Fact vs Fantasy and the endless struggle of the rumor mill

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Fact vs Fantasy and the endless struggle of the rumor mill
Fair warning dear reader, because I am about to give you something of an inside look at the world of tech news. You may not think that is something that requires a warning, but it does because an inside look at the world of tech news is, ultimately, an inside look at you, the reader. I know that some of you do get uncomfortable when asked to do a bit of self-reflection, rather than being allowed to remain in the echo chamber that only tells you what you think you already know; but, the echo chamber is limiting and removes all perspective, which is an important thing in determining what is accurate, or what is true. Whenever possible, we like to pull people out of the echo chamber, because that’s when things get really interesting.

There are some of you out there who often come out and complain that our coverage is nothing more than an endless stream of incremental rumors, and that is true far more often than we’d prefer. Depending on the time of year, you could almost script the news yourself. If it is January we get to start off the year with the excitement of CES, but by February, we’re likely talking about what the new Samsung Galaxy S device will feature, and what to expect from the new HTC flagship. March and April focuses on what to expect at Google I/O. May looks at what to expect at Apple’s WWDC. June is for rumors about the new Nexus 7. July and August are filled with speculation (or more recently, accurate leaks) about the new iPhone, and Galaxy Note devices. September shifts to speculation on the newest Nexus and Nokia smartphones, and the next major iteration of Android.

Sure, there will be other devices that catch some buzz at different times, but in general that’s the way the news has panned out the last few years. This year, the interesting side stories were focused on the Moto X over the summer, then the recent sales of Nokia and BlackBerry. Of course, the rumors on each of those could be followed back quite a while, and that’s the real issue here: the rumor mill is what you all really want.

It’s all about potential


Here’s where I let you in on the reality that we deal with in the tech blogosphere: the rumors are always more interesting than the reality. Even when the rumors are completely accurate, they are more interesting (and generate far more hits) than anything else we run. In the leadup to a big announcement, any small news story about a hot topic will receive an inordinate amount of hits (you would be shocked at how many pageviews we’ve gotten on a simple story about the HTC One Max pictured with Verizon branding.) But, once the big news has hit, no one really cares anymore.

The big example from this year has been the Motorola Moto X. During the rumor phase, we worked hard and got quite a bit of info from an inside source. We kept the rumors grounded, and tried to not let the hype overpower the real picture that was forming. We reiterated multiple times that the device would not have cutting edge hardware (though many of you ignored that and kept up hope for a Snapdragon 800 or 1080p display), because Motorola would be focused on performance and the software and hardware customizations. Even so, every tiny rumor grabbed your attention like nothing else we could post. The speculation in the comment threads routinely had no bearing on the information contained in the actual articles.

Then, the official announcement happened, and despite the expectations set, there was a backlash against the device, and then most of you lost interest. By the time the device was actually released, it almost wasn’t worth posting the news about it, because so few of you cared to read about the story. The fantasy was ruined by reality, even though there was little reason to believe the fantasy in the first place.

The Moto X example is one that repeats itself over and over. Right now, any small bit of news or a new photo of the Nexus 5 racks up huge page view numbers, but after the official announcement happens sometime in the next couple of weeks, all of the potential that has been built up will collapse into the mundane reality that the device will be a standard yearly upgrade. It may come through on rumors of a much improved camera, but after the Nokia Lumia 1020, it’s hard to get that excited. More likely, there will be some interesting features in Android 4.4 KitKat that will excite users, but even the software reality sees the same treatment, especially with Android where it can take such a long time for most users to see the improvements.

Proving this phenomenon further are the various concept designs that come out throughout the year, which usually generate huge numbers, because readers don’t care about what is as much as about what could be, regardless of how believable the ideas in the concept may be. And, of course, concept renders often try to fix the issues around a product raised by the most vocal opponents, which adds for some rarely acquired vindication.

A twisted web


The most troubling aspect of the rumor mill is just how pervasive it is. We here at PA used to have a “rumor” tag that we would put on posts that had no real verification available, but eventually that tag was removed partially due to overuse, partially because it was ignored by readers, and partially because we as writers have a duty to make sure that it is blatantly clear in our writing whether or not a story has any verifiable fact behind it. It’s unlikely that we’re going to bring back the “rumor” tag, but it might actually be better to add a tag to the relatively few posts around that are verifiably true.

Because the rumor mill encompases so much of what we report, it leads to misunderstandings in the realm of “bias”. I’ve talked before about the idea of bias and how it is often misinterpreted and how bias is often read by the reader more than it is written by the author. The rumor mill intensifies this, because readers mistakenly think that because we are reporting a rumor, it must reflect the personal feelings of the author.

The trouble with that view is that it removes a key factor of the equation: you, the reader. We write stories based on what interests us, and what interests our audience. We know what kinds of stories interest our audience based on internal statistics, as well as comment thread activity. Whether or not you agree with the information of a story, the ideas presented, or the company’s involved in the story, you express interest with engagement: reading, sharing, and commenting. If a topic doesn’t resonate with users, we don’t cover it as much (like Google Glass). If a topic does resonate, it gets more coverage (anything Apple/Samsung related).

The extension of this is in how active the rumor mill is in general. Apple’s rumor mill is constantly in motion, and has far more people engaged in its maintenance than most. There is a reason why there are more Apple rumors (and more suspiciously timed Apple rumors) than for most other companies. While we at PA do admit to playing a part by passing along the most interesting mobile-oriented rumors from the Apple watchers, we don’t do it out of a personal affinity for the company. We do it because our audience has shown us it wants those stories. The same holds for Samsung, Google, Nokia, and the rest. 

Conclusion


Ultimately, that’s one of the more awkward parts of this job. Perhaps it is all part of the anonymity of the Internet, but it is amazing how much we get blamed for doing our jobs, and how often readers ignore the fact that we don’t do this for free. All we ask in return for bringing you news and commentary every day is that you turn off your ad blocker.

We don’t make the news, we simply report it. Sure we have opinions on the news, because we are passionate about the subject matter. The aim is never to start an argument, merely to start discussions. We know that you all are just as interested in mobile tech as we are, or else you wouldn’t be here. But, we aren’t on opposing sides of a battle; we’re all in the same world together. Based on the data we have, you all love rumors far more than you are interested in established information; so, it seems reasonable to me that we all come together to sift through the same pile of rumors to find the truth.
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