Archive for October, 2009

Publishing the Process

October 30, 2009

It’s Friday. It’s been a long week. How about a cool music video? Radiohead’s “House of Cards” certainly fits the bill. Check it out. It was made with lasers! 

Lasers and rock ‘n’ roll. They’ve always gone together, haven’t they? This isn’t your father’s laser show, however. Here, lasers stood in for the camera, continuously scanning the set to form 3D images. 

The presentation was as progressive as the production. And that’s what I want to talk about. A collaboration between the band and Google visualization wunderkinds, the video has its own page on Google’s developer site, Google Code. Not exactly the natural habitat for a music video, is it? 

There’s more than just the traditional video, however. In addition to the one aired on MTV (I’m actually making a dangerous assumption here. I don’t watch MTV. And whenever I surf past it they’re never playing music videos.) there is a behind-the-scenes “making-of” video and an interactive version users can manipulate. 

This is a model that we’re likely to see more and more of — in entertainment, in software, in journalism, in politics, wherever communication is happening. Don’t just share the finished product. Share the process. And invite others to join in that process. This is true interactivity. Those who get this will be the ones who get ahead. 

Take this example from the world of journalism. It’s an oldie but a goodie. In 2007, left-leaning politics blog Talking Points Memo beat the mainstream media to the U.S. Attorneys purging story. Jarring for the Bush administration, yes, which would have preferred media never connected the dots. Just as jarring for new media critics who insisted blogs follow legacy publications’ lead.

So, how did TPM do it? It posted original reporting based on sources not typically consulted by the mainstream press and invited its readers to become sources themselves. In between the usual “Here’s what we know” posts, it asked “What do you know?” It told readers what information to pay attention to and often, how to go about getting it. 

And, from the world of software, another classic: Mozilla Firefox. The Internet browser achieved 25 percent market share just five years after launch thanks in large part to its open source approach. It allows developers to customize the browser and shows them how. As a result, it’s more versatile than its competitors. Firefox boasts a vast library of extensions that do everything from manage downloads to speed navigation to translate text.

Content creators: Users are going to want to adapt, add on to and comment on your content anyway. Given enough time, they’ll find a way how. So, why not leverage user participation to increase the value of your product? 

Got it? Good. Go on enjoying the wonders of lasers.


Designers’ Invisibility Cloak

October 28, 2009

I blogged previously about how computer engineers are out to make their product invisible. So are information designers.

Well, they want users to notice their design, of course. But they don’t want it to be obvious it’s been designed.

Users who easily find what they’re looking for don’t think about design. They move on to the next thing they’re looking for. Users who get confused or overwhelmed notice design. So, designers want their product to be invisible.

No wonder people think designing is easy. The harder designers work, the less obvious that work is. Kind of thankless, I suppose. Perhaps that’s why there are so many design contests. Designers can at least pat each other on the back if no one else will.

As a former copy editor, I can relate. If a copy editor does his job and stories are readable, thorough and free of mistakes, readers aren’t going to say, “Wow, what great copy editing.” But if an editor misses an error, or, God forbid, adds one, one can see readers saying, “Where was the copy desk?”

I edited this post. Did you notice? I hope not.

The Culture of Change

October 26, 2009

This is the first of occasional posts based on my research on the future of the interactive newsroom.

On the gridiron, a high octane offense or a stingy defense can get you to the Super Bowl just the same. Indeed, recent title games have showcased some vastly different styles.

Building the newspaper of the future isn’t any different. If it works, no one approach is better than another. Every successful team, and every successful company, however, shares at least one thing: a winning culture.

This was manifested throughout my research.

Get the culture right, and changes to organizational structure, newsroom layout and workflow have a much better chance of succeeding. Get it wrong, and they’re likely to fail. The other variables are easy enough to change on the fly, culture much less so.

Curating a culture means asking how process and personnel changes will complement or contradict existing attitudes, then nurturing the connections and pacifying the conflicts.

Process changes can include adding tasks to — mid-cycle Web updates — or removing tasks from — gavel-to-gavel meeting coverage — workers’ routines. To nurture connections, managers can portray the 24-7 news cycle as a means to more aggressive reporting. To pacify conflicts, managers can insulate fundamental areas, like investigative reporting, from cuts.

Personnel changes can include bringing in workers from rival media — hiring a broadcast veteran to produce Web videos — or from outside of journalism — hiring a Web developer with a background in e-commerce. To nurture connections, managers can demonstrate that changes advance the public interest values common to all platforms. To pacify conflicts, managers can promote collaboration between journalistic and technical workers and honor their contributions equally.

Once managers decide on a direction, they have to decide how aggressively to pursue it. Do they force workers to reapply for their jobs and become multimedia proficient? Or do they encourage workers to modernize their traditional roles at their own pace? An organization with a relatively young staff whose short-term survival is dependent upon finding a new model might choose the former; an organization with a core of veteran journalists whose short-term survival is not under threat might choose the latter.

Sometimes the Best Tools in Life Are Free

October 23, 2009

My fellow students and I are privledged to have acceess to some of the top software on the market. The latest version of Adobe’s popular Creative Suite — which comprises image editing, Web development and multimedia software — was included with our tuition and professional programs not part of that package, such as video editing client Final Cut Pro, are available on campus.

Still, our school can’t afford to buy us everything we need. And, many of us knee deep in student loans, we certainly can’t. So, quite often, we depend on free tools to get the job done. This is good practice as many of us can expect to be working for startups or nonprofits with relatively small budgets.

Free tools, we learned today, sometimes are preffered even by companies that can afford paid ones.

Elon Unversity alumnus Travis Lusk, who was to particpate in a School of Communications networking panel later in the day, told us this morning that most of the Web sites he oversees for WCBS-FM in New York will soon be produced using WordPress’s open-source content management system.

Lusk, as part of a talk on audience analytics, praised WordPress’s clean interface and its customizability through Cascading Style Sheets and widgets and called it the “most out-of-the-box SEO friendly [CMS] on the market, hands down.”

WordPress, for example, makes tweaking urls to match keywords a snap.

While Lusk depends on paid analytics tools like Clicky Web Analytics and for real-time audience information, Google’s free analytics software is a tool he regularly uses.

Open Your Ears Before You Open Your Mouth

October 22, 2009

listen2Yesterday I posted about how businesses tend to delegate social media tasks to their youngest workers and that how young people use social media in their personal lives may not translate to  — or may even clash with — how to use it successfully in the business world.

I added that solid writing is the foundation of solid social media marketing, again, a skill students may not develop, or not develop appropriately, through day-to-day social media use.

Listening is also important, added a peer of mine who’s researching the future of social media.

“From what I have gathered from my research and informational interviews, the mistake made often by companies attempting to utilize social media for the first time is their lackadaisical approach,” he commented. “Social media management includes listening to the groundswell, responding, and being willing to make changes per the feedback received.”

As part of our Interactive Writing and Design coursework, three of my classmates and I are developing a microsite to promote a local jam band’s forthcoming album. The band has used MySpace and Facebook with some success, but is unfamiliar with Twitter.

Immediately, my teammates and I had some ideas about how the band could use social media to achieve its goal of playing in a popular Mid-Atlantic campout music festival. Why not get its active base — it drew several hundred people to a self-hosted festival on a friend’s farm — to talk up the band in places and in ways other fans and festival bookers would notice?

We’re anxious to get to work — the band’s needs seem to jibe remarkably well with what we’ve been learning in our grad program — but know first, we must listen.

Part of our homework is doing literally that — listening to band’s music. Half our group is checking out the band’s tunes, Web site, social media pages, digital press kit and anywhere else the band’s mentioned online. The other half is visiting festival Web sites and the sites of bands who’ve played in those festivals.

We’ll absorb our respective areas as much as we can, then compare notes, looking for overlap between the band’s existing identity and what’s valued in the external spaces.

They’ll Assume You’re a Social Media Expert. Prove Them Right.

October 21, 2009

In no other marketing arena are messages born, spread and adapted as quickly as they are in social media. Reputations can be bolstered or broken in a few clicks.

To whom do firms turn to navigate this volatile landscape? Very often, young people.

In Elon University’s School of Communications, nearly every summer internship student this year reported completing social media-related tasks such as creating Facebook and Twitter accounts or blogging.

Young people, it’s assumed, know social media. That they at least have a better grasp of it than their older colleagues is generally a safe bet. The median age of a Facebook user is 26, a MySpace user 27 and a Twitter user 31, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. But what exactly do young people know? Do they know how to monitor what customers are saying and exploit opportunities and put out fires? Or do they just know how to post mundane status updates and write clever captions?

The Elon interns, who had already been blogging and studying reputation management in their classes, were better positioned than most. The communication school’s internship director wrote to faculty and staff that in many cases supervisors were impressed enough by students’ skill level to extend to them opportunities not offered to other interns.

But what about those without any formal training? Young people who on their face seem social media savvy may in fact be practicing some very bad habits. Friending everyone and their brother regardless of their character merely to increase their own perceived popularity. Posting embarrassing photos of themselves and their friends without regard for what potential employers may think. Not the kind of quality control you want in the business world.

Furthermore, behind the technology bells and whistles, strong social media marketing comes down to strong writing. And, while the opposite argument is also made, there is concern among educators that electronic communication’s carefree spelling, lax punctuation and grammar and acronym shortcuts degrade writing quality, also according to Pew.

Students or young workers may read this and get defensive. “We can write.” “We can and do use social media responsibly.” And I hope they do call me out. Because, what an opportunity. If you know social media tasks are probably going to be part of your next job — or are part of your job now, why not do a little homework and learn how to use social media to grow a brand, not just grow your friend count? You’ll differentiate yourself from your peers and just might get that promotion a bit sooner.

Social media blog Mashable’s How To section is a good starting point. It’s a gold mine of concise primers, some geared toward general social media literacy, but many also geared toward business applications.

First-Half Highlights

October 15, 2009

My classmates and I are nearing the midpoint of the semester and next week will receive a couple of well-earned days off. It’s the All-Star Break, if you will. In that spirit, here are some first-half highlights of what I’ve covered in this space to date:

The Art of Failure

There’s a grade school art piece of mine, a watercolor, I like to reference to illustrate — pardon the pun — why one should never be afraid of mistakes.

Manage Technology Before It Manages You

Don’t check your text messages, e-mail or Twitter until you’re done reading this blog post. If your phone buzzes or Outlook or Tweetdeck flashes an alert, ignore it. If the prospect of this bothers you, you’ll want to read on.

The World Wide Web, a Wonderland of Words

The Web was built for conversation. Kind of funny, then, it can be so tricky to talk about.

Its lexicon is a mish-mash of new words, repurposed words, and, well, mish-mashed words.

Like Pictures? This Post’s For You.


Scalpel, Stat! Hold On a Second.

Not three weeks into my fall semester studies, the mantra, “Let the story dictate the tool,” has been popping up a lot. It’s been nearly as ubiquitous as commentary on Kanye West’s VMA outburst. (Heck, even my favorite football team is weighing in on that.) OK, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but, in the iMedia world, this is a kind of a big deal. It’s being reinforced at every turn:

Newsflash: Funneh Cat Site Iz Serious Bizness

October 12, 2009

Spend enough time on the Internet, and odds are you played a part in circulating a meme. Yes, you probably did, even if you didn’t know that’s what it’s called.

A meme (rhymes with theme), Merriam-Webster tells us, is “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” On the Internet, every time you forward, repost or retweet you could be giving life to a meme.

YouTube is filled with memes, like the one parodied on last week’s episode of “The Office.” You might know them better as “viral videos.”

Media scholar Henry Jenkins calls such communications, which can also take the form of music, still images, catch phrases, even clothing, “spreadable media.” “Meme” and “viral” understate the role of the audience, he says.

Whatever you call them, memes can make you a lot of money. The just-released low-budget horror film Paranormal Activity built a marketing campaign around them.

Ben Huh has built an empire around them.

He’s the guy behind wildly popular user-generated meme sites I Can Has Cheezburger?,, spinoffs I Has A Hotdog! and My First Fail and several others.

Just over a year ago Huh told a Web 2.0 Expo NY audience (video above, presentation .pdf here) some of the secrets of his success. My classmates and I, it turns out, would have said roughly the same thing. And our speaking fees are much lower.

Asked by our Theory and Audience Analysis professor to list qualities that, as Jenkins would put it, make media spreadable, we honed in on many of the same aspects as Huh.

Memes, we said, tend to be simple, discussable, brief, relatable and easy to share.

Huh, earning his speaking fee, I suppose, captured the first two elements in a single soundbite.

“We perceive Web. 2.0 as this complex environment, where there’s lots of filtering, lots of stuff going on,” he said. “But really what it boils down to is there’s two people sharing a piece of content or an experience.”

Think of it as the “Hey, dude check this out” test.

Brevity, meanwhile, is at the heart of the irreverently captioned cat pictures, known as Lolcats, on I Can Has Cheezburger?, where the goal, Huh said, is “to make people happy for just 5 minutes a day.”

The importance that content be relatable explains Huh’s early discovery that many of the submissions to I Can Has Cheezburger? aren’t explicitly about cats. They’re about eBay, drinking too much, everyday annoyances or whatever else users deem topical.

Finally, what really helped I Can Has Cheezburger? take off, Huh said, was the lightweight tool that enables virtually anyone with an Internet connection and basic computer proficiency to upload their own captioned photo. It took a part-timer less than a weekend’s work to put the widget together, but it’s a big reason Huh’s site went mainstream when others like it did not.

“We try to lower the bar for content creation,” Huh said, “because the more you allow users to remove the technology… the better content you get.”

Some tips from Huh that apply to any Web company are to consistently update your site — I Can Has Cheezburger? features six new posts every day, the first coming as East Coasters are arriving to work, he said — and, this will sound familiar, “Groundswell” readers, to listen to your audience. I Can Has Cheezburger?’s handful of full-time employees spend much of their time interacting with users, Huh said.

What’s that? Time for one more Lolcat? I thought so.

Go-Going Beyond Gadgets

October 9, 2009

On Wednesday, I told you to log off your computer and get outside and to use pen and paper whenever you can. So you don’t get the impression I’m anti-technology — come on, would I be studying interactive media if I were? — I figured I’d highlight some innovations my classmates flagged recently that have the potential to improve society in dramatic ways.

I’m not talking about gadgets here. I’m talking about products with substantive impact:

  • Energy from animal waste could be harnessed to power entire farms or provide electricity to soldiers on the battlefield.
  • Specialized multi-touch surfaces allow doctors to perform virtual autopsies, eliminating the need to disturb bodies, taboo in some cultures, and allowing examiners to better see things that are difficult to observe in traditional autopsies.
  • Smart airport screening devices that detect the biological harbingers of malicious behavior could simultaneously speed up security checkpoints and better protect against attacks.
  • Hospital devices could be controlled via tactile holograms, reducing the risk of infection spread.

The Art of Failure

October 9, 2009

mistakes-watercolorThere’s a grade school art piece of mine, a watercolor, I like to reference to illustrate — pardon the pun — why one should never be afraid of mistakes.

The assignment involved using a cardboard edge to paint the wisps of a flower’s stem. Class was winding down and my piece looked nothing like a flower. The more I tried to fix it, though, the less like a flower it looked. Panicked, I frantically swiped the cardboard across the paper. I was close to giving up when I realized what I was painting did look like something: grass.

With a new design in mind, I worked with greater care and confidence. What I thought was a lost cause suddenly resembled a scene one might find in nature.

It also had pretty brilliant depth of field. It ended up being featured in the student art show at the town center mall for thousands of shoppers to see.

My parents still have the piece. I’ll try to digitize it and post it here sometime.