Why news publishers are investing in Facebook A/B testing

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Dan Acton remembers the exact moment when he became sold on A/B testing Facebook content.

Acton is the social media manager for DramaFever, a video streaming company owned by Warner Bros that uses a Hulu-like model to license and stream Korean and other Asian TV content for an English-speaking audience. Many (though not all) of these shows are romantic comedies. To promote the shows DramaFever licenses, Acton and his team produce short videos they then upload to Facebook. “Sometimes it’ll be clips from shows, or trailers and teasers for upcoming episodes.” he told me. “We also get a lot of original content produced from Korea, like shout outs from the actors or behind-the-scenes footage that nobody else has.”

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How authors use Reddit to promote their books

Mignon Fogarty, creator of Grammar Girl

Mignon Fogarty, creator of Grammar Girl

It’s hard to blame Kameron Hurley for her wariness of Reddit prior to joining it. When non-users hear about the site, it’s often within the context of some recent controversy that originated in one of its communities. As a writer who often blogs about feminist and progressive issues, Hurley is likely aware that Reddit once hosted message boards known for posting images of underage girls and that it serves as a popular watering hole for the misogynist “men’s rights” and Gamergate movements. “I generally would stay away from Reddit,” she told me in a phone interview. “I wrote a book called The Geek Feminist Revolution, and Reddit is not known as a nice and happy loving place.”

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Meet the power users of Quora

Quincy Larson (center) has amassed over 13,000 followers and cumulatively generated more than 14 million views on Quora.

Quincy Larson (center) has amassed over 13,000 followers and cumulatively generated more than 14 million views on Quora.

For Quincy Larson, the lightbulb moment when he realized the power of Quora came during a trip to New York City in May 2015. It certainly wasn’t the first time he’d encountered the QandA platform. That had come much earlier when he was working as a software engineer and, as engineers invariably do when they encounter problems they’ve never seen before, turned to Google to troubleshoot. Time and again he’d find himself landing on Quora articles (or rather, “answers,” as they’re referred to on the site) written by seasoned engineers and successful entrepreneurs. “I was impressed by how high quality the answers were,” he told me in a phone interview. “If you look at other question-and-answer sites like Yahoo Answers or Answers.com, their answers just seem very throwaway compared to Quora. People seem to put immense thought into what they’re writing, almost from a journalistic or literary approach.”

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Can Pacific Standard thrive in a post-clickbait era?

Pacific Standard editor-in-chief Nicholas Jackson (left) with senior editor Ted Scheinman.

Pacific Standard editor-in-chief Nicholas Jackson (left) with senior editor Ted Scheinman.

In December 2011, on the night the news broke that Christopher Hitchens had died, Nicholas Jackson was in an Austin hotel room. Jackson, then an editor at the Atlantic, had just returned from drinking scotch at the hotel bar and was “slightly intoxicated,” as he put it to me, when he read the news of the author’s death. He’d been following Hitchens’s work for quite some time and had been particularly moved by the pugnacious writer’s Vanity Fair essays about his battle with esophageal cancer. His passing had reduced Jackson to tears. Continue reading

How Reddit is launching the careers of unknown artists

Billy the Fridge

Billy the Fridge

William Berry always knew he wanted to work in entertainment. For years, he had aspirations to have a career as a professional wrestler and even began to train for it, but the wrestling scene in Seattle, the city where he’d grown up, was small. There was, however, a strong local hip-hop community, with artists like Macklemore, Grieves, Blue Scholars, and Grayskul reaching national fame, and in the early 2000s Berry found himself working behind the scenes at recording studios and live events. “I wasn’t really trying to be another white rapper,” he told me recently. “I was working with all these guys and we’d go out to these shows and then people started getting me in on their songs because they thought I was funny. It was just something I enjoyed, so I went with it.” Continue reading

The rise of the YouTube video essay

Evan Puschak, host of The Nerdwriter

Evan Puschak, host of The Nerdwriter

To understand how J. Matthew Turner ended up creating a viral YouTube essay arguing that Daniel LaRusso, the young hero of the 1984 film The Karate Kid, was actually the villain of the movie, you first need to know the story behind the video he posted to YouTube a month before that one. For years, Turner, a video editor from New York, harbored a conviction that the movie Mortal Kombat was so similar in plot and themes to the Bruce Lee cult classic Enter the Dragon that they were virtually the same movie. “It was in the background of my head for a long, long time,” he told me recently. “And for whatever reason, I happened to think of it again last year and I suddenly saw how it should be done.” He had always envisioned a 15-minute video in which he would methodically build a case for his thesis, but he knew it would be difficult to keep viewers entertained for that long. “But now I realized that I should just show all the shots side by side and then try to explain the plot of both movies as one movie at the same time.” Continue reading

Email newsletters are the new zines

zines

Caroline Crampton isn’t lacking for an audience. A longtime political journalist, she’s been a web editor for the New Statesman, the 103-year-old British political and cultural magazine, since 2012. In addition to penning articles for the magazine, she also co-hosts a pop culture podcast with her colleague Anna Leszkiewicz. She has an active Tumblr blog, 4,000 followers on Twitter, and even occasionally appears as a commentator on mainstream news programming. Continue reading

I tried Facebook’s revamped Notes tool for a month. Here’s what I learned

facebook like

For years now publishers have fretted over Facebook’s increasing emphasis on native content and what it means for the outbound referral traffic they’ve come to rely on. Back in 2012 I noticed that publishers, rather than pasting a link that would auto-generate a headline and thumbnail for their articles, were instead uploading a photo natively to their page and then including a Twitter-like headline and link. Here’s an example of what I mean: Continue reading

How Boing Boing adapted to the social web

boing boing

A question started bugging Mark Frauenfelder in November of 2014: Could you take marijuana onto a plane in a state where it was legal? Would the TSA let you through? Earlier that month, Alaska had joined three other states and the District of Columbia by voting to legalize marijuana use for citizens over the age of 21, but given that the drug was still banned at the federal level there were all sorts of murky legal questions yet to be answered, this being one of them. So Frauenfelder, a co-editor at Boing Boing, once considered the most popular blog on the internet (by the rankings of blog search engine Technorati), approached Caroline Siede, a frequent freelancer for the site, and asked her to tackle the question. “So she did her usual thing and reported the story out, which involved calling Homeland Security and finding out what the deal was,” he told me.

The outcome of that research, a 1,300-word article preluded with a full-width image of a plane superimposed with a marijuana leaf, reported that whether you can carry legal marijuana onto a plane is often up to the discretion of the TSA agent, but in many cases you’ll be fine. While this information certainly was interesting, what I found more interesting as a media journalist was that a decade ago you wouldn’t have found anything like this article on boingboing.net.

For as long as I’ve been reading it, Boing Boing’s tagline has been “a directory of wonderful things,” and for much of its history it was just that: a directory, one that almost always pointed you away to other websites. A 2005 blog post outlining how to send submissions to the site states, “Don’t send in stuff without links. If you saw something cool on TV or received something interesting in email, you need to either find it on the Web or publish it on the Web before suggesting it. Boing Boing publishes links — so if there’s no link, there’s not much chance we’ll link to it.”

But here was a post that, while containing links, resembled less a blog post and more a feature-length article, one specifically designed for others to link to. And it wasn’t a fluke; Frauenfelder told me he has a steady stable of freelancers he turns to to produce original content. “They’ll hit me up with ideas, and I’ll decide whether we should do it,” he said. “Some of our other editors occasionally introduce me to someone they know who has written a book or something and wants to write an essay for us to help get word out about their book.” Boing Boing, he said, publishes at least one of these original articles per day, and sometimes as many as five in a single day. Though it still publishes plenty of short blog posts meant to draw attention to outside content, Boing Boing certainly can no longer be described as merely a directory.

***

A version of the Boing Boing print zine

A version of the Boing Boing print zine

Boing Boing’s origin story is by now well documented. Frauenfelder and his wife Carla Sinclair launched it as a print zine in 1988, and it eventually reached a peak circulation of 17,500 copies before it was abandoned in the mid-90s in favor of a website. According to an article in Fast Company, it was after Frauenfelder pitched a magazine editor on a story about a then-fledgling company called Blogger that he got the idea for the site’s bloggier iteration, which launched in 2000. During that first year posts were authored almost exclusively by Frauenfelder, but he would soon be joined by a coterie of co-editors who are now all partial owners in the site: Cory Doctorow, a Wired contributor turned novelist and digital rights activist; Xeni Jardin, a journalist and NPR correspondent; and David Pescovitz, a researcher at the Institute for the Future (a fourth editor, Rob Beschizza, joined much later).

Its readership quickly grew. In a 2003 interview, Doctorow bragged that Boing Boing was receiving half a million pageviews a month. That number soon rose to several million. Hosting costs ballooned to about $1,000 a month, all paid out of pocket until the blog started accepting advertising in 2004. Within a few years, it was a seven-figure business.

So why was a blog that merely aggregated links, mostly to content pertaining to non-mainstream geek culture, so popular? To answer this question, one must first consider how the internet operated a decade ago. Back then, if you wanted to regularly read a news website or blog, you had basically two options.

The first was that you could subscribe to its RSS feed. RSS was a great tool (I still remember the epiphany I had when I signed up for Bloglines, an early RSS reader, and immediately grasped its utility). You could subscribe to as many blogs as you wanted, and rather than having to constantly reload each one to see if it had been updated, all new posts were delivered directly to your feed. In many cases, you didn’t even have to click away to read the entire post. But as great as RSS was, it had extremely low adoption rates, so much so that bloggers would hold an annual RSS Day to try to raise awareness that the functionality existed.

The second method, and by far the most common, was to simply bookmark the site in your browser. But this quickly became unwieldy once you bookmarked more than a dozen blogs, which meant that, despite the existence of millions of blogs by the mid-2000s, it was incredibly difficult for most of them to build a consistent readership.

Hence the utility of link blogs like Boing Boing. They became a major mode of discovery for more obscure blogs and content. Nearly all of these curation blogs — from Boing Boing to Slashdot to Laughing Squid — had some sort of submission form for artists and writers to submit their content. The lucky few who would get featured on these sites were rewarded with thousands of new readers (I had a blog back then and I would see between 2,000 and 5,000 visitors after receiving a Boing Boing link). Readers were happy because someone else was doing all the hard work of surfacing the best content.

You know what happened next. Facebook debuted its news feed and began allowing media organizations to launch their own pages. Twitter entered the scene with its own high-metabolism feed. Suddenly you could not only easily subscribe to blogs and news sites, but also to the individual authors who wrote for those sites. Where RSS failed to catch on, social media succeeded. Now, anyone could be a curator of content.

At the same time, mainstream news companies, which were starting to get serious about generating web traffic and wanted to attract shares from all these Twitter and Facebook users, began to ramp up their own aggregation. A journalism grad used to cut their teeth by starting at a weekly newspaper and then working their way up. These days, they’re just as likely to snag an entry level gig at a New York media company and spend their days repackaging GIFs and videos first surfaced on Reddit. This is why you’ll see upwards of 60 news sites posting the latest John Oliver rant every Monday. And these new curators weren’t as scrupulous about giving credit as their blogger ancestors.

“Many 22-year-old interns do not care about attribution,” said Scott Beale, the founder of Laughing Squid. “There’s no repercussion for them either. They’ll be at some media organization for six months, give no attribution, and then move on to the next job.” When they do give attribution, he said, it’s usually just a link to wherever they found the content, which often isn’t its original source. “We’ll actually do the research and track down a video or image to the person who created it and give them credit.”

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Laughing Squid, like Boing Boing, established itself as an early curation blog, focusing largely on art and geek culture. And as the independent blogosphere deteriorated and gave rise to social platforms and VC-funded news startups, Beale has tried to resist adopting traffic-boosting strategies that he feels would cheapen his blog posts. “The basic structure of our blog posts is essentially the same” he said. “If you look back at our oldest posts, you’re going to see the same things. Headlines have never been sensational. We don’t insult our readers’ intelligence. We don’t tell readers how to think or what to do. Take a look at the blog posts out there. How many of them use headlines that tell people that something ‘will restore your faith in humanity’? It’s a trick they use. We don’t do it and we never will. These things come and go — and they do all come and go — while we keep doing our thing.”

***

Boing Boing wasn’t resting on its laurels as this new internet emerged. As the blog entered the late aughts, it began to test out new offerings. It launched a gadgets vertical headed up by former Gizmodo editor Joel Johnson. It debuted Boing Boing TV, a daily video show hosted by Xeni Jardin which did things like interview tech execs at the Consumer Electronics Show about the latest gadgets. The editors hosted a regular podcast, called Boing Boing Boing. Many of these projects were either shuttered or rolled back into the main site. “The videos were incredibly time intensive,” said Frauenfelder. “You get bogged down with post production, editing it, going on location. When you compare the number of views we got for a video to the traffic for blog posts and articles which cost us much less time and money, then it became clear that video wasn’t a good investment.”

The editors applied the same cost-benefit analysis to their podcast. “It was hard for us to actually get enough listeners to make it worth doing,” he said. “For a while our listener numbers weren’t being counted properly. We thought we were getting 50,000 to 100,000 listeners per episode, but really it was closer to 8,000 listeners per episode. Podcasting ads pay about $20 per thousand downloads, so making a couple hundred dollars to do a podcast that takes all together eight hours to create isn’t worth it when we could spend those eight hours doing text-based content.”

In 2014, on Boing Boing’s 25th anniversary, Rob Beschizza published a commemorating post on the site. In addition to promising a “renewed focus on original features,” he announced a new homepage design, one that would steer away from the reverse-chronological presentation that was the hallmark of most blogs and place more focus on featuring original content the editors didn’t want buried in the stream. This new Boing Boing, at least on the homepage, looked more like a magazine than what we would traditionally consider a blog. “We had been doing [curation] for so long,” said Frauenfelder. “It can get a little monotonous to do that nonstop, and original content was something that was personally rewarding for us.”

The blog still devotes significant space to shorter items. While the features and the aggregation posts draw about the same amount of traffic overall, Frauenfelder has given up trying to predict when a particular article or post will do well. “We could put a ton of work into a feature article we love and that we think is important, and it will get like 7,000 views. And then we’ll post something silly that’s a one-line joke and link to someone else’s story, and it’ll get 600,000 pageviews.”

One thing I wondered is why successful blogs like Boing Boing and Laughing Squid chose to stay small. Other early blogs like Huffington Post, Mashable, and Gigaom took on VC investment in their efforts to scale. Even Gawker’s Nick Denton, who long resisted outside investment, recently sold a sizable chunk of equity. “Sure we could get investment if we wanted it,” said Beale. “But we see companies destroyed by it too. You give up a lot of control and then there are demands put on you by people who don’t know anything about your company.” He pointed to Gigaom, a tech site that ran out of money and laid off its entire staff last year, as an example of what happens when a media company can’t scale at a rate that would satisfy investors.

Frauenfelder was similarly disdainful of the idea. “We were just paying bandwidth out of pocket before we started selling ads, and then we became profitable right off the bat in 2004,” he said. “We’ve never been interested in getting funding to grow it in a big way like those sites because it’s just not sustainable. There’s no way they’re making enough money from advertising to pay whatever their burn rate is. There’s an obscene amount of money they have to pay for their office space and salaries. We all work in our home offices and spare bedrooms, and everyone makes a living on the advertising income we bring in. I am just looking at these huge companies that rely on a lot of VC money, and they’re unsustainable, artificial things, and they’re going to die off.”

If they do die off, they’ll end up in a graveyard alongside the millions of tiny blogs that have shut down over the past decade as users migrated to social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest. Sure, some will find homes on Medium or Tumblr, but many bloggers these days don’t feel the need to go beyond the 140 characters afforded to them. As for the remaining holdouts, those writers who continue to pen screeds at their own obscure web domains, bloggers like Frauenfelder and Beale will continue to scroll through their feeds looking for the nuggets worth featuring to a larger audience. “At some point I just really realized there aren’t very many independent blogs left,” said Beale. “The more obscure ones that I subscribe to on RSS, they’ll just suddenly announce that they’re stopping and can’t do it anymore.” Meanwhile, Facebook just announced it’s reached 1.59 billion users. The blogosphere is dead, long live the blogosphere.

 Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com

Image via Mark Frauenfelder 

How this blogger became one of the most influential voices in tech policy

Mike Masnick

Mike Masnick

In May 2003, the legal website The Smoking Gun posted a short item titled “Barbra Sues Over Aerial Photos.” Kenneth Adelman, an environmentalist who takes aerial photographs of California’s coastline for the benefit of scientists and researchers, had inadvertently captured an image of singer and actress Barbra Streisand’s home. The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleged that by posting the image to his website, Adelman had provided a “road map into her residence” and “clearly [identified] those routes that could be used to enter her property.” On page 9 of the lawsuit it states that “there is no telling how many people have downloaded the photograph of [Streisand’s] property and residence on their computer.”

In the coming weeks it would emerge that, up until the lawsuit was filed, the image of Streisand’s house had only been accessed six times, two of which were by her lawyers. And because of the engendered press from the lawsuit, it was then visited more than 420,000 times in just the first month after it was filed. Not only did Streisand later lose the lawsuit, but it had produced the very result her lawyers had set out to avoid: drawing attention to her property.

The entire imbroglio, humorous as it was, may have ended up a mostly-forgotten historical footnote if not for a seemingly unrelated incident that occurred two years later. A website called Urinals.net, which posts user-generated photos of urinals, had received a legal complaint from the Marco Beach Ocean Resort claiming that, because Urinals.net had mentioned the resort’s name in one of its photos, it had infringed on the company’s trademark. Mike Masnick, a blogger who covers issues dealing with intellectual property, wrote about the complaint on Techdirt, a website he’s run since the late 90s. At the end of the post, which is only a few hundred words long, Masnick reached this seemingly innocuous conclusion:

How long is it going to take before lawyers realize that the simple act of trying to repress something they don’t like online is likely to make it so that something that most people would never, ever see (like a photo of a urinal in some random beach resort) is now seen by many more people? Let’s call it the Streisand Effect.

Masnick didn’t realize it at the time, but he had just coined a term that would continue to endure to this day. On the neologism’s 10th anniversary last year, Gizmodo commemorated the event by documenting the most egregious examples of the Streisand Effect in action — examples that included the Church of Scientology trying to suppress an embarrassing video and Beyonce’s attempts to remove unflattering photos of herself from the internet.  

Few of us ever get the chance to coin a phrase, much less one that enters the popular lexicon. The reason this one didn’t get lost in the ephemera of the internet is that Masnick by that point had spent more than half a decade establishing himself as a must-read source on all things tech policy. Whether it’s intellectual property, telecom and broadband policy, or digital rights, Techdirt has been at the forefront of these issues, covering them with a brand of fiery opinionated journalism that has made him no shortage of enemies. If there’s a consistent theme to be found in his work, it’s that large technology and media companies often wield their power to benefit themselves at the expense of consumers, and it’s only by shining a light on their abusive behavior that it can be stopped.

In recent years, Masnick has been one of the most prominent figures in a growing activist movement that advocates for digital rights issues ranging from net neutrality to open source technology. Most importantly, he played an instrumental role in the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA for short), a bill introduced in 2011 that was broadly supported by the media and entertainment industries. As Marvin Ammori, a lawyer who advocates on internet freedom issues, put it to me, “I’m not sure anyone did more to educate the public about SOPA than Techdirt.”

***

In its earliest iteration, Techdirt didn’t go by that name, nor was it even a website. In 1996, Masnick enrolled in Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management to obtain an MBA. “I was on the East Coast in the middle of nowhere, not near a major city or anything,” he told me. “I was hoping to get a job in the technology field after graduating, and I thought that actually writing about current events in technology from a business perspective would help me in getting a day job.” At the time, he was a big admirer of an irreverent UK newsletter called Need to Know, and so the newsletter he launched, called Up to Date, adopted a similar approach. “It technically started as the newsletter for the technology management club at the my business school,” he said. “I had been elected the president of that club, so that gave me an audience of 75 business school students. And with the first newsletter I put a little note at the bottom that said, ‘If you’d like to subscribe, send me an email.’”

Within three weeks, Masnick had over a thousand subscribers, and for the first seven or eight months it was simply a newsletter he sent roughly once a week. At some point, he decided it should be a website, so he spent much of his last semester in business school teaching himself how to build one. This is around the same time he became obsessed with Slashdot, the tech forum that is now considered one of the earliest blogs. After settling on the name Techdirt, he and a friend tried to install the open source code that Slashdot’s editors had released, called Slashcode Version 0.3. “It was a mess,” he said. “A friend and I took it and we spent months trying to get it to work, and we finally got it working in early 1999.”

Though not exactly a mirror image of what it is today, the early Techdirt still explored many of the themes that would later form the bedrock of its current worldview. Masnick became close to a grad school professor of his, Alan McAdams, who had served as senior staff economist with President Richard Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisers and provided witness testimony for the government in United States v. IBM. “He was ahead of his time,” he recalled. “This was ‘95 or ‘96, and he was really interested in open source and what that meant for the economics of software. He was very focused on broadband implementation and talking about getting fiber to the home applied universally.” Today, we call this broadband universal service, and it’s an achievement for which nearly every developed country strives.

I find it interesting how many of the earliest blogging pioneers, some of whom are now household names, didn’t consider themselves early adopters when they first started writing for the web. John Gruber, the writer behind the tech blog Daring Fireball, said recently that “when I got started in 2002 I had this sinking feeling in my heart that I was just way too late to the game.” Daily Kos, which is known as one of the earliest netroots political blogs, debuted a half decade after the term “weblog” was first coined. Similarly, Masnick thought by the time Techdirt hit the web in 1999 all the important tech policy issues had been dealt with. “The original encryption wars had already happened before we started. The DMCA” — Digital Millennium Copyright Act — “was already in place before we started. The Communications Decency Act was already done before we started. So I felt like I’d missed many of the big important things.”

He was wrong. The early 2000s would see the rise of the Michael Powell administration at the FCC and consumers trading in their phone lines for broadband internet. The internet’s transformation to Web 2.0 — first coined by Tim O’Reilly in 2004 — produced a Cambrian explosion of new content as millions of internet users suddenly gained access to publishing platforms that required no coding skills and were free to use. Network neutrality. Comcast v. BitTorrent. Viacom v. YouTube. SOPA. Smartphone adoption. CISPA. All had the potential to drastically shape how we use the internet for decades to come and all were aggressively covered by Techdirt.

It was in 2000 that Masnick first tried to turn Techdirt into a sustainable business. After grad school he’d moved out to Silicon Valley, and while there it dawned on him that many of these companies would benefit from the kind of analysis he was performing on his blog. “We called it Techdirt Corporate Intelligence,” he explained. “We helped companies better understand the issues we were covering. We were basically writing mini Techdirts for those companies — just writing a newsletter about different news and events that might impact our clients’ businesses.”

For several years, the corporate intelligence offerings were the only method by which Techdirt made money. In 2005, however, the site experienced a sudden explosion in traffic, and a year later it was able to diversify its revenue with ads. This was around the time Masnick began to revisit the very idea of what it meant to be a blogger. “For the first few years on the blog, I had this really stupid rule that I struck to that every post had to be only a single paragraph,” he said. “I couldn’t really dig in. It was only a few years in when I was like, you know, there’s no reason for this artificial limitation, and I can clearly write more.”

This new Techdirt began to cover issues in more depth, and those alarmed by abuses from ISPs, telecom companies, and patent trolls would turn to the blog as a tool for exposing these abuses, in some ways making Masnick a kind of unofficial spokesman for this burgeoning activist community. In 2009, the U.K. government proposed new legislation that would install a “three strike policy” and restrict repeat offenders of online piracy from accessing the internet. The singer Lily Allen then launched a blog, called It’s Not All Right, in support of the Digital Economy Act, and its chief aim was to shame online pirates. But shortly after the blog went live, Masnick was informed by one of his readers that Allen had reprinted, in full, one of his Techdirt articles without attribution, and he took to the web to point out her seeming hypocrisy. His blog post ricocheted around the internet, forcing Allen to dash off a quick apology. But then, two days later, another Techdirt reader alerted Masnick to a much more explosive example of hypocrisy: For years, Allen had been uploading “mix tapes” full of other artists’ work without their permission. The resultant ridicule was so fierce that Allen quickly deleted all her blog posts and announced she would no longer participate in the debate.

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That same year, Masnick traveled to Cannes, France to speak at a music industry conference about new business models for artists. The 15-minute presentation, the video of which was uploaded to the web, focused on Nine Inch Nails singer Trent Reznor and how he ditched his record label to experiment with several (ultimately successful) methods to get his fans to pay for otherwise free music. Though Masnick wasn’t the first person to highlight business models that rely on distributing free content, the speech struck a nerve and was covered by hundreds or blogs and news publications around the world (later that year, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, a book by then-Wired editor Chris Anderson, debuted on the New York Times despite being distributed for free online).

By the turn of the decade, Techdirt was a central repository for all news relating to tech policy, and Masnick was one of the most prominent figures in a growing but-still-mostly-unorganized movement that cared fervently about issues relating to digital rights. And thus he was perfectly positioned in 2011 when House Judiciary Committee Chair Representative Lamar S. Smith, a Republican from Texas, introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act with 12 co-sponsors, four of whom were Democrats. The next day, Masnick published his first post about the bill, titled “E-PARASITE Bill: ‘The End Of The Internet As We Know It’” He would go on to write over 520 more.

***

For those who opposed SOPA, those early days after the bill was first introduced were grim.

Marvin Ammori served as general counsel for Free Press, an organization that advocates for net neutrality and other open internet issues, from 2007 to 2010 before leaving to teach law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He decided he didn’t enjoy teaching very much, however, and moved back to DC to launch his own law practice focusing on internet freedom. Since then he’s worked with pro-net neutrality coalitions, large tech companies like Google and Apple, and Engine Advocacy, a pro-startup organization. As the SOPA battle began to heat up, Ammori told me, he spoke to one of his contacts who worked in the Judiciary Committee. “They told me point blank that there was no way we were going to win on SOPA,” he recalled. “It’s clearly going to pass. There are 40 co-sponsors in the Senate. At the same time, my friends in Silicon Valley were getting calls from their friends in Hollywood saying you guys have to back off on SOPA, we’re going to win, there’s no way we’re going to lose this one.”

But by this point Techdirt and a growing number of tech blogs, many of which typically didn’t spend much time writing about policy, were providing drumbeat coverage of every new development relating to the bill, and there were signs that a seemingly arcane piece of legislation that wouldn’t normally generate much interest outside of the Beltway was attracting notice from a growing number of Americans. Within weeks, a coalition of major tech companies that included Facebook, Twitter, and eBay had come out against the bill, and soon you began to see political movements ranging from the libertarian Right to the liberal Left announcing their opposition.

Suddenly, anti-SOPA stories were appearing almost daily on the front page of Reddit and as trending topics on Twitter. More often than not, those posts linked back to Techdirt articles.  “After SOPA failed, a Harvard Law Professor named Yochai Benkler wrote an analysis of the SOPA fight,” said Ammori. “And it was really the story of Techdirt. Things would pop up in different blogs and Masnick would give it attention and then the eyeballs were moving in whichever direction Techdirt was sending them.”

Ammori argued that Masnick has found success because he managed to run a tech policy blog that didn’t read like a tech policy blog. “Being able to explain arcane legal and technological issues to a blog audience is not easy,” he said. “Doing it day in and day out on lots of different issues is something he’s able to do, and I think no one else has been able to do it quite as well.”

“I read Techdirt every day, sometimes several times a day,” Corynne McSherry told me. “And I think everybody in this space relies on Techdirt regularly.” McSherry is the legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, litigating free speech issues against what she refers to as “copyright maximalists.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF, is likely the most well-funded and visible organization that fights on digital rights issues, and during her decade there McSherry has watched as the movement has gradually matured into what it is today. “I feel like there’s been a sea change,” she argued. “DC remains difficult to engage with if you’re not inside the beltway, and while it’s still true that lots of negotiations and discussions and horse trading go on behind closed doors, I do think Congress is more aware than they used to be that there could be a massive public outcry that they would have to deal with.”

Case in point: On December 15, 2011, the House held a hearing to address several of the issues raised against SOPA. As recounted in The Fight for the Future: How People Defeated Hollywood and Saved the Internet – For Now, the book by Edward Lee:

Reddit, the news-linking social network, put a link on its home page to the live stream of the markup from the House Judiciary Committee website. Reddit’s link helped to drive a great deal of traffic to the Judiciary Committee website, making the markup one of the most watched in recent memory. It was a spectacle…

…Far from being open to compromise, the sponsors of SOPA appeared to be digging in their heels. They rejected nearly every amendment that was offered to provide more due process to protect against erroneous claims. EFF live-tweeted the entire markup, while Techdirt live-blogged it. The hearings were a complete spectacle, in a frightening way.

The bill didn’t die that day, but it was clear the tides had turned. What may have been the final death blow occurred on January 18, 2012 when Google, Wikipedia, Reddit, and thousands of other websites participated in an internet “blackout” in which their websites became inaccessible save for anti-SOPA messages:

blackout

 

Two days later, the New York Times reported that Congress was shelving the bill. Congressional leaders vowed to one day return to it, but this was a clear victory for opponents. “The Internet Wins” declared a Techdirt headline. Never one to rest on its laurels, the blog continued to publish six more posts about the bill that very same day.

***

With the benefit of four years of hindsight, it seems clear that the SOPA victory signaled a legitimate shift in power. In early 2015, after more than a decade of internet advocacy for net neutrality, the FCC classified broadband providers under the same regulations that govern telephone networks, thereby allowing the agency to ban blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization. After years of successful lobbying, telecom and cable companies had definitively lost the fight.

That’s not to say Masnick feels his work is done. He still posts about new efforts to resurrect SOPA. Techdirt still covers issues with copyright abuse and defends encryption technology. He now has a team of freelance bloggers who help him produce dozens of posts a day, and, unlike most other news sites on the web that are seeing fewer homepage visits as more and more of their traffic comes from places like Facebook and Twitter, Techdirt saw its ratio of direct traffic rise from 30 percent in 2014 to 38 percent in 2015 (“direct” traffic is usually a sign of a more loyal readership). Yet Masnick still runs his blog with the same mindset as when it was just a newsletter sent to 75 business school students:

“I kind of operate under the assumption that nobody sees what I write,” he said. He recalled his days working at his college radio station. “There’s this interesting thing when you’re on radio and you’re speaking into a microphone out into the world, and you have no idea if anyone is listening. And so I always went under the assumption that nobody was. To some extent my blogging has been sort of the same way. I just assume nobody is reading, and I’m a little surprised when anyone does.”

Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com

Image via Dennis Yang