Journalism Politics Social Software Technology

Trump blocked me on Twitter. But for democracy’s sake, we can’t ban him.

I was commissioned to write this Op Ed by NBC News after discussing the matter on Twitter at length. It was a fun if surprisingly hard thing to write. I never managed to get paid for it and never signed anything, so I think it’s probably okay that I republish it here. The original home on NBC News is here: Trump blocked me on Twitter.

A little over six months ago the President of the United States of America blocked me on Twitter. He or his people decided — over the course of one weekend in June — to purge those of us who had been fact-checking him online. By Monday morning, most of us were gone forever.

In a normal administration, a fairly minor micro-scandal like that might represent the high-water mark of public interest in the president’s social media life. Even in this case, there’s more to the story than perhaps meets the eye — blocking critics from official public fora could arguably be illegal — but still, I can’t imagine any previous president spending much time worrying about the effects of Twitter on their agenda.

But things have changed. Today, the censoring of President Donald Trump’s critics represents only the tiniest part of the Trump and Twitter love story — a never-ending 24/7 horror show focusing on and around a profoundly irresponsible and incompetent man’s willful and occasionally terrifying use of social media.

Let’s review: Trump — in the last year alone — has used Twitter to systematically lie to the American peopleattack the very idea of the free pressundermine public trust in America’s core institutionsunderplay racist terror actssupport alleged child molesterscall himself a geniusalienate America’s allies and perhaps worst of alltaunt the world’s most autocratic and unstable nuclear power.

It’s no wonder that so many activists now argue that Twitter has a moral responsibility to ban the president. At protests outside Twitter’s San Francisco offices earlier in January — protests that eventually triggered an anemic and half-hearted response from the company — activists argued that Trump’s appalling behavior had broken the company’s Terms of Use regarding abuse and harassment and should result in him being banned.

They also said that Twitter’s founder Jack Dorsey — by creating a space where Trump could circumvent normal media checks and balances — had directly contributed to the president’s rise to power. Enough is enough, they argued. Ban this man.

I have a lot of sympathy with this argument. I also know some of these activists personally and they are honorable and decent people. But ultimately I believe Twitter must fight to keep Trump on the platform.

For good or ill, Twitter is one of the closest things we have today to a de facto “public space” on the internet. I believe we need such a space. And I believe over the last couple of years, under extraordinary (if deserved) pressure, Twitter has just started to really understand the full range of responsibilities that occupying such a role entails.

One of these responsibilities is to provide a space for the political discourse of a country to play itself out. These are the spaces we now use to debate the issues, to campaign and — now — even to discuss and announce policy. Ideally they wouldn’t be spaces owned by for-profit corporations, but truly public places with rights and responsibilities defined and protected by law. But the U.S. government has shown no inclination or ability to fund or build or run such places, so instead we are where we are.

And where we are is in a country where almost half of the electorate voted for Trump. He did not organize a military coup. It wasn’t a massive administrative error that secured him the job. It was, as much as some people may dispute or dislike it, the will of the people. And until such a time that he’s removed from office, if Twitter is to remain the de facto public space we all need, the will of the people matters.

I’m not going to pretend there isn’t realpolitik in play here too. Let’s face it: Banning the president from Twitter would not remove his platform, he’d simply move to Snapchat, or Facebook or Ello. And if he were banned, the partisan outcry over the decision would probably rend Twitter in half in the process, potentially killing the product and the company in the process. There are no victories there.

Because in the end, the only victories can come from the same processes that got us here. We need to take responsibility as an electorate. If we want him to stop debasing the presidency on Twitter, we need to remove him from the presidency, not remove him from Twitter. We need to support our courts in the fair implementation of the law. And we need to hold our elected representatives to account as they attempt — in turn — to keep Trump from going off the rails.

Meanwhile, there is something we can ask of Twitter. We can ask them to be clear about how they see their role in the world. We need to know what they believe in; what they stand for. We need them to demonstrate that they fully understand they’re not simply a neutral communications mechanism. Today’s Twitter is a place where business happens, elections happen, government happens — and with the arrival of Russia onto the scene — international tensions play out. We need Twitter to show us they understand this and that they’re up to that challenge.

And perhaps we can ask them one more tiny thing — to review their policies on politicians blocking or banning users engaged in legitimate, non-abusive political debate. Twitter’s own statement stood up for “necessary discussion around [politicians’] words and actions, but we can’t have that discussion if those politicians shut us down. And in this post-truth world, we need all the help we can get.

Tom Coates is an entrepreneur and technologist who has developed software products for the BBC, Time Out, Yahoo, Nokia and Jawbone among others. Over the last 20 years he’s written and spoken extensively about tech culture, social platforms, location and the Internet of Things and his work has been featured on the BBC, The Guardian, New York Times, MIT Technology Review and in the Daily Mail. His most recent project was the smart home software company Thington, which was acquired last year by eero inc. 

Journalism Politics Science Technology

On the OLPC Movement…

A couple of months ago I was asked by Icon Magazine to write a review of the OLPC XO laptop for the developing world. You can read the finished article in their January issue or on their site (OLPC review on However, since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about the context and background to the review I wrote and decided that I wanted to elaborate around it a bit. I’ve also wanted to put up a version in public that hadn’t been edited for length (however judiciously). Hence this post – firstly some background to the piece and then the piece itself.

When I read a review of the XO I expect to stumble across some fairly standard positions. I expect the article to question whether the developing world really needs a laptop. I expect them to talk about the ecological impact of these laptops. I expect them to decry the project as (at best) utopianist folly and (at worst) some form of western naïve semi-colonial oppression. Most of these arguments make no sense to me at all.

The first position seems to be based on the assumption that the people of the developing world be better off gradually developing their economies through farming to manufacturing and ending up gradually in high technology industries. I personally think this ideology dooms these countries to always playing catch-up to the west. If there’s any chance of them leap-frogging great swathes of industrialisation to create a working and creative population that can compete on a world stage, then I don’t understand how any of us could stand up in good conscience and decry it.

Environmental damage through a proliferation of laptops seems to me to be probably indisputable, but what’s the alternative? Is it fair for rich countries to consume vast amounts of resources but stop poor countries having access to the same services ‘for the good of the world’? Can we really in good conscience deny other people what we take for granted? Perhaps if we were sending out hundreds of millions of Macs or PCs there might be an argument here, but the XOs are massively less damaging to the world than any of those devices.

The utopian accusation may have some truth to it. It’s difficult to know precisely how much chance a project like this has of success. And it’s difficult to know whether the technologists behind it are busily projecting their own ideologies onto developing countries in defiance of what those countries actually want. Probably the only way we’ll find out for sure would be to provide the machines to a few disparate groups of young people across the world and see how they develop–see what opportunities it opens up for them. Personally, I find the arguments convincing. I think there is a net benefit to come out of this. I think it will help. But it’s pretty tricky to distinguish your own beliefs from your prejudices. I wouldn’t blame anyone for not being so confident.

For me, it comes down to the way we want to operate in the world. It’s extremely easy to adopt a pose of scepticism and cynicism about any attempt to change things or push them forwards. I’ve said before about a particularly aggravating tech commentator that naysaying is a sure-fire way to look sensible and intelligent without any of the effort of actually having to think. I stand by that, and I think the OLPC project has had its fair share of this kind of thinking.

Personally though, I believe that it’s possible to work for the good of all and improve the world. I think it’s a decent and honourable thing to apply whatever means you have at your disposal to raising the aspirations and possibilities of one of the planet’s most squandered resources–its residents. And I do buy the geek rhetoric that access to information, communication and education cannot but help people. As such, I’m prepared to give this project and others like it, the benefit of the doubt. And that’s why I decided to write this article in this particular style. I hope you enjoy it:

There’s something grotesque about reviewing Nicholas Negroponte’s XO–the so-called “$100 dollar laptop”–for a magazine like Icon. And that I’m writing the piece on my gas-guzzling SUV of a MacBook Pro can only compound the horror. This is not a machine designed to be evaluated by people like me. Nor is it meant to be bought by the kinds of people that will read this magazine. To talk about it in the same design terms as a lamp or a set of headphones borders on criminal, because in every way that really counts the XO is not a consumer artefact. It’s not trying to wheedle itself into your living room. In fact, quite the opposite. It has more in common with a clean water pump or an honourable approach to third-world debt than it does with an iPod. It’s a sincere but radical political act.

The result of a two-year project by “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC), the XO aims to introduce primary school children in the developing world to the educational possibilities of technology and the network. Green and white with a tough, textured plastic body about the same size as a lunch-box, it has been optimised in every way to deal with the extreme conditions of its use. Its astonishingly frugal use of electricity allows it to function in areas where power is sparse or even non-existent. The screen switches into an energy-efficient black and white mode that is also readable in direct–even aggressive–sunlight. The rubberised keyboard seals the device against dust and water. Even the friendly green “ears” of the device serve a triple function – acting as latches, protective shields for USB ports and as antennae designed to extend the range of the distributed wifi networks that will connect children across the planet.

And this is a device optimised for the young. The keyboard immediately reveals the clumsiness and size of fully-grown fingers. Each key is springy and responsive–fun to touch and explore–but they’re packed tightly together to help small hands roam effectively. In every dimension, the XO is child-shaped. The grasp of the handle, the heft of it in your hands, the way it swings when you walk–it’s enough to make any adult feel like a freakishly large mutant. And it’s not only child-shaped, it’s child-resistant – it feels resilient, solid, indestructible–as if it could be used as a tennis racket without sustaining any real damage.

Yet what’s truly extraordinary about the XO isn’t the way it’s been tailored to work under extreme conditions, but the bets it places on our collective political and creative future. Geek utopianists have infused every aspect of the device with their own profoundly aspirational, positive and humanist political ideology. The XO is their lever to effect change at a global scale.

You can spot it everywhere. Every aspect of the device — from the operating system to the mesh networking that distributes connectivity to each machine — works on the principle that each node on the network can accomplish more together than they can apart. Every application on every machine is designed to operate in a social context – you can show off your work, share your web browsing or advertise an ongoing discussion. Some applications–including a version of Connect 4–are only functional at all if you have other people to play with.

The collaborative, communal experience is tied together by the “zoom interface” – the XO’s version of the Finder or File Manager. It allows a user at any time to zoom back from one particular application to their desktop, then to their community of friends and then still further to see everyone on the network. While zoomed out, you can see clumps and clusters of people collaborating and playing, always connected and situated within their community. The XO is not a device for loners. It is a device that believes aggressively in society and aims to support it.

There are also challenges to our traditional understanding of intellectual property. The communities in the developing world that cannot afford life-saving drugs can find themselves similarly constrained by the cost of textbooks–and often for similar reasons. But with a turn of the screen, the XO becomes a simple ebook reader connected to a network. It’s an environment ideal for the distribution of free knowledge, and so it’s no surprise to see Wikipedia involved in the project. Information, as the technologist’s mantra goes, wants to be free–and the XO is there to help that happen.

You can see similar principles at work in the pervasive use of open-source applications and software like the Firefox browser or Linux. This software is free to use, install and distribute but–more importantly–offers its very code up to exploration and change. The XO revels in this opportunity, making it easy for children to access and edit the very software of their machine. There are no finished creative works here, but simply sites for continual exploration and learning.

In every area, this iconic object is an attempt to refashion the world in the image of the dreams of its creators – noble, vigourous, creative and expressively utopian dreams. Every element is impregnated with these aspirations of sociality, play, creation, freedom. As a project and as a device, it’s beautiful and revolutionary.

If the perfected whole succeeds in its mission, these aspirations may find a new home in the minds of generations of children in the developing world. And this new generation – growing up able to access and manipulate knowledge, technology, literature, music and code – will bring to the networked world their new perspectives, voices and needs. It’s a project to transform the world: this small device has a substantial mission. It’s not a laptop, it’s a movement. And it deserves our full support.

Advertising Journalism Personal Publishing Public Relations

This is not a brothel…

As has probably become clear recently, I’m currently not particularly well-inclined towards people who work in public relations – particularly the particularly unscrupulous ones that spam me with press releases and work ardently to try and persuade me to talk about their products or services on my site.

They don’t seem to understand that I find it objectionable that they would consider me a platform for them to sell their wares. Nor do they understand that I could consider it even more irritating still that for the most part they haven’t got the slightest idea what things I write or care about. They consider my personal voice a commodity to be acquired, along with what little credibility and authenticity I have. This–I’m afraid–just pisses me off.

It may seem like a trivial thing to get angry about, but you’d be surprised the pressure that you can receive to deform what you write to serve other people’s best interests. And it needs to be said, quite apart from my own personal irritation with these people, they are actively trying every day to commandeer the conversations that you are having out there by fair means or foul to serve their needs more effectively. They do it by offering perks, holding or withholding access to people or things and by making people feel privileged by giving them gifts or treats.

For those reasons I’ve made every effort through the last few years to never be beholden to anyone, even to not allow myself to get in the kind of position where I might be unsure of my own motives. But this doesn’t seem to be enough to get the message across, so in a fit of irritation the other day, I wrote a pretty angry and frustrated post on my Flickr stream associated with the picture that opens this article.

In the post I stated that for as long as I have it up, will never contain anything that someone has tried to persuade me to write about. This applies equally to PR people, to marketing people or to my employer. I will write about any company or business (including the one I work for) only when I think there’s something genuinely of interest to talk about. I will only write about my employer when I’m proud of something they have done (or I have done with them) or when I really feel I have something to say. And I will absolutely never talk about something that I hear about through a press release, or as a consequence of someone giving me a freebie.

Of course, I’m not trying to talk for everyone with a blog out there. There are a lot of semi-pro bloggers out there who operate much like journalists and have good relationships with PR people. Their sites are treated like a job, and any access they can get to these organisations can help them do that job. So good luck to them. But they ask for these press releases. They encourage this contact. They make it clear that they’d like to receive them. I have to say that posts from Guy Kawasaki (encouraging the giving of schwag and compliments to bloggers to butter them up) and Paul Stamatiou (pitching for freebies and flights) make me (and Jeremy Zawodny) slightly queasy, but as long as these particular pundits don’t try and talk for the rest of us then I have no problem with them making it clear that they’re interested in receiving press releases. However, that doesn’t apply to me.

As far as I’m concerned, an unsolicited press release is quite literally no better than spam. It is an e-mail that arrives in my Inbox, trying to sell me something. In fact it’s worse than spam, because it actively seeks to persuade me–sometimes bribe me–to sell something on their behalf! Can you imagine how affronted you were if your Viagra spam not only tried to persuade you that you were impotent and in need of assistance but also wanted you to sell it to your friends? What kind of person would you be if you took up the opportunity to bring up sexual problems at every party you subsequently attended? That’s the kind of person that PR people seem to think I am.

I’m going to be putting up a page on my site soon for people who want to send me press releases, and it’s going to say all of this on it. Hopefully people will start to get the message that–for me at least–their attentions just simply aren’t wanted. If you feel the same way, then perhaps it’s time to let them know in public that your culture isn’t here for the benefit of their clients and that your voice is not for sale.

Advertising Journalism Politics

On Monocle, Nat Torkington & Place branding…

While reading the new issue of incomprehensibly fascinating magazine Monocle–which has a parallel web presence orchestrated by ex-boss Dan Hill that stubbornly (and equally incomprehensibly from my perspective) refuses to include any content whatsoever from the magazine–I stumble upon an article about New Zealand called ‘Slow Zone’. The article is about the nation’s rebranding as a laid-back and ‘pure’ environment. In said article I notice that ex-O’Reilly all-star Nat Torkington is quoted as follows:

The Didsbury vineyard is among those featured on the wine trail along the heavily promoted Matakana Coast, although in the words of the rather tetchy local blogger Nathan Torkington, “Matakana doesn’t have a coast, it has a shitty little muddy river chocked with soil runoff from the farms that line it”.

Yeah that sounds like Nat to me! Very funny! Rather tetchy local blogger may now be on his gravestone. And in some ways that might be a good thing, since his other favourite words are rather more satisfyingly graphic. His wife would probably be delighted with ‘rather tetchy’. Or at least, maybe she’d relieved..? His original post that Monocle quoted is here if you’re interested.

This whole issue of Monocle has been focused around place-branding at the country level, and it started off being fascinating to me but has now started to creep me out. Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of countries–and all their associated concepts of citizenry and representation–with the pure representational illusion of the branding consultancy? Or maybe it’s more than that? Maybe the reason I feel uncomfortable is that I’m feeling my way towards a new understanding of branding, public relations and advertising people.

The questions that are in my head are as follows: (1) Why are people drawn to these careers in the first place? (2) What pleasures does it provide them with? How does it support their self-worth? (3) Is there something in common between branding and advertising people and the kind of people who go into politics, and should we be equally suspicious of people drawn to branding as we are about those drawn to more overt power?

I think what draws people towards these careers has to be in part its core idea: that people can be influenced and changed–that things themselves can become different, transcendentally more than they appear to be–simply through the exercise of pure ingenuity, intelligence and the use of colour, imagery and language. I think it’s that sense of transformation–of the ability to recreate reality–that plays to the self-image of some of the dominant players in the industry. And it makes me very suspicious indeed.

I wonder to myself as I read about work in branding at these scales what a sense of power it must give a man to recarve a planet in their image without having to do anything proletarian like make anything. Something about the whole thing makes me very uncomfortable and seems to have significant parallels with the class system – that there is now an intellectual overclass that sits above and beyond a subjugated general public. But more even still, that this class feels itself able to deform and twist the world around itself with delicate tweaks of long, gossamer-like puppet strings, and that it’s managed to nuance and twist the messages even of its own discipline to such an extent that it’s not even fully aware of the hegemony that it’s created.

There’s something of new orthodoxy of the elite where young men and women are drawn to industries of control and coercion. It’s the same kind of rather alarming power game that meant that Henry Higgins could massage his Eliza Doolittle into someone fit to marry and that somehow we’d be persuaded that this was charming rather than entirely creepy!

And behind it all, there is the support of undergraduate classes in cultural studies and postmodernity that have been appropriated to alleviate the guilt of the reality-deforming by decrying the idea that there’s anything real beyond the rhetoric to protect or fight for.

I used to teach some of those classes. I’m not immune from blame.

Thank god for tetchy bloggers then! People who’ll declare the world as they see it, separate from marketing spiel and describe a glorious branded coast as a ‘shitty little river’. There’s a risk that we celebrate the cynical and consider that to be balance for the depraved, but I don’t think we’re there in this case. And I understand that branding is a force in the world, that it’s a thing that must exist, that there is no unmediated message. And I’ll live with it all. But let’s not celebrate it, eh? That’s just tacky.

Academia Health Journalism Politics Religion Science

On Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science"…

While I’m talking about the Guardian (reports from friends within the printing presses are that it’s looks beautiful), i thought I should probably mention an article that I read on Thursday last week which I thought was one of the most important things I’ve heard people say in the media for a long time. Ben Goldacre’s piece on why bad science gets promulgated by the media hit more chords for me than any nearby troupe of jazz pianists could have accomplished in their natural lifetimes. And while I thought it was a little blanketly dismissive of ‘humanities graduates’, I do fundamentally agree that humanities graduates are now taught to mistrust science and push the idea of it as just one of many competing discourses. Over the last six or seven years I’ve become more and more suspicious of these rhetorics in the arts, and more and more aware of how they’re being appropriated by mystics and creationists in the States.

The other thing that frankly scared me was that the article – for the first time I think – really expressed the damage that the media can do with the rubbish it writes in search of a story. That I’m not sure I could stand up and point to one news organisation that takes their responsibility in this area particularly seriously really brought home Ben Goldacre’s point for me. If you can stomach it, you should read the whole damn thing: Don’t dumb me down – We laughed, we cried, we learned about statistics…

A close relative of the wacky story is the paradoxical health story. Every Christmas and Easter, regular as clockwork, you can read that chocolate is good for you, just like red wine is, and with the same monotonous regularity, in breathless, greedy tones you will you hear how it’s scientifically possible to eat as much fat and carbohydrate as you like, for some complicated reason, but only if you do it at “the right time of day”. These stories serve one purpose: they promote the reassuring idea that sensible health advice is outmoded and moralising, and that research on it is paradoxical and unreliable.

At the other end of the spectrum, scare stories are – of course – a stalwart of media science. Based on minimal evidence and expanded with poor understanding of its significance, they help perform the most crucial function for the media, which is selling you, the reader, to their advertisers. The MMR disaster was a fantasy entirely of the media’s making), which failed to go away. In fact the Daily Mail is still publishing hysterical anti-immunisation stories, including one calling the pneumococcus vaccine a “triple jab”, presumably because they misunderstood that the meningitis, pneumonia, and septicaemia it protects against are all caused by the same pneumococcus bacteria

Journalism Personal Publishing

On how journalists write about webloggers…

There’s an article in the Sunday Times today called Golden rules for blogging clever which features a few choice morsels of salient quotage from some bloke not a million miles away from this weblog. For this reason alone I recommend you buy the paper in question. Possibly you should be so impressed that you should consider sending me some naked pictures of yourselves?

Moving on though – the article itself is very strange. It seems to wend its way between a number of different registers – starting off in a ‘weblogs and online communities are important’ area and then wanders directly into a ‘who the hell do you think you are to think anyone cares what you think’ kind of space. I find this very odd, given that the article is supposedly about giving people tips for writing a weblog. It’s been a while since I read a cookery book, but I’m pretty sure they don’t start by telling people that they’re worthless and they’ll never amount to anything. That kind of motivational speech seems more commonly left to parents. (Of course the article isn’t actually aimed at people starting a weblog at all, but at people who want to observe it from the sidelines with a cup of tea and a raised eyebrow while slowly dying inside.)

From having apparently smacked down the reader for their nerve – their very presumption – that they might find value in self-expression, the article moves on to slightly self-satirise. Now the mockery is a bit ironic – it knows we don’t really want to be boring and that we’re all able to see the funny side of the whole thing. To support its case, it brings in a few of the classier webloggers (Heather Armstrong and myself) to comment. And what do we say? Well, basically we say that all this stuff about being boring is rather missing the point and it’s not about getting a huge audience and that self-expression is really important and stuff and that if people derive value from their weblogs then that’s good, right? Right?

Well, all I can say is that it’s lucky that our brief comments don’t distract from the main thrust of the article! No hippies are going to distract from the relentless pursuit of traffic, after all. So we get a humourous take on giving your weblog a sexy name, a patch on how to pander to other weblogs to get hits, a bref paragraph on Googlebombing and a few words on the apparent incestuousness of the culture. The article recommends writing about your sex life, getting fired for writing a weblog and peddling extreme opinions. All of these things will get you a book deal and only then will people want to get you naked because they’ve heard your name on television.

I think the reason I find this whole article so amusing is because it’s the ultimate archetype of all news stories about weblogs. Its every word exposes the assumptions and prejudices of journalists and – I think more widely – the British. So you’ve got the censorious attitude to people expressing themselves in public (self-expression isn’t really proper), then you’ve got the whole amateur-versus-professional argument that neurotically restates only proper journalists are worth reading. These journalists, who – we are reminded by the rest of the article – really assume that (i) the only reason to write is to get famous, (ii) there’s no value in community or discussion or debate and (iii) normal people would sell their granny for dog meat to get famous. And to cap it all off, the examples that they use are all the ones that reveal the bankrupcy of the news media – that a culture of millions of webloggers can only really be understood by the tabloidish stories that make it across into the ‘proper’ media. The whole thing is gloriously cock-eyed.

I’m being a bit unfair, of course. It’s not nearly that clear-cut, and there’s some really interesting stuff here. I like that Simon Jenkins expressed an anxiety about the role of the newspaper columnist in the amateurised opinion space. I don’t think he’s got an enormous amount to worry about – in fact he should be delighted, he could be a giant in that space if he wanted – but that all depends on viewing changes as opportunities rather than threats. Here are a few more of my thoughts – good and bad – in the form of an unordered list:

  • I love the fact that the word hippo-griff is used in this article. For that alone, I will give you one billion dollars. You heard me. One billion. Although I’m a bit surprised by the hyphen. Maybe I won’t give you a billion dollars after all. Damn sub-editors.
  • “The absolute golden rule of blogging – it is literally made of gold – is: Do not blog”, says our journo. It’s literally made of gold? What, really? Dear God, man – misuse of ‘literally’ in this way is pretty much the first thing that you get smacked in the mouth for at journalism school. What are you doing!? Unless of course there really is a golden rule cast in gold somewhere – on a mountain or something. In which case, I want to see it. While we’re at it – who the hell made up this rule? I’ve never heard it before. It’s not even a parody of ‘Don’t talk about Fight Club’. I don’t get it.
  • If you read the article in print, then you get confronted with an enormous picture of that bloody berk who got (as far as I can tell) fired from Waterstones for being a bit of an idiot and not reading his contract. I’ve never felt a lot of sympathy for him – even though the relationship between a weblogger’s site and their working life is a complex one that I’ve been coming up against a bit recently – because he just seemed to have been such a twit about the whole thing. I’d recommend reading two things about this subject: Anil Dash’s expansion on his assertion that no one gets fired for blogging and a Tech Station article called The Unbearable Rightness of Nick Denton.

Ah, that’ll do. I’m bored now. Fun article! Took me ages to respond to. Probably better than I’m giving it credit for. Seeya!


Wikiproxy "enhances" BBC News Online…

So my old boss, bluntly, often talks quite a lot of balls. Having got that out of the way, I should also add that on occasion he does come up with some pretty bloody interesting (if almost certainly soon to be cease-and-desisted) ideas. Case in point: BBC News Online Wikiproxy – a service that takes any article page on BBC News and (1) turns key terms in the article into links through to wikipedia and (2) adds a section to the right-hand navigation that references weblogs that are linking to the story. You can see an example of it in action on this story: Sir Elton attacks ‘mime’ Madonna.

Before I go any further, I think – since I work for the BBC – that I probably need to make it clear that I’m not condoning or sanctioning this service and that the tiny amount of commentary that follows does not in any way represent the BBC’s opinions etc. etc. Individually I think I can say that there’s a lot in Stef’s assessment of BBC News Online that I don’t agree with. Nonetheless, this is a pretty bloody neat illustration of one possible future direction that news sites could move in – a site that’s much more part of the web than just on the web. There are other directions of course, and no end of complexities, legal and editorial issues that might arise if the BBC just went ahead and did this stuff, but if you view it purely as a thought experiment then I think there’s a lot of intellectual value to be had from it.

Journalism Television

I have no opinion about this whatsoever…

I have no opinion about this whatsoever. Here are just four links in a row, presented in a reverse-chronological (most recent first) fashion with no attempt whatsoever to make a point, which nonetheless are prefaced with a proviso that any position you may infer that I have is entirely mine and not that of my employer. And I don’t have one anyway:

That’s your lot. Move along. Nothing to see here.

Journalism Personal Publishing Politics

ETech Adjunct: Weblogs and Journalism…

I’m watching the panel on the role of journalism as part of the Digital Democracy and it’s the first teach-in of the day that feels like a teach-in. Nonetheless, I’m not sure that I’m finding it terribly useful – probably because I’ve thinking about the issues from a slightly different perspective at the moment. Which reminded me that a few weeks ago I got an e-mail from Kabir Chhibber asking about my views of journalism and weblogs generally, which I responded to with a whole range of thoughts. I was thinking about neatening it up and presenting it online in a more clearly worked-through form, but perhaps this is as good a time as any… So what follows is a rather rough and badly-written assemblage of replies to a series of question. Take from it what you will:

First of all, could you reflect on the following two quotes by Salam Pax? Do you think they are acurate? How do have any experiences which demonstrate or contradict his statements?

‘I think that I can tell after this experience what, for me, is the difference between a journalist and a blogger is. A journalist has to actively run after things, a blogger just watches (and lives his life) and takes things as they come.’

Salam Pax is an insightful and courageous writer, but I think (as he says himself) he’s talking more about his own experience of being a weblogger rather than anything intrinsic to weblogging in general. Certainly it’s my belief that the vast majority of weblogs are a representation of a person’s voice and that-as such-what they write about will be about their opinions, experiences and the events that occur around them, but I don’t agree that it’s necessarily quite such a passive experience. There are webloggers – many webloggers – who at one or more points in their online lives have decided to investigate something in more depth and have become for a short period of time amateur (by which I mean ‘for the love’) journalists – seeking out information, researching material and running after things. In a sense, then, some are born journalists (Dan Gilmore, perhaps), some achieve the status of journalists, and many others have journalism thrust upon them.

“The point about blogging is that it has to be very personal. Bloggers, you always have to remember when you are reading them, do not act like journalists. You’re just talking about your life and your opinions. You’re not writing something for a big newspaper where someone is going to take it as fact. Always be suspicious.”

Again I can see what he means – and it’s representative of the vast majority of weblogs out there-but I don’t think it tells the whole story. Again I think it comes down to weblogs being representations of people. If you met someone in the street for the first time, you wouldn’t believe their opinions. But if you had built up a relationship with someone over time, you would evaluate how trustworthy they were, how much you believed them, what you thought of their opinions generally. It’s almost exactly the same thing that happens with the press – journalists get themselves associated with brands that say ‘we fact-check’ and ‘we have a reputation to protect’ because individuals have come to have a relationship with those brands ‘they have come to trust them over time. And yet how many of us would still take the word of a close friend who had seen the events first hand over the reportage in a newspaper?

I think it’s clear that there are differences between journalists and webloggers. The first main difference is that webloggers aren’t associated with a brand and with a support structure that is designed to communicate the idea that facts have been checked, that the journalist is trustworthy and that the news they are reporting is of legitimate interest. That’s the first function of professional organisation and it’s based on the fact that we can’t know the reputation, skill-set or expertise of every journalist that we might encounter in the world. To an extent of course, this is changing-knowing webloggers means that you can start to evaluate their expertise-but I think it’s unlikely that there’s any real threat of all professional journalists being deposed from their positions of authority by this tendency alone.

The second difference is a nice easy one. Organisations with money that can support a number of journalists can afford to provide access to a variety of different research tools that individuals don’t have at their disposal. At the moment of course individuals have more access to more information than ever before (via the internet) but there remain feeds of data that are simply outside the scope of individuals to get access to. This includes photo libraries, research databases and detailed archives. This may change in time too.

The third function of professional journalism that can’t be met by the weblogsphere is that it’s designed to deal with a massive scale differential between the number of SUBJECTS of news (small) and the number of people who could possibly want to ask them questions (enormous). By this I mean that not every journalist or weblogger in the land can go to a preview screening of a film, or be in the White House press room or talk to the police at a crime scene or be invited to product launches. These things have limited space available – they are journalistic bottlenecks. And these bottlenecks are resolved by selection – the most established and trustworthy journalists are invited to participate in these events because they can communicate to the largest amount of people. And that’s never going to change. We might see a few webloggers transition into celebrity – there’s no doubt that if this happens then they’ll end up invited into these kinds of gathering, but for the most part there’s always going to be a distinction between the masses and the few when it comes to one-on-one access to certain primary sources.

Your blog started off quite personal and has become more political as it (and you) developed. I have seen this in other blogs too. Why do you think this is?

Basically I think it’s a question of scale. Things you feel comfortable talking about to a small number of people feel more and more awkward when more people start reading your site – particularly when they start being people you know in a professional context. At a certain point you end up moving from writing about personal stuff into writing about things you care about. In my case that’s ended up being a mix of films, politics, social software and technology stuff. It’s still my voice, it’s just not talking about who I have or haven’t been dating.

What do you think about the current high-profile of weblogs? What kind of quality is out there – do you think it matches the NY Times or The Guardian?

I love the fact that weblogs have been getting such a lot of attention – and more particularly I like the fact that the bubble hasn’t burst yet despite frequent assurances by some nay-sayers that it would at any minute. People genuinely enjoy the ability to make their voice heard whatever the medium and even if they’re only talking to a few people with similar interests or aspirations.

I’m slightly nervous of the way the press treats weblogging, though. When journalists write pieces – particularly feature pieces – they’re not only trying to write something honest, they’re also trying to write something that people and editors will think is interesting. It’s a necessary flaw in mainstream journalism that means that writers are continually looking for the next big thing, or something enormous and surprising and transformative that they can present to their editors. And when they write the pieces they have to justify all that initial enthusiasm by producing a piece that explains why the thing they’re talking about is so very terribly interesting and important. I think weblogs have suffered from this a bit, as those journalists who like weblogs have written inflated and melodramatic pieces that then other journalists have then spent 400 words dismissing as rubbish. In the background-of course-webloggers just get on with it like normal, neither directly saving the world nor destroying it

When you have discussed big issues, like gay marriage and war with Iraq, what kind of responses have you gotten?

Very very mixed ones. Both of those have generally received responses that are measured and intelligent – whether they directly agreed with me or not. But a whole range of other people have responded very differently. When I said that a proportion of warbloggers seemed almost blood-thirsty in their need for war, dozens and dozens of sites started a competition called the Tom Coates Most Blood-Thirsty Warblogger Award in which they’d compete for the right to be the most vicious, and writing large tracts about what an ‘idiotarian’ I was and how stupid and weak my views and opinions were. It got down to the level of shouting abuse from them to the extent that I started to not write about politics at all. Considering that all the way through the Iraq war my main objective was to talk about the complexities of the issues rather than to back any side, I found that quite difficult to deal with. Some people take to that like a duck to water and find value in it, but just as often these little self-reinforcing circles of fury get completely out of hand.

Do you feel any need to be a journalist when talking about these things – be fair or objective? Or to discover the truth?

Personally I feel a great deal of pressure not to lie and a certain amount of responsibility to correct myself and apologise when I’ve made a mistake. I’m not sure I think it’s necessarily the responsibility of an individual weblogger to spend a lot of time researching their statements-sometimes it’s best to get initial impressions and throwaway thoughts-but I think that has to be left to the individual conscience of the individual. Again-it’s about establishing a relationship between weblogger and weblog-readers (who may be other webloggers)-and as such, unlike journalism where often the individual commentator is kind of effaced, it pays to put your cards on the table and be as open as possible. Let people understand where you’re coming from.

Do you write for an audience? As your audience grew, did you begin to feel any obligation to take their interests into account?

I am certainly aware of the fact that there are eyeballs out there that read what I write-sometimes it’s a lovely feeling, sometimes it’s a terrible thing. At times I feel a pressure to ‘perform’ that can be quite debilitating. And yes-I will scout around some issues rather than talk about them because I’m not prepared to get engaged in a long-term battle around them. But with regard to writing things because people want to hear about them, no-not really. I avoid some controversial areas that I don’t consider myself qualified to comment upon or wish to take considerable heat for, but otherwise I say what I want when I want. I don’t really think of them as an audience-they’re more like peers. I imagine most of the people who read my site have sites of their own, and that I’ll read many of theirs as well.

What role do you see for bloggers and journalists in the future? Will things like Insta-Pundit means journalists will be competing with their own audiences…?

As I’ve said, I think there are a few major differences between professional journalists and webloggers and what they’re able to accomplish. Certainly it seems that hard news material is unlikely to be replicable by the weblogging culture, and to be honest I’m more comfortable with that material being generated by these established organisations anyway. I see the role of webloggers being more of second-order journalism-the journalism that results in newspapers full of comment pieces and editorials, features and opinions. And those places are likely to be either heavily cannibalised by webloggery or to experience a renaissance of voices (because people will expect more varied opinions to be represented). That’s the area that webloggers excel in and where I think they act alongside news journalism-contextualising, correcting, editorialising and adding interpretation to it.

Journalism Politics

What I'm faxing to my MP…

What follows is a letter that I’m sending through to my MP via If you feel strongly about this issue too, then I would ask you to consider expressing your sentiments accordingly. The views expressed – of course – are exclusively my own and have nothing to do with my employer.

Dear Ms Karen Buck,

I wanted to write to you to express my horror at the way the government that I voted for in the last two elections is handling the current debacle with the BBC.

I’ve been awaiting the Hutton report with considerable interest, and while I was surprised by the results of the enquiry I was much more surprised – appalled even – by the effect it has had upon the BBC. I didn’t realise how strongly I felt until I watched Greg Dyke resign and saw statements by Tessa Jowell and Tony Blair on the news.

It seems to me that the two major issues in this country at the moment are (1) whether or not the BBC’s accusation that the government’s dossier was ‘sexed up’ was true or not and (2) whether we were dragged into a war that many felt strongly was not justified given the evidence available. Of the two, the first is an extremely serious issue, but surely it can’t compare in size to the scale of the latter.

When the Hutton report came out, it stated that the BBC needed to accept culpability and that there was a clear need for change. The changes started immediately and have just kept coming – Gavin Davies, Greg Dyke, Andrew Gilligan – all of them have now left the organisation. Alongside these resignations, the editorial processes that led to this mistake being made are now being thoroughly investigated and reviewed.

With regards to Greg Dyke’s departure, I personally believe that this was a step too far. His resignation was a profoundly honourable gesture, but it was unnecessary and I believe a direct result of the extraordinary pressure that the government placed upon the organisation. I don’t know to what extent people understand the extraordinary damage his departure will cause to the organisation as it prepares for Charter-renewal, but I think much of the country will come to consider the government responsible for much of this damage.

Which is ironic really, considering the other major issue in the country at this time. After all, the government took our country to war, and the rationale it gave for that war turned out not to be true. And don’t take my word for that – listen to the ex-head of the investigatory body! The war itself might have had positive consequences and it may have had negative consequences. It might or might not have been an honourable venture. But even if we accept that there was no untoward pressure from the United States and that the government was not in any way duplicitous, surely to go to war on the basis of such astonishingly incorrect information must still constitute the very largest of screw-ups!

So let’s examine this again for a moment. A mistake was made somewhere down the line, a mistake that was not picked up by the various chains of command and resulted in some bad decisions all the way up to the top of the organisation. Does this sound in any way familiar? Gavin Davies and Greg Dyke found themselves in a similar situation and they resigned. And what has the government done? Nothing. More to the point, the BBC has nearly been broken by the attempts of government to force them to make an abject apology for their mistake. But is there any sign that the Prime Minister feels the slightest responsibility to apologise to the nation for making the decision to go to war on such faulty information? No! He has not!

Given this situation – and having watched Tony Blair and Tessa Jowell on television over the last 48 hours – isn’t it a thoroughly dishonourable act to praise another for having the strength of character to fall upon their own sword? Doesn’t it smack of the most hideous hypocrisy and moral weakness? The idea that they can even say those words without burning up at the shame of their own dishonour and double standards staggers me.

Ms Buck, I can’t even tell you how much and how quickly my opinion of Tony Blair and the current Labour administration has changed. Two days ago – and for the ten years before that – I was a strong supporter (advocate, even) of the Labour party and Tony Blair. Today I find myself questioning if I could even bear to vote for your party again. The way the government has handled this has been hideous, self-serving and vile and has damaged one of our most-loved and well-respected institutions far beyond the extent that was actually necessary. I can only hope that you are ashamed of yourselves. When I voted for you I never thought I’d be forced to question whether or not the good you had done would be outweighed by the damage. I find myself now looking for a new party to support.


Tom Coates