Some of you may have read — either here or elsewhere — about one of the social-media projects that I’ve been involved with at the Globe, a joint venture with the Dominion Institute known as the Public Policy Wiki. We started the wiki in January, as a way of soliciting input from concerned Canadians about a range of public policy issues, and the first issue we launched with was the federal budget. Almost a thousand people signed up in a matter of two weeks, and we got dozens of excellent “briefing note”-style policy proposals submitted, commented on, voted on and promoted in the forums. On the day the budget was released, we took the two most popular proposals and sent them to the Finance Minister in Ottawa.
I gave a short presentation at the Podcamp Toronto “unconference” a few days ago about some of the things we’re doing here at the Globe and Mail as far as “social media” is concerned, and a number of people asked me if I would be putting the slides up anywhere, so I uploaded them to Slideshare and have embedded the presentation here in this post (or you can go here to see them). They don’t include my witty banter, of course, but I may add that later if I get ambitious.
Here’s the condensed version of my presentation: I introduced myself as a former reporter, columnist, technology writer and blogger for the Globe who is now the paper’s online “communities editor,” for lack of a better term. That means I am trying to think of — and follow through on — as many different methods of creating, enhancing, fertilizing and connecting with communities of readers around various topics. I went through a few of the ways we are trying to do that, as well as the rationale behind them and what we have learned from them, and then I closed with what we are hoping to do in the future.
The first big experiment was a project called the Public Policy Wiki, which we set up quite quickly and with fairly limited resources (or time), using an off-the-shelf implementation of TikiWiki, which I highly recommend as a very flexible and multi-faceted wiki platform. We deliberately didn’t over-design it, because we wanted to make it look different from the Globe — and wanted it to look sort of experimental as well, which it is. We had quite a lot of success with the first issue we tackled, which was the federal budget, but less so with the second issue (Afghanistan). We are launching a third leg soon on the environment.
One of the other big experiments has been our increasing use of Cover It Live, a live-blogging/discussion tool developed by Keith McSpurren and his team in Toronto. It provides an easy-to-use and administer platform for hosting live-blogs, with a dashboard that allows you to approve individual comments, auto-approve commenters (so their comments flow in automatically), block commenters, send private messages, post audio/video/photos, conduct polls and so on. It is easily embedded in a story page, and it has been a great tool for our coverage of things such as the budget, the CRTC hearings, a subway shooting and the Obama inauguration.
The third thing I focused on is Twitter (where I am @mathewi). We have only a handful of reporters and editors on Twitter, in contrast to somewhere like BusinessWeek, which has 50 or more, but we are gaining steam. I have been promoting the use of Twitter as a way of connecting directly with readers — not just to promote our content, but to use readers as a resource for stories and our coverage of them. It also humanizes the newspaper and its staff in a way (my friend Duarte put that very well in this message).
As far as lessons go, you can read the slides yourself, but the things I’ve learned so far are in many cases relatively simple:
— things like the Policy Wiki don’t just draw a huge crowd without some work; there needs to be an obvious incentive of some kind, plus some good old-fashioned promotional effort, and better tie-ins between the wiki and the paper
— Cover It Live is a great way of making an event into a kind of micro-community, and many people like the immediacy; others (including some within the newsroom) find it noisy and distracting
— Twitter needs to be personal or it’s simply not going to work. And if you let it, it will suck up every spare moment you have 🙂
Let me know what you think, and if you have any thoughts or questions, my contact info is on the last slide. If you like this post, click the little bird that’s embedded in the first paragraph and it will add it to Twitter for you.
I gave a short presentation at the Podcamp Toronto “unconference” a few days ago about some of the things we’re doing at the Globe and Mail (the national daily newspaper I work for in Toronto, for those of you from elsewhere), and a number of people asked me if I would be putting the slides up anywhere, so I uploaded them to Slideshare and have embedded the presentation here in this post (RSS readers can click here to go straight to Slideshare and see them). If you want to see and hear the presentation, there’s a video link at the Podcamp wiki.
Here’s the condensed version: I introduced myself as a former reporter, columnist, technology writer and blogger for the Globe who is now the paper’s online “communities editor,” for lack of a better term. That means I am trying to think of — and follow through on — as many different methods of creating, enhancing, fertilizing and connecting with communities of readers around various topics. I went through a few of the ways we are trying to do that, as well as the rationale behind them and what we have learned from them, and then I closed with what we are hoping to do in the future.
We’re really pleased to be hosting a stellar group of design, development and management thinkers (and do’ers) at meshU, the one-day Web tools conference that occurs just before the main mesh ’09 conference this year (meshU is April 6 and the main mesh conference is April 7th and 8th). We had a great response to some of the design and development speakers we had last year — including people like Daniel Burka from Digg, Leah Culver from Pownce, John Resig of jQuery and Alistair Croll of Rednod — and we think we’ve got some that are just as great this year.
The design stream includes people like:
— Ryan Singer from 37signals, whose presentation is “Value Judgements in Interface Design”
Not a day goes by without someone adding their thoughts to the growing pile of opinion about what newspapers should do when it comes to charging for content online. The latest treatise comes from L. Gordon Crovitz, a columnist with the Wall Street Journal — whose opinion is notable if only because his publication is one of the few that actually does so successfully. Not only that, but Crovitz is also the former publisher of the WSJ and the former head of Dow Jones Consumer Media Group, and helped launch the Factiva information group. As he describes it:
For a decade beginning in the late 1990s, I was the Dow Jones executive chiefly charged with defending the paid-subscription business model of The Wall Street Journal’s Web site. The skunk at every Internet-bubble-era garden party, the Journal team was often told we “just didn’t get it,” that information wants to be free and the paid model was idiotic.
Is there just a little gloating there, underneath the surface? Possibly — and perhaps some of it is justified. In any case, Crovitz wants to make the case that newspaper publishers gave up too easily in the fight to charge for content, and that they need to think about how to make their content worth paying for instead of whining about it quite so much. And he notes that there are many examples of publications and services that get people to pay for what they produce:
TechCrunch, one of the Web’s top tech blogs, sparked a firestorm of criticism with a recent story about Last.fm — the popular music-sharing network that CBS acquired last year — by reporting that the service had turned over a pile of user information to the Recording Industry Association of America. The story turned out not to be true, and Last.fm co-founder Richard Jones responded with a blistering denial, in which he said that TechCrunch was “full of shit.” Plenty of people on Twitter and elsewhere have been using the piece as a stick with which to beat TechCrunch, arguing that the report was irresponsible and the blog has lost all (or most) of its credibility as a result, etc. (some good perspective from MG Siegler here).
Pretty open and shut, right? After all, Erick Schonfeld relied on an unidentified and third-hand source (someone with a friend at CBS, who said they were upset by the handing over of data). The more I thought about this story, however, the less comfortable I felt joining the crowd with torches and pitchforks outside TechCrunch’s door. Was the story clearly wrong? Yes. How closely did Erick check the source? We don’t know. But what we do know is that Erick tried repeatedly to get a comment from the company, and got a one-liner dismissal (which he included).
Is it possible to be fascinated by an issue and yet tired of it at the same time? If so, then micropayments for online news pretty much fits that bill for me. I know that it’s a crucial time for the newspaper business (which pays my salary), and I know that many thoughtful and intelligent people believe that micropayments are the answer to the industry’s woes — including former news executive Alan Mutter, who blogs at Reflections of a Newsosaur, and whose recent argument about paying for things I took on in this post. But there has been an awful lot of talk about the issue over the past few weeks and months, including some excellent pieces by Clay Shirky and others (I’ve collected a list of the major ones at my personal blog if you’re interested).
And still the debate continues. The Freakonomics blog at the New York Times is the latest to throw its rhetorical hat into this particular ring, which seems fitting given the authors’ focus on the conjunction of economics and society. Both Alan Mutter and Clay Shirky show up in this forum as well, making similar arguments — the former in favour of micropayments, which he says will overcome the “Original Sin” of giving content away for free online, adding that readers wouldn’t mind being nickel-and-dimed “if the content were sufficiently unique and compelling.”
Shirky, meanwhile, argues that:
Online, small payments only work when the collector of those payments has end-to-end control of delivery, generally by controlling the hardware or software the user has access to. (This is true of all metered billing, in fact.)
The fantasy that small payments will save publishers as they move online is really a fantasy that monopoly pricing power can be re-established over we users. Invoking the magic word “micropayments” is thus grabbing the wrong end of the stick; if online publishers had that kind of pricing power, micropayments wouldn’t be necessary. And since they don’t have that pricing power, micropayments won’t provide it.
Users of social networks choose where to spend their time based on factors entirely outside of those such as uptime and reliability, according to report issued Tuesday (PDF link) by Pingdom, a service that tracks web site uptime and optimization for companies. Not that such things aren’t important — after all, a social network isn’t going to be of much use if people can’t log in or use the features. But the Pingdom report shows that when it comes right down to it, those things don’t matter nearly as much as one might think. Take a look at the chart below, which sorts social networks according to their total downtime in 2008.
Alan Mutter is a former journalist-turned-entrepreneur who writes an excellent blog called Reflections of a Newsosaur, where he takes on various aspects of the newspaper industry from time to time. One of his recent posts, however, tries to make a point about the validity — or necessity — of charging for content online by using author and journalist/blogger Jeff Jarvis as an example. Not only does his post fail to make this case, but it actually winds up making the exact opposite point.
Mutter’s argument, in a nutshell, is that while Jeff Jarvis is telling everyone that they should be giving their content away for nothing, and that “free is a business model,” he himself is selling an old-fashioned book the old-fashioned way — for cash, in other words — as well as a version for the Kindle e-book reader and a video of himself making some of the central points from the book. As Mutter puts it:
When Twitter first hit my radar screen in 2007 sometime, I (like many others) immediately dismissed it as a gimmicky little time-waster with no real value. I mean, a message limit of 140 characters? Lame. And what was it for? Nothing, apparently. It was like the Facebook status message, but all by itself, with no other services or features around it. What could possibly be the point? As we’ve seen since, of course, there are any number of points to Twitter, a service that “is what you make of it,” as a New York Times piece put it recently.
I also wondered why the Twitter team didn’t include more features, and why they left it up to external services to do things like search (which they eventually acquired by buying Summize). But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the smallness and lack of features is actually a positive, not a negative. What Twitter did was strip all the clutter of many social networks away and pare things down to their essence.