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February 08 2012

21:28

Economist debate on sharing

The Economist has just launched a debate between me and Andrew Keen — and you — on the proposition that society benefits when we share information online.” Here is my opening statement; follow the link for Andrew’s and the discussion:

* * *

We are sharing for good reason—not because we are insane, exhibitionistic, or drunk. We are sharing because, at last, we can, and we find benefit in it. Sharing is a social and generous act: it connects us, it establishes and improves relationships, it builds trust, it disarms strangers and stigmas, it fosters the wisdom of the crowd, it enables collaboration, and it empowers us to find, form and act as publics of our own making.

For individuals, sharing is a choice; that is the essence of privacy. Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, told me that before the net, we had “privacy through obscurity”. We had little chance to be public because we had little access to the tools of publicness: the press, the stage, the broadcast tower (their proprietors were last century’s 1%). Today, we have the opportunity to create, share and connect, and 845m people choose to do so on Facebook alone. Mr Zuckerberg says he is not changing their nature; he is enabling it.

I shared my prostate cancer—and, thus, my malfunctioning penis—online. Nothing bad came of this, only good: information, support from friends (who could not have known had I not been public) and the opportunity to inspire other men to be tested. Let me emphasise: that was my choice; no one should be forced to publicise their life.

But imagine if we did feel free to share our health data. Think of the correlations and possibly causes and cures we could find. Why don’t we? We fear losing insurance (though insurers already demand our data) or jobs (that is a matter of discrimination to handle legislatively).

Most of all, we fear stigma—though in this day and age why should anyone be ashamed of being sick? In the tension between secrecy and openness, these are the kinds of benefits we should be considering, balancing them with the risks as we adapt society’s norms to new realities and new opportunities.

Our institutions should share for different reasons. The wise company is opening up to build direct relationships with customers, to inoculate itself against the dreaded viral meme, and even to collaborate on the creation of products (see Local Motors’ cars, designed with customers).

Government must learn to share its work and knowledge with its citizens. It must become open by default and secret by necessity (and there are necessary secrets in relation to security, diplomacy, criminal investigations and citizens’ privacy). Today, government is instead secret by default and open by force (that of the journalist or the leaker).

If WikiLeaks has taught us nothing else, it is that no secret is safe and that too much government information has been classified as secret (consider the role of leaks in the Tunisian uprising and the subsequent Arab spring).

Openness is proving to be profoundly disruptive. When we share what we pay for goods, we ruin price opacity and retailers’ margins. When we share our frustration with government, we can start revolutions. This is why institutions—news, media, corporate, government, academic—often resist the draw of openness and fear its impact. And that is why we are seeing a sudden rise in efforts to regulate our greatest tool of publicness, the net, under the guises of piracy, privacy, security and decency.

Too much of the conversation about sharing today revolves around risks—risks to privacy (which does need protection, and it has many new protectors) and risks to intellectual property (though media companies need to learn that controlling scarcity will become an increasingly difficult business model to execute). We also need to have a discussion about the benefits of sharing and the tools that enable it, so we can protect their potential.

May 18 2011

13:43

You must be the conversation you want to see in the world

“A great community isn’t something that you just set up and periodically patch. Running a great community is a full-time job, not a weekend hack project.” — Alex Payne

The last week was a valuable learning moment. The launch of the Beyond Comment Threads challenge stirred up a lot of conversation around the Web: on sites like Slashdot and Hacker News, and also on the MoJo community list.

Around the same time, I was busy kicking the hornets nest again with a post over on the PBS MediaShift Idealab (related Hacker News thread).

It was an incredible opportunity to see the potential of online discussion, comments, and debate applied to the very challenges that have been presented:

  • Re-think the relationship between news users and producers;
  • Demonstrate new forms of user interaction with news;
  • Push beyond the ways we currently think about comments and online debate.

Meanwhile, I’ve been speaking with a number of publishers about the tension between their aspirations for discussion in the context of news, and the realities that one must face when the comment switch is flipped to the on position.

I’ve tried to distill some key themes below, but I’m hoping that you can also weigh in with your own experiences.

  1. The “Eyes on the Street” theory still holds online: Most publishers now agree that it’s critical for them, their staff, and the authors of the content to play a role in the community that they are convening at the end of their articles. Without visibility and natural surveillance, comments threads can quickly become a no-mans land.

  2. There is no free content: CP Scott may have said that “Comment is free,” but convening the specific type of online discussion & debate that many publishers aspire to have on their sites comes with a cost. The cost of having moderators, community policing tools, and — in many cases — the liability insurance quickly starts to add up. For many sites with active comment threads, just reviewing the comments that are reported as ‘offensive’ can take up significant time, let alone reading through to look for comments that are insightful, informative, or contain new information.

  3. Publishers & authors are still ‘on top’: No matter how you slice it, the pristine words of the bourgeoisies & intellectuals still sit high above the comments of the unwashed masses, the rabble, the proletariat (how these filthy ‘wage slaves’ have time to comment all day continues to defy all explanation). In all seriousness, this visual presentation can work to re-create the classic divides in society, with both groups feeling inaccurately reflected or simply not respected.

  4. Comments become the culture of a site: If a publisher is lucky enough to become the flash point for lively conversations — especially conversations that happen between commenters, and not just ‘up’ toward the original article — it often becomes evident that a specific culture starts to emerge. It is that emergent culture that becomes the environment that other passers-by (and, um, potential advertisers) use to assess and evaluate the community. Is it a ghetto full of broken windows? Or is it a bohemian coffee house brimming with spirited debate? It is this culture that is both the risk and reward for publishers.

To keep up with expectations and aspirations, publishers appear to have two choices:

  1. Create better systems: This is the focus of the current Knight-Mozilla innovation challenge, and is often a controversial option. There rarely is a one-size-fits-all solution, and interventions that work incredibly well in one context can easily fail in others. What looks visually uncomplicated to one, may appear like an inaccessible mess to another. Most worryingly, I fear that publishers looking for silver bullet will turn to “real names” as the only answer and that the open web will lose the identity battle, while commenters lose the choice to be anonymous.

  2. Create better commenters: It is this idea that intrigues me the most today. What does it mean to create better commenters? Is it simply the badges and reward systems that sites like Huffington Post are experimenting with? Is it an extension of the kinds of ideas that the Sacremento Press is working on where contributors earn virtual accreditation by attending workshops? Or is it something else entirely, where those who comment have to pay or earn their spot on the virtual podium? Or perhaps a system where one can endorse another, similar to sites like LinkedIn?

What are your experiences?

May 12 2011

17:34

Comments Are Dead. We Need You to Help Reinvent Them

Let’s face it — technically speaking, comments are broken. With few exceptions, they don’t deliver on their potential to be a force for good.

Web-based discussion threads have been part of the Internet experience since the late 1990s. However, the form of user commentary has stayed fairly static, and — more importantly — few solutions have been presented that address the complaints of publishers, commenters, or those of us who actually read comments.

beyond comment threads.jpg

Publishers, for the most part, want software that will stamp out trolls and outsource the policing to the community itself (or, failing that, to Winnipeg). Commenters, on the other hand, want a functional mini-soapbox from which to have their say — preferably something that is easy to log into and has as few limitations as possible (including moderation). The rest of us are left to deal with the overly complicated switches, flashing lights, and rotary knobs that we’re expected to know how to use to dial in to the conversation so it’s just right for our individual liking, not too hot and not too cold.

Thankfully, there is an opportunity today to really innovate. New capabilities in the browser, and emerging standards provide an opportunity to completely rethink the relationship between news users and producers — between those who comment and those who are commented upon — and to demonstrate new forms of user interaction that are atomic, aggregated, augmented, or just plain awesome.

That’s why our next Knight-Mozilla Challenge is for you to come up with a more dynamic space for online discussions. You can submit your idea here, and you could win a trip to Berlin to compete with other innovators — or even win a year-long fellowship in a newsroom.

PUBLISHERS’ DIRTY LITTLE SECRET

The truth is, many news publishers don’t actually think comments are a good thing. Or if publishers won’t go so far as to admit that, they’ll usually agree that the so-called return on investment when enabling comments, discussion and debate on their site is not entirely clear.

Therein lies the biggest tension in the “beyond comment threads” challenge: At the end of the day, those who comment on stories, and those who have their articles commented upon, often have very different views on the topic.

Ask publishers about the purpose of comments and they’ll often speak to the very aspirations of independent journalism and a free press: democratic debate, informed citizens, and free speech. Ask them about the reality of comment threads on their site, and a very different picture is likely to emerge.

On the other end of the spectrum are the people who comment. No doubt, for some, it’s their very comment — or comments, in the case of those who actively comment — that creates the value on a given page, not the editorial. For others, the value is in the conversation that coalesces or unfolds in the context of a given story — but, to ease the minds of publishers, always at a safe distance from the “real content,” usually at the end of a story, or well below the fold.

In between are the rest of us, the people who benefit from the tension between publishers and commenters. We rely on the individuals who choose to comment to add context and clarifications, do extra fact-checking (a skill that’s often a casualty of newsroom cutbacks), and, ultimately, to hold the publisher accountable — publicly — and using the publishers’ own soapbox to do so. At the same time, we rely on publishers and reporters to start the conversation and keep it civil.

No wonder publishers are still asking questions about the value of comments: It takes a lot of work to build a successful online community, and the outcome is not guaranteed to work in their favor.

The Slashdot Era

Sometime in late 1997 or 1998, a bunch of hackers who agreed that commenting was broken (or — at that time — just simply missing) on most news sites decided to take matters into their own hands. Enter the era of Slashdot, an early example of the kind of sites that would begin to separate church from state by disconnecting the discussion from the content being discussed. These sites — with lots of comment and little content in the editorial sense — threw some powerful ideas into the mix: community, identity and karma (or incentives).

Thumbnail image for slashdot.jpg

Fast-forward to today, more than 10 years later, and not much has changed.

Newer sites, like Hacker News and Reddit, continue in the Slashdot tradition, but don’t break much new ground, nor attempt to innovate on how online discussion is done. At the same time, publishers — realizing the conversation was increasingly happening elsewhere — have improved or re-tooled their commenting systems in the hope of keeping the discussion on their sites. But instead of innovating, they’ve simply imitated, and little real progress has been made.

In an era where Huffington Post is the “state-of-the-art” for online discussion, I ask myself: What went wrong?

Enter the innovators’ dilemma

Meanwhile, as the events above unfolded, the rest of the web went on innovating. As publishers and comment-driven communities lamented their situation and pondered how to improve it, the conversation left those sites entirely. The people formerly known as the audience were suddenly empowered to have their say almost anywhere, via micro-blogs, status updates, and social networks.

It was the classic innovators’ dilemma at work. While focusing on how to make commenting systems better, many people didn’t see the real innovation happening: Everyone on the Internet was given their own, personal commenting system. Services like Twitter and Identi.ca solved the most pressing issue for commenters: autonomy. Services such as Facebook and LinkedIn addressed another problem: identity.

Unfortunately, not all innovation is good. Local improvements do not always equal systemwide benefits. That is the situation we are left with today: Comments, discussion and identity are scattered all over the web. Even worse, the majority of what we as individuals have to say online is locked in competing, often commercial, prisons — or “corporate blogging silos” — and is completely disconnected from our online identity.

The Sixth Estate

The opportunity in the beyond comment threads challenge is to radically re-imagine how we, the users, relate to the people producing news, and to each other. It’s time to get out of a 10-year-old box and completely rethink the current social and technical aspects of online discussion and debate. It’s time to stop thinking about faster horses, and start thinking about cars (or jetpacks!).

To get specific, let’s start with a list of great experiences that are made possible with comments:

  • Providing value to the publisher: Think about the times that comments have revealed new facts, uncovered sources, or pointed out easily correctable errors. This exemplifies the opportunity for a community to provide value back to a publisher, and helps answer the return-on-investment question. Recently, during the uprising in the Middle East and the earthquake in Japan — when several news organizations introduced real-time streams that mixed editorial content with user-submitted comments — we witnessed a glimmer of something new. What does it look like to push those ideas to their extremes?

  • Publishers and users working together: Sites like Stack Overflow (and the other sites in that network) introduced a new standard for directed conversations. More than just question-and-answer forums, these sites attempted to leverage the sense of community on sites like Slashdot and Hacker News, but also direct that energy toward a socially useful outcome, such as collective wisdom. If the Press is a “key social institution that helps us understand what’s going on in the world around us,” then we are all responsible for making it better — reporters, publishers and news readers. So what does that collaboration and the goal of collectively assembled wisdom (other than Wikipedia, of course) look like?

  • Holding publishers, or authors, accountable: If the publishers’ aim is to stamp out trolls, the commenters’ equivalent goal is to squelch bad reporting. Many readers expect news stories to be factually accurate, fair and balanced, and free of hidden agendas or unstated personal opinions. Comments were the first opportunity to quickly point out shortcomings in a story (versus a letter to the editor that may or may not be printed some days or weeks later). Think of that span — an immediate retort versus an edited response published well after the fact — and project it into the future, and then ask yourself, “How far could an idea like MediaBugz go?”

The last example on my list has to do with providing value to the community and learning together. How do we address the myriad concerns on both sides of the fence and come out the other end with something that isn’t broken? How can the historical tension between the need for anonymity and the perceived advantages of a real identity be overcome using our knowledge and the tools of the open web? In what way can the visual language of online discussion be taken beyond “thumbs up” or “thumbs down?” And what does it look like to enable commenting on the HTML5 web, which is increasingly driven by video, audio, animations and interactivity?

In those rare inspirational moments — when two sides of a conversation come together and actually listen — there is the nucleus of the idea that inspired the world to embrace comments in the first place. How do we weave that idea into the web of tomorrow? How do we turn up the volume on everything we love about comments, discussion and debate online, without losing what we love in the process?

That, if you accept it, is your mission.

September 30 2010

15:45

Ivory tower dispatch: Nothing is simple anymore

I’m going to try and share a little of what I do each week with the students and now that teaching has settled in a little bit after freshers it seemed a good time to start.

This week I wanted to get all the students thinking about some of the issues that contribute to the ‘changing media landscape’ that we have to function in as journalists.

Process in to content

For my second year, Digital Newsroom students I picked on process.

The lecture was really about how the process has changed because of digital. So I took a very basic view of the process – find, research and report – and looked at where in the process digital had made an impact. Here are the slides from my lecture (a bit cryptic without notes I know – come to the lectures!)

I started by saying that the reporting part was where the real medium specific stuff really made itself known (the mechanics of output for a particular platform). Given that we are platform agnostic, this was not where we wanted to be.  Maybe the first parts where more generic? More about broad journalism.

In truth, the process is no longer that discreet. In a multi-platform world we can’t simply focus on one ‘point of delivery’ when the point of delivery is changing all the time. By rights we are (and should be) generating content all the time; what Robin Hamman called turning process in to content. (I’ve written on that issue before.)

But in stumbling along to that conclusion we looked at how digital allows us to inject input from ‘communities’ in to the early parts of our process. We also started to explore the pros and cons of that involvement – legal, ethical and practical.

As a conclusion and starting point for more discussion later on, I picked out three ‘keywords’ that I wanted them to think about.

  • Community
  • Social media
  • Crowdsourcing

All of which, in some form, have contributed to the changing media landscape in which we practice, regardless of medium.

Where chips go, the nation follows.

I didn’t see the thirds year print students this week as they were putting together their first newspaper (1st. week back. No hanging around). But the time I spent with our post-graduate newspaper students looked at similar issues to the second years.

I started with a little debate. I split the group in to two. One side took the position “newspapers will die in five years”. With the other side getting “newspapers will survive the next five years”. As you can imagine interesting debates ensued. Including the position that newspapers weren’t even used to wrap chips in anymore(and the wonderful statement that headed this section), countered of course by ‘you can’t wrap your chips in an ipad’.

It was great to see that the range of debate broadly mirrored the industry concerns(or you may see it as a sad reflection of the echo chamber!) and that the students took a admirable middle ground. Passionate but realistic.

For them, the list of things to ponder was longer but similar:

  • Community
  • Multi-platform
  • Multimedia
  • Hyperlocal
  • Data Journalism

I also included Profile/engagement on the list but that became a broader discussion of brand and identity.  Something that began to touch on the deeper issues of professionalism and ethics.

Nothing is simple

If this week could be summed up in a nutshell it would be “nothing is simple anymore”. We don’t just simply write for newspapers ( or make TV/radio etc) – we have an eye on multiplatform.  It’s not as simple as just talking to the community anymore – we interact. Everything is made more complex by technology and the influx of digital. Some of it is in our control. Some of it isn’t.

What we can’t avoid is that some of that pressure lands on the journalist, right from the point they engage with a story,  regardless of where it ultimately ends up. It may not be your employer who brings that pressure to bear. It may be the audience…

PS. Just in case you thought that we do nothing practical they also started (or, in the case of the second years restarted) blogs (platform up to them) and google reader.  The postgrads got their beats and patches to play with and got to explore their hyperlocal/patch site.

Image from tim_ellis on Flickr

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February 01 2010

17:10

Skillwalls not paywalls

Fern Growing from Brick Wall
Image by pigpogm via Flickr

Tomorrow I’m off to Skillset to talk about their new standards framework for journalism. I’m looking forward to the chat around what skills journalists need and not just because I’m involved in delivering this stuff to our future journalists. What I’m equally interested in is what skills the industry think they need (the framework has been created in consultation with industry and accreditation bodies) as it says a lot about what they think a journalist actually is – what defines the job.

It’s been something on my mind since the newsrewired conference a few weeks ago when the vexed debate of identity reared its head. That debate is best paraphrased as “grumblings on why people can’t be called a journalist” and left at that.

But the skillset visit and a chat with Francois Nel about onions and data, pushed it to the front of my thinking again.

The best way I can sum-up where that thinking has got me is Skillwalls.

A skillwall is the best way I have found to balance the argument (in my head) of what sets journalists apart with the issue of what will people pay for.

In terms of the ‘definition’ debate a journalist would be defined by which skills your average punter/blogger/anyone-you-don’t-want-to-call-a-journo does not have or is unwilling to develop. The skillwall is too high or too much effort to climb.

Skillwalls help define the paywall debate for me in terms that are more tangiable. People will pay for stuff that they can’t do themselves. If you have the skills to do that ,they may pay you. Thinking about it as a skill issue works better for me than trying to assess a value proposition.

The web has become a place where people can do things – it enables. The successful sites are those that enable them to do things it would be hard to do otherwise. Things that would take new skills.

Skills Vs. experience or Skills and Experience

This is where it gets difficult for the industry and why I think recent discussions have been so interesting for me. Yes, the knowledge and experience is valuable but is it a skill? Is going to lots of council meetings a skill? Is knowing the PM’s press secretary a skill? Valuable, yes, but a skill? No. Being able to get that stuff online in an interesting way is.

Unless you can do one people won’t see the value of the other.

It’s easy to be dismissive of skills. They can be seen as functional, low level things. But skills enable. Get over the skillwall of data gathering on the web and you can add the value of your knowledge and experience.

Of course a skillwall is not an exclusive or all encompassing barrier. It’s a peculiar new obstacle/challenge that digital has thrown our way. But it’s also a powerful opportunity for journalists to exploit.

So where is your skillwall and what are you going to do to get over it?

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