Just over a month ago, on July 6th, editor-in-chief Nilay Patel at tech-centric website The Verge announced that his site’s commenting system would be disabled in a post subtitled “Get ready for a chill summer“. He cited that “the tone of our comments (and some of our commenters) is getting a little too aggressive and negative” as the major reason for the comment closer, adding that users shouldn’t worry: “Comments will be back. Freedom lasts forever.”
In the meantime, he suggested, users would be encouraged to explore and share their opinions via the site’s forum page.
Closings like this have been a long time coming, and frequent Verge visitors shouldn’t be surprised. The site has been inching towards removing user comments for awhile; in some cases they’re already gone or have never existed. Even the site’s “This Is My Next… “ series, essentially native advertising masquerading as editorials, have longed forbid direct commenting by users. Vox Media’s own political site, Vox.com, hasn’t ever allowed user commenting on stories, neither does their recent acquisition, the tech-centric site re/code (aks AllThingsD reborn).
Just a warning: this is going to be one of those incredibly long, extravagantly verbose pieces. I’d sure appreciate it if you stuck around until the end, if only to thoroughly disagree with the actual points I’m attempting to make. Sound fair?
That The Verge would discontinue reader comments in the wake of Reddit’s controversial decision to delete (or quarantine) certain ‘undesirable’ sub-Reddits seems more bad timing than anything nefarious; The Verge editorial view has long promulgated the idea that Reddit should censor or remove entirely those sub-Reddits they deemed too offensive. And like Reddit, it’s become obvious that sites like The Verge and those who share a similar ideological bent have larger aspirations to appeal to wider audiences,
It’s also not surprising because the same thing is happening everywhere, to almost every major website with a bent for pushing the controversial.
It’s happening with such frequency that I often joke with colleagues that maybe Time Magazine should give their questionable Person of the Year award to Comments For This Story Are Disabled. And why not? They’ve already given it to “You” (2006), and “The Protestor” (2011). Anything could happen.
No, there isn’t some big conspiratorial strategy to lobotomize the masses, though some might not take issue with that. The truth is, sadly, more economically familiar. Companies are finally starting to figure out that there’s only so many eyeballs and unique clicks to go around. The old model of monetization via advertising hasn’t worked and never will for the internet age, unless you happen to control both the tap and flow of information (i.e. Google).
The truth is that most readers of website news and articles are passive readers. Heck, if you’ve managed to stay with me this long you’re probably only skimming through this very article and not picking up every nuance (Rubber Baby Buggy Bumpers). It’s the definition of TL;DR (go look it up).
But let’s go back to comments, and those who frequent them; the majority of commentators on most websites have been, generally, a hodge-podge of nags, cynics, trolls and spammers.
Those invested in good reporting, research and analysis are exceptions to the rule – outliers. As such, it doesn’t make sense to build a readership around the silent majority, even if those very souls wholeheartedly agree with your messaging. By offering to send you to their forums they satisfy both the illusion of user participation while maintaining a line of separation between their product and its advertisers.
Unlike the traditional static media outlets like newspapers and television, which offer their goods in contained settings, smart websites and apps have finally begun to realize their true value lay in offering their work as services, allowing content to be parceled out and distributed among different networks, modified and tailored as necessary.
Point: this is nothing new. Syndicated television shows and news aggregators like Reuters and The Associated Press have long appreciated their true value as media contractors. Companies special in offering news outlets “packages”, essentially complete news programming that can be streamlined, diced up and served fresh to local markets with local flair. Public Television, local news, syndicated channels, etc, all use these services to pad their own programming holes, and most never even notice.
This is why distributed news services have become the internet’s new Gold Mine, hence Silicon Valley’s rush for early “all in” access with news service apps like Flipboard, Google Currents, Pulse, or Microsoft’s News for Windows. Even Apple’s upcoming iOS9 replaces the worthless NewsStand app with the stock aggregator News. Welcome to the future of on-demand news-as-a-service, tailored just for you.
Originating sites like The Verge, CNN, Cnet, and scores of others will continue on but in heavily edited and censorial ways, like a finishing school for sanitized news. This also means that the original material will need to be protected…from you.
The Internet Expands
Remember the promise of the internet? That its appeal would be in its transparency and openness in communication, allowing users around the world bypass the censorial mechanisms of governments and their restrictive policies altogether in search of truth and honesty. That being able to mass-communicate across the world would open up channels of discussion that would, ideally, break down barriers and foster a new hope for peace and understanding among all the world’s peoples?
Yeah, I never bought those fairy tales, either, but I’ve always been and remain a devotee of The Process; the more eyeballs you have scouring news reports and feeds, the more accountable the news will be…eventually. As reporting continues to expand from what originally was a small cluster of news outlets, the more diverse and increasingly biased individual reporting becomes, allowing for more granular and specialized coverage on topics that may have traditionally been ignored. Biased, yet, but in a field where information is power the cream, eventually, rises to the top. Again, it’s a process.
Attempts to circumvent “old school” regulatory tactics such as removing search results, banning websites, or even jailing dissidents have resulted in unanimous uproars and cries of indignation from the masses, and rightfully so. But these nefarious actions must first be spotted and this has become increasingly difficult.
Magazines and newspapers don’t have commenting systems, save for Letters to the Editor, and even their online counterparts support of them is wonky. But the expansion of content online led to a unprecedented revolution in feedback systems that let just about anyone with access to the internet near direct access to those crafting the news.
It’s not like user comments are always innocent, either. They occupy a place of great authority, easily visible to everyone and entirely exploitable by annoying, sometimes downright infuriating trolls. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read through a well-written piece, only to have the comments hijacked by jack-asses, scoundrels and spambots promising job offers too good to be true. No, I don’t care how much your aunt Janet makes from home. Go away.
Remember when Dan Rather and CBS News attempted to to thwart the reelection of George W. Bush by presenting fraudulent documents during a live news broadcast? It was only after an eagle-eyed viewer noticed the documents were created via Microsoft Office; this is a great program for creating spectacular documents and such, but it wasn’t available in the 1970s.
Ask yourselves this: what do you find more offensive, the policies of George W. Bush or being openly lied to and manipulated by a major news outlet? Wouldn’t you rather (no pun intended) draw your own conclusions based on facts? Thank goodness that at least one CBS viewer had better journalistic ethics than Dan Rather, who was fired after the scandal.
This isn’t just a liberal progressive thing, though it’s primarily a liberal progressive thing. At its center are groups known as social justice warriors (SJW), a term that refers largely to Millennial progressives yearning for distributive justice against those dominant powers and organizations they feel hold back progress from disadvantaged groups. Their methods usually involve grassroots campaigns, rallies, protests and, increasingly, the termination of free speech and objectivity against those they feel oppose their efforts.
Anyone interested in the true pervasiveness and scope of their growing influence should check out Kirsten Powers’ illuminating The Silencing, a book which I recently reviewed and enjoyed, or at the very least listen to her (successfully) debate the slow, unfortunate death of free speech on NPR.
The History of Vox
Now, let’s get one thing straight: Vox, and their affiliates, are owned by private companies and, therefore, are entitled to handle their considerable userbase as they see fit. For what it’s worth, I find their willingness to propagate – and in the case of manufactured crisis like the GamerGate fiasco, provoke – what appears to be a transparently social justice campaign of indulgence and division to be counterproductive, and I’ve said this both publicly and privately.
Their need to not just report the news and editorialize, but to shape and guide the conversation as well, appears to be systemic. It’s built into their DNA, as evidenced by the ideals of their founders, by those they hire, and the editorial policies they condone. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?
Vox Media was created by, among its multitude of corporate investors, media savvy types like Tyler Bleszinski, founder of SB Sports, Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos, and Jerome Armstrong, founder of MyDD, which Wikipedia cites as “the first large collaborative politically progressive American politics blog“, and is also known to have coined the buzzword Netroots, which encourages activism via social media.
Interestingly, just this April, Bleszinski wrote on SB Nation, under the tagline touting his site’s “incredible freedom” offered to its team bloggers, wanting to make sure the “readership realizes that we don’t embrace the culture of pure wild, wild west“, and to distance his website from what had been a recent team blog post that, he claims, “crossed the line between fanaticism and good taste.”
The offending post was removed, as was the offending blogger, he writes, with promises to follow suit in the event such things were to happen in the future. But, between congratulating their website’s progressively tolerant and open editorial processes, there wasn’t any information as to what article he was referring to, or what the offending material was about. Nada. Zip. SB Nation regulars probably know the backstory of the offending post – or even the topic of the post – but those of us who came to read Bleszinski’s mea culpa after the fact will just have to trust they did the right thing. Comments for the post were, predictably, closed.
In early 2014 Vox Media acquired another top-name talent, Ezra Klein, a political wunderkind who had, most recently, edited the Washington Post’s WonkBlog. Less notably, he was also the creator of the infamous JournoList, an online collective that counted hundreds of left-leaning reporters, writers, bloggers, academics that, for many, epitomized the ideological echo chamber of the mainstream media.
The existence of the List had been known for years, but only came to national attention following what appeared to be a strikingly similar (read: defamatory) criticisms on the 2008 Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin. Whether coordinated or not, participants in the JournoList were found rallying behind the Democratic candidate Barack Obama, even suggesting reporters call Republicans and their supporters proactively racist, as well as other discussion-stopping epithets.
Klein would justify excluding conservatives from JournoList as it wasn’t “about fostering ideology but preventing a collapse into flame war. The emphasis is on empiricism, not ideology.” Good luck trying to track down the original source of that quote, apart from copies of it being enshrined on Wiki and – unsurprisingly – various message boards. The exclusion of certain groups, based on their ideology, to help prevent flame wars. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
And then there’s GamerGate, the alleged change-agent for recent editorial and provisions, and one of the most scurrilous attempts by the Fourth Estate to influence and manipulate in recent memory. As first reported, in tandem, by reputable gaming and tech websites, GamerGate was the rallying cry by its advocates alleging sexual impropriety and discrimination between gaming developers and journalists.
Sites like The Verge, Ars Technica, Kotaku (remember these names) and others appeared to reveal a systemic and misogynistic environment festering in a gaming industry dominated by males against female developers and their fans. This abuse, as alleged, affected not just female employment opportunities, but also their online reputations and safety by way of threats of violence and abuse.
Fact: interoperability between gaming developers and journalists had reached critical mass – quite literally. The level of childishness, immaturity, name-calling, and inappropriate behavior displayed by the indie development community, websites, blogs, and nearly everyone else involved makes tracking down and disseminating just what transpired difficult, if not impossible. One can’t help but feel like a disadvantaged kindergarten teacher trying to figure out which toddler started eating the paste and sparkles first.
The actions of everyone involved was deplorable and sad, so it’s with some compassion that we can look towards how this utter mess was initially presented to supposed mainstream press, or how it must have seemed to those not totally ensconced in the putridity of gaming journalism’s darker corners.
Even sympathetic celebrities like Joss Whedon, a self-described male feminist, would chime in to express support for GamerGate advocates. Ironically, it would be these same feminists who would later chase him offline due to what they felt were derogatory portrayals of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow character in The Avengers: Age of Ultron. , despite what their apologists might believe.
image courtesy of @AtlusNodded
In reality, GamerGate would mark a conglomerate of like-minded websites’ pivot from simply reporting news to their actual participation and the deliberate provocation in events as they unfolded by their selective coverage, omission of facts, and lack of transparency.
As it turns out, there wasn’t anything spontaneous about this sudden explosion of interest in reporting rampant sexism in the gaming industry; it was entirely coordinated. Further investigations showed specific and targeted collusion between popular websites covering the gaming industry in order to manipulate and exploit the naivety of readers and the mainstream press. Among the sites included – but not limited to – were The Verge, Kotaku, Ars Technica, Giant Bomb, Destructoid, Wired, and Polygon (itself a Vox Media publication), as well as prominent gaming journalists like Leigh Alexander.
This collusion was the result of coordination via GameJournoPros, an online collective inspired by Klein’s JournoList and founded by Ars Technica editor Kyle Orland. Leaked emails showcase the group’s intentional participation in exploiting a sexual relationship between Zoe Quinn, a female developer, and a number of male gaming journalists that had gone sour, subsequently blossoming into the inflated “Zoe Quinn Scandal”. This would be the catalyst that would launch a media blitz of articles now referred to as “Gamers Are Dead”, published between August and September 2014, all designed to instill the idea that sexism and misogyny were rampant in the video game industry.
This campaign did the trick, pushing an exaggerated meme of discrimination, harassment, and violence against women in the gaming industry condoned by misogynists into the zeitgeist of a compliant mainstream press. It also helped make icons of its champions, including Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian, herself the subject of controversy for allegations of fraudulent crowdsourcing efforts (not an isolated incident by GamerGate participants, it turns out). Among those giving GamerGate attention were pre-heated media outlets like The Colbert Report and Rolling Stone Magazine – an outlet that would itself become embroiled in a journalistic scandal concerning the manufacturing of a ‘rape culture’ hysteria that was published during the same period GamerGate raged.
The fall came quick. Cinema Blend writer William Usher became GameJournoPros’ most visible whistleblower, detailing the group’s corruption after realizing that members “actively used their platform to support and propagate a wide-sweeping media narrative based on lies and factual inaccuracies“, even recalling group members’ calls for retribution against a member after they exposed a transgender developer’s fraudulent crowdfunding effort to pay for sex reassignment surgery.
In an interview with APGNation Usher conceded that “game journalists are using the ‘misogyny’ angle to deflect the conversation from their unethical behavior, which is what spawned #GamerGate in the first place. It’s also a way for them to control the narrative. It’s a classic PR move.”
As the duplicitous nature of the story came to light most industry sites, even those who were partially responsible for propagating the GamerGate Myth, quietly ceased their coverage, and before long it was business as usual. But The Verge, for whatever reason, dug their heels in, refusing to cut their losses and let it go. “Gamergate Is Dead“, they declared back in October, 2014, yet proceeded to keep the articles coming, again and again, even citing GamerGate as a rationale for the closure of comments.
Verge editor T.C. Sottek attempted to steer the conversation away from “ethics in journalism” to the more saber-rattling populist fiction that GamerGate was, in actuality, a concerted attack of harassment “against women and progressive voices that’s just the latest in a long history of online abuse amplified by reactionary right-wing media trolls.”
It was only after complaints lodged in the piece’s (you guessed it) comment section that the original text was edited to reflect “references to ‘right-wing’ parties or messages I made throughout this article were overbroad.” Thank goodness for user feedback!
To be charitable, this type of journalistic abuse is more pronounced than readers might realize. The sheer number of news articles and social-media posting appearing to document misogyny, sexual violence and gender diversity in the gaming/tech industry as of late is astonishing, even bordering on the obsessive. And very few are at all proactive, satisfied to push ‘gender diversity’ reports and citing meaningless trivia about unrelated disparages in STEM degrees between the sexes.
That’s not to say these issues lack merit and shouldn’t be examined more closely; they definitely should be. But not in such haphazard, lopsided ways, and especially not by disingenuous fools and charlatans incapable of interpreting and understanding the data. In truth, recent studies may indicate the problem is actually a prejudice TOWARDS women in the specific technical sectors and fields, not against.
Unfortunately, the analytics of evidence-based statistical research in such matters has ceded to the bias of anecdotes and innuendo by hostile groups with aims that are anything but noble.
Slack and the Disclosure Lack
Remember: The Verge, Vox Media, the whole family and network of websites, are the product of venture capitalism investments and their continuing efforts for revenue. The closing of their comments and user-feedback may have less to do with any ideological backlash and more so with their ever-expanding network of financial obligations to investors.
The Verge published a piece on June 24th titled “Get Your Slack Facts“, which presented what appeared to be just another puff piece about the success of Slack, a teams-based engagement software service that works across different platforms.
But it wasn’t just another story, or even a story in the proper sense. It was brimming with gawdy phrases like “A year and a half ago, no one had ever heard of it. A few days later, everyone you knew was using it” to leading lines like “employers will pay between $6.67 and $48 a month per user for the hottest Slack features”, as well as awfully precise financial disclosures that went beyond a typical company profile. The ‘story’ read suspiciously like a press release, and this didn’t go unnoticed by – yup – conscientious readers.
It turns out, surprise!, both companies share an investor, Andrew Braccia of Accel Partners, who sits on the boards of both Vox Media and Slack. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; the tech industry is brimming with such cross-pollination of investors/industry types. But journalism requires full disclosure when reporting on such crossroads, especially when
The article, as you’d imagine, set off a firestorm in the comment sections of Slack articles, but you’d be hard-pressed to read them now; yup, all closed. Instead, enraged readers were left to the site’s forum section to voice their displeasure with The Verge’s questionable journalism and more questionable behavior by its EIC, who took to the comments (before shutting them down) to attack and insult readers for insinuation there was collusion or impropriety.
“This is the craziest nonsense I have ever read,” wrote Patel in the story’s comment section (again, since closed), and then proceeded to answer the forum’s poster with mawkish petulance that’s uncharacteristic and undeserving of someone in his position.
“No. This is insanely stupid, and I’m just not having it. There is none — zero — connection or communication between our editorial operation and the investors in Vox Media. One of the reasons those investors put money into our company is editorial credibility and freedom. I take that very seriously. We have one of the strictest ethics policies in the industry, and we disclose actual conflicts of interest transparently when they arise. There is none here; Slack’s success or failure has no impact on our success or failure, and vice-versa. All I see here is nonsense concern trolling.
But the truth is The Verge didn’t disclose the relationships between Vox and Slack, and the concept of such admissions isn’t limited to “actual conflicts of interest” when they arise; they’re ALWAYS relevant. The whole idea of such disclosures is transparency in reporting, allowing readers to come to their own conclusions, and you’d think an Editor-in-Chief would at least have an understanding of this.
Furthermore, engaging in full and non-transparent native advertising for the benefit of one of your own financial investors is collusion. Resorting to attacking readers who expect better from you isn’t a satisfactory answer, and shutting down any discussion when caught isn’t freedom.
I’d like to remind everyone that, as earlier expressed in this article, this is the very same Nily Patel who, using the phrase “Comments will be back. Freedom lasts forever,” before shutting down comments on his website, then urging users to post and engage in their forums. Before shutting down conversation he didn’t like, too.
The original forum post has been, as you guessed, removed, but this being the internet a copy has survived. And just in case that copy disappears I’ve screen-captured a copy for your eyes to soak up and enjoy. I’m convinced that by continuing to misuse the terms ‘editorial credibility’ and ‘freedom’ that Nilay Patel doesn’t understand either.
And this lack of proper disclosures on The Verge isn’t limited to native advertising masked as harmless editorials, either. It’s systemically entrenched and built into their network’s proprietary Chorus platform, which runs their whole show, letting editors turn such disclosures On/Off in an instant. Don’t believe me? You don’t have to, because here’s another example of how it works.
Let’s take a look at a recent “This Is My Next” feature on what The Verge called “The Best Keyboard for iPad Air 2”, originally published this year on May 21st. Heavens to betsy, the ‘winner’ is none other than Microsoft’s Universal Mobile Keyboard, a real steal for less than a hundred bucks. Of course, the fact that the story is supported by Microsoft Surface didn’t play into the results, right?
Hey, wait a minute… where did that little disclaimer go? I could have sworn that I saw that little graphic the last time I looked at this apparently unbiased editorial…No, I’m not crazy (about this, anyway). The Verge removed the graphical disclaimer entirely. Thank goodness for the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine, which retained the original story’s disclaimer (which I’ve produced here, lest it vanish again).
It’s one thing to have a tech website try to sell you keyboards and organizational apps; there’s nothing wrong with promoting tech. It’s another when that same editorial staff doesn’t appear to have any qualms about intentionally misleading, distorting, and – increasingly – misuse their influence and association to affect and direct public opinion. That they continue to engage in this crass experiment of social-engineering under the banner of “FREEDOM!” is beyond repulsive.
Whether you agree with them or not, the commanders leading the tech industrial complex have unparalleled and microbial control over your online existence, with a reach extending far beyond their self-professed roles of providing users a safe and secure online experience. Just last year Facebook admitted tinkering with users’ newsfeeds to manipulate their emotions without their expressed permission.
Seemingly innocuous review-oriented sites such as Yelp play fast and loose with user reviews, and have been accused that their solicitation of fees from businesses to manipulate such data’s placement and rank appearance on their site, to favorably raise appearances and bolster their revenue, constitutes a type of extortion against those businesses. That Yelp has also begun to sell their unique “service” as a service is telling.
As the managing editor of a website that spans the worlds of gaming, film, technology, books, and practically everything in-between (to say nothing of an adorable green dinosaur mascot), it’s partly my responsibility to make sure there are editorial standards in place when discussing said topics, but also to make sure these standards don’t suffocate dialog.
True, we don’t have nearly the audience, viewership, page ranking, or advertising muscle of The Verge and others like them (oh, to have such problems). But we also don’t have their network of investors and corporate bigwigs perched on our shoulders, ghoulishly rationalizing the collapse of trust placed in us by innocent readers and followers who simply want to read about and share what should be simple expressions of enthusiasm and interest about the things they love.
Simply clicking on a news article shouldn’t constitute a violation of your rights not to participate in exploitative experiments and, despite what the pop-ups might caution, “your continued use” (i.e. reading) of their articles shouldn’t constitute acceptance of questionable practices that you’re not aware of.
Without the ability to easily and readily communicate with other users in a targeted forum it’s unlikely we’ll see this trend reverse anytime soon. The Verge, and websites like it, will most likely thrive in this brave new world of disconnected connection, and future lapses in their editorial judgement will become more and more difficult to pinpoint and expose. What a shame, because there are few things more frustrating than being sold a bill of goods you didn’t know you were buying.