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January, 2019:

Pivoting to the Gumball Machine

Well, it’s the end of the month again, and I’m out of free articles from all the major newspapers. This happens toward the end of just about every month: I see an article in one of the papers linked by an aggregator, I go there through the link, and am told that I have used all my free articles and can now either subscribe to the paper or go away. I go away. This does not bode well for the newspaper in question, nor for newspapers generally.

The problem is dirt-simple: I do not want the whole damned Washington Post.

I might want five or six articles per month. I do not want the comics, the ads, the local news and gossip (unless something really important is going on there locally) nor the constant obsessive eyes-rolled-back-in-the-head drumbeating against Trump. I hate politics. I want ideas and analysis of interesting things, people, and phenomena, from a neutral point of view. And I am willing to pay for them.


People who have been following me for a long time may remember an idea piece I did in this space way back in 2005, with a followup in 2014. I called it a “digital content gumball machine” because that’s what it was: A storefront with an easy payment system that downloads a digital file to your hard drive. In 2005, these really hadn’t been perfected, but Amazon came along and did it, followed by other firms like Audible. As with my 1994 prediction of Wikipedia, the details turned out a little different, but for music and ebooks, my vision was fulfilled. When I hear a piece of music I like, I go to Amazon, search for it, click a couple of things, and clunk-clatter! An MP3 appears in my Downloads folder. Ditto for ebooks. Yes, discovery is still a challenge, but it’s a separate challenge that I’ll take up another time.

Having pivoted to video without success, Big Media seems on track pivoting to dust, as Robby Soave said on Twitter and Megan McArdle quoted in a WaPo article I can’t even link to now that January’s freebies are gone. (If you subscribe or have freebies left, read it.)

One of the reasons that the print news media giants (as well as print magazines like The Atlantic) are pivoting to dust is that unlike music, ebooks, and audiobooks, they don’t have gumball machines. You can’t buy a gumball. You need to buy the entire jar. So my suggestion to them is the following: Create a consortium to finance the construction of a periodical media gumball machine.

It would work someting like this: The gumball machine is a payment processor back end to which publishers can connect under contract. Publishers add small scripts to each one of their articles, which display the title and first 500 characters of the article in a window with a message like “Continue reading this article for 50c.” Another button might offer a downloadable copy for $1. When the consumer clicks a button, he or she is charged the appropriate amount and the window poofs, revealing the full article or download link.

Consumers would create an account not with any individual publication but with the gumball machine itself, providing a charge card or coin wallet or some other means of payment. Readers could then seamlessly flit from The Washington Post to The Chicago Tribune to The Atlantic, picking up an article gumball here and an editorial gumball there. The back end would keep the the accounting straight, and would wire money to all publishers using the system on a weekly or monthly basis, keeping some pre-agreed margin for its own expenses. Publishers would leave some freebies on their sites to keep people from forgetting about them, or perhaps have articles age-out to free status after some set period of time.

Publishers would have razor-sharp data on what writers and what topics are their biggest draws. They could adjust prices to find price points that maximize their income. They wouldn’t have to abandon ads altogether, but would no longer be at the mercy of advertisers. They could stop pivoting from one damfool technofad to another, and just do what readers expect them to do: provide interesting reading at competitive prices…and do it by the piece.

After all, get enough people to pay you fifty cents for an article, and sooner or later you’re talking real money.

That’s the whole gumball machine concept for periodical publications. I know enough of the required tech to be quite sure it’s doable. In truth, it’s not even rocket science. So would it work?

Alas, no. There’s way too much ego on the table. Consider the pompous-ass motto WaPo puts on its masthead: “Democracy dies in darkness.” Uhhh, no. Democracy dies in tribalism…with you idiots leading the charge off that particular cliff. Newspapers have talked themselves into believing that they are the sole protectors of our freedom, and that we all gaze upon them with sighs of thankful reverence. They may have fulfilled that role to some extent decades ago, when investigative reporting was actually done, and done to standards held by all genuine journalists. Now, the big papers have abandoned careful investigative reporting for clickbait and partisan advocacy, which in fact is the opposite of journalism.

Anyway. I’ve thrown the idea out there and would be curious to get your reactions. As always, no partisan arguing in the comments. That’s what Twitter is for, heh.

Taming Twitter

I knew Twitter was mostly useless before I ever got an account there. I got the account because the service seemed insanely popular, which I simply could not understand. My account is now four years old, and having mostly lurked in that time I think I finally understand what Twitter is for, and why it’s a problem.

This past week saw another instance of what many call a Twitter lynch mob: Hordes of tribalists, intoxicated with their own outrage, descended upon a group of Catholic high school boys who were waiting for a bus in DC when various kinds of hell broke loose around them. I won’t go over the details here; you can google as much as you like. The incident itself isn’t my point, and I will delete any arguments in the comments over whether they “deserved” the ill-treatment they got. (They did not. If you disagree, disagree in your own space, not mine.)

The point I’m actually making here is that this incident (and countless others like it) would not have happened without Twitter. I’ve been on LiveJournal since 2005, and on Facebook since 2009. I’ve never seen an online lynch mob on either service. I’ve seen plenty of arguments, some of them quite heated, a few of them absolutely insane. None of them “went viral” the way that Twitter lynch mobs go viral.

Part of the underlying problem is a lack of discipline among many journalists. Most of the money has gone out of mainstream news journalism over the past twenty years, and with it went the sort of disciplined, methodical reporting I took for granted before 2005 or so. When you have to get clicks to keep your job and pay your bills, “methodical reporting” means all the other starving journalists will get those clicks before you do.

But bad journalism is mostly an enabling factor. The real mechanism is Twitter’s ability to act as an amplifier of emotion. Until very recently, tweets were limited to 140 characters. That’s room enough to post a link to an Odd Lot (which is most of what I do) and not much else beyond quips, brief questions, quotations, short descriptions of photos and videos, and so on. This means that rational discussion doesn’t take place very often on Twitter. There just isn’t room. Sure, some people make their case using a number of independently posted tweets intended to be read in sequence. Megan McArdle of the Washington Post is very good at this. Alas, the process of creating such a thread sounds mighty tedious to me.

What’s left? Emotion. And what’s the emotion of the day, year, and decade hereabouts? Outrage. And while Twitter can amplify things like humor, cuteness, and gratitude (and occasionally real beauty) what it does best is outrage.

From a height, Twitter is an outrage amplifier. It starts with somebody posting something calculated to outrage a certain demographic. (Innocent posts sometimes trigger Twitter mobs, but they are uncommon.) Then begins a sort of emotional feedback loop: The outraged immediately retweet the reactions they’ve seen, so that their followers (who would not otherwise have seen the outrage tweet) get to see it. They retweet it to their followers, and so on, until millions of gasping outrage addicts are piling on without knowing anything at all about the original issue that caused the outrage.

The word “amplifier” may not be quite the right metaphor here. Most of us in the nerdiverse have seen videos of a common science demo consisting of a room full of set mousetraps, each with two ping-pong balls carefully placed on the bar. Toss a single ping-pong ball into the room, and it sets off whatever mousetrap it lands on. That moustrap launches two more balls, which set off two more mousetraps, and a few seconds later there is this chaotic cloud of ping-pong balls flying around the room, until the last mousetrap has been spring. This metaphor is a nuclear fission chain reaction, and I think it describes a Twitter mob very well.

So what do we do about Twitter mobs? We could encourage the victims to lawyer up and start suing the news organizations that tossed the original ping-pong ball, and perhaps Twitter itself. That process is evidently underway with the Covington Kids. But preventing Twitter mobs is simple, if difficult: All it would require is a single change to the Twitter software:

Eliminate retweets.

That’s all it would take. Really. The retweet function is like a neutron emitted by an unstable nucleus. (There are a lot of unstable nuclei in the Twitter system.) Chain reactions are easy to kick off, and difficult to suppress. But without the ability to instantly retweet some expression of outrage, the issue never goes critical. Sure, you can manually copy and paste somebody else’s tweet and tweet it to your own followers. But the sort of people who participate in Twitter mobs are impatient, and lazy. If copy/paste/tweet is work, well, their ADHD sends them on to something else.

Basically, eliminating retweets would turn Twitter from U-235 to U-238. U-238 is non-fissionable. Without retweets, Twitter would be non-fissionable too. Problem solved.

Of course, Twitter won’t voluntarily disable retweets. Without retweets, Twitter becomes just another microblogging social network. People would abandon it in droves. However, if a class action against Twitter mounted by victims of Twitter mobs ever got any traction, part of the settlement might include requiring Twitter to disable retweets. If I were the victim of a Twitter mob, that’s what I’d demand. Money wouldn’t hurt. But to fix the problem, retweets would have to go. If that in fact became the end of Twitter, I for one wouldn’t cry too hard.

Twitter is not a common carrier. It attempts to police its own content, though that policing is sparse and rather selectively applied. If it isn’t a common carrier, it can be held responsible for the actions of its members. If its members set out to deliberately destroy private citizens by retweeting slander and doxxing, Twitter should face the consequences. If it were forced to confront the possible consequences, who knows? Twitter might eliminate the Retweet button all by themselves.

Don’t wait up for it. But don’t count it out, either.