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September 22 2010


How to Build a Website: One Piece at a Time

The likelihood that an online video editing site, a 21st century technological innovation if ever there were one, would draw inspiration from a 34-year-old Johnny Cash song about a broken-down, piece of junk Cadillac is, admittedly, a tad anachronistic.

But as my partner, Nonny de la Peña, and I roll up our sleeves, crawl back under the hood and start fine-tuning Stroome, one of this year's Knight News Challenge winners, it seems we've found our muse in the most unlikely of places.

"One Piece at a Time"

Released in 1976, the Johnny Cash song "One Piece at a Time" tells the tale of a Detroit auto worker who watches wistfully day in and day out as one shiny Cadillac after another roll past him and out the door. Realizing he'll never be able to afford one himself, the resourceful auto worker recruits a co-conspirator and together they devise a rather envious plan: Create their own by stealing the parts, one piece at a time.

Unfortunately, after assembling all the pieces (the smaller ones are snuck out in the worker's lunch box; the larger ones in a mobile home), the men quickly realize the car is a little more than they bargained for -- literally. The transmission is a '53. The engine is a '73. As for the headlights -- there's two on the left, and one on the right.


Can you imagine if websites were designed this way? Don't laugh. As it turns out, many are.

Take the best feature from this site; take the best feature from that site. Why censor yourself? Why limit your developer? Build it one piece at a time. Let the user decide what pieces she wants.

But there are dangers in letting functionality drive your build, rather than designing the site as a whole. Sure, you've got all the bells and whistles. But what good does it do if you can't figure out how to turn it on?

And so, with the words of that disillusioned Detroit auto worker ringing in our ears, three simple guidelines come to mind as Nonny and I ponder the next iteration of Stroome:

Three Rules to Build By

1. Don't build for yourself.
Sounds contradictory, I know. It's your site, after all. You know what you want better than anyone, right? Wrong. Unless you're the only one who's going to be using the site (and if anyone can figure out how that business model works, let me know), you need to take yourself out of the equation. You may know your demographic better than anyone else; you may know the competitive landscape better than anyone else; you may even be the world's pre-eminent expert in the field. But chances are you are not a web designer. So do your due diligence, then do yourself a favor: Get out of the way and let the guy you hired to build your site actually do his job.

2. Don't give your users everything they ask for.
Admittedly, consumer input is invaluable. But so, too, is consensus. So rather than kowtow to your customers' every whim and fancy, take copious notes. If you find you're writing down the same thing over and over, only then should you consider adding it as a feature. Otherwise, write it off as a distraction.

3. Don't try to be different; be distinctive.
Creating a batch of features just because no one else has them isn't always a good idea. There's a difference between being "different" and being "distinctive." You want to be distinctive. And the best way to distinguish yourself from your competitors isn't necessarily building a better mousetrap; it's solving a pain in the marketplace no one else has solved. Or better yet, that no one else has anticipated.

Looking back on it, when Nonny and I sat down to build the first iteration of Stroome last September, we did a lot of things right. But we had our fair share of detours, too. Enamored with what we could do, we probably did too much. Enthralled with all the options available to us, we probably opted for too many.

And while the current version of Stroome hardly resembles what Johnny Cash jocularly refers to in his rockabilly cult classic as a "Psycho-Billy Cadillac," it's not without a few misplaced headlights, either.

Of course, we have a plan to get rid of those. And we'll do it one piece at a time.

Want to hear the song that inspired this post? Click below:

August 20 2010


Stroome Helps Journalists Collaborate via Online Video Remixing

This post was co-authored by Nonny de la Peña

Stroome, a winner of the 2010 Knight News Challenge grant, fosters a social network that allows journalists to collaborate together by sharing content and stories that can be edited right in a browser and then pushed across the web.

Prototyped at USC Annenberg's pioneering Online Program on Online Communities in the fall of 2008, the idea was strikingly simple: Create a place where journalists can efficiently work together to create a culture that offers accurate, contextual news in real-time.

The result was Stroome, an online video editing platform crossed with a social network that allows you to upload, edit, and share thousands of clips from different users. In short, the perfect toolset for journalists aspiring to retool in the digital age. Learn more in the below video:

Knight News Challenge: Stroome from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

Why Stroome? Why Now?

Anyone who has tried to work on a video project in which the stakeholders are in geographic locations knows the problems inherent in online collaboration. File transfer slows down the process; there are breakdowns in communication; the flow of critical information is often lost in the mix.

Stroome breaks that technological and communication bottleneck by offering revision histories and intuitive, collaborative editing tools that allow individuals and groups work together for the good of the whole to foster a supportive culture that can quickly produce accurate news stories.

Stroome not only enables the next generation of digital journalists to upload and edit content right in the browser but, more importantly, allows stakeholders in disparate locations to create a community around that content -- from small groups to national news outlets.

Stroome Dashboard_081610.jpg

Whether it's a small group of journalists working to get out a story quickly, or a community remixing pieces to reflect their points of view, Stroome focuses on visual journalism as a participatory process. Our unique browser-based platform allows you to upload, edit, and share thousands of clips from different users in real-time. Then you can push your projects out across the web to the major social media sites or share them on Stroome with other users so that they can open and edit your clips, too.

But the real breakthrough is that by publishing content quickly and allowing diverse geographic communities to communicate, we believe Stroome will rejuvenate the relationship between a news organization and its audience by radically increasing responsiveness with an inexpensive, agile online solution.

But don't count out the satellite trucks just yet. We fervently believe participatory video is the future of visual storytelling on the web, and we are devoted to trying to use the technology to support the idea that content creation can be a communal experience instead of merely a tool for passive viewing. But we also recognize that what we are asking will require a significant shift in thinking.

The Future of News is Digital

For us, that shift begins today. Over the next few weeks, our team will be working with local news outlets to set up a series of beta experiments in which the Stroome platform will be implemented in the field and in the classroom. So if you have a unique case study you'd like to test, email us info@stroome.com.

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