Credibility and Bullies with Blogs

Thanks to the magic that is Instapaper, I was able to reference the original text of Josh Topolsky’s article Integrity and Bullies with Blogs rather than the updated version available on his Tumblr blog, although my efforts proved to be for naught when I found the only difference between the two version to be the removal of a single sentence in the opening paragraph. Despite this I do not regret spending the extra ten minutes it took to locate a device equipped with Instapaper that had not synced with the Instapaper servers since I moved the article to the Archive folder — an action that removes the local cache in favor of a link to the article’s source — and install a Sublime Text plugin to diff the two copies of Josh’s article. I don’t regret what turned out to be an unnecessary expenditure of a minimal amount of time and effort for two reasons, the first of which is that in doing so I obtained the tools necessary to perform this task for future articles where it might be of greater importance. More importantly though, because taking an extra few minutes to verify the validity of my premise and formulate my thoughts into cohesive points is a step I believe every writer and especially those involved in this debacle could learn from.

In the hopes that following this exchange might be made slightly easier by its inclusion, I have provided a list of the articles related to this spectacle below, ordered chronologically:

The flame war began with John Gruber’s trademark link-and-commentary-style article Samsung Series 5 and 7 Slates Ring a Bell, during which John, in characteristic Daring Fireball fashion, quipped in response to The Verge’s article reviewing the Samsung Series 5 and 7 slate: “Who has less integrity: Samsung for ‘designing’ this, or The Verge for pretending it’s legitimate?” Given the frequency of the blatant and unabashed theft of Apple’s designs by its competitors, this controversy could have erupted at any time over the last year, but over the past few months especially; it was by some stroke of luck that it began here. John then handed the torch off to Marco, who readily took up the cause in Harry Marks on Engadget’s coverage of the HP iMac. Marco commented on Engadget and The Verge’s recent coverage of HP’s new Spectre desktop lineup, agreeing with Harry Marks’ complaint that the big gadget blogs were leaving out a crucial fact from these stories: the obvious mimicry of Apple’s designs. Not long after Marco published this observation, Josh came out swinging in the first paragraph of a new article titled Integrity and Bullies with Blogs. Ben Brooks did an excellent job dissecting Josh’s article in his piece also titled Integrity and Bullies with Blogs though, so I will forgo that step and cut to my take on the situation:

While I do believe both the writers at Engadget and those at The Verge were wrong to exclude even a passing mention of the obvious similarities of both HP and Samsung’s designs to Apple’s, I feel John and Marco’s criticism of the two firms was overly harsh — not unwarranted, simply overly harsh. On this issue I at least partially agree with Josh. I do not, however, agree with the manner through which he conveyed that sentiment, nor do I find his supporting “arguments”, if they could even be called that, particularly attractive, especially of such a prominent writer. Ben Brooks destroys a few of them in his previously-cited article, which I recommend everyone read.

Out of of all this I believe a number of very important lesson can be learned, foremost of which is that writing in anger — as Josh Topolsky obviously did — serves two purposes: first, doing so will invariably result in some decrease in credibility among your readers just as Josh’s credibility went down in my mind after reading his article. Anger is an ugly emotion, one that should be guided with a steady hand; by and large, it has little purpose in writing, especially among those considered to be exceptional writers. Writing in anger will also cloud your judgment and blind you to anything but your own opinion on the matter, just as it did Zee Kane, the CEO of The Next Web, in the plagiarism debacle a few months ago. For those unfamiliar with the matter, Joshua Gross posted an interesting article titled The $144,146,165 Button on May 13th; May 14th found a version of his article, without any attribution, on The Next Web. Perhaps most disturbingly the article’s author Harrison Webber took, at times, content from the original article verbatim, again without any sort of attribution. Joshua Gross’ article Plagiarism chronicles the controversy, including Zee’s heated response to Joshua’s truthful allegations that one of The Next Web’s authors had plagiarized his article. Again we find a “big-shot”, full-of-himself “writer” responding defensively to what turned out to be a perfectly justifiable criticism. Zee Kane, much like Josh Topolsky, responded while his judgment was clouded in anger. In his apology posted as a public Google Doc, Kane concluded with an acknowledgment — however insincere it may have been — that Josh Topolsky could nevertheless take notes from:

“Lesson learnt? Don’t respond while emotions are running high - I even had strict rules on this, yet still did. Secondly, seriously keep my mouth shut until I know all the facts. Even when I’m sure I know them, check again.”

The final lesson here lies in the far-reaching effects this plagiarism fiasco had on the overall perception of The Next Web in many people’s minds. Take, for example, a tweet quoted in The Daily Dot’s article The Next Web Apologizes to Plagiarized Blogger from Scott Knauer:

“@endtwist @gruber Thanks for bringing this to light. I was going to unsubscribe from TNW, but fortunately I had previously. @Zee scumbag”

This feeling closely mirrors mine and reflects the general disgust felt by many other prominent bloggers who were greatly dismayed that this even happened, and then further disappointed in the manner by which it was handled. Although Rob Beschizza, John Gruber, and Jim Dalrymple — the authors of the three aforementioned articles, respectively — likely did not cease to use The Next Web as a viable news source, to this day I refuse to use The Next Web. I have associated The Next Web with plagiarism, rash outbursts, and poor choices; as Rob Beschizza said in his article describing the situation, “A writer at The Next Web copied a post from a relatively unknown blogger and got caught”, and this is completely unacceptable.

Just as the dispute between The Next Web and Joshua Gross cast some aspersions on The Next Web, the strife between The Verge and Engadget and Marco Arment, John Gruber, Ben Brooks, and many other internet writers undoubtedly also cast the two parties on the defensive in a negative light. This is likely why Josh Topolsky responded so vehemently in a situation that should have been handled in a very different manner, and for that I believe he does deserve some level of pardon for his outburst. That said though, any perceived damage to his brand still does not justify the sweeping generalizations Josh made, many of which Ben Brooks addressed in his piece appropriately published with the the same title.

So write and be sure to give credit where credit is due. Had The Verge and Engadget’s staff even attempted to give Apple credit where credit was so obviously due, this would have never happened. Similarly, all Joshua Gross asked for was credit for the work he had done; a simple link would have sufficed. It was not to be though, and from there the situation deteriorated quickly and resulted in bad publicity for The Verge, Engadget, and The Next Web alike. These are lessons both aspiring and established writers can and should learn from but often fail to. As Josh said by way of concluding his article, “And that’s too bad, because I think you both have a lot more to contribute.”