A rumor can get halfway around the world while the facts are still struggling to get their shoes laced.
If you want a perfect example, just look at how the echo chamber amplified an unverified story about the pricing of Microsoft’s new Surface devices.
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It started at WPCentral, which captured a screenshot from Swedish website Webhallen.com, ostensibly showing that the new devices would be priced from 6990 kr (for a 32 GB Windows RT device) to 12,990 kr (for 64 GB running Windows 8 Pro). If you don’t have a currency converter handy, let me save you the trouble of looking it up. Those amounts convert to $1017 and $1,891, respectively.
From that meager beginning and wafer-thin sourcing, the story took on a life of its own, being picked up by mainstream tech news outlets like The Next Web, CNET News, The Cult of Mac (naturally), and even ZDNet, where our very own Adrian Kingsley-Hughes was ready to pronounce the entire Surface line
Here’s the feeding frenzy, as captured by Techmeme, at 5:00AM today.
One tiny problem: the entire story was untrue. And none of the names on that roster practiced anything remotely like journalism. Fortunately, Paul Paliath of Techie-Buzz.com looked at the story and decided it made no sense. So he did what no one thought to do yesterday: he sent an email to the Swedish company that owns the web site. And they responded promptly:
Our customers are very interested in pre-ordering these products, so we have set a high preliminary pricing for the lineup so that they may be able to pre-order them.
Just to clarify, we have not recieved [sic] any pricing from Microsoft regarding MRSP or purchasing net cost, and any people who have booked the Surface at this high price will of course have their order adjusted before any product is shipped. So we’re not going to overcharge anyone for being an early adopter.
Got that? They made up the numbers.
As Paliath noted this morning, "What fascinates me is that there are posts aggregating this 'story' that don’t immediately ridicule, but rather entertain the idea, as though it’s even plausible. ... I understand that Microsoft does some pretty unusual things, but they're not batshit crazy."
I saw this story yesterday, before it had achieved critical mass, and just rolled my eyes. Most experienced Microsoft watchers did, too. I had this brief exchange on Twitter with Becky Nagel, executive editor of Redmondmag.com and related sites:
Nagel hoped that Microsoft would comment just to "end this silliness." But The Next Web chose to end their post by scolding Microsoft and demanding that they respond:
Microsoft has promised that its Surface machines will be roughly price competitive with two market points: other ARM tablets for the RT machine, and around ultrabook pricing for the Pro version. If these prices are kept, Microsoft will be above both, by a fat margin. It would be nice to simply laugh off the above figures, but given their specificity, it’s not easy to do.
From a PR perspective, Microsoft needs to clear the air, and start talking numbers.
I have a big problem with that. Journalists can disagree with the disclosure policies of companies they cover, and I certainly know colleagues who are frustrated that Microsoft has chosen to hold back on many details of the Surface after its initial announcement.
But the idea that a company or an individual has an obligation to respond to every rumor is insane.
We already know that modern tech journalism exists on what we could politely call a broad ethical continuum. Some reporters have no qualms about making stuff up. Others are perfectly willing to quote sources that don’t exist, or to unquestioningly accept leaks from sources that might be trying to manipulate a market. And for some reason most tech blogs are still willing to write stories based on rumors from DigiTimes, even after that source has proven that it’s completely unreliable.
If the companies we cover get in the habit of responding to every rumor, no matter how ludicrous, all that does is encourage more rumors. Although, frankly, it’s hard to imagine how the tech blogosphere could reasonably handle any more unfounded speculation without exploding like Mr Creosote.
Meanwhile, a confidential source just told me that Microsoft has released the first build of Windows 9 to testers. [*] It’s only a rumor, but I’m running with it. If Microsoft won’t confirm or deny it, then I will write a story based on my own assumptions.
It would be irresponsible not to speculate.
[*] For the humor-impaired, that's me using humor to make a point.