Essays on Technology and Culture

Cloudy, Biased Echo Chambers

Marco Arment released his long awaited podcast app, Overcast, today. As soon as the tweet went out that it was live, my Twitter stream became loaded with praise from beta testers, links to reviews, and more than a few jokes about when Marco was going to sell the app. Which lead to an interesting, if convoluted, conversation between Sid O'Neill, and The Typist on the echo chamber of praise and the potential bias inherent in Marco's supporters/beta testers singing the product's praise on their blogs. In terms of bias, the conversation wasn't about Marco per se, but whether one's biases in promoting a friend's work compromises journalistic ethics.

In terms of ethics, it comes down to trust. A number of the people promoting Overcast—John Siracusa, John Gruber, Jim Dalrymple, Federico Viticci, just to name a few—have earned my trust by writing quality, (mostly) unbiased technology journalism and criticism over the years. These are people who know good software, and so does Marco Arment. I've used Instapaper for years, as well as Tumblr. I can't speak for his other famous app, Nursing Clock, as I've had no cause to use it. (You gotta love the icon, though.) Overcast has the pedigree of a developer who knows his stuff, and the support of a group of technologists who have proven they know their stuff too. Yes, much of the positive buzz is coming from people who are friends and collaborators with Marco, but they've proven I can trust their judgment.

In any sort of independent community, having an audience of not only fans who support you, but influential voices who support you is critical to your success. This holds true, even for a “big name” indie creator. If it comes off as a backpat circlejerk to someone outside of that circle of voices, which it can be, understand that it's the nature of the beast. When you're an independent creator, this is life or death. I have friends who are professional working musicians, and I both love their work and will sing its praises to anyone who listens when they deliver something new. I don't do it here, but I might in the future.

The inherent risk, as The Typist notes, is the bias of friendship overriding the quality of the work, and the validity of the endorsement. Again, it's a matter of trust. Both the trust of our audiences in knowing we know of what we speak, and also the trust of the creator in knowing they'll get an unbiased critique. I like to think that my musician friends can trust I will be unbiased when criticizing work, though it's telling that none have offered me a chance to hear any works-in-progress. To use Overcast as an example, many of Marco's beta testers are known for being critical and opinionated on software—John Siracusa enough so that his blog, and former podcast are both called Hypercritical. John Gruber is infamous for being borderline anal-retentive on software design, which shows in his app Vesper. If anyone is going to give Marco an unbiased criticism of his app, it's going to be those two. (Siracusa will be delivering a full critique on the next Accidental Tech Podcast)

Of course, the bigger the name, independent or not, the more people will be chiming in with their own criticism. I worry more about bias coming from this larger group, to be honest. Most are just people who want their own voices to be heard in the din of technology blogging. Some are people with a vendetta and want it to be known to the world. It's, again, the nature of the ever-changing beast of online publishing. The latest episode of Back to Work covers that in detail, with great personal stories. Talking up a hot topic is a proven way to get hits, and if their Google Juice is strong enough, a well written review of Overcast might get them noticed. It's the potential starting point for discovering a new, trusted voice to add value to the conversation—but for most of us, it's just another annoying retweet to scroll past.

For people like Sid, who grow tired of the din of echo chamber, there are only two ways out. One is exerting more control over what you see by judicious muting, unfollowing, or just stepping away. If the stream of Overcast tweets grew too much, I could easy have told Tweetbot to silence any mention of it for the next 24 hours. The second is to pay it no mind, and write the Internet you want to read. Which is why I'm writing up this metacommentary on the whole conversation around the Overcast conversation. There's a lot of important issues to discuss around technology journalism, independent creation, and what we choose—or don't choose—to see in our streams.

And we might not have had the conversation at all without some big name indie developer putting out yet another podcast app. Funny how the Internet works.