The Globe and Mail: Using social media

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.

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Finding a balance in social media

snipshot_e4j8jrecvt4.jpgLaurent Haug, a very smart guy and part of the brain trust behind the LIFT conference in Geneva, has written a great post on his blog about finding balance in social media, and how he thinks that we are beginning to do that — in other words, stepping back from the “all users are created equal” view that has driven some of the commentary around sites like Wikipedia and Digg and acknowledging that some people actually might have skills or qualifications that make them more valuable. Not exactly a revelation for some, perhaps (yes, I mean you Seth) but still worth saying. As Laurent puts it at one point:

“Kicking out the experts was not the answer. We do not all contribute the same value. Somebody who has carved violins all his life should have more editing power than me on Wikipedia’s Stradivarius page.”

Laurent goes on to talk about how he sees social media and online communities that generate content being made up of three necessary groups: the users, content creators who are “needed to scale the system to a dimension where it starts to matter;” the drivers, who “build the community framework,” and the experts, who “bring credibility to the whole edifice by sharing their extensive knowledge.” Go read the whole thing.

MySpace News, YourSpace news

As reported by several sources, including Reuters and Mike Arrington’s TechCrunch (where the notion of an “exclusive” gets some debate in the comments section), MySpace has launched its widely-rumoured Digg-alicious news service, although Mike said that it would go live at 7 a.m. and all I get is a login prompt when I go there. Was the site not quite ready for prime-time perhaps? (Update at 12:05 EST — it is now live).

snipshot_e4n7gpvxl18.jpgIn any case, this new service from the geniuses at Fox Interactive Media (which owns MySpace and is a unit of Rupert Murdoch’s media and entertainment behemoth News Corp.) was reported to be coming in March, according to Terry Heaton’s PoMo blog. The service will pull in news from RSS feeds — although News Corp. says it will not favour its own services and newspapers — and users can also submit stories, and then vote on them. Apparently news services will be able to opt out and not have their articles displayed, according to News Corp.

Despite the fact that most people who go to such “user-generated” media sites don’t actually submit or perhaps even vote on stories, as Seamus McCauley discusses here (based on a new Hitwise survey), I still think this kind of thing could turn out to be very powerful, and that MySpace is smart to do it. MG Siegler at Parislemon says he is skeptical, and Seamus says that it is a missed opportunity, while The Last Podcast says it is just plain bad. Eric Berlin says MySpace missed the boat and should be focusing on getting user-generated content from its members.

The questions in my mind are these: What happens to Jason Calacanis’s Digg-ified Netscape? Or to Digg itself for that matter, which has been trying to branch out into non-tech news but without much success (as far as I can tell)? With 100 million members, MySpace has more than 100 times the audience that Digg does. Better yet, how long until Google News decides to add a user voting system? Now that would be fascinating.

Digg, the echo chamber and Matthew

Paul Kedrosky points to a fascinating study that was written about in the New York Times magazine this weekend (it figures that the one time I put aside the mag without reading it, it will have a fascinating story in it), which looked at the theory of “cumulative advantage.” This is also known as the Matthew effect — from the bible passage Paul quotes in his post — or the “rich get richer” effect.

snipshot_d41ctepx4c7o.jpgSimply put, the theory is that if someone is popular — for whatever reason, be it real talent or just blind luck — he or she is likely to become even more popular, since people tend to gravitate towards things that are already perceived as being popular. In the study that is written up in the NYT magazine, a team set up a website where more than 14,000 participants signed up and were asked to listen to, rate and — if they chose — download songs by bands they had never heard of. Some of the participants saw only the names of the songs and bands, while others also saw how many times the songs had been downloaded by previous participants.

The results showed clear evidence of cumulative advantage, says one of the authors of the study:

In all the social-influence worlds, the most popular songs were much more popular (and the least popular songs were less popular) than in the independent condition.

At the same time, however, the particular songs that became hits were different in different worlds, just as cumulative-advantage theory would predict.

As the author notes, this kind of social influence — which might as well be called the Digg effect — “didn’t just make the hits bigger; it also made them more unpredictable.” And that definitely complicates the tendency to believe in the wisdom of crowds when it comes to music or just about anything else.

“Even if you think most people are tasteless or ignorant, it’s natural to believe that successful songs, movies, books and artists are somehow “better,” … if only because “that’s what the market wanted.”

What our results suggest, however, is that because what people like depends on what they think other people like, what the market “wants” at any point in time can depend very sensitively on its own history: there is no sense in which it simply “reveals” what people wanted all along.”

Fascinating.

Update:

As Ethan at blackrimglasses.com points out, this is also known as a “power law distribution” and can be seen in all kinds of behaviour, both online and off.

PayPerPost: a Web 2.0 witch-hunt

I have a lot of respect for Jeff Jarvis. He’s been pushing the social-media thing longer than just about anyone, and he knows a lot about the media business. And I think Jason Calacanis is a smart guy too, although I know he gets on a lot of peoples’ nerves. But I don’t get why the mere mention of PayPerPost.com seems to drive both of them completely off the deep end (Scott Karp gets into it at The Blog Herald too). There’s a moralistic tone to the whole subject that I find odd.

In the latest installment of the saga, Jeff and some other smart people at the AlwaysOn conference slammed the company and its compensation model for bloggers, and then Ted Murphy — CEO of the company — stood up and took issue with some of what Jeff and the panel said. The company requires that bloggers disclose that they are being paid, he pointed out (although Jeff rightly noted that this came only after pressure from the blogosphere).

witch hunt.jpg

Then Jeff makes fun of the fact that Murphy has a TV crew following him, and compares him to the ill-fated Bubble 1.0 company that was the subject of the movie Startup, something that is echoed by Valleywag. And Jason Calacanis says the PayPerPost “scam” and “train wreck” is coming off the rails and that the “most hated company” on the Web is doomed.

I thought PayPerPost was bad too (although I didn’t call it a “cancer” like some people), because it didn’t require bloggers to disclose that they were being compensated. But now it does, even if that disclosure comes in the form of an overall policy, rather than something that is declared on a per-post basis. And there are plenty of other ways for bloggers to be compensated and become conflicted. What makes Ted Murphy into Satan all of a sudden?

Jeff’s post in particular has a real lecturing tone to it that I find irritating. He holds PayPerPost up to public ridicule, accuses them of giving parents the tools to exploit their children (like parents haven’t been doing that for centuries anyway — and check the comment on Jeff’s blog from the mother he mentions in his post), and then makes fun of the CEO for promoting his company.

Is the startup reality show idea stupid? No doubt. But no stupider than lots of other things. For more on this topic, check out WinExtra’s blog and ZDNet’s Larry Dignan’s balanced take, as well as a nicely-written rant from Jeneane Sessum at Allied, and another over at The Last Podcast.