Twitter, Tiger Beat and Trump: It's The Best Media Writing of the Week

Suddenly The Media Can Perceive Problems at Twitter

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No longer floating on air?
No longer floating on air?

This was the week that the media decided that Twitter warrants a bit of well-placed skepticism, instead of just valuation pumping, delivering some tough analysis of the company's recent stumbles and a trip into darker side of its history. Business Insider's Nicholas Carlson knocked it out of the park with an investigation of Twitter's early days focused on the squeezing out of one of the co-founders -- the guy who seems to have come up with the name -- and on early investors who co-founder Ev Williams bought out of Odeo, the rather aimless-sounding podcasting company Twitter eventually emerged from. (Suckas!) Mr. Carlson, who back in the day did some exemplary work on Facebook's litigious infancy, conducted a long interview with Noah Glass. Mr. Glass comes off as a little sad but also rather calm and thoughtful despite the fame and fortune he's missed out on:

I'm sure you get this impression from the story and I've never really said this before - I did feel betrayed. I felt betrayed by my friends, by my company, by these people around me I trusted and that I had worked hard to create something with.

Afterwards, I was a little shellshocked. I was like, "Wait ... what's the value in building these relationships if this is the result?"

So I spent a lot of time by myself. And working on things alone.

I worked on a game for a while. It didn't really come out the way I wanted it to.

I moved to Los Angeles to work on something totally different. It was an alternative energy system that I had in mind. I built a prototype for that. It just didn't function the way I thought it was going to function.

I've been working on projects that could be something big if they get fleshed out.

Moving back to San Francisco is sort of a step in being involved in collaboration again. It's something I didn't necessarily want to do because of what had transpired. Because of the story you're writing. Collaboration on something where everyone else gets all the credit and all the glory and fame is frustrating. It can be a frustrating experience.

An article from Fortune's Jessi Hempel was more focused on the present, triggered by co-founder Jack Dorsey's return to take over product development. To some, that's problematic because Mr. Dorsey already has what one imagines is a rather time-consuming day job -- he's CEO of the startup Square -- and because the move is the latest in a series of management change-outs, suggesting that the task of figuring out what to do with the maturing microblogging network is a bit of a hot potato. A leveling-off in traffic and a drop-off in innovation in addition to all that means it's time to sharpen the hatchet:

The problem is a board and top executive team that don't always appear to have control of its wide-ranging cast of characters, including founders who have attained near-celebrity status (another co-founder, Biz Stone, is a regular on NPR, and earlier this year Dorsey was profiled in Vanity Fair), headstrong and divisive managers, and investors used to getting their way. For some time Twitter's runaway growth -- in the first half of 2009, Twitter added more users more quickly than almost any web service in history -- masked its execution problems. But now, with growth of traffic to its site slowing and its rivals beefing up (new social-media darling Groupon has raised more than $1 billion, and Facebook has been on a hiring spree), Twitter needs to get its act together or risk losing buzz, potential ad revenue, and its bright future too.

Anyone with a sizable Twitter following and a reasonable grasp on reality knows that many of their followers are actually bots, snippets of code masquerading as living, breathing, tweeting Twitterers. Any confidence that you can tell the difference might evaporate after you read this Atlantic article by Andy Isaacson. It turns out that some researchers from New Zealand ran an experiment in which they tried to get a few bots to fool cat lovers on Twitter. And, guess what -- it worked:

The Kiwis armed JamesMTitus with a database of generic responses ("Oh, that's very interesting, tell me more about that") and designed it to systematically test parts of the network for what tweets generated the most responses, and then to talk to the most responsive people.

After the first week, the teams were allowed to tweak their bot's code and to launch secondary identities designed to sabotage their competitors' bots. One team unleashed @botcops, which alerted users, "You might want to be suspicious about JamesMTitus." In one exchange, a British user confronted the alleged bot: "What do you say @JamesMTitus?" The robot replied obliquely, "Yeah, so true!" The Brit pressed: "Yeah so true! You mean I should be suspicious of you? Or that @botcops should be challenged?" JamesMTitus evaded detection with a vague tweet back -- "Right on bro" -- and acquired 109 followers over two weeks. Network graphs subsequently showed that the three teams' bots had insinuated themselves into the center of the target network.

Newsweek buyer and audio-equipment magnate Sidney Harman wasn't the only media owner to pass this week. The late Tiger Beat founder, Charles Laufer, was, in the middle part of the 20th century, a high-school teacher who wanted to give children something to read. Instead, he gave them Tiger Beat, which covered celebrity culture in the days before paparazzi and snark ruled, and before teenyboppers could occupy their time by dropping thousands of their parents' dollars on the creation of an awful music video that would then get millions upon millions of views. Back in Laufer's day, all they had was enthusiastic punctuation. Douglas Martin's colorful New York Times obituary gives us a look at a simpler time. (Also, here's a Washington Post frolic through the October 1987 issue, for no good reason.)

Exclamation points, sometimes as many as 50 a page, added emphasis. Pix, as pictures were known, were glossy, glamorous and frequently poster-size. Fax, as facts were known, often included "101 things you never knew about (fill in star's name)": he uses a blue toothbrush! Titles were catchy, oddly innocent by later standards: "Shaun: A Junk Food Junkie?," "Leif's Sad Childhood," "Bobby's Favorite Type of Girls" and "Marie: Fighting With Donny?" Mr. Lauder told The Los Angeles Times in 1974 that the newsstand price of Tiger Beat, then 75 cents, was the same as the price of a hot-fudge sundae, and that the magazine probably provided the same dollop of entertainment. He was even clearer in describing his mission in a 1979 interview with Parade magazine: "Let's face it, we're in the little girl business."

Speaking of quotable businessmen, Donald Trump recently showed off his literary chops in a letter to The New York Times that criticized an op-ed column that criticized Mr. Trump's "birther" strategy. Vanity Fair marked the occasion by showing off its own experience with The Donald's media criticism, which took the form of a print-out from the Vanity Fair website marked up by the potential presidential candidate. Sample insight: He scrawled "Bad Writer!" next to the circled byline.

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