How Technology Both Attracts and Harms Journalism
Apr 16, 2012
The rise of clickwhore bloggers (or influencers) goes further than you imagine and much deeper than it should.
Technology has challenged journalism, a fact that unsettles traditional journalists. However, the challenge is not what is commonly portrayed, where technology democratizes information, enabling everyone to form their own opinions. Instead, the threat to journalism lies in its redefinition. The rise of the tech bloggers undermines journalism, creating a character that prioritizes personal profit over its primary function: to report facts as they are and offer reflections, as long as intentions are clear. Thus, the "clickwhore" was born.
I would love to say that the expression is mine, but it is not. I heard it for the first time in an article by the excellent Andy Lyons, technology editor of Newsweek magazine, where he draws a clear picture of how "independent" technology bloggers like Michael Arrington (ex-TechCrunch) and SV Siegler violently attack journalists who criticize projects in which they themselves have interests (that's right, money). Lyons explains how the whole scheme works so that the "journalists" can eat their share of the oceans of money that are being born in the bubble of Silicon Valley (digital consolidation is not a bubble; the propagation of business in technology as it occurs today is) and the venture capitalists holding the hottest startups of the moment pay because investing a few hundred thousand dollars to not have TechCrunch speaking ill of you is worth it, and besides, for the figures that these VCs spin, it's chump change.
To talk about a virtual darling, Pinterest. With a few dozen months of existence, Pinterest only has its exponential growth rate (more than 100 million users in just over two years) due to the amount of exposure it gets in the specialized media. Only on Mashable, one of the most famous technology sites in the world, 127 articles had been published at the time this post was written, in a span of just over a year. With so much exposure and growth (and one helping to boost the other), Pinterest has already raised more than $40 million from 16 investors, who, in turn, have interests (stakes) in hundreds of other products and dozens of "friends" in the big opinion makers in this niche, who are exactly the clickwhores to which Andy Lyons referred. I don't know if Mashable or its founder Pete Cashmore, have any relationship with Pinterest (I searched a lot and found nothing), but honestly I'm suspicious.
The practice of journalism has greatly benefited from the new possibilities of technology (even though most large companies do not have the agility or vision to take advantage of them). However, not all are roses. Bloggers began to produce content, in the last decade, with the desire to publish to the world what the establishment did not want anyone to see - information without the bias of the big economic or political groups. But as they saw their influence increase, they also saw the seductions of the economic powers they were willing to oppose increase. And today, they are no more independent than absolutely any large media conglomerate. Not surprisingly, AllThingsDigital belongs to the New York Times, TechCrunch is from AOL and supposedly CNN was about to buy Mashable. The purchase is not for profit - but for influence in an industry that is spinning obscene amounts of money with incredible ease.
Throughout human history, technology proves to be as good or bad as the uses made of it. It is true for the industry, nuclear energy or for the conversion of the digital revolution. Independent bloggers may still exist, but they are becoming increasingly rare, as their influences grow. Rarely, as Lyons argued in his post, the interests of a particular blogger are explicit. For example, AllThingsDigital's Kara Swisher, puts in her "ethics statement" that she is married to a Google executive, but this attitude is rare (and even in this case, nothing guarantees that all her interests are exposed there). There is still a tool, however, which the reader can take advantage of to ensure that they are reading transparent texts, which is to cross check information from sources with different opinions. It is another tool that technology has left a task that was incredibly facilitated by technology. Whether it will be used well or not, is another story.