TIME

The Moral Arc of Pro Sports Bends Toward Profit

Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens sits on the bench against the Dallas Cowboys in the first half of their preseason game at AT&T Stadium on August 16, 2014 in Arlington, Texas.
Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens sits on the bench against the Dallas Cowboys in the first half of their preseason game at AT&T Stadium on August 16, 2014 in Arlington, Texas. Ronald Martinez—Getty Images

The Ray Rice and Bruce Levenson scandals show how much the public wants change professional sports cannot provide

The Boston Red Sox didn’t integrate until 1959. Former NFL defensive end Leonard Little killed a woman while driving, with more than two times Missouri’s legal limit of alcohol in his blood. NHL winger Todd Bertuzzi broke three vertebrae in Steve Moore’s neck with an illegal hit from behind. Prized prizefighter Floyd Mayweather is a serial abuser of women. Donald Sterling, who had been fingered as a racist slumlord in a 2003 housing-discrimination lawsuit, owned the Los Angeles Clippers for more than 30 years.

And just look where we are now. Forbes says the Red Sox are the third most valuable team in baseball. Little earned more than $30 million in salary after the manslaughter, despite another DUI arrest. Bertuzzi drew more than $30 million after his misdeed, too. Mayweather has earned $72 million for his last two fights. And Sterling, after an audiotape surfaced containing his vulgar thoughts on black people, was forced to sell the Clippers, a perennial loser until only recently, for $2 billion, 160 times what he paid for the team. The moral arc of professional sports is long, but it bends toward profit.

The list goes on. Professional sports have long lagged behind the rest of society in recognizing opportunities for inclusion and reprimanding behavior worthy of scorn. And when the leagues finally do get around to punishment, the punishment is often cynically motivated or ethically untenable itself. Think, for instance, of Major League Baseball’s decision to pay off a drug dealer to tarnish superstar Alex Rodriguez.

It’s a little odd, then, that upon TMZ’s revelation of security-camera footage Monday morning showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out Janay Palmer, his then-fiancée (now-wife) in an elevator, most every pundit has resumed his or her criticism of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

In July, Goodell decided to suspend Rice two games in 2014 after surveillance video, published by TMZ in February, showed Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer from an elevator. (Whether the NFL saw the tape released Monday, which shows the left hook that knocked Palmer’s head to the elevator handrail, or only the tape released in February when deciding on its Rice suspension is another—murky—matter.) That brief suspension faced so much scorn that Goodell, a month later, announced a new policy promising an automatic six-game suspension for a first domestic-violence offense, and a permanent ban (albeit with the possibility of reinstatement) for a second one. Why announce a policy instead of simply issuing stricter suspensions in the future? You shift the narrative, change the optics, whatever it is the image consultants call it.

Goodell, with the help of those same image consultants and a pliant press, has indeed succeeded at fashioning himself into a man of great conviction, a leader for tough times, an arbiter and possessor of high moral authority. Little could be further from the truth: A man of high moral authority would not draw $44 million in salary as the CEO of a registered nonprofit that exists solely to promote bloodsport. Goodell is Don King with better hair. You’re better off taking communion from Jean-Claude Van Damme than looking to the NFL for moral guidance. For today’s NFL exists in a moral abyss, buying off its players’ bodies and brains, branded to high heaven by Bud Light and Bose.

Yet it’s this organization, and this man, we lean on to do something about the nationwide scourge of domestic violence? By extending one player’s suspension from competition? To put pressure on Goodell to act is to play right into his so-called iron fist.

Witness the good press the NBA and its new commissioner Adam Silver have received for Sterling’s banishment. It’s not hard to imagine that the Sterling success prompted the league to usher out Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson for much less odious behavior, which was essentially the profit-minded suggestion, in an internal email revealed Sunday, that many Southern whites don’t like black people. Yet it is hard to imagine that the commissioner’s office—which then included Silver as its COO and President of NBA Entertainment—produced no similar emails in 2005 when it decided to hire ex-Bush strategist Matthew Dowd to appeal to white America. Soon afterward, the league (with Silver now as its deputy commissioner) adopted dress codes on and off the court, banning jewelry and shooting sleeves and all manner of garb that might conjure a vision of Allen Iverson.

The NBA is winning praise (and facing no criticism) for fighting a tacit racism it funded and nurtured less than a decade ago. Writers are looking to an empty NFL suit to help solve a real crisis. This state of affairs illustrates an ugly tension in modern, decadent American culture: Professional sports are awfully poor vehicles for social change, but an awfully large number of smart people consider them the best ones we’ve got.

TIME Internet

Barry Diller Wants to Save the Web’s Most Controversial Social Network

Diane von Furstenberg and Barry Diller, chairman and chief executive officer of IAC/InterActiveCorp, arrive for a morning session during the Allen & Co. Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho on July 11, 2014.
Diane von Furstenberg and Barry Diller, chairman and chief executive officer of IAC/InterActiveCorp, arrive for a morning session during the Allen & Co. Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho on July 11, 2014. Bloomberg/Getty Images

In purchasing Ask.fm, which is used by 120 million people worldwide, the Internet mogul is betting he can clean up a star-crossed site

How high is Barry Diller’s tolerance for the tawdry? The 72-year-old billionaire, who is the chairman and senior executive of Internet holding company IAC, has in recent years added Tinder—presently dogged by a high-profile sexual harassment case—and a host of other dating-related businesses to his portfolio. And Thursday the company announced that it had acquired a popular Latvia-based social network, Ask.fm, presently best known for its connection in media reports of more than a dozen teenager suicides over the past two years.

“We would not have done this deal,” says Doug Leeds, who will be supervising the site, “if we didn’t think we could make the company known for something else.” Leeds is the CEO of Ask.com, one of IAC’s sites, which began its life nearly two decades ago as Ask Jeeves. Leeds first became interested in Ask.fm, strangely enough, after the social network’s bad press made him fret for his own company’s reputation. He reached out to Ask.fm’s management team last year to insist that the site distinguish itself more from Ask.com. But in subsequent conversations, he began to learn a little bit about just how big the site had become. He began to see the kind of business challenge he says he wanted.

If you don’t know about the social network, find a teenager and, well, ask. The site has 120 million worldwide users, nearly half of whom are high school age, with more than 10 percent residing in the United States. Users sign up and open themselves to questions from anyone—classmates, peers, mysterious Internet trawlers—posed both anonymously and with names attached. Rarely do they urge suicide in a plain, literal fashion. Often they instead tackle the trivial business of high school (homework, crushes, the social pecking order). But the effect even then is of a virtual locker room, one filled with gossip and catcalls, one that follows you home, on the always-on smartphone stuffed in your pocket.

Earlier this summer, I wrote about the site and its effect on the brawny yet brittle teenage brain, which according to mental-health experts chases immediate rewards without much regard for the long-term consequences. Teenagers get hooked on something before they figure out how, why and what it means.

That sense of excitement and uncertainty appears in Ask.fm’s origin story too. Two brothers, Ilja and Mark Terebin, ages 35 and 29, founded the site in 2010 only in search of a social network to make them a buck. It grew so big, and so quickly, that only later did they develop a philosophy to justify its existence. The site, they said in an interview in April, would aid in teenagers’ self-discovery through expanding freedom and opportunities for self-expression. And they said the media outlets that had criticized them over lax safety standards, not Ask.fm’s users, were the real bullies.

But it’s a common story in entrepreneurship—every young, scrappy company is one day forced to grow up. And sometimes a grown-up company has no need for the young people who built it: The Terebins will leave Ask.fm and have no further affiliation with it, although headquarters, and the site’s employees, will remain for the time being in their home city of Riga. Leeds says, “They’re smart and passionate people, but they had a philosophy for the company that was incorrect.”

When asked his plans for the future, Ilja replied in an e-mail, “Fruits and vegetables, books and a billion dollar idea. : ).” IAC declined to disclose how much the company paid for the site.

Ask.fm’s new owners insist they will be zealous about users’ safety. Before completing the deal, they partnered with two state attorneys general—New York’s Eric Schneiderman and Maryland’s Douglas Gansler—and produced a detailed agreement outlining new safety standards. The site has agreed to expand its content-monitoring team, work with suicide-prevention groups and will hire an outside safety consultant who will monitor the site’s compliance with the agreement and other safety standards. The site has also brought aboard Catherine Teitelbaum, Yahoo’s former director of global safety and product policy, as its chief trust and safety officer. She says she has an aggressive timetable for cleaning the site up.

Leeds, the new CEO, says the site has a great deal of untapped potential for genuine online self-expression and interaction, less inorganic and forced than Twitter, Instagram or Facebook (social networks alongside which he sees Ask.fm one day sitting). He says, “There’s no blank-box problem, where you have to think about what to say. People are already asking you questions.”

Set aside momentarily safety and user experience, the major areas Ask’s new bosses plan to address. The broader question—what effect endless access to the opinions of one’s peers has on vulnerable teenagers—persists. But maybe it, like over a billion others each month, will someday be answered by way of Ask.fm.

TIME Social Networking

Meet the Brothers Behind the Web’s Most Controversial Social Network

Ask.fm founders and brothers Ilya Terebin and Mark Terebin photographed at the Hotel Alberts top floor terrace and rooftop bar in Riga, Latvia, overlooking the city, May 2014.
Ask.fm founders and brothers Ilya Terebin and Mark Terebin photographed at the Hotel Alberts top floor terrace and rooftop bar in Riga, Latvia, overlooking the city, May 2014. Rafal Milach for TIME

In their first extensive interview, Ask.fm's co-founders talk about the deaths of teenagers who used their site and what they are doing to keep the anonymous social network safe

Ask.fm is one of the Internet’s biggest social networks. It also happens to be one of the least understood. Since its founding in 2010, the site has grown to 120 million registered users around the world, with 15 million in the United States alone. But it is best known for unflattering attention. Its critics call it an incubator for cyberbullying and even suicide.

In this week’s magazine, I wrote about Ask.fm’s founders and the rise of anonymous, mobile-optimized social networking, an innovation that has within the last five years overturned the life of the average American teenager. As part of the reporting for that story, I visited brothers and Ask.fm cofounders Ilja and Mark Terebin in their home city of Riga, Latvia for their first-ever extensive interview. Over the two days we spent together in late April, the brothers talked about life, their business, and their responsibility for the adolescent and teen suicides for which the site is especially well known in Europe.

The site is especially popular with teenagers: 42% of its users are under the age of 17. On the site, you can anonymously ask questions of registered users, shrouding your own identity in hopes of getting the most honest answer with the least judgment. There, millions congregate trading mostly harmless gossip. But on some pages, the site teems with vitriol, as teenagers anonymously harass and insult their classmates and neighbors. Since 2012, press reports have described Ask.fm as a factor in at least 16 adolescent deaths.

In in their interview with TIME, the Terebin brothers pushed back against critics who say their site is dangerous for kids. “I know of no case of suicide because of bullying on Ask.fm,” Ilja said. Instead he blames society. “We teach people to bully. Look at the media. Do you have muscles? You’re a cool guy. Are you fat? You’re a loser. Do you f-ck girls? You’re a cool guy. Do you not f-ck girls? You’re a loser. We can’t do anything about it, if parents are drinking beer, watching TV and reading celebrity magazines.”

“The media takes this story and bullies us,” Ilja says.

The brothers, who are surrounded by a small handful of young executives, run their 58-employee company together. Ilja, 35, is the CEO. Mark, 29, is executive board member and co-founder. They share an office—and most everything else, really. (They both dress like French film students; they both turned vegetarian after watching a documentary together.) It’s been this way since their childhood in Jelgava, a small city 25 miles southwest of Riga. There the boys, their parents, and their grandmother squeezed into a two-room apartment, typical, they say, of the austere Soviet days. Midway through Mark and Ilja’s formative years, the family relocated, with elation, to a two-bedroom apartment. And a clunky PC powered by a Pentium 120 did eventually make its way into their home. But the Terebins weren’t young techies. They were entrepreneurs.

Ask.fm offices in Riga, Latvia. Rafal Milach for TIME

 

Here’s our interview with the Terebins. It has been edited and condensed from multiple conversations.

So how’d you wind up starting Ask.fm?

Ilja: Mark was spending all his time on the Internet. I can’t say the same about myself. When we started Ask.fm, I hadn’t even used a social network. But I was in about it, because it’s the present, and of course the future.

Mark: I’m not a tech guy at all. But in Bulgaria, when the [real-estate] crisis was beginning, we were thinking what’s next? And we thought the Internet was something we could participate in. We didn’t know how to code, but we knew we could find people who think like us.

Ilja: It’s not necessary to be a cook to like food, you know?

Do you feel responsible for the bullying on the site?

Ilja: It’s like with the police. You can’t put a policeman in each apartment. But you need to install police that people can call whenever they have an issue. This is our responsibility, to have this available for our users, if they have bullying issues, if they see someone else being bullied. They can press a button, and we can punish whoever sent the bad comment or question.

What do you make of people who say the site should be shut down?

Ilja: This website, if you close it down, you will not have stopped bullying. It’s everywhere. It’s offline. It’s in schools. The bullying is by SMS, too, other social networks. And of course it happens on Ask.fm as well. But you can’t just close everything. Even if you close everything, you take down the Internet, you take down mobile phones—if the child is going to school, there still will be the problem of bullying.

But there’s a difference, isn’t there, between bullying that ends at the end of the school day and bullying that goes on whenever?

Ilja: So what do you want to do? Close down the Internet? The bullying would still happen. Why would you think the bullying would stop? And people say anonymity is a problem. But don’t forget about the people who need anonymity. Teenagers, especially, are afraid that their opinions will be judged by others. It’s sometimes important that they can ask questions anonymously. So don’t forget about these people as well. They need it.

Mark: Our audience values anonymity a lot.

When you see coverage that says the site contributes to the problem, how do you react?

Ilja: We’re doing our job. We’re making the system more and more safe for the user. We can be unhappy about many things that are written in the press; we disagree with many of them. But for the last year, it’s been our priority No. 1, the thing we’ve spent the most time on. We take it very seriously, safety. But we understand that there will still be problems with Ask.fm or any other social network. The media will always make a lot of noise about it. Very often the things that are written are not really fair or not really true. It’s written that there’s no report button—it’s been there since day one. There’s always been the possibility to switch off anonymity, to block an abusive user.

Do you get tired of what people are writing about Ask.fm?

Ilja: A little tired, of course. They bully Ask.fm. For example, the Malta case. Did anyone read the profile of this girl Ask.fm supposedly killed? There was no bullying on the profile—there was no bullying at all. But the media takes this story and bullies us. We’re an easy target. I know of no case of suicide because of bullying on Ask.fm. The Hannah Smith case, the Izzy Dix case—we gave the inquests all the logs, all the information. And we were not found responsible in either case. Sometimes people just want attention. Some people don’t have enough people caring about them, and so they scream for help. Please help me. People don’t realize, this is good for parents and teachers. When you read the profile of your child or your student, you can find out information that you don’t know. If you take the site down, the child would still be bullied, and no one would be able to know.

You seem to think it’s a societal problem.

Ilja: It is. We teach people to bully. Look at the media. Do you have muscles? You’re a cool guy. Are you fat? You’re a loser. Do you f-ck girls? You’re a cool guy. Do you not f-ck girls? You’re a loser. We can’t do anything about it, if parents are drinking beer, watching TV and reading celebrity magazines.

What would you want to say to parents whose kids have killed themselves?

Ilja: There’s nothing we can say to them; it’s too late to bring their children back. But we cooperate with the police on a regular basis. Do the Internet, cellphones and social media make it easier to bully people? Yes. But the problem is not where it happens. It’s about the people who make it happen.

Do you worry about your reputation?

Ilja: The bad PR has hurt us a little bit. But a lot of it isn’t true. They say we’re like Russian playboys, buying sportscars and yachts. That we’re millionaires. It’s all bullsh-t.

When you have the Prime Minister of England saying something needs to be done about your website, that must make you feel strange.

Ilja: It’s not strange. We understand why it happened. People are looking for someone to blame all the time, and we look like an easy target. We’re in Eastern Europe, without a huge budget or proper lawyers. So why not bully us and get some credit?

Do you wish you had thought about safety more in the early days of the site?

Ilja: This is not a good way of thinking, I-wish-I-had. You should think about the present, not about the past.

So what is the present like?

Ilja: We have many people who enjoy our product. And we do a good job for them. We help them discover themselves—not others, but themselves. I think it’s very, very important.

Are you sure you’re having that impact?

Ilja: It’s Eastern philosophy. The human being has everything inside him. But he should discover himself. Ask.fm helps young people to discover themselves. They will become more open-minded, they will have more freedom in the future. It’s very, very important for the present society. Everything society is trying to do right now is put the person in the box. And this is also the reason society is so much against Ask.fm. Because Ask.fm helps people put their heads out of the box. Young users especially. Older people, they’re f-cked up already. They’re interested only in silly things. Who will be the next president of Russia? Who will be the next president of the U.S.? The discussion is a waste of time. And their opinion doesn’t matter at all. It will happen without them. And it will not change their lives. Most things people spend their time thinking about are like this.

When did you develop this philosophical notion about what the site was?

Ilja: Not from Day One. It came step by step.

Mark: When you see how people interact on the site, you see how they start discovering themselves. Even us. Sometimes you get questions you have never asked yourself before, and you start thinking about these things. You enjoy life more than when you’re watching TV or movies or reading magazines.

But aren’t websites part of the intellectual narrowing you’re talking about?

Ilja: Yes, but not Ask.fm! It’s a very important thing to go deeper inside yourself. Everything around you doesn’t make you think. Most of what’s around you is created to keep you from thinking. Eat chips, buy beer, and watch football! But when you answer a question, you have to think. You have to bring your own thoughts about a topic, not just share something someone else wrote, or a video from YouTube that someone else created. You create your own thoughts about important things. Like, “When was the last time you smiled?” That’s an important thing. It’s way more important than, When will the next iPhone come out? This is crap. That’s a very stupid thing to think about, when the next version of some computer or telephone will come out.

Let’s go back to the beginning, how’d you decide on the concept?

Ilja: There was this website, Formspring. The idea, uh, it was their idea. We just liked the idea. We thought we could do it even better.

Mark: It’s not only because there were a lot of users there. We liked the concept of asking questions. This is how you explore the world.

Did you have a sense of how you were going to grow the site?

Ilja: At the beginning, because we had so little experience, we didn’t think about many things you need to think about before you start an Internet company. But that also makes it easier to start. We had some ideas about what to do.

How much did you guys put into the company?

Ilja: Me, Mark, and our cofounder Oskars Liepins, we put in around half a million dollars. That was all we put in for the first year and a half. Then Rubylight, an investment firm, came in, and invested an amount I cannot disclose. And they helped us with technology, too.

As a business, how are you doing?

Ilja: We became profitable a couple months after Rubylight’s investment, two years after we started. That’s pretty fast when you compare with U.S. companies. But they’re in a different situation–they know that there are funds that will give them money. For us, it was more difficult. There’s not a lot of venture capital coming to Latvia. But we did some valuation with experts, and the company’s worth more than a hundred million dollars.

What do you make of the big valuations for American companies and the market conditions that allow Snapchat to turn down $3 billion from Facebook?

Ilja: The market’s overrated. Of course it’s good for us. But social media has not proven its success yet as a business. It’s too early.

What do you anticipate happening in the sector?

Ilja: There won’t be one all-encompassing social network, like Google is in search. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Ask.fm, we’ll all have places for different types of communication.

How have your lives changed since you started Ask.fm?

Ilja: Not a whole lot. It’s not like we woke up one day and had money; the process is very slow. We didn’t invent an application or anything.

Mark: Yes, It’s not like we created Flappy Bird.

But you do have more money, right? What do you spend it on?

Ilja: Vegetables, fruits. I have a nice apartment, too. The rent is about $2,500 a month.

Mark: I travel more than I used to. I went to Thailand, I go to the U.S. occasionally. It’s nice to escape yourself.

TIME

7 Ridiculous Exhibits the Redskins Invoked in Their Trademark Defense

Detroit Lions v Washington Redskins
A Washington Redskins flag on the field before the game against the Detroit Lions at FedExField on September 22, 2013 in Landover, Maryland. G Fiume/Getty Images

How do you defend the seemingly indefensible? The Washington Redskins' heavyweight lawyers tried everything from Philip Rahv to Lou Diamond Phillips

A decision on Wednesday from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board stripped Pro-Football Inc. (d/b/a the Washington Redskins) of its Redskins-related trademarks. This is not the first time Pro-Football Inc. has lost in this venue: The TTAB cancelled all Redskins trademarks in 1999, too. (A federal court later overturned that decision on procedural grounds.)

The board held both times that “Redskins” disparaged Native Americans and as such, under federal law, could not be trademarked. But the standard for disparagement isn’t what one would immediately expect. Wrote the Board, “[T]hese registrations must be cancelled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered…”

In other words, it’s not a question of whether “Redskins” is disparaging in 2014—a recent survey from Cal State-San Bernadino’s Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies reported that 67 percent of American Indians considered the team’s name racist—but whether the word was disparaging in 1967, 1974, 1978, and 1990 (this last year, for what it’s worth, concerns a registration for “Redskinettes,” which is kind of comprehensively tasteless). Asking the question that way introduces a bit of lightness to the proceedings, primarily into the appendix containing the defense’s exhibits.

After all, not only does the trademark case concern good taste in usage (a magnet for pedantry if ever there were one) but it does so for usage in the 1960s and 70s. The Redskins’ file, then, cooked up by the legal minds at Quinn Emanuel, teems with low and high culture. It’s Billy Jack meets the English departments of the mid-20th century. Below we’ve plucked a handful of highlights, ones we imagine had never before landed in federal records together until the first time the TTAB heard the case.

A two-page selection from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). The relevant sentence: “Their mudcabins and their shielings by the roadside were laid low by the batteringram and the Times rubbed its hands and told the whitelivered Saxons there would soon be as few Irish in Ireland as redskins in America.” And then the following sentences: “Even the Grand Turk sent us his piastres. But the Sassenach tried to starve the nation at home while the land was full of crops that the British hyenas bought and sold in Rio de Janeiro. Ay, they drove out the peasants in hordes. Twenty thousand of them died in the coffinships. But those that came to the land of the free remember the land of bondage. And they will come again and with a vengeance, no cravens, the sons of Granuaile, the champions of Kathleen ni Houlihan.”

• This Land O’Lakes carton.

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 11.46.22 AM

Mary McCarthy’s 1974 New York Times Book Review remembrance of Philip Rahv. Rahv (1908-73) was a critic and editor for Partisan Review during the ’40s and ’50s heyday of the literary left. McCarthy, the novelist and critic, ran in the same circles, and was once Rahv’s lover. Were they big football fans? Presumably not. We imagine it’s in there because Rahv wrote “Paleface and Redskin,” a celebrated 1939 essay on the American literary oeuvre, which turns up in Pro-Football Inc.’s exhibits too. Does the essay concern the appropriateness of the term, or the role of Native Americans in American fiction? It does not. But it does have a lot to say about a fundamental schism between Mark Twain’s school and Henry James’s, if that’s your bag.

A scene from Courage Under Fire (1996). The film stars Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, a young Matt Damon and, most importantly, a young Lou Diamond Phillips. Why is it relevant? We’re not really sure. For what it’s worth, the appendix represents it like so:

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 11.49.43 AM

A selection from Neo-Realism in Contemporary American Fiction. (Again, Rahv’s doing. An included essay from Sanford Pinsker, a now-emeritus professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College, riffs on Rahv.)

This Argo Corn Starch box. According to Argo’s website, the lady on there is a “corn maiden.”

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 11.46.47 AM

A flyer for a Duke University campus event with then-Harvard president Derek Bok. Ronald R. Butters, who is now a professor emeritus of English at Duke, was retained by the team in 1996 as an expert witness on the English language. He produced many documents for the defense (at a cool $150 per hour, or $220 per in 2014 money). But somewhere along the line he must have run out of paper, resulting in the appearance of this flyer in evidence. So much time has passed since Bok’s talk that Duke now has a “new old chemistry” building, owing to the French Family Science Center, which opened in 2006.

Screen Shot 2014-06-18 at 11.44.50 AM

Did we miss something silly? You can view the entire case file here.

TIME europe

Latvia Watches Nervously as Putin Seeks to Exert Power

The Baltic state's large Russian population could make it an attractive target for Russian President Vladimir Putin to further broaden his authority in the increasingly tense region, but he's unlikely to make an overt military move toward Latvia

Many residents of Riga, Latvia, will say their nation of a little more than 2 million people, nestled on the east coast of the Baltic Sea between Estonia and Lithuania, is not a particularly diverse one. Most everyone within the country has white skin and Caucasian ancestry. By the standards of old European capital cities, it’s far from cosmopolitan.

Yet in this small nation there is at least some increasingly notable heterogeneity. Latvia has a sizable Russian minority, more than a quarter of its population and far larger than the Russian contingents of neighboring Estonia and Lithuania.

That large Russian-speaking population could make Latvia an attractive target for ever acquisitive Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose ongoing actions in Ukraine — where Russians make up 17.3% of the population — have demonstrated what can happen if he covets a nation that has a strong, pro-Russian contingent.

And although Putin’s actions have caused tension through the entire Baltic region, there are indications the President does have a particular interest in Latvia. A Ukrainian scholar of the region says Putin plans on occupying Latvia in hopes of establishing Russian dominance over a part of the world that hasn’t experienced it in years.

Putin is unlikely to make an overt military move toward Latvia, though, as the consequences would be far greater than Russia’s incursion into Crimea. Unlike Ukraine, Latvia is a member of NATO — meaning that, under Article 5 of the treaty, member countries would be obligated to treat any Russian aggression against Latvia as aggression against themselves, and they would need to respond in kind.

But there are ways to destabilize a country without sending tanks across the border. Putin has exerted power in eastern Ukraine with a covert campaign to foment unrest: Russian intelligence officials or special-ops soldiers with unmarked uniforms aiding or encouraging separatist groups and criminal gangs in regions where support for the motherland runs deep.

The fear now is that Latvia would be ripe for a similar kind of shadow incursion. The country’s Defense Minister told Reuters last week that Russia has already deployed “specially trained, professional provocateurs” in hopes of destabilizing the nation.

Artis Pabriks, a Member of Parliament who was Latvia’s Minister of Defense from 2010 until January, tells TIME there should be cause for concern. “I’m sorry to sound so hawkish, but the Baltics are a litmus test. Putin will have crushed NATO if our eastern borders are not the redline.”

Latvia presents a compelling target for Putin to broaden his authority, beyond its demographics. Riga, for example, has plenty of Western trappings — the E.U. has named the city a Capital of Culture for 2014, and an esplanade has gone up in the park to showcase the designation — but odd Soviet-era eyesores stick out among the city’s renowned collection of Art Nouveau buildings. Latvia adopted the euro only at the start of this year. The Russian culture and media still have a strong foothold there.

And the Russian media’s prominence in Latvia gives it a shot at outmaneuvering the West, according to a handful of citizens TIME spoke to in a park in Riga this week. Vitaly Parshin, a 26-year-old ethnic Russian student, says most of his friends have been convinced by Russian TV that Putin is a force for good. “They think Putin is trying to free us from the Latvians who hate us.” This belief is particularly widespread in Russified eastern Latvia, close to the border, where a petition recently circulated on Facebook in favor of returning Daugavpils, a city of 100,000, to Russia.

The strife may be generational. The youngest Latvian adults, who have learned both Russian and Latvian in school and have enjoyed the benefits of E.U. membership, have little appreciation for Putin, says Alexander Puziy, a 24-year-old wedding photographer. Besides, he adds, this generation is just barely old enough to remember the unpleasantness of living in the Soviet Union, under Russia’s thumb.

And many Russians, despite their heritage, are predisposed to oppose Putin. According to Pabriks, Russians came to Latvia in four waves in the past five centuries. The first three came to escape Russia after religious persecution, military aggression and the Bolshevik Revolution. But the last wave — Soviet citizens who arrived in Latvia on business or military obligations — came to perpetuate Russia.

This last group, Pabriks says, are the ones Russia might enchant today. “After the fall of the Soviet Union, they had no experience with an independent Latvia. They don’t know what Latvia is. It’s not easy to explain to them that we had our own lives.” Pabriks estimates that 60% of this last class, which never learned to speak Latvian, might appreciate a Russian return.

Yet latent Latvian support for Putin has not yet manifested itself in the kind of widespread unrest now being seen in Ukraine. Pabriks thinks it wouldn’t happen unless the region was further destabilized, owing to the presently strong governments in the Baltic states. The people TIME spoke to in the park generally agreed, believing the country to be safe from regional turbulence for now.

But Pabriks says a stable Ukraine is crucial to what happens in Latvia. “Ukraine is burning, and we need firemen there. The Baltics are the nearby houses, and the wind might start blowing the wrong way.”

TIME Silicon Valley

Ed Norton’s Charity Company Doesn’t Sound So Charitable

Mat Hayward—Getty Images

How do you become a $23 million darling in Silicon Valley? By building a for-profit business that serves nonprofits, apparently

What’s one of the rare blessings of living in an era characterized by tremendous asset inequality and a chastened, hamstrung welfare state? Charitable giving has by some accounts reached an all-time high, both among the general public and among the American wealthy. What a time to be alive.

As has been the case with many a popular activity in our time, techies have now come along to philanthropy to offer the piggy-back ride they like to call disruption, claiming to fix something that may not have needed fixing while skimming a fee for doing business. The crowded crowdfunding field offers any number of sites that handle charitable donations, from Indiegogo to GoFundMe to Causes to JustGiving. All tend to follow the same basic formula, allowing users to register their own charitable causes and to donate to established ones. It’s hard for any one site to make a name for itself.

But on Monday one of the pack stepped forward from the others with big news: CrowdRise, a charity-specific crowdfunding venture, had landed $23 million in venture capital funding from a group including Twitter/Tumblr investors Spark Capital and Union Square Ventures, and Jeff Bezos’s personal investment fund, Bezos Expeditions. (This funding round followed an earlier seed round that included investment from Twitter founder Jack Dorsey.)

Those big names join the biggest one that had previously been attached to the site: Edward Norton, the actor and director. Norton and a band of cofounders launched the site in November 2009 after they raised a surprising $1.2 million for a wildlife preservation concern in eastern Africa. They figured, If we can raise good money like this, why shouldn’t we let everyone else do the same? That was a giving notion, and it’s of a piece with CrowdRise’s passionate and playful message. The site’s motto says its users will “have the most fun in the world” while fundraising, and little jokes pepper its official literature. To wit: “CrowdRise is way more fun than anything else aside from being all nervous about trying to kiss a girl for the first time and her not saying something like ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.'” Fun!

But what does altruistic fun have to do with a $23 million round of funding? That cash would do some good in the pockets of the charities CrowdRise users support. The site’s literature explains its business plan this way: “When a donation is made through Crowdrise, we deduct a transaction fee so we don’t go out of business (GOB).” No, ExxonMobil’s corporate communications team would never write such a plain thing. But perhaps what they would write would not fudge things, either. Those transaction fees not only kept CrowdRise from going under but made the business promising enough to land all that venture money. As TechCrunch put it: “[CrowdRise is] profitable and … viewed the Kickstarter goal of $1 billion raised on CrowdRise as very doable.” (CrowdRise had not responded to questions from TIME as of late Tuesday afternoon.)

Capitalist techniques have gained an increasingly stable foothold in the world of nonprofits. Universities, hospitals and big foundations are lousy with MBAs and executives who command (citing market logic) salaries close to what their for-profit counterparts make. CrowdRise’s big-bucks waltz into this moral vacuum might be a little brazen—but at least it’s clever. The opposite of clever is the spirit that accompanies any event like this. A perusal of the comments on TechCrunch’s post, and the Twitter response to the same, indicates an unflinchingly positive reaction to the news. “Great to see.” “Psyched.” “Congratulations.” That’s a whole lot of accolades for a common middleman who just got a whole lot richer.

TIME Television

Jimmy Fallon’s Clickbait Addiction

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon - Season 1
Samuel L. Jackson and Jimmy Fallon NBC — Nathaniel Chadwick

Why late night TV's brand of ephemeral bite-sized entertainment is getting annoying

What’s funny, and what’s just pandering? The affable Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon toes this line more carefully than most. He’s trying to update an old genre for a new audience, one that’s less enamored of watching prolonged interviews with celebrities just before nodding off; the new viewership chooses instead to sneak bite-sized segments online at work the next day.

Sometimes Fallon strikes gold with these sketches. He recently mimicked Bruce Springsteen alongside the man himself, while roasting Gov. Chris Christie in the process. And he and Lindsay Lohan threw water on one another. Good, clean fun! The segments deservedly circulate throughout the internet’s favored corners, bringing joy to readers and traffic-conscious writers alike.

But then there are segments like last night’s self-contained “slam poem” “by” Samuel L. Jackson about Boy Meets World. For three minutes and forty-five seconds, Jackson performed his way through a written piece recapping the plot of the long-departed ABC show. There were references — were there ever references! — to memorable moments in the show’s plot that had long since left our minds. Jackson, affecting the Def Poetry aesthetic (with added bass accompaniment), quoted dialogue from the finale. After a commercial break, he sat down for an interview with the host. “Are you a fan of Boy Meets World?” Fallon asked, to which Jackson replied, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single episode of that show.”

Where are the bit’s laughs supposed to come from? The incongruity between Jackson’s style and the source material? (They’re both mid-1990s relics, albeit of different subcultures.) A great actor with high standards debasing himself? (LOL, says Capital One, which also counts Fallon as a spokesman.)

No, the humor, such as it is, springs forth from the goofy knowingness somehow still ascendant in the age of social media. Wait, you watched this show that averaged nearly 10 million weekly viewers during its seven-season run, and lived on long beyond that in syndication? No way, me too! It’s Dennis Miller’s old shtick, minus the jokes and the cultural capital.

Does this work? Hard to say. The amplification apparatus, those writers who love Jimmy Fallon in the good times and still need him in the bad, have gone about posting the video. “Samuel L. Jackson Performing Boy Meets World Slam Poetry Is Everything You Never Knew You Needed.” Samuel L. Jackson Delivers Epic ‘Boy Meets World’ Slam Poem. Samuel L. Jackson Proves He’s the Ultimate ‘Boy Meets World’ Fan. But it isn’t, it wasn’t, and he didn’t. And yet the YouTube count is at 155,224 views and counting.

Is this the new plan for late-night television? Viral segments with all the heft and permanence of a small bag of cheese puffs? ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel has headed down that road, too, with staged (and invariably viral) videos that derive much of their appeal from the viewer’s assumption that they reflect real, impromptu scenes. Only a lingering mild annoyance at Jimmy Kimmel, upon figuring out the true circumstances behind the videos’ production, makes them stick in the viewer’s mind. But Kimmel and Fallon have clearly seized on something something: web editors need to keep their mills turning, and web readers want to be entertained for free, and no one’s really in a position to complain.

A recent report claimed 36 percent of all internet traffic was fake — it comes from robots. What do you call the other 64 percent?

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