Technology journalism – and US technology journalism in particular – is getting a roasting every bit as stinging as Justin Bieber's recent Comedy Central special, in an opinion piece by mobile industry expert Tero Kuittinen published on tech site Boy Genius Report.
Titled “Meerkat is dying – and it's taking US tech journalism with it”, it pulls no punches in its assessment of whether recent, excitable coverage of video-broadcasting app Meerkat was matched by actual downloads and usage.
“The ugly truth that US tech media has declined to mention even in passing is that Meerkat had never been a hit to begin with. All those breathless media reports about “the hot new app” and “the break-out app” were deeply misleading at best — and cynical legerdemain at worst,” wrote Kuittinen.
“Meerkat's highest daily ranking on the U.S. iPhone download chart was No. 140, on March 20th. At this point, the app had already generated thousands of news stories and blog posts, most of them enthusiastically describing it as a hit. But actual American consumers never showed the slightest sign of warming up.
Meerkat's ‘success' was the creation of a handful of West Coast tech bloggers who managed to lure major newspapers into covering a phenomenon that did not exist.
Despite media coverage that most new apps would kill for, Meerkat failed to get anywhere close to the top 100 chart in the US – even though on a typical week, a dozen new apps crack the top 100. Meerkat is an app that underperformed your average Croatian Flappy Bird clone or the 10th most popular diner simulation of the past year.”
Ouch. But there's more.
Kuittinen compares the fuss around Meerkat with similar hype in 2014 about anonymous social app Secret – which appears to be currently turning into a startup incubator after failing to take off – and suggests that if Meerkat had been covered more sceptically by journalists, it would have struggled to raise $14m in funding at exactly the moment the launch of Twitter's rival Periscope app kicked sand in its face, robbed its lunch money and ran off cackling.
“Writing about the mobile app industry is a curious niche; you don't actually have to understand download statistics, different product segments or other industry fundamentals. Unlike movies, fashion, cars or the book industry, you don't have to focus on products that possess real consumer appeal. In the United States, app industry reporters can simply choose to cover an app their buddies claim is cool and then prioritise the 200th most popular app in the country over apps that have actual heft and significance.”
It's a sharp slap in the face for tech journalism well beyond the US, and a necessary one in its desire to provoke a debate about what we write about and why – even if you don't agree with all Kuittinen's conclusions.
There is a hype (or filter) bubble in the tech world, especially for journalists who spend a lot of time on Twitter and follow other tech journalists, investors and startup folk.
When your stream is suddenly full of people Meerkatting, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking “everyone” is doing it – at least until you have the experience of burbling about the app to non-tech-industry friends and family, and the humility to recognise that their blank faces might be a more useful way of gauging its wider significance than your tech bubble.
Sometimes, we miss the app trends going on under our noses with those friends. We sense big stories in facebook forcing people to install its Messenger app or Twitter tweaking its timeline when most of our non-tech friends did the former without a care, and still aren't on Twitter.
We write too much about Meerkat or Secret or whatever else is the flavour of the month, and not enough about apps that people are actually using.
On the light entertainment side of things, for example, we turn our noses up at Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and Candy Crush Saga; we're largely blind to the rise of Dubsmash; and we don't understand why Talking Tom Cat and his Talking Friends have become one of the biggest breakout brands in the apps world.
(A fact: if I were to write about 10 buzzy new apps today, only one of them might match the weekly page views of this year-old story about the Talking Angela app. Because more people out there in the real world are worried about a virtual cat being a front for a paedophile ring than care about whatever's today's toast of Product Hunt. I'm not sure that's something to celebrate, but it's a useful leveller.)
More importantly, there's also a world of deeper, more difficult stories to be written about this whole world of apps and technology startups, from privacy and censorship to the role technology is playing in fields outside the average tech journalist's expertise: health, education, agriculture… there's a big list.
There's an argument for getting rid of “tech journalism”, or at least dispersing it among other areas, so that you'd have technology writers embedded on every desk within a mainstream news organisation – and specialist desks within a technology-leaning news site – capable of digging in to those difficult stories.
It's happening, slowly. I think Kuittinen would approve, even if his piece is more about wishing for a class of journalists more able and willing to burrow down into the nitty-gritty of apps analytics and business models.
Where I disagree with him, though, is on the excitement around Meerkat being entirely misplaced, or indeed, entirely focused on the app itself, rather than its category.
Technology journalism can't just be about mining analytics to divine what's popular now: it's just as important to think about what might be coming next, and the likely path between the two. A nose for news based not just on what your buddies claim is cool, but on your experiences in the past and curiosity about the future.
The more thoughtful coverage of Meerkat did exactly that: enthusiastic about the potential of live broadcasting apps; constructively sceptical about this particular example's shortcomings and likely challenges; and eager to understand the consequences if these apps go mainstream, eventually.