Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming

A lecture explaining why using our imaginations, and providing for others to use theirs, is an obligation for all citizens

Its important for people to tell you what side they are on and why, and whether they might be biased. A declaration of members interests, of a sort. So, I am going to be talking to you about reading. Im going to tell you that libraries are important. Im going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. Im going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.

And I am biased, obviously and enormously: Im an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults. For about 30 years I have been earning my living through my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.

So Im biased as a writer. But I am much, much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British citizen.

And Im here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.

And its that change, and that act of reading that Im here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What its good for.

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldnt read. And certainly couldnt read for pleasure.

Its not one to one: you cant say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, its a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if its hard, because someones in trouble and you have to know how its all going to end thats a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, youre on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.

I dont think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of childrens books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. Ive seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

Enid
No such thing as a bad writer… Enid Blytons Famous Five. Photograph: Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy

Its tosh. Its snobbery and its foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isnt hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a childs love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian improving literature. Youll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.

We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy. (Also, do not do what this author did when his 11-year-old daughter was into RL Stine, which is to go and get a copy of Stephen Kings Carrie, saying if you liked those youll love this! Holly read nothing but safe stories of settlers on prairies for the rest of her teenage years, and still glares at me when Stephen Kings name is mentioned.)

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. Youre being someone else, and when you return to your own world, youre going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

Youre also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And its this:

The world doesnt have to be like this. Things can be different.

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

Its simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere youve never been. Once youve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

And while were on the subject, Id like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if its a bad thing. As if escapist fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldnt you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

Tolkien's
Tolkiens illustration of Bilbos home, Bag End. Photograph: HarperCollins

Another way to destroy a childs love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the childrens library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the childrens library I began on the adult books.

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader nothing less or more which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.

I think it has to do with nature of information. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.

In the last few years, weve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. Thats about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.

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Photograph: Alamy

Libraries are places that people go to for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, places that people, who may not have computers, who may not have internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.

A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it. That includes health information. And mental health information. Its a community space. Its a place of safety, a haven from the world. Its a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now.

Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood.

Libraries really are the gates to the future. So it is unfortunate that, round the world, we observe local authorities seizing the opportunity to close libraries as an easy way to save money, without realising that they are stealing from the future to pay for today. They are closing the gates that should be open.

According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, England is the only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest group, after other factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds and type of occupations are taken into account.

Or to put it another way, our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are. They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable. All of these things. And as a country, England will fall behind other developed nations because it will lack a skilled workforce.

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

I think we have responsibilities to the future. Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting. All of us as readers, as writers, as citizens have obligations. I thought Id try and spell out some of these obligations here.

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

We writers and especially writers for children, but all writers have an obligation to our readers: its the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.

We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we ve lessened our own future and diminished theirs.

We all adults and children, writers and readers have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. Im going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. Its this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.

We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world weve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.

We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.

Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. If you want your children to be intelligent, he said, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales. He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.

This is an edited version of Neil Gaimans lecture for the Reading Agency, delivered on Monday October 14 at the Barbican in London. The Reading Agencys annual lecture series was initiated in 2012 as a platform for leading writers and thinkers to share original, challenging ideas about reading and libraries.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming

Are smartphones really making our children sad?

US psychologist Jean Twenge, who has claimed that social media is having a malign affect on the young, answers critics who accuse her of crying wolf

Last week, the childrens commissioner, Anne Longfield, launched a campaign to help parents regulate internet and smartphone use at home. She suggested that the overconsumption of social media was a problem akin to that of junk-food diets. None of us, as parents, would want our children to eat junk food all the time double cheeseburger, chips, every day, every meal, she said. For those same reasons, we shouldnt want our children to do the same with their online time.

A few days later, former GCHQ spy agency chief Robert Hannigan responded to the campaign. The assumption that time online or in front of a screen is life wasted needs challenging. It is driven by fear, he said. The best thing we can do is to focus less on the time they spend on screens at home and more on the nature of the activity.

This exchange is just one more example of how childrens screentime has become an emotive, contested issue. Last December, more than 40 educationalists, psychologists and scientists signed a letter in the Guardian calling for action on childrens screen-based lifestyles. A few days later, another 40-odd academics described the fears as moral panic and said that any guidelines needed to build on evidence rather than scaremongering.

Faced with these conflicting expert views, how should concerned parents proceed? Into this maelstrom comes the American psychologist Jean Twenge, who has written a book entitled iGen: Why Todays Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood and What That Means for the Rest of Us.

If the books title didnt make her view clear enough, last weekend an excerpt was published in the American magazine the Atlantic with the emotive headline Have smartphones destroyed a generation? It quickly generated differing reactions that were played out on social media these could be broadly characterised as praise from parents and criticism from scientists. In a phone interview and follow-up emails, Twenge explained her conclusions about the downsides of the connected world for teens, and answered some of her critics.

The Atlantic excerpt from your book was headlined Have smartphones destroyed a generation? Is that an accurate reflection of what you think?
Well, keep in mind that I didnt write the headline. Its obviously much more nuanced than that.

So why did you write this book?
Ive been researching generations for a long time now, since I was an undergraduate, almost 25 years. The databases I draw from are large national surveys of high school and college students, and one of adults. In 2013-14 I started to see some really sudden changes and at first I thought maybe these were just blips, but the trends kept going.

Id never seen anything like it in all my years of looking at differences among generations. So I wondered what was going on.

What were these sudden changes for teens?
Loneliness and depressive symptoms started to go up, while happiness and life satisfaction started to go down. The other thing that I really noticed was the accelerated decline in seeing friends in person it falls off a cliff. Its an absolutely stunning pattern Id never seen anything like that. I really started to wonder, what is going on here? What happened around 2011-2012 [the survey data is a year or two behind] that would cause such sudden changes?

And you concluded these changes were being brought about by increased time spent online?
The high-school data detailed how much time teens spend online on social media and games and I noticed how that correlated with some of these indicators in terms of happiness, depression and so on.

I was curious not just what the correlations were between these screen activities, mental health and wellbeing, but what were the links with non-screen activities, like spending time with friends in person, playing sports, going to religious services, doing homework, all these other things that teens do?

And for happiness in particular, the pattern was so stark. Of the non-screen activities that were measured, they all correlated with greater happiness. All the screen activities correlated with lower happiness.

Youve called these post-millennials the iGeneration. What are their characteristics?
Im defining iGen as those born between 1995 and 2012 that latter date could change based on future data. Im reasonably certain about 1995, given the sudden changes in the trends. It also happens that 1995 was the year the internet was commercialised [Amazon launched that year, Yahoo in 1994 and Google in 1996], so if you were born in that year you have not known a time without the internet.

But the introduction of the smartphone, exemplified by the iPhone, which was launched in 2007, is key?
There are a lot of differences some are large, some are subtle, some are sudden and some had been building for a while but if I had to identify what really characterises them, the first influence is the smartphone.

iGen is the first generation to spend their entire adolescence with the smartphone. This has led to many ripple effects for their wellbeing, their social interactions and the way they think about the world.

Psychology
Psychology professor Jean Twenge. Photograph: Gregory Bull/AP

Why are you convinced they are unhappy because of social media, rather than it being a case of the unhappy kids being heavier users of social media?
That is very unlikely to be true because of very good research on that very question. There is one experiment and two longitudinal studies that show the arrow goes from social media to lower wellbeing and not the other way around. For example, an experiment where people
gave up Facebook for a week and had better wellbeing than those who had not.

The other thing to keep in mind is that if you are spending eight hours a day with a screen you have less time to spend interacting with friends and family in person and we know definitively from decades of research that spending time with other people is one of the keys to emotional wellbeing; if youre doing that less, thats a very bad sign.

A professor at Oxford University tweeted that your work is a non-systematic review of sloppy social science as a tool for lazy intergenerational shaming how do you respond?
It is odd to equate documenting teens mental health issues with intergenerational shaming. Im not shaming anyone and the data I analyse is from teens, not older people criticising them.

This comment is especially strange because this researchers best-known paper, about what he calls the Goldilocks theory, shows the same thing I find lower wellbeing after more hours of screen time. Were basically replicating each others research across two different countries, which is usually considered a good thing. So I am confused.

Your arguments also seem to have been drawn on by the conservative right as ammunition for claims that technology is leading to the moral degradation of the young. Are you comfortable about that?
My analyses look at what young people are saying about themselves and how they are feeling, so I dont think this idea of older people love to whine about the young is relevant. I didnt look at what older people have to say about young people. I looked at what young people are saying about their own experiences and their own lives, compared to young people 10, 20, or 30 years ago.

Nor is it fair or accurate to characterise this as youth-bashing. Teens are saying they are suffering and documenting that should help them, not hurt them. I wrote the book because I wanted to give a voice to iGen and their experiences, through the 11 million who filled out national surveys, to the 200 plus who answered open-ended questions for me, to the 23 I talked to for up to two hours. It had absolutely nothing to do with older people and their complaints about youth.

Many of us have a nagging feeling that social media is bad for our wellbeing, but we all suffer from a fear of missing out.
Teens feel that very intensely, which is one reason why they are so addicted to their phones. Yet, ironically, the teens who spend more time on social media are actually more likely to report feeling left out.

But is this confined to iGeners? One could go to a childs birthday party where the parents are glued to their smartphones and not talking to each other too.
It is important to consider that while this trend also affects adults, it is particularly worrisome for teens because their brain development is ongoing and adolescence is a crucial time for developing social skills.

You say teens might know the right emoji but in real life might not know the right facial expression.
There is very little research on that question. There is one study that looked at the effects of screens on social skills among 11- to 12-year-olds, half of whom used screens at their normal level and half went to a five-day screen-free camp.

Those who attended the camp improved their social skills reading emotions on faces was what they measured. That makes sense thats the social skill you would expect to suffer if you werent getting much in-person social interaction.

So is it up to regulators or parents to improve the situation? Leaving this problem for parents to fix is a big challenge.
Yes it is. I have three kids and my oldest is 10, but in her class about half have a phone, so many of them are on social media already. Parents have a tough job, because there are temptations on the screen constantly.

What advice would you give parents?
Put off getting your child a phone for as long as possible and, when you do, start with one that doesnt have internet access so they dont have the internet in their pocket all the time.

But when your child says, but all my friends have got one, how do you reply?
Maybe with my parents line If your friends all jumped in the lake, would you do it too? Although at that age the answer is usually yes, which I understand. But you can do social media on a desktop computer for a limited time each day. When we looked at the data, we found that an hour a day of electronic device use doesnt have any negative effects on mental health two hours a day or more is when you get the problems.

The majority of teens are on screens a lot more than that. So if they want to use Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook to keep up with their friends activities, they can do that from a desktop computer.

That sounds hard to enforce.
We need to be more understanding of the effects of smartphones. In many ways, parents are worried about the wrong things theyre worried about their kids driving and going out. They dont worry about their kids sitting by themselves in a room with their phone and they should.

Lots of social media features such as notifications or Snapchats Snapstreak feature are engineered to keep us glued to our phones. Should these types of features be outlawed?
Oh man. Parents can put an app [such as Kidslox or Screentime] on their kids phone to limit the amount of time they spend on it. Do that right away. In terms of the bigger solutions, I think thats above my pay grade to figure out.

Youve been accused by another psychologist of cherry-picking your data. Of ignoring, say, studies that suggest active social media use is associated with positive outcomes such as resilience. Did you collect data to fit a theory?
Its impossible to judge that claim she does not provide citations to these studies. I found a few studies finding no effects or positive effects, but they were all older, before smartphones were on the scene. She says in order to prove smartphones are responsible for these trends we need a large study randomly assigning teens to not use smartphones or use them. If we wait for this kind of study, we will wait for ever that type of study is just about impossible to conduct.

She concludes by saying: My suspicion is that the kids are gonna be OK. However, it is not OK that 50% more teens suffer from major depression now versus just six years ago and three times as many girls aged 12 to 14 take their own lives. It is not OK that more teens say that they are lonely and feel hopeless. It is not OK that teens arent seeing their friends in person as much. If we twiddle our thumbs waiting for the perfect experiment, we are taking a big risk and I for one am not willing to do that.

Are you expecting anyone from Silicon Valley to say: How can we help?
No, but what I think is interesting is many tech-connected people in Silicon Valley restrict their own childrens screen use, so they know. Theyre living off of it but they know its effects. It indicates that pointing out the effects of smartphones doesnt make you a luddite.

iGen: Why Todays Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood and What That Means for the Rest of Us by Jean Twenge is published by Simon & Schuster US ($27) on 22 August

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/aug/13/are-smartphones-really-making-our-children-sad

Benchmark’s Uber Suit Signals End of Era for Imperious Founders

When Uber Technologies Inc. backer Benchmark Capital filed a lawsuit against the startup’s founder Travis Kalanick for using allegedly fraudulent means to pack the board with his loyalists, it sent a strong signal that Silicon Valley’s so-called founder-friendly era is coming to an end.

Going back years, venture firms have given Kalanick and his peers outsize control and influence over their companies. Critics say this has led founders to take a freewheeling approach to running their companies, loading up on shares for themselves and their friends and presiding over toxic workplaces.

At the heart of the Benchmark lawsuit is a provision that venture capitalists say stands out for its deference to Kalanick, and is highly unusual. It allowed the Uber founder to personally appoint three new members to Uber’s eight-seat board, effectively letting him slant the board his way after he resigned. 

According to Benchmark, Kalanick got investors to sign off on the measure “fraudulently,”  by, among other things, hiding “gross mismanagement” at the company. Jimmy Asci, a spokesman for Kalanick, said the lawsuit is “completely without merit and riddled with lies and false allegations.”

On Friday three other investors sent a letter to Uber’s board, shareholders and Benchmark, saying the suit was designed to “hold the company hostage” and asked Benchmark to step down from the board. The investors are Sherpa Capital’s Shervin Pishevar, Yucaipa Companies’ Ron Burkle and Maverick’s Adam Leber. They didn’t immediately respond or couldn’t be reached for comment. Members of Uber’s board, not including Kalanick or Benchmark’s Matt Cohler, said they were “disappointed that a disagreement between shareholders has resulted in litigation,” according to an emailed statement.

Kalanick is far from the only founder deemed to have abused investors’ trust in him. Other examples include Jawbone Inc. founder Hosain Rahman and Tanium Inc. Chief Executive Officer Orion Hindawi, who were both given considerable autonomy or control by boards and then disappointed in their leadership. Rahman led Jawbone into bankruptcy and has now launched a long-shot bid to become a player in medical devices. Hindawi was forced to apologize after past and current employees described abusive behavior that prompted a talent exodus. 

In the 1990s, it wasn’t unusual for venture firms to replace founders as CEOs, usually because the investors believed the company needed a leader with more experience. That practice fell out of favor but has resurfaced in recent years.

Take GitHub Inc., the developer platform. In early 2014, a former Github employee, Julie Ann Horvath, complained that co-workers—going right up to company’s co-founder and CEO, Tom Preston-Werner—had harassed and discriminated against her. Preston-Werner ended up resigning after an internal investigation; in a more forgiving time, he might have taken a leave of absence and returned.

The following year, Parker Conrad, founder and chief executive of Zenefits resigned after news broke that he was using unlicensed brokers to sell health insurance in several states.

In those cases, the founders agreed to step down. In other instances, VCs have discovered that the relatively recent practice of ceding voting control has made forced resignations impossible.

At venture-backed company Theranos, once valued at $9 billion and now worth next to nothing, disgraced founder Elizabeth Holmes controls 98 percent of voting shares. That has allowed her to continue as chief executive even after it turned out her vaunted blood-testing technology didn’t work, putting the company’s future in peril.

One reason VCs tolerated over-privileged CEOS—at Theranos, Uber, Snap, and other companies—was because so much money flooded into tech, making it easy for founders of the most promising startups to shop around. Last year, $41.6 billion was raised by venture firms, the most since the dotcom era, according to the National Venture Capital Association.

In an extreme case, at vegan food maker Hampton Creek Inc., most of the board, not founder Josh Tetrick,  was forced to resign after directors lost all rights due to the voting control they had allowed Tetrick to amass.

But once again, venture firms are wising up.

Today, while more late-stage private companies are creating classes of shares with extra voting power, only 27 percent of recipients of those shares are founders and management, according to a study by law firm Fenwick & West. Three years ago, 43 percent of recipients were founders and management, rather than investors.

For a long time venture firms were loath to crack down on founders for fear they’d go elsewhere for capital. But that theory doesn’t really hold up, says angel investor Keval Desai, a backer of Optimizely, The RealReal and others. “Benchmark’s reputation has been built over many decades, and other entrepreneurs who have taken money from them will be proof that Benchmark isn’t in the business of suing their entrepreneurs,” he says. “Benchmark will be fine.”

    Read more: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-08-11/benchmark-signals-era-of-imperious-startup-founder-is-coming-to-an-end

    Monsanto Was Its Own Ghostwriter for Some Safety Reviews

    Monsanto Co. started an agricultural revolution with its “Roundup Ready” seeds, genetically modified to resist the effects of its blockbuster herbicide called Roundup. That ability to kill weeds while leaving desirable crops intact helped the company turn Roundup’s active ingredient, the chemical glyphosate, into one of the world’s most-used crop chemicals. When that heavy use raised health concerns, Monsanto noted that the herbicide’s safety had repeatedly been vetted by outsiders. But now there’s new evidence that Monsanto’s claims of rigorous scientific review are suspect.

    Dozens of internal Monsanto emails, released on Aug. 1 by plaintiffs’ lawyers who are suing the company, reveal how Monsanto worked with an outside consulting firm to induce the scientific journal to publish a purported “independent” review of Roundup’s health effects that appears to be anything but. The review, published along with four subpapers in a September 2016 special supplement, was aimed at rebutting the 2015 assessment by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. That finding by the cancer-research arm of the World Health Organization led California last month to list glyphosate as a known human carcinogen. It has also spurred more than 1,000 lawsuits in state and federal courts by plaintiffs who claim they contracted non-Hodgkin lymphoma from Roundup exposure.

    Monsanto disclosed that it paid Intertek Group Plc’s consulting unit to develop the review supplement, entitled “An Independent Review of the Carcinogenic Potential of Glyphosate.” But that was the extent of Monsanto’s involvement, the main article said. “The Expert Panelists were engaged by, and acted as consultants to, Intertek, and were not directly contacted by the Monsanto Company,” according to the review’s Declaration of Interest statement. “Neither any Monsanto company employees nor any attorneys reviewed any of the Expert Panel’s manuscripts prior to submission to the journal.”

    Monsanto’s internal emails tell a different story. The correspondence shows the company’s chief of regulatory science, William Heydens, and other Monsanto scientists were heavily involved in organizing, reviewing, and editing drafts submitted by the outside experts. At one point, Heydens even vetoed explicit requests by some of the panelists to tone down what one of them wrote was the review’s “inflammatory” criticisms of IARC.

    “An extensive revision of the summary article is necessary,” wrote that panelist, John Acquavella, an epidemiologist at Aarhus University in Denmark, in a February 2016 email attached to his suggested edits of the draft. Alarmed, Ashley Roberts, the coordinator of the glyphosate papers for Intertek, forwarded Acquavella’s note and edits to Heydens at Monsanto, with the warning: “Please take a look at the latest from the epi(demiology) group!!!!”

    Heydens reedited Acquavella’s edits, arguing in six different notes in the draft’s margin that statements Acquavella had found inflammatory were not and should not be changed, despite the author’s requests. In the published article, Heydens’s edits prevailed. In an interview, Acquavella says that he was satisfied with the review’s final tone. According to an invoice he sent Monsanto, he billed the company $20,700 for a single month’s work on the review, which took nearly a year to complete.

    Monsanto defends the review’s independence. Monsanto did only “cosmetic editing” of the Intertek papers and nothing “substantive” to alter panelists’ conclusions, says Scott Partridge, Monsanto’s vice president for global strategy. While the “choice of words” in the Declaration of Interest “was not ideal,” he says, “it didn’t change the science.”

    In July 2016, the journal’s editor, Roger McClellan, emailed his final instructions to Roberts at Intertek on what the paper’s Acknowledgment and Declaration of Interest statements should include. “I want them to be as clear and transparent as possible,” he wrote. “At the end of the day I want the most aggressive critics of Monsanto, your organization and each of the authors to read them and say—Damn, they covered all the points we intended to raise.”

    Specifically, McClellan told Roberts to make clear how the panelists were hired—“ie by Intertek,” McClellan wrote. “If you can say without consultation with Monsanto, that would be great. If there was any review of the reports by Monsanto or their legal representatives, that needs to be disclosed.”

    Roberts forwarded McClellan’s emails, along with a more technical question, to Heydens, who responded, “Good grief.” The Declaration of Interest statement was rewritten per McClellan’s instructions, despite being untrue. There was no mention of the company’s participation in the editing.

    Monsanto’s editorial involvement appears “in direct opposition to their disclosure,” says Genna Reed, a science and policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy. “It does seem pretty suspicious.”

    In response to questions, McClellan wrote in an email on Aug. 7 that he’d been unaware of the Monsanto documents and has forwarded the matter to the journal’s publisher, Taylor & Francis, in Abingdon, England. “These are serious accusations relative to scientific publishing canons and deserve very careful investigation,” he wrote. “I can assure you that Taylor and Francis, as the publisher, and I, as the Scientific Editor of , will carefully investigate the matter and take appropriate action.” A Taylor & Francis spokeswoman says it has begun an investigation.

    The Monsanto documents, more than 70 in all, were obtained through pretrial discovery and posted online by some of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, who claim Monsanto missed a 30-day window to object to their release. Monsanto says it was blindsided by the disclosures and has asked U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria in San Francisco to order the documents pulled from the web and to punish the attorneys for violating confidentiality orders. Says Monsanto’s Partridge: “It’s unfortunate these lawyers are grandstanding at the expense of their clients’ interests.”

    Other emails show that Monsanto’s lead toxicologist, Donna Farmer, was removed as a co-author of a 2011 study on glyphosate’s reproductive effects, but not before she made substantial changes and additions to the paper behind the scenes. The study, published in Taylor & Francis’s , served to counter findings that glyphosate hampers human reproduction and development. Partridge says Farmer’s contributions didn’t warrant authorship credit. While almost all of her revisions made it into the published paper, her name doesn’t even show up in the acknowledgments.

      BOTTOM LINE – Monsanto has long noted that independent scientists have vouched for the safety of its Roundup herbicide. Court data show its employees edited some of those reviews.

      Read more: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-08-09/monsanto-was-its-own-ghostwriter-for-some-safety-reviews

      Facebook Introduces `Watch’ Video Product for Short Series

      Facebook Inc. will introduce a new video hub on the world’s largest social network Thursday, offering some U.S. users short episodic series from content partners including A&E, Major League Baseball and National Geographic, in a bid to capture more online advertising dollars.

      Facebook’s new video product called Watch.

      Source: Facebook

      The new section, called Watch, is meant to increase the amount of time users spend watching video by giving them a place to follow and discuss original shows, which can then be shared via their news feeds and in Facebook groups, according to product director Daniel Danker. It will organize shows by what’s most talked about, what friends are watching and what the user is following.

      “As people come to Facebook more and more to watch video, they want a reliable place to watch,” Danker said in an interview.

      Facebook paid to seed some of the original content that will appear in the section. Among the episodes: “My Social Media Life,” a reality show about internet celebrity David Lopez, and “Great Cheese Hunt,” in which Business Insider seeks out some of the world’s best cheese. Eventually, Facebook will roll out Watch to more users and show producers.

      “We’re hoping to see thousands of shows created” as the product gets off the ground, Danker said. “The shows that we helped fund are really a small portion of that, and will be a shrinking portion over time.”

      Facebook intends for the publishers to make money by splitting revenue from ads placed in the videos, or from creating videos with advertisers from the get-go. Facebook will bring in about 20 percent of the $83 billion advertisers spend online in the U.S. this year, according to EMarketer. Google receives about 41 percent of that revenue.

      The social media giant is just one of many technology companies funding original shows, from Snap Inc. to Google’s YouTube to Amazon.com Inc. Facebook’s approach bears more resemblance to YouTube than Netflix Inc. or Amazon given its focus on short-form videos designed to be shared online. The company also is backing a handful of TV-length episodes, but doesn’t want to fund videos in the long term.

      Facebook hopes to keep users watching video on its apps for longer — and win more advertising dollars — by making the content more social, encouraging commenting and sharing as the shows air.

      “The friend features will differentiate it,” said Matthew Segal, co-founder of ATTN, a digital media company. “You can do everything through the prism of your friends.”

      ATTN produced a couple of shows for Facebook, a health program hosted by actress Jessica Alba and a modern relationship advice show with Nev Schulman, producer of “Catfish.” Both are short-form, serialized programs that will be made available later this year.

        Read more: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-08-09/facebook-introduces-watch-video-product-for-short-series

        Silicon Valley Startup Grail Sees Hope for Cancer Blood Test

        The quest for a simple blood test to catch cancer early has attracted heavy hitters from Bill Gates to Merck & Co. Now there’s a glimpse of evidence that it can work, at least for one type of malignancy.

        A study led by Hong Kong-based researchers and published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine used DNA fragments in the blood to detect a kind of head and neck cancer called nasopharyngeal carcinoma. The procedure, known as a “liquid biopsy,” caught the cancer earlier and more accurately than existing methods — and ultimately boosted patients’ chances of survival.

        The results could help the commercial prospects for Grail Inc., a closely held Silicon Valley startup that has raised more than $1.1 billion since its 2016 founding from investors including billionaires Gates and Jeff Bezos, as well as Merck and China’s Tencent Holdings Ltd. Dennis Lo, one of the study’s main authors and a professor in Hong Kong, is also the co-founder of a biotech company called Cirina, which agreed to merge with Grail in May.

        Dennis Lo

        Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg

        The rise of technologies like genetic sequencing have spurred hopes that new, non-invasive tests could revolutionize cancer care. Detecting the disease early can make treatment dramatically more effective, and investors have been eager to fund ventures focused on such preventative health care.

        “It’s our aspiration to create a commercial test” for nasopharyngeal carcinoma, said Grail’s president, Ken Drazan, in a phone interview. If successful, the test, to be marketed in Southeast Asia, would be Grail’s first product.

        Viral DNA

        Dozens of companies have worked to develop or sell some form of liquid biopsy test, according to a 2015 report from Piper Jaffray. But most have been focused on tests for patients who have already been diagnosed.

        The dream of a non-invasive cancer-detecting test is based on findings that tumors are constantly shedding fragments of DNA into the bloodstream. While blood tests are already marketed to track a tumor’s mutation after it’s been diagnosed, detecting early-stage cancer is trickier, partly because the cancerous DNA is shed in much smaller amounts.

        Nasopharyngeal carcinoma provided a proof-of-concept experiment for the team of researchers, which included Allen Chan, Rossa Chiu and Lo from the Li Ka Shing Institute of Health Sciences of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. All three are co-founders of Cirina.

        The cancer, which is prevalent in southern China and Southeast Asia, arises from a confluence of factors: besides genetic mutations, it’s also associated with consumption of salted fish and smoking, as well as infection with the Epstein-Barr virus, which is a member of the herpes virus family.

        Managing Costs

        Though scientists still don’t fully understand how the Epstein-Barr virus gives rise to nasopharyngeal carcinoma, all patients who have the disease are found to also carry the virus, according to Grail’s head of clinical development, Mark Lee. The converse is not true: many people are infected with the Epstein-Barr virus without developing nasopharyngeal carcinoma. In that case, the virus will only be transiently found in the blood.

        Over 20,000 people were tested for the DNA of Epstein–Barr virus, and 300 patients who tested positive twice were given in-depth examinations such as magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, which led to 34 cancer diagnoses.

        A laboratory in Hong Kong.

        Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg

        In the study, 70 percent of the diagnoses found the cancer in early stages, Lo said, adding that nasopharyngeal carcinoma typically goes undetected until later on, when patients report symptoms such as recurring nosebleeds.

        The two blood tests cost a total of about $60. The researchers estimated that, given the rarity of the disease, to detect a single case, 593 participants would need to be screened at a cost of $28,600, including more endoscopies and MRI scans to confirm the diagnosis. Considering the potential to lower late-stage cancer treatment costs and decrease mortality, such screening could be worthwhile, the researchers wrote.

        The data presented "suggest that lives have been saved because of this screening,” Richard Ambinder, a professor of oncology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who wasn’t involved in the study, wrote in an accompanying editorial in the journal.

        Other Cancers

        Before bringing any test to market, Grail would need to show extremely low rates of both false positives and false negatives — the former could lead to unnecessary treatment, while the latter could give patients a mistaken sense of security.

        Cancers that are related to viral infections are relatively easy and cheap to detect in human plasma using this method because viral DNA is very different from human DNA, Lo said. Other cancers will be more challenging, however, because cancer-causing mutations can be very small and may vary from patient to patient, he said.

        Lo has expertise in a related area. In 1997, he discovered that fetal DNA can be isolated from the mother’s blood plasma for analysis. That spawned a widely used non-invasive prenatal test.

        Grail is conducting two clinical trials, together aiming to enroll up to 130,000 people, according to its website. The first study seeks to map out how the genetic information of cancer differs from non-cancerous biology, and the second one will test a blood exam for early detection of breast cancer.

        Lo’s university has licensed its cancer-related intellectual property to Cirina, giving the combined companies a very strong portfolio, Lo said.

        “With the merger, in one go, we basically have a global presence looking at problems that are of major health-care impact,” he said.

        For more on biotech, check out the podcast:

          Read more: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-08-09/silicon-valley-startup-grail-sees-hope-for-cancer-blood-test

          GEs Jeffrey Immelt Is on Uber’s CEO Shortlist

          Jeffrey Immelt, the outgoing chief executive officer at General Electric Co., is on a narrowing list of candidates to take over as head of Uber Technologies Inc., two people familiar with the matter said.

          There are fewer than six names on the ride-hailing company’s shortlist, Uber’s head of human resources told employees on Tuesday. Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co., is another person who had been under consideration for the CEO job, people familiar with the matter said this week.

          Whitman publicly withdrew her name from consideration Thursday night, saying via Twitter that she won’t be Uber’s CEO. “We have a lot of work still to do at HPE,” she wrote. Uber and GE declined to comment.

          Uber is searching for seasoned executives to fill the leadership vacuum left by last month’s departure of co-founder Travis Kalanick and restore confidence in the business after months of controversy. Kalanick was ousted under pressure from some of the company’s major investors.

          Immelt, 61, said last month he was stepping down as chairman and CEO of GE after a tumultuous 16-year tenure. John Flannery, a 30-year company veteran who oversees the health unit, will become CEO of the manufacturing giant.

          Uber’s board is meeting Thursday, though a decision on the next CEO is not expected, one of the people said. The San Francisco-based company hopes to name a CEO by early September.

          For more on Uber, check out our podcast:

            Read more: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-27/ge-s-jeffrey-immelt-is-said-to-be-on-uber-ceo-shortlist

            This week in apps: Adobe Lightroom, Disney Clips, Firefox updates, and more

            Don't overlook the newest smartphone apps.
            Image: lili sams/mashable

            Did you get too wrapped up in all the new Game of Thrones hype to pay attention to the new apps and updates of the week? If so, it’s not a big deal. We remembered to keep track of it all for you.

            Every week we round up the most important app updates along with some of the coolest new apps to help you stay in the know. Here’s what stood out to us this week (and if you’ve really been busy lately, take a quick look at last week’s roundup, too).

            Disney Clips

            Everyone loves Disney, and Apple gets it. Disney and Pixar animations are now available on the Clips app, making all of our dreams come true. The “stickers” can be added as overlays to users’ short videos. So if you haven’t downloaded the mobile video editing app yet, you might just want to give it a try with the cute new stickers from your favorite childhood movies. Sorry, Android users. This one’s only for the iPhone faithful, for now.

            Alexa on Android

            Android users can finally use Alexa.

            Image: amazon/goole play store

            Android users, get excited! Virtual assistant Alexa is now available on your Amazon shopping app. Before this update, Android users had to rely on a standalone Alexa app. It’s been available for iPhone users for four months now, so it’s about time the Android faithful get it, too.

            Adobe Lightroom

            Image: adobe

            Editing photos in Photoshop Lightroom can be a bit tricky when you’re on the go. But Lightroom for iOS and Android is hoping to make it a little easier with the latest update.

            The update includes a new Selective Brush that lets artists selectively paint any enhancements onto any part of their images. There’s also a new Details Tab to help users control sharpening and noise reduction. And the update gives the iPad a larger, touch-based interface. The update is pretty straightforward, so hopefully artists can keep doing what they love a little faster.

            Mozilla Firefox

            Firefox users get some new updates.

            Image: firefox/itunes

            Mozilla took a note from user requests and decided to update the Firefox experience. For iOS users, there’s a new tab interaction, which means you’ll see a list of recently visited sites and highlights from previous web visits. You’ll also get a new Night Mode and a built-in QR Code Reader. Android users can look forward to full screen videos, a shortcut to open Firefox Focus, and better support for downloads. Firefox is trying making all of these updates in an attempt to deliver a better, faster, and more responsive site. It sounds like a move in the right direction for Mozilla, so if you’re a Firefox user, be sure you’ve got the latest update.

            Elsewhere

            Share fan reactions with all your friends.

            Image: stardust/itunes

            Do you ever feel like you need a specific place to gush about everything that’s happening on your favorite TV shows, movies, or trailers? You can do this on social media, but there’s also all the other clutter not related to your entertainment there. Stardust is a free new app to gather all of your fellow fans and relive every second of that last episode of Game of Thrones. You can follow people interested in the same topics, post and share reactions, and create your own profile so other people can follow you. This is a great place to interact with fans like you and get a heads up on what might be the newest craze.

            Mental prep can make sure you’re ready for the day.

            Image: primed mind/itunes

            The right mental prep can be a helpful part of your morning routine. It can keep you confident and ready to tackle anything that gets thrown your way. Primed Mind is a mindset coach. You can start visualizations and learn new goal-setting techniques. The app includes a personal mindset coach named Elliot, who takes you through all the exercises. There are six categories confidence, growth, determination, health, communication, and recovery to choose from based on your personal goals. Signing up for “Primeium” at a monthly cost gets you access to even more audio sessions.

            Test your luck breaking out of prison with this game.

            Image: the escapists/itunes

            The Escapists game on the App Store and Google Play Store just got an update. Here’s the premise: You’re in prison and you’ve got to escape any way you can can. You can dig a tunnel under the prison or dress up like a guard while you try to make a break for it. The game gives you different tools to help your escape, but you have to hide them from the guards if you want your plan to work. There are lots of prisons and camps your character might end up in, so there’s a good change of scenery available if you want it. The game will set you back $3.99, but it looks fun enough that the price just might be worth it.

            And that’s a wrap for this week. Don’t forget to check back next week for the latest roundup.

            Read more: http://mashable.com/2017/07/23/this-week-in-apps-disney-july-21/

            How an Ex-Banker’s Food Poisoning Led to the Latest Chipotle Plunge

            It was a weird — and slightly gross — source of a Wall Street “aha!” moment: a seriously unsanitary BLT wrap.

            Patrick Quade, then at Morgan Stanley, says he bought the dubious sandwich at a deli in Lower Manhattan. The results were, well, Technicolor.

            But Quade’s bout of food poisoning gave him an idea for our age: Why not crowd-source customer complaints at U.S. restaurant chains, not just for health, but for stock-market profits?

            Enter iwaspoisoned.com, which Morgan Stanley’s former global head of interest-rates trading-market structure founded in 2009. This week his site compiled complaints from a single Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. restaurant that promptly sent the burrito chain’s stock price into a tailspin.

            Asked about the site, Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said, “overall, this kind of data may be useful, but the integrity of the data matters and, absent clinical validations, it’s hard to know how revealing the data may be.”

            Read more: Why it’s taking so long to improve U.S. food safety – QuickTake

            Quade is trying to sell a souped-up version of his database, dinesafe.org, to hedge funds and brands that want to sniff out trouble in the food industry. The price? $5,000 a month. So far he’s landed about two dozen clients, all industry businesses.

            “Funds are interested in bespoke data sources.” he says, adding that he’s urged some interested hedge funds “to get on with it, as it seemed a trading opportunity was inevitable.”

            Whether he can make a go of it is anyone’s guess. But Chipotle, at least, is on double-probation with investors after its food-borne problems two years ago. This year, iwaspoisoned.com has received no fewer than 15,000 complaints involving every major restaurant brand in the U.S. and Canada. So far, Chipotle, Quade says, is the “highest profile case” of a stock getting drubbed after reports of illness.

              Read more: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-20/how-ex-banker-s-food-poisoning-led-to-the-latest-chipotle-plunge

              Prison Dating Sites Are Under Threat

              Timothy McManus says he was just looking to offer some legal research in 2012 when he wrote to Donna, a woman serving a 20-year sentence at a state prison in Georgia. McManus, who’d finished two decades in a Texas prison earlier that year, knew the power of hearing his name at mail call. Much of what got him through that time, he says, was his correspondence with more than 70 people through websites including writeaprisoner.com, meet-an-inmate.com, and paperdollspenpals.com.

              After a year and a half of corresponding with Donna, the relationship became romantic. “We certainly understand each other’s lives,” he says. “To be honest, since I’ve been out, it’s not impossible, but difficult, to relate to women outside who don’t understand. There’s a connection with Donna.”

              Over the past decade, two seemingly disconnected worlds have ballooned in tandem: the U.S. prison system, now numbering 6.8 million adults, and the $3 billion online dating industry. The overlap is a growing constellation of sites with names such as loveaprisoner.com, inmate-connection.com, and inmatepassions.com that promote companionship between those living inside and those living outside prison walls. More recently, however, tens of thousands of inmates have seen their access to such sites restricted or banned altogether, as states and the federal government spar over criminal justice reform.

              Officials in Indiana, Missouri, Montana, and Pennsylvania have restricted the access inmates have to pen-pal websites. Florida banned them altogether. “Prisoners are out of sight, out of mind,” says Tom Churchill, a public health researcher at the University of Alberta. The sites, he says, are “a small step toward positive change. And we need change.”

              Compared with conventional dating sites, these are small-time, mostly subsistence businesses. They tend to build user bases slowly, relying mostly on word-of-mouth, and the interfaces remain simple and web-based, with no mobile apps or Tinder-style swiping. Inmates submit their profiles via snail mail, and the site operators type up or scan them to post online. In some cases inmates pay nominal fees to list themselves; for those on the outside, corresponding with them is usually free.

              Because of the low- to no-fee model—the fees cover costs such as servers and web hosting—operators say the websites don’t generate much money. Lee Young, the 72-year-old founder of gayprisoners.net, says his site is a “labor of love” and that he largely volunteers his time adding a handful of profiles each week, charging inmates $10 to list themselves or $25 to get special pages that can accommodate more photos and designs. “I pitch this as a pen-pal site, as a way to connect,” says Young. “Just about every letter I get from an inmate has the word ‘lonely’ in it.”

              For better and worse, users say, the sites help strip away the mindless chitchat, bad movies, and restaurant-choosing anxiety that often come with early courtship. Premarital abstinence may be mandatory, and conflicts often have to be resolved in writing, or through plated glass. “You can’t have makeup sex when you’re dating an inmate,” says Robert Hake, 46, a machinist. “We have to sit and talk everything through.”

              Hake sent his first letter through writeaprisoner.com in 2014. As a single father who’d just moved to Cleveland, he’d had little luck with more mainstream dating apps and liked the idea of a little distance while he and his son adjusted to their new home. In January 2016 he began a correspondence with an incarcerated woman in Oregon. They were married at her prison in April; she gets out in October.

              “I can’t wait to do normal things with her,” Hake says. “Using a smartphone, going to the store, going out and eating together, like other couples do.” Friends, family, and co-workers have come to accept his new wife, but it’s been a struggle to find a landlord who wouldn’t balk at her criminal history (in the end, they got a house) and to finalize the paperwork that will allow her to leave Oregon while on probation.

              Beyond helping inmates endure their sentences by letting them know someone on the outside is thinking of them, prison dating sites may be able to help reduce recidivism, says the University of Alberta’s Churchill. He’s surveying 2,500 inmates and pen pals in the U.S., and he says he’s seen enough already to determine “it can have a positive benefit for those inside and out.”

              The flip side, critics say, is that dating sites give criminals a chance to prey on the emotions and bank accounts of the naive. In Oklahoma, a convict was ordered to pay $125,000 in restitution to victims of a scam in which he solicited gay men and then tried to extort those who were closeted. David Roberts, a pen pal in Michigan, says his relationship with an inmate he found online in California ultimately resulted in heartbreak, a $14,000 credit card bill, and a defaulted furniture loan that marred his credit rating. “She financially crucified me,” he says.

              Most of the inmate sites carry hefty disclaimers, urging users to avoid giving money or sensitive personal details. Churchill says only about 1 in 10 of the pen pals he’s surveyed report feeling taken advantage of by a fellow correspondent, whereas 99 percent of inmates say communication with the outside world has had positive effects. Still, horror stories have given ammo to those who say convicts shouldn’t get perks such as dating sites.

              In some states the sites are being threatened by bills or corrections officials arguing that any expense related to inmate romance, including computer access, is too much. The restrictions in Indiana, Missouri, Montana, and Pennsylvania set limits on how much correspondence prisoners are allowed to send or receive through the sites. Most states, however, have yet to take such a hard line.

              The more common problems with prison dating sites will sound more familiar to anyone who’s tried nonprison dating sites, or just dating, period. The rush of new-love adrenaline wore off over time, says Savannah Smith, a former pen pal from San Diego. “You visit a maximum-security yard, and there’s that whole element of danger to it,” she says. “It becomes almost addicting, as awful as it sounds.” Smith regularly wrote to three different men in and around California for much of the past four years, but eventually the jokes about living in a “gated community” grew old, and she stopped visiting.

              Aaron Nathan, a single paralegal in Toronto, says he’s written hundreds of letters to female inmates but gets few letters back once he makes clear that his Orthodox Judaism means any partner would have to convert. Still, he says he’s a romantic and likes getting to know women with a wide range of personalities.

              McManus says he was eagerly awaiting Donna’s release, scheduled for July 2019, until he learned that due to the rules of her probation, she won’t be allowed to associate with other ex-convicts, including him. The two are still in touch for the time being, and McManus says he’ll continue to offer advice as a friend. “When I got out, it was a total shock. Like ,” he says. “I didn’t know how to use a cell phone, a laptop, a DVD player, or how to open up a CD case. I froze at the grocery store because there were so many choices, and I hadn’t eaten a banana in 20 years.”

              The law’s restrictions on his relationship with Donna will also help fuel McManus’s advocacy for fellow ex-cons, who are often hamstrung by policies that don’t account enough for their particular circumstances. “We’ll take it one day at a time,” he says. “That’s all you can do.”

                BOTTOM LINE – Inmate dating sites have shoestring budgets paid by prisoners fees. Despite positive effects, occasional scams have helped feed state restrictions.

                Read more: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-20/prison-dating-sites-are-under-threat