Virulent Word of Mouse

September 6, 2014

HuffPo and the Loss of Trust

Filed under: Editorial,Online behavior — Shane Greenstein @ 10:59 am

HuffingtonPost-LogoYou may not have noticed, but recently the Huffington Post has been the poster child for lack of journalistic integrity. The actual details may appear to be small to many people, but not to me. HuffPo has made a sloppy journalistic error, publishing a historically inaccurate story, and on a claim many experts have proven wrong. The organization does not seem willing to retract it. I will never trust this source again.

This post will get into the details in a moment, but this is a blog about digital economics, so let’s review the relevant economics. Let’s start with the economics of trust. Trust does not arise out of nowhere. Readers learn to trust a source of information. Said another way, trust arises because a new source invests in accuracy and quality. It is one of the greatest assets of a news source.

Trust is an unusual asset. It possesses an asymmetric property. It takes many little acts to build up its value, and very few bad acts to destroy it. Once lost it is also hard to regain.

As online news sources grabbed the attention of readers there has been concern about the loss of the type of quality reporting found in traditional news outlets. That is why many commentators have wondered whether online news sources like HuffPo could recreate the reputations of traditional newspapers and new magazines, who invested so heavily in journalists with deep knowledge about their topic. So went the adage: A high quality journalist could sniff out a lie or incomplete claim. A high quality reporter would defend the reputation of the news source. Readers trusted those organizations as a result of those investments.

That is also why journalistic integrity receives so much attention by managers in traditional newspapers. There are good reasons why newspapers react severely to ethical lapses and violations, such as plagiarism. Once trust is lost in a reporter, why would a reader trust that organization again? Why would a news organization put its trust further at risk by retaining that reporter? The asymmetries of trust motivate pretty harsh penalties.

So the concern went something like this: online news sources get much of their content for free or for very little money. That could be a problem because these sources do not have the resources to invest in quality reporting. How will they behave when quality suffers? Will readers punish them for lower quality material?

That is what gets us back to HuffPo’s behavior. Its reputation is on the line, but it is not acting as if it recognizes that it has lost my trust and the trust of several other readers. This behavior suggests it has not invested in quality, which aligns with the fears just expressed.

Now for the detail: HuffPo published a multipart history of email that is historically inaccurate. Yes, you read correctly. More specifically, a few of the details are correct, but those are placed next to some misleading facts, and these are embedded in a certifiably very misleading historical narrative. The whole account cannot be trusted.

The account comes from one guy, Shiva Ayyadurai, who did some great programming as a teenager. He claims to have invented electronic mail in 1978 when he was fourteen. He might have done some clever programming, but electronic mail already existed by the time he did his thing. Independent invention happens all the time in technological history, and Shiva is but another example, except for one thing. He had his ideas a little later than others, and the other ideas ended up being more influential on subsequent developments. Shiva can proudly join the long list of geeky teenagers who had some great technical skills at a young age, did some cool stuff, and basically had little impact on anybody else.

Except that Shiva won’t let it go. This looks like nothing more than Shiva’s ego getting in the way of an unbiased view.

Look, it is extremely well established that the email systems in use today descended from a set of inventors who built on each other’s inventions. They did their work prior to 1978. For example, it is well documented that the “@” in every email first showed up in 1971. Ray Tomlinson invented that. Others thought it was a good idea, and built on top of the @. We all have been doing it ever since. Moreover, this is not ancient history. Tomlinson has even written about his experiences, and lots of people know him. This is easy to confirm.

Though Ayyadurai’s shenanigans were exposed a few years ago, he persists. In the HuffPo piece yet again he pushes the story in which his inventions played a central place in the history of electronic mail. This time he has a slick infographic telling his version of things, and he managed to get others to act as shills for his story. He also now accuses others of fostering a conspiracy against his views in order to protect their place in history and deny him his. As if.  “A teenager invented electronic mail” might be a great headline, and it might sound like a great romantic tale, but this guy is delusional.

One teenager invented the fundamental insights that we all use today? No, no, and many times no. This is just wrong.

BTW, I have met some of these inventors, and interviewed some of them too (for a book I am writing), and, frankly, the true inventors deserve all the credit they can get. This guy, Ayyadurai, deserves credit for clever at a young age, and nothing more.

Look, if you do not believe me, then read the experts. Many careful historians have spent considerable time exposing the falsehoods in this lie. If you are curious, read this by Tom Haigh, a respected and established computer industry historian, or this and this and this by Mike Masnick, who writes the techdirt blog about various events in tech (such as Huffington Post). These two lay out the issues in a pretty clear way, and from different angles, so they cover the territory thoroughly.

Look at the dates of those posts. These falsehoods were exposed two years ago, and are online. This is not news. Because these two have done the hard work, it takes approximately fifteen to twenty minutes to figure out what happened here.

And that is where we are today. HuffPo published the BS about this guy, authored by a few shills. According to Masnick, who makes it his business to do this sort of thing, HuffPo has been informed of their error. Yet, HuffPo has done nothing to disavow their story.

If I had to guess, there simply is nobody at HuffPo with enough time or energy to check on the accuracy of a story. The staff probably has moved on to other things, and don’t want to be bothered with a little historical article. That is the thing about quality; it is costly to keep it up everywhere, even on articles few readers really care about.

At the end of the day, Huffington Post published another story, one among many, and on a topic – the history of electronic mail. Does HuffPo lose very much from publishing one historically inaccurate story? No, not really, only a few of us know the truth, and only a few of us are sufficiently disgusted and angry. HuffPo’s reputation will take a hit with only a few readers.

But I will never trust them again. They have lost my trust completely. It will be very difficult to earn back.

You probably guessed how this post would end, so here it is: I suggest that you should not trust HuffPo ever again. Maybe if enough people react to this stupidity, HuffPo will invest in some journalistic integrity. Or maybe they will just lose readers a little bit at a time on hundreds or thousands of stories, each with little issues, and die a slow death from their own carelessness. Maybe.


1:22pm, 9/6/2014

Post script: Sometime after this was written Huffington Post took down the offending material. That raises an interesting question about whether I should trust them again.  On the one hand, I totally respect them for acting. Let’s give them credit. On the other hand, those posts have been up for several weeks. I admit that it will be hard to lose this sense of skepticism. You can make up your own mind. SG


February 10, 2012

Wikipedia, Mitt, Barack, and a Hand Over the Heart

Filed under: Amusing diversions,Internet economics,Online behavior,Short observations — Shane Greenstein @ 3:41 pm

It was just a little skirmish, a mere tit-for-tat in the presidential race. It made headlines for a day and it also made Wikipedia just a little bit better.

To be sure, Romney and Obama infrequently appear in the same sentence as Wikipedia, so this is worth a look. How did the-encyclopedia-that-anyone-can-edit get mixed up with a verbal spit-spat between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama? More to the point, how does this little story illustrate why Wikipedia works, and why it works so well?

Ah, therein lies a tale. (more…)

August 25, 2011

The Grip of the Grid

Filed under: Amusing diversions,Essays,Online behavior — Shane Greenstein @ 10:30 pm
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The grid has a grip on the rhythms of my family. This is not news, really, but it took a new setting, a vacation, to make apparent what should have been obvious.

This August my wife and I went west for a vacation out west, in this case, to Lake Tahoe. It was a good vacation, but not an escape from the familiar. As with prior vacations, this one became a catalyst for reflecting on the role of information technology in our lives.

Perhaps resistance was futile, but mine was pathetic. I submitted my family to the grip of the grid almost from the outset, when I purposely rented a house with a broadband Internet connection. It even had a wireless modem.

This post will talk about how the grid took over our vacation. Ultimately, the grip of the grid never loosened completely. In retrospect, this was not all bad.


February 13, 2011

What do you mean it was Hiybbing?

Filed under: Amusing diversions,Considering topical questions,Online behavior — Shane Greenstein @ 10:47 pm

I was sitting at my computer one afternoon several days ago staring at a blank screen, when the news walked in. If a computer screen could blare a headline, then it blared something incomprehensible.

Google accused Bing of copying its results, implying the hint of scandal. Google  uncovered the conduct through some clever sleuthing, and was proud of itself. Bing responded with indignity and complete disregard, accusing its rival of exaggerating.

Joshua Gans put his finger on one key aspect of this situation in a recent post, and I would like to take the spirit of his suggestion and push it further. Gans believes we need a new word to describe what happened. I concur.

To be frank, at first this was not obvious to me. With a few days gone, however, calm returned, I began to look back on this episode and grin. There is something rather amusing and absurd about this spat. In the first place, in the greater scheme of things the details behind this episode will not amount to much, so they did not deserve the hyperbole that either Google or Bing brought to their public pronouncements.

Yet, there is something rather engaging about the way Google set a little trap. They used a made-up word, Hiybbprqag, and planted it on the web to catch Microsoft imitating Google’s search results.  I cannot shake the amusing image. Twenty engineers sat in their homes, with instructions to enter some made up words, such as hiybbprqag, and then they anxiously waited two weeks to see if Bing would take the bait.

<sarcasm alert> Just think of what a good Hollywood script writer could do with this material. If you had asked me last year I would not have thought it was possible to make an entertaining Hollywood movie about a self-centered Harvard undergraduate who implements a social networking site more successfully than a few others classmates, but I was wrong. If that movie could work, then  Google’s antics have so much more potential. This is the fodder for a trilogy of movies about high-tech competitive intrigue. Nerd wars here we come. But I digress. <end of alert>

Anyway, let’s all lighten up. It is just a little spat between rivals.

Gans’ observation mixes a serious bit of analysis with tongue-in-cheek amusement (which is Gans usual disposition towards life, and the primary reason he is good for an extended conversation on any occasion. But I digress once again). He observes that our language for competitive rivalry is not appropriate for what we all observe in this spat. That is part of the problem with the news reports about the episode. What we observe is neither imitation in the usual sense, nor quality competition in the usual sense. It is something else, something slightly different, something in need of a new label.

Bravo, Joshua. The spirit of this observation is right. That said, I do not entirely agree with Gans’ implementation, and that is the point of this post. I would like to suggest a new word.


February 2, 2011

Bing imitates Google: Their conduct crosses a line.

Imitation happens. It is a part of competitive behavior. Sony brings out a new feature on its TV and Samsung does the same thing three months later. installs a better tool for soliciting comments, and a month later the same feature shows up at the Huffington Post. Chrysler brings out a minivan and within a two product cycles every other auto assembler has one too. Nobody loses sleep over this.

Moreover, the Internet makes monitoring a rival easier, so imitation involves less hassle and far lower costs than it used to. So it should surprise nobody that imitation happens with some frequency, especially among online competitors, and more often than in competitive contests offline.

Yet, so why does Bing’s imitation of Google’s search results seem to cross some sort of ethical line? Why does Microsoft’s conduct leave me shaking my head, wondering why Bing’s management did not put its nerdy foot down and just say “That is shameful. Let’s not go there.”?

Let’s consider why. (more…)

October 5, 2010

On the Internet, nobody knows you shaved

Filed under: Amusing diversions,Online behavior — Shane Greenstein @ 9:34 pm

Many years ago the New Yorker published what has now become a canonical cartoon. One dog sat in front of a computer and commented to another, “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.”

I had never connected this simple cartoon to daily life, but that changed recently, when I scraped a razor across my face for the first time in over six years. That is the point of this post. As the post’s title says, on the Internet nobody knew I had a beardless face.

(BTW, in case you are curious…. The carton falls under fair use rules for academic discussion. See  But I digress…).

This observation sounds a bit like something Seinfeld would say, and at times this post will feel like an extended episode of Seinfeld. Nothing significant happened after I shaved and, in spite of that, the story kept going.

This story illustrates something elusive about the Internet. The Internet hides some physical traits, accentuates other facets at the same time, and altogether distorts  a person’s public appearance. It almost turns online participants into the online equivalent of a Picasso cubist image. This image resembles the person’s present physical appearance, but it also illuminates many aspects other than the current appearance.


January 23, 2010

Pass the password

In case you missed it, many passwords are not safe. Not just a little bit. It is a hacker’s paradise out there.

Recent headlines made the point ever so clear. The most popular password in America turns out to be “123456”. Might as well leave the keys to the automobile in the driver-side door, where a thief can easily find it. That is the sort of favor many users are doing for hackers.

This is what passes for news in the Internet today. If you read between the lines, very little about this fact is news. That is worth a comment or two.

More to the point, computer scientists like to observe that the Internet has scaled well. That is not exactly right, and they know it. The technology scaled well at the level of transport infrastructure, but not at the access layer, where most of the passwords are. Internet access is an example of a technology in which the very characteristics that make it popular at small scales are precisely those that make it ill suited to large scale use.

This will take some explaining.


December 22, 2009

The Internet and magic moments of parental middle age

Filed under: Amusing diversions,Online behavior,Short observations — Shane Greenstein @ 12:45 pm

What do light bulbs, iTunes, and printer cartridges have in common? These all relate to magic moments of parenthood. This requires explanation.

Look, there are many magic moments in middle aged parenthood. Today I would like to mention one type of such moment — call it a moment of “equal altitude.”

This label comes from an old school riddle: If one person starts at the top of a mountain and walks down while another starts at the bottom and walks up, will there ever be a moment in which both are at the same altitude? The answer is “yes”, as long as neither is too slow.

Parenting is full of such moments, that is, magic moments in which the parent’s and child’s skill reach the same altitude. This occurs when a child’s skill rises to just a place where it equals a parents skill, which has declined to the same place.

Credit for noticing this type of moment goes to my older brother. A few years ago he noticed that he and his son ran at the same speed. As my brother put it, his running skills deteriorated while his son’s improved. For a short time they could run together. Now his son is faster.

I see the same thing happening in my family. For the moment I remain faster than my son, but this surely will not last.

What does this have to do with IT? As it turns out, there are many magic moments of equal altitude in the modern Internet. This post highlights a few of them. Would you like to suggest more? (more…)

December 9, 2009

Lying and Tiger and Boors, Oh My! Privacy and Prudence Online.

The New York Times ran an article about careless text messaging by philanderers.  Recent news about Tiger Woods’ dalliances inspired the theme. In case you missed it, here is the article.

Here is my point: The article has one intriguing point, many salacious examples, and missed the big picture because it focused on sexual affairs, not human affairs.

The article starts with an intriguing point: text messages do not disappear easily, and that has consequences for those having an affair. The text messages can be used in a court of law, or in the court of public opinion. In short, text is evidence.

I am a frequent reader of online stories. This one caught my eye because of what it did not say next. It expressed no alarm about the erosion of privacy.  On the one hand, it is obvious why it did not explore that theme. On a deeper inspection, however, that silence is worth understanding and exploring. That is what this post will do.


August 27, 2009

Connectivity where the buffalo roam

Virtually every August my wife and I leave Illinois, head west, and take our children to places with little or no connectivity. Though lack of Internet and cell phone service, per se’, might attract some people, these do not motivate us to visit unconnected locations. Lack of connectivity just happens to come along with beautiful and remote natural beauty, such as found in mountains and national parks.

We took our first trip of this sort more than a decade ago, after the birth of our first child. The lack of connectivity hardly entered into our conscientiousness then. As I recall, we rented a house in Tahoe and it lacked Internet access. I just let the email pile up on a server at work. I do not recall if we even brought both cell phones with us. It was no big deal.

Things have changed. That goes for both the destination and the dependence on communication. That is the point of these musings. Our recent foibles illustrate how communications became embedded in every day patterns; it has risen far above “no big deal” and become an everyday priority. This post will illustrate how the lack of connectivity turned out to be central to this summer’s vacation experience.

Perhaps others will relate to this experience. I do not sense that our experience was unusual. My wife and I do not differ in many respects from others in our use of on-line and wireless services. The importance of communication just crept up on us.

More concretely, at first it did not matter. Then some years ago we began dialing in from wherever we happened to be on these trips. Then I began to search out cyber café’s. My kids grew accustomed to their father mysteriously leaving every couple of mornings to get a coffee and check his email. This year both my wife and I brought along mobile devices that have voice, email and web capabilities. In other words, demographically speaking, my wife and I are not frontier users of the Internet and cell phones, nor do we employ information technology as intensively as a teenager, but we are not laggards either.


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