All posts tagged Internet

  • The New York Times story: ‘How Australia Bungled Its $36 Billion High-Speed Internet Rollout’, May 2017

    My first story for The New York Times was published on May 11. Excerpt below.

    How Australia Bungled Its $36 Billion High-Speed Internet Rollout

    Its businesses and consumers burdened with some of developed world’s slowest speeds, the country is a cautionary tale about big-money ambitions.

    The New York Times story by Andrew McMillen: 'How Australia Bungled Its $36 Billion High-Speed Internet Rollout', May 2017

    BRISBANE, Australia — Fed up with Australian internet speeds that trail those in most of the developed world, Morgan Jaffit turned to a more reliable method of data transfer: the postal system.

    Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world have downloaded Hand of Fate, an action video game made by his studio in Brisbane, Defiant Development. But when Defiant worked with an audio designer in Melbourne, more than 1,000 miles away, Mr. Jaffit knew it would be quicker to send a hard drive by road than to upload the files, which could take several days.

    “It’s really the big file sizes that kill us,” said Mr. Jaffit, the company’s co-founder and creative director. “When we release an update and there’s a small bug, that can kill us by three or four days.”

    Australia, a wealthy nation with a widely envied quality of life, lags in one essential area of modern life: its internet speed. Eight years after the country began an unprecedented broadband modernization effort that will cost at least 49 billion Australian dollars, or $36 billion, its average internet speed lags that of the United States, most of Western Europe, Japan and South Korea. In the most recent ranking of internet speeds by Akamai, a networking company, Australia came in at an embarrassing No. 51, trailing developing economies like Thailand and Kenya.

    For many here, slow broadband connections are a source of frustration and an inspiration for gallows humor. One parody video ponders what would happen if an American with a passion for Instagram and streaming “Scandal” were to switch places with an Australian resigned to taking bathroom breaks as her shows buffer.

    But the problem goes beyond sluggish Netflix streams and slurred Skype calls. Businesses complain that slow speeds hobble their effectiveness and add to their costs. More broadly, Australia risks being left behind at a time when countries like China and India are looking to nurture their own start-up cultures to match the success of Silicon Valley and keep their economies on the cutting edge.

    “Poor broadband speeds will hold back Australia and its competitive advantage,” said John O’Mahony, an economist at Deloitte Access Economics. A 2015 report by Deloitte valued the nation’s digital economy at $58 billion and estimated that it could be worth 50 percent more by 2020. “The speed of that growth is at risk if we don’t have the broadband to support it,” he said.

    The story of Australia’s costly internet bungle illustrates the hazards of mingling telecommunication infrastructure with the impatience of modern politics. The internet modernization plan has been hobbled by cost overruns, partisan maneuvering and a major technical compromise that put 19th-century technology between the country’s 21st-century digital backbone and many of its homes and businesses.

    For the full story, visit The New York Times. Above photo credit: Jason Reed for Reuters.

  • Backchannel story: ‘Wikipedia Is Not Therapy!’, August 2016

    A feature story for Backchannel. Excerpt below.

    Wikipedia Is Not Therapy!

    How the online encyclopedia manages mental illness and suicide threats in its volunteer community.

    'Wikipedia Is Not Therapy!' by Andrew McMillen for Backchannel, August 2016. Illustration by Laurent Hrybyk

    One recent Tuesday night in the suburbs of Sydney, Elliott* was sitting in front of his home computer, editing Wikipedia and debating with a fellow volunteer who was continually undoing his hard work. He was devoting his weeknight hours to developing an article about Salim Mehajer, a former deputy mayor of a Sydney city council who had attracted national headlines for a variety of indiscretions, including shutting down a public street without authorization in order to film his own wedding. But as Elliott typed, his eyes intent on the screen, his mental state was deteriorating.

    Elliott, 37, knew the inner workings of the online encyclopedia better than just about anyone. Since his first edit in 2004, he had invented the popular ‘citation needed’ tag, used by editors to indicate when a statement requires more evidence. He had started the administrator’s noticeboard,where the site’s volunteer leadership could discuss inflammatory incidents. And he wrote ‘exploding whale,’ a quirky article that remains emblematic of the sparkling brilliance for which the crowdsourced encyclopedia is widely beloved. For the latter creation, which summarized how the Oregon Highway Division attached half a ton of dynamite to a beached sperm whale carcass in 1970, he was awarded Wikipedia’s first ‘oddball barnstar,’ and so another user pinned a bright green badge to his userpage to acknowledge his enterprising work.

    But on this particular night, his virtual achievements were far from his mind. With his wife and two young children occupied in another room, Elliott was locked in what’s known as an edit war, while using a different account than the one that had earned him his earlier plaudits. Elliott was convinced that his detailed account of Salim Mehajer’s traffic violations, including an occasion in 2012 when he ran over two women in his car, belonged on the site. His interlocutor, another Australian editor of prominent standing within the community, remained unconvinced. “I don’t like the guy either, but Wikipedia’s policies on undue weight, original research and biographies of living people don’t not apply because you don’t like someone,” the second editor wrote, mistaking Elliott’s industrious research for bias against Mehajer. On several occasions, this second editor had reverted these lengthy additions, before using one particular adjective to describe Elliott’s work: obsessive.

    Their bickering had been brewing for several days. The pair went back and forth in the article’s ‘talk’ page, which is linked in the top left corner of every entry on the site. Elliott argued passionately for his cause, and at one point logged out of his account to back up his own argument anonymously; these contributions were tagged with his IP address. Two days earlier, he had responded anonymously to another editor, writing, “I fart in your general direction, which is a hell of a lot more pleasant than editing Wikipedia, I can tell you!” After reviewing the conflict, a site administrator decided to ban Elliott on that Tuesday night. “Given the seriousness of this conduct, I’ve set the block duration to indefinite,” noted the admin.

    Elliott’s mind was on fire. Already short-fused from several months of unemployment and recent health and financial woes, he felt overwhelmed with stress. As he sat fuming in front of the screen, his wife approached and asked him to help put their children to bed. The request startled him, and he reacted with a flash of fury. Elliott immediately regretted his anger. Stunned and embarrassed, he grabbed his phone and keys, hopped into a white Hyundai, and sped off.

    After driving for a while, he parked outside a local school and switched off the engine. He pulled out his iPhone and started typing a lengthy email. Titled “The End” and sent to a public Wikipedia mailing list watched by thousands of people around the world, late on the evening of Tuesday, May 17, Elliott’s email begins, “I’ve just been blocked forever. I’ve been bullied, and I’m having suicidal thoughts.”

    More than 2,000 words later, after recounting the events surrounding his ban in the exhaustive manner of a man well-versed in defending his position to nitpicking online strangers, he wrote, “I know I’m not well. I have fought this feeling for a decade.” Elliott ended with this: “I sit here in my car and contemplate suicide. My despair is total. There is not a kind one amongst you.You have taken my right of appeal, my ability to protest and my dignity. You have let others mock me, and I have failed to contribute to Wikipedia’s great mission—one I feel so keenly. I failed. I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. I will drive, I don’t know where. I pray my family forgives me.”

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel. Above illustration by Laurent Hrybyk.

  • The Kernel story: ‘The Unending Quest of the Hoax Slayer, Brett Christensen’, May 2016

    A story for The Kernel, published in May 2016. Excerpt below.

    The Unending Quest of the Hoax Slayer

    Thirteen years ago, Brett Christensen was the victim of an email hoax. Since then, he’s dedicated himself to preventing the same fate for others.

    The Kernel story: 'The Unending Quest of the Hoax Slayer' by Andrew McMillen, May 2016. Illustration by J. Longo

    For 13 years, Brett Christensen has been a committed professional debunker. This balding, bearded, soft-spoken, and serious man of 53 years has devoted himself to fighting the tide of online misinformation—the kind of scams, frauds, and hoaxes that used to spread from one inbox to the next but today move with alarming speed across social media. He assures readers that no, Mr. T is not dead (actually a like-farming scam); combining Mentos and Pepsi won’t lead to cyanide poisoning; and the sun won’t be going dark for eight days in June, no matter what that Facebook post quotes NASA as saying.

    In short, Christensen tries to bring his readers the facts, even as lies and mistruth swirl all around him. Way back in 2003, when he began his quest, he gave his website the suitably ambitious name, Hoax-Slayer. Its white, red, and black design favors practicality over aesthetics; while not particularly pretty to look at, the site is one of the Web’s largest archives of falsehoods. Christensen claims around 1 million visits per month, three-quarters of which arrive from search engines.

    The Hoax Slayer himself lives in a house hidden by trees on a busy street in Bundaberg, Australia, a city of about 55,000 people situated in Queensland, the country’s third most populous state. His home office is a minimally appointed room with an adjustable desk, a copy machine, a single computer monitor, and plenty of unused space. One of the walls is painted blue, and on either side of the monitor hangs a calendar and a framed assortment of Christensen family photos.

    As we talk, Christensen clicks onto Google Analytics, showing 50 people from around the world are currently browsing the site. Its social media presence is significant, too, with more than 202,000 Facebook fans and 5,300 Twitter followers.

    For a time, the site operated as a family business: At the peak of online advertising revenue a few years ago, he could afford to hire two sons from his previous marriage to help him with Web development and maintenance. “If you’d told me back in 2004 that I’d been making a living out of it, I would’ve laughed at you,” he says.

    Christensen’s wife, Deborah, also joined her husband in working on the site full-time for a few years but recently decided to return to her job as a probation and parole officer, managing the cases of criminal offenders. Today, about 80 percent of Christensen’s workweek is spent on managing Hoax Slayer, a site whose mission statement is “to help make the Internet a safer, more pleasant and more productive environment.”

    It’s a quest that started with a hoax. Nothing too terrible; in fact, just a bit of mild embarrassment. Back in the early 2000s, when Christensen was still new to the World Wide Web, he received an email informing him not to download a Budweiser Frogs screensaver, as it contained a dangerous computer virus. He hurriedly forwarded it to his contacts. He thought he’d done the right thing by warning his friends and family away from harm—until he received a reply that it was a hoax. Stunned and chastened, he was also intrigued by how he’d become a victim. Rather than simply chalking it up to experience and moving on, he burrowed in.

    To read the full story, visit The Kernel. Above illustration credit: J. Longo.

  • Backchannel story: ‘The Heroin Heroine of Reddit’, July 2015

    A story for Backchannel, the technology section of Medium.com. Excerpt below.

    The Heroin Heroine of Reddit

    How a former addict uses the internet to save drug users’ lives

    'The Heroin Heroine of Reddit' by Andrew McMillen on Backchannel, July 2015

    On a quiet night in late April, Brad Treseler slipped off to his bedroom at his family’s home in Cumberland, Virginia. His friends kept on chatting in the living room, but after a few minutes they began to wonder what Brad was up to. They found the 25-year-old slumped on the floor of his room, blue and unresponsive. He had overdosed on heroin and benzodiazepine.

    Brad’s friends cycled through the options. They could call 911, but the responders might not arrive in time and might tip off the police. Or they could run to the apartment next door and wake Treseler’s older brother, Bill. They knew that Bill had a small vial containing a clear liquid called naloxone, which can counteract the effects of an opiate overdose. In a panic, they opted to make the short sprint and bang on Bill’s door.

    Together, they carried Brad into the bathtub and cranked on the shower. Bill dipped a syringe into the vial and drew in the naloxone, then injected the the liquid into the fatty part of Brad’s thigh. Nothing happened, so Bill refilled the syringe and injected him again. Brad stirred, and opened his eyes to see his brother and terrified friends peering down at him. As he came to, he thought: This is what being dead is like.

    Brad had acquired two vials of the naloxone months earlier. Some states—including New Mexico, Washington, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont and California—allow it to be sold over the counter. But it is illegal in Virginia, so Brad received his shipment in the mail from an unlikely source: the online forum Reddit.

    Brad is an active member of the Opiates subreddit, a lively forum where queries about safe injection practices and rehabilitation are posted alongside tactics for hustling cash and coping with constipation, an unwelcome side effect of frequent opioid use. He saw a thread where a moderator known as the “mother of r/opiates,” named Tracey Helton, was offering to send clean needles to fellow Redditors. When he reached out to Tracey about the free needles, which were rare in his scene, she told him that the package included naloxone. Brad replied, “Oh man, that’s awesome! That’s a great idea!”

    Five days later, a yellow padded envelope arrived from San Francisco, where Tracey lives. Inside was a bag of clean syringes, two vials of naloxone and a post-it note with a hand-drawn smiley face. “I thought, ‘Holy crap!’ I didn’t send her any money. All I did was send her one little message,” Brad says. “Somebody out there cares that much.”

    To read the full story, visit Backchannel.

  • The Weekend Australian book reviews: ‘Digital Vertigo’ by Andrew Keen and ‘The Blind Giant’ by Nick Harkaway, July 2012

    Two digital-themed non-fiction books rolled into one review, for The Weekend Australian. The full review follows.

    New portals of perception in a digital age

    As cyberspace encroaches ever deeper into our everyday lives, it’s worth pressing the pause button to question how we choose to spend our time in an era of digital distractions. The two books under review present opposing viewpoints on this conundrum.

    In Digital Vertigo [pictured right], Anglo-American entrepreneur Andrew Keen takes a critical stance against the technologists behind social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter, for reasons exemplified in the book’s subtitle. Keen knows his topic from the inside: on the cover the title is presented as a Twitter hashtag and the author’s name as @ajkeen. He has more than 19,000 followers on that medium, and this book seems to have been written between his frequent pond-hopping to speak at social media conferences.

    The tale begins with Keen staring at the corpse of Jeremy Bentham, the long-dead British philosopher and prison architect best known for his Panopticon design, in which inmates can be watched by outside observers at any time: “a prison premised upon the principle of perpetual peeking”, as Keen writes. Per his wishes, Bentham’s body is permanently exhibited inside a glass-fronted coffin — an “auto-icon” — within University College, London. Keen’s segue is that social media represents the “permanent self-exhibition zone of our digital age”.

    A curious introduction, no doubt. Time and again, Keen revisits the concept of the auto-icon while examining how our culture has become “a transparent love-in, an orgy of over-sharing” and comparing today to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where “to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude was always slightly dangerous”. Many readers will recognise a kernel of truth in this comparison: to log on to the internet in 2012 is to be inundated with requests (demands?) to share, to socialise with other humans.

    Keen’s title is also a reference to the 1958 Hitchcock film Vertigo, where the protagonist eventually learns that everything he believed to be true was the product of malicious deception by his peers. Keen ties this to social media by describing it as “so ubiquitous, so much the connective tissue of society” that we’re all “victims of a creepy story that we neither understand nor control”.

    The scenic route that Keen takes to arrive at this tenuous point is not particularly interesting. He fills entire chapters by paraphrasing academics and journalists, and attempts to list seemingly every start-up social business making waves in Silicon Valley. As a self-described “super node” of the social network, Keen seems quite proud to tell us that he closed his personal Facebook account in September last year.

    What could have been an original tech-dissident’s tale from the belly of the never sleeping beast is instead convoluted and messy. Keen draws heavily on historical references and too often these miss the mark, though a thorough examination of the creation and fiery destruction of the Crystal Palace in London is a highlight. It’s worth considering whether the meandering and messy nature of Digital Vertigo — including many typographical errors — is a symptom of the author’s inability to avoid the attention-shattering properties of the web.

    At the time of writing, @ajkeen was still tweeting, by the way.

    Conversely, British novelist Nick Harkaway tries his hand at long-form nonfiction for the first time in The Blind Giant [pictured right], and strikes on a narrative that immediately grips the reader. Using tight language and evocative descriptions, Harkaway’s introduction is a nightmare vision of a dystopian, tech-led society where “consciousness itself, abstracted thought and a sense of the individual as separate from the environment” are all withering away. A contrasting vision of a “happy valley” follows, and is just as realistic and compelling.

    Harkaway admits in the afterword that the book had its origins in “unpicking the idea that digital technology was responsible for all our ills”. This late-declared bias aside, The Blind Giant is a measured and thoughtful take on a problem that will concern us all soon, if it doesn’t already.

    Though the author is clearly tech-inclined – he notes on page one that he was born in 1972, the same year as the release of the first video game, Pong – he is not fanatical. He compares attempts to switch off from the internet with refusing to open your mail: “It doesn’t solve the problem, it just leaves you ignorant of what’s happening, and gradually the letters pile up on the mat.”

    His narrative arc is well considered and draws on disparate topics such as neuroplasticity (how the brain alters its make-up to take on new skills and abilities), whether social media helped or hindered the anti-Mubarak revolutions last year (in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and London) and the intriguing idea that we are living in an era of “peak digital”: “the brief and impetuous flowering of digital technology during which we inhabit a fantasy of infinite resources at low market prices”.

    Harkaway is a consistently engaging narrator: his fascinating analogies, elegant word play and occasional use of humour all point to his storytelling skills. True to the subtitle, his book cuts to the core of what it means to be human and how we might go about managing new and emerging technologies.

    It’s no self-help guide to unplugging yourself from the wired world, nor does he encourage us to spend more time with our heads in “the cloud”. Instead, Harkaway urges us to acknowledge our humanness on a regular basis, regardless of whether that human happens to be engaging online or off.

    Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution is Dividing, Diminishing and Disorienting Us
    By Andrew Keen
    St Martin’s Press, 246pp, $32.95

    The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World
    By Nick Harkaway
    John Murray, 288pp, $21.99

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist.

  • The Global Mail story: ‘Sources Of Tension: SourceBottle and online sourcing’, April 2012

    A story for The Global Mail, published in April 2012.

    Excerpt below; click the image to read the full story on The Global Mail website.

    Sources Of Tension
    by Andrew McMillen

    Times have changed for journalists, and some have changed the way they get their information. It’s time to let readers in on one of the shortcuts.

    Pre-internet, journalists had it tough. If they needed quotes, they had to use initiative, combing their existing contacts, working their telephones, or wearing out their shoe leather meeting people face-to-face. Often, all three tactics were employed simultaneously.

    In 2012, not only are supremely useful online tools such as Google, Facebook and Twitter making the hunt for sources a much more efficient process, there are now entire digital businesses built around connecting journalists with sources – namely, the “real people” you find dotted throughout broadcast, print and online news stories. While Facebook and Twitter are useful for this purpose, they can be limited by a journalist’s existing network of “friends” and followers. So, aiming to streamline the process by offering volume and efficiency, new digital services will push a journalist’s message out to a large audience as quickly as possible.

    At face value, such businesses may appear no more than a slick machine pushing the antiquated skill of personal sourcing into the interconnected present. But the media-consuming public usually are unaware of how the voices in news stories have been gathered, knowledge that might colour the way readers interpret the quotes. To examine the ethical complexity of the issue, The Global Mail looks in detail at one such direct-connect business: an Australian website named SourceBottle .

    A cursory scroll through the website’s Twitter account, @SourceBottle , offers a depressing insight into the way some Australian journalists are using the service. On SourceBottle’s Twitter feed, wedged among requests for the generic (“Magazine seeks Gen Y girls who ditched the city life for the country”), the hopeful (“Magazine seeks people to lose 5kg in 2 weeks”) and the plain lazy (“Magazine seeks details on the Titanic for article”) is this jaw-dropper, tweeted on December 10, 2011: “Mag seeks women who have rejected a 6-figure salary, gone blonde, adopted a rescue dog or converted to Islam #beasource.”

    It’s a shame that the link leads to a dead-end on the SourceBottle website — the journalist’s deadline has long since expired, and so the “call-out” is shielded from public view — as that story sounds amazing. (Imagine if they found one women who’d done all four disparate tasks?) Mirth aside, it also sounds like an Australian women’s magazine has planned an article and then attempted to find sources to fit their idea of reality, rather than using reporting to inform the outcome. It’s the journalistic equivalent of putting the cart before the horse.

    SourceBottle, founded by former PR rep Rebecca Derrington in July 2009, advertises two functions. Firstly, it helps journalists and bloggers find sources for stories. These voices are essential across all forms of journalism: without sources, we’d only ever see, hear and read fiction or opinion. In order to find people to interview for their stories, journalists are allowed to post a “call-out” on the site. If all goes to plan, the journalist can “sit back and sources will find you”, according to the site’s bolded marketing spiel.The concept is instantly appealing to any time-strapped journalist (as most are, after all).

    To read the full story, visit The Global Mail.

  • Australian Penthouse story: ‘The High Road: Silk Road, an online marketplace like no other’, February 2012

    A story for the January 2012 edition of Australian Penthouse, reproduced below in its entirety. Click the main image for a closer look (which will open a PDF in a new window), or read the article text underneath. You can click any of the below images and screenshots for a larger version, too..

    The High Road
    by Andrew McMillen

    Silk Road is an online marketplace like no other. Totally anonymous, the website uses sophisticated encryption software and a digital currency to facilitate the worldwide sale of prohibited items, particularly illicit drugs. Australian Penthouse investigates.

    “Imagine how exciting it is when you get something in the mail; even the shittiest thing, like a free sample. But in this case, you’re getting drugs that you really want to take, and get high on. It’s a compounded experience of excitement; an exponential high.”

    A 24-year old man who lives in an inner-city suburb of Brisbane is describing what he felt upon opening his mailbox one day in 2011 and discovering a package containing one gram of cocaine. It was addressed to a person who does not exist. He does not know the source of the substance beyond its country of origin. This was not the first time he had purchased drugs online; his first order was for one gram of MDMA powder. That package was sent to a house that he knew was unoccupied; it took around nine days to arrive from Canada. He checked the vacant mailbox daily. “I’m still waiting for some undies off of eBay from Hong Kong,” he says. “[The MDMA] arrived way quicker than that.”

    Why the alternate address in the first instance? “Because having something illicit sent in the mail seems fairly thick,” he replies. “It seems so simple; too good to be true. I wanted to put some form of buffer between myself and the order I made, as a ‘test run’.

    “One day it was in there and it hadn’t been intercepted. I didn’t get immediately arrested when I took it out of the mailbox. Since I didn’t use my real name, it didn’t seem possible to get traced back to me. It still hasn’t been.”

    These orders were made using a website called Silk Road. It can only be accessed after installing anonymity-enabling software called Tor. All purchases are made using Bitcoin, a currency which only exists online and whose public transaction history can be untraceable if handled correctly.

    My interviewee randomly discovered online mentions of Silk Road in May 2011, and pursued the intriguing concept all the way through to installing Tor and trading Australian dollars for Bitcoin; a process he calls “semi-prohibitive” owing to the persistence and tech-knowledge required to check all the boxes before users can place an order. In four transactions, my interviewee has ordered three grams of MDMA and three grams of cocaine at a cost of “close to AUD$700”.

    So what motivated him to take a chance on buying illicit substances online from a complete stranger?

    “I’m interested in taking drugs casually, but I hate the process,” he says. “I don’t know any dealers. Even if I want to get weed, I don’t know anyone, so it always becomes this drawn out process of finding someone who knows someone who knows someone. It’s a real pain in the arse. Whereas this way, it’s so direct and private. I didn’t leave my room, and then nine days later there was something in the mailbox that was for me. It’s discreet and exciting. Imagine the fun of shopping on eBay, but then you can also get high.”

    Visiting Silk Road for the first time, I feel a little like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. After downloading the correct Tor software bundle, I connected within five minutes. A warning appears at the bottom of the registration screen: “Be advised: This website is experimental. We do not guarantee your anonymity, protection from law enforcement in your jurisdiction, or protection from other users of this service. You and you alone are responsible for the risks associated with entering and using this website.” The site does not request any information from its users beyond a username and password; not even an email address. And then, you’re in.

    The site’s bright, clean design displays images of nine items for sale; among them, ‘red joker’ ecstasy pills, one-ounce of the ‘purple kush’ cannabis strain, a $50 Australian banknote and syringes. When I first visit the site in late August 2011, one bitcoin is worth USD$11.15; a fortnight later, the exchange rate has dropped to USD$6.18 per bitcoin.

    The nine ‘featured’ items change upon each page refresh. A column on the left categorises the goods for sale: ‘drugs’ is split into sub-categories like ‘dissociatives’ (11 items for sale), ‘psychedelics’ (123 items), ‘stimulants’ (65) and the most popular category, ‘cannabis’ (237). Other categories include ‘digital goods’, ‘money’, ‘XXX’, ‘weaponry’ and ‘forgeries’.

    At first, it’s a little overwhelming. What Silk Road [SR] offers is the online equivalent of strolling down a dim-lit alley filled with surly guys wearing heavy trenchcoats, except that you can contemplate purchasing their goods while lounging in your underwear, without fear of being stabbed.

    Each page on the site generally takes a few seconds to load, regardless of the user’s connection speed, due to an overcrowded Tor network. A page called ‘how does it work?’ describes the site as “an anonymous marketplace where you can buy and sell without revealing who you are. We protect your identity through every step of the process, from connecting to this site, to purchasing your items, to finally receiving them”. Lengthy guides for both buyers and sellers are freely available. The latter guide states that “every precaution must be taken to maintain the secrecy of the contents of your client’s package. Creatively disguise it such that a postal inspector might ignore it if it was searched or accidentally came open.”

    It concludes with a ‘final note’: “Regardless of your motivations, you are a revolutionary. Your actions are bringing satisfaction to those that have been oppressed for far too long. Take pride in what you do and stand tall.”

    There’s an active and boisterous SR forum community, which is hosted off-site and requires an additional registration; this process requests an email address, but a note states that it doesn’t have to be a legit address.

    After poking around the site and smirking at some of the items for sale – condoms, an e-book of Neil Strauss’ pick-up artist classic The Game, military training manuals – I decide to engage with a few sellers by requesting interviews using the site’s private messaging system.

    Within 10 minutes, three sellers respond enthusiastically to my request; one says, “I’ll even give you a media discount if you order.” The website’s administrator, who goes by the username Silk Road, also responds. “Sorry, we aren’t doing interviews at the moment,” he says. “Good luck.”

    Of the 27 SR sellers I approach during a two-week period on the site, seven respond thoughtfully and at length to my questions. They are mostly based in the US and Canada, though one is Australian. All seven request that I don’t mention their usernames. A few prefer to conduct the interview using PGP text encryption, which adds another element of spookiness to the situation. Most of the sellers found their way to Silk Road after the site was covered online by Wired and Gawker in June 2011.

    When I ask what they like about Silk Road, I’m met with a range of responses. “Being able to provide a safe and anonymous way for someone to purchase something that they choose to put into their body,” says one seller. “It’s nice how it turns drug dealing into an office job, with less risk and more stable demand while interacting openly with customers,” replies another. This focus on administrative duties is echoed by another seller, who says it’s “nice to have everything so organized and centralized, it really cuts down on the time spent per order which is a huge plus when you’ve got a mountain of them to work through.”

    One source remarked aloud, ‘this is the future’, upon finding the site. “The free market has provided for one of the oldest needs in human history,” they elaborate. “[SR] removes the elements of danger that exist in in-person black market arrangements, and offered anonymity for all parties involved.”

    I ask what sellers don’t like about the service. One tells me, “while the majority of users are honest and trustworthy, you always have to keep your guard up. There are plenty of scammers here on SR.” Another is frustrated by the long wait between making a sale and receiving the bitcoins in their account. “It can take a while for people to finalize transactions, so the money gets stuck in escrow until the customer remembers to finalize, or it auto-finalizes after like 20 or so days.”

    One seller is concerned about the silo-like nature of the site: “Having everything organized – vendor statistics easily accessible, reliance on a single server, etc – all makes any vendor, or even SR itself, a juicier target for LE [law enforcement].” An Australian seller replies, “I don’t like being out in the open. Even though I feel rather anonymous within SR, I could always make a simple mistake with my packaging or use of encryption that would give me away.”

    A few of my respondents reveal that they have sold drugs in the real world. One dubs the online process “much easier” than face-to-face sales. “SR buyers have no info about me whatsoever. Whereas with a face-to-face transaction, a buyer might know my name, what I look like, the car that I drive, or the city that I live in. So if they get caught, LE goes up the food chain. Here on SR, there’s nowhere for LE to go.”

    Another seller says SR is preferable because it “takes potential violence right out of the equation, and mitigates theft; you can’t exactly take someone to court for robbing you during a black-market trade, which is why there is so much violence. I prefer SR to offline, any day of the week.” One seller candidly replies, that SR is “better and cleaner. Customers are more educated and nice, and it leaves you more spare time to study, play with the kids, and clean the house. It’s telecommuting at its finest.”

    None of the seven sellers I interviewed would detail how they package the illicit substances sent through the international postal system. A couple mentioned that it’s an unwritten law among SR sellers to not disclose such methods, though I learn by reading the forums that vacuum sealing is common. The young man from Brisbane who received MDMA and cocaine in the mail didn’t want to discuss the appearance of the packages he received, either.

    All this illegal activity must be a rush, even if the process does become somewhat normalised due to the volume of orders that some sellers process. I have one final question. What does it feel like to sell illicit drugs over the internet to complete strangers?

    One replies, “honestly, it can be quite nerve racking. I have no idea if I just sent some illegal items to LE. That’s why it’s so important for a good vendor to use all precautionary tactics to keep important info away from them. Leaving no DNA or fingerprints, and sending from an area where you don’t live. It’s not unusual for a vendor to be wearing hairnets and multiple layers of gloves while packaging the material. If there is even a one-percent chance of some identifying marks on or inside that package, it will be thrown out.”

    Another says, “It’s awesome. Most of the users on Silk Road are good people, and it’s always been a pleasure providing them goods that their corrupt governments have denied them. By simply living our lives and doing what we want to do, we break the government’s iron fist. It’s pretty satisfying.”

    “It feels great,” agrees another. “I get to make a positive contribution in the lives of people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to drugs, such as old folks, and people in remote locations.” The seller shares some feedback received by a buyer that they found “really touching”. The feedback reads, “I don’t want to sound all sentimental and crap but in all honesty, my friends and I have become closer and happier with ourselves and each other, thanks to you and your stuff. It’s really been a bonding experience for everyone. We aren’t really the partying type and instead like to chill and talk for hours. Thanks to you, we have shared some amazing experiences.”

    The seller tells me that “getting feedback like that makes those nights spent sweating over a hot vacuum sealer seem worthwhile!”

    For more on Silk Road, visit its Wikipedia page.

  • A conversation with Ryan Holiday: blogger, former marketing director of American Apparel, soon-to-be author; October 2011

    Ryan Holiday is one of the most influential people in my life.

    His blog, RyanHoliday.net, is one of the most valuable online resources I know of. This is a statement that I know will make him blush, because Ryan is a modest guy. I know this because when I first approached him for an interview in January 2010, he deflected my questions – which were extremely detailed, potentially to the point of exhibiting stalker-like behaviour. He wrote that when he felt he deserved an interview, he’d give it to me; he also said that mine was “the most in depth, investigative email I’ve ever gotten”.

    At 24, Ryan [pictured right] is a year older than me. I’ve viewed his blog as a kind of counsel since I first became aware of his work. His thinking and writing has, in turn, shaped my thinking and writing. It is fair to say that I wouldn’t be on the path I am now if I hadn’t been closely studying another young male on the other side of the world, fearlessly kicking down doors in search and pursuit of his goals. For a couple of years, Ryan’s ambition, persistence and confidence all directly influenced my day-to-day thoughts and actions. Which is another statement that will make Ryan blush, because it’s a pretty fucking weird thing to type, let alone think.

    Ryan first attracted my attention by attracting the attention of someone who I was closely studying at the time: Tucker Max, the American blogger-turned-author who is best known for his 2006 book I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell and the 2009 film adaptation of the same name.

    Ryan wrote a review of Tucker’s website – which, at the time, was a collection of stories about Max’s drinking and sexual exploits – for his college newspaper, and sent the link to the author. Soon after, Max posted the review on his message board, which was a fairly popular corner of the web; it was deleted a couple of years ago. I immediately became interested in figuring out who Holiday was.

    That review led Tucker to hire Ryan as an intern at his company, Rudius Media (now defunct). It led Ryan to work with the acclaimed author Robert Greene as a research assistant on the strategy book The 50th Law, co-written with rapper 50 Cent and released in 2009. And it led Ryan to be hired by the clothing manufacturer American Apparel, where he worked as Director of Marketing for a couple of years. He still works as an advisor to American Apparel, but moved from Los Angeles to New Orleans in mid 2011 to work on a book project of his own.

    Since January 2007, Ryan has consistently used his blog as a platform for discussions about writing, running, online PR, media, philosophy, and stoicism, among other topics. I’ve consumed every word that he has written since his first post, ‘The Business Of Running‘. I often re-read his posts multiple times, which is something I rarely do online. That first post remains a valid starting point for understanding Ryan’s way of thinking and writing. I’ll quote the opening paragraph below.

    “I run 5 miles every night. It’s where I go to digest my day, hash out the multitude of information that’s been poured into me in the last wild six months or so, and to try and condense it down to some sort of cohesive strategy to live my life by.” – Ryan Holiday, January 31 2007

    When I visited the United States for the first time with my girlfriend Rachael in September 2010, I asked to meet up with Ryan in Los Angeles. We met at a burger joint on Melrose Avenue and talked for an hour or so. It was a huge thrill for me to meet a guy who’s been something of an internet hero to me for nearly five years. Rachael didn’t really understand why it was so important to me at the time.

    Neither did I, really, now that I think about it. All I knew then, and know now, is that Ryan Holiday is one of the most influential people in my life. It’s an honour for me to publish the below email interview.

    Andrew: When you wrote that review of Tucker’s website, what was the intended outcome?

    Ryan: I’m not sure if I ever told anyone this, but I’d noticed that Tucker tended to link to or write about any press he got (at least back then) and so I thought, “I’m a writer for a college newspaper, why don’t I try it”? It didn’t really go much further than thinking about it at that time. Then a couple weeks later I had the opening line of that piece floating around in my head: “If Hunter S Thompson had read this site, he probably wouldn’t have killed himself.” I figured I had something and eventually sat down and wrote it.

    So the intended outcome was that I’d send it to him and he’d link to it (I reposted the article on my blog) and that would be it. But the reaction totally blew my mind. Within about 20 minutes he’d responded and… I went back to my Gmail and found it:

    From: Tucker Max

    [November 28th, 2005]

    “Jesus Christ. Dude, that is fantastic. Seriously, I am awed by your grasp of me and my material. I am going to post this as THE example of a great review of me and my work.”

    It’s funny to me now because that reaction has become a pretty routine occurrence for me since then. I obviously thought I wrote a pretty good article but I was still reluctant to send it off. Is he going to like it? Did I go overboard? What are the chances of it getting a response? Turns out I had nailed the target and didn’t quite understand the extent. That seems to happen a lot to me. You’d think I’d anticipate it by now, but still other peoples’ reaction (positively, anyway) tends to catch me by surprise.

    What did that response change for you? Was that one of those ‘Fight Club moments‘ I remember you writing about years ago?

    I think it was the opposite of one of those moments. I think of a Fight Club Moment as something that breaks you down and demolishes the pretense and bullshit entitlement you have in your life. This wasn’t that. It instilled a lot of confidence in me. It was like, “ok, I am better than I knew. That’s awesome, maybe I can build on this.”

    What happened next between you and Tucker?

    I think after he had the publisher send me a copy of his book to review, which I did, and after it was published I asked for his thoughts on the writing. He went over it on the phone with me about ways I could improve my voice and tone.

    I stayed in touch—I think in my post about advice a couple weeks ago I called this ‘staying on the radar’, and that’s basically what I did. I would pop in and ask questions, for advice, send links etc. Any excuse I could think of to keep that connection alive. Only an idiot would waste that chance.

    A year or so later I was in New York, where he was living and I told him I wasn’t looking for a job, or a salary or a handout but I had some thoughts on ways I could contribute to his company, Rudius Media. After the meeting, he offered me an internship, which 6-8 months later become a job. But it was all a very fluid thing, like I was saying.

    [Andrew’s note: that post he mentionedAdvice to a Young Man Hoping to Go Somewhere (Or Get Something From Someone Successful)is an absolute must-read.]

    To me, the act of writing the review and showing Tucker is a pretty solid example of figuring out what you want, and pursuing it accordingly. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t that lead to him offering you a job, you quitting college and moving to LA, and then working for American Apparel?

    Haha, I mean you pretty much figured out exactly what I was doing or trying to do with the last question, probably with a better sense of clarity than I really had at the time. But yeah, it was the door that ultimately led to the opening of all the other doors. I have him to thank for all of it. When I see a path to an opportunity–like a lane in basketball–I sort of put my head down and the next thing I know I’m through it and it took me somewhere I didn’t totally anticipate.

    With the Tucker thing, I knew I wanted to one day be a writer like the kind of writers he was working with at the time – I’d known this since I first saw his sites in high school – so I did that article, and then I was working for him, and then I was working for the people he was working with, and then the people they were working with, and so on. I don’t think any of them every solicited me for a job either so much; it was just that I was around all the time, doing stuff and offering to do stuff, and then it eventually became official.

    How did you come across Robert Greene’s work? Was it Tucker who first showed you?

    Yeah, I’d heard of the books obviously but I think Tucker recommended The 48 Laws of Power so I read it. I marked up my copy so much and had a million questions to ask Tucker.* Then the first time I met him, Tucker walked me to a bookstore and bought me The 33 Strategies of War and said, “if you’re going to work for me, you’ll need to have read this.” I think that’s how I found out I got the job. All I took from that exchange was: “I better read this book on the plane ride home and know it backwards and forwards.”

    * Ryan’s sidenote: that copy of The 48 Laws is priceless to me. Someone stole it out of my office at American Apparel. I was fucking distraught. It makes no sense because Dov [Charney, AA chairman and CEO] has a million copies laying around. Why would they want my marked-up personal copy?

    How did the opportunity to work for Greene arise?

    The three of us – Tucker, Robert, and I – had lunch in L.A. a few years ago and it kind of arose from that meeting. Although it almost didn’t, because I was so nervous I accidentally messed up when I gave Robert my phone number.

    I have a suspicion that working on The 50th Law might have inspired a sense of validation, given your regular documentation on your life via the blog, and your personal reading and research via your Delicious account. Am I right, or way off?

    I mean, it was very cool to have the privilege to be allowed to peek inside of project like that. But I don’t think validating is the right work. What it was was educational, from top to bottom. Researching for someone–particularly someone like Robert–is crazy because you get pointed in all these directions that you’d never have gone by yourself, given a very firm objective to gather from that direction, and a tight deadline with which to do so. When you read or research for yourself, it is kind of this wandering, directionless thing. For the book, it was like getting a crash course in a million different subjects. I was interested in all of them so I would mark down the stuff I would want to go back and look at later.

    So it’s funny, when I see the book, it reminds me of loose ends I still need to tie up for myself and am interested in looking into.

    Your stoicism guest blog for Tim Ferriss in April 2009 attracted a lot of attention. What did you get out of it? What did you learn from the experience?

    More than anything, it helped me clarify my thoughts. Tim is awesome and he’s got a very impressive commitment to expanding the scope of blog all the time. He starting writing about productivity and got all these people hooked and the next thing you know he’s totally revolutionized how they think about health and science. I was lucky that he gave me the microphone for one of those digressions.

    I got quite a few new readers out of it and he also was gracious enough to give me two more chances to write about similar topics. [The Experimental Life: An Introduction to Michel de Montaigne‘, October 2010; ‘Looking to the Dietary Gods: Eating Well According to the Ancients‘, July 2011]

    What you learn in a setting like that is how to tailor your message to different mediums. When I write for my site, I can be as self-indulgent as I want. When you write for someone else or on a bigger platform, you have to be much clearer and you have to catch them right from the beginning. They’re not YOUR readers, so you have to meet them where they are if you’d like to bother listening to your message. At the same time, it taught me that I don’t want to have to perform like that all the time which kind of freed me up to not have to chase acquiring that audience for myself. If didn’t learn that, I’d be spend all my time working to build something that at the end of the day, would make me miserable to have.

    Could you tell me about your working space?

    When I was in LA, I had a big office with 5-10 employees at any given time at the American Apparel factory. I had an office at my house at well.

    Now, in New Orleans, I sort of went in the completely opposite direction. I’m in a studio apartment so I don’t work much there. I like working and reading and writing out of the library at Tulane or, I belong to an old school athletic club in the French Quarter that has like a library/parlor work space that I use.

    On Mondays, I try to do all my administrative stuff—conference calls with employees, meetings, paperwork and then during the rest of the week I respond to AA emails in the morning and again at night. The middle of the day is mine. I try to write, go to the gym (run, box or swim), and read—in that order.

    I still have the same quote, the one from Marcus [Aurelius], above my desk:

    “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me.”

    The other quote above my desk is from Seneca:

    “Some lack the fickleness to live as they wish and just live as they have begun.”

    In November 2007 , you wrote that “you have to be happy with you”. I understand it’s a work in progress, but are you happy with you in October 2011, nearly four years later?

    Happier for sure. It’s not so much that it’s a work in progress as it is a process. I forget who said it, but someone smarter than me said that “happiness ensues, it cannot be pursued”. And I think it was Aristotle who said that happiness was the result of excellence.

    Either way, I take that to mean that you’re happy when you are doing whatever it is that you’re doing, well. So: are you doing well at your career? Is your relationship the best it can be? Are you handling adversity or a difficult experience with excellence? Are you behaving honorably? Etc etc.

    These are all opportunities to excel in the moment and cumulatively these moments create a sense of happiness. I’m fucking 24, there’s no way I’m doing well all the time at everything but I do feel I am getting better and more consistent.

    I want to close on a cliched question, which I hope you’ll humour me on. What advice would you give to yourself five years ago, when all you really knew about yourself was that you ‘wanted to one day be a writer like the kind of writers Tucker was working with at the time’?

    Fucking breathe. It’s not as precarious as you think it is. There’s no need to be anxious. See, it’s really easy when you’re that young and you don’t have a safety net to think you have to cling to everything for dear life, everything is a crisis, everything is mission critical, nothing else can be the priority.

    When you’re in that space, it’s really hard to have the patience and compassion or even empathy for the other people in your life because you’re fucking fight or flight all the time. In reality, it’s not as dramatic as all that. Taking a more relaxed and accepting approach might mean losing a couple opportunities here and there but down the road, you end up turning down plenty of those anyway, so what does it matter if a couple never arrive?

    If I told myself this and really listened, I feel like I’d have been happier along the way and be able to be prouder of how I behaved and the decisions I made.

    ++

    For more on Ryan Holiday, visit his blog. Hopefully he’ll soon post some news about the publication and release of his first book.

    [Edited on November 18: the first news of Ryan Holiday’s book has been announced.]

  • The Courier-Mail author profile: Melissa Gregg and ‘Work’s Intimacy’, October 2011

    A short author profile for The Courier-Mail’s new Life section, which is included in the Saturday paper. Click the below image to view the version that appeared in print.

    The text I’ve supplied underneath is the full article, which was slightly edited in print due to space restrictions.

    How to leave work at home: Work’s Intimacy by Melissa Gregg

    If the office exists in your phone, how is it possible to claim the right to be away from it for any length of time?

    This question is central to Work’s Intimacy by Melissa Gregg, a senior lecturer in gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney. Gregg’s book is the result of a three-year study of information workers – including broadcast journalists, librarians and academics – which took place in Brisbane between 2007 and 2009.

    “That question captures the twin tensions in the book’s title: the idea of work being something that we’re invested in, in a way that’s pleasurable, and the way that technology allows that relationship to be available wherever we are,” she says. “Mobile devices are increasingly marketed as this desirable object because it gives us access to every pleasure we could possibly imagine,” she laughs. “The more portable the device, the more intimate the device, right?”

    If we’re to believe the companies that market these devices, that’s absolutely correct. Yet Gregg’s book contains dozens of examples of salaried professionals struggling to draw barriers between their work and leisure. This behaviour extends to checking and replying to emails outside of the workplace, in preparation for the actual workday.

    “That was extremely common,” Gregg says. “It seemed to point to a sense of unpredictability in people’s work days. We once thought of the office as a mind-numbing routine of 9-5, of always knowing what’s coming, and that being part of the problem. This tendency to check email outside of the office seemed to suggest that, individually, people did not know how to cope with the pace and the unpredictability of the workplace today.”

    For Gregg [pictured below], being based in Brisbane for the duration of her study was a blessing. “As someone who’s always been a bit of an outsider to any city I’ve lived in, I saw this as a great chance to look, from an outsider’s point of view, at changes that were happening in Brisbane at that time”; namely, the way in which the city was positioning itself within a creative economy.

    This confusing transitional period was reflected in the workers Gregg interviewed. She met a 61 year-old university professor, Clive, who said “I worry that I’m going to miss something” if he doesn’t check his email constantly. “I’m a bit addicted,” he said. “Partly because I don’t want email to swamp me. If I had a weekend off the Internet, then on Monday, I just have a huge inbox.”

    Similar anxieties were expressed by Patrick, a 24-year old part-time radio producer who barely sees his partner, Adam, since their schedules rarely align. Yet Patrick admitted “I do get a pang of sadness” when the pair were home at the same time, but both absorbed in their individual computer screens. The author dubs this being ‘together alone’.

    Gregg says that maintaining an emotional distance in these scenarios is “one of the challenges of this kind of research, because you’re always needing to retain objectivity in the moment of the interview, and to say as little as possible to affect them telling you what’s really going on.”

    She says that “a number of the interviews were quite shocking to me, and did make me feel that there was merit in having people talking about these issues, because they could at least become prominent in their minds for a while, to see just how much they could recognise their relationships had changed within the family structure.”

    Though Gregg says she’s “no shining example” in contrast to the work/life issues raised by her interviewees, she hopes that people “take a little more independent action to refuse the pace of their workplace. Teamwork culture is very coercive because of the rhetoric of collegiality and friendship, so it does make it very difficult for people to resist. But that’s not going to stop me recommending that people do it.”

    Work’s Intimacy can be ordered via Polity Books’ website.

  • Talk: “Team Bondi, L.A. Noire and The Truth: The Perils of Online News”, October 2011

    This is the transcript of a presentation I gave at the Brisbane Emerging Writers Festival on Saturday 15 October 2011, as part of a panel discussion around the topic of “Writing online – How different is writing for an online audience, how can you do it creatively, and what are the challenges and opportunities for writers working in this field?”

    Footage of my presentation is embedded below.

    ++

    Team Bondi, L.A. Noire and The Truth: The Perils of Online News

    by Andrew McMillen

    This is a cautionary tale about online journalism. It’s about learning first-hand how the internet can be a beautiful and terrible place to break news. It’s about choosing what kind of writer you want to be.

    In June, the biggest story of my career was published. It was the result of four months of investigation, based on my interviews with 11 former employees of a company named Team Bondi, who made the biggest, most expensive video game ever made in Australia, called L.A. Noire. These 11 sources all spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. Between them, they’d spent a combined 24 years at Team Bondi. They each alleged that their experiences working there were uniformly terrible: long hours, no overtime pay, a praise-free workplace led by a guy who treated them like crap. As a result of these factors and high staff turnover, the game took seven years to make, which is an incredibly long time in the games industry. I put these allegations to the Team Bondi founder, who did not deny what his former employees had told me, and made no apologies for his style of management.

    My story encapsulated all of this, and was published on the gaming website IGN. Within 24 hours it received over 120,000 hits, and was being reported and analysed by the gaming media around the world. My four months of patient work – including building trust with my sources, and many conversations with IGN’s editors about the story’s final shape – were reduced to a handful of quotes and rushed summaries rewritten by other gaming journalists. To my knowledge, nobody tried to track down my 11 sources and verify what they were saying, nor did anyone seek additional comment from Team Bondi.

    Soon after the story was published, two other former employees emailed me, and provided some more information, including company emails they’d saved from their time at Team Bondi. This new information shed more light on the fact that the company had been stringing their employees along for years, consistently saying that the game was close to being finished, even though it clearly wasn’t. I combined this new information into a supplementary feature that was published on the gaming website, GamesIndustry.biz.

    One of the more interesting comments made by one of my sources in this second story related to the breakdown of the relationship between Team Bondi and Rockstar Games, who published L.A. Noire. You might know them as the guys behind games like Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. My source said, and I quote:

    “I’ve heard a lot about Rockstar’s disdain for Team Bondi, and it has been made quite clear that they will not publish Team Bondi’s next game. Team Bondi are trying to find another publisher for their next title, but the relationship with Rockstar has been badly damaged.”

    Now, keep in mind that these are informed comments made by a person who worked at this company for a few years. Still, these are some pretty strong allegations to make, about some high-profile businesses. My source has inside knowledge, for sure, but it’s very easy to start these kinds of rumours – namely, that one of the world’s best-known videogame companies has decided to cut ties with the Australian studio that they’d sunk millions of dollars into. In the eyes of every sane and rational person in the world, though, allegations and rumours stay just that until they’re either confirmed or denied by those in the know.

    Over the next couple of days, I was surprised to find that many websites were not exercising caution when publishing these additional rumours. Some sites didn’t even acknowledge the source of these allegations, instead simply saying that, quote “Rockstar have decided not to publish Team Bondi’s next game”. Full stop. It was alarming and disappointing to see my work skewed beyond its original form, purely because other writers didn’t care enough to provide full context.

    To complicate the situation, neither Rockstar nor Team Bondi made any public comments on any of these matters. I learned during this process that their silence bred a kind of quiet acceptance of ‘the facts’ of my stories – which is a really shitty thing. To this day neither company has publicly commented on what I reported.

    This whole experience was simultaneously exhilarating and depressing for me. Exhilarating because it was the first real newsworthy story I’d worked on, and I got a kick out of watching it being passed around the world. Depressing because I also watched commenters misinterpret my findings, and fellow journalists misrepresent my work in their editorials. It made me wonder what would’ve happened if I was less restrained with my own analysis and storytelling. Arguably, my stories would never have been published if they didn’t meet editorial standards, but the manner in which other online publications were loose with the facts made me wonder how far I could’ve stretched the truth and gotten away with it.

    This is an interesting thought to entertain. And I should point out that my two published stories on this topic did not stretch the truth in any way. But hypothetically, let’s say that I’d fabricated a few quotes that were supposedly made by my anonymous sources. The reader wouldn’t know any better, and it’s doubtful that I’d even get found out. The story was re-reported with such breathless enthusiasm, often containing only the most inflammatory and controversial quotes, that it would barely have mattered. The success of the stories, and the additional opportunities that have since been offered to me, might have led me down an entirely different path. I might have become addicted to seeking easy controversy in my journalism, had I made that choice.

    I didn’t, and I haven’t. I’m glad I was thorough and responsible in my reporting, but the alternative is still fun to think about occasionally.

    This experience taught me a valuable lesson, about how quickly people tend to believe what they read online as the truth, especially in the absence of denial from the parties in question. The more the story was reported around the internet, the more true these allegations became to most readers. This is reflected in the comments sections of these articles. I watched the tide turn from acute doubt, to utter contempt for Team Bondi and Rockstar, in a very short period.

    This experience taught me that no matter how thorough and careful I am with my own work, once a story is published online, it’s completely out of my hands. I think that, in the rush to ‘first’, some web publishers are a little loose with their words. This is troublesome, because whoever reads their articles may not have the time or inclination to read the initial source material, and if a website has their facts wrong when re-reporting a story, then the reader’s understanding of a situation may be compromised. It’s hard to shift facts in people’s minds once they’ve come to a conclusion, and I think web journalists, editors and publishers have a more pronounced responsibility than their print counterparts to check the facts and exercise caution before hitting ‘publish’.

    It’s tough, though, because on the internet, there is little incentive for this kind of cautionary, responsible journalism. Inflammatory and controversial stories spread much faster than their circumspect alternatives. This has always been the case, with any kind of news, but the trouble with the web is that the publishers of these kinds of stories are rewarded with traffic, which in turn directly benefits them, as advertisers are more willing to pay them to run ads on their sites.

    A few thoughts to close. Writing for the web, it’s very easy to become swept up in instantaneous, inflammatory, controversial reporting. But I urge you not to go down this road. To do so is to toss away your integrity, to swallow your pride and sense of self-worth in favour of short-term gratification. It is a fucking shame that online journalism appears to be built on this principle, and that it is so ingrained in our day-to-day web browsing that you probably don’t even notice.

    Like I said, there’s little consequence for following the path of ‘publish first, fact-check second’. But if you have even a shred of integrity, again I urge you: do not take the path of least resistance. Always err on the side of caution before pressing ‘publish’. You owe it to your readers, your sources, your fellow journalists and yourself.

    Andrew McMillen is a freelance journalist based in Brisbane, Australia. http://andrewmcmillen.com/