January 19, 2008

Mashable Uses A-List Power to Steal B-List Buzz

In the tech blogosphere, there's a clear delineation between those who are actively creating the news (the developers, engineers, and business people), those who are reporting the news (those blogs who follow journalism standards and do actual reporting) and those who simply follow along - either by referencing other people's work, or simply duplicating it. Mashable, billing itself as the #1 social networking news site on the Web, falls almost exclusively in that third camp.

Over the last few weeks, I've been at times shaking my head as I've seen the site's reporters deliver an absolute minimum of original reporting, underdeliver on giving credit to those finding the news first, and in one blatant example, stealing quotes from a story I had written, without giving attribution, and not making edits when notified.

Mashable is one of the big names in the blogosphere, ranking #8 overall, according to Technorati. The site has achieved this ranking through an army of reporters who deliver a high number of stories around the clock. While the stories themselves don't often gain a high number of comments, and don't usually offer new information that couldn't be found elsewhere on the Web, the sheer volume has made them a must-subscribe tech news filter for many subscribed to their RSS feed. (Myself included)

Due to Mashable's popularity, the site very often gains credit for finding a story, when in fact it was almost always found first somewhere else. And the site's design and story templates favor giving the original source of the story as little credit as possible - often tucked away, so well-meaning repeaters of Mashable's news miss it altogether. This month, I've been burned by this a number of times, as you can see:

#1: The ReadBurner Discovery and Launch

On Monday, January 7th, I was the first to uncover ReadBurner's development, in a story, "ReadBurner, In Stealth Mode, Looking to Sort Shared Feed Items". I found the site, did as much research as I could about it, and summarized my findings. After I had traded multiple e-mails with the site's developer, Alexander Marktl, I posted a follow-on note, ReadBurner's Unplanned Big First Day Shows Real Promise.

Later that night, Mashable posted a story, "ReadBurner: Google Shared Items Memetracker", which noted my finding the story, and linked my way, but the reporter oddly acted as if they had been aware of the site's being developed, saying, "Readburner is a site that has been playing at the edges of my feeds for several weeks now. I think I vaguely remember submitting my linkblog to a developer a month or so ago.", making it look like they were part of the story. Wrong. The only person to do exactly this was Arvin Dang, back on December 17th, when he had asked for a list of Google Reader Shared items, in an attempt to consolidate them in one place. (See: TechTalk4U: Tips to help you consolidate and share your RSS)

This incident wasn't wildly egregious. But Mashable's size made other prominent sites simply list: "Source: Mashable" when they in turn wrote up ReadBurner.

SearchBlog: Readburner
VentureBeat: Readburner lets you see what is shared on Google Reader
WebWare: ReadBurner Turns Google Reader's Sharing Features Into Communal Bookmarking

None of the above sites linked back to the original story.

#2: Robert Scoble Announces His Move to Fast Company.TV

On Monday, January 14th, I knew it had been Robert Scoble's last day at PodTech, and while I knew Michael Arrington of TechCrunch had said Scoble was moving on to Fast Company, I wanted to be sure. It'd have been a serious scoop if he was going somewhere else. So, I did what any first-year journalist would do. I called him!

In our quick call that evening, Scoble told me that he was indeed starting FastCompany.TV, that he didn't believe the move was a secret, and that the news was not under embargo, therefore, freeing me to write about it. I did that evening, in a post, "Robert Scoble to Kick Off Fast Company TV Wednesday."

As part of this post, I included the following quote from our phone call:
"The serious options were Fast Company, and us running our own thing," he said. "What brings me joy is interviewing people, hanging out with geeks and blogging. Doing my own thing would mean having to run my own business, and that's not as fun as interviewing Doug Engelbart, who invented the mouse."

The next day, Mashable wrote their own story, titled, "FastCompany Launches Online Video Network Under Scoble".

As part of their story, Mashable included my exact quote, not giving attribution in any way.
“The serious options were Fast Company, and us running our own thing,” he said. “What brings me joy is interviewing people, hanging out with geeks and blogging. Doing my own thing would mean having to run my own business, and that’s not as fun as interviewing Doug Engelbart, who invented the mouse.”

I called BS, in the comments saying, "How is it made clear that the quotes used for this story were lifted from a story I posted yesterday after actually doing "real journalism" and calling Scoble myself to get these answers?"

The author, Mark Hopkins, wrote that by posting a link to my story earlier, that he had given sufficient credit, even though the quotes were lifted. In an e-mail exchange I had with him that evening offline, I told him the appropriate thing to do would be to cite the quote came from somewhere else, by listing "he told louisgray.com" or "Louis Gray reports he said", for example. At the time, he agreed to make a change, and said, "The new version of the story has already hit the web, and the feeds tend to propagate about an hour or two out when it comes to edits, usually."

But almost a week afterwards, I don't think that's actually happened. The first, offending, unedited story is still there. (See: Mashable)

It wasn't any major outreach on my part to reach Robert that Monday. His cellphone number is widely available, and there's no reason Mashable couldn't have gotten their own quote if they wanted one. If time was an issue, giving the site credit would be the very least they could have done, and leaving it unfixed for days after promising a change is very frustrating to see.

In case Mashable wanted to learn how a professional blogger gives attribution, check Robert Scoble himself. In his announcement post, "Why we’re going to FastCompany.tv", he writes, "Louis Gray got the story first," and makes the whole line a link, in his lead paragraph. That's how you give attribution.

#3: The Discovery and Launch of Shared Reader

On Wednesday, January 16th, not a week and a half after ReadBurner was forcefully debuted, we saw the emergence of a new Google Reader shared feeds aggregator, "Shared Reader". And, for the second time in ten days, I was the first person to find out about it and write about it, doing so early that morning in a post, "Shared Reader Latest to Take on Google Reader Shared Item Rankings", submitted only three hours after the developer had made it live.

Sure enough, it wasn't but a few hours later that Mashable followed on and took the news as their own, writing a near duplicate post, titled "SharedReader: Attack of the Google Shared Items Memetrackers.

And again, for the third time in two weeks, you would have had to be a detective to figure out that the exact same blog which found ReadBurner, which also was the first to confirm Scoble's moving to FastCompany.TV was the first to find Shared Reader. How did Mashable give credit? Not through giving louisgray.com credit for the double scoop, but instead, a throw-away line at the very end of the story that said, "[via louis gray]", with only the word "via" being a link.

If Mashable truly wanted to support the full blogosphere instead of promoting their own site, with vacuous reporting, they would have made the link prominent. They could have included the headline. They could have made the link higher, or even put two and two together to say, "Wait a minute, the same guy who found ReadBurner found Shared Reader. Boy that's interesting." But instead, they took a three letter word, made it a link, and put it after the story, where hardly anybody saw it, as my referrer logs can attest.

So what should we do? I'm almost afraid to announce anything new on this site, without fear that Mashable is going to rip me off again, post the news as their own again, steal quotes again, and keep pushing traffic their way instead of back to the original source. I called out Mashable back in September in "Internal Linking On Some Tech Blogs Is Out of Control", and it looks like they still haven't gotten the message.

Think I'm alone or that Mashable is the only offender? Check out ParisLemon's call to arms: Ars Technica, You're a Member of the Internet, Start Linking Like It. There is a major problem in the tech blogosphere leadership where the basic tenets of journalism, sourcing and attribution are ignored.

Mashable is a good aggregator of news from other blogs. It has some great people behind it. But if they're to be taken seriously and respected as they grow up, change is needed. At the very least, make it a rule to never steal quotes from other blogs without delivering attribution. And find a way to actually watch trends to make an educated guess on what the news means or where it's originating. Are there patterns in message or source? That's real journalism and will help the blogosphere be taken just a little more seriously.

And yes, if this means Mashable never links my way again, or copies my stories outright, I think we'll live. We've got more scoops coming in the next few months, guaranteed, and we'll find more reputable people to help follow along.