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February 03 2012

15:00

This Week in Review: Twitter’s censorship compromise, and Facebook files with big numbers

Twitter spells out its censorship policy: Just a couple of weeks after the SOPA/PIPA fight came to a head, Twitter pushed the discussion about online censorship a bit further when it announced late last week a new policy for censoring tweets: When Twitter gets requests from governments to block tweets containing what they deem illegal speech, its new policy will allow it to block those tweets only to readers within that country, leaving it visible to the rest of the world. Twitter will send notice that it’s blocked a tweet to the censorship watchdog Chilling Effects.

As the Guardian and The New York Times noted, much of the initial response among Twitter users consisted of complaints about censorship and the chilling of free speech in countries with oppressive regimes. The policy had critics elsewhere, too: BoingBoing’s Xeni Jardin said “it’s hard to see this as anything but a huge setback and disappointment,” and the international group Reporters Without Borders sent an open letter to Twitter questioning the policy and urging the company to reconsider. And later, BoingBoing’s Rob Beschizza pointed out that even though Twitter implied that it had already been blocking tweets at the request of governments (which would have made the new policy a reduction in censorship), it’s never actually done so — only in response to legal challenges on copyright issues.

But perhaps surprisingly, Twitter had far more defenders than critics among media observers. Alex Howard of GovFresh put together the most comprehensive roundup of opinions on the subject, praising Twitter himself for “sticking up for users where it can.” Two free-speech advocates, Mike Masnick of TechDirt and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jillian York, made similar arguments: When a government is demanding censorship, Twitter can either refuse and be blocked entirely in that country, or it can comply. Twitter, they said, has chosen the latter in as limited and transparent fashion as possible.

Others, like The Next Web’s Nancy Messieh, commended Twitter for shifting the censorship focus to the government — as Reuters’ Paul Smalera argued, the gray box noting that a tweet has been censored in a certain country is a black mark for that government, not Twitter. The broadest argument in Twitter’s defense came from sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who, in addition to these arguments, also praised Twitter for its transparency and for allowing users an easy way to circumvent censorship.

Still others weren’t firmly on either side regarding the policy itself, but pointed to larger issues surrounding it. Media prof C.W. Anderson said that while Twitter did the best it could under the circumstances but showed it doesn’t have any values that override its place as a business: “non-market values are, in the long run, incompatible with the logic of the market, and what Twitter is trying to do now is reconcile what it believes with what the market needs it to do.” Tech pioneer Dave Winer called for people to learn to be able to organize themselves outside of Twitter’s infrastructure and the possibly of censorship.

In a pair of thoughtful posts, GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram advised caution in trusting Twitter, recognizing that like Google and Facebook, it’s a business whose interests might not align with our own. The EFF’s York and Eva Galperin encouraged users and observers to keep a close eye on Twitter in order to keep them accountable for adhering to their professed beliefs.

Facebook goes public: Facebook’s much-anticipated filing for a public stock offering came on Wednesday, and The New York Times and Danny Sullivan at Marketing Land have the best quick-hit summaries of the S-1 document. The big numbers are mind-bogglingly big: 845 million monthly active users, $5 billion in stock, $3.71 billion in revenue last year, $1 billion in profit. Of that revenue, 85% came from advertising, and 12% came from the social gaming giant Zynga alone. (All Things D has the background on that relationship.) And when you average it out, Facebook’s only getting $4.39 in revenue per active user.

Aside from the numbers, among the other items of interest from the filings was its risk assessment — as summarized by Mashable, it sees slowing expected growth, difficulty in making money off of mobile access, competition from the likes of Google and Twitter, and global government censorship as some of its main risk factors. There’s also Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to shareholders, annotated with delightful snark by Wired’s Tim Carmody, which includes the explanation of a company code Zuckerberg calls “The Hacker Way.” Forbes’ Andy Greenberg made one of the first of what’s sure to be many comparisons between The Hacker Way and Google’s “Don’t Be Evil.” GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram took note of the grandiosity of Zuckerberg’s stated mission to rewire the world.

Two main questions emerged in commentary on the filing: How much is Facebook really worth? And what happens to Facebook now? To the first question, as The New York Times pointed out on the eve of Facebook’s filing, the company’s massive net worth is a stark indicator of the booming value of personal data collected online. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum took the opposite tack, wondering why Facebook gets so little money out of each of its hundreds of millions of users before concluding that “Facebook is still a young business figuring out how to sell ads and figuring it how aggressive it can get without ticking off users.”

To the second question, Mathew Ingram noted that going public is usually a way for tech companies to get the financing they need to build up for some major growth — something Facebook has already done. So, he asked, is this just an attempt for Facebook’s employees and backers to cash out, and the end of the company’s most productive growth phase? Leaning on tech entrepreneurship leader John Battelle, Wired’s Tim Carmody and Mike Isaac reasoned that Facebook is mature enough already that in order to attain the growth it’s promising, it needs to be in the midst of some massive changes as a company. A couple of guesses at some of those specific changes: More ads and purchases of tech companies (Fast Company) and a big ramp-up in mobile ads (Marketing Land).

Murdoch’s candor amid scandal: The phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. has continued to spread (rather quietly here in the States, but much more prominently in the U.K.), and it may have turned yet another corner with the arrest last weekend of four journalists from News Corp.’s Sun, significantly deepening the scandal beyond the now-defunct News of the World, where it began.

News Corp. has also turned over an enormous new trove of data which, along with the arrests, could begin to seriously threaten News Corp.’s other British newspapers, including the Times, according to the Guardian’s Nick Davies. British j-prof Roy Greenslade reported that many Sun staffers are worried that they may not be part of News Corp. much longer.

In the midst of all this, Murdoch’s feisty Twitter account continues unfettered, prompting praise from The New York Times’ David Carr for his refreshing candor. Mathew Ingram agreed that this “sources go direct” approach should be viewed as a boon, not a challenge, to serious journalism. The AP’s Jonathan Stray had perhaps the best summation of the relationship between sources using their own platforms and journalism: “When they want you to know, sources will go direct. When they don’t… that’s journalism.”

Reading roundup: It was a relatively quiet week outside of the big Twitter and Facebook stories, but there were still some cool nuggets to be found:

— Facebook’s relatively new Twitter-like Subscribe feature continues to draw complaints of rampant spam. Those criticisms have been led by Jim Romenesko, but this week the New York Daily News and Slate’s Katherine Goldstein chimed in, voicing concerns in particular about inappropriate comments directed toward women. Meanwhile, Mashable’s Todd Wasserman said Subscribe is ruining the News Feed.

— Big news in the journalism-academy world: Columbia and Stanford are teaming up to create a new Institute for Media Innovation, thanks to a $30 million gift from longtime Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown.

— Jay Rosen posted an inspiring interview with the Chicago Tribune’s Tracy Samantha Schmidt, gleaning some useful insights on how to nurture an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit within a large organization, rather than a startup.

— Megan Garber of The Atlantic presented the results of a Hot or Not-style study that determined what type of Twitter content people like. Here’s what they don’t like: Old news, Twitter jargon, personal details, negativity, and lack of context.

Rupert Murdoch photo by David Shankbone and original Twitter bird by Matt Hamm used under a Creative Commons license.

11:30

#newsrw: Three key social media tips from the New York Times’ Liz Heron

Liz Heron, social media editor for the New York Times (NYT), has three pieces of advice when it comes to social journalism.

“Be strategic, be different, and strive for meaningful interactions – don’t be content to skate on social media’s surface,” she said during her keynote speech at news:rewired – media in motion.

While 2011 was “definitely a watershed year for social media,” Heron said the question in 2012 is not if news organizations use social media, but how do they distinguish themselves from all the other voices. The NYT is tackling this challenge head-on, Heron said, by using innovative approaches to Twitter, Facebook Subscribe and Google Plus to let readers interact directly with journalists.

“We know we have to keep innovating and changing our approach,” she said. “Our challenge will be figuring out how to inform and empower our readership through social journalism in a way that makes their voices count more than they ever have before.”

Using the upcoming U.S. presidential election as her main example, Heron said the NYT continues to make its audience the focus, whether it’s by highlighting the best readers’ tweets on the homepage or hosting Google Plus hangouts and live chats on Facebook to enable “true back-and-forth conversations between our journalists and our readers.”

The key to using new platforms is to be strategic, Heron said. Focus on the unique strengths of the platform, popular topics among your community and how your news organization can distinguish itself, she said.

In particular, Heron is pushing the NYT foreign correspondents team and the How We Live desk to use Facebook Subscribe. More than 50 journalists at the NYT use the new Facebook tool, which allows readers to follow their favorite reporter’s public updates on Facebook.

Heron shared a recent story as evidence Facebook Subscribe can work as a “curation hub”. When a reporter was recently writing a story on  depression and students, Heron asked her community of Facebook Subscribers to share their experiences. Almost 500 people responded with “high-quality comments”, Heron said, and the reporter is planning to do a special sidebar of just the Facebook comments.

“Social media is transforming the way we do journalism, and I’m very excited for what this new year will bring in that realm,” Heron said.

September 16 2011

15:30

This Week in Review: A unique paywall plan in Boston, and ethics at TechCrunch and the Times

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Paid and free, side by side: The Boston Globe became the latest news organization to institute an online paywall this week, but it did so in an unprecedented way that should be interesting to watch: The newspaper created a separate paid site, BostonGlobe.com, to run alongside its existing free site, Boston.com. PaidContent has the pertinent details: A single price ($3.99 a week), and Boston.com gets most of the breaking news and sports, while BostonGlobe.com gets most of the newspaper content.

As the Globe told Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman, the two sites were designed with two different types of readers in mind: One who has a deep appreciation for in-depth journalism and likes to read stories start-to-finish, and another who reads news casually and briefly and may be more concerned about entertainment or basic information than journalism per se.

The first thing that caught many people’s attention was new site’s design — simple, clean, and understated. Tech blogger John Gruber gave it a thumbs-up, and news design guru Mario Garcia called it ”probably the most significant new website design in a long time.” The Lab’s Joshua Benton identified the biggest reasons it looks so clean: Far fewer links and ads.

Benton (in the most comprehensive post on the new site) also emphasized a less noticeable but equally important aspect of BostonGlobe.com’s design: It adjusts to fit just about any browser size, which reduces the need for mobile apps, making life easier for programmers and, as j-prof Dan Kennedy noted at the Lab, a way around the cut of app fees required by Apple and others. If the Globe’s people “have figured out a way not to share their hard-earned revenues with gatekeepers such as Apple and Amazon, then they will have truly performed a service for the news business — and for journalism,” Kennedy said.

Of course, the Globe could launch the most brilliantly conceived news site on the web, but it won’t be a success unless enough people pay for it. Poynter’s Sonderman (like Kennedy) was skeptical of their ability to do that, though as the Atlantic’s Rebecca Rosen pointed out, the Globe’s plan may be aimed as much at retaining print subscribers as making money off the web. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple wondered if readers will find enough at BostonGlobe.com that’s not at Boston.com to make the site worth their money.

The TechCrunch conflict and changing ethical standardsLast week’s flap between AOL and TechCrunch over the tech site’s ethical conflicts came to an official resolution on Monday, when TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington parted ways with AOL, the site’s owner. But its full effects are going to be rippling for quite a while: Gawker’s Ryan Tate called the fiasco a black eye for everyone involved, but especially AOL, which had approved Arrington’s investments in some of the companies he covers just a few months ago. Fellow media mogul Barry Diller also ripped AOL’s handling of the situation.

At the Guardian, Dan Gillmor said that while he doesn’t trust TechCrunch much personally, it’s the audience’s job to sort out their trust with the help of transparency, rather than traditional journalism’s strictures. Others placed more of the blame on TechCrunch: Former Newsweek tech editor Dan Lyons said TechCrunch’s people should have expected this type of scenario when they sold to a big corporation, and media analyst Frederic Filloux said TechCrunch is a perfect example of the blogosphere’s vulnerability to unchecked conflicts of interest.

There was more fuel for those kinds of ethical concerns this week, as the winning company at TechCrunch’s annual Disrupt competition was one that Arrington invests in. But Arrington had an ethical accusation of his own to make at the conference, pointing out that the New York Times invests in a tech venture capital fund which has put $3.5 million into GigaOM, a TechCrunch competitor. Poynter’s Steve Myers detailed the Times’ run-ins between the companies it invests in and the ones it covers (and its spotty disclosure about those connections), concluding that even if the conflict is less direct than in blogging, it’s still worth examining more closely.

As it plunged further into its battle with TechCrunch late last week, AOL was also reported to be talking with Yahoo, which recently fired its CEO, about a merger between the two Internet giants. All Things Digital’s Kara Swisher said there’s no way the deal would actually happen; Wired’s Tim Carmody called it a “spectacularly crazy idea” and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram agreed, while Business Insider reminded us that they said a year ago that AOL and Yahoo should merge.

Meanwhile, the New York Times’ David Carr homed in on the core problem that both companies are facing: The fact that people want information online from niche sites, not giant general-news portals. “As news surges on the Web, giant ocean liners like AOL and Yahoo are being outmaneuvered by the speedboats zipping around them, relatively small sites that have passionate audiences and sharply focused information,” he wrote.

Facebook opens to subscribers: It hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as some of its other moves, but Facebook took another step in Twitter’s direction this week by introducing the Subscribe Button, which allows users to see other people’s (and groups’) status updates without friending or becoming a fan of them.

As GeekWire’s Monica Guzman and many others noted, Facebook’s “subscribe” looks a heck of a lot like Twitter’s “follow.” When asked about similar Google+ features at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, a Facebook exec said it wasn’t a response to Google+.

Guzman said Facebook is putting down deeper roots by going beyond the limits of reciprocal friendship, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram pinpointed the reason why this could end up being a massive change for Facebook: It’s beginning to move Facebook from a symmetrical network to an asymmetrical one, which could fundamentally transform its dynamics. Still, Ingram said Twitter is much better oriented toward being an information network than Facebook is, even with a “Subscribe” button.

The change could have particularly interesting implications for journalists, as Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman explained in his brief outline of the feature. As he noted, it may eliminate the need for separate Facebook profiles and pages for journalists, and while Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman said that should be a welcome change for journalists who were trying to manage both, he noted that shows and organizations may want to stick with pages.

News Corp.’s scandal widens: An update on the ongoing scandal enveloping News Corp.: A group of U.S. banks and investment funds that own shares in News Corp. expanded a lawsuit to include allegations of stealing, hacking, and anti-competitive behavior by two of the company’s U.S. subsidiaries — an advertiser and a satellite TV hardware manufacturer. As the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted, these are old cases, but they’re getting fresh attention, and that’s how scandals gain momentum.

James Murdoch, the son of News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, was also recalled to testify again before members of Britain’s Parliament later this fall, facing new questions about the breadth of News Corp.’s phone hacking scandal. The Wall Street Journal examined the scandal’s impact on the elder Murdoch’s succession plan for the conglomerate, especially as it involves James. The company’s executives also announced this week that they’ve found tens of thousands of documents that could shed more light on the phone hacking cases.

Reading roundup: Here’s what else went on this week:

— The biggest news story this week, of course, is actually 10 years old: Here’s a look at how newspapers marked the anniversary of 9/11, how news orgs used digital technology to tell the story, and a reflection on how 9/11 changed the media landscape.

— Twitter introduced a new web analytics tool to measure Twitter’s impact on websites. Here’s an analysis from Mathew Ingram of GigaOM.

— At an academic conference last weekend, Illinois j-prof Robert McChesney repeated his call for public funding for journalism. Here are a couple of good summaries of his talk from fellow j-profs Axel Bruns and Alfred Hermida.

— Finally, here’s a relatively short but insightful two-part interview between two digital media luminaries, Henry Jenkins and Dan Gillmor, about media literacy, citizen journalism and Gillmor’s latest book. Should make for a quick, thought-provoking weekend read.

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