On Attribution and Credit

Ina Fried’s story yesterday for AllThingsD about iPad-native apps crossing the 100,000 mark now credits MacStories by name, and includes this note:

Editor’s Note: As you may notice, we’ve added a mention of macstories.net. Although we independently verified the information, it was always our intent to give them credit for being the first to point out the information, which is why a link to their posting has been in our story from when it was first posted. Now their name is there as well. Thank you to all who have voiced their opinions on this.

The reference in the article now reads:

As noted by an Apple enthusiast site macstories.net, there are now more than 100,000 iPad apps […]

That’s better, and crosses the line into what I consider acceptable attribution. But to me it’s still disrespectful, and — admittedly, my position as an independent writer/publisher biases me in this regard — betrays an institutional defensiveness on AllThingsD’s part.

Most of you seemed to get what I complained about yesterday, and my peers in the Mac publishing world definitely got it. But I received enough “they included a link to MacStories, so I don’t understand what you think is ‘chickenshit’ about this” emails to justify a full explanation.

It’s not about linking. AllThingsD’s story always had a link to Federico Viticci’s original post at MacStories. Originally, it read like this:

As noted by an Apple enthusiast site, there are now more than 100,000 iPad apps […]

Linking is indeed key. You get a story from somewhere else, you link to the original when you post about it. That’s the first rule of web attribution. The link to MacStories was always there in Fried’s article, and AllThingsD as a whole is good about linking to the sites whence they get material.

Not every site is good about such things. Regarding this same story, Josh Lowensohn at CNET wrote about it, as did Scott Steinberg at Rolling Stone. Not only do neither of them mention Federico Viticci or MacStories by name, but neither of them even included a link to the post at MacStories. Lowensohn and Steinberg both reported that the total number of iPad apps passed the 100,000 mark with no sourcing whatsoever. It’s certainly possible that either or both of them discovered this independently. But the timestamps on both their articles are several hours after Viticci’s, and Viticci explained how he discovered this (with a screenshot of a search results count from the App Store app on the iPad). Neither Lowensohn nor Steinberg explain the source of the news. They simply state it as fact, as though plucked out of the air.

If my suspicion is correct that Lowensohn and Steinberg got the news from Viticci’s post at MacStories (or from some other site that linked to the post at MacStories), that’s shameful, and a far worse misdeed than Fried’s. There are reasons why AllThingsD is far more respected than CNET.

Not even including a link to the source of a story is dishonest. My problem with Fried’s “an Apple enthusiast site” attribution is more nuanced. That attribution, including a link, is not dishonest. But it is severely slanted, and it is disparaging.

Why do we put bylines on stories in the first place? Because writers deserve credit, obviously. But bylines also serve the reader. All work is better when it is signed by its creators. Edward Tufte says:

Agencies, departments, and organizations don’t do things — people do things. People’s names should be on things to foster both accountability and pride.

MacStories deserved a link to their original post on the story, and they got that. AllThingsD’s readers deserved to know who discovered it. Yes, they could find that out by following the link to “an Apple enthusiast site”, but how many of the people who read Fried’s story actually clicked that link? My guess is not many. Fried’s piece was itself a complete version of the story. That’s how much of the for-profit weblog world works — building up your own site’s page views.

Much of what I do here at Daring Fireball, on the other hand, is designed to throw traffic to stuff written elsewhere. It’s true that in the pursuit of style and tone and reader suspense, I will sometimes link to things here at DF without saying who it is I’m linking to. Two examples from just the past few days: here and here. But I do so knowing that I’m throwing several thousands of readers to that source material.1 I’m not taking page views — I’m giving them. And yes, I see what I do as better — more respectful both of the writer/creator (who gets traffic to their original post) and the reader (who gets sent to the original source, rather than reading a regurgitation of the same facts).

People come to Daring Fireball to find links to read elsewhere. People go to AllThingsD to read articles at AllThingsD. Fried’s piece on iPad apps crossing the 100,000 mark more or less consumed the story. That’s why her readers deserved to know it came from Federico Viticci. If the story was good enough to re-report, it was good enough to give Viticci name recognition for AllThingsD’s readers.

Think of it this way. Maybe Viticci will never again write anything that AllThingsD deems newsworthy. But I doubt that. Viticci has been doing some great work at MacStories, and he’s building an interesting cadre of sources. If his name — or MacStories’s name — were to appear on AllThingsD even just a few times a year, some readers will notice. That’s how reputations grow. If he’s not worth crediting by name or publication, why is his story worth re-reporting?

So let’s return to Fried’s updated attribution:

As noted by an Apple enthusiast site macstories.net, there are now more than 100,000 iPad apps […]

I’d have written (in order of preference) either:

  • As noted by Federico Viticci at MacStories,
  • As noted at MacStories,

Or, if it were deemed necessary to provide some sort of description for what MacStories is, something like:

  • As noted by the Apple-focused site MacStories,
  • As noted by the Apple-focused blog MacStories,

“Enthusiast site” is pejorative. Enthusiast implies that MacStories is produced by zealous hobbyists. Not naming the site at all implied that the site was not worthy of being named. To later attribute it to “macstories.net” rather than “MacStories” implies that it is something less than a fellow peer publication, and not even worth the effort of hitting the shift key to camelcase the M and S. MacStories is the name of the website; macstories.net is MacStories’s domain name. This is subtle, yes, but it is a disparagement nonetheless — the most begrudging form of attribution that could have been added.

I don’t see the angle on it. Why not err on the side of magnanimity? Bestowing a measure of credibility upon Viticci by naming him would not have come at any cost to Ina Fried or AllThingsD. Reputation is not a zero-sum game. Defensiveness is never flattering. AllThingsD is established and big, but they’re the ones who come out of this looking small.

  1. And in both the cases I cite above, enough of you followed my links that the linked-to sites could not handle the traffic. ↩︎