Sunday, March 7, 2021

#TechlashBook on Podcasts - TWiG

TWiG- This Week in Google (TWiT) episode 601 Spotify / Apple Podcasts / Google Podcasts / Stitcher

Thank you, Leo Laporte, Jeff Jarvis, and Ant Pruitt, for having me on your “This Week in Google” podcast. I appreciate our discussion - it was fun!


TWiG This Week in Google episode 601 Nirit Weiss-Blatt

Here are some of my quotes, which tell the story of the Techlash research. The conversation was more than two hours, so those are just a few snippets (slightly edited for clarity).

Thank you, Otter.AI, for the quick and accurate transcription.


What is the Techlash?

The techlash is a summary of the past few years where we have this really strong and widespread negative reaction to the growing power and influence of big tech companies, specifically the large companies here in Silicon Valley. We have specific sectors that are more backlashed, like social media, and companies that are more backlashed, like Facebook, as you can guess. But it's basically being much more critical to the tech industry than before.


The evolution of tech journalism

It changed a lot. The book has this chapter, pre-Techlash era, which starts from the 80s until now, to show the difference in the power relations between the tech giants and the media and the PR practices and how tech journalists used to work. And also, of course, the state of mind that was more utopian and dystopian. Then, in the Techlash era is the roots of the change and the characteristics of the coverage.

Leo: When did the honeymoon end? Nirit: November 2016. Leo: You have a date. Wow. Really, November 2016? I have to check my calendar. What happened in November 2016? Nirit: Donald Trump became the president.

Leo: How would that affect our coverage of technology as tech press?

Nirit: So first, let's say that technology became much more politicized. But we put that aside. The tech people, whether they were journalists or workers in the companies, were all in the state of reckoning with their influence and asking, 'how did we get here?' Everybody started to blame the tech platforms for the widespread misinformation. And then, it all became more critical.


Pre-techlash: Innovation Journalism / Product Journalism

I'm a big data analytics kind of girl. So, I looked at the companies and their peaks during the year. I analyzed those peaks of coverage, like the main the biggest stories they have during the years. In what I call ‘the pre-Techlash,’ most of them were ‘Innovation Journalism’ or ‘Product Journalism.’ And by that, I mean product launches, either software or hardware. And a lot of business reporting. So, of course, all the IPOs and M&As. That was the normal, big headlines in the tech news.


2017: The year of the turning-point

But when I analyzed 2017, most peaks were negative—tech scandals. Most of them were like, fake news after the Las Vegas shooting, which involved Twitter, Google, and Facebook. And we had the Russian interference and all the investigation starting in Congress. All those headlines were not there before.

We had investigations and fines and privacy issues; all of them were in the tech coverage, all the years, all the time. But they were less visible because there was less coverage of those issues. The shift that I'm showing in the book is that since 2017, those are the salient, the major stories in the tech coverage.


Pendulum swings

The theme of the book is pendulum swings, and I'm showing how in the pre-Techlash era, we had several of them. Think about the positive coverage in the Dot-Com Bubble. And then, how was the coverage was after the burst. I mean, the tech CEOs were God, and then they became a dog. So, we had that before. But what I'm showing, since the Techlash and up, is that even with the pandemic and we had this very short ‘second honeymoon’ full of gratitude … it was so short, and all the Techlash subjects and issues resurface again very quickly. So actually, the Techlash is here to stay. We went from one extreme to the other. But this extreme is here. We are not going back to the other side.


Research methods

I collected the tech coverage of the big tech companies from both traditional media and tech blogs. Then, I mapped their yearly timeline. After that, I looked at each big story and analyzed their response. I took the press releases and spokesperson's statement to journalists and everything that I could use about how they reacted to everything that's happening. And how then, those responses backlashed as well, because I'm also showing the coverage of how the journalists looked at those responses and said, it's BS. So, it's this back and forth between how the tech companies present the stories and how the media does it.


The companies’ infamous secrecy & limited access / The rise of tech investigative reporting

There are power relations between the two groups. When we were in the phase of ‘Innovation Journalism,’ and everything is shiny and cool, and innovations are basically good for society, then the tech companies had this power. We all know about their infamous secrecy and limited access. The tech journalists just wanted to be closer to God. That's made some of the tension that we have today. Then, when it moved to ‘tech is negative and ruining society’ phase, tech companies are more defensive, and they need to react to their new scandal of the week. The tech journalist saw that when they dig-up and find more harm, they have a real impact on the world. It's actually good journalism, and more journalists joined the effort.


Is the media pro-conflict?

I totally agree that if there is any bias in the media is that it's pro-conflict. This is why we have articles such as 'The evil list,' listing the 30 most dangerous, evil companies in tech because that's the headline to put on such a story.


The tech companies’ responses

What I found is that they usually put out the same playbook, what I call the 'Tech PR template for crises.' They always make the same responses. And one of the book’s messages, I think, is that it's, of course, not enough because I documented that it backlashed heavily. So, how should they react? It's a brilliant question. We look at tech companies as black boxes producing black boxes. So yes, transparency and they need to educate more about the complexity or nuances of the issues they're dealing with. It is also, showing the humanity inside. When we see all the wars between them, it's also that they need to be more united. The problems that they're dealing with, it's the whole sector that is dealing with. And if they won't deal with them together, there's gonna be more damage.

The thing is that there's a ‘no-win’ here because they're doing what the ‘crisis communication 101’ tells them to do. They're specifying what they've done, the good intention that they build something good, and they have previous good deeds (which they always specify) and great policies in place. But ‘our product or platform was manipulated and misused by bad malicious actors.’ We always have this ‘victim-villain framing’ of ‘we were good’ versus ‘the outside malicious entities.’



I think we should take a step back. The whole Techlash thing started because micro-targeting became this evil force, the source of evil in the world. It was because of things like Russian interference. So back then, everybody looked at micro-targeting as the worst thing on the internet. But now we have Facebook, changing the conversations showing, okay, if we don't have targeted ads, how are small businesses going to reach their audience? So, you see Facebook going out with other messages, trying at least to change the framing of it's not that evil; it's actually very helpful, specifically in the pandemic where small companies are hurt.

But when the media is attacking the actual fundamentals of your business, like the business model you have, PR can’t fix it. PR can't help because you're not going to change the fundamentals of your business. You don't have any incentive to do so. So, no matter what messaging you go out with, it's not gonna help.


Hold power to account

One of the reasons we have the Techlash is because of the big tech companies’ bigness - they're so big and have such huge scale. So, they're at a place of getting scrutiny if nothing else is because of how big and powerful they are. And it's not like they're getting less powerful or less big. The focus on them is because of their growing power. That's the tech journalist saying, ‘we need to hold power to account and speak truth to power. And it's exactly why we're doing it now. And not when they were this small startup in a garage.’


Tech journalist vs. tech bloggers

The book touches on the difference between tech bloggers and tech journalists a lot. Even though I get criticism for doing that. I'm showing why I'm keeping the divide between tech journalists, tech bloggers in some cases.

The way I'm looking at it is, as a communication researcher, is through the lens of ‘agenda-setting.’ When I'm looking at the agenda, when it comes to product launches, the first row when we had live-events, those were the tech bloggers, because you wanted them to do the ‘hands-on’ reviews. So, they were the agenda-setters when it comes to new products. But when it comes to the Congress investigation about the Russian interference, it will be the New York Times, the Washington Post, and all the traditional media outlets that have tech coverage. And they have different ethical frameworks to work with because the subjects’ importance is different, their impact is different.


Tech journalists vs. the companies’ PR efforts

Tech journalists reflected on their relationship with tech PR, the other side. Back then, in the glorious days, we had computer magazines, and we had press releases and conferences, and they mainly dictated the coverage. Most of it was promotional (from those press releases and what they wanted to present.) Everybody wanted more tech information because tech became more integrated into everything in our lives. Then, what happened in the power shift here is that the companies became more secretive with limited access. They can choose which journalists they invite for conversation and whether it's “on background” or not. Then, the journalists complained, well, if you speak critically, you're just not entering the door, you can go there, they won’t invite you to anything. That was a lot of frustration that was building up for years. And now, they're glad that they can be both critical and have an interview. But then what happens when it's not “on background,” and you're inside, the CEO just gives you PR talking points, and he is not really saying anything that he didn't want to reveal anyway.


More on the roots of the change in coverage

The book specifies that it's not only the reckoning from Trump’s election or the companies’ bigness that I mentioned; it's the accumulation of many issues at once that created the Techlash. It was also data breaches and sexual harassment and discrimination. We had a lot of issues happening.


Tech CEOs

Most of it was on the shoulders of the founders and CEOs. The 'cult of personality' was mainly about those geniuses doing those innovations and ‘make the world a better place.’ That was the narrative all the years. Now, I would say that the tech journalists, when they look at those tech CEOs, they want to take them down from those thrones because we don't want them to be on the throne and deciding everything.


Gartner Hype Cycle

One cycle that I think analyzes the things you said now is the Gartner cycle, where they're talking about the ‘Trough of disillusionment.’ That first, you are really enthusiastic about something (‘peaks of inflated expectations’), and then 'oh, no, look at all the unintended consequences and how it's bad.' And then, after the up and down, it gets to a middle ground (‘plateau of productivity’) that 'Yeah, we handle it now. And we use it and forget about it.' Different technologies go through this cycle. I think social media now is in the 'Oh, no, what it does to society' phase.


Lastly, two other things just made my day:

Dear TWiT created this shorter version for YouTube - What is the TechLash?

TWiG What is the Techlash Nirit Weiss-Blatt

And RoomRater rated my “hostage video” background as 3/10 :-)

TWiG Nirit Weiss-Blatt Room Rater

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