Last November, I wrote about a reader of mine named Stephen G. who discovered Apple’s iCloud was censoring the emails of his clients without telling anyone. Anything with the phrase “barely legal teen” in the email body or an attachment was automatically sent into the ether – not shunted to a Spam folder, just 86’d without notice.
Stephen G. creates software used by screenwriters, one of whom couldn’t figure out why emails containing PDFs of his 109-page opus kept disappearing on the way to his agent. Then they figured it out. Copies of the script containing the words “barely legal teen” were blocked, those without the offending phrase went through without a hitch.
I went back and forth with Steven on email, tried to contact Apple for comment (fat chance), wrote about it, and then moved on to other topics.
Last week I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I saw a tweet a that read: “It appears that Apple has gone insane. They absolutely have to address this publicly” with a bit.ly link. Who could resist that? I clicked the link and was surprised to find my November blog post – or rather, a rapidly summarized version of it – on the Cult of Mac blog. The author, Buster Heine (that’s his real name, I swear), had tried to send emails containing the offending phrase via iCloud and couldn’t. Like me he also tried and failed to get comment from Apple. And that’s about it.
Why, I wondered, was this suddenly “news”?
Two days after that, a longer but otherwise identical story appeared in MacWorld UK, InfoWorld’s IDG sister site across the pond. Displaying a Ninja-like command of the passive voice, editor-in-chief Mark Hattersley wrote: “Apple’s iCloud email service deletes all emails that contain the phrase ‘barely legal teen’ it was revealed today.”
Hattersley did a scosh more testing than Heine, but otherwise it was the same story, based on something I wrote four months ago. A few hours later Dan Moren and Lex Friedman of MacWorld US did a follow-up with more rigorous testing and came to the same conclusion. However, they at least managed to get someone from Apple to comment, kinda sorta. Per Apple:
“Occasionally, automated spam filters may incorrectly block legitimate email. If the customer feels that a legitimate message is blocked, we encourage customers to report it to AppleCare.”
MacWorld responds, quite rightly: “Of course, that introduces a sort of existential dilemma here: How do you report the non-arrival of an email that you never received?”
From there, the story blew up. It appeared on the Web sites of several UK and US newspapers, Gizmodo, Gawker, VentureBeat, HuffingtonPost, Ars Technica, BoingBoing, and TheVerge, among others. All of them credited one MacWorld or the other as the source of the story. Only one of them linked here.
Of all dozen or so stories I scanned, only The Unofficial Apple Weblog (TUAW) and Read Write Web noted that the blog you are now reading was the original source of the story, as well as the fact it was four months old, in the lead. Thank you, Randy Nelson of TUAW and John Paul Titlow of RWW for actually clicking the link in the MacWorld UK story and reading it. Shame on the rest of you.
Why did a post I wrote nearly four months ago suddenly become a hot topic on the InterWebs? I decided to find out. It turns out Cult of Mac’s Heine blog saw my original post highlighted on the BuzzFeed FWD twitter stream. Twenty five minutes later, Buster had his version online.
I asked BuzzFeed Tech editor John Herrman where he found the story. He says he first saw it on on his Twitter stream, posted by a Mac/iOS developer in Oregon named Justin Miller. For his part, Miller says he heard about it on an IRC chat with some friends.
Via Twitter, I asked Hattersley, who “revealed” the story to him, but have yet to get a response. My guess is he saw it on Hacker News, Twitter, or Cult of Mac. Or maybe it came to him in a dream. But in any event, he hit the Web lottery jackpot: Unlike Cult of Mac’s version, his story got hot on Reddit, garnering nearly 1800 comments.
MacWorld UK wrote a follow-up about the story, and even attempted to claim credit for a partial outage of iCloud that happened around the same time:
We wondered whether we encouraged people to start testing whether Apple was filtering phrases such as "barely legal teen" and if that influx inundated to Apple’s spam fitters and caused the servers to fall over.
Thanks to that one story we saw as much traffic to our website in one day as we saw in the three days preceding it, luckily our servers didn’t fall over.
Why did this story go viral? There are a few obvious reasons.
1. Apple obsession. The Internet loves all things Apple — far in excess of how people in the real world love all things Apple. This explains the seemingly infinite number of Apple-centric blogs, not to mention all those general tech sites that spend at least a third of their time slavishly covering everything that comes out of Cupertino.
2. Big corporations behaving badly. Everyone loves a story about the bully getting caught with his pants down – and when the bully is Apple, it’s even juicier.
3. Salaciousness. If this were about Apple blocking phrases like “cheap home mortgages” or “lose weight instantly” in emails I don’t think anyone would have bothered. But “barely legal teen” allows Web sites to both stand the moral high ground yet benefit from get all that traffic. Wink wink, nudge nudge.
4. The narrative. This story fits perfectly into a well-established storyline about Apple as control freak prudes. The blog post practically writes itself. No wonder it only took 25 minutes.
5. Dumb luck. The Cult of Mac story died on Reddit, but the MacWorld UK story blew up there two days later. Only God and Reddit CEO Yishan Wong know why, and Wong is probably just guessing.
What effect did all this have on InfoWorld? Almost none. Though the original stories linked to my post, most of the rest did not. And this, in a nutshell, encapsulates everything that’s wrong with how news is reported on the Web.
This wasn’t exactly a Pulitzer Prize winning effort on my part. But I did engage with my source over a period of days, asked him to test out different scenarios to suss out whether iCloud really was blocking those messages or something else was to blame. I looked through the iCloud terms of service to locate the bits where Apple reserves the right to censor anyone’s content at any time without notice, and contacted Apple asking for comment. (As if.)
In other words, I spent more than 25 minutes on it.
People in the Web “aggregation” business always use the same argument in their defense. Yes, we may take your story, do almost nothing to improve it, and still manage to grab many more eyeballs for it than you did. But at least we are bringing you attention and link love you would not have otherwise gotten.
That’s the alleged quid pro quo in the new millennium. But it’s all BS. The paltry amount of “extra” traffic you may get does not somehow pay for the cost of the original reporting, even for something as simple as this story. It’s nowhere near an equal exchange. Which is why organizations that do original reporting are struggling, if not dying outright, while the copycats thrive.
At some point, and we are rapidly approaching it imho, this model breaks down completely. When the reporters are gone, what will be left for repeaters to rewrite? Press releases, corporate news, and government spin – written mostly by the same folks who used to be on the other side, reporting on it.
Remember, you read it here first. But probably not last.
This post originally appeared on InfoWorld.
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