Alex Payne points to a blog post by Ben Laurie that discusses Diaspora and Haystack, and how projects like these can attract huge amounts of press, only to flame out as their charismatic founders’ incompetence is revealed.
I agree with Ben’s post, but it’s worth being a bit more explicit about what allows these situations to arise: the quality of most tech journalism is abysmal. I mean really inexcusably bad. Mainstream publications regularly assign writers to cover the software industry that have a level of understanding regarding the field that would be unacceptable in an intern. The most esteemed practitioners in the tech press are either focused on the consumer electronic user experience or are building personal brands around faith-based tech triumphalist movements.
In this sort of environment, it should be no surprise that an embarrassing hype cycle can emerge — one that talented self-promoters will use to enhance their status and wealth. I find it difficult to assign all that much blame to those self-promoters: the whole problem is that they don’t know any better. What more can we expect? Besides, it’s very easy to start believing your own bullshit once people with seemingly-meaningful professional credentials start validating it. Self-promoters will self promote; it’s not realistic to expect them to be the ones providing diligence.
I suspect that the problem may have to do with the structure of the industry: if you know much about it, you’re probably going to be able to make more money participating in it than writing about it. I don’t know enough about finance to really judge, but it seems as though that press sector suffers from a similar systemic disability — certainly all can agree that the financial press didn’t cover itself in glory in advance of the recent financial crisis. Once that story became big enough, talented generalist journalists filtered in and did the job properly.
But unless and until the skill premium for the software industry diminishes relative to journalism I’m not sure there’s a good way to align incentives in a way that fixes this problem. The best we can do is to recognize that the journalists who wrote excitedly about Haystack and Diaspora made a mistake; they were fooled, and they wasted our time. There’s no need to tar and feather anyone, but their credibility needs to suffer if we want this situation to improve.
Maybe we don’t need it to improve! It’s not that important, to be perfectly honest. But it sure does bug the hell out of me.