Is it a hack or just a platform-wide glitch? It’s hard to tell at the moment, but here’s what has happened:
A few minutes ago, one of our sister blogs, blog.yourmoney.ca noticed a strange story had crept into their RSS feed entitled: “Your best friend calls you and tells you he/she’s really sick? How do you show you care?” Given that yourmoney.ca is a personal finance blog, it was immediately obvious that this was not an article written by any of the blog’s contributers. The article was swiftly removed by the team, but a deeper investigation has revealed that yourmoney.ca was not alone.
In each case many cases, the new title has replaced the title of an existing blog post.
Because this title has been absorbed by the RSS feed of each blog, it has now been tweeted and Facebooked as well, with some tweets having been affected as long as 23 hours ago.
If this is indeed a hack, it’s a weird one. I can’t fathom why anyone would want to do this – especially with such a random title. A quick inspection of some of the affected blog posts doesn’t indicate that any other information was added or modified. And yet, it may have been done deliberately as a proof of concept – perhaps someone trying to prove they could do it without leaving any clues as to who had done it.
On the other hand, it could simply be a glitch on the TypePad system that will be fixed shortly. At least no user data appears to have been affected by any of this.
So far, no indication that TypePad is aware of the problem – at least there’s no mention of it on their official blog.
Update, 1:34 p.m.: TypePad doesn’t think this is a hack. A SixApart SayMedia representative who replied to my inquiry says “That specific title was used as a TypePad Conversations post starter, so that’s why there are so many of those posts in Google. We are investigating the cases where the post titles changed from the originals. Right now, though, we don’t believe this is a hacking situation.”
Update: 4:58 p.m.: Just got a response from Jeff Reine, GM for TypePad. He says ‘…most of the posts carrying this title are legitimate answers to a sponsored “TypePad Conversation.”‘ TypePad Conversations are a sponsored feature on the TypePad platform where TypePad ask their users questions on behalf of a sponsor in order to “spark conversation.” He also points out that an implementation of their Conversation widget may have caused some of their users to inadvertently use this title as the title of their posts. I’m not completely convinced that this explains what we’ve been seeing, so I’ve asked for more information if they can provide it.
I love blogging.
It’s the immediacy of having your words appear on your site the moment you hit the publish button and the immediacy of the feedback when readers leave comments. It’s the dialogue that then becomes possible in a way that other mediums simply can’t deliver. It’s the freedom of writing online.
But some take this freedom too far. Yesterday, Robin Wauters, a blogger for TechCrunch.com crossed a line when he blogged and subsequently tweeted:
I think very highly of TechCrunch. They are unsurpassed as a source of information in their area of focus – Silicon Valley startups – and they’re often ahead of other publications and blogs on general tech stories too. If you’re a regular TechCrunch reader, you know they tend to colour their commentary with a heavy dose of opinion and analysis, both of which make for a unique and valuable experience. Now and then, however, the daggers really come out and they will aggressively attack someone who they feel has it coming. Often it’s the blog’s founder, Michael Arrington who dishes up the rhetoric. When he recently went after fellow blogger and AOL colleague Joshua Topolsky from Engadget, it was quite a show. I happily read the back and forth that ensued because it was a clash of titans. Each one railed against the other from their respective soapboxes in a rare show of blog vs. blog animosity.
So when I saw their tweet above, I eagerly clicked on the link expecting to read about a truly heinous action on the part of the PR person who had been singled out so viciously.
Timothy Johnson must have done something crazy like insulting the TechCrunch team, or perhaps badly misrepresented his clients’ products or services. Maybe he committed a career-ending tech blunder. Or maybe he called out the author, Robin Wauters in a public forum, like Twitter and was about to receive an equally public thrashing for his misdeeds.
No. Nothing like that had happened.
It turns out Mr. Johnson made the mistake of taking an attitude with one of TechCrunch’s writers – Leena Rao.
In an email exchange, Johnson suggests a story idea to Rao, who politely declines and is then met with a surprised and somewhat sarcastic response from Johnson who questions TechCrunch’s commitment to covering Asian tech start-ups.
According to Wauters, this sort of thing happens from time to time but that “Most of the time (but not always), we keep our peace when PR flacks go off on us with or without a shred of reason”.
Hmm. Sounds pretty bad. Let’s see how Johnson went off on TechCrunch:
– You wrote about platforms that move maybe $40 million in 2009. Platforms. Not communities. Not much since.
– Even if mig33’s virtual goods averaged 50 cents USD – and that’s a HUGE if – that’d mean about $20 million in rev, which is over twice mig33’s recent round
– You guys devote little coverage to SE Asian/Asian sites – don’t you think it’s time, or is FB all that matters?
Really? Wait for a product announcement? Is that a joke, Leena?
You can read the full exchange (which amounts to little more than three emails) on Wauters’ post, but as far as I can tell, the most inflammatory thing Johnson says is “Seriously?” “Is that a joke?” and the clearly provocative “Just wow” which he throws in at the end of his last note.
Given the “thousands” of pitches TechCrunch receives daily, and the hundreds of email threads that probably result, Wauters would have us believe that Johnson’s comments are indicative of a PR person who has gone “off the deep end.” Or maybe Wauters was simply trying to impress Rao, who he describes as “extremely sweet and mild-mannered”, by teaching her tormentor a lesson.
So what started out as an email thread between a PR professional and a journalist has now become justification for public humiliation, at least as far as Wauters is concerned. Not only does he present the email thread in full, he goes on to offer Johnson’s client – the previously unknown mig33 – some unsolicited advice:
“And by the way, mig33, you might want to reconsider who you work with. Seriously.”
Wauters defends his attack as “a public service we do for the PR industry to show them the error of their ways.”
I think it’s the height of hubris and and shocking display of unprofessional behaviour.
Before I go any further, I need to point out some facts that non-TechCrunch readers may not know:
– TechCrunch is engaged in something of a war with the PR profession, or at least the members of that profession they feel are especially worthy of contempt.
– TechCrunch has a habit of treating all communication as non-confidential. They have in the past published emails and snail mail of a legal nature, and have shown they have little respect for journalism standards such as the embargo.
If Johnson wasn’t aware of this, he should have been. As a PR professional it’s his job to know the players.
So was it foolish of Johnson to get snippy with a TechCrunch writer? Yes. He should have known better than to let his frustration with Rao show so transparently. Do all journalists get frustrated by the various bad habits of PR people at some point or another? Absolutely. Was Johnson’s email so out of line as to deserve the disproportionate response (from a different journalist than the one he was corresponding with) that he received? No way. Not even close.
TechCrunch is a giant in the technology news space. According to Compete, their average audience size is around 1.7 million unique viewers a month and that’s just their U.S. audience. Their posts are required reading for every executive in the tech industry. That is a ton of power and influence by any measure. To use this platform to attack an individual for what can best be described as poor choice of words and to do so in such a way that his very livelihood is threatened is an appalling misuse of that power.
Just how bad is it? Try Googling “Timothy Johnson”. Result #4 as of today is TechCrunch’s article. Johnson’s own LinkedIn profile is #8. Unfortunately the post you are reading right now is likely going to perpetuate that reality as Google ups TechCrunch a little bit more for the link we’ve given them.
Now I know some might argue that Johnson ended up the winner in this situation. After all, his purpose was to get TechCrunch to write an article mentioning his client. If you buy into the belief that any press is good press, Johnson and his client both win. I suspect that any minor lift in awareness of mig33 that Wauters’ article created was more than offset by the damage done to Johnson. Will present and future clients look upon this incident and reward him for the success of a guerrilla PR strategy, or take their business elsewhere for fear of working with someone who elicits this kind of reaction with his PR pitches?
I hope for Timothy Johnson that the fallout from this episode is negligible. He was attacked without warning by someone with whom he hadn’t been emailing, on a site that is widely read by his clients and peers and wasn’t given the opportunity to defend himself, or at the very least, apologize.
Robin Wauters wanted to show Johnson the error of attacking a journalist via email. Judging by a few comments on Wauters’ Twitter page, he has some support for his goal. But instead of contacting Johnson privately and letting him know how he messed up he chose to publicly humiliate him. There’s no question in my mind that an apology is owed. Robin, perhaps you should go first.
Change is never easy. Especially when that change involves two different platforms (we’ve now moved Sync from TypePad to a WordPress environment), a DNS change and updates to several other pieces of the puzzle. But I think the dust has finally begun to settle and I’m excited to welcome you all to a new experience here at Sync.
Among the changes you’ll find on our new site:
- A bold colour-scheme which we think not only looks better, but makes the posts easier to read
- A new category structure that makes exploring the blog easier and hopefully more rewarding
- A search engine that lets readers find posts from the blog quickly- something that readers have been asking for since we launched
- Threaded comments with Gravatar icons: Now you can interact with other readers and put your personal stamp on each comment (keep it clean please!)
- Reply notifications via e-mail so you never miss any of the conversation
- Starting next week, three new bloggers who will bring new ideas and opinions to Sync.
- Post tags so you can find similar posts with just one click
- And many more features in the coming weeks and months
We’re all very excited by these changes and hope you are too. Needless to say, your comments are always welcome and we’d love to hear from you – good, bad or just to say ‘hi’.
Thanks for sticking with us, and I think you’ll find the best is yet to come.
– Simon, Marc and the whole Sync Team.