#corrected: Fixing your errors on Twitter

I screwed up on Twitter yesterday morning. In the grip of nerd rage over a story about an Apple patent application–and without sufficient caffeine in my body–I tweeted that the Cupertino, Calif., company had received a patent on a feature that had debuted in a third-party app some three years before its 2012 filing.

Delete tweetThe problem was, Apple had only applied for a patent on a text-while-you-walk system that would overlay message conversations on your phone camera’s view of your surroundings. Oops.

So I tweeted something, um, transparently wrong. Now what? I’ve attended more than one panel discussion on this, and the answers usually get stuck on one of two conflicting imperatives: Don’t let the error go unfixed, but don’t look like you’re hiding the mistake either.

(See my earlier post about documenting changes to your story, if necessary in comments you leave yourself.)

Since you can’t edit the incorrect tweet or even flag it as wrong in the way you could amend a flawed story or blog post, letting it stand risks perpetuating the mistake. But if you delete it, then the evidence of your error vanishes.

What I decided to do was to delete the tweet, follow up by saying what I’d gotten wrong, and then redo the original tweet with a reasonably obvious hashtag, #corrected, to indicate that it was a “CX” for an earlier version:

Does that routine work for you all? Or am I once again seriously overthinking something that people with real jobs don’t worry about at all?

In other news, earlier this afternoon I was glad to see that the Ask Patents clearinghouse for prior art will include this Apple filing in an upcoming call for submissions:

 

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So long, Sulia: lessons from an experiment in compressed journalism

My time contributing short updates to the microblogging site Sulia wrapped up unceremoniously Monday morning when an e-mail–”ending our paid arrangement”–landed in my inbox. The site’s pivoting in another direction that doesn’t involve paying for my input or that of what seems to be most other contributors it had signed up (for example, my friend Rocky Agrawal); so it goes.

Sulia compose dialogThe departure of any one freelance client isn’t that big of a deal, but in this case it was a different sort of medium, and I learned some things along the way that seem worth sharing.

The basic idea here was to get paid a little for writing the equivalent of three tweets in a row–a minimum of 700 characters, a maximum of 2,500. On clicking the “Post” button at Sulia, those updates would appear automatically under my name on Twitter and at my public Facebook page–and that’s when I was met with confusion. Readers had no idea what the heck Sulia was or what I was doing there, leading me to post an explanation here after the first three weeks.

It took longer for me to pace myself so that I wouldn’t be rushing to finish my weekly quota of 10 posts in the last hours of Sunday–and to figure out what topics fit best into this pressurized container. In retrospect, holding off on live-tweeting interesting talks so I could post a longer recap on Sulia was a mistake, while it was smarter to use that greater character count to break some local wireless news in slightly more depthdo the cost-of-ownership math for a new smartphone, or recount my experience upgrading an operating system.

Overall, this site filled a useful void in my work by allowing me to share my notes in a medium slightly longer and less evanescent than Twitter while also getting paid (and without having to send an invoice first). I‘m not sure how I’ll replace that.

Among no-payment options, Twitter puts me back in a 140-character box, Facebook and Google+ have enough of my personal business already, LinkedIn seems too business-focused, and as for Medium–well, I already have a blog here. Alas, my WordAds revenue has been so minimal to date that it’s not worth thinking about the potential income from any one extra post.

Or perhaps the Sulia experiment was a mistake all along, and I should have put the time spent crafting those 40-some morsels a month into finding three or four good stories to sell elsewhere. Either way: on to the next thing…

I don’t like sketchy ads either

Almost two years ago, I got invited to join WordPress.com’s WordAds program, and for the most part it’s worked well–aside from these advertisements failing to earn me truckloads of money, as opposed to enough for a nice dinner every now and then.

Walmart voucher adBut a week or so ago, a few of the ads sent here by this program started looking distinctly sketchier. One made diet claims unlikely to survive scrutiny by the Food and Drug Administration, while another made the economically implausible offer of a free $1,000 Walmart voucher. And sometimes the appearance of these ads was followed by one of those spammy pop-up ads for the MacKeeper app–also served by the same Tribal Fusion ad network.

That’s not the “high quality” content WordPress promised when it launched this partnership with Federated Media. So I posted a cranky tweet about it and then followed up with a complaint sent through the appropriate form, saying that “If you don’t kick these garbage advertisers out of WordAds, I’ll drop out of the program.” (That was an easy threat to make, since I don’t have that much money at stake.)

I got a quick acknowledgment saying that my gripe was legitimate, followed the next day by a report that the advertiser had removed the offending items and pledged to clean up its act.

I haven’t seen any objectionable ads since; it appears the system worked. But if you see ads making a pitch that looks dodgy, let me know about it. Bad ads are a Web-wide problem, and the least I can do is not have my little corner of the Web contribute to it.

Side effect of reviewing gadgets: a largely gadget-free Christmas

Since I see so much gadget coverage timed for the holiday season–and have contributed a fair amount of it in the past–I have to assume that normal people give and get gadgets around the holidays.

Present ornament

But I am not normal! I understand why I rarely get the output of the electronics industry as a present; if a friend worked as a chef, I’d feel intimidated trying to buy kitchen gadgets or cookbooks. And as a freelancer, anything that I could use on the job should come out of my budget so it can land as an expense on my Schedule C at tax time.

But I also rarely buy myself gadgets as presents, even when there’d be no reasonable work connection. For that I blame the advent of CES: Knowing that I’m going to get a peek at the next six months to a year of the electronic industry’s handiwork two weeks after Christmas makes me leery of any non-trivial gadget purchases in the month before.

So what do you get for friends or family in the same disreputable profession that still acknowledges their professional interest? Cheap and non-obvious accessories can work. One of the better gadget-related gifts I ever got was a tiny, silicone smartphone stand that attaches to the phone’s back with a suction cup. It’s helped me stage more than a few phone pictures–and as a bonus, our toddler enjoys sticking it on my forehead.

Of you can try to make your gadget-reviewing pal’s business travel a little more pleasant: Figure out what airline he or she flies most often and buy a day pass to its lounges.

Edited 12/14/2013 to remove a stray sentence fragment.

A love letter to XOXO

PORTLAND–If you write for a living, hope and fear are part of the deal. Hope, because you believe your ability to make words appear on a screen in a pleasing sequence will lead other people to give you money. Fear, because you worry that other people will realize you are not all that good at that work, and that other writers can do it for less anyway.

XOXO badgeI spent three days here last weekend at XOXO, a conference staged to lend hope to independent creativity. That was a fairly abstract concept to me three years ago; I was approaching my 17th year at the same employer and had (fraying) ambitions of retiring there.

Then other things happened, I didn’t get another job as I’d expected, and after two and a half years of freelancing full time, my indie existence no longer feels like a fluke.

But it can still feel lonely. So it was tremendously empowering to commune with smart, talented, hard-working people who had taken a similar course, then see some of them testify about it. I kept finding myself nodding vigorously at things I could have said, or wished somebody would have told me a couple of years ago.

Co-organizer Andy Baio opened the event with an introduction that was part release notes explaining how he and co-conspirator Andy McMillan had designed XOXO to function unlike the average corporate conference, part pep talk for those assembled. “It’s about making new things and putting them out in the world,” he said. “That takes a unique kind of bravery.”

Cartoonist Erika Moen evocatively recalled her own I-think-I’ve-gotten-somewhere moment: “I’m self-employed. I’m creating. I’m in love. I’m happy.” In my notes, those sentences are set off with one all-caps prefix: THIS.

Musician Jack Conte provided a succinct description of the basic business problem for any freelancer–or, for that matter, any newspaper: “You have to make good stuff and convert it into money.”

One of my favorite talks came from musician Jonathan Coulton (longtime readers may recall his guest spot on my Post podcast, the audio of which has apparently gone down the bit bucket). He spoke bluntly about his moments of self-doubt–”there are times when I say to myself, I wonder if I have ever done anything that’s really good?”–but also showed a cheery defiance of standard-issue career advice.

“Don’t let anybody tell you that there’s A Thing you have to do to make this work,” he said before a slide reading “Be a Snuggie,” “You’re doing it right,” and “Fuck ‘em.” Instead: “Here is the only metric you need to care about…. Is what you’re doing making you more happy or less happy?”

And Cabel Sasser, co-founder of the Mac software firm Panic, Inc., gave a wonderfully human recounting–who among us has not sometimes thought, “I needed to file a bug report on myself”?–about what it meant to keep his company independent.

What if it fails spectacularly after he’d passed up a lucrative exit? What if it slowly sputters out? I liked his answer: “You won’t know the end until it ends, so let’s fill the middle with as many amazing plot twists as we can.”

The other part of XOXO that lit up my brain was the other people I was able to meet there. Baio and McMillan’s attempts to limit the audience to people who made things, their  exhortations to say hi to whoever’s next to you, and the inevitable random conversations while waiting in line at the food trucks outside the Yale Union building all made this one of the more welcoming spaces I’ve occupied.

Many Internet-famous individuals are jerks, but I did not meet any jerks at XOXO. I was particularly delighted to meet people I hadn’t seen in months or years, or had only known as usernames in Twitter, e-mail addresses in my inbox or a remote voice on the same radio show. You know who you are; hope to see you again soon.

Sorry, no iPhone review this week

PORTLAND–This may not be the kind of thing I should admit in public, but I am, uh, not reviewing the iPhone 5s or even the 5c for anybody. Things just didn’t work out: One client felt the new models would be covered to death everywhere else, another was holding out hope that Apple would loan a review unit to one of their staff writers, and then I ran out of time to conjure up other options in a week loaded with two conferences in two states.

PDX Apple Store iPhone sign

So that’s how my ambitions of repeating last year’s strategy–where I bought an iPhone 5 and wrote up my findings for two sites before returning it two weeks later–did not pan out. (Fellow tech journalists: Buying and then returning review hardware can be a wonderfully liberating workaround for slow or unresponsive PR departments. Try it sometime!)

I can’t say that I minded not having to run over to some PDX-area AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile store yesterday morning–and possibly find them already out of stock of the 5s–or wait hours at the Apple Store downtown. Even at 9:30 this morning, there was a line waiting outside that shop.

And it’s been pleasant to be able to focus on the XOXO conference here instead of mentally unplugging from it to crank out a review or two.

But beyond the feeling that I’m committing a tech-journalism foul by not holding forth on a new iPhone, I’m personally curious about the 5s. I want to see how the Touch ID fingerprint sensor works, and if the camera represents that big of an improvement over the iPhone 5 camera’s output. Fortunately, a friend on Facebook already made the mistake of bragging about how great Touch ID has been on his new iPhone. He’ll be hearing from me not long after I return to D.C.

Unsubsidized words on subsidized travel

Two summers ago, I got an intriguing travel offer in my e-mail that had the added benefit of not being spam: Would I be interested in an expenses-paid trip to Berlin to cover the IFA electronics trade show?

I'm not used to having my country listed on these things. USA! USA!I’d already gotten interested in IFA after reading some of Harry McCracken’s coverage of the 2011 show, and the prospect of having anybody else pay for my travel certainly got my attention. In two years of full-time freelancing, I’ve yet to have a client reimburse airfare or hotel costs.

But being possessed by Catholic guilt, I replied to the sender (a publicist working with the ShowStoppers PR firm that runs IFA’s U.S. outreach) that I’d have to check with my regular editors to see if they’d object.

To my surprise, their responses ranged from “Should be fine” to “say hello to my old haunts!” So I took the mostly-free trip–I paid miles and cash to upgrade to business class on the flight over,  then the subsidy didn’t cover all of the high-end hotel the organizers had booked–filled my notebook, and learned a great deal about the non-U.S. gadget business that’s since informed my coverage back here.

I was also surprised to see the company I had in Berlin that year and again earlier this month after I accepted the same offer. The contingent of maybe two dozen U.S. journalists included full-time staffers for tech-news hubs like ZDNet, PCMag.com, TechNewsDaily and SlashGear as well as freelancers whose outlets include the likes of CBS and the New York Times–not some scruffy bunch of junket-grabbing hacks, in other words. And I got a lot out of comparing notes with writers I’d only known before through Twitter.

Were I still at the Post, none of that would have happened. The career-limiting move wouldn’t have been getting turned down after requesting permission to take a travel stipend–it would have been my being a jerk for asking in the first place. And even as a freelancer, I can’t sell to some places under these circumstances. My occasional client Ars Technica turned down my offer to file something from the show.

I recognize that letting somebody besides an employer or client pay for my travel can look bad. But I think there’s a meaningful difference between a company I cover paying for a flight or a hotel so I can go write something about its event or product, and the money coming from a third party organizing or sponsoring an event.

The first case looks a lot worse to me and would be harder to explain to readers, so I’ve declined the few invitations I’ve received so far. (Two digital camera vendors wanted me to try out their new hardware in scenic settings, and a couple of tech companies offered to cover travel costs to attend events in New York.)

I’m not going to say first-party travel subsidies are always an ethical foul. Cranky Flier blogger Brett Snyder, my favorite chronicler of commercial aviation, covers an industry in which the product can come with a four- or five-digit price tag; his way of dealing with that conflict is to disclose not just the subsidized trips he’s taken but the ones he’s declined. I continue to trust his work.

You can also argue that third-party subsidies are economically indistinguishable from Samsung or Google writing a check. But if you start looking at how money flows in the tech-news business, you’ll never stop–who do you think buys the ads that support tech-news sites? Besides, I already write for a blog sponsored by a tech trade association and before that contributed to a much larger tech lobby’s blog; turning down organizer-paid travel wouldn’t make me any less guilty under that argument.

Transparency is an overrated response to situations like this but still necessary. My disclosures page breaks down my sources of income but also notes speaking fees and paid travel I’ve picked up (usually for participating in one panel discussion or another). But I also remember that if I’m not going to find enough news or networking when I arrive to keep me busy, it’s not worth being apart from my family.

Edited 11/18/2013 to clarify what I see as the difference between a company directly paying for me to cover its event or product and an organizer or sponsor paying travel costs.

Potential exposure is not forced exposure

One of the foremost foes of intellectual-property extortion is shutting down. Groklaw founder and editor Pamela Jones announced this morning in a post, titled “Forced Exposure,” that the possibility of NSA surveillance of her e-mail means she can’t trust e-mail as a means of collaborative input, and therefore the blog must end.

Groklaw signoffThey tell us that if you send or receive an email from outside the US, it will be read. If it’s encrypted, they keep it for five years, presumably in the hopes of tech advancing to be able to decrypt it against your will and without your knowledge. Groklaw has readers all over the world.

This news bothers me deeply–because Groklaw has provided an immense public service in collecting and presenting evidence of grotesque IP abuse such as the SCO Group’s prolonged and mendacious attempt to claim copyright over code in the Linux operating system, and because I don’t like finding fault with somebody whose work I and so many other people admire.

But look: Potential exposure is not forced exposure. Or if it is, it’s always been there. Yes, the NSA might be reading my e-mail and PJ’s. But keyloggers planted by the Russian mob might be reading it too. The NSA might have the ability to crack PGP encryption in five years–or they could have had it all along and haven’t told us, or they could decide to ignore that five-year timeline. Your own computer might be airtight, but what about the machines of all your correspondents? For that matter, how can you be sure you’ve maintained your privacy offline without going into Kaczysnki-esque seclusion?

If your reaction to those possibilities is to declare that all is lost and that you should “get off the Internet to the degree that it’s possible,” as PJ wrote in this morning’s post, then how are you not tumbling into the same existential fear that the defenders of the surveillance state sometimes seem to think is the right and proper state of a compliant citizenry?

I don’t know PJ (friends whose judgment I trust do and profess a deep respect for her) and only have a vague notion of what her life has been like running Groklaw (it’s entailed being the target of an unhealthy dose of character assassination). But with my limited knowledge I can’t endorse her stance. I wish she’d at least found somebody else to run the site: While we’re having this hypothetical discussion, very real copyright and patent extortion is going on, and Groklaw was doing a damn good job of exposing it.

Corrections and changes can’t be clandestine

In the bad old days of paper-only journalism, you couldn’t change the text in an already-printed story, but at least newspapers almost always ran the correction in the same spot (usually, a box on A2 quietly dreaded by all in the newsroom). We’ve now flipped around the problem: It’s trivially easy to fix a story that’s already online, but you can no longer count on getting notice that it was corrected.

WordPress update buttonAnd while I’d much rather see stories get updated early and often to fix mistakes and incorporate breaking news, to do so without telling the reader you changed them is… kind of a lie. It suggests that you never made any mistakes in the piece when you really did. And since somebody will always notice the change, if not take a screengrab of the original copy, you risk trust rot setting in among readers.

Ideally, the content-management systems in use at news sites would automatically time-stamp each update and let readers browse older versions, as you can with the “View history” button on any good wiki. But some three years after online-journalism pioneer Scott Rosenberg urged just that and heralded the arrival of a WordPress plug-in to automate public revision tracking, I see few sites following that practice. More often, the bad copy goes down the memory hole.

If you run your own site, the lack of built-in version-browsing can’t stop you from telling readers you changed the copy–just strikethrough the offending text if it’s a minor fix or add a date- or time-stamped note to the end of the piece calling out the correction. (Since WordPress.com doesn’t provide a way for readers to compare revisions like what blog admins get in the editing interface, that’s what I do here.) That’s also how I handle things at the few freelance clients that allow me to sign into their CMS.

What do you do if you lack that access and a “CX” might otherwise go unremarked? Here’s my fix: Once your editor updates your post, leave a comment on it, linked back to a page or social-media account publicly recognized as you, that notes the error and the correction. Readers may not see that comment, especially if some relevance algorithm hides it by default, but at least you’ve documented the change in the closest possible spot to the original mistake.

Where’s a conference-scheduling cabal when you need one?

The tech-and-media hive mind has not been doing the best job this year of keeping its own events straight.

Overlapping eventsTake last month. I realized only after I’d booked my travel and made arrangements with multiple editors to cover CEA’s CE Week conference in New York that it shared two days with the great Computers, Freedom & Privacy event in D.C.–and just in time for the first rounds of NSA-snooping revelations to get people chattering away at the latter event. Oops.

In September, the pan-European IFA electronics trade show in Berlin barely avoids overlapping TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco. I got a lot out of covering both last year, but this time I’d have to hop on a pre-dawn flight out of Dulles the day after returning from Berlin. No thanks.

(Disclosure: IFA covered much of the travel costs for me and a large group of U.S. journalists last year and plans to do the same this year. But if I had to self-finance either trip, I don’t know that my choice would differ: I’d have an easier time selling stories out of Berlin than in the Bay Area, surrounded by half the tech media in America. Plus, Disrupt isn’t the only big pitch conference that time of year.)

In October, the Demo conference in Santa Clara, Calif., runs through the first day of the Online News Association’s annual conference. And that has swapped last year’s San Francisco venue for one in Atlanta. I could take a red-eye after Demo wraps up and only miss a third and change of ONA–not counting time spent nodding off the afternoon of my arrival–but then I’d eat that much of the value of my registration fee. (Had my ONA panel proposal been accepted, I could go for free, but that’s neither here nor there.)

I realize these calendar constraints fall well within the realm of first-world problems, and that aside from grandstanding product launches, event organizers have to book times and places many months in advance. But if we can’t have an actual cabal to restore order to the conference universe, isn’t this the kind of market inefficiency that ambitious dot-coms should be itching to fix disrupt with some buzzword-compliant online mechanism?

All kidding aside, I do need to decide which places get a spot on my October schedule by July 15, when ONA’s early-bird pricing ends: Santa Clara, Atlanta or both. What would you do?

(7/13: Realized I had missed an opportunity to use the verb “disrupt” and take a swipe at those overblown product-launch events that tech companies, perhaps under the delusion that they are all Apple, have been staging increasingly often.)