Journalism in a Collaborative Society

I’m building a weekly gift exchange called Gittip. A year in, we have about 1,000 active users exchanging $3,000 per week.

One of the rites of passage for tech startups is landing a story on TechCrunch. My turn came two days ago, but I ended up not getting the story, because I decided I’d only do the interview if we could live-stream and post it to YouTube. TechCrunch said no, but a really interesting discussion opened up when I blogged about it. I knew the post would interest people already in the Gittip community, and probably Hacker News as well (yup). What I didn’t expect was the interest it generated among professional journalists.

This afternoon I did two open interviews, the first with Brian Jackson from, and the second with Mathew Ingram from GigaOM. I also got an article in FastCo.Labs from Gabe Stein, and a send-up in Valleywag from Sam Biddle. Here are those stories:

I have an open interview scheduled with Mashable tomorrow [update: this materialized], and it’s looking like I’ll connect with AllThingsD next week [update: punted]. Clearly, this has touched a nerve.

Navigating a Different Culture

Talking to journalists has been a cross-cultural experience for me. Apparently, “information gatekeeper” is a term of art that once had positive connotations, which linger even today. Getting the scoop is a big motivation for journalists, as is being the source. Interviewing techniques are a trade secret. To be honest, while I do get plenty of “’splainy lectures” (love the term!), they haven’t really been about press coverage. I’ve had this vague sense that getting into TechCrunch (for example) is something a startup is supposed to do, but Gittip has a hard enough time keeping development apace with the demand we get through Twitter and Hacker News. That’s why it was such an easy decision to handle the TechCrunch opportunity the way I did—the Winerism is “going direct,” it turns out—and why Mathew’s suggestion that I’ve “caused a fuss” is somewhat bemusing. I feel as though I’ve committed a faux pas in a foreign country, quite unintentionally!

I read Gabe’s piece in a similar light: there’s a pessimistic edge to it that points, I think, to a cultural difference. There we find journalists using interviews to “extract value” from their subjects, with “ways of getting answers that don’t necessarily come off as smart or polite.” In this they pit themselves against “personalities who are good at manipulating the press via performance[.]” Journalists therefore have to be sneaky:

I mentioned above that I live-tweeted the interview as it happened. One of the reasons I did this was to see how both parties behaved, knowing for certain that they were being watched (by a journalist, no less).

I had assumed he was being friendly and helpful, which reminds me of another Winer quote:

In the press there’s a presumption that they’re honest and you’re not. […] There’s certainly no cause to treat me, by default, as if I was dishonest.

Gabe’s seeming mistrust extends to other journalists as well. Thinking about a recent in-depth piece as an example of where FastCo.Labs sees its value, Gabe says, “If we had live-broadcast these interviews as they happened, publications could have collected and posted all of the best bits with their own framing.” To me, that sounds awesome. That sounds like a way to build interest in a story, so that when I finally come out with my full, in-depth piece, I’ve already got an audience ready and waiting to hear my take. More than that, I’ve got real-world feedback on parts of the story, to inform my own thinking on the narrative of the whole.

This hermeneutic of suspicion may also explain why Gabe seems stymied that Brian and Mathew would submit to open interviews. Isn’t Mathew worried about looking stupid and manipulated? Doesn’t Brian regret some of his comments? The moment in our interview (10:21) that Gabe characterizes as me telling Mathew that he’ll “get used to it”—that for me was the moment I realized that this is a big deal for these folks! The cross-cultural experience extends both ways! What I was actually trying to communicate to Mathew there was gratitude: Thank you for crossing this cultural boundary and joining me in this experiment to build a more collaborative society.

Looking Forward

I want to live in a society characterized by collaboration more than cut-throat competition. I think some good-natured competition is healthy, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without good old capitalism. I love corporations and the awesome products and services they provide. What if we can keep all that, and live lives where friendliness, trust, openness, and collaboration are the norm? That’s what I want.

There’s absolutely a role for journalists in a collaborative future. To function properly, our scaled-up society needs memes like the Internet needs data packets. Imagine society is a big sentience: the journalist’s role is to produce society’s thoughts. I discuss this with Mathew at 1:53 and again at 12:37, even starting to get into some of the philosophical background for my view here.

The good news is that, now that transparency is the new objectivity, we no longer need to pretend that journalists are somehow detached and aloof from the rest of society, mistrustful as a rule. We can be friendly, because you know what? Friends confront one another and call one another out and hold one another accountable. That essential element of journalism is not threatened by the shift to a collaborative society, it’s given its proper due. Insofar as I’m a leader in a collaborative society, I want you to tell me when I’m being sexist or narcissistic. In fact, I desperately need you to call me out, early and often. You think I want to end up a tragic, power-hungry totalitarian? We’re in this together.

Gittip is intended to work for journalists in a collaborative society, by which I mean that journalists should be able to make a living on Gittip. We’ve just started rolling out a feature where any self-organizing community of 150 or more active members gets its own homepage and identity on Gittip. We need journalists to join these communities on Gittip and tell each community’s stories to itself and to the wider world. The goal is for these communities to support their storytellers with weekly cash gifts in the same way they support other members of the community. As Gabe indicates, we have to figure out how to make sure that Gittip’s anonymous funding model is sufficient to prevent journalistic conflicts of interest.

That’s my ideal, anyway. We’ll see how reality shapes up.

If you’re a journalist and want to get involved, then try signing up for Gittip and joining a community. It’s a little rough around the edges, but we’re actively developing it. Even if you don’t join Gittip yourself, you can find out if the people you’re writing about have a Gittip profile, and link to it. And, of course, I’m available to do open interviews, if you’re up for a cross-cultural adventure.

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