Criticising Valleywag in 2010 is something of a pointless exercise, like offering diplomatic counsel to the Ottoman Empire ten years after the Treaty of Lausanne. More pointless still, attacking the site’s titular editor Ryan Tate is like appealing to the guy responsible for writing parking tickets in Constantinople.
I mean, I get that.
And yet despite the irrelevance of Gawker’s saddest sub-domain and the tragic impotence of its editor, the influence of its parent means that when a Valleywag story oozes its way on to the front page of Gawker.com, it’s important to take notice. And to mop it up so that no-one slips.
Here goes then.
Some time on Tuesday afternoon, Ryan Tate woke up and padded over to his laptop to check his email. Amidst the tips from disgruntled Friendster employees and pep-talk advice mails from Owen Thomas, there was an email from Nick Stern, a photographer who had spent a few days stalking Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The images were so entirely un-newsworthy – photos of Zuckerberg’s modest house, photos of his “unremarkable” tennis shoes, photos of Zuckerberg’s entirely unfamous girlfriend – that no other news organisation wanted them. Could Gawker spare any change?
Pausing just long enough to wipe the resulting sticky goo from his keyboard, Tate hit reply. “Oh God, YES! We’d love them. It’ll be a Gawker exclusive!”
Of course, much of the above is bullshit speculation, but the result is the same: on Wednesday, under a “Gawker Exclusive” banner, and the headline, “Mark Zuckerberg’s Age of Privacy Is Over” Tate published twenty candid photos, clearly identifying Zuckerberg’s home, his girlfriend, his friends and his regular haunts. In “justification”, Tate wrote…
“If it feels a little naughty to take such a close look into Zuckerberg’s life, remember that this is the executive who pushed the private information of Facebook’s hundreds of millions of users progressively further into the public sphere.”
No, not “hmmm”. That other thing.
GO FUCK YOURSELF. I mean, seriously, Ryan, how did you even write those words without slitting your wrists and bleeding out pure shame onto your copy of Pageviews For Dummies? Even if you accept that Facebook’s handling of user privacy was a misstep (which I don’t entirely), to argue that it’s analogous to following someone around with a camera all week and publicising his home address on the Internet just defies belief. Especially when that person is a billionaire who is more of a target than most for the assorted freaks and lunatics who slosh about online.
But of course Tate had no choice but to cling to his “tit for tat” public interest justification. After all, the photos had no inherent news value (“the most interesting thing about Zuckerberg’s life may well be how ordinary it is,” says Tate in his post) and nor is there an obvious “public figure” justification. Facebook is a private company, Zuckerberg (especially compared to other billionaire CEOs) doesn’t court personal publicity outside of the business press – and his girlfriend certainly doesn’t. All the publication of these pictures achieves is a hundred thousand or so page views, at a cost that includes the personal safety of a 26 year old who, despite his modest home and shoes, is worth, let’s not forget, some $4 billion. If I were his girlfriend, or anyone else close to him, I’d be terrified right now.
What Happened Next:
After reading the story, I tweeted to Tate…
More than anything, I wanted to know if he was proud of his work; whether reading it back he thought to himself “yes, I have done a good thing today.” But at worst I wanted him to defend it. In fact he did neither, instead he replied…
Then, as if to underline his point – that the justification for posting the photos was that he’d done it before – he emailed me the links, with the heading “BREAKING! Valleywag runs unauthorized pictures of people’s homes and girlfriends!!!11!”
After some back and forth over the irrelevant question of whether Tate commissioned the photos himself or whether they landed on his desk as a fait accompli, I got back to the point…
From: Paul Carr
To: Ryan Tate
You’re neatly dodging the question though: do you stand by the posting of the photos as news? Are you suggesting a public interest justification for publicizing where a billionaire lives? “We’ve done it before” is not a justification; as any serial killer will tell you.
His answer? An email containing nothing but the contact details of Editor-in-Chief Remy Stern and Founder Nick Denton. The subtext: “I can’t justify my own work; you’ll have to talk to My Two Dads.”
And so I did. I particularly wanted to understand Denton’s take on the misadventures of his underling. For a start, it’s generally accepted that there is only one period in Valleywag’s history that the site was any good, and that was when Denton was running it himself. Also, for all of Valleywag’s prying into the lives of Silicon Valley “celebrities”, Denton held on to at least one basic principle: decreeing that the lives of their non-famous girlfriends, boyfriends, wives and husbands – “civillians” as he called them – should remain off-limits.
So what gives? Has Denton changed his policy or, like in so many other situations, did Tate simply not get the memo?
His reply deserves to be published in full (with his permission, for which I’m grateful).
Hey, Paul —
Thanks for your note.
Facebook is anything but a private company; it has 500m stakeholders. And as Silicon Valley has grown in importance, tech executives have become celebrities. Mark Zuckerberg generates more interest among our readers than most Hollywood stars.
Now you can argue that he doesn’t trade on his celebrity in the same way. But that’s not entirely true. He poses for photos for magazine covers and shows up at conferences. It’s not like he’s a complete recluse.
As for the address… Well, first of all, no, we didn’t publish it. But you can deduce it. And? With online databases such as Nexis Public Records, most people’s addresses are now easily available. You can find all mine there, for instance.
I think you’re trapped in a previous era — one in which journalists had special access to information and dispensed it sparingly and “responsibly.” Now there’s much less distinction to the profession: everybody has access to formerly privileged information and anybody can publish it. We’d all better adjust.
Your final point: that even if Zuckerberg was fair game, the girlfriend wasn’t. I have most sympathy for this. But, again, apply the Hollywood model. If an unknown was having an affair with Angelina Jolie, they would no longer be an unknown.
Zuckerberg is the Angelina Jolie of the internet. The media interest in him is undeniable. His lovers, friends and acquaintances — like those of any other celebrity — are caught up in the vortex. He has to make a choice; and they have to make a choice. And none of the choices — retreat from the public eye, abandonment of friendship — are palatable.
Feel free to publish any of this reply.
Reading that note, two things screamed out from the page. One: how conflicted Denton sounds in writing it – speaking of his “sympathy” for my point about Zuckerberg’s girlfriend and acknowledging that the choices that his kind of reporting forces those close to tech “celebrities” to make are “unpalatable”. It can’t be easy to know your editors are doing bad things, but that those bad things are the only way they’ll ever attract page views.
And two: the fact that it was only Denton, and not Tate, who had the wit and intelligence to attempt to justify Gawker’s decision to publish. (In fact, while Denton was accounting for the behaviour of his boy, Tate was publishing a follow up story containing photos of Zuckerberg at an employee’s wedding in India, desperately arguing that his interest in them “underlines Zuckerberg’s growing global celebrity”. Just stop digging, Ryan.)
And it’s for that second reason – his inability to stand by his grubby work – that Ryan Tate, if he has an ounce of pride left in his body, needs to resign. And if he won’t do that – which he won’t, because he hasn’t, and because he knows that the position of village idiot has already been filled – then it’s for that reason that Denton needs to fire him and either go back to running Valleywag himself, or close it down once and for all.
In the meantime, to anyone with a cameraphone or a Flipcam who spots Ryan Tate out and about in the Bay Area: you know what to do. Follow him. Follow him everywhere. Take hundreds of photos. Bug the living shit out of him. Make him understand how unpleasant it is to be followed to your front door by a stranger with a camera.
And once you’re done stalking? Again: you know what to do. Delete the footage. Don’t even think about uploading it anywhere. Yes, there’d be a delicious irony in “Ending Ryan Tate’s Age Of Privacy” because he’s done it to someone else. But, as much as he’d love to feel that his life passes a public interest test, it doesn’t. And just because Ryan Tate has done something hideous and unjustified to someone else, doesn’t mean you should do it to him.
You’re better than that.