January 19, 2008

Mashable Uses A-List Power to Steal B-List Buzz

In the tech blogosphere, there's a clear delineation between those who are actively creating the news (the developers, engineers, and business people), those who are reporting the news (those blogs who follow journalism standards and do actual reporting) and those who simply follow along - either by referencing other people's work, or simply duplicating it. Mashable, billing itself as the #1 social networking news site on the Web, falls almost exclusively in that third camp.

Over the last few weeks, I've been at times shaking my head as I've seen the site's reporters deliver an absolute minimum of original reporting, underdeliver on giving credit to those finding the news first, and in one blatant example, stealing quotes from a story I had written, without giving attribution, and not making edits when notified.

Mashable is one of the big names in the blogosphere, ranking #8 overall, according to Technorati. The site has achieved this ranking through an army of reporters who deliver a high number of stories around the clock. While the stories themselves don't often gain a high number of comments, and don't usually offer new information that couldn't be found elsewhere on the Web, the sheer volume has made them a must-subscribe tech news filter for many subscribed to their RSS feed. (Myself included)

Due to Mashable's popularity, the site very often gains credit for finding a story, when in fact it was almost always found first somewhere else. And the site's design and story templates favor giving the original source of the story as little credit as possible - often tucked away, so well-meaning repeaters of Mashable's news miss it altogether. This month, I've been burned by this a number of times, as you can see:

#1: The ReadBurner Discovery and Launch

On Monday, January 7th, I was the first to uncover ReadBurner's development, in a story, "ReadBurner, In Stealth Mode, Looking to Sort Shared Feed Items". I found the site, did as much research as I could about it, and summarized my findings. After I had traded multiple e-mails with the site's developer, Alexander Marktl, I posted a follow-on note, ReadBurner's Unplanned Big First Day Shows Real Promise.

Later that night, Mashable posted a story, "ReadBurner: Google Shared Items Memetracker", which noted my finding the story, and linked my way, but the reporter oddly acted as if they had been aware of the site's being developed, saying, "Readburner is a site that has been playing at the edges of my feeds for several weeks now. I think I vaguely remember submitting my linkblog to a developer a month or so ago.", making it look like they were part of the story. Wrong. The only person to do exactly this was Arvin Dang, back on December 17th, when he had asked for a list of Google Reader Shared items, in an attempt to consolidate them in one place. (See: TechTalk4U: Tips to help you consolidate and share your RSS)

This incident wasn't wildly egregious. But Mashable's size made other prominent sites simply list: "Source: Mashable" when they in turn wrote up ReadBurner.

SearchBlog: Readburner
VentureBeat: Readburner lets you see what is shared on Google Reader
WebWare: ReadBurner Turns Google Reader's Sharing Features Into Communal Bookmarking

None of the above sites linked back to the original story.

#2: Robert Scoble Announces His Move to Fast Company.TV

On Monday, January 14th, I knew it had been Robert Scoble's last day at PodTech, and while I knew Michael Arrington of TechCrunch had said Scoble was moving on to Fast Company, I wanted to be sure. It'd have been a serious scoop if he was going somewhere else. So, I did what any first-year journalist would do. I called him!

In our quick call that evening, Scoble told me that he was indeed starting FastCompany.TV, that he didn't believe the move was a secret, and that the news was not under embargo, therefore, freeing me to write about it. I did that evening, in a post, "Robert Scoble to Kick Off Fast Company TV Wednesday."

As part of this post, I included the following quote from our phone call:
"The serious options were Fast Company, and us running our own thing," he said. "What brings me joy is interviewing people, hanging out with geeks and blogging. Doing my own thing would mean having to run my own business, and that's not as fun as interviewing Doug Engelbart, who invented the mouse."

The next day, Mashable wrote their own story, titled, "FastCompany Launches Online Video Network Under Scoble".

As part of their story, Mashable included my exact quote, not giving attribution in any way.
“The serious options were Fast Company, and us running our own thing,” he said. “What brings me joy is interviewing people, hanging out with geeks and blogging. Doing my own thing would mean having to run my own business, and that’s not as fun as interviewing Doug Engelbart, who invented the mouse.”

I called BS, in the comments saying, "How is it made clear that the quotes used for this story were lifted from a story I posted yesterday after actually doing "real journalism" and calling Scoble myself to get these answers?"

The author, Mark Hopkins, wrote that by posting a link to my story earlier, that he had given sufficient credit, even though the quotes were lifted. In an e-mail exchange I had with him that evening offline, I told him the appropriate thing to do would be to cite the quote came from somewhere else, by listing "he told louisgray.com" or "Louis Gray reports he said", for example. At the time, he agreed to make a change, and said, "The new version of the story has already hit the web, and the feeds tend to propagate about an hour or two out when it comes to edits, usually."

But almost a week afterwards, I don't think that's actually happened. The first, offending, unedited story is still there. (See: Mashable)

It wasn't any major outreach on my part to reach Robert that Monday. His cellphone number is widely available, and there's no reason Mashable couldn't have gotten their own quote if they wanted one. If time was an issue, giving the site credit would be the very least they could have done, and leaving it unfixed for days after promising a change is very frustrating to see.

In case Mashable wanted to learn how a professional blogger gives attribution, check Robert Scoble himself. In his announcement post, "Why we’re going to FastCompany.tv", he writes, "Louis Gray got the story first," and makes the whole line a link, in his lead paragraph. That's how you give attribution.

#3: The Discovery and Launch of Shared Reader

On Wednesday, January 16th, not a week and a half after ReadBurner was forcefully debuted, we saw the emergence of a new Google Reader shared feeds aggregator, "Shared Reader". And, for the second time in ten days, I was the first person to find out about it and write about it, doing so early that morning in a post, "Shared Reader Latest to Take on Google Reader Shared Item Rankings", submitted only three hours after the developer had made it live.

Sure enough, it wasn't but a few hours later that Mashable followed on and took the news as their own, writing a near duplicate post, titled "SharedReader: Attack of the Google Shared Items Memetrackers.

And again, for the third time in two weeks, you would have had to be a detective to figure out that the exact same blog which found ReadBurner, which also was the first to confirm Scoble's moving to FastCompany.TV was the first to find Shared Reader. How did Mashable give credit? Not through giving louisgray.com credit for the double scoop, but instead, a throw-away line at the very end of the story that said, "[via louis gray]", with only the word "via" being a link.

If Mashable truly wanted to support the full blogosphere instead of promoting their own site, with vacuous reporting, they would have made the link prominent. They could have included the headline. They could have made the link higher, or even put two and two together to say, "Wait a minute, the same guy who found ReadBurner found Shared Reader. Boy that's interesting." But instead, they took a three letter word, made it a link, and put it after the story, where hardly anybody saw it, as my referrer logs can attest.

So what should we do? I'm almost afraid to announce anything new on this site, without fear that Mashable is going to rip me off again, post the news as their own again, steal quotes again, and keep pushing traffic their way instead of back to the original source. I called out Mashable back in September in "Internal Linking On Some Tech Blogs Is Out of Control", and it looks like they still haven't gotten the message.

Think I'm alone or that Mashable is the only offender? Check out ParisLemon's call to arms: Ars Technica, You're a Member of the Internet, Start Linking Like It. There is a major problem in the tech blogosphere leadership where the basic tenets of journalism, sourcing and attribution are ignored.

Mashable is a good aggregator of news from other blogs. It has some great people behind it. But if they're to be taken seriously and respected as they grow up, change is needed. At the very least, make it a rule to never steal quotes from other blogs without delivering attribution. And find a way to actually watch trends to make an educated guess on what the news means or where it's originating. Are there patterns in message or source? That's real journalism and will help the blogosphere be taken just a little more seriously.

And yes, if this means Mashable never links my way again, or copies my stories outright, I think we'll live. We've got more scoops coming in the next few months, guaranteed, and we'll find more reputable people to help follow along.


  1. Louis,

    I feel your pain bud I really do. I stopped reading Mashable months back when I felt the quality of the posts and not to mention the seer number of them didn't make them worth keeping the feed around.

    I will say that Mark 'Rizzn' Hopkins has on a couple of occaisions used posts of mine a starting points for his own and he has been quite fair with attributions.

    That said though I think one other area were B-Listers get the shaft is when they write thinking posts or opinion posts that get very little reaction but then not shortly afterwards one of the big boys will write on a similar - or exact same - subject and they are be hailed as the main source for great blogging.

    I get frustrated as hell sometimes when I see it happen - whether it be my blog, ParisLemon, webomatice or you own blog just to name a few but all I can suggest is take a deep breath - grab a coffee .. kiss the wife and then get back to doing what you love .. writing on your blog about the things that matter to you.

    It may not be the best response but it'll help keep the blood pressure down abit :)

  2. Hi Louis,

    Great talking to you today. As discussed, I've mailed all the writers/editors in question: they'll get back to you when they come back on (Sunday night, probably). As you can see in the mail, I've also proposed an extension to our editorial policies to cover these specific points (we're already working extensively on policies regarding linking in general).

    Hoping we'll get some movement on this by Monday. You have my cell: gimme a call if there's anything you want to discuss.

    --Pete, Mashable

  3. Louis - glad you got to talk to Pete from Mashable as he indicated above. I met most of the Mashable crew last week and I definitely don't think any of them are partaking in anything to screw you over on purpose. I think it's just a matter of them following the same procedures that they've always done - what has got them to where they are - but it's good to see that people like Pete are willing to listen and reconsider some practices.

    I'm with Steven. I get frustrated sometimes by various things on the interwebs, but then I just keep on writing and things usually even out in the end.

  4. @Pete/Mashable:

    It was good talking with you this evening. It's hard to write things like this, knowing it could frustrate some well-intentioned people. My goal is to call out practices that I think could/should be improved, and help work toward change.

    I was very pleased to hear your comments as to an updated editorial policy, and see your outreach to establish editorial and linking guidelines.

    As MG Siegler and Steven Hodson note, we have all felt frustrations when the repeating site gives little attribution to that who did the grunt work of reporting. It's a big fish > little fish issue that likely won't ever be solved. But we do believe that you can help make positive change that can serve to be a positive example in the tech blogosphere/media.

    To be clear, I believe every single one of your writers is well-intentioned, good people with strong goals. If possible, my post wasn't personal. It wasn't about feeling "screwed over" per se, as MG writes, but instead, trying to highlight issues that if resolved, could lead to best practices.

    I look forward to continuing to see your site's growth and updates over time.

  5. I'll remain anonymous and simply point out that your post is nothing but crying over something that has been happening for over a decade. Slashdot doesn't have new content, Digg is nothing new, mashable is all about nothing, and most blogs are gossip and opinion (not news). For years I wrote on a site that would be linked to by Slashdot to only have others link to Slashdot and not the original site. In the 90s, there was a large tech site that ripped hundreds of pages of mine. My January 1st story was stolen by A-list bloggers and repeated as if the ideas were theirs. It happens and no one really cares because the Internet is not about journalism, integrity, or news but wasting time. Besides, no one person is important on the Internet.

  6. Great post, I added your feed. ;)

  7. And! Like the other commenters, I like Mashable too, but its important to speak up too. It appears already you are causing positive change across the whole site.

  8. Louis,

    FYI, I managed to get hold of Mark right before he went to bed and he says he'll call you in the morning. It's 2am here too, so I guess I'd better head out. ;) I'm offline most of Sunday, but the editors will pick up the ball.


  9. democracy is the the tyranny of the masses, the lowest common denominator rules

    and imitation is completely a human thing to do

    so, expect further erosion of the standards of discourse on the net/web/blogosphere

    entropy works in one direction only

    originality is rare, so is hard work, ditto writing and thinking skills acquisition

    cut-and-paste journalism is the wave of the future

    humans aren't all that great, i am sure you are aware

    enjoy, gregory

  10. In the tech blogosphere, there's a clear delineation between those who are actively creating the news (the developers, engineers, and business people), those who are reporting the news (those blogs who follow journalism standards and do actual reporting) and those who simply follow along - either by referencing other people's work, or simply duplicating it.

    If that statement is true, then there must be a minimum of two clear delineations.

  11. Louis,

    This is an interesting post, but I feel that you are slagging Mashable for what every blog does, including TechCrunch and Engadget.

    Engadget internally links to itself 90% of the time, they rip sceenshots and images (even editing watermarks out), and they get credit for other people's work (most of the Engadget content on Digg is someone else's work).

    Tech Crunch will re-write an entire blog post, and at the end put "via so-and-so", leaving it completely unclear what they did or did not add to a story. I've had the pleasure of two of my "thinking" posts, as Hodson says above, borrowed without the favor of a link.

    I like TC, Engadget, Mashable, Ars, they're all free, I can take them or leave them.

  12. I like Pete and company...they're good people. With that said, this is constructive advice for them to improve other things...

    Mashable has a reputation for breaking embargoes and we've been burned several times. There is also some very interesting things going on with their time stamps.

    @pete, several times your reporters run before they're supposed to and it has caused some serious grief and has also created tension between us and other bloggers. They think we're giving you the scoop when all we're trying to do is share it with a few news makers at the same time. Unfortunately, we've had to stop sending news in advance...

  13. @anonymous and @anonymous (common name!)

    While Mashable took the brunt of this post, thanks to the incidents over the last few weeks, I'm not claiming they are the only site that's ever acted this way. Back in September, when we talked a lot about internal linking, others volunteered TechCrunch, Engadget and a number of other big sites for the way they approached the issue.

    I wrote this specific post in regards to Mashable because of the closeness of the three articles, and what I saw to be a pattern of questionable behavior, even if each of the individuals involved didn't intend harm in any way. I appreciated talking with Pete, and his above comment, and expect to keep a good relationship with the reporters on their team.

    As for other comments, I can't verify whether Mashable has broken embargoes or not, as we've not seen that.

  14. Mashable unequivocally does not break embargo unless we've seen it on another highly ranked TechMeme/Technorati blog first. That is our policy, and we've never deviated from that.

  15. I think a case can be made that the top bloggers (especially bloggers who want to be considered journalistic) do not spend enough time and effort researching their subjects. For example, where is the comparison to Feedheads for the recent Google Reader Shared related websites? Also, a link (therefore credit) is given to techtalk4u for discussing a shared directory but if you dig back further you will find that the topic has been discussed before. I myself brought it up back in August 2007 http://seeknock.blogs.com/seek/2007/08/google-reader-s.html

    At the time and periodically since then I have searched for other people who are sharing their Google Reader Shared Items. Even then, I was not the first to broach the topic nor obviously the last.

    I am now wondering if Google has purposely chosen not to enter this market because they do not their sharing featured to be gamed in the same way that Digg and other similar services.

  16. @seeknock:

    When I first wrote about both ReadBurner and Shared Reader, I mentioned Feedheads in both cases.

    This "tag" page will show that.

    I haven't yet gone feature by feature between the three sites and showed who has what, but the thought has crossed my mind.

    I did mention TechTalk4U's request to aggregate shared linked items, and probably should have said, "the only one I remember from this time"... rather than making it absolute. But what I was trying to dismiss was the comment that the Mashable author, who also mentioned Feedheads in his article, had seen ReadBurner "tickling around the edge of his feeds" for a while.

  17. Just to add to Mark's point about embargoes - we've recently been having issues with our timestamps (they were running behind, now they're running fast - it's a server issue), which may be why you think we've broken an embargo. If you look in Google Reader, embargoed stories come out at the same time as other blogs that have been briefed.

    If you have a specific example of an embargo you think we've broken (that another blog didn't print first), email us mashable@gmail.com and we'll look into it.

  18. Like Steven Hodson above, I noted a distinct downward turn in the quality of Mashable's writing and reporting and gave up on it as a useful source of info. Also, Hopkins' inability to contol his political cheap shots and his ego irritated the hell out of me.

  19. I have been watching Mashable content for a long time, and editors like Mark Hopkins and a few others give that site a really bad name.

    Credibility is key here and Mashable does not have an ounce of credibility anymore

  20. This is a thoughtful piece, though I don't think Mashable or plagiarism is the key problem - rather it is the challenge of monetizing blog content.

    We now have "reporting" where quantity rather than quality is key, and the tendency of many not to link out in the true spirit of the internet when talking about or citing other people's stuff. Also, sites like TechMeme distort the linking patterns. My original stuff won't get to TechMeme, rather only the secondary stuff I write that links out to a primary site like Mashable, creating an echo chamber.

    Many A listers have been very selectively linking since links became the web currency a few years back, and this has kept A list sites in the drivers seat rather than spreading things out.

    Is a blog revolution needed to make sure A list folks don't dominate the news when folks like you often do better reporting?


  21. @adamjostrow,

    Yeah, as previously mentioned to you, I spoke to Erick at Techcrunch on Friday about post stamp times: told him to call MediaTemple, who can fill him in on the server clock issue. Failing that, we can just pass him the mail threads between you, me and MT.

    Anonymous commenters: we can't really do much to help you out unless you give us a name, contact info or at least something constructive to work with. Please help us to help you: I'll happily spend time speaking to you guys on the phone/IM if it improves the blog. As Adam says, you can mail mashable [at] gmail if you'd like to remain anonymous here.


  22. Good article Louis,
    Agree re Mashable, as well as the other sites mentioned. In addition, other "A" sites like Problogger and John Chow have a disreputable vibe and I seriously question their suggestions.
    The ethics in blogging (and the internet) are abismal. This will shortly bite the industry in the butt.

  23. Mashable really looks like a built-to-flip SEO play.

    Rewritten press releases, stolen posts, broken embargoes, and splog trackbacks pump SEO-driven page views.

    Now Pete has come to town to talk to people and smooth things over, hence the "Mashable are good people" remarks.

    Please judge only by their long-term actions, not by their Sunday damage control efforts.

    (Sorry for anonymity, gotta protect the clients)

  24. This makes me want to boycott Mashable. No seriously it does, but I can't deny the fact that I like a lot of their news.

  25. Louis,

    I 100% agree with you on all fronts. We are a new startup that released a basic preview of our site so we could get some feedback from our users. We have a loads of features coming up and someone must have submitted us to Mashable.

    Instead of asking us what we were doing, they simply wrote an inaccurate, unbaised and unfair article and now we have to live with there high pagerank whenever anyone searches for us.

    I have tried writing to them to ask them to review the story - but never get a response. I wrote about it on my blog here -

    Let me know what you think.



  26. Hey Louis ...

    I read both TechCrunch, Mashable and others (and share their feeds and yours on Reedburner). I also write a lot of original stuff and trying to network (particularly on Twitter) as much as humanly possible.

    Two points:
    1) There are MUCH worse sites in this category, some making Techmeme on a regular basis

    2) Journalism is even changing in the mainstream news world. There's No DOUBT that a few Big Name publications are using blog posts, only to have to retract them.

    I ran the Silicon Alley Yahoo layoffs story AFTER a few calls and then reading the semi-retraction this morning.


  27. All, thanks for your feedback. I summarized quite a bit of the discussion in a new post highlighting Pete's comments to update the site's linking policies, and what the blogosphere in general is calling for from leading publications.

    To be clear:
    1) I do not dislike Mashable or its authors
    2) I do not advocate unsubscribing or boycotting
    3) I do not know of any embargo-breaking
    4) I am not saying Mashable is the only blog ever to act this way.

    More: Mashable Promises to Upgrade Linking Policies

  28. Great post Louis. Nice to know other people also feel the same as i did till few months back. To end my personal frustration on all the human content scraping by mashable team, i quit blogging around 3 months back. I know i am the one who lost out, but i didn't want like what has happening. I know mashable is not the only one who is doing it out there, but they are the worst. Personally i loved blogging, and always wanted to break news, do something real fast that is fun for everyone. Anyway i am off to better things. Also for all those reading the comments from Pete above, the are absolutely bullshit. Don't trust a single word from those comments. I know from experience ;)

  29. Louis, thanks for posting this. We need people like you to help make change. Keep up the good work, and continue to post breaking stories.

  30. Ars Technica is a particularly egregious offender.

    I can often find the existing report they're rewriting simply by eyeballing the newswire, looking for earlier timestamps, and comparing articles.

    Yet they get the blog/digg/Slashdot traffic and are the fourth most dugg news source. You want a website that's got traffic derailing down to a science, watch Ars over the next month.

    They just happen to disperse their reconstituted work between enough original content so most people don't notice.

  31. "In the tech blogosphere, there's a clear delineation between those who are actively creating the news (the developers, engineers, and business people), those who are reporting the news (those blogs who follow journalism standards and do actual reporting) and those who simply follow along - either by referencing other people's work, or simply duplicating it. Mashable, billing itself as the #1 social networking news site on the Web, falls almost exclusively in that third camp."

    I'd also argue that there is NOT a clear delineation between the three.

    You've got blogs involved in startups they're promoting, websites who deeplink frequently but also offer original reporting on occasion, etc.

    Any of them can break a story at any time.

    In the end it's not really about who falls into what category, it's about having principles when it comes to giving credit for your sources of information, which many websites fail miserably at.

    There's several websites out there who think they're Reuters, and lift from everywhere for pieces they're trying to dress up as original reporting without doling out link love....and news is now a conversation, not a diatribe.