"The Recline and Fall of Western Civilization"

Dan Kois, Slate:

The woman sitting in front of me on this plane seems perfectly nice. She, like me, is traveling coach class from Washington to Los Angeles. She had a nice chat before takeoff with the man sitting next to her, in which she revealed she is an elementary school teacher, an extremely honorable profession. She, like me, has an aisle seat and has spent most of the flight watching TV. Nevertheless, I hate her.

Why? She’s a recliner.

Continuing Slate's near-monthly trend of delving into the world of bizarre/counterintuitive/pointless arguments, Dan Kois has today chosen to heroically (i.e., bafflingly) attack reclining seats on planes.

(Also, before you ask, the answer is "Yes." That is the actual headline Slate ran for the article.)

Although Kois' article isn't anywhere near as bad as Henry Blodget's Internet-ruining live-blog of traveling economy on an international flight — which, incidentally, I refuse to link to — I will say that I find this trend to be woefully embarrassing.

Somewhere beneath the link-bait headline and surrealist tone, there's likely an interesting — albeit trite — point to be made about the state of modern airlines. And yet, due to the nature of the publication, such valuable content has been washed over with a deliberately alarmist piece designed to incite responses such as this, mindless agreement in the comments, and a general rise in self-entitlement in the American populace.

We've collectively glossed over the value of a balanced dialog in favor of sporadically yelling controversial things into an audience of buzz-snorting readers. Perhaps it's funny at times. Perhaps it's even relieving to see people take themselves a little less seriously on the Internet. But, at the end of the day, it's realistically just poor writing combined with poorly formed arguments. And I'm growing increasingly tired of it.

Digital Publishing Breaks 50% of Wired's Revenues

Nat Ives, Ad Age:

Digital contributed half of all ad revenue at Wired magazine in the final three months of 2012, a first for the title and an encouraging sign for an industry where most big brands still rely overwhelmingly on the difficult business of print. Across the year as a whole, digital ads comprised 45% of total ad sales at Wired.

Digital advertising contributed to about 10% of Wired ad revenue in 2006, when parent company Condé Nast bought Wired.com and reunited it with the magazine, according to Howard Mittman, VP-publisher at Wired.

Heaping upon the recent pile of digital publishing news, it appears that Wired has also found great financial success in its digital endeavors in the final months of 2012.

Given Wired's target audience, however, the results are hardly surprising. The magazine panders toward an early-adopting crowd of technologists, people who are well-inclined toward digital publishing and mobile readership.

Nevertheless, the numbers are promising, particularly in light of The Atlantic's recent successes. (It is worth noting, though, that Wired's digital revenues are significantly lower than those of The Atlantic. Perhaps an apt illustration of the problems inherent to Condé Nast's publishing model.)

Without belaboring the point, I'll say again, 2013 is going to be an enormous year for publishers. Perhaps the most important year in the past decade.

'The Atlantic' Set to Experiment With Pay Models in 2013

Jeff Bercovici, Forbes:

The Atlantic is two things every legacy publishing company would like to be: profitable and more reliant on digital advertising revenues than on print. But while that may have been good enough in 2012, for 2013 the magazine has a new goal: to get more readers paying, in some form, for digital-only access to its journalism.

Coinciding with the highly-publicized news of Andrew Sullivan's exodus from The Daily BeastThe Atlantic has vaguely shared its intentions to dabble with a variety of digital publishing models in the coming year.

The Atlantic has undergone somewhat of a renaissance in recent years, the shift fueled by the increasing acceptability of long-form, intelligent commentary online. Having only left a paywall model two years ago, The Atlantic is evidently hoping to capitalize upon a mobile-driven landscape, whilst also gleaning higher revenue from its larger audience.

The move, more than anything else, demonstrates a newfound sense of optimism for the sustainability of digital publishing. Unlike several years ago, publishers are no longer blindly grappling for some semblance of profitability from an anarchic environment of freely accessible content. Instead, coaxed by the perceived success of The New York Times in the space, publishers both old and new are emerging with forward-thinking, novel, and sometimes endearing methods for financial sustainability and long-term success.

The writing has been on the wall for a long time, and it appears that 2013 is going to be characterized largely by a widespread shift in digital publishing. Readers worldwide have expressed their discontent with the bloated and outmoded methods employed by Condé Nast, instead praising publications such as The Atlantic and, to a far lesser extent, the minimalism of The Magazine.

The latter half of 2012 saw a rapid uptick in the attention paid toward publishing and I suspect it's now time for the publishers to begin showing their hands for the coming year. Although the specifics of The Atlantic's intended experiments are unclear, I cannot help but feel optimistic for the shifting state of the industry.

As a writer, we're on the precipice of a belated and well-needed disruption of publishing. As a businessperson, we're on the cusp of an overdue improvement in the economics of writing.

In both lights, it's an exciting time for the industry and I look forward expectantly for some altogether new and different methods toward success.

Instagram Reverts to Original Terms, World Apparently Ending Again

Bryan Bishop, reporting for The Verge:

Despite the public reaction, it's important to note that some of the changes Instagram suggested were actually improvements, outlining what the company could do in narrow, specific terms. The proposed tweaks made it very clear that advertisers, for example, couldn't just stick their logo on one of your photos and use it as an Instagram ad. The language the company's going back to is so broad that such use isn't out of the realm of possibility — and in that sense today's development is actually a loss for users. That's to say nothing of the rather gaping transparency hole left in the "Rights" section: a line that states Instagram never has to directly identify advertisements or sponsored content to users in the first place.

I promised myself that I was done with my coverage of the Instagram debacle, but this development is just an unavoidable conglomeration of embarrassing reporting, hyperbole, baited headlines, and misinformation. 

For full effect, let's recap the chronological events surrounding Instagram from this past week:

  1. On Monday, December 17, Instagram announced that it was making overdue updates to its Terms of Service (last updated in October, 2010). In the announcement, little was said aside from a statement of reassurance over photo ownership rights. Importantly, these changes were scheduled to go into effect on January 16, 2013 — not immediately.
  2. Upon noticing the changes, armchair lawyers began to pore over the minute intricacies of the legal document. Noticing vague statements about advertising and rights, journalists tripped over themselves to cast the most negative spin on the harmless legal stipulations. Because, well, Facebook? Something like that, anyway.
  3. The following day, having presumably finished banging his head squarely against a wall for 24 hours, Nilay Patel surfaced with an article utterly dispelling all of the hyperbole, misplaced negativity, and general lack of comprehension surrounding the Terms of Service. Patel assured Instagram users that the Terms of Service was not, in fact, the harbinger of the Mayan apocalypse, but actually a fairly reasonable improvement upon the preceding document.
  4. Almost simultaneously, the most long-form article taking advantage of the situation was published by Wired. Meanwhile, at about this moment, average users of Instagram were reposting wistful, sepia-toned screenshots of the offending portions of the Terms of Service. Others took to Twitter to opine about what Instagram's "suicide note" meant for Flickr and 500px.
  5. Soon after Patel's article was published, Kevin Systrom, Instagram co-founder and CEO, took to the Instagram Blog to make an official statement. Clarifying the new rules, Systrom explained that the questionable statements actually disallowed advertisers from appropriating photographs, amongst other things.
  6. The following day, Wednesday, December 19, the matter was mostly over with. Snarky bloggers, myself included, took the opportunity to deride the repeated tendency toward the fear-mongering displayed by large-scale publications and armchair professionals, but little more was to be said.
  7. Today, Friday, December 21, however, Kevin Systrom has posted a further update to the Instagram Blog announcing that the company will be reverting to its October, 2010 Terms of Service. In doing so, it's Systrom's stated intention that he and his company will solidify monetization plans before introducing updated legal terms. This will allow users to truly comprehend the extent of the company's plans without any guesswork.

Now, mere days after journalists were inaccurately babbling about the misperceived dangers of the new terms, Bryan Bishop has proudly announced that reverting to the old Terms of Service is dangerous. Granted, Bishop is a writer for The Verge — the source of the initial salvo of legally-justified rationale earlier this week — but the tone rings resoundingly poorly with me.

Instagram, confronted by thousands upon thousands of misled users, was forced into a public relations nightmare. This was largely incited by a core grouping of alarmist journalists who spend their days twitching over "BREAKING" macros and publish buttons. Given the circumstance, however, it's understandable why the news spread so quickly. We're in the midst of a slow news cycle and some sort of harmful stipulations from a Facebook property were far too good to pass up, let alone allow dozens of other publications to publish without doing the same.

But, today, after all that we've been through, we once again see a publication attempting to cast a negative spin onto something temporary and harmless. An action which, less than three days ago, users and journalists were both clamoring for.

Yes, we're aware that the new Terms of Service was, after all, a significant improvement upon its predecessor. But, at the same time, the mere fact that such panic could've been prompted by basic language suggests that there is plenty of room for clarity and revision. In other words, there is plenty of due cause and logic beneath a decision to hold off on a Terms of Service revision — which was not scheduled to become active until mid-January — until the language and purpose can be fully articulated.

As of writing, Bishop's article, "Instagram reverts terms of service after public outcry, makes them arguably worse," is sitting atop The Verge's featured articles on the front page. With a ludicrously misleading and controversy-laden headline, a matter-of-fact pull quote, "Today's news is actually a loss for users," and a tiny admission at the end of the article that, of course, Instagram has weeks to offer new language before its current changeover date, the whole article sits extremely poorly with me.

The message to be taken away from this is simple: Instagram is actively pursuing clarity in its Terms of Service. Furthermore, Systrom has a desire to fully develop the company's monetization plan before enacting any further policy changes. In English, that means Instagram is still on the same trajectory, it has the same terms as it has for two years without offending you, and it's attempting to ensure clarity and accountability for its users.

I'm not saying that the as-yet-unseen document Instagram is drafting will be good. Equally, I'm not saying that Instagram's monetization method will be gracious and without offense. I'm simply highlighting the fact that Instagram's moves — when you strip away the media-driven hyperbole and spin — make perfect sense. The new terms, if they'd gone unnoticed or without outrage, would've benefitted us as users. Conversely, the old terms which we've lived under for two years — and continue to live under today — will surely be acceptable for a little longer. Adding clarity to a user-benefitting document and displaying accountability for perceived mistakes is an unquestionably good thing.

Publications are invariably going to continue to dodge the blame for their gross inaccuracies earlier this week and Instagram's retraction is likely going to be fuel to reach that end. But, given all that we've learned this week, perhaps we can survive one day without breaking out the Internet crisis weapons and hyperbole.

There's really nothing to see here.

Armchair Lawyers Surprisingly Proven Wrong?

Mat Honan, writing for Wired:

I think there’s a reasonable middle position. I believe Instagram should be able to make money. Facebook telegraphed that something like this was coming just last week, and my reaction at the time was “good.” I was happy that Instagram had a revenue model. It isn’t a charity. And companies that don’t make money are doomed to fail. Facebook paid a lot of damn money to buy Instagram, and it’s natural to want some return on that.
Yet I also believe it’s wrong to take people’s photos – out of context – for use in advertisements. With no way to opt out.

Yesterday afternoon, as our collective hyperventilation over Instagram reached its peak, a number of articles were published with what can be described, at best, as unfortunate timing. Mat Honan, for instance, sought to take advantage of the situation and lead an ethical stand against Instagram in a post entitled, 'Why I Quit Instagram.'

Perhaps if Wired had published the article a little earlier, the concluding statement — cited above — would've impacted with slightly more seriousness. Instead, Honan's article arrived just as the Internet's resident legal policeman, Nilay Patel, had unravelled much of the hyperbole surrounding Instagram's Terms of Use language.

Heaping further soil onto the fire, Kevin Systrom then wrote a formal response to the public outcry over its boilerplate legal language on the Instagram Blog.

Now, Honan obviously wasn't the only person to fully buy into this now-defunct crisis, but his article certainly demonstrates a point: people on the Internet need to understand that the nature of digital business is maturing. The Internet in its glory days was, contrary to popular belief, uncontrolled anarchy. Creating a successful business was not so much an art as it was simply throwing together a webpage and hoping people found it.

Today, in order to succeed — and to continue to succeed — there are inevitably going to be increasingly limiting and onerous implications upon privacy, amongst innumerable other factors. Such is the nature of legal diction when covering a variety of non-threatening matters in an ever-evolving sphere of innovation.

Rather than rushing to call your signature "bullshit" judgment (Oh, look at how controversial you are!) or incite a premature ethical response to something you fundamentally do not understand, perhaps it'd be best for all of us to collectively wait until someone with some pertinent experience might explain the situation.

Over this past week, amidst a slow news cycle, Twitter has become much more of an echo chamber than normal. Whether it's discussions of gun control, privacy policies, or mental health, virtually everyone seems to have come out of the woodwork with ill-informed and woefully self-righteous perspectives. Such is the nature of a highly-curated list of people you're willing to engage with.

Unlike the exponentially more serious issues of gun control and mental health, however, Instagram has proven to be a point of resounding embarrassment for an enormous portion of armchair professionals. Having spent the better part of 24 hours fetching pitchforks and flammable liquids, suddenly rationality and reason returned to the scene leaving countless commentators pale-faced and clamoring for excuses.

As of writing, the "Update" above Honan's post states in full:

Update: Instagram said they’re “listening”, stating that “The language we proposed also raised question about whether your photos can be part of an advertisement.” That question was raised because the terms of service language said very explicitly that photos could be used as part of anadvertisement. I appreciate the update, and Instagram’s willingness to communicate — and I’m listening. But the company still hasn’t really said anything. Without a clear commitment on its end, I’m not making a clear commitment either: In short, I still want options.

Although I appreciate that there is, indeed, further to go in the matter, Honan's update rings false to me. Simply put, Honan was swept up in the hype of a situation he didn't fully comprehend. Of course, he wasn't alone, but I think it serves as a glimmering endorsement of shutting up, getting out of the way, and reserving judgment until you have all the facts in hand.

The slow Holiday news cycle has been a repeated lesson in the pitfalls of hastened journalism and opinion-making. But, more than anything else, we've again witnessed just how fearful people can be of things they do not fully understand. Although I don't expect that to be rectified, it'd be nice if we might all begin to hold these writers accountable for inciting such outrage over matters they themselves do not grasp.