Best Media Writing of the Week

Revolutions Can't Be Tweeted and Trent Reznor Can't Use Facebook, but We Can Crowdsource Pot Prices

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"Often, information is what people want; they don't care whether it's called journalism."

The above quote is evidence that lucidity can come from unexpected places, even in-depth articles profiling tiny websites about no less a hazy subject than the going price of marijuana. Steve Myers, whose piece "How 'PriceOfWeed' Uses the Crowd to Fill an Illicit Information Gap" for the Poynter journalism institute's website, looked this week at a crowdsourced structured database called The Price of Weed, which strives to bring some transparency to the market for pot. The site was founded by a couple guys called Andy and Cory who would seem to be the dialectical resolution of Woodward and Bernstein meeting Cheech and Chong. For whatever reason, they were skeptical about reported prices in the mainstream media and in just a few weeks have accumulated about 10,000 data points from users, proof that even the most red-eyed, cotton-mouthed crowds can shake off their munchy shackles, mobilize and provide financial information.

Speaking of getting involved, Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker article on the limits of Twitter and Facebook as organizing tools for social movements earned him a ton of knee-jerk opposition, as well as some thoughtful criticism of how he employs the sociological concept of weak ties. Nevertheless, to my mind, it's useful to throw a bit of cold water on all the overheated talk about how social media will save the world, even if looking at today's armchair activism next to the very real protests of the civil rights movement wasn't the best-chosen comparison:

Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell Credit: Brooke Williams
A spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition told Newsweek, "We wouldn't necessarily gauge someone's value to the advocacy movement based on what they've given. This is a powerful mechanism to engage this critical population. They inform their community, attend events, volunteer. It's not something you can measure by looking at a ledger." In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice. We are a long way from the lunch counters of Greensboro.

Michael Idov's well-written profile of Nick Denton in New York magazine didn't break all that much new ground, except maybe around the Gawker proprietor's private life, pushing a bit into his childhood and his early career as a muckraking financial reporter. I still can't help but think the definitive profile of Mr. Denton has yet to be published, but this will do in the meantime. Most provocatively, Mr. Idov's piece explained how the sickness of Denton's mother and the 9/11 terrorist attacks made for a miserable 2001, setting the stage for the launch of Gawker the following year.

He needed a new gig, and to get out of San Francisco. He whipped up a spreadsheet and did an analysis of places to live in, assigning weighted scores to such categories as "old friends," "business opportunities," "Hungarians," "Jews," "hotter guys," and "nature." (The last one accounted for little.) Then, rationality be damned, he tweaked the inputs until New York came out on top. He moved here in the summer of 2002.... On October 5, 2002, Nick Denton registered the domain Gawker.com. Its administrative contact was a low-tax offshore company in Budapest, called Blogwire Hungary Szellemi Alkotast Hasznosito. The last three words translate as "Intellectual Property Exploitation."

The title of Martin Robbins' send-up of science journalism conventions for The Guardian says it all: "This is a news website article about a scientific paper." An intensely meta-project, the post gets at the intellectual laziness that's infected so much writing about research. Example: "If the subject is politically sensitive this paragraph will contain quotes from some fringe special interest group of people who, though having no apparent understanding of the subject, help to give the impression that genuine public "controversy" exists." Some of the comments taking the same tack are clever, too:

"This is a quickly fired off ill-thought-out-comment after reading the standfirst [an introduction often written by an editor, not the actual writer], in which I state an ignorant but unshakable belief of mine that is only partially related to the article, which I haven't read, and a passive aggressive ad hom to the author."

The piece follows one we called out in last week's Best Media Writing, a Discover critique of weak journalism presenting itself as objective reporting, especially about science.

We end with Trent Reznor talking about the music industry and social media to Mashable. For a guy whose cultural value post-1999 should be nil, Mr. Reznor's been adept at keeping himself relevant: playing with different distribution models, getting on Twitter, getting off Twitter, scoring "The Social Network," etc. In this interview, he shows that even if his head is like a hole, it's filled with a big brain. Here he is explaining about why he quit Twitter and here's wishing some other celebs would take heed:

I can't participate as a civilian because I have a level of celebrity that makes me not able to use Facebook in the way that someone who's not a celebrity can use it. I watch people, friends of mine, and see how they portray themselves online and I find interesting that it's kind of a hyper-real version of yourself, how you'd like to be seen, in a way. And I question the generation or two coming up who are used to engaging people in that format and wonder what the repercussions will be down the road -- how human relationships will differ in an age of oversharing.

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