There were a number of panels at the Web Summit in Dublin this week that talked about media and journalism, but the one that included VICE News, Time Inc. and Storyful was the discussion that has stuck with me — mostly because of a comment that Storyful founder Mark Little made about the paradigm shift that we’ve seen over the past few years involving real-time social media or “citizen journalism.” Among other things, Little said that “authenticity has replaced authority” when it comes to news, and especially what journalists like to call breaking news.
That makes for a great sound bite — you can tell that Little used to be a TV correspondent before he started the company — but what does it actually mean? For me at least, it means that many people (not all, of course, but many) are willing to pay more attention to sources of information that they believe are close to an event, rather than to traditional sources of sober, objective second-hand or third-hand information. In this scenario, Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat are the platforms that stand to gain, and traditional media like newspapers or even television mostly lose.
This isn’t going to be the case in every situation, but when it comes to breaking news about a specific event, in the initial stages of that event attention is always going to flow to the sources that are closest to the action, even if — and this is the really important part — the “authority” or credibility of those sources is in question. As Little put it during the Web Summit panel:
“Now people can bypass us using a camera phone and a social network, and the means of production have been completely overturned. Now everyone out there is a creator of content, and our job is more as managers of an overabundance of content.”
Dial up the immediacy, dial down the authority
We’ve seen this happen time and time again, whether it’s during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere, or in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, or any of the mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S. over the past couple of years. Even if the information is flawed and inherently untrustworthy — at least by the standard journalistic definition — people flock to it, share it, discuss it, and engage with it. It might not be the kind of behavior that media outlets would like to see, but it’s what happens. And it’s going to continue to happen.
This is an analogy I’ve used before, but it’s almost like people have two dials in front of them that they can use to filter or change the information they get: one of them says “speed” and/or “immediacy” on it, and the other one says “facts” and/or “authority.” And what many people do, using services like Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, is dial the first one up as soon as something newsworthy happens.
I got a kayak for my 50th birthday a couple of years ago — a red, 14-foot Perception Carolina, in case you’re interested in the specifics, with two dry wells — and I’ve been paddling a lot around our cottage north of Toronto, but I hadn’t brought it down to the city before until this fall. I thought I would bring it and see if there was enough to do with it to make it worthwhile, especially since we live near where the Rouge River feeds into Lake Ontario.
I’ve biked down the lake-front trail near our house to the mouth of the Rouge many times, and across the bridge into Pickering and along the bluffs out to Frenchman’s Bay, and I would often see kayaks and canoes coming down the river, and wonder where they had been. So one day I strapped the kayak to our old car and headed over to the Rouge.
It was a beautiful sunny day, and I paddled around the marshes at the mouth of the river for a bit and saw some swans and Canada geese, some blue herons and some white egrets, and then I headed up-river. Unfortunately, I had chosen to go just a couple of days after a big rainstorm, and the river was running quite hard — I was fighting the current the whole way, and after about 45 minutes of hard paddling I could go no further. The ride back to the mouth of the river took me about 15 minutes.
The next time I went, it hadn’t rained for a week or so, and the river was about three feet lower at least — I could see the muddy water-line on the trees and bushes along the bank. Since I didn’t know how fast it would be going, I decided to put the kayak in at Glen Rouge campground, which is just north of Highway 401, off Kingston Road.
I carried it down to the water and dropped it in, and it was an easy paddle of 30 minutes or so down to the mouth of the river — so easy that after I got there, I decided to paddle all the way back up again. I saw more herons and egrets, and even saw a deer at one point in the woods. The most amazing part was that as soon as I got out of sight of the highway, I felt like I was out in the woods in the middle of nowhere. The banks of the ravine were so high I only saw one or two houses.
At one point, I saw a ruined old chimney and fireplace standing right near the bank, made of fieldstone and probably close to a hundred years old — whatever building it used to heat was large and two stories at least. I read that around the turn of the century, someone had tried to sell lots near the river to wealthy settlers, but didn’t sell many and eventually the land was taken over by the province.
Next to the chimney there was a sort of structure made of sticks tied together at the corners, with industrial-size plastic wrapping for walls and a ceiling. I got out to take a look, since the owner didn’t seem to be around, and inside was a cot and some boxes. Outside was a pot hanging from a tripod of sticks over a fire — and hanging from a wire near the chimney (which was tied to the structure) was a small crossbow. Obviously someone was living there, but I left before they returned.
I’ve been back a few times since, and the river is such a peaceful spot. And once when it was calm, I paddled out into Lake Ontario itself and followed the shore all the way out to Frenchman’s Bay and back again.
Since the weather was so beautiful in September, a friend who kayaks with a group out of Harbourfront in downtown Toronto asked me if I wanted to come for a sunset paddle with some of the group — and of course I said yes. We took the boats out into the harbour and across to the Toronto Islands, which I hadn’t been to since I was in my 20s. We paddled into the inland waterway that runs through and around the islands (there are about a dozen of them) and then back across the harbour just as the sun was setting.
It was such a great trip that when my friend asked me if I wanted to go for a longer paddle the next day, I said of course. I showed up at 10 a.m. and we left in a group of 15 or so, and paddled west along the shore through the Western Gap near the island airport, then turned north and paddled into the old Ontario Place grounds, and followed the waterway in and around some of the old buildings like the Cinesphere (where they used to show the first IMAX movies) and back out to the harbour.
After paddling back into the harbour, we went across to Ward’s Island, one of the largest of the islands, and pulled our boats up on the beach and headed inland to a small cafe there for a sandwich and some coffee. It was a beautiful spot — and then it was back into the boats and out around the eastern end of the island.
We paddled up the entire length of the Leslie Spit — a man-made promontory that sticks out into the lake near the end of the Don Valley Parkway — and turned around when we got to the lighthouse at the end. Everyone with a sailboat or any other kind of boat seemed to be out on the lake, which isn’t surprising since the weather was so gorgeous.
Then we came back down the side of the island and into the inland waterway again, and paddled in and around all of the islands, watching people sitting on their sailboats at the marina, or walking and biking around the laneways on the island. After seeing some swans near the island amusement park, we paddled back out the mouth of the inland waterway and across the harbour back to the boat-rental place. We were out for almost seven hours, and probably paddled about 25 kilometres or so.
All in all, it was a pretty amazing September for kayaking, and I’m glad I brought my boat down to the city — I’ve seen far more of Toronto’s rivers and lakes and islands than I ever knew existed.
If you want to see some more photos, there’s a Google photo album with some more photos of the harbour trip here and another one of the sunset trip here.
A friend of a friend found an old newspaper inside the wall of a house he was renovating — not an uncommon thing to find, since many people used them for insulation. But this one is really old: it’s a copy of The Globe (a newspaper published in Toronto) from February, 1864. That’s three years before Canada even officially became a country. It was very stiff and damaged by what appeared to be water, but I was still able to make out most of the text on the front page at least.
One interesting thing is that there are ads all over the front page — for things like steamship travel, houses for rent, and new technology like the steam engine and “self-adjusting spring skates,” whatever those are. One steamship company was offering passage from New York to London: a first-class cabin cost $80, a second-class cabin was $50 and steerage was just $30.
Interestingly enough, most of the items on the front page aren’t what we would consider news stories but are letters from abroad, written in a personal style and frequently with little news at all — one reprinted from the London Telegraph is probably over 1,000 words and mentions that Montreal has a population of more than 75,000 and is therefore “the most populous city in British North America.” It also mentions (no doubt playing to the home-town crowd) that “the assertion that the British provinces are anxious to join the Union is baseless and absurd.”
There’s also a notice to the public of “an imposter, wearing the dress of a Roman Catholic priest… he is a drunken vagabond — an Irishman.” And another notice mentions the wonderful new technology of “coal oil” lanterns, describing how people were endangering their eyesight by reading or darning by the light of the fire or a shared candle, and how with this new technology, “each house can have for the same expense a light exceeding half a dozen candles.”
When it comes to ads, in addition to the steamship advertisements, there are ads for spectacles, boots and shoes, live hogs and furniture — but the largest ad stretches the length of the page vertically and is for “Dr. Hoofland’s German Bitters,” which the ad says is “not a rum drink but a highly concentrated vegetable extract” that will “effectively and most certainly cure all diseases rising from a disordered liver, stomach or kidneys.” It then lists the symptoms of these diseases as:
“Constipation, Inward Piles, Fulness or Blood to the Head, Disgust for Food, Sour Eructations, Sinking or Fluttering at the Pit of the Stomach, Swimming of the Head, Hurried and Difficult Breathing, Fluttering at the Heart, Dots or Webs before the Sight, Deficiency of Perspiration, Sudden Flushe of Heat and Constant Imaginings of Evil”
The ad also goes on at some length about how other bitters are “compounded of cheap whiskey or common rum,” and that this class of bitters “has caused and will continue to cause hundreds to die the death of the Drunkard.” And it recommends that Dr. Hoofland’s be used specifically for “delicate children… suffering from marasmus, wasting away, with scarcely any flesh on their bones.” One bottle, the ad says, and “they will be cured in a very short time.”
There’s also a large ad about an estate auction to be held at a law office on King Street “in pursuance of a Decree by the Court of Chancery of Upper Canada, at twelve of the clock noon.” The lots to be sold include one at the corner of Queen Street and William Street with “a Blacksmith’s Shop and a small frame Dwelling House” which are being leased for “24 pounds per annum.”
The open web and freedom of information in general lost one of their most passionate proponents yesterday, with the death of early Reddit staffer and Demand Progress founder Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide on Friday, according to a family member. He was facing federal charges for hacking into the JSTOR academic database and downloading millions of research papers, but had also reportedly suffered from depression. He was 26 years old.
As the news of his death spread throughout the web and social networks like Twitter, there was an outpouring of grief and sorrow from some of his friends and those he had worked with on a number of projects — including the early development of the RSS syndication standard, the web.py software framework, the Creative Commons movement and the W3C web standards committee.
Update: Swartz’s family and his partner have released a statement about his death, in which they point the finger of blame directly at the U.S. Attorney’s office and say their prosecution played a role in Aaron’s suicide. The statement says:
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”
“Aaron accomplished some incredible things in his life. He was one of the early builders of Reddit (someone always turns up to point out that he was technically not a co-founder, but he was close enough as makes no damn), got bought by Wired/Conde Nast, engineered his own dismissal and got cashed out, and then became a full-time, uncompromising, reckless and delightful shit-disturber… we have all lost someone today who had more work to do, and who made the world a better place when he did it.”
Matt Haughey, the founder of Metafilter, posted a comment on his site about Aaron, whom he met while he was working on the Creative Commons project with Larry Lessig — and how at one programming event, Swartz had to come with his father because he was only 15:
“Aaron, I’m so sorry to see you go. You were an amazing person who did incredible work that helps us all out and I really wish you stayed for many more decades so you could continue making society a better place to be. I’ll really miss you.”
Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, posted a memorial entitled “Aaron Swartz, hero of the open world, dies” — and recalled working with the young man on Kahle’s Open Library project, which he helped to code:
“Aaron was steadfast in his dedication to building a better and open world. Selfless. Willing to cause change. He is among the best spirits of the Internet generation. I am crushed by his loss, but will continue to be enlightened by his work and dedication. May a hero and founder of our open world rest in peace.”
In 2007, Swartz wrote what many took to be a suicide note (thanks to Nik Cubrilovic for the link) after he had been fired by Conde Nast (which acquired Reddit in 2006), a note that eventually led Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian to call the police and break into Swartz’s apartment. The young programmer later explained that he wrote it while he was in pain due to a medical issue, but some friends took it as a sign that he was struggling with emotional problems as well.
In 2007, Philipp Lenssen of the blog Google Blogoscoped posted a long interview with Swartz about his development as a programmer, his work with Reddit and Creative Commons, getting fired by Conde Nast and a number of other topics:
“Seriously, though, the Web is what we make of it. We have a powerful, widely-deployed, largely uncontrolled communication network. It’s up to us to decide where to go next.”
John Gruber of the Apple blog Daring Fireball also posted a tribute, saying: “Aaron was a friend and a brilliant mind… he had an enormous intellect — again, a brilliant mind — but also an enormous capacity for empathy. He was a great person. I’m dumbfounded and heartbroken.”
wow so sad @aaronsw. he was definitely fighting the good fight.
Swartz was also involved in the fight against SOPA, the draconian anti-piracy law that Congress tried to pass last year — this is a video of him discussing the campaign against the bill, which was later shelved:
Many of those who mourned Swartz’s passing wondered whether he knew how respected and loved he was by those who were close to him:
Angry about @aaronsw‘s suicide. So much love for him on the Internet today, did he know?
Larry Lessig, who worked with Swartz on Creative Commons and other projects, has written a post saying what his young friend did with the JSTOR archive was wrong — although the principle may have been right — but that the government’s case against him was reprehensible and over-reaching in the extreme: “Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way.”
According to those who knew him, Swartz believed that it was wrong to charge so much for access to these papers, many of which were produced by academics for free, and in some cases with government funding (Maria Bustillos has a great overview of the case here). And even though JSTOR said it didn’t want to proceed with a case against him (and has since opened up its database — at least a little) the Department of Justice continued with its case, and Swartz faced a potential 35 years in prison.
Just heard about @aaronsw: bit.ly/13oQE2B Rends my heart. Horrible news for all who loved him, and the Net he loved as well.
“I ask that the contents of all my hard drives be made publicly available from aaronsw.com… please update the footer of this page with a link. Also email the relevant lists and set up an autoresponder for my email address to email people who write to me. Feel free to publish things people say about me on the site. Oh, and BTW, I’ll miss you all.”
Web pioneer and Harvard fellow Doc Searls wrote a memorial post for Swartz, along with a picture of him at a conference with Dave Winer — a conference Swartz had to be driven to by his mom, since he was only 15 — and said: “We haven’t just lost a good man, but the better world he was helping to make.”
Alex Macgillivray, general counsel at Twitter and former Google lawyer, said:
“Thank you all for your kind words and thoughts. Aaron has been depressed about his case/upcoming trial, but we had no idea what he was going through was this painful. Aaron was a terrific young man. He contributed a lot to the world in his short life and I regret the loss of all the things he had yet to accomplish. As you can imagine, we all miss him dearly. The grief is unfathomable.”
Microsoft research and sociologist Danah Boyd has written about the boy/man she knew for the past nine years, and how he could be both brilliant and frustrating — but she says the thing that makes her the angriest is how unreasonable his prosecution was: “He became a toy for a government set on showing their strength. And they bullied him and preyed on his weaknesses and sought to break him. And they did.”
Heartbreaking news that my dear friend Aaron Swartz has died at 26. Imaginative, smart about everything, and, best of all, different.
David Weinberger of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society has a post on his blog in which he calls Aaron Swartz not a hacker but “a builder.” And Weinberger points (as many others have) to a post from Alex Stamos, an expert in information technology who was an expert witness in Swartz’s case, who argues that his downloading of JSTOR articles wasn’t a criminal hack: “I know a criminal hack when I see it, and Aaron’s downloading of journal articles from an unlocked closet is not an offense worth 35 years in jail.”
Micah Sifry of TechPresident remembers meeting Aaron in 2004, when he was 18, and being impressed with how dedicated he was: “I don’t know where he got the bug, but I understood it. If you have “change the world” disease, there is only one cure. And he tried mightily to change the world using every tool at his disposal.” And Dan Gillmor argues that we should remember Aaron by working for open society and against government abuses: “So amid my grief for Aaron, I’m angry — and committed to working for honorable enforcement of rational laws, and for values Aaron exemplified in his short life.”
The best tribute we can offer Aaron Swartz is to do what he did at his amazing best: work to expand an open Net and stop govt abuses.
James Grimmelmann, a law professor at New York Law School who knew Swartz well, writes about some of the incredible things that he accomplished at such a young age: “Aaron was a friend, and more than that, he was one of my heroes. No one I have known better embodied the bumper-sticker motto to “be the change you wish to see in the world.” It is hard to believe he is gone.” And Glenn Greenwald writes at The Guardian about what he calls the “inspiring heroism” of Aaron Swartz — he didn’t just talk about internet freedom and civil liberties, Greenwald says, “He repeatedly sacrificed his own interests, even his liberty, in order to defend these values and challenge and subvert the most powerful factions that were their enemies. That’s what makes him, in my view, so consummately heroic.”
A number of academics have tried to honor Swartz’s commitment to open information by making their journal articles free to download. And Quinn Norton, who was Swartz’s girlfriend for a time, has written a heart-wrenching post about their time together here.
Having a debate about the merits and/or disadvantages of newspaper paywalls is nothing new — one seems to break out whenever two or more journalists are in a room together — but not all of them involve a former Dow Jones chief executive, a former Wall Street Journal executive, a current Wall Street Journal managing editor, the president of BuzzFeed and the media reporters for Bloomberg and All Things Digital. Since I got involved in one that did on Sunday afternoon, I thought I would Storify it so others could eavesdrop in a digital sense.
The conversation didn’t actually solve the question of the merits of paywalls, because it’s not the kind of question that has a specific answer — it’s more about the tradeoffs involved, and the effects that subscription plans can have on a content business. But there were some interesting viewpoints expressed and some interesting facts debated, such as the news that charging readers hasn’t improved the advertising picture at the New York Times (something many paywall advocates argued that it would do). The Storify is here, and I also posted an edited version at GigaOM.
I'm a Toronto-based senior writer at the GigaOm blog network, and this is where I write about online media and other things I come across on the Web. Feel free to leave a comment or use the contact form to send me an email. More info at my Google Profile