SiliconFilter

Taking a Step Back from the Cesspool

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The last few days allowed us to witness the rather sad spectacle of various tech writers/bloggers/journalists calling each other names and publicly airing some dirty laundry. What’s even sadder about this is that in the flurry of ad hominem attacks, the fact that all sides actually made some valid points about the current state of tech blogging got lost.

The Story So Far

Before we get started, here is a quick summary for those who don’t follow the meta discussions in the tech blogging world that closely (you can skip the next two paragraphs if you already know the story): What started this whole affair was the recent revelation that Path uploaded its users phone contact lists to its servers to make it easier to find friends who joined the service. Path apologized. The NYTimes’s Nick Bilton used this as an opportunity to highlight what he thinks is a wider issue of startups playing fast and loose with our private data. Crunchfund’s (and former TechCrunch writers) MG Siegler and Michael Arrington quickly came to Path’s defense. CrunchFund, of course, is an investor in Path.

Siegler, however, took his argument a bit further and used his post to attack the state of tech blogging as a whole and basically argues that most writers don’t know what they are talking about and have to write too many stories per day to even try. Dan Lyons then used the Crunchfund’s writers’ defense of Path to highlight the degree to which Silicon Valley – in his view – has become a “cesspool” where journalists and bloggers are often too close to VCs and angels to properly do their job, personally attacking Siegler, Arrington, PandoDaily, Techmeme (“That’s right kids. Techmeme is rigged”) and others in the process.

In between all the name calling (“nasty little ankle-biter”) and swearing, everybody actually managed to make some worthwhile points.

Problem #1: Feeding the Pageview Beast

Siegler is absolutely right, for example, when he says that the “pageview machine” that makes writers post 4 or 5 (and sometimes more) stories per day is fundamentally flawed. That kind of process doesn’t leave writers time to research stories beyond a quick Google search, gets people to write stories about statistics that are clearly wrong (stat stories are the easiest to write) and generally drives even the best writers insane after they’ve posted their 3rd slideshow of the day or just rewrote yet another press release just to make their quota. Not every blog operates this way, but far too many do.

Some, like The Next Web, have mastered high-frequency posting to the point where it’s close to impossible to compete with them on speed. Others, like Kara Swisher’s AllThingsD take a more deliberate approach and are rewarded with frequent (and real) scoops. A lot of sites fall into the middle, but most have post quotas for their writers and even those that tell their writers they don’t care about pageviews obviously do.

Pageviews, though, are more or less the only way to effectively monetize a blog/news site these days, so there will always be some pressure to post some of these frivolous stories. Nobody has found a workable solution around this yet, but I like to think that just posting good stories can be profitable, too. And if it takes a few slideshows to pay for somebody to write a good, in-depth story (and then split that story up between multiple pages to increase pageviews), then maybe that’s the price we have to pay for doing business.

Poblem #2: Befriending the VCs

Dan Lyons, however, is also right when he says that PandoDaily taking money from VCs isn’t helping the site’s credibility (and the same goes for Siegler and Arrington when they talk about Path). The standard argument here is that everything is alight, as long as you just disclose your investments, but in my view, that’s just not realistic. The Crunchfund crew, however, doesn’t pretend to be journalists at this point and their readers know their perspective. I can live with that.

PandoDaily, on the other hand, I have issues with. It’s amassing a great group of writers, but it’s obvious that those who invested in it did so to buy a mouthpiece for themselves and not because they expect huge returns. In my view, that’s a shame, because the people there could do great things, but they will always be sullied by questions about their objectivity and motives.

Just Take Deep Breath and Be Better Than This

When you take a step back, it’s clear that these are real issues the tech blogging/journalism world has to take seriously. Rewritten press releases for the sake of fulfilling pageview quotas, slideshows and fake/wrong scoops aren’t helping the tech blogging ecosystem at all. Still, I like to think this system is mostly self-correcting. Bad information gets corrected (though sometimes the damage is already done), bad “scoops” are quickly outed as such, just as we don’t let writers with an obvious bias off the hook easily.

Michael Arrington says we are better than this but that our industry is unable to change. Tech blogging today, however, is in a transition period. If there was ever a time for things to change it's now. Writers, after all, are already moving around from one site to another frequently as new success stories (The Next Web, for example) make some of the old guard uneasy.

A lot of sites are doing very good work right now (maybe even “journalism”) – let’s not get too distracted by the infighting between a few of them but focus on those that are staying above the fray.

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2:53 pm


The Golden Age of Tech Blogging Is Just Getting Started

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Given that the week between Christmas and New Year's Day is usually very slow in the tech blogging world, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Jeremiah Owyang’s linkbait post about the end of the “Golden Age of Tech Blogging” is getting its fair share of attention today. My old boss Marshall Kirkpatrick and former TechCrunch writer Sarah Lacy already wrote some pretty good rebuttals of Owyang’s ideas, but I want to add a few thoughts to this discussion as well.

Owyang argues that there are four trends that show the end of this era (though he never fully defines what that “Golden Age” actually looked like). Let’s take a closer look at these, as I don’t think they work as signs for the end of this first era of tech blogging.

1) Corporate acquisitions stymie innovation

Owyang argues that as TechCrunch and ReadWriteWeb have now been bought, the age of innovation in tech blogging is over. Nothing could be further from the truth, I would argue. The fact that these sites were acquired simply shows that some smart investors think there is money to be made in this market.

And what was the last big innovation to come out of TechCrunch or ReadWriteWeb anyway?

2) Tech blogs are experiencing major talent turnover

I’m not going into the details why ReadWriteWeb, for example, lost plenty of its writers in 2010 (including myself), but it’s obvious that lots of writers moved around last year. Again – I’m not sure how that’s a sign of how the “Golden Age of tech blogging” has passed. It simply means that writers moved to places where they could earn more money, get more benefits and better support from editors. If anything, that means the Golden Age of tech blogging for the writers themselves is still going strong, as there is clearly a market for them.

3) The audience needs have changed, they want: faster, smaller, and social

That’s not a new trend. What’s worth noting, though, is that the attention, if it really has shifted, has shifted more towards the aggregators like Techmeme. Owyang also uses Mashable as an example of a blog that has shifted its strategies in the face of these trends. I would argue that Mashable long ceased to be a tech blog.

4) As space matures, business models solidify –giving room for new disruptors

This is, of course, true in every business. Given that the cost of entry into the tech blogging world is close to zero (or $20/month for a hosting account), there has always been space for disruptors. Tech blogging isn’t an easy business, though (or an easy beat, for that matter), so we have seen relatively few people try to disrupt the business from the outside.

Oddly enough, Owyang also argues that “long gone is the scrappy new media entrepreneurs like Arrington who built a decent sized empire, cashed out, and moved on to to a traditional industry like venture capital.” This, of course, makes little sense, given that Arrington only cashed out a year ago, those at ReadWriteWeb who had equity only cashed out two or three weeks ago and that there are plenty of sites that could still cash out nicely in the future.

We’re just Getting Started

Basically then, I don’t agree that any of Owyang’s points demonstrate that the “Golden Age” of tech blogging is over. I do agree that we are at a turning point, though, but for very different reasons. I think the slow decline of ReadWriteWeb over the last year and a half, the high turnover at TechCrunch and a general sense of instability in the tech blogging world and the rising importance of the aggregators is opening up the door for disruptors large and small.



10:31 pm


Let's Cut the Hype: Facebook's Email Service Won't be a "Gmail Killer"

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facebook_logo.jpg

Facebook is launching an email service on Monday. While that’s only a rumor for now, I think it’s a well substantiated one and there is little doubt in my mind that Facebook mail is exactly what we are going to get at Monday’s event in San Francisco. Sadly, though, the meme that this could really be a “Gmail killer,” as the project is apparently internally known at Facebook, is already making its rounds in the tech blogosphere and won’t let up until Monday.

My guess is that the reality of Facebook mail will be far more banal. Facebook will give every user an @facebook.com address and a basic email service that will kill Gmail as much as Gmail killed Yahoo! Mail and Hotmail/Windows Live Mail.

So let’s get away from the whole “Gmail killer” idea (the tech blogosphere has always been obsessed with “xyz killers”). What matters is that this email service – if it really launches on Monday – shows how Facebook doesn’t just want to own our social network but how it also wants to be our messaging service. Groups were a step in this direction, Facebook chat was a step in this direction, as is bringing Facebook chat to Windows Live Messenger. Adding email to this is just the logical next step, but just as tagging a social network on to email didn’t make Google Buzz a Facebook killer, adding email to Facebook won’t kill Gmail.

Facebook mail invitation

It’s even hard to think how Facebook could actually make email better. Sure, this service will nicely integrate with the rest of the Facebook platform, but the great thing about email is that you can use it no matter what platform and server you and the people you write to are on.

Maybe Facebook could build a better Priority Inbox, but somehow I doubt that. It will surely also make it easy to email photos (Facebook is already the biggest photo service on the Internet). But it won’t get a lot of people to turn away from Gmail or the even more popular Yahoo and Windows Live email services. Email is extremely sticky. Most people never switch. It’s just too hard and almost never worth the effort. Professionals definitely won’t use it.

We should remember, though, that for some people, the idea of an @facebook.com email address actually sounds like a good idea. Those are not the people who leave critical comments on stories about Facebook mail today, though. Those are the people who will be surprised to hear about it on Monday and will leave barely readable comments on the Facebook blog, asking where to find new tips and trick for playing Farmville and how to write on their wall. That won’t make it a Gmail killer either, though.

Bonus: I got an email this morning from this blogger who discovered Facebook’s mail.facebook.com page. At first, I thought this would make for a nice scoop, but after actually looking at the site for 10 seconds, it quickly became clear that this was Facebook’s internal email. The site runs Microsoft Exchange and there is no way that Facebook would want to use Exchange for powering 500 million email accounts even if Microsoft is going to partner with Facebook and integrate its Office web apps into the new service. Of course, this story still found its way into the tech blogosphere in the form of a Friday afternoon linkbait post on TechCrunch that some actually took at face value. Sigh…



12:25 am


What Should the Next Generation of Tech Blogs Look (and Feel) Like?

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As I’m thinking about the sale of TechCrunch to AOL and Jason Calacanis’s ideas for how to take tech reporting to the next level (in the form of an email newsletter), I can’t help but think about what the next generation of tech blogs will look like. Since the early days of tech blogging, the field has become more professionalized and the major blogs now have plenty of full- and half-time staffers who ensure that no nuance of the tech world goes uncovered. While Twitter and Facebook have changed the way these publications find readers for their stories (in the early days, RSS feeds used to be a huge source of traffic), the blogs themselves all still look pretty much the same (one exception – at least with regards to their homepage – is the rapidly expanding The Next Web).  (more…)



6:26 pm


Calacanis to Challenge TechCrunch: "The World Really Wants Deeper Stuff Right Now"

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According to the Guardian, serial entrepreneur Jason Calacanis plans to launch a new tech blog in early 2011. With this project, Calacanis plans to challenge TechCrunch, the influential Silicon Valley-based blog run by his old nemesis Mike Arrington. According to the report, Calacanis plans to hire a small number of editors. These writers will have the freedom to do in-depth research and will only have to file one story per week.

While Calacanis says that these stories will go out over email and won’t run on a dedicated blog, chances are that he will do both in the long run in order to profit from the valuable ad sales for the email newsletter and the online ad sales that are keeping the current generation of tech blogs afloat. Calacanis will also host a new startup conference early next year that will challenge TechCrunch’s highly successful Disrupt conference.

“The Tech Blogging Scene is in a Race to the Bottom”

In his interview with the Guardian, Calacanis claims that he is not trying to challenge the existing tech blogs on their own field, but that he is “going for something that doesn’t exist in the market – not a blogger writing the story in two hours. The world really wants deeper stuff right now.” He also notes that “the tech blogging scene is in a race to the bottom and is dragging mainstream media down with it.”

Those are fighting words. Blogs like TechCrunch and others have made their name by rushing stories to their readers as fast as possible – sometimes at the expense of depth and analysis. Indeed, the reality of tech blogging is that very few authors actually have the time to spend two hours on a story. Breaking news stories often take less than 15 minutes before they appear on TechCrunch, the Next Web or ReadWriteWeb. Clearly, there is an audience for these stories, but Calacanis is betting that the market also wants more depth, knowledge and thoroughness (a mix we strive for over on ReadWriteWeb).

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the marketplace. Starting a new tech publication is not easy, given how many players there already are today. With his successful e-mail list and high name recognition, Calacanis clearly has an advantage over smaller editorial startups and his best work has always been in developing editorial concepts. Even Calacanis’s biggest detractors have to admit that he has created a number of successful startups in the past and should not be underestimated, especially now that his motivation is to challenge his old arch-nemesis Arrington. We have not seen a lots of newcomers on the tech blogging scene in the last two years (let alone in the tech mailing list scene), but if anybody has a chance to make a difference in this business it is likely Calacanis.

Image Credit: Joi Ito



10:51 am


AOL Acquires TechCrunch

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After a few hours of wild speculation, TechCrunch founder and co-edit Mike Arrington and AOL CEO Tim Armstrong just announced that AOL has indeed acquired TechCrunch. According to Arrington, TechCrunch will be a fully owned subsidiary of AOL, but his team will have no "editorial boundaries" and AOL will allow the blog to operate as usual. Arrington will stay on with AOL for "at least 3 years," which – presumably – is part of the agreement. The financial details of the deal were not disclosed.

Congrats to Mike and the rest of the team.

Below is the full press release.

AOL To Acquire TechCrunch Network Of Sites

Leading Authority on Tech News Will Expand AOL’s Growing Offering of World-Class, Audience-Relevant Content
San Francisco, CA, September 28, 2010 – AOL Inc. (NYSE: AOL) today announced that it has agreed to acquire TechCrunch, Inc., the company that owns and operates TechCrunch and its network of websites dedicated to technology news, information and analysis. TechCrunch and its associated properties and conferences will join the AOL Technology Network while retaining their editorial independence, further bolstering AOL’s position as one of the world’s leading providers of high-quality, tech-oriented content. The announcement will be made on stage at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco, CA.

Founded by Michael Arrington, TechCrunch operates a global network of dedicated properties from Europe to Japan, as well as vertically-oriented websites, including MobileCrunch, CrunchGear, TechCrunchIT, GreenTech, TechCrunchTV and CrunchBase. The TechMeme Leaderboard ranks TechCrunch as the No. 1 source of breaking tech news online, followed by AOL’s Engadget.*

"Michael and his colleagues have made the TechCrunch network a byword for breaking tech news and insight into the innovative world of start-ups, and their reputation for top-class journalism precisely matches AOL’s commitment to delivering the expert content critical to this audience," said Tim Armstrong, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of AOL. "TechCrunch and its team will be an outstanding addition to the high-quality content on the AOL Technology Network, which is now a must-buy for advertisers seeking to associate their brands with leading technology content and its audience."

Heather Harde, Chief Executive Officer of TechCrunch, said: "TechCrunch and AOL share a motivating passion for quality technology news and information, and we’re delighted about becoming part of the AOL family. This represents a compelling opportunity to extend the TechCrunch brand while complementing the great work of sites like Engadget and Switched. Our contributors, and our audiences, can look to the future with excitement about what we can build when we have the significant resources of AOL behind us."

Michael Arrington, Founder and Co-Editor of TechCrunch, said: "Tim Armstrong and his team have an exciting vision for the future of AOL as a global leader in creating and delivering world-class content to consumers, be it through original content creation, partnerships or acquisitions. I look forward to working with everyone at AOL as we build on our reputation for independent tech journalism and continue to set the agenda for insight, reviews and collaborative discussion about the future of the technology industry."

TechCrunch also hosts industry-leading conferences and events, including The Disrupt series, The Crunchies Awards and various meet-ups worldwide. These conferences bring together industry innovators, entrepreneurs and financing sources to exchange ideas, forge new relationships and discuss the current and future industry trends.
"Engagement with thought leaders is as important to AOL as our engagement with our contributors, audiences, publishers and advertisers, and TechCrunch’s conferences and websites will give us a promising, additional springboard to join and amplify these conversations. We’re committed to quality in everything we do at AOL, and look forward to working with Heather, Michael and the TechCrunch team to extend the brand," said David Eun, President of AOL Media and Studios.

The AOL Technology Network consists of AOL’s tech-oriented properties including Engadget, the Web magazine about everything new in gadgets and consumer electronics; Switched, which covers the intersection of the digital world with entertainment, sports, art, fashion and lifestyle; TUAW, the unofficial Apple weblog; and DownloadSquad, the weblog about downloadable software and other computer subjects. The AOL Technology Network ranks in the top five for tech news according to comScore Media Metrix, August 2010 data, and leads the top five in average time spent and average visits per user.

This acquisition will further AOL’s strategy to become the global leader in sourcing, creating, producing and delivering high-quality, trusted, original content to consumers. TechCrunch will remain headquartered in San Francisco, CA, as a wholly owned AOL unit. Deal terms were not disclosed.



9:51 am


A Few Thoughts About AOLCrunch

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According to Om Malik and the Wall Street Journal, AOL is in the process of acquiring TechCrunch, arguably the world’s foremost technology blog. For the time being, this is only a rumor, but with sources like GigaOm and the WSJ, it sure feels like a very solid rumor. It’s worth noting, though, this is not the first time we’ve heard about a possible sale of TechCrunch and none of the other possible sales ever worked out.

This time, however, it feels like the timing is right: TechCrunch is hosting its highly successful Disrupt conference right now and with AngelGate, the blog’s founder Michael Arrington just broke what could be his biggest story ever – a scoop that is so quintessential Arrington that only he could have found and written about it. If you sell your blog, why not sell it when it’s at its peak?

My personal feeling is that there is probably a kernel of truth behind this rumor. Nobody at TechCrunch is commenting, of course, but my best guess is that we will know more by the end of the week.

If this turns out to be true, then hats off to Arrington and congrats to everybody on the team (quite a few

TechCrunch-1.jpg

TechCrunch writers own a share in the company if I’m not mistaken, so they could see a nice Christmas bonus this year, too)!

AOLCrunch: What Could it Mean for the Rest of the Tech Blogosphere?

As Robert Scoble noted earlier tonight, a sale of TechCrunch to AOL could herald a major shift in the tech blogosphere. Chances are that Arrington won’t stick around to become an employee at AOL and as much as he has built an amazing team at TechCrunch, the best and most interesting post on the site are still written by Arrington himself.

As Scoble also notes, without Arrington around, the site could lose its status as the go-to site for a lot of PR companies and they might shop their news around more. For the tech blog ecosystem, that could only be a good thing.

TechCrunch is currently the dominant force in tech blogging (even while I’m working for their competitor, I have to acknowledge that). I don’t think a sale to AOL will change this right away, but it could open up opportunities for current (and new!) competitors to attack TechCrunch’s status as the preeminent tech blog (or maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part…).



9:02 pm