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August 24 2012

14:35

This Week in Review: Twitter’s ongoing war with developers, and plagiarism and online credibility

[Since the review was off last week, this week's review covers the last two weeks.]

More Twitter restrictions for developers: Twitter continued to tighten the reins on developers building apps and services based on its platform with another change to its API rules last week. Most of it is pretty incomprehensible to non-developers, but Twitter did make itself plain at one point, saying it wants to limit development by engagement-based apps that market to consumers, rather than businesses. (Though a Twitter exec did clarify that at least two of those types of services, Storify and Favstar, were in the clear.)

The Next Web’s Matthew Panzarino clarified some of the technical jargon, and Marketing Land’s Danny Sullivan explained whom this announcement means Twitter likes and doesn’t like, and why. ReadWriteWeb’s Dan Frommer gave the big-picture reason for Twitter’s increasing coldness toward developers — it needs to generate tons more advertising soon if it wants to stay independent, and the way to do that is to keep people on Twitter, rather than on Twitter-like apps and services. (Tech entrepreneur Nova Spivack said that rationale doesn’t fly, and came up with a few more open alternatives to allow Twitter to make significant money.)

That doesn’t mean developers were receptive of the news, though. Panzarino said these changes effectively kill the growth of third-party products built on Twitter’s platform, and Instapaper founder Marco Arment argued that Twitter has made itself even harder to work with than the famously draconian Apple. Eliza Kern and Mathew Ingram of GigaOM talked to developers about their ambivalence with Twitter’s policies and put Twitter’s desire for control in perspective, respectively.

Several observers saw these changes as a marker of Twitter’s shift from user-oriented service to cog in the big-media machine. Tech designer Stowe Boyd argued Twitter “is headed right into the central DNA of medialand,” and tech blogger Ben Brooks said Twitter is now preoccupied with securing big-media partnerships: “Twitter has sold out. They not only don’t care about the original users, but they don’t even seem to care much for the current users — there’s a very real sense that Twitter needs to make money, and they need to make that money yesterday.” Developer Rafe Colburn pointed out how many of Twitter’s functions were developed by its users, and developer Nick Bruun said many of the apps that Twitter is going after don’t mimic its user experience, but significantly improve it. Killing those apps and streamlining the experience, said GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, doesn’t help users, but hurts them.

Part of the problem, a few people said, was Twitter’s poor communication. Harry McCracken of Time urged Twitter to communicate more clearly and address its users alongside its developers. Tech entrepreneur Anil Dash offered a rewritten (and quite sympathetic) version of Twitter’s guidelines.

There’s another group of developers affected by this change — news developers. The Lab’s Andrew Phelps surveyed what the changes will entail for various Twitter-related news products (including a couple of the Lab’s own), and journalism professor Alfred Hermida warned that they don’t bode well for the continued development of open, networked forms of journalism.

Plagiarism, credibility, and the web: Our summer of plagiarism continues unabated: Wired decided to keep Jonah Lehrer on as a contributor after plagiarism scandal, though the magazine said it’s still reviewing his work and he has no current assignments. Erik Wemple of The Washington Post lamented the lack of consequences for Lehrer’s journalistic sins, and both he and Poynter’s Craig Silverman wondered how the fact-checking process for his articles would go. Meanwhile, Lehrer was accused by another source of fabricating quotes and also came under scrutiny for mischaracterizing scientific findings.

The other plagiarizer du jour, Time and CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, has come out much better than Lehrer so far. Zakaria resigned as a Yale trustee, but Time, CNN, and The Washington Post (for whom he contributes columns) all reinstated him after reviewing his work for them, with Time declaring it was satisfied that his recent lapse was an unintentional error. However, a former Newsweek editor said he ghost-wrote a piece for Zakaria while he was an editor there, though he told the New York Observer and Poynter that he didn’t see it as a big deal.

Some defended Zakaria on a variety of grounds. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon evaluated a few of the arguments and found only one might have merit — that the plagiarism might have resulted from a research error by one of his assistants. The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer, meanwhile, argued that plagiarism has a long and storied history in American journalism, but hasn’t always been thought of as wrong.

Others saw the responses by news organizations toward both Zakaria and Lehrer as insufficient. Poynter’s Craig Silverman argued that those responses highlighted a lack of consistency and transparency (he and Kelly McBride also wrote a guide for news orgs on how to handle plagiarism), while journalism professor Mark Leccese said Zakaria’s employers should have recognized the seriousness of plagiarism and gone further, and Steven Brill at the Columbia Journalism Review called for more details about the nature of Zakaria’s error.

A New York Times account of Zakaria’s error focused on his hectic lifestyle, filled with the demands of being a 21st-century, multiplatform, personally branded pundit. At The Atlantic, book editor and former journalist Peter Osnos focused on that pressure for a pundit to publish on all platforms for all people as the root of Zakaria’s problem.

The Times’ David Carr pinpointed another factor — the availability of shortcuts to credibility on the web that allowed Lehrer to become a superstar before he learned the craft. (Carr found Lehrer’s problems far more concerning than Zakaria’s.) At Salon, Michael Barthel also highlighted the difference between traditional media and web culture, arguing that the problem for people like Zakaria is their desire to inhabit both worlds at once: “The way journalists demonstrate credibility on the Web isn’t better than how they do in legacy media. It’s just almost entirely different. For those journalists and institutions caught in the middle, that’s a real problem.” GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram argued that linking is a big part of the web’s natural defenses against plagiarism.

Untruths and political fact-checking: The ongoing discussion about fact-checking and determining truth and falsehood in political discourse got some fresh fuel this week with a Newsweek cover story by Harvard professor Niall Ferguson arguing for President Obama’s ouster. The piece didn’t stand up well to numerous withering fact-checks (compiled fairly thoroughly by Newsweek partner The Daily Beast and synthesized a bit more by Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review).

Ferguson responded with a rebuttal in which he argued that his critics “claim to be engaged in ‘fact checking,’ whereas in nearly all cases they are merely offering alternative (often silly or skewed) interpretations of the facts.” Newsweek’s editor, Tina Brown, likewise referred to the story as opinion (though not one she necessarily agreed with) and said there isn’t “a clear delineation of right and wrong here.”

Aside from framing the criticism as a simple difference of opinion rather than an issue of factual (in)correctness, Newsweek also acknowledged to Politico that it doesn’t have fact-checkers — that its editors “rely on our writers to submit factually accurate material.”  Poynter’s Craig Silverman provided some of the history behind that decision, which prompted some rage from Charles Apple of the American Copy Editors Society. Apple asserted that any news organization that doesn’t respect its readers or public-service mission enough to ensure their work is factually accurate needs to leave the business. The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates said the true value of fact-checkers comes in the culture of honesty they create.

Mathew Ingram of GigaOM wondered if that fact-checking process might be better done in public, where readers can see the arguments and inform themselves. In an earlier piece on campaign rhetoric, Garance Franke-Ruta of The Atlantic argued that in an era of willful, sustained political falsehood, fact-checking may be outliving its usefulness, saying, “One-off fact-checking is no match for the repeated lie.” The Lab’s Andrew Phelps, meanwhile, went deep inside the web’s leading fact-checking operation, PolitiFact.

The Times’ new CEO and incremental change: The New York Times Co. named a new CEO last week, and it was an intriguing choice — former BBC director general Mark Thompson. The Times’ article on Thompson focused on his digital expansion at the BBC (which was accompanied by a penchant for cost-cutting), as well as his transition from publicly funded to ad-supported news. According to the International Business Times, those issues were all sources of skepticism within the Times newsroom. Bloomberg noted that Thompson will still be subject to Arthur Sulzberger’s vision for the Times, and at the Guardian, Michael Wolff said Thompson should complement that vision well, as a more realistic and business-savvy counter to Sulzberger.

The Daily Beast’s Peter Jukes pointed out that many of the BBC’s most celebrated innovations during Thompson’s tenure were not his doing. Robert Andrews of paidContent also noted this, but said Thompson’s skill lay in being able to channel that bottom-up innovation to fit the BBC’s goals. Media analyst Ken Doctor argued that the BBC and the Times may be more alike than people think, and Thompson’s experience at the former may transfer over well to the latter: “Thompson brings the experience at moving, too slowly for some, too dramatically for others, a huge entity.” But Mathew Ingram of GigaOM said that kind of approach won’t be enough: “The bottom line is that a business-as-usual or custodial approach is not going to cut it at the NYT, not when revenues are declining as rapidly as they have been.”

Joe Pompeo of Capital New York laid out a thorough description of the Sulzberger-led strategy Thompson will be walking into: Focusing on investment in the Times, as opposed to the company’s other properties, but pushing into mobile, video, social, and global reach, rather than print. And Bloomberg’s Edmund Lee posited the idea that the Times could be in increasingly good position to go private.

The Assange case and free speech vs. women’s rights: WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange cleared another hurdle last week — for now — in his fight to avoid extradition to Sweden on sexual assault accusations when Ecuador announced it would grant him asylum. Assange has been staying in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for two months, but British officials threatened to arrest Assange in the embassy. Ecuador’s decision gives him immunity from arrest on Ecuadorean soil (which includes the embassy).

Assange gave a typically defiant speech for the occasion, but the British government was undeterred, saying it plans to resolve the situation diplomatically and send Assange to Sweden. Ecuador’s president said an embassy raid would be diplomatic suicide for the U.K., and Techdirt’s Mike Masnick was appalled that Britain would even suggest it. Filmmakers Michael Moore and Oliver Stone argued in The New York Times that Assange deserves support as a free-speech advocate, while Gawker’s Adrian Chen said the sexual assault case has nothing to do with free speech. Laurie Penny of The Independent looked at the way free speech and women’s rights are being pitted against each other in this case. Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian excoriated the press for their animosity toward Assange.

Reading roundup: We’ve already covered a bunch of stuff over the past week and a half, and there’s lots more to get to, so here’s a quick rundown:

— Twitter and Blogger co-founder Evan Williams announced the launch of Medium, a publishing platform that falls somewhere between microblogging and blogging. The Lab’s Joshua Benton has the definitive post on what Medium might be, Dave Winer outlined his hopes for it, and The Awl’s Choire Sicha wrote about the anti-advertising bent at sites like it.

— A few social-news notes: Two features from the Huffington Post and the Lab on BuzzFeed’s ramped-up political news plans; TechCrunch’s comparison of BuzzFeed, Reddit, and Digg; and a feature from the Daily Dot on Reddit and the future of social journalism.

— The alt-weekly The Village Voice laid off staffers late last week, prompting Jim Romenesko to report that the paper is on the verge of collapse and Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray to chronicle its demise. Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon said the paper still has plenty left, and The New York Times’ David Carr said the problem is that the information ecosystem has outgrown alt-weeklies.

— Finally, three great food-for-thought pieces, Jonathan Stray here at the Lab on determining proper metrics for journalism, media consultant Mark Potts on a newspaper exec’s 20-year-old view of the web, and Poynter’s Matt Thompson on the role of the quest narrative in journalism.

Photo of Jonah Lehrer by PopTech and drawing of Julian Assange by Robert Cadena used under a Creative Commons license.

August 09 2012

14:00

How User-Centered Design Powers FrontlineSMS, Version 2

I'm going to be honest: When I first joined FrontlineSMS, I had no idea how much goes into the design of software. Every screen, every button and every function has principled thought behind it.

gabrielwhite.jpg

In 2011, we worked alongside Gabriel White, a user experience designer from Small Surfaces, to help translate FrontlineSMS users' needs into the new design of Version 2. I came to realize that no matter how advanced and amazing a piece of software might be, it has no relevance if users can't access it or work out how to use it. I think that the user interface -- that point of contact between a user and the functionality (or what the software can do) -- is the most important entry point in the way users experience a tool.

It's now been over a year and a half after the design work first began, and I recently spoke with Gabe to share his reflections on how we ensured users' priorities were central to the design of Version 2.

What user design experience involves

I'm sure that for many of us it's not clear what User Experience Design really involves, so I asked Gabe to explain. "To me, it means creating products and services that address real user needs, and defining how people can interact with software in a way that's useful and meaningful. The most important things to consider in this process are what you (as an organization) are trying to achieve by creating the product or service; what the needs of the end users are; and then bringing those two sets of goals together through a design solution that is usable, useful and engaging."

version2launch.jpg

At FrontlineSMS, we have always endeavored to put our users first and be responsive to their needs -- to make our software work better for them. This user-centered design process is at the heart of Version 2. I was curious to ask Gabe how he got involved in the FrontlineSMS project. "I decided to move to Uganda to focus my work on projects which were meaningful to me in terms of positive social impact," he replied. "I found out about the Mobiles for Development Conference in Kampala in 2010. I'd heard that FrontlineSMS' founder, Ken Banks, was going to be there, and the FrontlineSMS project was exactly the kind of initiative I wanted to get involved in. So I basically cornered him and said, 'We have to have a coffee together!' When I later found out that he was thinking about how the user experience would evolve in the then-upcoming Version 2 of the software, it felt like serendipity. Working with FrontlineSMS turned out to be one of the highlights of my design career."

step one: personas

The first step in working together was when Gabe asked us to draw up profiles representing the characteristics of different types of FrontlineSMS users ("Personas" in design-speak). We asked volunteers who represented diverse projects using FrontlineSMS to be involved in the design process. Gabe explained the importance of this: "It's really critical to involve users throughout the entire process so that you can continuously ensure that you address users' real needs in appropriate ways. First, we interviewed existing users of the software to understand their aspirations and pain points. This helped us frame the problems we wanted to solve with Version 2. As I began to craft a design solution, it was important to continue to engage end users through the process. So even when we had only very early design concepts, I shared the alternative solutions with users to understand how effectively the design ideas met the needs I'd earlier uncovered."

"One of the things we found was that, while it was often easy to do basic things in Version 1 of the software, it was sometimes harder to do more sophisticated things with it. For example, FrontlineSMS users often want to use the tool to gather together messages from a group of people on a range of specific topics, or create a poll and easily understand the responses. Essentially, it's great to be able to gather or disperse information using FrontlineSMS, but that's only the beginning of the story -- it's often what users do with all those messages afterwards that counts. Making it easier for people to use FrontlineSMS to do more sophisticated things was critical as we thought about building the new software."

the inspiration behind activities

This speaks volumes to a central feature of Version 2: the "Activities" which guide users through common tasks like announcements and polls, so I was keen to know more about where the inspiration for this came from. "In the research we found that most people were wanting to use the software to carry out three or four core types of tasks (such as conducting a poll)," he said. "Version 1 of FrontlineSMS required users to put the pieces together themselves when doing these tasks, which meant that many users were unable to unlock the full potential of the software. I realized we needed to do two things: Make it easier for people to do more complex things with the software, and also help people appropriately manage the information that was coming in and going out in relation to each of these different activities. So we created this idea of Activities -- if we know you wanted to create a poll, for example, we could guide you through the steps of setting it up, and then help you manage and understand the responses coming back in. With Activities, people do not need to put the pieces together themselves -- the software now supports them through the whole process by providing pre-packaged sets of tools."

Activities FrontlineSMS 2.jpg

Moreover, the system was designed to inspire people to make the most of FrontlineSMS and explore more sophisticated uses of SMS. Gabe elaborated: "Activities expose people to the possibilities of what they can do with the system. FrontlineSMS users have always been aware there was potential, but some didn't know they could do more advanced things with the software. Activities make it much more explicit and easy to understand. It's now more obvious about potential possibilities and so makes everything much more approachable."

the elements of design

When we presented early designs to users to seek their feedback, one person highlighted the power of the "email metaphor," particularly in reference to the ability to star messages or select multiple messages using check boxes. I wondered to what extent Gabe's design was influenced by online tools like Gmail and Facebook. His response: "As a designer one of the things I think about is: What are the design approaches or metaphors that people are familiar with and makes most sense to them? Design most often is not about creating completely new and radical solutions; rather it's about bringing together elements and metaphors that people already deal with in novel and interesting ways."

Gabe's approach was logical and meticulous, sticking to predictable behavior to ensure the usability of the user interface. It wasn't until after building user personas, choosing the task-based "Activity" concept and creating over 100 pages of design documentation that we first saw the first line of Version 2 code and a blue hyperlink for "Inbox" in summer 2011. Now that it's fully working software, I sometimes have to rub my eyes to believe how far we've come. What I love the most is hearing what people think, because that is what's central to user interface design. So find out about what's new in Version 2 here and share your ideas on what you think of the design on our forum here.

Gabriel White's company Small Surfaces designs user interface solutions for smartphones, tablet computers and beyond. His award-winning designs have helped organizations including FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, World Vision, and Refugees United, as well as business leaders like Google, Samsung, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Sandisk and Kodak deliver innovative, next-generation products and services. Gabe continues to work on new features and designs for FrontlineSMS.

Amy joined FrontlineSMS at the beginning of 2011 and is coordinating the FrontlineSMS:Radio project. This is a tailored version of FrontlineSMS's free and open-source software which is customized for radio DJs to help them interact with their audiences via text message. The project has involved offering user support to the growing community of radio users who are interested in solutions for the management of SMS and translating their needs into the software development process. Previously, Amy has worked for the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation, Amnesty International and Action Against Hunger.

A version of this post originally appeared on the FrontlineSMS blog.

April 18 2012

13:51

In the Age of Social Media, the Customer Really Is King

The following is a guest column by Kevin O'Connor, the president of User Insight, a user experience strategy firm.

The idea of putting customers first is not a new one. In fact, it was the start of the 20th century when Harry Gordon Selfridge coined the phrase "The customer is always right."

But customers have never been as powerful as they are today in the social media age.

The potential damage that can be done to a reputation on social media raises the stakes higher than they've ever been. A new era means new ways to collaborate with and serve valuable customers. It's time for companies to stretch beyond customer satisfaction surveys and stop relying on demographic research to determine how their brands should interact with their customers. It's time to start talking to customers, one on one, in order to understand who they are and how to wow them with a product or service.

Today, more and more companies realize they must spend time and effort to really get to know their customers. If one person has a bad experience, news travels at lightning-fast speed. They will post their woes to their friends, contacts and Twitter followers.

"If we knew someone had 50,000 Twitter followers, our call centers would escalate their call for support," someone once told me.

That's certainly understanding the power of social media, but the goal should be larger: to make sure the customer experience is as good as it can possibly be to avoid all complaints in the first place, whether public or private.

the case of Qwikster

Netflix clearly underestimated its customers last year when it announced it would rename its DVD-distribution service Qwikster. Creating separate charges for DVDs and streaming video would almost double prices. Plus, a high schooler already owned the Twitter handle @Qwikster, indicating even worse foresight.

The day Netflix announced Qwikster, online conversations spiked almost 300 percent. Seventy percent of the chatter was negative when emotion was tied to the posts. Netflix stock dropped 20 percent. $2 billion in value evaporated in eight hours. Hundreds of thousands of subscribers canceled their service. The customers had spoken -- Netflix abandoned the idea, and the CEO apologized.

On the flip side, if consumers love a product, store, brand or experience, they will shout it out into their vast digital networks. Take for example, musician Tommee Profitt, whose love for Target led him to record a music video using his iPhone 4S.

A new take on 'user experience'

Since today's customer truly is king, with powerful communication tools right at their fingertips, companies have to pay more attention to the overall "user experiences" they are creating for people. User experience, or UX, is a broad term used to describe all aspects of a person's experience with a system or brand.

User experience research and testing helps companies "put the customer first" in all aspects of their businesses.

In today's many-to-many world, consumers group themselves, especially online, largely based on values, interests and aspirations -- not by sex, race and age. In this scenario, companies must understand their consumers' behaviors and motivators -- the why behind their actions.

An example: A company in the financial services industry came to my firm, User Insight, to get to know its customers better. Based on the demographic and segmentation information, this client believed that people chose banks according to life stage. After spending hours one on one, in consumers' homes, interviewing them on how they choose a bank, we discovered that it wasn't about their sex, age, race or stage of life at all. Instead, we found three groups based on values and behaviors: customers who preferred to bank online, those who like a branch nearby, and those who want a banker who knows them by name and handles their complex finances.

Getting insights from the customers who will actually use the product at the end of the day allows a company to focus on the core experience these customers are looking for. It's not about "if" someone can use a product; it's about "will" they use the product. The key today is serving up the right content at the right time in the right way. Consumers have many ways to interact with a brand; understanding how they want to do that will make the brand successful.

Smart companies should be willing to seek out and accept the tough love they need to serve consumers and manage change well. They also need the right people to guide them who are passionate, pleasant and collaborative. Putting time and effort into quality user experience research can mean healthier businesses, happier customers, and fewer reputation-flaying diatribes online. Because in today's social media age, user experience matters.

Kevin O'Connor is president of User Insight, a user experience strategy firm providing research and consulting to more than 300 clients in 25 different industries. User Insight, an Inc. 5000 firm, is headquartered in Atlanta, Ga.

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September 15 2010

17:00

Twitter as broadcast: What #newtwitter might mean for networked journalism

So Twitter.com’s updated interface — #newtwitter, as the Twittery hashtag goes — is upon us. (Well, upon some of us.)

The most obvious, and noteworthy, changes involved in #newtwitter are (a) the two-panel interface, which — like Tweetdeck and Seesmic and other third-party apps — emphasizes the interactive aspects of Twitter; and (b) the embeddable media elements: YouTube videos, Flickr photos (and entire streams!), Twitpics, etc. And the most obvious implications of those changes are (a) the nice little stage for advertising that the interface builds up; and (b) the threat that #newtwitter represents to third-party apps.

Taken together, those point to a broader implication: Twitter.com as an increasingly centralized space for information. And even, for our more specific purposes, news. Twitter itself, as Ev Williams put it during the company’s announcement of @anywhere, is “an information network that helps people understand what’s going on in the world that they care about.” And #newtwitter, likely, will help further that understanding. From the point of view of consumption, contextual tweets — with images! and videos! — will certainly create a richer experience for users, from both a future-of-context perspective and a more pragmatic usability-oriented one. But what about from the point of view of production — the people and organizations who feed Twitter?

The benefits of restriction

We commonly call Twitter a “platform,” the better to emphasize its emptiness, its openness, its agnosticism. More properly, though, Twitter is a medium, with all the McLuhanesque implications that term suggests. The architecture of Twitter as an interface necessarily affects the content its users produce and distribute.

And one of the key benefits of Twitter has been the fact of its constraint — which has also been the fact of its restraint. The medium’s character limitation has meant that everyone, from the user with two friends following her to the million-follower-strong media organizations, has had the same space, the same tools, to work with. Twitter has democratized narrative even more than blogs have, you could argue, because its interface — your 140 characters next to my 140 characters next to Justin Bieber’s 140 characters, all sharing the space of the screen — has been not only universal, but universally restricted. The sameness of tweets’ structures, and the resulting leveling of narrative authority, has played a big part in Twitter’s evolution into the medium we know today: throngs of users, relatively unconcerned with presentation, relatively un-self-conscious, reporting and sharing and producing the buzzing, evolving resource we call “news.” Freed of the need to present information “journalistically,” they have instead presented it organically. Liberation by way of limitation.

So what will happen when Twitter, the organism, grows in complexity? What will take place when Twitter becomes a bit more like Tumblr, with a bit of its productive limitation — text, link, publish — taken away?

The changes Twitter’s rolling out are not just cosmetic; embedded images and videos, in particular, are far more than mere adornment. A link is fundamentally, architecturally, different than an image or a video. Links are bridges: structures unto themselves, sure, but more significantly routes to other places — they’re both conversation and content, endings and beginnings at once. An image or a video, on the other hand, from a purely architectural perspective, is an end point, nothing more. It leads to nowhere but itself.

For a Twitter interface newly focused on image-based content, that distinction matters. Up until now, the only contextual components of a tweet — aside from the peripheral metadata like “time sent,” retweeted by,” etc. — have been the text and the link. The link may have led to more text or images or videos; but it also would have led to a different platform. Now, though, within Twitter itself, we’re seeing a shift from text-and-link toward text-and-image — which is to say, away from conversation and toward pure information. Which is also to say, away from communication…and toward something more traditionally journalistic. Tweets have always been little nuggets of narrative; with #newtwitter, though, individual tweets get closer to news articles.

We’ve established already that Twitter is, effectively if not officially, a news platform unto itself. #Newtwitter solidifies that fact, and then doubles down on it: It moves the news proposition away from a text-based framework…and toward an image-based one. If #twitterclassic established itself as a news platform, in other words, #newtwitter suggests that the news in question may increasingly be of the broadcast variety.

“What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?”

“Twttr” began as a pure communications platform: text messages, web-ified. The idea was simply to take the ephemeral interactions of SMS and send them to — capture them in — the cloud. The point was simplicity, casualness. (Even its name celebrated that idea: “The definition [of Twitter] was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information,’ and ‘chirps from birds,’” Jack Dorsey told the Los Angeles Times. “And that’s exactly what the product was.”)

The interface that rolled out last night — and that will continue rolling out over the next couple of weeks to users around the world — bears little resemblance to that initial vision of Twitter as captured inconsequence. Since its launch (okay, okay: its hatch), Twitter has undergone a gradual, but steady, evolution — from ephemeral conversations to more consequential information. (Recall the change in the web interface’s prompt late last year, from “What are you doing?” to “What’s happening?” That little semantic shift — from an individual frame to a universal one — marked a major shift in how Twitter shapes its users’ conception, and therefore use, of the platform. In its way, that move foreshadowed today’s new interface.) Infrastructural innovations like Lists have heightened people’s awareness of their status not simply as communicators, but as broadcasters. The frenzy of breaking-news events — from natural disasters like Haiti’s earthquake to political events like last summer’s Iranian “revolution” — have highlighted Twitter’s value as a platform for information dissemination that transcends divisions of state. They’ve also enforced users’ conception of their own tweets: visible to your followers, but visible, also, to the world. It’s always been the case, but its’ one that’s increasingly apparent: Each tweet is its own little piece of broadcast journalism.

What all that will mean for tweets’ production, and consumption, remains to be seen; Twitterers, end-user innovation-style, have a way of deciding for themselves how the medium’s interface will, and will not, be put to practice. And Twitter is still, you know, Twitter; it’s still, finally and fundamentally, about communication. But the smallness, the spareness, the convivial conversation that used to define it against other media platforms is giving way — perhaps — to the more comprehensive sensibility of the networked news organization. The Twitter.com of today, as compared to the Twitter.com of yesterday, is much more about information that’s meaningful and contextual and impactful. Which is to say, it’s much more about journalism.

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