explain it in this video.

Why competing publications are teaming up on podcasts

Slate's Political Gabfest

Slate’s Political Gabfest

Usually when two corporate entities enter into some kind of partnership you can be certain a small army of lawyers is involved in the process, each side guaranteeing that no ambiguity exists as to who owes what deliverables and share in costs. Not so with Crossing the Streams, the new pop culture podcast launched earlier this year as a collaboration between film news site Moviepilot and the humor magazine Cracked. Alisha Grauso, Moviepilot’s editor-in-chief, first met the Cracked team when she was attending Stan Lee’s Comikaze Expo in the fall. “Their PR guy reached out and said, ‘Hey, we heard you’re going to be at Comikaze. You have a great site and it overlaps with what we do, and we should talk because we have ideas for things we could collaborate on.’”

Grauso met with Jack O’Brien, Cracked’s editor-in-chief, and Daniel O’Brien, one of the magazine’s lead writers, and though the group discussed a variety of projects, they quickly settled on teaming up for a podcast. There isn’t 100 percent overlap in their coverage — Moviepilot focuses mostly on film and television, and while Cracked does cover pop culture, it’s usually through an idiosyncratic, humorous lens — but both are deeply rooted in geek culture, so Crossing the Streams would cover topics ranging from film to television to comic books, but from an insider’s point of view. “Jack doesn’t necessarily have a movie background, but he has a broad pop culture background,” she said. “I come from movies, but can talk about other areas as well.” Together, they could use their clout and connections to invite Hollywood insiders onto the show. An episode released in March, for instance, featured a panel discussion that included Alonso Duralde of The Wrap and Lucas Shaw of Bloomberg where the four conversed on the history of the Oscars and why the ceremony is currently broken.

Why did Moviepilot choose to team up with Cracked rather than just going it alone? To understand Grauso’s decision, it’s helpful to consider Moviepilot’s history and its relatively recent entry into the U.S. market. It was founded in the mid 2000s when three German entrepreneurs got together and formed a production company. After producing a few movies, they concluded they could better promote their films if they had an online community to market to — thus Moviepilot.de was born. “Then after a few years they realized they could only grow so big within the German market,” said Grauso. “German movies are great and popular in Germany, but only in Germany.” So in 2012, the company launched a sister website in the U.S.

In just three years, the site’s audience has grown tremendously. It pulls in 35 million unique visitors who generate over 80 million pageviews a month. But given its newness to the U.S. market, it doesn’t yet have strong brand recognition compared to some of its older peers. Cracked, on the other hand, not only has a large audience but has also been around for a decade; this has allowed it to amass a much more devout following. “For us it’s a win-win,” she said. “We don’t make money off it, but it’s a form of branding, getting our name out to a new audience. It’s ‘Hey, we’re working with Cracked, you know Cracked!’ It’s about name recognition.”

Moviepilot isn’t the only publication to have realized the benefits of teaming up with a competing outlet to launch a podcast. Because podcasting is a nascent medium with a growing-but-still-latent user base, news organizations and media personalities are finding they can attract a following much more quickly if they combine resources and work together to drive listenership. In some cases this involves informal collaborations, like when comedians sit down for guest interviews on each other’s shows, but other media entities are entering into official partnerships. The New Yorker and and the public radio station WNYC, for example, inked a deal earlier this year to create a one-hour podcast and national radio show.

Perhaps no podcast collaboration is larger than the one rolled out by Slate in February. As I’ve documented previously, Slate has a 10-year history growing a popular podcast network, one that boasts a legion of fervid fans. With shows ranging from its Better Call Saul recaps to the Political Gabfest, the online magazine has amassed millions of listeners and secured sponsorships with well-known brand advertisers. But the February announcement — that it was rebranding its podcast network under the name Panoply — indicated that it has much higher ambitions than simply hosting shows featuring Slate journalists. In addition to its current stable of podcasts, the network has entered partnerships with over a dozen other publications, including Huffington Post, The New York Times Magazine, Inc, and Popular Science.

Andy Bowers, Panoply’s executive producer who’s been involved with Slate’s podcast network since the very beginning, told me that the magazine realized within the last year that it had spent a decade building the infrastructure and knowledge to maintain a podcast network and that other publications, many of which have dipped their toes into podcasting but haven’t fully committed, could benefit from that knowledge and support. “Of course they could do it on their own, and some have done it on their own,” said Bowers. “But we figured that the case would be a lot easier to take to their higher ups if they said, ‘We can just go and let Slate do it for us.’”

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There are a number of services Panoply offers to its media partners, many of which position it as more of a behind-the-scenes production company, one that handles most of the technical aspects of podcasting while the publications supply the talent. Most of the media partners are based in New York, which allows them to visit the Slate offices and use its recording studio. There are about six full-time staff members on Panoply’s production side along with a number of freelancers; this core team helps the partners with everything from recording the podcast to editing and remixing it. Moviepilot experienced similar benefits when teaming up with Cracked. “They work with Earwolf Studios,” said Grauso, referring to the podcast network that produces shows for major comedians. “We go to a studio where we have mics and we can all see each other. There’s an audio engineer listening the whole time who’s adjusting volume, adjusting mics, and then they have an engineer who cuts it all together. It’s pretty high tech and they handle all of it.”

In addition to its production services, Panoply also handles much of the ad placement for the network. Not only does it have access to the direct response advertisers that are currently found on most podcasts (Audible, Squarespace, Dollar Shave Club), but it has also built inroads with the lucrative brand sponsors that have so far eluded the podcasting medium. “We leave it open for each organization to bring their own ad sales to the podcast if they want,” said Bowers. “Some have taken us up on it, but most are relying on us” to sell ads. In all cases the media partner has full ownership of the podcast and Panoply takes a portion of the ad revenue it sells.

Of course one of the biggest benefits the Panoply network offers is the ability to attract a large audience very quickly. As I and others have pointed out, podcast discovery includes a lot more friction compared to other mediums and often relies more on old-fashioned word of mouth. You’re unlikely to see podcasts shared on Facebook with the same frequency as images, text, or video, and it’s generally accepted that the best way to promote a new podcast is to have it plugged on a much more popular podcast. Unsurprisingly, it’s quite common, when you’re listening to a Panoply podcast, to hear a promo for another Panoply podcast. “Think of it as a newsstand,” said Bowers. “If a newsstand only carried one publication, would you be likely to go there? Probably not. But you go to a newsstand looking for one or two things, and there’s a bunch of other things there too, and you’re likely to peruse those things and maybe even buy them.” It’s a “rising tide lifts all boats” strategy.

Perhaps one reason these publications have been so amenable to collaboration is that podcasting, despite being on the upswing, is still far from mainstream adoption, at least the kind of mainstream adoption enjoyed by its sister medium, radio. It’s easy to team up when there isn’t much money on the table (a recent analysis from FiveThirtyEight found that a third of the top 100 podcasts didn’t even have a single ad). Once it enters the zeitgeist — and many of its proponents think it eventually will — then these partnerships might become more corporatized and structured. For now, most of its practitioners are looking to have some fun, and any other benefit, whether it’s increased branding or a little extra money, is a welcome addition. When I spoke to Grauso, she didn’t seem too concerned with whether the Crossing the Streams podcast would ever produce significant revenue.

“If we get to that point, then that’s awesome. But it’s not something we’re really thinking about at the moment.”

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FULL DISCLOSURE: Want to know how I was paid to write this article? I explain it in this video.

Image via The Exponent

Why are tech companies scrambling to create original content?

Hand Drawing Content Flow Chart

For the longest time it seemed major tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google wanted nothing to do with professional publishing, and by that I mean hiring professional content creators, i.e. journalists, to create polished media content. Why? Because Silicon Valley hates anything that doesn’t scale. Original content creation is labor intensive, expensive, and can’t be automated with code. The content created has a limited shelf-life, thereby decreasing the longterm ROI for the labor devoted to it.

You can see this philosophy reflected in how media companies have framed themselves to Silicon Valley investors, and by that I mean they’re attempting to pretend they aren’t media companies at all. BuzzFeed, when announcing a $50 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz, described itself as a company with “technology at its core,” and one of the investors compared it to Tesla and Uber. We’ve also seen the rise of the “platisher,” which is a media company that tries to create a platform for user-generated content (for instance, Forbes’ massive contributor network) so it can scale well beyond the limits of its paid editorial staff.

Why, then, have we recently seen tech behemoths, most of which already boast hundreds of millions of users, trying to enter the original content game? In some cases this has meant merely opening up their platforms so media companies can host longform content directly to them, as is the case with Facebook and Snapchat. Both have entered into partnerships with major news orgs to host content directly within their app ecosystem in exchange for a share in revenue for any ads sold against that content.

But other tech companies are wading expressly into original content creation, either by hiring journalists and artists to produce exclusive work for these companies’ platforms or by outright buying up entire media companies. The most obvious example is Medium, the blogging platform headed by Twitter co-founder Ev Williams. Though anyone can create a blog on Medium (and many do, including me), the company also employs editors and freelance journalists to produce magazine-like publications (my favorite is Backchannel, edited by Steven Levy).

A few months ago, Reddit launched a professionally-produced podcast, then followed it up with a curated email, and is now employing a team of videographers to produce original video. Business Insider recently reported that Twitter has made attempts to purchase Mic, the policy-oriented news site that’s geared toward millennials. Facebook and YouTube, both at war for top video talent, have dished out millions of dollars to entice creators into producing video exclusively for their platforms. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos decided it was worth $250 million of his own money to buy up the Washington Post and now Verizon is purchasing AOL, which has transformed itself from a platform to a media-oriented content company, for $4.4 billion.

So why are tech companies suddenly interested in labor-intensive, unscalable content creation? My guess is that it has something to do with a combination of the 80/20 rule and the 1 percent rule. Both embrace the idea that the most influential users on any platform make up a tiny percentage of the overall user population. It’s no secret that the media represents disproportionate influence on major social media sites like Twitter, both in terms of branded news org accounts and the personal accounts of their reporters.

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As I’ve written before in regard to Medium, tech platforms will sometimes use what is called a “mullet strategy” (business in the front, party in the back) by commissioning high quality content to attract readers with the hope that some of those readers will stick around to launch and run their own user accounts on the platform.  As I wrote in November, “You’re essentially paying those early influencers to populate your network with content with the hope that the masses will come clamoring to join the club.”

This is why YouTube is shelling out money to keep its stars under its own roof. One could argue that losing a few YouTube personalities wouldn’t matter for a platform that has over 1 billion users who upload 300 hours of video to its platform each minute, but YouTube realizes these stars are the foundation on which the entire network stands. If they were to suddenly leave for Tumblr or Facebook’s video platform, then many of their fans will also begin uploading video content to these platforms, thereby planting the seeds that could grow into a massive user base. Influencers matter, and these tech platforms realize that sometimes you need to pay to keep the influencers from decamping.

So perhaps the notion that original content creation can’t scale is outdated. Instead, it is a means to an end, a way to keep the business flowing in the front so that the unwashed masses of amateur users can be lured into joining the party in the back. Old media isn’t dead after all; it’s just now used as bait.

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FULL DISCLOSURE: Want to know how I was paid to write this article? I explain it in this video.

Image via Ketchum