In 2013, Jason Kottke wrote a prediction for Nieman Lab’s year-end roundup: “The blog is dead, long live the blog.” Kottke was then (and still is) owner of one of the longest continuously running blogs on the web: kottke.org, founded in 1998.
“Sometime in the past few years, the blog died. In 2014, people will finally notice,” he wrote. “Sure, blogs still exist, many of them are excellent, and they will go on existing and being excellent for many years to come. But the function of the blog, the nebulous informational task we all agreed the blog was fulfilling for the past decade, is increasingly being handled by a growing number of disparate media forms that are blog-like but also decidedly not blogs.”
Kottke.org, however, is decidedly still a blog. It also celebrates its twentieth birthday this year. I spoke with Kottke about the Continue reading "Last blog standing, “last guy dancing”: How Jason Kottke is thinking about kottke.org at 20"
It’s Episode 15 of Press Publish, the Nieman Lab podcast!
My guest today is Matt Thompson. Since earlier this year, Matt has been deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, But you might know him from some of his previous career stops. He spent a few years at NPR, heading up some of its most interesting digital initiatives, like Project Argo. Maybe you know him from Snarkmarket, the influential group blog he led with fellow smart guys Robin Sloan and Tim Carmody. Or you may just know him as a provocative thinker on the shape of modern media.
Matt’s one of the key people behind Notes, a new section The Atlantic launched last month that promises to bring blogging back to The Atlantic. It’s an interesting attempt to recapture some of the looser, voicier, more conversational
Apple CEO Tim Cook’s public acknowledgment that he’s gay is a welcome moment for dozens of reasons. Cook becomes the first out CEO of a Fortune 500 company, at the most successful company in the world, proving (as if it needed to be proved) that industry leaders can have any gender or orientation. Cook’s push for antidiscrimination and equal treatment laws now has an added personal dimension and clear stake for his audiences, whether in public or in a legislature. Cook can stand tall as a role model for LGBT youth everywhere in the world, for whom it quite possible that knowing the CEO of Apple is also gay and also proud to admit it in public can make it easier to affirm their own identities.
And last, and probably least, an extremely awkward chapter of journalism, in which Cook’s sexuality was a kind of reverse Schrödinger’s Cat, can come to a close. It absolutely was well known that Cook was gay. But this fact could alternately be ignored, acknowledged, or left drifting in ambiguity, depending on the publication. Now the waveform has collapsed; description matches reality, and publications can take this shambling, uncomfortable, unwinnable dance to another public figure.
As far as I’ve been able to determine, the first person to write about Tim Cook being gay was Owen Thomas for Gawker’s Valleywag in 2008. At this time, Cook had already served a stint as interim CEO during Steve Jobs’ treatment for liver cancer; with Jobs again appearing to be ill, Cook was the heir apparent and subject to extra interest, so Thomas’s “Is Apple COO Tim Cook Gay?” made a splash.
Adam Lashinsky had just published a profile of Cook in Fortune where Apple’s COO was described as unknown, “a blank slate,” “intensely private,” and a lifelong bachelor. Thomas, who had some information from off-the-record sources, read between the lines of Lashinsky’s profile:
“When he isn’t working he tends to be in the gym, on a hiking trail, or riding his bike.” Come on. What is this — a Fortune profile, or a men-seeking-men personals ad in Craigslist?
He posed Cook’s sexuality as an open question, filed under the tag “rumormonger.”
At that time, there were rumors about Cook in the press, but largely off the record and single-source — not enough to run as fact, even in what is sometimes thought of as the Wild West days of Valleywag — so speculation was all that was possible.
That changed in January 2011, when Ryan Tate published a profile of Cook titled “Meet Apple’s New Boss, The Most Powerful Gay Man in Silicon Valley.” Tate cited “two well-placed sources” who confirmed the Cook was gay, but more importantly, was able to say Cook’s sexual orientation was well-known among Apple’s leadership had “been the topic of at least some discussion within the company”
One tech executive who has spoken to multiple Apple management veterans about Cook was told executives there would support Cook if he publicly acknowledged his orientation, and even would encourage him to do so as he steps up his leadership role, but that they also had concerns about whether his coming out would impact the perception of the Apple brand.
This established the framework that would shape stories on Cook’s personal life for the next four years, until this week: Cook was openly gay in all but the most public contexts. By this time, Steve Jobs had again taken medical leave, making Cook interim CEO. Apple had overtaken Microsoft to become the most valuable tech company in the world, and was on its way to being the largest publicly traded company in any business. This was due to the success of the iPhone and now the iPad, which powered to Apple’s transformation from a U.S.-centric computer maker to a dominant global brand. Cook played a crucial role in the transformation; China had been a special project of his, both as manufacturing center and as an emerging market. Even if the U.S. were ready for an openly gay CEO — and that was a proposition that hadn’t yet been tested — it wasn’t clear what effect a public announcement would have on Apple’s perception in the rest of the world.
However, now there was pressure from LGBT advocates for Cook to make a public statement. Out magazine pressed the issue in April 2011, naming Cook No. 1 in its list of the 50 most powerful gay and lesbian people in America. Newspapers and magazines were reluctant to discuss it without an announcement from Cook itself, keeping with their general policy not to “out” public figures. So were most technology news sites and enthusiast blogs.
More curiously, there was a vocal movement arguing that publications should not discuss Cook’s sexuality. Macworld’s “Macalope” column sarcastically attacked Tate and Gawker: “[I]f there’s one thing that people need to know, it’s the sexual orientation of all the executives of the company that makes their phone or their computer…This is beyond trolling for hits. It’s discriminatory and it’s a childish invasion of someone’s privacy.” Blogger Joe Clark fired back, writing “Computer press so liberal it puts gays back in closet”:
When you tell us it’s wrong to report on gay public figures, you are telling gays not to come out of the closet and journalists not to report the truth. (What you’re telling us as gay journalists is even worse.) When you insist being gay couldn’t possibly matter less, what you actually insist is that the subject never be brought up in the first place.
In a profile of Cook, The New York Times’ Miguel Helft established the pattern for the paper of record: directly or indirectly note “rumors” that Cook was gay, make a pro forma effort to confirm or deny those rumors, then plead ignorance. The profile itself merely called Cook single. He did not interview Cook or have cooperation from Apple; Helft told Clark that “some of his former close colleagues, who[m] I did interview, told me they never saw him with a male or female partner and that even they didn’t know his sexual orientation.”
Helft told Clark that “[W]e generally do not report things that we cannot confirm ourselves.” This was one common reason given to avoid discussing Cook’s sexuality. “It’s none of our business” was another; “We don’t cover those issues” was a third. Other writers and editors had a moral and political reluctance to report or comment on Cook’s sexuality before he himself came out.
Another Times Cook profile, this past summer, referenced his tweets and writing supporting gay rights and quoted him saying, in a speech, “I have seen, and I have experienced, many other types of discrimination.” “Apple declined to say what he meant by the reference to discrimination he experienced,” the Times reported.
A commenter writing under the name Ivy noted the walkaround: “This is 2014, not the 1950’s. Either don’t mention it at all, or be straightforward and say that it’s pretty widely known that Tim Cook is gay. Cook does not deny anything himself either. But to say it’s ‘unknown’ what Cook was talking about when he said he experienced ‘discrimination’ because he wasn’t in the ‘majority’ is just such old-fashioned, annoying journalism. You might as well have called him a ‘confirmed bachelor’ and left it at that, instead of playing cute with the issue.” But another commenter, Henry, said he found “it refreshing that Mr. Cook’s sexual orientation was not mentioned. From the article’s standpoint, I don’t find it germane to the topic.” Scott L added: “Further, he has never publicly said what his orientation is, so the NY Times has no basis for any such statement. Many people are mentioned in this article and that type of personal information isn’t given for any of them, and rightly so.”
Or just listen to the awkward silence in this exchange on CNBC in June, when a panelist let this slip: “I think Tim Cook is fairly open about the fact that he’s gay at the head of Apple, isn’t he?”
Choices, or the absence of choices
I had to face these issues in my position as a technology reporter. In 2011, I wrote an essay for Wired titled “Why Tim Cook is the best choice to run Apple.” I mentioned his logistics skills, the trust that Steve Jobs had shown in him, and his remarkable stewardship of the Mac division through a transition to Intel architectures, a massive economic downturn, and a shift away from PCs to mobile devices, which I felt (and still feel) hasn’t gotten enough press attention. I also refer to more personal characteristics — his patience, his vision, his cool judgment. I did not write about Cook being gay.
My position then was that it wasn’t up to me or anyone else to tell anyone how and when to go fully public with his or her sexuality. Nobody can tell you how to come out. I also felt that we didn’t know Cooks’ full story, which was more than his sexual identity, whether or not he was partnered, and so forth. It seemed in our world, saturated by Apple Kremlinology, that Cook being gay was an open secret. But we didn’t know who among his friends and family may still not know, and I was reluctant to be the one to tell them. At the same time, I desperately wished that he would make a public statement, for all the reasons that I feel his statement now is important. As I wrote to my friend and fellow journalist Steve Silberman at the time, “This is important to me: I really don’t want to write ‘Tim Cook is gay!’ if he’s been outed & hasn’t owned it.”
Wired at that time had had no policy on how or whether to report on whether someone is gay. I don’t know whether there was any strategic reason, legal, moral, or otherwise, to avoid having that discussion. I think it was partly because with very few rules about what could and should be reported, much was left to the individual judgment of editors and writers. My suspicion is that many outlets defaulted the status quo and didn’t report on Cook’s sexuality in large part just to avoid having to make that decision.
A couple years later, I wrote a long article on Cook for a magazine. By that time, my feelings had changed: Cook, now CEO, had become a public advocate for antidiscrimination laws, making it one of the few things outside of Apple and Auburn University football that he commented on publicly. He gave speeches where he referred to discrimination that he had himself witnessed and experienced. It seemed as though Cook was on the path to making a public statement about his sexuality — and at a minimum, he was making his own identity a more public one.
I wanted to know what policy, if any, the publication (for which I was working freelance) had on referring to a public figure’s unconfirmed sexual identity. I explained the situation — that Tim Cook was widely known to be gay, but had yet to make a public acknowledgment. I explained the history of coverage, the history of CEOs refusing to publicly acknowledge that they were gay while serving as CEOs, etc. I told them that I didn’t have any new reporting of my own that further confirmed what had been documented in Gawker’s stories and which everyone knew. I also told them that I felt that Tim Cook being gay and not acknowledging this publicly two years after taking over for Steve Jobs was a significant fact about his tenure as Apple CEO, as important as any of Apple’s new products, services, or scandals. I also told them that I wouldn’t write about this unless it was clear that I had a green light from the publication, who would ultimately have to be responsible for it.
I wrote the editor-in-chief, managing editor, and editors at the magazine. They never replied to any of these requests. We discussed the Apple profile, its due date, it’s word count — everything but what I felt was the most important part of the article. Chagrined, I wrote a pretty uninteresting essay on Apple and Cook, mostly focused on Apple’s new products. It was a day late. The magazine rightly killed it.
This is my worry: We won’t have a story exactly like Tim Cook’s again. The odds of a CEO at the largest, most scrutinized company in the world publicly announcing that he or she is gay a second time are infinitesimal. But the odds of having a story similar to Tim Cook’s in the near future — where a major public figure is playing Schrödinger’s cat with his or her sexual identity — are almost certain.
We have to come to grips with two changes. First, online news sites’ attitudes toward this issue are wildly divergent from newspapers, magazines, and other traditional news outlets. They are also wildly divergent from one another. None of these, however, exist in a vacuum. The Times newspaper story that elides Tim Cook sexuality is read in conjunction with (and as a response to) the Gawker profile that identifies him as gay. It’s a mistake for any news publication to pretend that just because a fact cannot be published by your outlet, that it is not known. This is a broader truth of the contemporary news landscape that applies much more widely than to stories about gay identity — this is merely an especially illustrative example.
Second, the attitude towards public discussion of sexuality, and specifically the gay “closet” is changing. It also varies widely in specific cases. Compare the case of Tim Cook with that of Grantland’s Dr. V, where a reporter’s uncovering of a source’s transgender identity may have played a role in her suicide — a story that many readers (and, soon after, Grantland’s editors) felt was handled wrongly.
News organizations need to continually discuss their policies with experts and community representatives, to try to balance questions and accuracy with questions of harm, and to make certain that they aren’t operating on assumptions that are outdated, naive, uncritical, or uninformed. Last, it’s important for reporters and editors and publishers to have these conversations — to make sure that whatever it is they choose to do is the best expression of their publication’s values and point of view, that it’s deliberate and legitimate. Putting our heads in the sand, pretending that the story may go away or resolve itself for us, is simply no longer an option.
Photo of Tim Cook at the Apple Watch announcement by Andy Ihnatko used under a Creative Commons license.
You can read the CEA’s press release, which includes words like “media firestorm,” here. Also in the release: A pronouncement that it won’t be working with CNET for its “Best of Show” awards next year. Per Tim Carmody, CNET had already announced that it wouldn’t be working with the CEA next time around.
But no matter the particulars, the news is an occasion to revisit, yet again, CBS’ baffling decision to meddle with the editorial operation of one of its best-known Web assets. Which my fellow typers are happy to do — make sure to click on the down arrow button on the side of this Techmeme block to see a roiling Twitter debate.
At The New Republic, David A. Bell offers a wistful threnody for the paper edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which the eponymous publishing house announced it would cease publishing after 244 years. “With the disappearance of paper encyclopedias, a part of the Western intellectual tradition is disappearing as well,” argues Bell, the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of History at Princeton and a New Republic contributing editor. The problem, he avers, is not the medium itself; the web offers comprehensiveness, currency, and serendipity, affordances it shares with the multi-volume sets of old:
But the great paper encyclopedias of the past had other, grander ambitions: They aspired to provide an overview of all human knowledge, and, still more boldly, to put that knowledge into a coherent, logical order. Even if they mostly organized their articles alphabetically, they also sought ways to link the material together thematically — all of it…On Wikipedia, contributors do constantly try to update many different related articles to take account of new material they introduce. But Wikipedia, of course, has no plan, no system, no map of human knowledge.
The problem, however, isn’t that we’ve grown complacent about the nature of knowledge, but that the nature of knowledge is changing in the context of networks. The vision of knowledge as paradigmatic, structured, ordered, like the hierarchy of the church and the deputations of sovereignty, was very much a product of encyclopedism’s golden age, the eighteenth century. Indeed, Diderot and his cohort sought for secular knowledge the kind of power and authority reserved for the monarchy and the magisterium of the Church. It’s a theory of knowledge in keeping with its time — although Diderot and his contemporaries already recognized the problematic nature of any single specified taxonomy of knowledge; the rule of the alphabet offered not only a handy organizing schema, but a leveling arbitrariness as well. But these means of ordering knowledge are thoroughly out of step in our own omnivalent age, which finds us suspicious of expertise, more comfortable with the iterative and approximate.
The old sovereign paradigms of encyclopedic knowledge were on the wane long before Wikipedia. By the twentieth century, encyclopedism’s grand epistemological project had been blackboxed, dumbed down, and commodified for aspirant middlebrow readers, the disruptive ambition of Diderot sold door-to-door. As a project, the encyclopedia was bracing and grand; as product, EB was just another widget courting obsolescence. As Tim Carmody pointed out in a recent deftly-observed article at Wired, it wasn’t Wikipedia, but Encarta — the wholly-insufficient electronic encyclopedia Microsoft bundled with Windows throughout the 1990s — which doomed the paper encyclopedia:
Not because Encarta made Microsoft money (it didn’t), or because Britannica didn’t develop comparable products for CD-ROM and the web (they totally did, with the first CD-ROM encyclopedia in 1989 and Britannica Online in 1994). Instead, Encarta was an inexpensive, multimedia, not-at-all comprehensive encyclopedia that helped Microsoft sell Windows PCs to families. And once you had a PC in the living room or den where the encyclopedia used to be, it was all over for Mighty Britannica.
And yet we shouldn’t mistake a practical bent for a lack of ambition — Wikipedia maps knowledge as ambitiously as the encyclopedia of old; only its cartography is different. Indeed, mapping is woven into the very structure and method of Wikipedia itself; it isn’t found in orderings and topics, but in the network-locative irruptions of facticity and assertion, citation and correction that make up the entries. Fully documented on the “talk page” of each Wikipedia entry, these records of individual edits and vettings comprise a map of knowledge as it lives in a networked world. As David Weinberger points out in Too Big to Know, his rich, ambivalently hopeful book about the emergent nature of knowledge, network effects create more than new means of dissemination:
That knowledge is a property of the network means more than that crowds can have a type of wisdom in certain circumstances…it’s not simply that under some circumstances groups are smarter than there smartest member. Rather, the change in the infrastructure of knowledge is altering knowledge’s shape and nature…knowledge is becooming inextricable from — literally unthinkable without — the network that enables it.
Britannica will continue to produce the continuously-updated digital edition of the Encyclopedia (disclosure: I blogged for EB a few years ago, and briefly worked as a permissions assistant at the publisher’s Chicago office after college — but my encyclopedia of choice was the time capsule of the 1959 World Book my parents kept tucked away in a glass-fronted book case behind the armchair in the living room). For the digital edition to thrive as long as the gilt volumes did, it won’t need the austere taxonomies and abridging ambitions of old, but a willingness to yield its energies to the cartographic ambitions of the network.
This post originally appeared at the blog of metaLAB (at) Harvard, a research and teaching collaborative dedicated to exploring the frontiers and overlooked histories of networked culture in the arts and humanities. We can see their office from our window. Matthew Battles is metaLAB’s managing editor and cofounder of HiLobrow.
Encyclopedia photo by John Morrison used under a Creative Commons license.
In consumer technology, five year cycles are really interesting. For instance, if you look at Apple, it’s about five years between when Steve Jobs returns to the company and when Apple introduces Mac OS X, the iPod, and its first retail stores. You can talk about the first iMac and a few other things, but it’s really in 2001 that Apple becomes the company we recognize today. That’s when the company really becomes profitable again, too. (They actually lost money in 2001, can you believe it?) Then in another five years, you get the first Intel Macs and the iPhone. And another five years gets you to today.
It’s not just Apple; you see the same five year pattern with Microsoft. Five years between their first GUI stuff (which isn’t very good) and Windows 3/MS Office (which is), another five to Windows 95, which really takes the whole concept mainstream. In another five years, they’re officially a monopoly, and then they come out with two of their best products, Windows XP and the Xbox. (Seriously, 2001 was really a banner year in tech history.) Then it’s five years-plus to Vista (which shipped late) and another five to Windows 8, which is in beta now and will be shipping next year.
And you can do this with Google, you can do this with a lot of other companies, products, and subfields. Sometimes, it works so well that you feel like you’re cherry-picking or inventing the pattern. But I think you can also argue that it takes about five years for a breakthrough product to mature, for companies and designers and partners to see its potential, and for users to not just be ready for a big leap forward, but to really want and demand that leap.
Why does this matter for 2012? Well, besides five years of iPhone, we’re also looking at five years of Kindle. That’s two five-year anniversaries that really signal the point when mobile reading became mainstream. You could also call it the five-year anniversary of the tablet as a media device, because really, that’s what the Kindle is, form factor-wise. The first version of it was laid out like a janky, old-school smartphone, but you can see that incremental evolution over the last five years.
In 2012, I think we’re going to see new devices that really raise the bar for reading, whether it’s books or blogs or magazines or newspapers, and whether they’re e-readers or tablets or smartphones. We’ll almost definitely see the iPhone 5 and iPad 3 next year from Apple, and in either late 2012 or early 2013 I think we’ll see the next generation of Amazon readers. We may also see a Google-branded tablet, plenty of competitive Android smartphones and most likely some very good new international e-readers from Kobo and Barnes & Noble.
It’s going to be a big leap.
Now wait, you might say: Wasn’t 2011 a big leap? I mean, with e-readers alone you’ve got a whole mess of new touchscreen E Ink devices, new tablets, and huge price drops that put the devices in sub-$100 iPod Shuffle territory.
But actually, I think the 2011 devices are a little disappointing. I mean, don’t get me wrong, they’re better, and they’re definitely cheaper. But apart from price, they don’t really change the field that much. The iPad 2 is an incremental improvement over the first iPad (ditto iPhone 4S over iPhone 4); Nook Tablet’s an incremental improvement over the Color; the Kindle Fire isn’t really finished yet.
With e-readers, in general, I don’t think we’ve really figured out how touchscreen reading devices are supposed to work, how to blend what we’ve learned from tablets with what we’ve learned from e-readers. Even things like how many buttons should you have (specialized page-turn buttons and home-back-search buttons are actually really nice), or how you develop non-book software for a black-and-white screen, or how you blend text and hypertext. It’s not until next year that we’ll see new HTML5-based specs for EPUB 3 and Kindle Format 8 really take off, and I’m willing to make a bet that those will force gadget-makers and publishers to really rethink how they approach this space.
So it’s not just my superstition about five-year-intervals. The lifecycle for both the devices and the publishing formats really suggests that next year will show us some big changes. We’re not just going to say, “wow, there’s a cheaper version of this other thing that I wanted.” We’re actually going to want new things.
If I could make an analogy, 2011 for reading devices was like the first color/video iPod. 2012 will be the iPhone year. It seems like we made big leaps forward only because we don’t actually know what the real leap forward looks like yet.
Perhaps the greatest piece of Twitter performance we’ve seen — up past Dan Baum recounting his New Yorker firing, or last year’s in-real-time reenactment of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off — came to a close a week ago when @MayorEmanuel fell silent after a brief but profanity-stuffed spree as the most fun place on Twitter. Tim Carmody best explains the genius of @MayorEmanuel — a fake version of former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, sprinting bull-headed toward election as Chicago’s mayor — over at Snarkmarket, here and here. (Be sure to read that second link to experience the glorious metafiction payoff.)
Alexis’ piece hits at part of the punk ethos underlying @MayorEmanuel:
Sinker described the punk rock mindset in his introduction to a 2001 book that collected interviews from the zine. “[Punk] is about looking at the world around you and asking, ‘Why are things as fucked up as they are?’” he wrote. “And then it’s about looking inwards at yourself and asking, “Why aren’t I doing anything about this?”
But punk is also about the tools you end up doing that “anything” with. The promise of punk is that you don’t need anything fancy to do something great. You don’t need to be Jimmy Page or Steve F’in Howe to play guitar; you just need three chords. You don’t need fancy technique to be an artist; stencils and spray paint will work. And you don’t need a desk in a newsroom to be a journalist; the Xerox machines at your copy shop will do.
And that brings me to the above video, which was shot by ex-Lab writer Ted Delaney in 2009. In it, Sinker almost gives a two-year-ahead preview of what would become @MayorEmanuel, not to mention a great piece of advice for the future of journalism: Use simple tools and platforms, then breathe life into them. Don’t accept that something basic can’t be used to create something beautiful and creative.
May that slogan be pasted (hell, maybe spray-painted) on the walls of every news organization where creative ideas get lost in meetings and committees and Gantt charts. It sums up just about everything good about the DIY web, and it’s a spirit — innovation with simple tools and a little human creativity — that can lead a simple Twitter account to become something beautiful.
Here’s a transcript:
One of the things that I really try to emphasize to students is this idea that the tools that exist now are so simple. You know — I actually refer to it as we’re in this magic moment. Because the tools are so easy, but the people making hiring decisions, the people making purchasing decisions — they don’t actually know that yet.
And so we’re able to really demonstrate these incredible skills and these hugely robust websites that didn’t actually take a lot of work — right? In terms of effort to get it to screen. But it looks — I mean, we look like magicians.
This stuff is so easy, and so you can teach at a level that you couldn’t have done five years ago, you know — or even two years ago, one year ago sometimes — where you don’t have to teach them the heavy lifting. Instead you can show them, “Hey, look at this, you can do a couple of little modifications, you can copy this code out, you can paste it in, and suddenly you have amazing functionality, for no effort.”
And so instead what you can do is think about, “What can I do with this?” You know, you’re no longer having to teach “this is how it works” — you can jump to the great part, which is, “What can I do with this that would be amazing? What can I do with this that would enable me to bring meaning and content and create something lasting into the world?” And that’s great.