Posts Tagged ‘social media’

It’s Not Their Medium, It’s Their Message: Seven Knight-Batten Winners Mastered More Than Tech

July 20, 2010

Message in a bottle

For proof technology is changing journalism for the better, look no further than the seven organizations honored yesterday by the Knight Foundation. This year’s Knight-Batten award winners the Sunlight Foundation, ProPublica, 48 HR Magazine, the St. Petersburg Times, Ushahidi Haiti, Publish2, and The Takeaway leveraged social networks, interactive databases, mobile messages and other emerging technologies to spread information and engage their audiences.

Technology, however, is not the real star here. A lot of the tools the winners used can be easily obtained and understood by beginning users. The Sunlight Foundation’s real-time coverage of February’s health care summit, for example, used a public embed code from The White House for its live video stream. The central tool in ProPublica’s Reporting Network, meanwhile, was e-mail. Even among the more technical projects like Ushahidi’s interactive map wiki and Publish2’s content sharing platform, technology is not the real star. The real star is the values behind each project, values anyone in news — big enterprises and small enterprises, techies and non-techies — can and should start applying today — along with the previously mentioned accessible technology. There’s nothing stopping you from being a Knight-Batten winner, or at least acting like one.

Screengrab of Sunlight Foundation logoSUNLIGHT LIVE,
Sunlight Foundation

What it is: The Sunlight Foundation used data, visualizations and insight gleaned from research to contextualize real-time coverage of February’s bipartisan health care summit and promoted its work and tracked audience response with various online tools.

What it teaches: What you do before and after live coverage is as important as what you do during it.

The real-time Web renders preparation more important, not less. The success or failure of live online coverage is usually determined in days leading up to the event, not during the minutes or hours of the event itself. The Sunlight Foundation conducted intensive planning and research ahead of the seven-hour health care summit. It also monitored the audience response in real-time and after-the-fact, informing tactical decisions that day and strategic decisions for live coverage projects going forward.

Screengrab of ProPublica logo REPORTING NETWORK,
ProPublica

What it is: ProPublica enlisted an army of more than 5,000 citizen reporters with meaningful (spot checking government data), even fun (photographing congressmen attending the Super Bowl) assignments, engaging its audience and extending its journalistic reach.

What it teaches: Audience contributions rise to your expectations.

Ask your audience to contribute more than just weather photos and you might be surprised by the results you get. Even if only a fraction of your citizen journalists participate in assignments, and even if only a fraction of their contributions can be used in your coverage, making users feel like they’re part of the team goes a long way toward building audience engagement and loyalty. And when it comes to things journalists can’t do or can’t easily do themselves — like monitoring direct mailings or requesting residents-only public documents in states they don’t live in — if you don’t get it from your users you’re probably not going to get it at all.

Screengrab of 48 HR Magazine logo48 HR MAGAZINE

What it is: Starting the process on Twitter and ending it with print-on-demand Web service MagCloud, 48 HR Magazine in a single weekend crowdsourced a 60-page magazine, soliciting, editing, producing and publishing 70 entertaining, smartly presented entries.

What it teaches: Don’t ask “Why?” Ask “Why Not?” Or, better yet, just do it.

Create a magazine in 48 hours? That’s crazy. Yes, it is. But crazy doesn’t mean impossible. In the time most would spend hemming and hawing about how crazy it is these folks got it done. Like newspaper chain the Journal Register Company’s recent Ben Franklin Project, it’s a testament to the Web and its organizing power and its affordable, accessible tools. It’s also a testament to people and their willingness to take risks and think positively. In both the 48 HR Magazine and the Ben Franklin Project, somebody boldly, unequivocally stated “We’re gonna do this.” Then, impressed by the leader’s conviction if not completely convinced by it, others signed on. “Sure, why not?” Momentum built, and suddenly it didn’t seem so crazy. “Why not?” gave way to “We really are gonna do this” gave we to “We did it!”

Screengrab of PolitiFact.com logoTHE OBAMETER,
St. Petersburg Times

What it is: With users’ assistance, the St. Petersburg Times’ PolitiFact.com tracked 500 Obama campaign promises, rated them as kept, compromise, broken, stalled, in the works or not yet rated and presented the tally through simple, fun, engaging color-coded graphics.

What it teaches: The million-mile-per-hour online news cycle isn’t the Web’s fault, it’s yours.

The Web’s accelerated news cycle drives politicians to make all kinds of promises, and usually, helps them get away with it. In July, when all eyes seem to be on the thermometer or the Gulf Coast, remarks made 19 months ago in a snowy New Hampshire square don’t fit the live, latebreaking model. It’s so refreshing, then, to see the Web leveraged to break free from horse-race journalism and hold leaders accountable. Why journalists, with virtually unlimited Web space, don’t share the overwhelming portions of their interviews that don’t make it into stories has been a recent topic of discussion in online journalism circles. A fine argument in favor of this is it’s easy and cheap to do and at least few users are likely to find it useful or interesting. The even better argument: Like the Obameter, archiving interviews serves as a check on the 24-hour news cycle — something that wasn’t a big deal initially and was left out of the story might become story-worthy later — and promotes accountability — from journalists as well as sources.

Screengrab of Ushahidi-Haiti logoUSHAHIDI HAITI

What it is: Ushahidi Haiti and its international volunteers utilized the open source Ushahidi platform to aggregate e-mail, social media, Web and text message reports from the Haiti earthquake zone on an interactive map. The geo wiki pinpointed in near real-time damaged infrastructure, security threats, public health resources and other variables. It proved to be a useful resource for journalists and others following the disaster. It proved to be an invaluable resource for emergency responders. In no uncertain terms, Ushahidi saved lives.

What it teaches: Those you’re trying to cover (or rescue) collectively know a lot more than you do.

Those who respond to disasters and those who cover disasters typically carry out their work in a very centralized manner. The authorities funnel operations and communications through a purportedly omniscient command center and media regurgitate the command center’s messages like they are the only and final word. As a result, each party misses important stuff, or at least gets to it later than it should. In how it was developed and how it is used, Ushahidi is a posterchild for the power of decentralization. It didn’t rise from Silicon Valley power brokers searching for a profit-making patent. It rose from Kenyan citizen journalists responding to a humanitarian crisis. It doesn’t depend on manufactured authority to broadcast a presumed truth. It organically grows authority through the wisdom of groups to reveal a constantly updating snapshot.

Screengrab of Publish2 News Exchange logoPUBLISH2 NEWS EXCHANGE, Publish2

What it is: Publish2 streamlined content sharing through its custom-built platform, enabling news organizations of all sizes to create networked newswires free from the restraints and expenses of traditional, centralized cooperatives.

What it teaches: There are times when it makes sense for competitors to be each other’s customers.

Like Ushahidi, Publish2’s News Exchange illustrates the power of decentralized networks. It also supports the notion that instead of going down together, even rival news organizations should learn to work together. There are important stories today’s leaner newsrooms don’t get around to covering. But, maybe a competitor does. Who the buyer is and who the seller is can flip on any given story, so, there’s a mutual interest to pool resources. And even on stories every news organization in town can get to, there’s often little marginal value in having every last news outlet there over a smaller amount. I expanded upon this last point in my proposal for an iTunes for news called Regional Online News Trading Posts:

I’m not saying cross-town outlets shouldn’t still try to one-up each other’s coverage. The fear that the other guy might have it and you won’t promotes better journalism.

But, what about when you know everybody’s going to have it, and, it’s, let’s face it, not that great of a story? Is the opportunity cost of five news organizations sending five reporters to get the same canned quotes and staged photos from a police dog-and-pony show hyping a mid-level drug bust really serving the audience? How about four or those news organizations have the fifth cover the cops’ theatrics while their reporters are off at the unemployment office, prisons and mental health parity bill hearings probing the root cause of their community’s drug problem?

Screengrab of The Takeaway logoSOURCING THROUGH TEXTING, The Takeaway

What it is: Radio journalists tapped residents in Southwest Detroit to be the assignment editors for stories about their community, soliciting and following up on text messages reporting community problems like illegal truck traffic and describing their Mexicantown neighborhood in a few words. The approach, since replicated in Miami’s Little Havana, engaged nontraditional listeners and informed nontraditional stories.

What it teaches: Meet your audience on platforms it prefers, not those you or other media do.

Pew Internet’s Mobile Access 2010 report, released earlier this month, noted that minorities are more likely to own a mobile phone than whites and are more likely to use their phones to access the Internet. Based on those numbers, it’s not surprising a majority-minority neighborhood like Detroit’s Mexicantown responded to The Takeaway’s mobile outreach the way it did. Rather than generalize from national surveys like Pew’s, however, news organizations owe it to themselves and their audience to seek out detailed statistics on what platforms and tools are popular in their community. Blindly following national trends is a good way to miss or even alienate would-be customers and squander revenue opportunities. For instance, while the conventional wisdom is that Facebook is huge and MySpace (for all but musicians) is dead, danah boyd and other researchers point out that that’s not the case among all demographics.

Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Kraftwerck.

D.C.’s New Local News Shop

July 9, 2010

Open sign on storefront windowLocal news sites are, if you think about it, the boutiques of the online information economy. Yet too often they behave more like big-box stores. They overflow their virtual shelves with wire stories and re-written press releases users can get anywhere while talking about community building a lot more than actually doing it.

The soon-to-launch D.C. area local news site from Allbritton Communications is anti-big-box. TBD.com is planning to carry a selective mix of elegantly presented, high-value news unique to its site and is getting to know its neighbors by name (or at least screen name).

  • Selective: TBD editors have made it clear they’re not going to try to cover everything. They’re going to focus on big regional stories and on neighborhood news and information. Stuff that falls in between isn’t going to get much (digital) ink. For what it doesn’t get to itself, TBD isn’t going to be shy about linking to other sites. (Not unlike when a shop directs a shopper to a business across town when the other place has an item it doesn’t. Online and off, in news and in retail, this builds trust with the customer and the other merchant, promoting return visits and reciprocal referrals.)
  • Elegantly presented: TBD’s homepage is expected to be less cluttered than most other news websites’. And, replacing the sites for WJLA-TV and NewsChannel 8, TBD.com should include its share of visual storytelling packages.
  • High-value: Editor Jim Brady told Poynter that TBD will emphasize timely content that helps people make decisions. Heavy use of geocoding, meanwhile, will help personalize TBD’s offerings.
  • Getting to know its neighbors: TBD has staff members — led by Editor & Publisher Editor of the Year Steve Buttry — dedicated to nurturing relationships with local bloggers and engaging its audience on social media. Its blog network has already eclipsed 90 members and it’s using social media to organize in-person meetups with them and others in the community.

Of course, TBD hasn’t even flipped over its open sign yet. It remains to be seen whether the site can sustain what it’s started, follow through on what it’s promised and make money doing it.

The third point is the biggest question. A lot of parallels have been drawn between TBD and fellow Allbritton property Politico, but Politico still makes most of its money from its print edition. TBD.com has no print counterpart. Of course, that means it avoids the printing and distribution costs that dominate traditional newspapers’ expenses. Perhaps it will make it work. One thing’s for sure: Plenty will be watching to see whether it does.

Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Gary Simmons.

Celebrating Free-dom: The Journal Register Company’s Ben Franklin Project

July 4, 2010

Full disclosure: I reported for Journal Register Company newspaper the Daily Freeman from June 2004 to October 2005.

Ben Franklin portraitAt first glance, today’s Web and print editions for the Journal Register Company‘s 18 daily newspapers might not appear terribly different from any other day’s. That was part of the point of the rapidly-reinventing-itself chain’s bold Ben Franklin Project. JRC wanted to prove that free does not necessarily mean cheap, that free or near-free online tools can achieve the same production values as pricey proprietary software.

Take a closer look at the papers’ digital and print Ben Franklin Project editions, published on Independence Day to signify the company’s independence from proprietary systems, and you’ll notice they are different.

You’ll notice stories suggested and edited by audience members. You’ll notice crowdsourced solutions to community challenges. You’ll notice videos putting a fresh human face on persistent issues like immigration and unemployment. You’ll notice interactive maps pinpointing user-identified problems like risky roadways.

This was the Ben Franklin Project’s other, ultimately larger point: That free tools can improve both journalists’ coverage and their relationship with their audience by making the news process more participatory.

Screengrabs of YouTube video, Facebook page, home page and Twitter stream for various JRC newspapers.

That the papers — some with circulations as small as 6,000 — even attempted this ambitious project is groundbreaking for their famously slow-to-adapt industry. That they pulled it off is a remarkable feat. The executive behind this and other innovations at JRC — including citizen journalism labs and in-house testing of the latest tech tools — was rightfully celebratory in a blog post to employees this morning, exclaiming, “Take a bow. You did it.” CEO John Paton also rightfully recognized that this is only the beginning.

The success or failure of an initiative characterized — by organizers and observers — as revolutionary can be judged only over the long-term. Merely sustaining the type of work showcased today will require more hard work, especially as the novelty — for employees and audience members — wears off. Building up the Ben Franklin Project into what the journalism history books (history tablets?) would consider a revolution will require a lot more hard work.

  • It will require a firm technical and strategic grasp of the tools used to produce today’s editions. Employees, who had just over a month to learn many of the free tools they used, are by their own admission still getting the hang of pagination program Scribus. Microblogging service Twitter, meanwhile, is of greatest value to news organizations when they use it to converse with audience members and sources (two-way/pull/new-media thinking), yet many JRC papers use their Twitter feeds only to push out links to their stories (one-way/push/old-media thinking).
  • It will require abandoning these tools at the drop of a hat and learning new ones as better alternatives come along.
  • It will require engaging audience members — meeting them on the platforms they’re already using or educating them about the platforms they should be using — to the point they don’t have to be persuaded to participate.
  • It will require not letting the new way of doing things disrupt what was right about the old way. As empowering as they are, interactive tools are a complement to thorough, old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting, not a replacement for it.
  • More than anything, it will require a bottom-up embrace of the digital-first, innovation culture Paton is evangelizing. No print-versus-Web, us-versus-them, that’s-not-part-of-my job whining.

Since a lot of people might have been too busy eating hot dogs/watching others eat (way too many) hot dogs, launching fireworks/watching others launch fireworks to follow JRC’s Ben Franklin Project coverage, here’s a sampling of what the 18 papers produced:

Screengrab of The Mercury road rage map

Screengrab of Oneida Dispatch video featuring JRC Director of Digital Content Jonathan Cooper.

DailyDev: Custom Twitter Background

June 3, 2010

DailyDev blog series thumbnail logo -- day 3I’ve been meaning to take a stab at a custom Twitter background for a while but was always unsure what dimensions would be best to accommodate varying screen resolutions. This Mashable post, which I used as my guide, recommends 1600px by 1200px. The left column where text popularly goes should be less than 240 pixels wide, the post suggests.

While branding is typically the main motivation behind custom Twitter backgrounds, I was going for function more so than form here.

I have two Twitter accounts, a personal account and one I created for school. I maintained both during the first part of my grad program but have since started feeding all my everyday tweets to my personal handle, reserving my old school account for live tweeting.

I wanted the custom background to convey this so that anyone who stumbles upon my school account doesn’t miss that it’s not my main handle.

Finished Product

Screengrab of customer Twitter background

  • I used Photoshop to create the image. I employed a gradient background and some basic layer effects on the text and icon to achieve some depth. The Twitter bird is from this free set.

Pros

  • Give your Twitter page a personal touch or communicate important information with minimal extra effort.
  • Brand yourself or your organization across multiple spaces by matching the look/feel of your website, print campaign, etc.
  • Non-designers can outsource the job to free online background generators.

Cons

  • Since you’re dealing with a fixed image, it’s impossible to get the dimensions perfect for every resolution.
  • Mobile users, a fast growing segment of your and any audience, don’t benefit from your custom background. Nor do your established followers, really. Once I start following someone, at least, it’s not often I click through to his or her page.
  • You can’t hyperlink the text. A good use of Twitter backgrounds is to promote your other online spaces, but, whenever I see this I have to fight my instinct to click on the words.

Tip

  • Don’t make your background too texty. It’s against the 140-character spirit of Twitter.

Recommend?

  • For organizations, definitely. It’s a can’t-miss opportunity to extend your brand and get important information in front of your audience. An attractive background that efficiently communicates what your org is all about can make all the difference when a user is deciding whether to become a follower.
  • For individuals it can be beneficial for the same reasons, but, to me, overly packaged personal backgrounds often come across as pretentious — especially those with large photos of the user identical or similar to his or her profile picture a few pixels away.

I’m a fan or more subtle personal backgrounds — especially large landscape or cityscape photos — that serve a design function and reflect the user’s personality but let his or her tweets, profile bio and website link speak for themselves.

Sit Back, Relax, Enjoy the News

May 10, 2010

How Active Users Let Others Be More Passive

This is one in a series of posts based on or inspired by research for my Contemporary Media Issues class on how the challenges and opportunities associated with presenting news online are affecting journalistic values. It is cross posted on the blog for my Citizen and Participatory News class, where it was published March 5.

Empty beach chair near clear blue ocean.

Forget for a second everything you’ve been told about the participatory news consumer. All that talk about the Web empowering people to lean forward. Minimize that window. And open this one: The Web’s also enabling people to lean back.

Not the most obvious conclusion to draw from a report subheadlined “How internet and cell phone users have turned news into a social experience.” I’ll explain. And I’ll explain how it might make news organizations’ jobs easier. (The report also, by the way, announced that the Web has overtaken newspapers as Americans’ No. 3 news source.)

Like countless Web research reports before it, Pew Internet’s “Understanding the Participatory News Consumer,” released March 1, reflects the power law distribution math popularized by authors Chris Anderson and Clay Shirky. Simply put, a subgroup of news consumers is doing most of the participatory heavy lifting spreading, curating and creating content. Yet, many more are benefiting from the “serendipitous discovery” of news these behaviors make possible.

For instance, three-quarters of online news consumers report receiving news links from peers through e-mail or social networks, according to the report, while about half take credit for forwarding them.

Considering Web users at large, “participators,” as Pew dubs netizens who create, pass along or transform content, form an even smaller minority. Thirty percent of Web users in Pew’s landline and mobile telephone survey say they’re accessing news-related content on social networks, while a little more than half that proportion say they’re creating content. A quarter of users had commented on stories or blogs, 11 percent had tagged content and 9 percent had created their own article or multimedia piece.

Being steered to information by others is part of the “foraging and opportunism” by which the report says modern audiences access their news. Indeed, an even 50 percent of Americans say they rely on others not just for interesting information but for news they “need to know.” Users also unwittingly steer themselves to news. Some 80 percent of online news consumers say they regularly stumble upon news while completing other online activities.

It’s never been easier for news just to fall into people’s laps. Sure, offline a friend might photocopy you a magazine piece or you might glimpse an interesting article in a newspaper a stranger left behind, but these instances are rarer, and considerably more delayed than online interactions. It used to be, if you wanted news, you had to go get it. The Web lets us go get it like never before, and that’s generally what people pay attention to, but it also enables those who want to to sit back and let it come to them.

In this environment, it would seem wise, then, for news outlets to take Malcom Gladwell’s advice and go about trying to influence the influencers. Knowing they can no longer be everything to everyone, this clarifies their mission. Even if influencers’ influence is less than anticipated, college-educated, in their mid-30s and earning earning $50,000 or more, as Pew’s survey describes them, by themselves they’re a smart market to pursue.

So, what do the participators want? According to Pew, they want more stories about science and technology, health and medicine, and state government and they want those stories presented interactively. Smart wish list. Science and technology are taking over our lives whether we pay attention or not. Health is slated to be one of this half-century’s biggest stories as the baby boomers age. And state government coverage needs rebuilding after legacy media cutbacks gutted capital press corps. Interactivity, meanwhile, is much less appreciated by the broader population. I would argue, however, that this is so because most users are basing their opinions on inferior interactive experiences. The participators have seen the real deal, and they want more.

Pew’s data are based on a random sample of 2,259 adult land line and mobile phone users surveyed by Princeton Survey Research Associates International between Dec. 28 and Jan. 19. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 2.3 percentage points overall, with confidence falling to plus or minus 2.7 percentage points for the 1,675 respondents identifying themselves as consumers of online news.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/oldpatterns / CC BY-NC 2.0

The Five Gifts of Sharing

May 6, 2010

Human paper cutouts holding hands (sharing illustration).Everything You Need To Know About the Future of Education You Learned in Preschool

Sharing. In preschool, our teachers wouldn’t shut up about it. The rest of our school careers, it’s like they never learned it themselves. Think about it. In grade school, high school, even in college, what happened to all that great content you produced? That “Where the Wild Things Are” diorama? That coming-of-age introduction to film screenplay? That term paper on electoral reform? Very likely, three things:

1. Your teacher reviewed it, thoroughly if he or she possessed the motivation or time, less than thoroughly if he or she didn’t.

2. Your teacher assigned a grade to it, and, sometimes but not always, provided written or verbal comments.

3. You paid more attention to the grade than the comments and filed the assignment away to gather actual or virtual dust — or simply trashed it.

With the Web all but eliminating the production and distribution costs of content sharing, education is becoming more participatory, but not to the extent it could be or should be, according to members of the “The Future of Learning is the Web” panel at last week’s FutureWeb conference in Raleigh, N.C. Even many e-learning programs, they said, are little more than traditional lessons dressed up in online clothes. The trick, panelist Tony O’Driscoll, professor of the practice of business administration at Duke University, said, is to go from using technology as an engine for automating the classroom to using technology as a network for liberating learning.

The trick is to go from using technology as an engine for automating the classroom to using technology as a network for liberating learning.

— Tony O’Driscoll, professor of the practice of business administration, Duke University

O’Driscoll and his four panelmates, also Duke University professors, argued that sharing the educational process on blogs, social media, discussion forums, crowdsourcing sites and elsewhere online benefits students, teachers and society alike.

  • Sharing’s first gift is motivation. When students know their work is potentially being judged by their peers, experts or even just anonymous Internet users, they take their work up a notch. The extra eyes likewise motivate teachers to maximize the quality and relevancy of their assignments.
  • Sharing’s second gift is feedback. Constructive criticism affords students a chance to improve their work before turning it in. Praise in the form of a comment, repost or adaptation validates their scholarship in a way an arbitrary letter grade never could. Meanwhile, if students aren’t reacting the way teachers expected, teachers can see this and call an audible.
  • Sharing’s third gift is understanding. The public and even other educators often dismiss divergent teaching approaches as lacking earnestness or structure. Why tell critics your allegedly easy class is actually challenging when you can show them by posting the final exam question online, as panelist Mark Anthony Neal, black popular culture professor, recently did?
  • Sharing’s fourth gift is what O’Driscoll called “double-loop learning.” External audiences absorb students’ knowledge and respond in kind with their own, which students fold back into their work. This cycle additionally addresses what panelists criticized as academia’s lack of urgency.
  • Sharing’s fifth gift is efficiency. Rather than over-extending themselves trying to become an instant expert in something they’re not, teachers can outsource the job to the real experts. The organizing power of online networks further frees up teachers to teach — and, critically, the panelists said, to provide context for the deluge of information modern students must manage. This benefit applies to organizing people — think about those hundred-plus-student freshman classes at public universities — as well as information.

Given that education has long been a pet interest of mine, that many from my family work in or have worked in education and that I used to cover education as a newspaper reporter, I found this panel especially engaging. There’s a fourth reason, however, that it spoke to me so. And that is how closely the changes taking place in education resemble the changes taking place in my own industry: news. In both education and journalism, the process is becoming a product. In each industry, successful practitioners will leverage this new process-product to improve the traditional product.

Neal, author of the NewBlackMan website, and O’Driscoll, co-author of “Learning in 3D: Adding a New Dimension to Enterprise Learning and Collaboration,” spoke alongside Duke colleagues professor of interdisciplinary studies Cathy Davidson, the panel chairwoman and writer of the widely circulated blog post “How to Crowdsource Grading;” professor of history and romance studies Laurent DuBois, a French colonialism expert who also blogs about the politics of soccer; and associate professor Negar Mottahedeh, best known for organizing the Axis of Evil and Twitter film festivals and for her commentary on last summer’s Iranian election protests. Video from the panel is available on the conference’s YouTube channel.

BONUS: Noteworthy links mentioned by the panelists:

My Favorite iMedia Idea? The Tag Is It

February 7, 2010

Functional and unobtrusive, it’s everything that itchy thing in the back of your shirt is not. So simple, so flexible, the organizational tag is a staple of the social Web and one of the most efficient tools users have for forming communities and cutting through informational clutter.

The tag is an influential interactive media tool less for what it is than for who creates it. What it is is a hyperlinked adaptation (pdf) of the database keyword librarians have used for years. Who creates it is anybody. Not a librarian. Not a scholar. Not an editor. Absolutely anybody. And that’s what makes it such a great idea.

The bottom-up organizational power of the tag lets dozens of strangers, with remarkably minimal effort, accomplish what would be a gargantuan, prohibitively expensive task for even the best-resourced, best-run organizations. Clay Shirky explains this concept in-depth in his 2008 bestseller “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.”

Delicious founder Joshua Schachter is widely credited with introducing the Web 2.0 tag, and his popular social bookmarking site is as good a place as any to get a feel for what it can do.

Yahoo!, which purchased Delicious in 2005, was one of the first companies to try to organize the information explosion that is the World Wide Web. Its initial solution, still online, was a hierarchical , professionally edited directory. It’s well organized and well annotated, but can never overcome the limitations and biases of its editors. The editors cannot possibly know about as many sites Yahoo!’s users collectively know about, and, even if they could, they could never catalog them as quickly as the users themselves could. Moreover, as logical as the directory’s categories are, there are any number of other groupings that are equally logical, and to any given user, more logical, as the ones the editors came up with.

The user-generated tag frees databases from these limitations and biases. I can go on Delicious and share a friend’s freshly pressed blog post on how to make the perfect crab cake, tag it “recipes,” “crab cake” and “seafood,” while a grandmother in Louisiana does the same thing with her friend’s new crab cake post. No way an edited directory would have indexed our friends’ amateur posts this quickly.

Then say other users bookmark the recipes and they add tags like “maryland cooking,” “louisiana cooking,” “how to” and “shellfish.” All classifications that would help users who would appreciate the crab cake recipes find them. Such secondary classifications would be more difficult to incorporate into a rigid hierarchical system, assuming its editors could even think of as many classifications as a diverse group of users.

An additional benefit of tagging — which, in the context of the social Web cannot be overstated — is that it connects not only ideas, but also people. Seafood fans can see who’s been doing the tagging and discover users with similar culinary interests. Every day online communities, and sometimes offline communities, are born this way. Nice for cooking clubs, yes, but potentially revolutionary for social and political movements.

Analytics Grounded in Goals

November 12, 2009

hockeygoalGetting into any business today means getting into the Web business. As an online marketing expert put it in a presentation to my Theory and Audience Analysis class this morning, “It’s sort of weird now if you’re a business and you’re not on the Web.”

Look at or listen to any advertisement. Chances are there’s a url somewhere in there. Companies count on the Web to make them money. Show them how to do it, and you’re likely to make some yourself.

Enter Web analytics, which is what Mark Tosczak, an account supervisor at RLF Communications in Greensboro, N.C., came to talk about. With its acronym-laced jargon, sophisticated-looking charts and rapid pace of change, Web analytics can seem intimidating. Smart business people regularly mix up basic terms, like hit, page view and site visit, Tosczak said.

Those executives know analytics better than they probably realize, however. At analytics’ heart is Business 101. I’m talking about goals. Specific, measurable, verifiable, achievable goals.

Tosczak offered five analytics commandments that revolved around these most fundamental of management fundamentals. He stressed to evaluate results — pay-per-click ad click throughs, for example — not activities — PPC ad views — and added the always helpful reminder to never put all of one’s faith in machines.

Settling upon a goal, Tosczak said, can sometimes be the most difficult part. A manager sees that competitors are on Twitter or reads some press about the microblogging service and decides “My company has to be on Twitter.”

Yes, like Hansel in the 2001 comedy “Zoolander“, Twitter’s “so hot right now.” It is in my world. It seems that whenever I need a generic social media example, I go with Twitter, as I did here. Man, that cute little bird really cast a spell on me. Oh well, Flutter will be along soon enough.

Anyway, point is, Twitter is not necessarily relevant to company X’s world. And, even if it is, it’s not enough to just “be on it.” It’s a medium. Just like a magazine. No business person would in his or her right mind say “We’ve got to get into magazines” without offering specifics, but some business person somewhere every day says this with regard to social media.

After some prodding, a company might decide that it wants to use Twitter to drive traffic to its Web site. OK, that’s a goal, but it’s not specific. How much traffic? What kind of users? What kind of content should users see? What should they do once they get to the site?

Analytics advisers can then tell a company whether the goal can be recorded by current software, whether its accuracy can be tested and whether it’s realistic. If the suits need convincing, the consultants should tie it back to money. That’s something business people never have difficulty understanding.

One Good Thing About The Great Recession

November 9, 2009

It may not look like it now, but the past two years have been good for journalism. As ugly as it was, The Great Recession hastened the process of uncovering new models the industry already desperately needed.

Among those supporting that process is the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, whose grants are reinforcing the dwindling ranks of state capital press corps, including in my native Maryland.

Led by a Maryland journalism veteran who was State House bureau chief at the Baltimore Examiner when it closed in February, just-launched nonprofit MarylandReporter.Com plans weekday state government coverage through its Web site and subscriber-based newsletter.

Reports by its now two-man team are already getting picked up by mainstream sources, and should only increase in breadth and depth once the state’s General Assembly convenes in January. Given its narrow focus and experienced staff, MarylandReporter.Com should get its share of scoops.

Also encouraging, and something one might not expect from legacy journalism refugees, is its early embrace of social media. Even before its site went live, and even before, by their own admission, its Tweeters were fully comfortable with the tool, MarylandReporter.Com was on Twitter reporting news, establishing its brand, and engaging in conversation about both.

The rub is that MarylandReporter.Com and other organizations like it will have to find a way to earn money on their own before their seed money runs out. Even those who fail, however, won’t fail in vain. At least they’re experimenting. And, importantly, experimenting in ways that would never be feasible at larger, for-profit outlets. As journalism reinvents itself, pushing the limits and learning what doesn’t work is a necessary step for discovering what does.

Go From Good To Great, One Half-Hour at a Time

November 6, 2009

Clock.The Mozarts, Bill Gateses and Tiger Woodses of the world aren’t as successful as they are by plain accident, Malcom Gladwell argues in his 2008 bestseller “Outliers: The Story Of Success.” Yes, such peak performers are naturally talented, and, usually, relatively privileged. But they also invest a tremendous amount of time honing their craft.

Try 10,000 hours. That’s the amount of practice Gladwell says the best of the best put in. I’m under no illusions I’ll reach this threshold in my newly chosen field of interactive media. Extraordinarily few do. That’s Gladwell’s point. But, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t practice as much as can. To that end, it’s safe to say I’m behind on my hours.

To my credit, I’ve kept my head above water in an accelerated master’s program with my physical and mental health in tact. I’ve even taken on extracurricular projects, exercised regularly, and, I like to think, maintained some semblance of a social life — the fact that I’m blogging on a Friday night notwithstanding.

Getting in that little extra professional practice, however, that which separates the good from the great, has been difficult. But it doesn’t have to be. Like with physical exercise, short, intense mental workouts can pay large, long-term dividends.

In the time it takes to watch a “Seinfeld” rerun, I could be making my way toward great. I envision occasionally completing this routine toward the end of the day, but it could be done anytime:

  • 11:00 p.m. to 11:07 p.m. — Browse a favorite news source. It can online, or off, mainstream or alternative, professional or amateur, about interactive media or about something else, so long as it’s something you’re interested in.
  • 11:07 p.m. to 11:11 p.m. — Pick a story that especially captivated you and share it via social media. It’s fine to just favorite it on Delicious or Tweet a link to it, but try to add value. What did you like about it? What didn’t you like? What did you learn? What were you confused by? How does it relate to another concept? Also, try to favor tools you’re less familiar with. Always Digging your favorite links? Give Reddit a try.
  • 11:11 p.m. to 11:17 p.m. — Pick an interactive media problem that is vexing you — Web site color scheme, advertising tagline, interaction design snafu — or the industry — monetization of online content, information overload, the digital divide. Try to brainstorm 50 solutions. Yes, 50. There are no bad answers. Just keep writing.
  • 11:17 p.m. to 11:23 p.m. — Think of a skill you would like to improve. Ask an expert you know in this area to teach you a bit about it. (E-mail, Tweet, Facebook, text message or call, whatever seems most appropriate.)
  • 11:23 p.m. to 11:27 p.m. — Go to Pandora or grab your iPod and put on some favorite tunes. Now, just think. Don’t read anything. Don’t write anything. Don’t surf the Web. Throw your mobile on other side of the room if you have to. Just let yourself have a uninterrupted stream of conciousness for four minutes.
  • 11:27 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. — On a Post-It write two new things you want to try tomorrow. Sign the bottom and put the note in a place where you’ll see it the next morning. This is a mini-contract with yourself.

I’m yet to test run this exercise, but will share my experience in this space once I do. If you try it out, let me know in the comments how it went.