Nightline’s post-mortem of Theranos

Nightline has a new two-part post-mortem of the Theranos scandal that’s worth watching. Of note: they were able to obtain deposition footage of disgraced CEO Elizabeth Holmes acknowledging some of her deceptions, plus an interview with the COO’s defense lawyer. I also appreciated that they got in touch with a Theranos customer to allow people to understand the human misery and wasted resources that this company was capable of causing.

I read reporter John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood last year and found it to be thoroughly engrossing, but almost a year later I’m still really shaken by what the Theranos case says about our culture. Here was a CEO that was making claims about her product that were, on their face, medically impossible. Through some really skillful self-hype and through a corporate culture that prized silence and complicity (and punished anyone who stepped out of line), she was able to convince the world she was right to the tune of a $4 billion valuation.

It says a lot about a culture that we allowed this to happen, and that our only bulwark against it was a lone journalist willing to risk his own livelihood to find the truth.

Don’t rush

The news cycle runs at hyper speed now. About one week ago, a group of students from Covington High School Catholic High School were filmed at the Lincoln Memorial behaving in a rowdy fashion in front of Native American activist Nathan Phillips.

A video of the incident received near-universal condemnation on Twitter, most of it coming from liberal online personalities. This was followed by a conservative backlash that came with more video showing further context and insisting that the situation was perceived unfairly. A counter-backlash followed, plus an apology tour by the teen in the video, Nicholas Sandmann, in which he claims that nothing untoward occurred. All of this took place in less than a fortnight.

[If you’re looking for an even-handed assessment of what actually happened at the event, I’d recommend this piece by Josh Marshall, who assessed each piece of evidence and links out to more so you can make some decisions yourself.]

I recently read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, in which he runs down a number of situations where the internet tried to destroy someone’s life. A terrible joke about AIDS in Africa became an international meme and blew up a woman’s life. A woman took a jokey photo at Arlington National Cemetary and lost her job helping people with learning disabilities. Time after time, the internet mob has shown that it is willing to annihilate people, seemingly randomly, if they step out of line in a way that strikes the right nerve.

Ronson’s thesis in the book is that shaming lessens us all. It can leave the subject irrevocably scarred, and it changes the mob doing the shaming too. It reshapes our values in ways that are troubling and make us less compassionate and more violent.

As a result of the book, I’ve tried to publicly shame people less often these days. But it can be a challenge because Twitter makes it so easy. Have a thought? Want to ruin someone who’s offended you? Fire off a tweet! It’s all very tempting and sad.

That said, I don’t think my approach is for everyone. I’ve tried not to condemn people for shaming, because one of the weaknesses of Ronson’s book is that it doesn’t delve into all the times that internet shaming has actually been unequivocally beneficial, such as when it is done in the name of justice, and the last recourse for people with no other options.

But one thing I have concluded I can do and recommend: Wait before tweeting. Think before tweeting. Deliberate before posting. Mull it over before blogging.

The Phillips-Sandmann video felt like it was genetically engineered to tap into all the sensitivities of our day. A group of white kids stood around a Native American war vet, seeming to mock him. The video is the video; the response to it revealed our sensitivities and anxieties. To one side, public shaming felt like it was necessary, because what other response could there be? This might be the only way to make this child pay for his insolence! If you’re on the other side, there’s a need to defend this innocent child from a liberal mob that’s ignoring the facts.

No matter what your assessment, I think it’s safe to say that all sides were bloodied in the fiasco. But to me, one thing remains clear: the rush to judgment benefits no one. I really appreciated Casey Newton’s take on the situation, in which he shares lessons from this incident.

I do think there was value in watching more video of the protests as it emerged before offering up a take. The more angles of the conflict that I watched, the more unsettled I was by the teens’ behavior — and by their chaperons’ inaction. Not everyone has the luxury of waiting until day four of a story to have a take. But a lot of members of the media … do? And if you do, you might consider holding your tongue, at least for 24 hours or so. It’s here that Twitter’s incentive system deserves criticism — the earlier you tweeted the first video, and the more incendiary your view, the likelier you were to have it shot into the algorithmic stratosphere. (One Vulture contributor was fired over the weekend after saying that he wished the teens were dead.)

Don’t rush. If it’s not a time-sensitive situation, the target of your outrage will still be there in a day or two. Plus, you’ll probably have a lot more information from which to craft your position.


Some more news and links from the week:

Which Fyre Festival documentary should you watch? Probably neither.

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In the history of cinema there have been numerous twin movies: movies that have come out at the same time that are about the same thing. Volcano and Dante’s Peak. Armageddon and Deep Impact. A Bug’s Life and Antz. And now, two dueling documentaries about the Fyre festival on Netflix and Hulu: Fyre directed by Chris Smith on Netflix, and Fyre Fraud directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason on Hulu. They both dropped this week, and I want to tell you about which one you should watch.

Let’s talk about what’s similar about both films. They are both enthralling retellings of all the components that went into the Fyre Festival. In fact, both of them cover many of the same story beats and even use the same footage at times. They’re both competently made and they each run about 90 minutes.

Fyre on Netflix is a better shot film. Aesthetically, it just looks more pleasing to the eye with nice use of lighting and skillful situating of interviewees in interesting and dynamic backgrounds. It does a better job capturing the moment-by-moment existential dread of the lead up to the festival, as well as how the planning all went wrong. Also, in my opinion, the quality of the b-roll and footage they got is more compelling, and some of it is extremely damning. There are moments in Fyre that will be talked about and meme-ified for years to come.

Fyre Fraud on Hulu casts its net much wider and tries to assess the culture of influencers and social media that led to something like Fyre Festival even taking place. A lot of it is interesting and great modern context for the festival, but I also found the Hulu documentary much more irritating stylistically. It often used a computer text-to-speech program to read important documents, plus a bunch of stock footage? It was very distracting and I think it took away from the storytelling.

Both documentaries are competent overall and they’re almost complementary in how they illuminate the facts behind this incident. They also each have some pretty serious ethical issues.

The Hulu documentary has an interview with serial entrepreneur and scam artist Billy MacFarland, the man who created the Fyre Festival. That said, it doesn’t hold back on portraying MacFarland as a scam artist. It delves deep into his other businesses and does a better job of explaining not only the depth of his deception, but also the societal circumstances that would allow him to pull of a fraud of this scale. Despite all that, the MacFarland interview itself is pretty useless. MacFarland is almost completely unapologetic, and there is pretty much no self-reflection going on there. If you want the interview as a way to confirm that his lying is indeed pathological, then the Hulu documentary will deliver that, but many of the shots of MacFarland are just of him sitting silently, looking awkwardly down at the floor, refusing to say anything.

The problem is, the filmmakers behind Fyre Fraud paid Billy MacFarland for his interview. Just how much he was paid has not been confirmed, but MacFarland claims it was $250,000. The filmmakers have stated that it was “much lower” than that but they have not shared what the actual number was. So when you’re watching the Hulu documentary, you are, in some small way, helping to enrich the guy who put on the Fyre Festival. And that feels pretty gross.

What’s clear from these movies is that there was a massive human cost to Fyre Festival, beyond just a bunch of millennials having a bad camping weekend. Investors were defrauded but the most heartbreaking thing is all the people who worked on the festival itself. Locals who spent time building the tents, as well as those who worked on the festival that tried to salvage the situation. The festival created a ton of human misery and to be in some way supporting the mastermind behind it doesn’t feel good.

But if that sounds bad, just wait! There’s more!

The Netflix documentary, Fyre, is co-produced by Vice and Jerry Media, the latter of which is a company that helped market the original festival. In that movie’s telling of the story, the people from Jerry Media, who sit for on-camera interviews, were duped by this con-man. They had no idea that the festival was going to be such a disaster, and when they were cashing those marketing checks and enticing people to fly to the festival, they were just doing their jobs. For a variety of reasons, some of which are covered in the Hulu documentary, this strains credulity.

More galling is the fact that at no point during the course of the entire documentary prior to the credits is it even disclosed that the subjects of the documentary are producers on the film. Jerry Media was even named as part of the class action lawsuit against the festival. The fact that the Netflix documentary omits details like this is honestly pretty insane and I’m shocked they aren’t catching more flack for it. It also makes you wonder what other facts they’re leaving out.

So, both movies are in some ways ethically compromised and if you really want to know which documentary to watch and still feel like a good person, the answer is probably neither of them. Don’t support anything about any of what’s going on in trying to market this grift to you. But if you have to watch one, watch the Netflix one. It’s a better film, and at least you’re not helping Billy MacFarland out in any way – just the marketing people who helped perpetrate one of the biggest disasters in music festival history.


Some more links from the week:

500

As of this week, I’ve hosted and produced 500 episodes of the Slashfilmcast. You can listen to our 500th episode here. In this episode, my co-hosts and I reflect on how the show began, how the industry has changed, and what our favorite moments and films from the past decade have been.

The podcast has had a profound effect on my life and it seems to have had a strong impact on the lives of others as well. I’ve made so many friends and had so many wonderful conversations and experiences this past decade. It was nice to take a step back and just reflect on how unusual and interesting this entire journey has been.

I had a wonderful time making this episode and hope you enjoy listening to it.

What is clickbait, anyway?

Over the weekend, a Twitter user named Dakota Lopez posted a list of the websites that were most frequently called out by a Twitter account called FilmClickbait:

FilmClickbait quote tweets out headlines from film news websites and blogs, usually revealing the information that is teased. Here’s an example:

I have some thoughts on all this, but here are a few caveats before I proceed:

    Coming in sixth on that list is slashfilm.com, a site I used to write for regularly and that I currently still host a weekly podcast for.
    I have not verified Lopez’s methodology or his final counts, but nothing about the list strikes me as implausible.
    I can’t comment on whether there’s anything “disproportionately malicious” happening, but it seems possible that the sites that rank highest simply traffic more frequently in what FilmClickbait deems clickbait.

Here is the problem with FilmClickbait’s entire modus operandi: There is no widely understood definition of clickbait, and if there is one, it’s not one that seems to match FilmClickbait’s.

In 2014, Ben Smith wrote a piece for Buzzfeed (a site that would know or thing or two about clickbait) explaining why the site no longer used “clickbait.” In it, he defines clickbait as headlines that fundamentally mislead the reader about what the article is about. When Buzzfeed used to do this, they’d generate short term engagement, but they’d destroy user trust. So they stopped:

If your goal — as is ours at BuzzFeed — is to deliver the reader something so new, funny, revelatory, or delightful that they feel compelled to share it, you have to do work that delivers on the headline’s promise, and more. This is a very high bar. It’s one thing to enjoy reading something, and quite another to make the active choice to share it with your friends. This is a core fact of sharing and the social web of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and other platforms.

The best way to ensure your readers won’t choose to share a story or a post is to trick them. Anyone who has spent the last 20 years online knows the specific disgust that comes with a headline that doesn’t deliver on its promise. It’s the kind of taste you get in your mouth from a glistening but spoiled peach. The publisher got the page view, and ComScore doesn’t record your flash of anger. But you’re hardly going to subject your friends to this experience. (Maybe your enemies.)

Smith even went on to provide tips on how to write good headlines:

Great headlines, meanwhile, tell you a lot about what you’re going to read, and persuade you to click because you know you’ll find a story that will satisfy your interest. The lists that BuzzFeed has long been known for are, as list titles tend to be, extremely direct; “31 Genius Hacks For Your Elementary School Art Class” is just that. As my colleague Ryan Broderick puts it, the goal is often, in fact, to “blow away the curiosity gap.” One of his recent headlines: “A 5-Year-Old Girl Raised Enough Money To Take Her Father Who Has Terminal Cancer To Disney World.”

When you look over Filmclickbait’s targets, there are certainly pieces that fall within the standard definition of clickbait. But there are at least as many pieces that simply don’t adhere to Filmclickbait’s version of a good headline.

Take today as an example. Many websites are writing about Game of Thrones final season premiere date:

Nothing in the headline that is being linked to is misleading. It simply doesn’t include the most crucial piece of information that is teased. And while some (many?) might find it annoying to click through to the actual article, it’s important to ask other questions beyond whether that info is in the tweet/headline itself: Does the article provide important context? Does it provide insights and information that you might not otherwise have known?

If no, then eventually readers will decide on their own that your website is not worth reading or sharing, and the laws of Darwin will eliminate the publication from the pool of going concerns. But if yes, then value is still being delivered to the reader. I don’t understand how that could be called clickbait, or if it can be, I don’t understand why that distinction is important because literally every publication does it.

Here’s a screenshot from today’s New York Times about U.S. tensions with Iran. It reads: “Pentagon Officials Fear Bolton’s Actions Increase Risk of Clash with Iran”

It would be ludicrous for a clickbait-like account to simply quote tweet this article and flippantly write, “He asked for military options to strike Iran!” Why? Because the article itself might contain other information that is important to know about! Simply because the headline doesn’t contain all the relevant information doesn’t make it a bad or clickbait-y headline. And sure, pop culture ephemera doesn’t have the weighty importance of national security, but the same concept applies.

I wholeheartedly believe that there are websites that act in bad faith. But by refusing to distinguish between actively misleading headlines and headlines that simply don’t (can’t?) include all the possible relevant information, FilmClickbait throws the baby out with the bathwater. It provides a skewed perspective on what “clickbait” and bad headline writing even is. That’s arguably an equal disservice to the fan community as the prevalence of actual clickbait.


A few interesting things from the web recently: