Home Articles TechCrunch gets hacked. How the hunter became the hunted.

TechCrunch gets hacked. How the hunter became the hunted.

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It’s not often that today’s technology media inspires thoughts of William Shakespeare. After all, the great English playwright is synonymous with eloquence, nuance, wry wit and pathos — a far cry from the tech media’s breathless obsession with Twitter, Facebook and all products beginning with a small “i”.

However, it’s likely that The Bard, had he lived in the 21st Century, would draw great inspiration from the brief and turbulent history of one of the world’s premier tech blogs, TechCrunch, and its founder Michael Arrington.

Launched by the former attorney in 2005, TechCrunch (TC) was initially considered one of those obscure hobby blogs focused on a sub-culture. Which it was — except for the “hobby” part.

Arrington was and is an entrepreneur at heart. He launched TechCrunch at the dawn of what came to be known as the “Web 2.0” era — a short-term moniker deployed to describe the second coming of the-internet-as-a-business-platform (the first run ending like the Hindenburg when someone lit a match and ignited all that millennial hot air).

TechCrunch was built on the back of Web 2.0. It covers web startups, funding deals, mergers and acquisitions, hirings and firings. It deals in fact, rumour, conversation, connection, snark, ego, openness — anything that helps to further cement its reputation as the place where Silicon Valley’s insiders out industry truth faster and better than anyone else.

Is TechCrunch worth $100m? Or just a gob of spit on the face?

TechCrunch was initially ignored by the mainstream media, but its growing readership and habit of breaking tech news saw it muscle its way to the front of the pack and seize industry credibility.

Despite TC’s ‘break it first, correct it later’ newsroom ethos, it wasn’t long before the prestigious Washington Post began syndicating TC content. TC also launched a popular and lucrative event series, further extending its influence. And in mid-2008, Time Warner’s AOL reportedly offered Arrington US$30m to acquire TechCrunch, which he turned down. (The same report suggested that Arrington believed TC was worth $100m at the time.) He was also named one of Time Inc.’s 100 most influential people in the world for 2008.

There’s no doubt that Arrington’s bullish style rubs some people the wrong way. This has led to some very public disputes, like this comical on-air spat with Leo Laporte.

The formative years saw TechCrunch headquartered at Arrington’s Atherton, California home — an arrangement that ended when some overly enthusiastic Dutch entrepreneurs decided to break in and wake him in an effort to pitch their startup. He also became the target of death threats. But the final straw came in January 2009 when a stranger walked up to him as he was leaving an event in Munich and spat in his face before disappearing into the crowd, prompting Arrington to take a leave of absence from TC.

TechCrunch vs Mashable vs Demand Media

Last year saw the arrival of several challengers vying for TC’s online tech publishing crown. Mashable rode the social media wave to surpass TC’s web traffic. And following an ominous profile in Wired magazine about the rise of Demand Media — a US company that uses sophisticated algorithms to commission and flood Google with cheap, search-friendly content — Arrington posted a thoughtful piece in which he admitted that, just as TC had disrupted conventional media with its maverick web reportage, the profitable future of media could very well belong to the likes of Demand Media. To algorithms, not newshounds.

He concluded his post thus:

“Forget fair and unfair, right and wrong. This is simply happening. The disruptors are getting disrupted, and everyone has to adapt to it or face the consequences. Hand crafted content is dead. Long live fast food content, it’s here to stay.”

The infamous splash advertisement

Perhaps moved to act by the sound of these approaching footsteps, last week TechCrunch bowed to commercial pressure and ran a welcome splash advertisement on its homepage. This sent a ripple through the chatty community of tech observers, largely because this form of interruption marketing is more commonly adopted by old media organisations trying to squeeze the same level of exposure and profit from online advertising as they had grown accustomed to bagging offline. It’s certainly not the province of the vanguard of guerrilla tech blogs.

The homepage splash ad — and its cousins the sidebar rollout and the video preroll — is often justified by its purveyors as a small inconvenience and brief prelude to loads of free content. But many, including a large chunk of TC’s readers (a rambunctious mob at the best of times), took umbrage. (Has anyone, while waiting for one of these splash ads to close, pulled out their credit card and actually purchased the product being advertised? Ever?)

Trolled and rolled

Punctuating the crescendo, last week TechCrunch was hacked twice in 24 hours. The first effort was a little cryptic. The second seemed to suggest more clearly that the trigger for the attack, among other things, had been TC’s decision to run the homepage splash ads. There’s a good blow-by-blow description of the attack (including screen caps) here. But the final hack plastered the following text across the top of TC’s homepage:

TechCrunch hacked screen-cap
We captured this screen image moments after it appeared, and have doctored the salty language in order to stimulate the imaginations of any kiddies or sensitive souls who might stumble across this post.

A malicious hack like this would be unnerving for any website. But for a site with the tech cred and speculative valuation of TechCrunch, it’s a troubling development indeed. The fact that it could happen again is not really the issue. One deranged and isolated hacker aside, for the first time in its short history, TechCrunch is looking vulnerable. One of the standout beneficiaries of the technological disruption that has reshaped media in recent years now finds itself treading water in turbulent seas.

So can TechCrunch dodge the knives and stay on top? Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. Does Michael Arrington have the energy to defend his hard-won throne?

I, for one, can’t wait for the third act.

Paul Ryan is Editor of Anthill Magazine. @PaulDRyan

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