A Very Flappy Crowdtilted Journalism Experiment

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Two weeks ago, I did a small experiment. I put a campaign on Crowdtilt to raise money to go to Vietnam and talk to Dong Nguyen, the creator of the sleeper hit Flappy Bird. At the absolute peak of the game’s hype, Nguyen pulled it from the store and vanished. He said he couldn’t handle the pressure anymore.

The idea to do this came from James Beshara at CrowdTilt, who reached out and asked if we at TechCrunch wanted to play with crowdfunded journalism. I jumped at it, because I’m curious about ways we can engage our readers and get them involved in what we cover. The campaign was oversubscribed in a few hours and attracted more than $5,000 in backing.

Finding the Flappy Bird creator in Vietnam was an idea where there could be a lot of reader interest, but the risk-reward might not make financial sense from a top-down editorial standpoint. (It was like an absurdist modern re-enactment of journalist Sir Henry Morton Stanley’s quest to find Dr. David Livingstone on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1871. Coincidentally, Stanley also asked for 3,000 to 5,000 pounds in funding from New York Herald manager James Bennett.)

Moreover, it’s important to incentivize coverage that goes beyond the rote funding updates and product announcements we see every day in the tech blogosphere. While doing this campaign and regular stories every day, I’ve been looking into the housing crisis and inequality. I’ve been talking to journalists who have been covering poverty and affordability in San Francisco for longer than I’ve been alive.

They are people like San Francisco Chronicle’s Kevin Fagan, who once covered homelessness exclusively as a beat for four years and even slept on the streets of San Francisco for months because he wanted to know what it was really like to be homeless here. His reporting at the time led then-President George W. Bush to back supportive housing, a holistic approach to tackling homelessness that incorporates job training and drug abuse counseling.

I don’t know how contemporary media organizations, which are dependent on pageviews and online advertising revenue, will fund that kind of work going forward.

Lastly, I’m half-Vietnamese. I used to live in Hanoi about eight years ago and my grandmother left the city for the South in 1954 when the country split in two after the French-Vietnam War. I have these beautiful memories of sharing a single room with nine girls while paying $30 a month in rent in the Thanh Xuan district, riding motorbikes down the South China Sea coast, falling asleep in Bahnar huts and getting food poisoning after eating too many snakes at the snake village. I haven’t been back in eight years.

Nguyen is a sign that a startup ecosystem is growing up in Vietnam. He’s not alone. There are companies like Misfit Wearables, which makes the activity tracker, The Shine. While the Founders Fund-backed startup does its industrial design work here in San Francisco, much of Misfit’s machine learning talent is in Ho Chi Minh City.

CEO Sonny Vu discovered that the talent he was trying to hire wanted to return to Vietnam after completing their doctoral degrees in the U.S. As the daughter of war refugees, I can’t really tell you how unfathomable this would have been to my parents or grandparents — that people would want to go back and build companies there instead of here. Vietnam is changing; most of its population was born after the war and the country has this beautiful, youthful energy despite a per capita income of $1,750 per year.

When I posted the campaign, I got tons of inbound requests from journalists on the ground in Vietnam, from donors who work with schools that teach girls how to code and requests from other Vietnamese entrepreneurs who wanted to meet too. Even my aunt wanted to come along.

I’m just getting my visa back today from the consulate, but a few complications have come up since I posted the campaign.

1) It turns out that a Rolling Stone reporter named David Kushner had already been on the ground for several days when I posted the campaign on Feb. 26. He has a good interview with Nguyen that got published in the magazine today.

This is good and bad. It’s bad, because someone was already there and beat me to the story.

But then it’s also good, because Nguyen is not hiding under a rock. After the debacle that was Newsweek’s Satoshi Nakamoto story last week, I was worried that people would make comparisons between my search for Nguyen and the way that Leah McGrath Goodman violated Dorian S. Nakamoto’s privacy by interviewing his entire family and posting photos of his house. If Nguyen had not wanted to talk to me, I was just going to be honest with my backers. Also, I was going to try to be charming, and not be a total jerk.

2) I’m hearing from a reliable source that Nguyen may actually be here in the Bay Area soon.

So in the interest of being as honest and transparent as possible, I wanted to put both of those things out there. If you’re happy with the product that Kushner has created and/or I’m able to talk to Nguyen here in San Francisco, I wanted to give backers the opportunity to either get a refund or tell me what I should do next.

I personally would still love to go to Vietnam and speak to Nguyen and the broader startup community there. I had already been in the process of working with a couple teams of local video journalists on the ground there and setting up TechCrunch meet-ups to get to know the entrepreneurial community in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

But that’s just me. This is your money.

There are also many other projects I have in mind. While researching San Francisco’s affordability crisis, I’ve learned that there are many things that are unique about our permitting process here. I’m personally fascinated with how other cities globally grapple with economics booms and affordability. Most of the media coverage so far has been over-simplistic; it distills the tensions in San Francisco down to a story of tech-haves versus non-tech-have-nots when there are decades of choices and political alliances that have led us to where we are today.

Let me know what you think I should do next. All things considered.