Saturday, August 1, 2009

io9 responds

So after I posted my little rant below about io9 and their banning Abigail Nussbaum of Asking the Wrong Questions, I sent off an email to them about the matter.

Here's the text of my message:
To the editors,

I've just read on Abigail Nussbaum's site, Asking the Wrong Questions, that she and another io9 user were banned immediately after they posted comments questioning whether the articles on District 9 were biased because it was io9's ComiCon sponsor. The link to at least one user's profile seems to show that her last comment before being banned was criticism about District 9.

I'm hoping you can provide an explanation. Until you do, I'm going to trust that Ms. Nussbaum has it right, and I won't be reading your site.


[My real name]
So apparently, Charlie Jane Anders headed over to Asking the Wrong Questions and posted this:

Hi Abigail, thanks for writing about io9. Sorry I only just saw this, after someone sent us the link. To answer your points in order: We banned Oliver because he was being abusive. We have a clear policy that says that if you attack us or accuse us of not believing what we write on the site, then we will ban you. Your comment never actually appeared on the site -- when I read your comment, I thought it was Oliver coming back under another name. Someone may well have responded to your comment -- sometimes starred commenters can see unapproved comments and respond to them -- but you were never approved.

As for District 9, we saw this movie at SDCC and it blew us away. And we really did think it came into SDCC with the least buzz, and came out with the biggest increase in buzz. It would be hypocritical of us, in the extreme, not to say what we think about this movie because it's advertising on our site. We've never had any pressure to say nice things about our advertisers, and if we had, we'd ignore it. We assumed anyone who visits io9 regularly would know that we don't give special treatment to our advertisers. We hadn't been hyping District 9 much until we saw it and realized how great it was.

Thanks again for commenting about io9, and for helping keep us honest. We love your writing over at StrangeHorizons.

All best,
Charlie Jane Anders
This doesn't really satisfy me. Whether Olliver was banned for good or bad reasons, I don't know; I do know that the last post he put up about Tron 2 and District 9 was not what I would consider remotely abusive. So it looks weird that that's the last thing he posted.

But my main problem is the io9 policy of banning people who attack them or don't believe what they read on the site. You've got to roll with the punches, if you're going to run any kind of media outlet. Right now, they just look thin-skinned and petty.

At the newspaper I work for, if someone sends us a letter or an email accusing us of bias, we run it. If we think it's particularly egregious, the editor might append a note or write a rebuttal, saying essentially what Ms. Anders said in her comment: we stand by our views, we aren't pressured by our advertisers, we call them like we see them. And if io9 had done that, openly and immediately in that comment thread or on their main page, I'd say more power to them. I believe they liked District 9. I just can't believe that they think quashing any criticism, removing posts or banning people, is the way to defend their journalistic integrity. It's not.

Oh io9, no!

So I was just dipping a toe in Asking the Wrong Questions, and I find that its proprietor has become embroiled in a wee bit of a controversy with i09. Short version: i09 is promoting the hell out of District 9, a movie which actually looks pretty interesting. i09 also gave it a rave review and named it the most buzzworthy thing at ComiCon.

A couple of commenters (possibly not so politely) pointed out that this looked an awful lot like a conflict of interest, and were promptly banned.

Wow… just wow.

John Scalzi weighed in on the comment thread there and noted that it is possible for media outlets to review things that are paying their salaries. This is entirely correct. What io9 is doing, however, is the exact opposite of the way you're supposed to do it.

But let's give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that their opinions about District 9 are entirely on the up and up and not influenced by the wads of cash their advertising folks are getting from the film's promotion team. You do not ban people from commenting because they have noticed the possible conflict of interest.

I normally avoid any hint of my real life on this blog, but I'm going to now. I'm a reporter at a smallish suburban newspaper. This means I have many jobs, including writing a weekly column, covering local politics and crime, and sometimes writing the editorials (we sign our editorials, as they do in Quebec, by the way). When you piss people off (and you will piss people off) and they send you an angry letter, YOU PRINT IT!

Oh, I'm sorry, did I just yell? Well, maybe I'm a little ticked that io9 doesn't understand the basic rule of running a media business that says disagreement is actually good. Sure, you can delete posts and ban users, and no one will be left after a while to criticize. They will tell you how awesome you are and stroke your ego. And slowly they will slip away, and you will be an irrelevant joke.

I actually like io9. I know it exists mainly to be all ZOMG NEW IRON MAN TRAILER!!!!1!, but I like that they actually write about books on a regular basis. They even interviewed Samuel Delany a while back. It's refreshing to see a site that gets 99 per cent of its hits from people interested in the next cheap pseudo-SF blockbuster, and devotes 10 to 20 per cent of its time to talking about stories printed on dead trees. Considering how often they update, you actually get more book reviews, recommendations and author interviews out of io9 than out of almost any other SF-related site on the web.

If io9 would like to explain how their actions are anything less than petty protection of their sponsorship, I'd love to hear it.