Ada Lovelace Day

About The Authors

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

Email Suw

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

E-mail Kevin.

Member of the Media 2.0 Workgroup
Dark Blogs Case Study

Case Study 01 - A European Pharmaceutical Group

Find out how a large pharma company uses dark blogs (behind the firewall) to gather and disseminate competitive intelligence material.


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All content © Kevin Anderson and/or Suw Charman

Interview series:
at the FASTforward blog. Amongst them: John Hagel, David Weinberger, JP Rangaswami, Don Tapscott, and many more!

Corante Blog

Thursday, December 14th, 2006

Feed the Geeks

Posted by Kevin Anderson

Last week, my good friend Chris Vallance was asked in a radio interview: “What is a geek?” After the interview, he asked me how I would have answered. I thought about it for a while.

A geek is someone who talks about technology as much as most men talk about football.

I am the first to admit that I’m a geek, and I’m proud of it. I’m a geek about all my passions whether it’s food, wine, backpacking through the mountains or journalism. I revel in the minutiae of anything I’m interested in (but hopefully don’t bore to tears anyone who happens to talk to me about them). But almost everyone has their personal passions, some are just more socially acceptable.

Most mainstream media organisations are following mass media strategies when it comes to blogs. They are producing general interest news blogs in spades because journalists think that everyone is interested in news, and a very narrow definition of news at that. They are pushing large numbers to blog on mega-blog sites without understanding that blogging is personal publishing where blog readers develop strong ties to the blogger. In the age of social media, it’s good to remember that people develop relationships with people, not brands, organisations or ‘content’.

Not unsurprisingly, mass media organisations are still focusing on the mass. They are still focusing on the ‘rat’s ass of the long tail‘, as Mark Cuban calls it. Andy Kessler quotes Mark as saying in an e-mail exchange:

…in a long tail universe, the cost to crawl up the tailto the rat’s ass is more expensive than the production.

Andy Kessler, as part of a series of posts on Media 2.0, goes on to advise: “Go horizontal.” I couldn’t agree more. Feed the geeks, and by that I don’t mean just the people who are passionate about technology. Feed the foodies, the wine officianados, the travel buffs, the video gamers, the greenest thumb gardeners, the DIYers, you name it. A blog is an inexpensive, lightweight content management system that lowers the barriers to entry and speeds development. Blogging will allow media organisations to target niches that would be impossibly expensive in print. And a good blogger can connect directly with their audience in ways that print can’t and build a loyal community.

At a recent new media event I was lectured by the managing director of a major UK media company about blogging and told that my job was to bring eyeballs to advertisers. Memo to self: Avoid old media execs who have had too much to drink.

But it’s a mistake to think that blogs are about the old-fashioned concept of ’sticky eyeballs’. There is a business model to blogging - if used strategically and not just as a technological solution to allow comments on traditionalcontent.

As Paul Gillin says in an article about the troubles facing the American newspaper industry, “This new medium (blogging) is far more cost-efficient than the ones it will replace.” Google’s AdSense tied search to ads so that people who were searching for something would find related ads. Niche blogs do the same thing. Someone coming to a wine blog is already interested in wine and wine-related products. Just as tech advertisers do better on BoingBoing than on general interest sites, wine advertisers will find a more interested interest on a wine blog than they would a general news and information site. It’s a sound advertising model, and there is a sound business model behind blogging.

Want proof? Under heading of: “It’s not just a hobby - some small sites are making big money. Here’s how to turn your passion into an online empire”, Paul Sloan and Paul Kaihla wrote in Business 2.0:

Denton won’t discuss financial details, but industry experts estimatethat Gawker Media will bring in as much as $3 million in revenue thisyear. Gawker Media’s average CPM is between $8 and $10; CPM rates onGoogle AdSense and competing automated systems are estimated atanywhere from 50 cents to a few bucks.

But media organisations won’t succeed in the age of blogging with a mass media strategy focused on bland, broad-based blogs where there is no ‘there’ there. Instead, news organisations can grow the business by targetting passionate niches in their audience. If you don’t, there are lots of passionate bloggers out there who will.

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Wednesday, November 15th, 2006

Exploding the blog myth

Posted by Kevin Anderson

I really shouldn’t take the piss out of a British media icon, but in this case, it’s just too inviting.

Jeff Jarvis pointed out something in the Indy, in which they asked a bunch of British media heavyweights about the future of newspapers. Jeff pointed to Piers Morgan as someone who gets it and to the BBC’s John Humphrys, presenter of the Today programme, as someone who doesn’t. Jeff pulls out this quote from Mr Humphrys’ statement on why he thought it was preposterous to conceive of a society that functioned without newspapers:

And sooner or later we will explode the blog myth. The idea that you can click on to a few dozen blogs and find out what’s going on in the world is nonsense. It’s fun but that’s all it is. …

OK, let me explode the blog myth, not the myth that Mr Humphrys thinks will be uncovered but the myth that he and several others propagate about blogs:

  1. Myth number one: Most bloggers write about news.

    As my friend Say Na in Nepal points out: 37% of American bloggers want to write about their lives and experiences, compared to 11% who write about politics. She’s writing about a Pew Internet and American Life study. The report says:

    Most bloggers say they cover a lot of different topics, but when asked to choose one main topic, 37% of bloggers cite “my life and experiences” as a primary topic of their blog. Politics and government ran a very distant second with 11% of bloggers citing those issues of public life as the main subject of their blog.

    …most bloggers are primarily interested in creative, personal expression – documenting individual experiences, sharing practical knowledge, or just keeping in touch with friends and family.

    The news media provides disproportionate coverage of political and news blogs because that’s what they are interested in. They cover news, not the intimate details of people’s lives.

  2. Myth number two: Bloggers just want to become journalists or pundits

    Again, as the study found out, most bloggers write for a small audience of their friends and family: “Most bloggers do not think of what they do as journalism.” They write for the pure love of self-expression, not for recognition or money. Mass media doesn’t really understand the motivation of most bloggers because they can’t understand publishing for a small audience for no money. (And in some ways, it’s one of the reasons why most mass media blogs suck. Most bloggers write about and are interested in their personal passions and interests, which is slightly anti-thetical to general interest publications like newspapers.)
  3. Myth number three: Blogging is all opinion

    This is such a common yarn, but unfortunately, this view itself turns out to be only uninformed opinion. First off, see myth one. Most people are just writing about their personal experiences. Of course it’s their opinions. That is totally the wrong yardstick with which to assess blogs.

    But more than that, it’s just flat out wrong. One of the blogs that I read when I want to know about what’s happening in the US Supreme Court is ScotusBlog, which is actually done by the Supreme Court practice of a law firm. It’s great niche coverage.

    Dr Jeffrey Lewis writes, along with a number of other experts, the very interesting Arms Control Wonk blog. NKZone is a great blog that provides some excellent coverage of North Korea including translations of North Korean defectors’ stories, which are common in the South Korean press but rarely translated into English. I’m sorry, but that’s coverage that’s hard to find in the mainstream media.

But really the biggest myth is that these shifts in media consumtion are all about blogs. Blogs are just one of the little pieces of social software that knit my life together. Flickr, instant messaging and Skype help too. I often say that my network is my filter, and whether it’s on friends’ blogs, via e-mail or via IM, I’m constantly getting a feed of information that is more relevant to my life than the crap that passes for ‘authoratative comment’ - as Simon Kelner Editor of The Independent called it. What a load of self-important tosh.

Mr Humphrys admits to ‘being an old fart’ and still loving his news in print. I’m sorry, news on paper, non-time shifted radio/TV and, to be perfectly honest, radio presenters like Mr Humphrys don’t really have much of a place in my information diet. By the time Mr Humphrys has let his first guest get a word in edge-wise, I’ve already skimmed a dozen feeds - some news, some blogs - in my RSS reader. On the Tube, I read through the headlines and some stories in the New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post and The Guardian on AvantGo before I’ve gone three stops. Try struggling with all the print versions of those papers on the Tube, or better yet, try buying them at your local news stand in London.

Mr Humphrys might be suprised to find that for someone who reads and writes blogs, I value information over opinion. I agree with Kevin Marsh, editor of the BBC College of Journalism, that media opinion really has a shrinking market. I can think for myself, and I don’t need some celebrity commentator telling me what opinion I should have. Comment will be free; but information to help me make personal, professional or political decisions might be a going concern.

Wednesday, November 1st, 2006

Is Flock the ultimate blogging tool for journalists? Almost.

Posted by Kevin Anderson

I first used Flock last year after meeting Chris Messina in Paris. He was working to get the word out about the read/write browser at the time. I really liked the idea, partially because it just makes sense as a concept. With blogs, photo-sharing sites Flickr and social bookmarking sites such as Del.icio.us, it makes sense to have a support for these social tools on the browser level.

I have to admit. I downloaded it in December, wrote one blog post and quickly decided that it wasn’t ready for prime time. The tools didn’t work as advertised. I couldn’t even get it to work with my Flickr account, and it made life more difficult not easier.

That was then. This is now. A few weeks ago as I was looking for an RSS reader and other blogging tools to make life easier for my new colleagues at the Guardian. I downloaded Flock again. It’s now my default browser at work. The RSS reader alone is pretty good. RSS is the most under-utilised technology for jourrnalism bar none. For journalists wanting to use RSS, Flock is definitely worth a download (and this article is worth a read). It’s not as full-featured as NetNewsWire, but it’s damn good.

And from a blogging standpoint, it’s better than Sage, my favourite RSS plug-in for Firefox. If you see a post in your feed reader you want to blog, just click the blog button and up pops a window for a new blog post.

I actually like the uploader tool for Flickr photos better than Flickr’s own tool, although truth be told I haven’t used the Flickr uploader in a few months. But even more than the uploader, I like the fact that with a click, I can create a new blog post from my Flickr photos. I can easily see the pictures of my Flickr friends, too, which is a nice feature for personal use.

It has all the search functionality of Firefox and more. You can also set it to search your local history. It has all of the search plug-ins from Firefox.

OK, that was the good. Now for the bad, or at least the work in progress. I liked the spell checker because as you well know if you’ve read Strange for a while, I really benefit from a good editor. However, I discovered just yesterday that it puts span tags around the words it questions or changes. Well, initially, I just saw all the span tags and wondered WTF? It was only after a quick Google that I discovered it was the spell checker that was spawning the spans. It doesn’t look like a new problem, blog posts about it since the summer. I hope it gets fixed.

Suw downloaded Flock after finding Firefox 2.0 broke her can’t-live-without session saver plug-in. Here are her impressions:

I am finding that it isn’t behaving well when posting to a blog either - it just sits there and tries to post without ever completing the action (even though it does post). As you say, minor but annoying.



I also have a problem with the behaviour of their search bar - the sub-menu comes up whenever you click in the search area, instead of when you click on the G, (which is Firefox behaviour) meaning that when I am trying to select all by triple-clicking, it doesn’t work so well.



I have to admit, I am still liking Firefox better than Flock, but determined to still give it an honest trial

The HTML code is not entirely clean. I’m just looking at the source code of this post. The code definitely needs a tidy up.

But it’s getting there. Beginning bloggers could definitely do worse, and journalists who find Movable Type or WordPress’s interface daunting or difficult will find it much easier. It’s come a long way in the last year. I’m hoping that development continues and the bugs and quirks get ironed out.

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Blogged with Flock

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

The most awesome comment system ever

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

Jack Slocum has hacked together the most awesome blog commenting system I have ever seen, using a combination of Wordpress, Yahoo UI and YAHOO.ext. He’s created a system for paragraph- or sentence-level comments with a slick AJAX user interface which could just revolutionise the way we comment. I saw similar functionality on Traction’s Teampage when I got a demo of it last year, and I can imagine that Jack’s approach would be a very powerful way of facilitating quite granular discussions.

At the Open Rights Group we sometimes do public consultations, such as the one we did for the Gowers Review. To gather public input we use a blog and break down the consultation document into sections. This is quite a clumsy way of doing it, and doesn’t really allow for very fine-grained discussions, but Jack’s solution would be far more elegant and would allow us to tease out the nuances of what can be quite complex calls for evidence.

Question is, how do I get one?

(Thanks to Kevin for pointing this out via IM.)

Thursday, October 5th, 2006

Der Standard

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

Austrian paper Der Standard report on my presentation at BlogTalk. Thanks to Horst for both the image and the translation.

Friday, September 29th, 2006

SHiFT: Martin Röll - Time for a SHIFT

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

How we need to change our thinking and acting to use information technology sensibly.

At these sorts of conferences, there seems to be quest for identity, to find out who we are, and how we shape the word, and how the world shapes us. Thomas talked about hacking language. Stowe will talk about tools, how we shape them and how they shape us. I’m talking about hacking the human operating system, how we live and how we interact.

Two assumptions in the title: we need to change, and that we aren’t using IT sensibly. Lilia thinks we are using IT sensibly, but what I mean is that we are not using the possibilities we have from the things we’ve invented, there’s a lot more we could do, and there’s a lot of tech that’s not useful at all.

The other assumption is that we need to change, and I’m not going to argue that point. But I do think it’s time for a shift and we do need to change, because I see things that we are doing on this planet that I don’t like, but I’m not going to labour the point about when we need to change.

But these points I am going to make are going to work for you no matter if you think the world is going to change or disintegrate.

Wishes don’t work, no point wishing for change. Need to act ourselves. That’s why he used ‘we’. Also, pointless blaming others for our misfortunes, we have to own that ourselves.

Idea of this talk is that when we look at the tech we’ve invented we can see it helps us get more things done. Can access more information, can find things faster, can communicate with more people, can work more effectively. Question is, what are we going to do with all that now? What work are we going to do? Are we going to use it to fight faster and more dynamically, or are we going to come up with some better ideas?

Two things are important:

- the way we interact with each other when we use IT.
- the way we work, the things we work on, and the type of work we do when working for other companies and the way we earn our money.

There are things we get wrong, specially when we access the web for accessing information. We tend to believe that what is in the browser is the world, don’t take into account that it’s a snapshot of the world, and we don’t think about the state of mind we are in when we access information.

So you’ve just got up and haven’t had coffee and are feeling groggy, then a comment on your blog may read as a stupid comment, but later on when you read it you may realise it’s constructive criticism.

Often we mis-interpret things online because we don’t take into account our own state of mind, we no longer see things the way they are, we see our own emotions in the email we get and the information we process. We react to this information badly when you are in a ‘fight’ mode, or a ‘protect’ mode. But have to think about why you are reacting the way you react.

Our information systems are created in such a way as it’s easy to get drowned in information. When we try to absorb too much information we become ineffective.

Once we’ve found out what we want to do, once we have our thinking clear, we have to go on to the acting part. One of the most important things here is what do we focus on. We tend to multitask, think about email, or what we have to do… when we don’t focus on what we need to do, when we are procrastinating we don’t get anything done. But we are the ones that decide where to put our focus, our attention.

There are lots of tools there to help us find what is interesting… but that’s frequently defined as what’s being linked to a lot. But when we do that we get into mob behaviour. We find something on the net, but we don’t know anything more than what we’ve seen. So we amplify what is happening without really it being important or relevant to us.

We should stop doing that. People will not stop reading a blog because I haven’t linked to popular things. In fact, if I stop for 2 weeks, it doesn’t matter. RSS feeds mean that people will stay, they can see when you start writing again. We should blog less about things that suck. What I get mad about when I see what’s happening in my part of the blogosphere - so many people spend so much time commenting on things that we don’t like, or things that suck.

There is so much stuff that sucks, everyone could easily write a list of 100 things that suck, but a blog entry is not going to change it. We should focus on what’s really important to us, what’s positive, what can make a difference. Don’t waste time on criticising politics or business or user-interfacces on a new gadget. We shouldn’t talk about he things that are irrelevant to our own actions.

Also need to be aware of the consequences of what we do, particularly the economic consequences. At this conference, you’ll meet a lot of people who are inventing new tools or processes. We are innovating. This is important for companies because they are hiring us and paying us. But we need to be aware of the repercussions of what we do. We need to think carefully about where we are going to put our new inventions. In the end it will all be freely available, but we are the ones who decide who gets it first, we shape the first behaviour, we help the first users make use of the tools. And by making this decision of how we use the tools, if we are not giving it to some people we can stop development, and by giving it to others we can speed development, so we need to think about where we apply these tools.

We have a duty too to share what we know and what we are developing. Not enough to just talk amongst ourselves, to show the demo to other geeks, but they can find it themselves anyway. If we really believe in what we do and we think that it’s important we need to go out and show it to people who don’t know yet. Most people don’t care about what we do because they don’t know about what we do.

You won’t find them on Google or Skype or IM, but our duty is to go out there and find people to share with. But we are developing stuff for us, not for people who are not at our conferences. We can work effectively but other people don’t, and some people are getting left behind and we should show what we do to other people and let them participate in this new world that we are creating.

I believe we are not using the tools we have developed effectively today. Much of the time we use our computers we are recreating other tools we already have, or engaging in the same behaviours. We need to think more about why we are doing what we do. We shouldn’t confuse the browser with reality. We should be mindful when we communicate with others through the electronic medium. Too often we misunderstand others because we’re not aware of our own state of mind when we are interfacing with the system. We need to co-exist with everyone.

Also need to be careful who we work for, whose money we take. If we aren’t more careful, we’ll just be the generation that made things faster. But if we do, not only can we get more things done, have better communication, but we can also shape a world in which more people can live together peacefully.

,

Monday, September 18th, 2006

Why I blog, and why the MSM should and many times shouldn’t

Posted by Kevin Anderson

That’s the title of the talk I gave last week at IBC and that I have given in various forms at other places over the last year. I began the talk by showing off some numbers from Dave Sifry’s most recent State of the Blogosphere reports, the latest one being from early in August. Technorati is now tracking 50 million blogs, and that’s just a self-selecting sample of people who have registered with the site (well self selecting and plenty of splogs, spam blogs, which the Team Technorati is working on trimming from its ranks). That’s a lot of people.

The mainstream media, or MSM for short, can give 16-year-olds trying to lay their hands on the latest fashion a run for their money when it comes to herd-like activity. And newspapers, TV networks and everyone else trying to protect or resurrect an old media business model have jumped enmasse on what Jon Stewart called the Blogwagon. But it’s mostly been an unthinking, headlong rush towards the blogosphere, “to get snaps” from the good-as-advertising-gold 18-to-34 demographic.

Is this really about giving a voice to the already voiced, as Jon Stewart says? What value is it to our audiences to serve up ‘news sushi’, content we already produce and publish but just served up in bite-sized blog bits in reverse chronological order? And I can hear the editors out there saying: “But blogs are just snarky comment, and hey we’ve got snarky columnists in spades. We are so going to own the Technorati and iTunes Top 10.” (And I’ve heard them say this.) Sorry, but if you want to sit up on high and keep pushing your content out at the “great unwashed masses”, YouTube, CraigsList and their successors are so gonna own your asses.

This is not about changing your content management system. You’ve already sunk a lot of cash into those. This is about changing your culture. What do blogs allow you to do that you don’t already do?

  1. Blogs can get you closer to your audience

    And that’s exactly where you need to be. I met Robert Scoble at a Geek Dinner here in London last summer, and he talked about having a conversation with his customers on how Microsoft could better serve their needs. I don’t really understand when journalists moved away from their audience, but many people have that impression.
  2. Blogs can bring new voices to your journalism

    Since when did journalism become a game of pick the pundit? It’s lazy, and it’s turned a lot of journalism into a talking shop amongst pundits, politicians and other journalists. Google yourself some new voices. In the last year, blogs have helped me bring serving soldiers in Iraq onto programmes, helped me hear from a Saudi teenager calling for women’s right to vote and let me eavesdrop in on a guy’s thoughts as he left New Orleans to escape Katrina.
  3. Blogs can get you closer to the story

    Blogs and a world of tools that have grown up around them make creating multimedia stories in the field easier than ever. I’m an online journalist because I believe that the internet is a revolutionary medium. I can do better journalism with blogging tools: Real, raw and in the field, while being in constant contact with my audience. What do they want to know? What questions do they have for the people I’m interviewing?
  4. Blogs could just re-invigorate western democracy

    OK, OK, maybe I’m getting a little carried away. But I’m still an idealist at heart. That’s one of the reasons I got into journalism. Steve Yelvington, who really should be in your RSS reader, put it this way recently:

    1. The end of mass media. Here’s what the 20the century gave us: A population of consumers whose economic role was to eat what they’re served and pay up. These “people formerly known as the audience” are alienated, disengaged and angry. Instead of setting our sights on building a nation of shopkeepers, bankers and passive consumers, what if we set our sights on building a nation of participants in cultural and civic life? Perhaps this world where everyone can be a publisher will not be such a bad place.

And as Steve says a few days later in his blog, there isn’t a silver bullet, and I’m not going to try to sell blogs as one. But Steve told me in Florida a year ago that blogs represent a complex set of social behaviours that we’re just understanding. Blogs are just the tip of the ice berg in this fast moving world of participatory media. Blogging and the mainstream media has to be more than ‘me-too-ism’, and it can be. With a little thought to understand these new behaviours and a willingness to actually accept and adapt to these changes instead of wishing they weren’t happening, we might just have a chance.

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Sunday, September 3rd, 2006

County fairs, country music and loving your audience

Posted by Kevin Anderson

I grew up in the rural Midwest in the US, about 90 miles west of Chicago, and my father loved - still loves - county fairs. Back in the mid 1980s, I was lucky enough to see Johnny Cash with his wife June Carter at a country fair. I still remember the shiver that went down my spine when he took the stage and said: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

I’m not a huge country music fan, but I love good music. Johnny Cash was a living legend, but he still thanked the audience for coming to the concert, for buying his records. He was humble, but it was a humility and a gratitude for his audience that was common to country singers. When I saw Walk the Line this year, I realised for Johnny Cash it might have been because of all of the letters of support he got, especially when he was struggling with his demons and addictions.

I got that feeling of connection with my audience when I was a cub reporter in western Kansas. It was not just a connection with my sources but also with my audience. That feeling of connection is one of the reasons that I find blogging as a journalist more fulfilling than traditional publishing or broadcasting. I find it odd now to write a story that doesn’t have a space for comments. Yeah, I can see the stats. I know people are clicking on the story, but I find having a conversation with my audience more fulfilling.

I talk to a lot of people in the media who view their audience as an annoyance. In the past, the only time they ever heard from members of their audience was to complain. Here in the UK, they jokingly refer to agitated callers or writers with the blanket phrase, ‘Angry in Milton Keynes’.

When I started this post, I was going to point out some of the many incidents when the media turns on their audience. It’s a pointless exercise really. It gets pretty ugly pretty quickly, like when Richard Cohen of the Washington Post this spring called e-mail correspondents a ‘Digital Lynch Mob‘. (For more background, Kos called it the ‘Substance of a Blogswarm‘. Tailrank has a nice roundup of this particular spat.)

I’m not going to pick on Mr Cohen or any publication. Even I have found myself in a middle of a blogswarm or two, such as when the brothers at Iraq the Model banned the BBC from their blog last year. A poor colleague, Sarah, who actually had little to do with the misunderstanding, got some pretty abusive e-mail. She asked me to help out. I hopped into the comments and explained what we were doing. Two comments later, the tide turned, and a commenter named Thomas was even talking about linking back to us.

As I’ve said before, if we in the traditional media blog, we have to play by the rules of blogging, not our own rules. You don’t issue a press release. You get out ahead of the blog storm. You get into the comments. You give your side of the story.

But you don’t always have to be on the defensive. Real blogging - getting out there and actually engaging in a conversation with your audience - has real benefits, both in terms of the business bottom line and just in terms of personal satisfaction.

What do I get back from it? A lot. As I blogged a few weeks ago, I’m changing jobs. Friday was my last day in the office at the BBC, and my colleagues blogged about it. I had plenty of well wishers. Abdelilah Boukili in Morocco has become a loyal member of our audience. He’s been quick to let us know when something is wrong with the blog, usually technical glitches. But it’s helped us fine tune our blog setup. He has also set up his own blog to chronicle his comments on BBC websites. But his comments on the World Have Your Say blog and here on Strange Attractor show how blogging opens new ways to relate to your audience. He said in a comment to me:

It was your interaction with the contributors to the BBC blog that encouraged me to be one of the frequent contributors. I am not a journalist like you equipped with means to get information. All I can do is give my comments which can be good or bad.

In case, you leave BBC blog I will be “following” you in the Guardian blog.

And there are several bloggers who have become frequent visitors to my blogs, Steve in Utah, Ipanema, Anbika in Nepal and Roberto in Miami, who have wished me well.

It takes time to build a community with a blog. Media companies are rushing to blog, rushing to use social networking tools. But as Suw and I always say, the technical tools are just the start. First off, learn to love your audience. We need to learn from the country music crowd. They remember who pay the bills.

Sunday, June 4th, 2006

Comment is F**ked

Posted by Kevin Anderson

First off, I want to say that I really admire the ambition of the Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free. It is one of the boldest statements made by any media company that participation needs to be central to a radical revamp of traditional content strategies.

As Steve Yelvington said this week:

Editors, please listen. If you’re not rethinking your entire content strategy around participative principles, you’re placing your future at risk.

The Guardian seems to understand this need for participation to be integrated with its traditional content, but as with many media companies: “The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.” It is, therfore, not hugely surprising to find that Comment is Free is having a few teething troubles. Ben Hammersley, European alpha geek and one of the people behind CiF, knew there would be risks:

Perhaps the most prominent liberal newspaper in the anglophone world, opening a weblog for comment and opinion, with free and open user commenting is, to put it mildly, asking for trouble. … This means that we have to employ a whole combination of technological and social countermeasures to make sure that the handful of trolls do not, as they say, ruin it for the rest of us. Frankly, it gives me the fear.

Ben was right to be concerned. Honestly, I wish there were a clearer headed assessment of the risks involved with blogging by media companies. Don’t get me wrong. I think that media companies should blog, but the risks aren’t as simple as they may appear and something on the scale of CiF is of course going to have problems. The Guardian appear to have focused mainly on the risks posed by commenters and have put a lot of energy into figuring out how they can have open comments without falling foul of UK libel law.

But people are people, and you are bound to get abusive, rude or irrelevant comments. Any publicly commentable website will reflect the cross-section of society that reads it, so it’s inevitable that some comments will not be as civil and insightful as we would prefer. Trolls happen.

Just this week, Engadget had to temporarily shut off its comments “because of the unacceptable level of noise / spam / junk / flaming / rudeness going on throughout our boards”.

Where the Guardian has fallen over is in their assessment of the risks posed by their choice of columnist to blog on CiF. Rather than thinking about who would make a really good blogger, they seem to have made the same mistake as the rest of the big media who have tried their hand at blogging: They’ve given their biggest names blogs, despite the fact that these people have no idea how to. Now a bit of a tiff has kicked off between the Guardian’s stable of columnists, the commenters on Comment is Free and the bloggers there. (Thanks to my colleague Nick Reynolds at the BBC who blogged about this internally and brought it to my attention.)

Catherine Bennett writes a column so full of uninformed generalisations about blogging in the UK, specifically political blogging, as to completely lack credibility. She seems to be trying to discredit the Euston Manifesto, a net-born political movement in the UK, by painting it as the creation of a sexually obsessed, semi-literate male-dominated blogging clique. I’ll leave it to you to follow the link to the Manifesto and draw your own conclusions.

Another Guardian columnist, Jackie Ashley, defends professional columnists, and says: “To those of you who think you know more than I do, I’m eager to hear the arguments: just don’t call me a fucking stupid cow.” Polly Toynbee asks commentors: “Who are you all? Why don’t you stop hiding behind your pseudonyms and tell us about yourselves?”

Ms Toynbee why don’t you step out from behind your byline and tell us a little about yourself instead of belittling us? It’s usually worked for me when trying to dampen an online flame war.

I’m sitting here reading her column, and I really don’t understand how she expected this to put out the fires. She asks for civility and for people to tell us who they are, but then she says of one of her anonymous detractors:

What do you do all day, MrPikeBishop, that you have time to spend your life on this site? I suppose the answer may be that you are a paraplegic typing with one toe and then I shall feel guilty at picking you out as one particular persecutor.

What do you expect when you respond to ad hominem attacks with patronising ad hominem attacks? Do you really see this as a solution? Are you treating your audience with the kind of respect that you for some reason think you deserve by default?

Ms Toynbee professes to answer her many e-mails, but I do get the sense that the Guardian’s columnists are simply not used to this kind of medium, they are not used to getting feedback in public where they can’t just hit ‘delete’ to get rid of a pesky critic.

Suw - who I should inform Ms Bennett is female and blogs, thank you very much - likened such old school thinking to this:

It’s like them walking into a pub, making their pronouncements and then walking out. Later, they are shocked to find out that everyone is calling them a wanker.

An interesting comment on CiF from altrui May 18, 2006 12:04 (I can’t link directly to the comment):

One observation - those who respond to commenters tend not to be abused so much. There is a certain accountability required among political commentators, just as there is for politicians. Until now, opinion formers have never really had to justify themselves. I can think of many of the commentariat who write provocative and incendiary pieces which cause no end of trouble, yet they carry on stoking up argument and division, without censure or even a requirement to explain themselves.

Two issues here: Columnists are not used to engaging in conversation with their readers; and the readers have had years to build up contempt of specific writers and are now being given the opportunity to revile them in public. A lethal combination of arrogance and pent-up frustration - no wonder CiF has soured. Question is, can the Guardian columnists learn from their mistakes and pull it back from the brink?

A few suggestions. Don’t treat your audience as the enemy. If you’re going to talk down to your audience, they are going to shout back. And quite honestly, I would say to any media organisation that your best columnists and commentators don’t necessarily make the best bloggers. Most media organisations thinkg blogging is simply snarky columns. Wrong, wrong and wrong.

It’s a distributed conversation. Ms Ashley says: “As with child bullies, I wonder if these anonymous commenters and correspondents would really be quite so “brave” if they were having a face to face conversation.” You’re right, and I am in no way defending some of the toxic comments that you’re receiving. But step back. Read your column as if it were one side of a conversation and think how you would respond.

Many columnists seem to use the British public school debating trick that really is a form of elitist trash-talking. Belittle your opponents as much as possible. Most will lose their heads, and therefore the argument. But, again, step back. Would you ever address someone face-to-face in the patronising manner of your columns and honestly expect anything approaching a civil response? It seems that your debating strategy has worked all too well, and your audience is so angry that they are responding merely with profanity and vitriol.

Again, having said all of that, I’m glad that the Guardian aren’t letting growing pains stop them. They are choosing one of their best CiF commenters to become a CiF blogger. Bravo.

Tuesday, April 25th, 2006

NLab Seminar: Blogs, Communities and Social Software

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

I’m up at De Montfort University in Leicester at the Narrative Laboratory for the Creative Industries (NLab) seminar, Blogs, Communities and Social Software. I’m speaking later, but managed to get up here in time to catch the first panel discussion.

The Institute of Creative Technologies, who runs the NLab, has got a new building, and this is the first event to be held here. It’s half-finished, but already has a small kennel of Aibos and is apparently also going to be getting some flying insect robots too. Cool! I’ll have to come back when they’ve got them installed.

As to my own talk, that’s about blogging and writing, blogging writers, and Creative Commons. Thinking about the things that authors are doing with blogging in preparation for this talk got me really quite excited and, if I can find the time, I’ll write more about it.

The audience here is mixed, with some people knowing about blogs already, and some people being complete novices. That makes it a hard audience in some ways, because you either bore or baffle, so I’m very much focusing on showing what other people are doing, and am not really going to talk about concepts.

Right… to the first panel.

Speakers

Josie Fraser, Educational Technologist

Sue Thomas, Professor of New Media, De Montfort

Chair: Gavin Stewart

Sue Thomas - Why RSS is important, and why you should have it

What is RSS? The easiest way to find out what RSS is is to go to the BBC site and look at their explanation, via the ‘What is RSS?’ link.

[Goes on to provide very basic explanation of RSS.]

[Demos Bloglines, as aggregator, the clippings function, publishing your blogroll, seeing other people's blogrolls via subscription to the same feed.]

Josie Fraser - Weblogs and Web 2.0 in eduation

Used to write for Engadget - gadget based movie reviews.

Interested in getting teachers up to speed on what’s happening in the rest of the world. Edublogs: blogs in or about education by learners, practitioners, researchers, policy makers etc. Blogs are individual, groups e.g. schools, universities, etc.

Misconception that schools in the UK are lagging behind in tech, but they’re not. there is a lot of exciting stuff going on. Warwick Uni, for example, offer blogs for all universities, and people are using Amazon-type models in their blogs, so looking at book reviews, film reviews, CDs, etc.

Walsall Schools have a large blog community, with subscribers across the UK. Marketed as easy way for teachers and learners to have a web presence. Traditional websites never get updated, and for schools that’s not useful, so with a blog they can put info up straight away. They can have headmasters posting info for parents, for example.

Notables:

Barbara Ganley

Gateshead Central Library

James Farmer’s edublogs.org, also learnerblogs and uniblogs, all hosted online. Problems that he has had are with firewalls in schools.

Edublog Frappr map.

Edublog Awards in third year.

Use of emerging tech reflects state of learning tech in all institutions in the UK - it’s patchy, it’s not embedded, and it’s not joined up. But bloggers are all about community, so there is a different agenda. Web 2.0 techs are sociable and community building, so fundamental shift now in how tech is being delivered in schools and university.

Many constructivist arguments for using blogs, not just in education, but generally. It’s an ideal platform for citizenship, participation, collaboration. Develop e-literacy which is fundamentally important. Formative value: Develop voice and provide ability to explore online, v. empowering.

Positivist concerns: retention, achievement, progression; evidence and supporting the curriculum. Very specific aims, don’t always sit well with blogging.

Issues that need addressing re: staff skills and current practice

- e-literacy and legitimacy of new tech (still in question, lots of suspicion)

- small pieces loosely joined vs. one size fits all

- training and support (some teachers are still struggling with email, so how do they go from that to engaging with blogging and social software?)

Duty of care, re: child protection

- literacy and resilience vs. moral panic (over sites about anorexia, etc.)

- online identity. what happens if you’re blogging through university, become completely googleable, and what you did ten years ago affecting how you are perceived now; lots of employers Google

Systems, re: network management:

- privacy, spam, filtering. these systems are often imposed on schools, and they have no control over them.

- hosting, ownership, data protection

Debate

Q: What makes certain software social?

Josie: The difference is, people talk about Web 2.0 in terms of social software, but the truth is that socialability has being going on on the web for years, chat, user groups, discussion boards, these are all sociable. The difference is that social software is more geared up to making friends online, although that’s been possible online for a long time. More online dating sites, which is a huge market and is becoming acceptable in a way that it wasn’t two years ago. But you can interact with it easily, use it easily, and interact with the writer.

Sue: I’d add to that the fact that social software society is a different kind of society and it has its own rules and behaviours, so the other side is the society that is produced by the software. It affects the way we regard each other, what we know about each other, what we make public. The idea of social software enabling your data to be added to the mix. E.g. MySpace, the engagement that people make involves a trade-off - their clicks, prefs, data is being logged. Same as your loyalty card logs your shopping data. That’s the hidden trade-off.

Was asked, Don’t young people worry about privacy? What is going to happen when they realise there’s so much data being held? Young people know they are making their trade-off.

Josie: But it’s not being talked about in those terms. General practice for blogs is that you are being very honest, very earnest. In a way that’s sad because it’s played off against going online and creating a fake life, and playing with identity.

I am on a crusade against the word virtual, because it’s not virtual. there is no distinction anymore. It is real. The number of people who have fallen in love online… there is no separation. It is as real. And if we pretend there is a distinction we are kidding ourselves.

Q: People develop new coping mechanisms for making sense of what is happening online, because it is different from everyday life. That’s a difficult aspect of social software, because the making sense mechanisms that we have are different from the ones that we need to develop.

Sue: You have to use it to be able to critique it, because often looking from the outside it really doesn’t make sense. It’s the difference between being a passenger in a car, and driving a car.

Josie: This comes back to digital literacy. How do we talk about this stuff to people who don’t even like using email. There are techs emerging at the moment that are characterised by the fact they are very user friendly. So a blog is where you go online and fill in some forms. It’s easy. So the way that I get people into it is to get them to go into eBay, and they manage that ok when they see something they want to buy.

There is reticence amongst a lot of teachers to engage in this, but Web 2.0 makes it easier for them. I’ve tried to teach teachers how to use Dreamweaver and it’s a nightmare, and it’s not what they need to know. But show them Blogger and you can get them up and running in half an hour.

Q: Quite often people know how to do the digital side, how to create the blog, but they are becoming aware now that they are creating an identity. People don’t always want their world online. They have something against the social side of it, rather than the technical side of it.

Sue: The problem is that blogs have got a name for being boring and petty. So when you say ‘you should start a blog’ people think that you are saying ‘you should write about what you had for breakfast’. I even thought that myself. I thought I’d be in a constant state of panic about what I’d written.

I got into it when my book Hello World came out, and I needed a website, and a blog was easiest. I just used it as a content management system.

But I think people do, because they don’t know what else they want

Gavin: I got interested in people using blogs, playing with cultural identity, e.g. hamster blogs, dog blogs, etc., and this is a sort of creative writing class blog. These blogs have minute readership.

Q: People think they have to write for an audience. My blog is writing for myself, and it was portable - could access it from anywhere. So part of the problem is that you’re immediately faced by this audience issues. Took me a long time to send a link out to people about my blog.

Sue: You’re interested in vlogging. Do you want to tell us about it?

??: It’s video blogging, but with hypertext. A true blog can’t be a book because you can’t print the links that make sense of it. So a vlog has hyperlinks, and links in the footage itself that bring other content in, people are working on video commenting etc. People are basing it around traditional, old media, in terms of it being news content. It lends itself to that, but it’s more than that. In the way that people are doing blogging as creative writing, vlogging is creative film work.

Kate Pullinger: There’s a ticking bomb, which is the business of privacy, and what it means for everyone to be publicising their lives, such as the undergraduate. For example, Heather Armstrong (Dooce). It’s a huge issue.

Me: No one got fired for blogging, they got fired for doing or saying something stupid. And with privacy, maybe we will have to learn to be more forgiving in future.

Josie: Digital literacy in terms of children and learners understanding the implications of what they are doing is important, but we need teachers and parents to understand this.

And we can bury stuff. We can blog solidly for three years and bury the older stuff. Employers don’t spend hours on this. Stalkers do, but employers don’t.

Sue: We are growing up on the web, we are learning how to do all this stuff. When you learn to write, you gradually learn that there are certain things you don’t write, or don’t show people. Now we need to become literate with the web. Someone I knew a couple of years ago, who is very literate and started teaching, and started blogging about his class as you would tell your friend. And you think ‘Don’t you realise that the students who made your life difficult today will read your comments tonight?’. And people don’t grasp it, it’s naivety.

Q: It’s part of the growth process. And the important thing is often not the host blog (e.g. Slugger O’Toole), but the conversations that they are hosting.

Josie: The use of blogging in the US elections was something that highlighted the fact that blogs weren’t all about personal diaries, and that it could be a professional tool that’s very powerful.

Some of the meetings I go to, if you say a blog is a diary they will shout at you and throw things at your head, because it’s not. It’s a website. The difference is that it’s easy to use. You don’t need to know HTML.