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April 13 2011

16:00

Gateway and takeaway: Why Quickish wants to cut the clutter and help readers get to the good stuff

It can be tough for a verbose writer to embrace the short form.

This is important, because in doing an email interview with Dan Shanoff about Quickish — his new site that offers (near)-instant analysis and news on sports — it quickly became clear the man is a lover of words. Shanoff burned through more than 3,000 words about Quickish, which finds its focus through short, deliberate analysis and lots of links. (Full transcript here.)

But most Quickish posts are at tweet length or not much longer — and that restraint makes it as much a conduit for news as it is a case study in why short- and long-form writing aren’t mutually exclusive. What both share, and what Quickish trades in, is “the takeaway,” as in the essential point of a story/event/game/trend, or the answer to the question all readers ask: “Why am I reading this?” It’s that need for understanding, combined with the accelerated pace of media, that Shanoff sees that as the underpinning behind news consumption and its the guiding principal of Quickish.

“The best reporters and pundits know that the real traction isn’t the commodified tidbit of breaking news — this person was traded, this person threw a key interception, this person said something provocative — but the entirely valuable (and hard-to-copy) piece of insight that helps us understand a story better,” Shanoff told me. “This new competition — not for the scoop, but for the fast take — forces everyone to raise their level of instant analysis to cut through the clutter. That the noise level might be raised by everyone rushing to say something is ok — as long as you have reliable filters (like Quickish hopes to be) set up to cancel out the crap.”

If we were to build a periodic table for new media, the elements that make Quickish work would be speed, accessibility, and brevity — all in the service of making sense of a news story. Quickish is what happens when you try to take a coherent focus on those events that everyone is tweeting about — it’s March Madness, the Oscars, the Super Bowl, or election night, but all the time. Quickish embraces the alternate-channel ethos that has developed around how we experience events and is built around that. A reader can get what everyone is talking about, but with the added bonus of context and insight, and they could follow it wholesale or dip in as needed.

“Once you recognize the ascendancy of short-form content — and, by the way, that doesn’t preclude longer-form content (at all!) — the next thing you build on top of that is a system to help people keep up with all that great content, to cut through the increasingly endless clutter that keeps you from seeing the really good stuff,” he wrote.

“And so depending on what the biggest topics are, to the widest possible audience, Quickish editors are looking for the most interesting short-form analysis or conversation about that topic — it doesn’t have to be part of a full-blown column; it could be a killer ‘money quote’ of a short blog post or a Tweet or a message board post or video; we’re source-agnostic. It could be from a ‘national’ outlet or a local/topical reporter or blogger with particular expertise,” he wrote.

This would be a good time to mention that in many ways what Shanoff is talking about is not new in journalism, we’ve come to talk about aggregation a lot in terms of the future of news (apologies to Mr. Keller). There is no doubt that what Quickish provides falls neatly into the category of aggregation. It’s Techmeme or Mediagazer, but for sports. Shanoff, though, is not a big fan of the “A” word.

“Why I wince at ‘aggregation’ is that it doesn’t necessarily distinguish between ‘dumb’ aggregation of automated, algorithm-based systems (that inevitably fail some critical test of judgment) and the ‘smart’ selective, qualified recommendation that comes from an editor (whether that editor is Quickish or a newspaper/magazine editor or someone smart you follow on Twitter or a blogger or anyone else who actively applies judgment whether something is worthwhile or not). Everything on Quickish has been recommended with intention; to me, that’s much more active — and valuable — than a system built on more passively ‘aggregating.’”

If Shanoff has his way the site would be powered primarily off recommendations from readers. News sites large and small typically have some call out for tips, but Quickish seems to have tip-based updates baked in thanks to its Twitter-like nature. Credit for stories or takes gets a nod similar to retweets or hat/tips, and that’s something that Shanoff said is a result of Quickish relying on Twitter as a source, but also wanting a more transparent interaction with readers. It also tracks with another basic idea behind Quickish: The link as the most powerful asset connected to a story or post.

This also tends to build strong connections with readers who can feel a buy-in by contributing to a site. What you end up with — hopefully — is a recommendation-go-round, where stories and links get tipped to your site from readers, readers direct their friends to the site, and the process repeats in perpetuity.

“It is a long-standing tenet of online journalism that you want to encourage readers to make just ‘one more click’ within your site after the page they land on. With Quickish, we are thrilled if that ‘one more click’ is to some great piece of longform journalism that we have recommended. Because if you appreciate that experience as a reader, you are much more likely to give us another try tomorrow or when the next big news happens; isn’t that much more valuable than gaming them into sticking around? Here is a fascinating and powerful stat we have never made public: Quickish readers actively click through to one of our recommended links on nearly half of all total visits. Every other visit results in the reader clicking on a Quickish recommendation,” he wrote.

Considering all of this, Shanoff said the site’s design, minimal and stripped down, is closely attuned to the the content it provides and the expectations of the audience. Shanoff recognizes that readers are coming into news from various destination and on different devices, and that feeds an immediate expectation, it’s the “Why am I reading this” question all over again. Shanoff said for many publishers the focus is less on utility and more on squeezing the most value out of visits to a site. His take: “Don’t be greedy.”

There are two ways to try to engage people: You can try to force them — blitz or confuse or harangue them, in many cases — to try to keep clicking. Is that increase from 1.5 page views per visit to 2.0 really worth it if the reaction from the reader is, “Wow, that really wasted my time.” How is that kind of publisher cynicism a way to create a meaningful relationship with a reader?

The other way is to make the experience so simple, so self-evidently useful, so valuable, so easy that the reader might only give you (in Quickish’s case) that one page per visit for now, but they will come back every day… or a couple times a day… or tell their friends… or trust your recommendations… and ultimately have a deeper relationship with you when you introduce new products and features.

December 08 2010

15:00

Nicholas Christakis on the networked nature of Twitter

Earlier this fall, Alyssa Milano — known for being on “Who’s the Boss” and, more recently, for being on Twitter — sent out a somewhat surprising tweet to her nearly 1.2 million followers: a link to the Amazon page of a book called Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks & How They Shape Our Lives.

For a book like Connected, penned by two social scientists and built on longitudinal research and academic inquiry — a book, in other words, that may hope to achieve influence over our thinking, but doesn’t aspire to huge sales numbers — you’d think that a message broadcast from a heavily followed Twitter account would lead to a proportionally large spike in sales. Amplification, after all, comes from size: The more followers a person has, the more people who will see a message and who will, potentially, retweet it — and, thus, the more people who will potentially act on it. We know it intuitively: In general, the greater the numbers, the greater the viral power.

So, then, how many extra books did Connected’s authors, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, sell in the wake of their million-follower tweet?

None. Literally, not a one. In fact — insult, meet injury! — in the days and weeks following Milano’s tweet, the book’s sales actually declined. The actress’ follower numbers, in this case, hadn’t been a force for much of anything. “At least with respect to the influence of behavior,” Christakis noted, “these links — these Twitter links — are weak.”

But, hey, maybe it was just an Alyssa Milano thing: It’s pretty fair to figure that the overlap between her followers and the universe of people who might buy a sciency book by two professors would be, you know, low. So Christakis and Fowler asked Tim O’Reillynearly 1.5 million followers, with, ostensibly, more book-interest overlap — to send the Connected link out to his feed.

The result? “We sold one extra copy of the book.”

Same experiment, with Pew’s Susannah Fox (4,960 followers)? Three extra copies.

If you’re interested in the way information spreads online — and if you’re interested in the future of news, you probably are — then the low volume-to-impact rate the authors found (which, though completely anecdotal, flies in the face of so much conventional wisdom) is fascinating. And it begs a question that appears so often in academic inquiry: What’s up?

In a talk yesterday evening at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center in Cambridge (we wrote about another IBM event, with dataviz guru Jer Thorp, this summer), Christakis, a professor both at Harvard Medical School and its Faculty of Arts and Sciences, dove into that question, discussing the particular (and peculiar) ways that social networks — online and off — work.

The talk focused on the epidemiology of action — how and whether certain behaviors spread through a population. (More on that here.) Though we often talk about social connections in terms of simple binaries — friend vs. not-friend, weak ties versus strong — the ties that bind people together, Christaskis’ research suggests, are nowhere near as simple as we often assume. There’s the obvious — your Facebook friend may not be your friend friend — but also, more murkily but more fascinatingly, the complex of connections that affect our behavior in surprising ways.

For the Lab’s purposes, one especially intriguing element of the discussion focused on Twitter — and the extent to which ideas spread through Twitter’s network actually catch on and have impact. One binary that might actually be relevant in that regard, Christakis suggested: influencer versus influence-ee. “If we’re really going to advance this field, we need to figure out how to identify not just influential people, but also influenceable people,” the professor noted. “We need not just shepherds, but sheep.” And “if we’re going to exploit online ties,” Christakis said — say, by creating communities of interest around news content, and potentially monetizing those communities — then “measures of meaningful interactions will be needed”: We need metrics, in particular, to determine “which online interactions represent real relationships, where an influence might possibly be exerted.”

For that, he continued, “we need to distinguish between influential, or real, ties online, and uninfluential, or weak, ties online.”

The next question: How do you do that? How do you look beyond standard (and, per Christakis’ anecdotal evidence, misleading) metrics like Twitter follower/Facebook friend counts and find more meaningful metrics of influence? One benefit of social networks’ movement online is that their dynamics are (relatively) easily trackable: We’re able as never before to put data behind the interactions that define society as a whole, and, in that, understand them better. (Connected, on the other hand — whose conclusions are based on data sets of social flow that were cultivated, over a period of years, from physical documents — didn’t have that luxury.)

And while Christakis’ talk raised as many questions as it answered — we’re still in early days when it comes to measuring behavioral influences online — one of his core ideas is an insight that several news organizations are already putting to practice: the power of the niche. Much more significant and influential than single celebrities — individual nodes in a network — are the “niches within the network where you have the particular assemblage of influential people and their followers.” When influence is layered — when its fabric is made stronger by tight connections across a smaller network — it’s more predictable, and more powerful.

And that has big implications not only for news organizations, but also for the platforms that are hoping to translate their ubiquity into financial and social gain. If you want your work to have impact, then targeting a bundle of closely connected networks — with news, with links, with messages — may make more sense than going for numbers alone. Spreading a conversation is not the same as affecting it. “I’m not saying that Twitter is useless,” Christakis said, “but I think that the ability of Twitter to disseminate information is different than its ability to influence behavior.”

October 04 2010

18:00

A movie with its own backchannel: How “The Social Network” shows our reweaving of conversations

Many of the big-time reviews of The Social Network have focused on the film’s characterization of Mark Zuckerberg, “the youngest billionaire in the world.” Is he an evil genius — or simply a genius? Is he a menace to society, or a savior of it?

To know where the film stands, at any rate, all you have to do is listen to its score — so ominous, so severely simplistic, so straight-out-of-Jaws, that, at moments, you’re sure you see a dorsal fin poking through Zuck’s hoodie. It’s not just that The Social Network is plagued with anxiety about its subject matter; it’s that The Social Network is plagued with anxiety about territory itself. The film’s settings — the dorm rooms, the board rooms, the back rooms — feel tight and dark and crowded, even when they’re not. The spaces suffocate. For a movie named for a collective, The Social Network has a bad case of claustrophobia.

And the BuhDUMBuhDUM brand of anxiety that the film indulges toward its pseudo-protagonist translates to its 500 million other pseudo-protagonists: the “friends” — the film’s corps and chorus, omnipresent if mostly absent — who lurk just beyond the borders of its other confined space: the screen. While its trailer, a work of art unto itself, highlights The 500 Million, people-izing them, implying the profound consequences they suggest for human communication and connection, the film deals with their power by marginalizing them. In director David Fincher’s rendering, the individuals we find at the other end of the Internet are numbers, little more. (“Thousand. Twenty-two thousand.”)

But here’s where things, for the Lab’s purposes, get interesting. If Facebook teaches us anything, it’s that people don’t tend to appreciate being blurred together as backgrounds to other people’s stories. And, not content with being marginalized, several of the 500 million have fought back against the film’s downplay of their power — by, simply, asserting it. By creating a backchannel to the movie and contributing to it. People I’ve never seen writing movie reviews before have been reviewing The Social Network in earnest — writing their reactions on their blogs and sending them around on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr. Others have posted, appropriately enough, directly to Facebook. The background has blossomed to life. In addition to the typical movie-subsidiary stuff — the director/writer/actor interviews, the professional reviews — we’re seeing as well a counterweight to the mainstream narrative: the embrace of the sense that we viewers are not merely viewers at all, but characters. We own this film. We are this film.

The Social Network’s backchannel, in other words, represents the crystallization of a phenomenon playing out across the culture, not least in journalism: the normalization of participation. Until recently, when it came to films, that participation was pretty much limited to the up-or-down vote that was a ticket purchase at the box office. Now, though — via, appropriately/ironically enough, the new architectures for discourse whose foundation Facebook helped to build — our participation is much more than facelessly financial. We augment the film through our public reactions to it. (Sometimes, we augment it even more directly than that.) We challenge the thing-itself quality of the movie by insisting that we are part of the thing in question.

We talk about the problem of context in news: the fact that a single article or segment, while it works fine as a singular narrative, is a poor conduit for the contextual information that people need to understand a story in full. The response to The Social Network is a reminder that our evolving relationship with context extends far beyond the news. It represents, in fact, something of a perfect storm of new media maxims — Shirky’s cognitive surplus, Jarvis’ network economy, Rosen’s people formerly known as the audience — waving its way into the culture at large. The film suggests something of a critical mass…expressed as, quite literally, a critical mass. Amid our anxieties about the atomization of cultural consumption — the isolation of Netflix, the personalization of choose-your-own-adventure-style news — we’re seeing a corrective in collaborative culture. We’re re-networking ourselves, flattening our relationship with Hollywood as much as with The New York Times.

What’s most noteworthy about that is how completely un-noteworthy it seems. Movies, of course, have always been more than what they are; films have always had as much to do with the social experience outside the theater as the personal experience within it. What’s new, though, and what The Social Network suggests so eloquently, almost in spite of itself, is our ability to transform the sidewalk experience of theater-going, the how’d-you-like-its and what’d-you-thinks, into cultural products of their own. There’s The Social Network, the film…and then there’s The Social Network, the experience — the conversations and contributions and debates and ephemera. And those two things are collapsing into each other, with the film-as-process and the film-as-product increasingly, if by no means totally, merging into one experience. Participation is becoming normative. We know that because it’s also becoming normal.

June 08 2010

13:30

Why link out? Four journalistic purposes of the noble hyperlink

[To link or not to link? It's about as ancient as questions get in online journalism; Nick Carr's links-as-distraction argument is only the latest incarnation. Yesterday, Jason Fry tried to contextualize the linking debate around credibility, readability, and connectivity. Here, Jonathan Stray tries out his own, more pragmatically focused four-part division. Tomorrow, we'll have the result of Jonathan's analysis of how major news organizations link out and talk about linking out. —Josh]

You don’t need links for great journalism — the profession got along fine for hundreds of years without them. And yet most news outlets have at least a website, which means that links are now (in theory, at least) available to the majority of working journalists. What can links give to online journalism? I see four main answers.

Links are good for storytelling.

Links give journalists a way to tell complex stories concisely.

In print, readers can’t click elsewhere for background. They can’t look up an unfamiliar term or check another source. That means print stories must be self-contained, which leads to conventions such as context paragraphs and mini-definitions (“Goldman Sachs, the embattled American investment bank.”) The entire world of the story has to be packed into one linear narrative.

This verbosity doesn’t translate well to digital, and arguments rage over the viability of “long form” journalism online. Most web writing guides suggest that online writing needs to be shorter, sharper, and snappier than print, while others argue that good long form work still kills in any medium.

Links can sidestep this debate by seamlessly offering context and depth. The journalist can break a complex story into a non-linear narrative, with links to important sub-stories and background. Readers who are already familiar with certain material, or simply not interested, can skip lightly over the story. Readers who want more can dive deeper at any point. That ability can open up new modes of storytelling unavailable in a linear, start-to-finish medium.

Links keep the audience informed.

Professional journalists are paid to know what is going on in their beat. Writing stories isn’t the only way they can pass this knowledge to their audience.

Although discussions of journalism usually center around original reporting, working journalists have always depended heavily on the reporting of others. Some newsrooms feel that verifying stories is part of the value they add, and require reporters to “call and confirm” before they re-report a fact. But lots of newsrooms simply rewrite copy without adding anything.

Rewriting is required for print, where copyright prevents direct use of someone else’s words. Online, no such waste is necessary: A link is a magnificently efficient way for a journalist to pass a good story to the audience. Picking and choosing the best content from other places has become fashionably known as “curation,” but it’s a core part of what journalists have always done.

Some publishers are reluctant to “send readers away” to other work. But readers will always prefer a comprehensive source, and as the quantity of available information explodes, the relative value of filtering it increases.

Links are a currency of collaboration.

When journalists use links to “pay” people for their useful contributions to a story, they encourage and coordinate the production of journalism.

Anyone who’s seen their traffic spike from a mention on a high-profile site knows that links can have immediate monetary impact. But links also have subtler long term value, both tangible (search rankings) and intangible (reputation and status.)  One way or another, a link is generally valuable to the receiver.

A complex, ongoing, non-linear story doesn’t have to be told by a single organization. In line with the theory of comparative advantage, it probably shouldn’t be. Of course journalists can (and should) collaborate formally. But links are an irresistible glue that can coordinate journalistic production across newsrooms and bloggers alike.

This is an economy that is interwoven with the cash economy in complex ways. It may not make business sense to pay another news organization for publishing a crucial sub-story or a useful tip, but a link gives credit where credit is due — and traffic. Along this line, I wonder if the BBC’s policy of not always linking to users who supply content is misguided.

Links enable transparency.

In theory, every statement in news writing needs to be attributed. “According to documents” or “as reported by” may have been as far as print could go, but that’s not good enough when the sources are online.

I can’t see any reason why readers shouldn’t demand, and journalists shouldn’t supply, links to all online resources used in writing a story. Government documents and corporate financial disclosures are increasingly online, but too rarely linked. There are some issues with links to pages behind paywalls and within academic journals, but nothing that seems insurmountable.

Opinion and analysis pieces can also benefit from transparency. It’s unfair — and suspect — to critique someone’s position without linking to it.

Of course, reporters must also rely on sources that don’t have a URL, such as people and paper documents. But even here I would like to see more links, for transparency and context: If the journalist conducted a phone interview, can we listen to the recording? If they went to city hall and saw the records, can they scan them for us? There is already infrastructure for journalists who want to do this. A link is the simplest, most comprehensive, and most transparent method of attribution.

Photo by Wendell used under a Creative Commons license.

February 02 2010

08:57

Wired.co.uk: Are mobile news apps anti the link economy?

Interesting piece from Peter Kirwan on news organisations developing mobile apps that don’t allow users easy access to alternative sources of news:

In the way of all love objects, apps do suggest that something satisfying lies on the horizon for news organisations. Readers may not be prepared to pay for content, but they do seem willing to pay for software and services that improve their lives (…) Promiscuity is limited by the opportunity for discovery. Searching for alternatives to stories that pop up inside your app will cost you time. And for most mobile users, that’s a commodity in short supply. On this basis, it’s a racing certainty that some news publishers perceive apps as a way of putting Humpty-Dumpty back together again, on the mobile web at least.

How long will this model last when confronted with devout RSS feed users and those who favour the sharing of multiple sources and links via social media sites and networks?

Full post at this link…

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