Mike Masnick, Techdirt

Mike Masnick is the CEO and founder of Techdirt. His blog focuses on an array of tech issues ranging from articles on copyright and patents to surveillance. I admire the work that he’s doing and continues to do. He provides a great alternative perspective on tech-related issues and journalism in general. His writing is straightforward and concise but also calls companies and the government out on their questionable actions. The blog really focuses on the most important issues in the news and digs deeply into them. This is the interview I had with him. 

“Mike Masnick in a French Alley” Photo by Dennis Yang licensed by CC BY 2.0.

Here’s the link to Techdirt’s website: https://www.techdirt.com/

Would you consider what you’re doing journalism, and if so, how did you become involved?

Yeah, I sort of fight it sometimes because I’m not entirely sure whether what I’m doing really is journalism. I’ve argued in the past that I’m not necessarily a journalist, but I sometimes do journalism. There’s somewhat of a distinction there. Obviously, I’m writing about stories. I’m writing about news, so there’s a journalism aspect to it. Sometimes, I’ll think deeper and do research and interview people and all that kind of stuff which are hallmarks of journalism.

In general, I do more of what I consider to be opinion writing. There’s a difference between opinion writing and straight up journalism. In some cases, they certainly blend together. There’s a belief in some quarters that you have to be completely 100% objective—there’s obviously value in having a completely objective outlook on things and weighing evidence fairly—but to many people that standard of objective journalism has turned into a situation where the journalists never take sides. To me, journalism should be about finding the truth, and sometimes, that means taking a side. I don’t believe journalism should be well this guy says this and this guy says that and then you decide. I think there’s more value in saying something like this guy says this and that’s false for the following reasons. 

Writing is something I’ve always done. In high school, I was certainly interested in reading and writing, and I worked for the high school newspaper and an underground high school paper. I enjoyed writing and digging into issues and having opinions.

When I went to college, I tried to write for the college newspaper, and I got rejected. There were probably some good reasons behind the decision, so I wasn’t really writing. I got back into it, and it became a career pretty much by accident.

I went to college, and then, I went to business school right after. Most people who go to business school go out and work for a few years before they come back to business school, but I didn’t. I went directly from undergrad to business school, and I thought how am I going to get a job because I’m competing against all these other people who have work experience and I have none.

I really wanted to get a job in the tech industry, so I thought if I wrote about technology and industry, then I could show that I had a passion and interest about these issues and hopefully distinguish myself a little bit. I started writing a newsletter, as a student, and I just tried sending that around. I originally sent it to my classmates, and since many of them had worked before coming to business school, they sent it around to other people. Suddenly, there were people reading the newsletter, and it got sent around. That basically turned into Techdirt overtime, and I’ve kept it going. I did get a job after I graduated, but I kept writing on the side. Eventually, I realized I hated my job and that writing was more fun. I’ve been doing this ever since.

How did you come up with the name Techdirt for your newsletter?

The newsletter was originally called Up to Date. It was terrible. I was copying this British newsletter called Need to Know which was super well done and very funny. It was written by Danny O’Brien who is now at EFF working on international issues. He wrote the newsletter which was very geeky and nerdy and came out every week. He commented on the news in a funny way, and I really liked the format.

My format was almost identical, and the names were both three short syllables. I thought that was fun, so I did that and copied it. Danny discovered it (someone sent it to him maybe two months after I started), and he made fun of me. After about six months of writing the newsletter by itself, I said it would be cool if I could turn it into a website. I thought there should be someplace where people can go and see the posts, so I built it. I went through a bunch of different names, and people told me Techdirt stood out, so that became the name. This was around February of 1998.

Did you find when you first started writing for your website that you were as opinionated then as you are now?

There’s always been some aspect of opinion in what I do. I think my opinions and thoughts and even understanding were a little less focused in the beginning. I didn’t understand the issues as well. I certainly didn’t understand the legal side and the policy side as well. I was always opinionated.

The newsletter originally consisted of one or two sentence stories. It was really quick. It would have fit into more of a Twitter format rather than an email newsletter. It would have been like say a Tweet stream. When I switched to the website, it was mostly just hosting the newsletter at first, and then, it became a blog about a year later (early 1999).

For some stupid reason, I thought every story had to be one paragraph. I was always sort of limiting myself. Occasionally, I wrote a really long paragraph because I wanted to express myself a little bit more, and then sometime later,—maybe a year or two after that—I realized I was being dumb and put in paragraph breaks and wrote more.

That allowed me to become more vocal and express my opinion which is how the blog is now. It’s always been strongly opinion based, and we also had comments on the blog. Commenters argue and sometimes agree or disagree. They also raise other points and even the comments on the posts helped. I’ve joked in the past that it’s sort of like batting practice and a good way to learn whether your argument is strong.

People are always going to criticize, and sometimes, they have good motives. Sometimes, they have bad ones. If you have good arguments, it’s just a way of practicing and learning how to express yourself better. As you write more and more posts, you expect certain arguments to come up and see whether you can put them off by writing something in the post. I think the writing has gotten stronger, and my opinions are more clear.

Were issues in the early 2000’s as severe as they are today?

Yes. It’s weird because it feels like this is the scariest time for whatever reason, but it’s pretty much a constant stream of events. There are always things. There’s never a quiet period. If people don’t like what you’re writing, they might comment and attack saying “oh slow news day,” but there’s never a slow news day. There are dozens of things going on, and there’s never been a shortage of things to write about. If I could, I’d probably write three to four times the things that I do.

How have you been able to educate yourself on the policy side of tech issues?

I mean just overtime: reading, talking to people, having discussions in the comments, having discussions with people in person. As I’ve gotten more engaged and involved in the process, I’ve learned more. It’s one of those things where you continually educate yourself, and I still feel that I don’t know nearly enough about these topics. You learn as you go. Everyone makes mistakes, but you keep learning.

Who else is on the Techdirt team?

We have five full-time people. They all work in a bunch of different roles. There are people working on technology, research, and administrative stuff. A lot of other writers for the site are freelancers and contractors. A few of them are people who were just really good commenters that we liked and ended up hiring. The total team now—between the full-time staff and contractors—is about ten people.

How do you keep up with the biggest issues in tech?

Honestly, the biggest source of news for me these days is Twitter. If you follow the right people, everything gets to you eventually. People send me a lot of stuff too, so I get tons of emails, and I’m on a bunch of mailing lists. I use a couple tools for searching lawsuits because I read a lot of legal cases. There are basically all different ways to keep up.

Which people and organizations do you follow on Twitter?

EFF is big. CDT historically was actually an offshoot of EFF, but they’re completely separate now. There are some lawyers and law professors who are really good to follow. Eric Goldman is a good law professor who covers a lot of this stuff.

In terms of surveillance, Marcy Wheeler covers a lot of surveillance topics. She has an amazing memory. No one knows how she does it. For example, a document will get released or someone will say something, and she’ll be able to connect it to some other document that came out ten years before. She’ll clearly say they’re referring to this, and she’ll put two and two together and zero in on what was really meant when clearly someone was trying to be misleading. It’s really incredible, and she’s definitely worth following.

What do you think is a good way for a teenager interested in these issues to get involved?

You know, certainly, pay attention to everything that’s happening. There are different levels of involvement. I mean paying attention to EFF and CDT and some other activist groups. Fight For the Future and Demand Progress are two really good activist groups that are following a whole bunch of these issues and ask people to get engaged. I think that’s important and obviously letting other people know about these topics.

People learn about these things from their friends and people that they know. If you understand these issues and think it’s important for more people to understand them, you need to speak out about them and share it with them. If you use Facebook, post stuff on Facebook. Social media really helps. If you’re willing to write longer and thorough pieces, that’s cool too. I think it’s really good that people are willing to create blogs and spread ideas that way as well.

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