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August 02 2011

21:21

5 lessons Lady Gaga can teach the news industry about community building

The original article headline is: "5 Things Lady Gaga Can Teach Marketers About Community Building", but why should journalists and news outlets not profit from the findings as well ...

FastCompany :: Building communities all starts with finding a common thread that brings people together. Experiences help define or typify what a community is all about. A community can be extremely close knit, yet very different when looked at on an individual level. But the commonality is that every community has a soul, and to tap into its soul in a meaningful way unlocks all its secrets. Louis Marino, the author of this article, worked extensively in the music industry. He learned an awful lot about musicians. No, not their hard-living lifestyles and jaw-dropping spending habits. Marino: "I’m talking about their incredible sense of community and loyalty.

Continue to read Louis Marino, expert blogger, www.fastcompany.com

January 14 2011

17:00

Gizmodo taps illustrators to give stories more punch, pop, pow!

When Gizmodo editorial director Brian Lam was planning for this week’s coverage of the Verizon iPhone, he didn’t think in words. He visualized it entirely in images, daydreaming about how much more emotive pictures and sounds can be than straight-laced text: A Ken Burns-style montage of past newspaper stories predicting iPhone’s migration; a video of AT&T’s greatest failures; customers expressing frustration layered with soulful, gut-wrenching music.

On Tuesday, the editorial package still featured a lot of text — Gizmodo ran a series of traditional news and service pieces plus a one-minute rant — but Gizmodo did have some original art: a Verizon-red light dawning over the shiny iPhone (“At Last”) and a projectile phone crashing through the telecom’s Manhattan headquarters (“Will the iPhone Crush Verizon’s Network?”).

Most online journalism privileges text over all else. But to help Gizmodo differentiate itself from the countless other technology sites around, since early summer, contributing illustrators and guest artists have been whipping up hundreds of visual pieces for Gizmodo. And the response has only made Lam’s love of the visual grow stronger. “If I needed to, I would have napkin sketches done,” he says. Cartoons, illustrations, and drawings can add a nice touch in the Internet environment where text stories are aggregated, chopped up, syndicated or simply re-skinned and re-written without giving credit. Art, on the other hand, is treated as a more proprietary piece of intellectual property and can catch a reader’s eye, build a brand’s signature style, and help tell the story. Plus it can also be a cheaper, more flexible alternative to original photography.

At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, Gizmodo wrote about Lady Gaga’s Polaroid glasses, but there was no picture of her with them. “How much would [a photo shoot] cost? Thousands of dollars, weeks to set up?” Lam asks rhetorically. Perhaps, but Lam didn’t have to go that route. Instead, Sam Spratt, a 22-year-old contributing illustrator, drew the Gaga image above in half an hour.

Spratt has been working with Gawker since July and was onsite at CES, but he typically creates from a home studio, another advantage of hand-drawn art. Like journalists who can gather information, sources, and anecdotes with just a phone and computer, illustrators don’t always have to be on location to create original, entertaining, and informative content. Wendy MacNaughton, a San Francisco-based cartoonist who spent a month working with Gawker, drew the clever Fission vs. Fusion sidebar (left, click for the full image), which for many will be light years more engaging than a string of quotes from a CERN scientist. “They’re the shiny objects that hook people in enough to see the real meat of the package: the article,” Spratt says of his drawings. (Readers simply ignore stock images.)

Bang for the buck

Visuals are already a Gawker signature — its editorial teams mine the Web for colorful images to fill image-heavy layout. Still, Lam, who came to Gizmodo from Wired in 2006, pushed founder Nick Denton to fund original art. “Every year, we discuss budgets, and I said, ‘You really think another writer on top of a ten-person staff is going to make a difference?’” Lam recalls. In 2007, Gizmodo brought on Jesus Diaz, a writer and editor with a background in visual and graphic arts. He frequently built images in Photoshop, created unique infographics and timelines. “There was a lot of punch in those posts,” Lam says of Diaz’ work. “You just start to dream visually from that point on.”

To fulfill that dream, Gawker started adding creative personnel. MacNaughton came on for a month last summer, painting 15 water colors including a biting take on the iPhone 4 and the classic infographic for No Sleep ‘Til Fusion. Chris McVeigh, who worked with Gizmodo for a couple of months, built and photographer Lego dioramas. Both artists add beautiful visual originality to text, a complement that’ll only get more vital as we move toward tablets and Internet TV.

The difference between another writer and an illustrator is most apparent with Spratt, though, who has done more than 400 pieces since July. There’s pure editorial work (like Verizon and Gaga), but he also helps make Gawker Media’s community-engagement more robust. For a Halloween contest, he painted an eerie father-and-son piece, and last month, Spratt rewarded Facebook fans by painting 14 of their profile pictures. The recent Savannah College of Art & Design grad maintains his own Facebook page — 4,300+ fans — and a formspring that attracts aspiring artists, supporters, and a more than a handful of swooning women.

The takeaway: Illustration matters

As with Gawker Artists, the company’s use of visuals makes the site more vibrant, engaging, interesting, and unique. It also allows for more flexible editorial modeling and attracts a wider audience than, in the case of Gizmodo, gadget writing alone. There is nothing to fear by bringing on illustrators. If we’re wary of mixing cartoons with traditional journalism, we shouldn’t be — just look at The New Yorker’s fantastic work, their extensive lines of mugs, diaries, prints, umbrellas, postcards, and calendars. We already know our audience loves illustrations — Avatar is the highest-grossing film of all time, and The Simpsons is the longest-running show on TV. “The longer I work at Gawker, it really encourages you to go with your gut,” says Lam. “I think that everyone should try to do this.”

September 14 2010

20:00

More growth for Gawker comments, and more power to elite commenters

We’ve written before about the commenting system at Gawker Media’s family of sites, which for my money strikes the best balance between complexity and simplicity, between encouraging good behavior and policing bad. (I also just like that Gawker’s a company that really thinks about comments, that doesn’t just treat them as an expected annoyance/pageview driver.)

The chart above shows the growth Gawker comments over time; I’ve highlighted the section on the right that represents the continued increase since I last posted these numbers in April.

So it’s noteworthy that Gawker announced today a couple small tweaks to their commenting system.

First, they’ve added a few more gradations to the kinds of discipline available to wayward commenters. Before, commenters could be banned, and individual comments could be disemvoweled (rendered less legible by removing the vowels — although some would argue disemvoweling does more to draw attention to the bad behavior than it does to punish it). Now, commenters can also be officially warned for straying from proper behavior (with a link to official commenting policy) or suspended for a week. I’d imagine that these lesser punishments might discourage bad commenters from going through the bother of creating a new false identity and continuing to stink up the joint. And it could also help people who genuinely don’t realize they’re being bad.

Of note is that these power don’t just rest in the hands of Gawker Media staff: These tools are also available to the army of starred commenters who have impressed Gawkerites with their work. So here, for instance, Gawker user morninggloria has warned a commenter for daring to say Lady Gaga looked like John Lennon in drag. (I’d like to thank morninggloria for giving me an excuse to create a “John Lennon in drag” tag here at the Lab.)

That kind of decentralization makes it tenable to govern the huge crush of comments these sites get, and it also sets a goal that encourages good behavior: write enough good comments and you’ll get a gold star and some authority to shape the site you love.

The second major change is what they’re calling thread moving. Here’s an explanation from Gizmodo’s Jason Chen:

Then, there’s thread moving. That’s what we do if we think a comment is so egregious that it deserves both a warning and a moving to a tagpage, so it’s not cluttering up the discussion. Here are the main five tagpages we’ll be moving to.

• #trollpatrol. Originally we used this tag for identifying trolls, but we’ll throw actual trolls in there as well. But please, continue using that as a place to show us where the trolls are.

• #fanboys. Another obvious tagpage. This isn’t for people who use and enjoy products, it’s for people who lose their damn minds over a brand or idea and are blind to any other options or dissenting opinions. You should know who these are.

• #timeout. A place where we send commenters that need a little time away from typing words into boxes in order to think about whether or not this is the right place for them. This goes with a 7-day suspension—something milder than a ban, but still serves the purpose of telling them that we don’t like what they’re doing with their comments.

• #phantomzone. If you make uninformed, stupid or otherwise lousy comments, this is where that comment will be. Say hi to Zod.

• #whitenoise. Offtopic discussions go here. If a post is about keyboards and you talk about picking out new curtains, we’ll escort you over here.

• #dev/null. I just came up with this one, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to use it quite often.

Essentially, it’s a way to apply tags to individual comments, have them detach from their native post, and live another life in the Gawker Media forums, which are tied to the tags. This could separate off-comment topics without killing them off completely; one suspects the bad-behavior tag pages will have their own regular denizens. And the change could work to liven up the tag-based forum pages, which it appears have gained traction in only a limited number of cases. (See Deadspin’s #iwasthere tag page, or Gawker’s #tips page.) I love the concept of comment tag pages — treating the comment as an independent unit of content, opening up new avenues for involved commenters to create and contribute — but I’m not sure how well it’s worked in practice. It may be the point where the system grows too complex for most users.

Gawker Media CTO Tom Plunkett posted the above chart today and added this about the changes:

At Gawker Media, comment growth continues to be strong — both in volume and quality. It’s good to see validation of the processes we’ve introduced.

This week we’ve rolled out new features that will allow us to further improve the experience. It is now possible to move comment threads from posts to forums (think “off topic” threads: we’re happy to let you keep the conversation going, but it’d be better to continue the discussion in a forum appropriate to the subject). We will utilize thread moving for many situations (off topic, inappropriate comments, bannable offenses, etc.), and think it will only improve our platform.

If you are paying attention to beta.gawker.com or beta.jalopnik.com, you will see more improvements we plan to roll out in the future. Remember – these sites are beta (alpha may be a more appropriate description)! Don’t expect everything to work perfectly all of the time!

So if you want to see what Gawker’s thinking about for the future, the beta site features a more magazine-like front page (as opposed to straight blog hierarchy — the most popular recent story gets top billing), non-standard fonts via Typekit, a wider story well, smooth page transitions, a stationary sidebar, and a more prominent footer. We’ll see how much of that reaches the production sites of one of the more adventurous new media companies around.

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