“Tech news is so phenomenally boring!” said Gawker‘s Adrian Chen, in the classically confrontational, controversial style of the site.
And oh how it’s true. Tech news is boring. Every minute Apple rumor is reported in detail. In fact, each tiny little upgrade or tidbit of info about any hot company – Google, Twitter, Facebook – is talked about endlessly, even if it isn’t particularly relevant. Silly wars between companies and their fans dominate news feeds, and it all amounts to a lot of nothing.
As for who’s to blame, it’d be easy to blame readers, who lap up every detail in droves. But there’s another factor here: the free market, which every tech site on earth celebrates like it were religion. Yes, sure, the free market is what drives tech innovation. But the free market mentality of ‘people simply act on their interests’ is damaging tech news – and we all suffer for it.
Jerry Springerization of tech
What irks me here, though only ever so slightly, is that Chen is essentially telling people what they should find interesting. People are interested in Facebook and in the iPad. Should they not be because it’s not as important as the potential collapse of the economy if the debt ceiling isn’t raised?
Maybe people should stop having any interests.
What an incredibly oblivious, self-serving response. Siegler’s argument here is that people are simply interested in what they’re interested in, so if they click, things are working as they should. The trouble is that it assumes two completely incorrect things: that people have limitless choice over what they click on; and secondly, that people’s interests are their own.
Both are false because tech media is part of the process by which people’s interests are created. Furthermore, that process is itself part of a bigger one that determines, for example, that most people care more about Apple than a famine in Somalia. Tech news helps determine the conversation.
It’s not simply that there is only room for reporting on one story – Somalia or Apple, pick one – but that our choices as consumers are just that: consumer choices. So the media must continue to push easily digestible nuggets that come in a constant stream. News about Apple, Facebook, Twitter etc. isn’t simply news, it is part of marketing. It is part of what drives demand. So for Siegler to suggest that people are simply interested in what they’re interested in is to ignore his role in creating those interests.
That’s the flaw in the free market argument about tech news: it’s an attempt to say “oh people are just hyped up about Apple” while ignoring that it is the media itself that is part of that hype machine.
Addicted to the stream
But part of understanding all this is about how the internet and tech news produces a stream of information – a stream that some people say we are becoming addicted to.
Yet, Mathew Ingram, a man with whom I usually agree, recently wrote that if he’s ‘addicted’ to the internet, so what?
I’d be the first person to admit that I feel anxious when I am not online — in part because it’s how I do my job, but also because it is an almost endless source of interesting information about the world. I wrote recently about how disconnected and powerless I felt when my iPhone stopped working (I even used the “missing limb” analogy), but that’s because my phone allows me to do useful things, like figuring out where I am, or taking photos and sharing them with people. Does that mean I’m addicted to doing those things? Not really. And even if I am, I don’t mind.
Here’s why I disagree. That stream of useful things is bound up in the whole process of tech news: it’s useful to have mobile RSS, Twitter etc. to get new information so that one might quickly blog about it. Now, Ingram isn’t guilty of this, as his pieces are usually insightful and smart, but the same can’t be said of most tech news. It’s just ‘there’. It’s just fluff. And it’s driven by the economic symbiosis of tech news and tech – they feed into each other. To say that the stream is inherently good is to, I’d argue, ignore the economic processes at work behind the stream – forces that aren’t always working in our best interest.
Tech and its economic addiction
If tech news is to be less boring, less focused on meaningless minutiae, at some point it has to acknowledge that it itself feeds into the fetishisation of new gadgets. And for it to stop doing that, it has to write critically about tech companies, ignore baseless rumors and, quite simply, have a higher standard for what constitutes news.
After all, what sites like GigaOM, Wired and others prove is that people are willing to read smart tech news that isn’t just dumb fluff about, oh, an iPad app that the vast majority of Facebook users won’t care about.
And if it doesn’t change? Well, then we’ll just get more sites like Techcrunch.