Congrats, Apple sleuths, for 'breaking' a four-month-old story

Lots of bloggers fumed at Apple and iCloud's adverse reaction to 'barely legal teen' -- all while ignoring the original source

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The Cult of Mac story was posted on Hacker News by a security geek named Ryan Lackey and garnered hundreds of comments. It was also posted to Reddit but got very little attention there.

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. In any event, he hit the Web lottery jackpot: Unlike Cult of Mac's version, his story got hot on Reddit, garnering nearly 1,800 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. 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 teens" allows websites to both stand the moral high ground yet benefit from 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. The story saw an uptick of traffic in the last 10-odd days, but nothing like the 1,800 comments on Reddit. Though the original stories linked to my post, most of the rest did not. 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, asking 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 I 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 a story as simple as this one. 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.

Do repeaters serve a useful purpose? What websites do you rely on for original news? Share your thoughts below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "Congrats, Apple sleuths, for 'breaking' a four-month-old story," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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