Did that really just happen?
Last Friday, I was driving home from an awesome visit to Google HQ. I had three mind-blowing conversations, which I could turn into great articles at my leisure, in the bag. As I drove, I was listening to John Gruber and Dan Frommer talk about all manner of tech things. Dan has been a super-cool editor-at-large for RWW, and it made me feel a little company pride hearing him banter with the Chairman.
When I got home, satisfied after a great week of work, I opened up my RSS reader to see what I'd missed. Lack of time to read is starting to get me down. I have to think about output so much, now that I'm full-time and in the SAY Media office, that I have precious few opportunities to actually read and think.
So it was pretty jarring to see a RWW link from the Chairman right there at the top. The headline was "Apple’s Brilliant Boondoggle: MacBook Pro Retina Display," and Gruber's caption was, "Is this a prank? I'm being pranked here, aren't I?"
I hadn't read this post by Antone Gonsalves, an experienced freelancer, which had gone up the day before. I knew it existed and what it was about, but I expected it to be minor, slightly contrarian, but uninteresting. But Gruber doesn't link unless there's something going on, and his caption did not inspire confidence.
Then I checked the traffic on the site.
So needless to say, I read the post after that, and I was horrified. I found it empty. Devoid of substance. It felt like the author had taken an intentionally contrarian stance, delicatedly avoided unhelpful evidence, and chosen analyst quotes to stand in for himself. And the trolls were hurling stones in the comments.
Then my phone started vibrating.
People I like, people whose opinions about technology matter to me, were upset. They thought we were whoring for page views. They were criticizing the whole site, and they were associating me with the damage. I had nothing to do with it, but as the full-time Bay Area reporter, or as the guy who hangs out on Twitter the most, or whatever, I was implicated.
My first move was to tweet a moral insurance policy.
I had to distance myself right away. I could feel my weekend getting sucked away down the Twitter toilet. So I came out and said it: Gruber was right, this post feels like a prank, I don't agree with it.
But the shit rain kept coming down.
I emailed the editors next. I told them how I really felt, and I proposed that we retract the story. They weren't having it. I learned that this post had genuine support. There was no cynical traffic ploy here. The editor of the story thought the argument needed to be made and stood behind it.
That made things more complicated for me. The problem is, the critics howling about the post would never believe it. They would think of us as trolls no matter what. I didn't want my name attached to that.
The next move I made was selfish, but I made it anyway. I disavowed the post in the comments.
"I just want to say on the record that I completely disagree with this post and didn't have anything to do with it. I hate to have to do this, but I feel like I do."
A few comments later, I made my objections more explicit.
"Please don't go. This is a trolly post that I don't endorse at all, and I really regret that it made it through our editorial process. I love that we all get to write from our own perspective, and I love when we disagree with each other constructively, but I just have to disavow this one."
The reaction to that comment was interesting. Lots of commenters took the opportunity to express their righteous disappointment with our publication by saying things like, "In doing so, you at least prevent me from writing off RWW entirely."
This was clearly a bit of a drama-queen performance on those commenters' parts. But the reaction carried over to Twitter, and the response felt more genuinely positive there to me.
@ablaze I love that you went ahead and voiced your disagreement. I don’t really follow RWW daily, but that made me want to start. Classy.— pobregizmo (@pobregizmo) July 14, 2012
.@pobregizmo I love writing for a site where I feel free to disagree. That’s the best thing about RWW. Widely different voices.— Jon Mitchell (@ablaze) July 14, 2012
The way this went down made me feel better. I felt my response reflected positively on the site for which I write. If I hadn't handled this as carefully, it would have looked like protecting my ego and throwing my colleagues under the bus. That would have been a tragic mistake.
Unfortunately, from the inside-RWW perspective, I had still crossed the line. That would matter more later.
Still, having felt like I'd repaired some damage, I got back on the email thread with the editors, told them I washed my hands of this, and I went to bed.
The Next Day
When I woke up, Marco Arment had weighed in.
"This clickbait article is sadly, unintentionally hilarious," Marco wrote. He proceeded to tear the weakest part of Antone's argument into tiny little pieces, which was justified and well done. And then he threw in this line at the end, which burned pretty darn good:
"ReadWriteWeb is better than this, and they should be ashamed to have published it."
At this point — Saturday morning, remember — the only people still talking about this were media Twitterati, but boy, were they talking about it. It's always fun for tech bloggers when another tech blog does something dumb, because they get to vent all their Schadenfreude built up by hating the dumbness in which we all engage.
I think Brian Lam is right when he talks about how many of us feel like we have to write some stuff we don't like. I think we don't like that stuff because it smacks of the same disingenuousness — real or perceived — for which Antone's post got busted.
But it's my personal mission to never engage in page-view-mongering ever, at all, under any circumstances, and that's actually the reason I took the full-time job. I heard SAY Media and our editors talking about bringing back substance to tech writing, so I signed up. This is precisely what sucked so badly for me about the Retina Display debacle. I felt like my site had trolled and been caught trolling.
And Marco had said exactly what I had said myself: we are better than this.
But he's a writer from the outside. That gave other outside writers permission to start saying it, too. And that's when things got ugly.
Now, I love just about every blogger colleague I've ever met, and I want to meet all the rest of them. I feel instant camaraderie with them. They don't feel like competitors to me. On the good days, we're all trying to do the same thing. We're trying to get to the bottom of the tech stories that matter because we want to understand them. It's easy for me to celebrate the good work of others, even on other sites.
As a pleasant side-effect of doing enough of that, even as a relative newcomer, I've made friends. I've got a pretty close circle of (quote-unquote) "competitors" with whom I frankly discuss the tech blogging climate, often publicly on Twitter. On Saturday, there was a sort of sharky edge to that water-cooler talk. People wanted me to write a story. They wanted controversy. They wanted a fight.
I wasn't going to give them the satisfaction. It was fucking Saturday, and I didn't start this fracas. I tweeted as much, and then I went out and had a life.
I’m sitting here stewing in that pulsing headache that makes people blog on Saturdays. I realize this is a waste of life. Nope.— Jon Mitchell (@ablaze) July 14, 2012
The Next, Next Day
That night, I had a crazy dream.
Just had a straight-up Steve Jobs visitation dream. I worked for him under my manager, Harrison Ford. Jobs grilled me about prayer books.— Jon Mitchell (@ablaze) July 15, 2012
In the day that followed, this happened:
"First, I'd like to thank all the readers who commented on our post. Some of the criticisms made me cringe, such as being called a 'link-baiting whore,' while other remarks were more insightful and worth taking seriously. But whether the comments were for or against the post, I'm humbled that so many people took the time to participate in such a lively discussion. Because of that, we want to explain our reasoning further."
And I was like, AWWWW, HELL NO.
Instead of retracting the first post, posting some kind of brief acknowledgement of the controversy, or just letting it die, the editors had allowed Antone to double down. And it wasn't that the second post was nearly as bad. It was that he said "We."
So come into this moment with me.
Now Antone has implicated me. He has put all of us in this story, myself included, even though I explicitly excluded myself. Now people in the comments are asking Antone, "Who is this 'we' of whom you speak? Is it just you and your editor? Or is all of ReadWriteWeb?"
Even in hindsight, I'm not sure I had a choice but to do what I did. I reiterated:
"Again, I wish I didn't have to do this, but the 'we' Antone mentions at the top of this post does not include me. I don't stand behind any of this stuff regarding the Retina MBP, personally."
But it had all gone to hell by that point already. In his takedown of the second post, Marco wrote:
"[I]t says a lot about ReadWriteWeb that they’d allow someone so blatantly unqualified to write two inflammatory Apple articles with their logo on top."
This would be the theme of the night as the men of technology media bro'd down on Twitter while other people weren't watching. At one point, Marco suggested that, if I disagreed with these tactics so much, I should quit my job.
I thought that was a ludicrous, dickish thing to say, and I told him so, although my response was pretty dickish in its own right:
And the situation sped further downhill from there. There was a whole long bloggergasm about whether or not this would affect my career (thanks for your concern, bros), and there's no need to revisit it. But by the end of the second day of this shit, I had been straight-up attacked, so I went into the work week (as opposed to the work weekend) intending to defend myself.
The Next, Next Day and Next, Next, Next Day
Suffice it to say, the situation in the office on Monday was tense. The editors felt I had crossed the line by commenting on the stories themselves. To be clear, they were fine with me expressing vehement personal disagreement. What they didn't like was the fact that I explicitly distanced myself from the team on the site.
I was able to hear that. I think they were right. But I still wasn't willing to swallow these posts. I expressed the desire to write a counter-argument. The editors all agreed, and I spent the whole day Monday reporting on it.
My counterpoint went up Tuesday morning, but the drama wasn't quite over. My editor approved it, but the editor of Antone's post did not like that I leveled such a thorough line-by-line criticism of a colleague's work.
We paced around a lot that day as we hashed out how we felt about our handling of this. It was a tempest in a teapot, ultimately, and even though it sucked, it was good for our process.
Four Days of Arguing About Computers
Honestly, I was pretty proud of the argument I made. But as I wrote about this computer, I couldn't shake the feeling that a humongous amount of drama had blown up over something utterly mundane. So I included some language in my post scolding people who fight about the screen resolution of computers. That's the part I regret. It pissed off the bees in the comment section, for one thing.
But the icky feeling goes deeper than that for me, and I think it's what I'm going to spend the next phase of my career working on. Is the meaning of a computer a big deal or not? Is the passion that flared up this weekend inspired by anything real?
If so, I should care this much, and I should use my position to help people apply that passion for technology to their work and life.
But part of me suspects that it wasn't real, that consumer tech has become sort of religious and alienating. I don't want to play into that. I don't want to be consumed by it myself. But I lost a whole weekend to talking about a computer I don't even have or want, and I can't really believe it.