Journalism innovation: A team effort

At the recent release of the Reuters Institute Digital News report, I got to catch up with an old friend and colleague, Alf Hermida. Alf and I worked together on the BBC News website back at the beginning. He was there right at the start and I joined not long after as the BBC’s first online journalist posted outside of the UK. It was a golden age of digital journalism, a rare opportunity to work for was was essentially a well-funded start-up inside of a big company. We had the resources (not limitless by any means) to experiment. We had the freedom and autonomy to really push the boundaries and create a new medium, and we had a team of managers, designers, developers and journalists all focused on one thing: Creating the future of journalism.

From 1998 to 2005, I enjoyed doing frontline journalism innovation with the BBC whilst based in their Washington bureau. We used big stories like presidential elections, the Oscars and the coverage after the 9/11 attacks to try new techniques including letting our audience set the agenda, 360 degree panoramas, webcasts and blogging. Long before smartphones and widespread mobile data, I made sure that I could take online journalism out from behind the desk and into the field. We were doing social and mobile journalism long before they were future of journalism buzzwords.

My role at the BBC in Washington was one of a number I’ve had where part of the job was to create a new position and work with my managers to figure out how it fit into the rest of the organisation. That last bit is really key and possibly the most challenging part of the innovation positions that I’ve had. As digital technology has become easier, more accessible and lighter weight, developing innovative journalism projects has become much easier, but the process of integrating innovation back into the beast is still hard work.

When I was in Washington, integration was a easier for a number of reasons. The Washington bureau of the BBC was exactly the right place to develop the position: It was small enough for me to easily work with my radio and TV colleagues, but well resourced enough that they had the time to work with me. I also contributed to radio and television coverage so it seemed natural that my radio and TV colleagues contributed to online coverage. The position developed into a multi-platform one organically.

The other thing that really worked at the BBC News website was that innovation was central to what we did and was driven by innovative managers. It wasn’t about sitting in Washington coming up with crazy era ideas, it was more about working collaboratively with editors and colleagues in London to refine and execute their and my ideas. One of the keys to the success of the BBC News website was its methodical way of testing and refining digital reporting and interactive presentation techniques. We had metrics for success and we built on the techniques that met those metrics.

I also learned what doesn’t work. In 2003, I was asked to do an innovation project in which I would be a backpack multi-media journalist. I had a digital video camera and I was supposed to help produce multi-platform video pieces. I had done video work before, but there is a long, steep learning curve between setting up a camera for webcasts or doing simple online video packages and shooting packages of sufficient quality for the main BBC news programmes. I did learn, however, and the video did reach the quality where it could be mixed into traditional packages. The big problem wasn’t the video but the lack of a process to use that video. The BBC was years away from multi-platform commissioning. A senior colleague suggested that we should have worked directly with a single programme, and we should have. That would have made things much easier and more successful. It would have more effectively integrated innovation into the traditional workflow in a much more manageable way.

The very next year, I blogged the 2004 election based on a suggestion from my managers in London. It started out as a test during the political conventions, and it grew and grew until I carried on through election day. It was a roaring success and it lead to my work in social media journalism for years to come. It was successful because it had a lot of support from London and my only regret, looking back, is that I didn’t simply carrying on blogging from Washington. However, I came to London in 2005  to write a strategic white paper on blogging which fed into a lot of other efforts across the BBC including efforts by BBC Scotland. Not long after, a blogs steering committee and blogs pilot was launched.

I soon realised that innovation works when it’s integrated into the organisation. I’ve had projects where, in essence, I’m been tasked with being innovative but had no real way to connect with colleagues. Predictably, while these projects might have been interesting, they didn’t have a lot of impact, either with the audience or with the rest of the organisation.

Having an innovation position sounds great on paper, but unless that position is properly integrated, it is unlikely to deliver the results the organisation wants. And from a career progression point of view, innovation positions often don’t have a clear chain of command and rarely have much advancement potential. It might sound great to be outside of the org chart and have the chance to break institutional logjams, but it rarely works. If you’re the new hire, you simply don’t have the political capital to break through the cultural blockages that have prevented the company from getting to where they want to be. In a sense, you are an innovation-shaped sticking plaster, you’re not the shot of antibiotics that’s really needed to change the direction of the organisation.

Fortunately, some things have changed in the three years since I last worked on staff at a news organisation. Digital teams have been built, through a lot of hard, persistent work. And I have deep respect for friends and fellow travellers who have fought the battles and paved the way for real, meaningful progress. But whilst I look back at my time with the BBC News website as a golden age of digital journalism innovation, I know that  those organisations that have integrated innovation are now entering a new era where the gains will be more durable.

When you’re filled with enthusiasm and dying to get projects moving, working through such cultural and organisational issues is maddening. But over the last few years, I’ve worked with some organisations that have focused not just on innovative projects but also on changing their organisations. This is going to unleash even more innovation and a new golden age, and I can’t wait to be a part of it.

How offline social networking works

This is a great video explaining how the ‘Widower effect’ works, and how it applies to all offline social networks. In short, what you do and what happens to you is affected by more than just the people around you, but also the people around them… and the people around them.

This is essential information for anyone working on the adoption of social media in business.
Hat tip to Adam Tinworth.

Cultural inertia is the biggest problem for tech adoption

Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, told the Better World conference at the end of April that the main barrier to technical change is cultural inertia:

Don’t gauge the rate at which you will be an instant success by how quickly you can develop the technology,” he told would-be entrepreneurs. “I would gauge how long it takes the collective culture–any culture–to give up something, even if they are frustrated or unhappy with it, and accept something different. The rate of emotional, intellectual, cultural, and regulatory inertia of the world is very high. It used to be much lower in this country, but even that is changing.

Whilst Kamen was talking more about hardware, exactly the same problem befalls software and webs services.

This is, in part, because of the cognitive biases that we all suffer from. Joshua Porter discussed some of these at dConstruct in 2008. He explained that we value things we own “approximately three times more than is rational” – that’s ownership bias. But entrepreneurs “overvalue software that they’re offering by about three times” – that’s optimism bias.

But the net effect is that there’s a nine-times disparity between the person who is the potential user of the software and the person who’s offering the software. So there’s this huge gulf between the desire of the potential user and desire of the person offering the software.


The initial product adoption is one of the largest problems facing almost every web-design team in this day and age. So, I think, looking at it from this standpoint, at least we know what we’re kind of dealing with. It’s a huge barrier.

So it’s not cultural inertia in the sense of people just being too lazy to think about how they can improve their experience, but a much more ingrained behaviour controlled by a set of psychological short-cuts that our brain takes without us realising.

In short: Adoption is hard and we have to think very careful about how we can overcome these barriers.

The Blogger/Evangelist Lifecycle

For years I’ve been talking about the Blogger Lifecycle – the way in which business bloggers react to the act of business blogging. Last week this topic featured in a workshop I was running so I finally drew the graph that has been in my head for the last several years.

Blogger/Evangelist lifecycle

Based loosely on the Gartner Hype Cycle, it tracks the emotional response of business bloggers and social media evangelists as they develop their online presence. In reality, people’s response to the act of blogging (or other social media activity) varies depending on a number of factors, including:

  • The evangelist’s personality
  • Amount and quality of reader feedback they get, e.g. comments
  • Quality of feedback from peers/managers
  • Time pressure
  • Success of venture as they perceive it

In my experience, evangelists tend to start at either:

1. Scepticism/Uncertainty: They are unsure of themselves and/or of the value of social media.


2. Enthusiasm: They are keen to engage with social media.

As the social media project progresses, the novelty wears off and the evangelist is faced with the reality that:

  • Social media takes time and effort
  • It can be hard to get comments and feedback
  • It can be hard to become a part of the wider community
  • Enthusiasm doesn’t always result in action

That last point is a broad one: It’s not just the enthusiasm of the blogger we’re talking about, but of their readers, colleagues and managers too. Although the blogger might be getting enthusiastic responses from readers, if those responses don’t result in an action, e.g. discussion in the comments or even sales calls, it can still be demoralising. And if enthusiasm by colleagues and managers isn’t matched by relevant actions on their part, e.g. helping promote the blog, that can also damage the blogger’s sense of how things are going.

Lack of comments/feedback can make the evangelist feel isolated and unappreciated, undermining their enthusiasm. Even as an experienced blogger, I still suffer from this. Starting a new blog these days is really very hard and if you get no feedback or, worse, negative comments it’s easy to feel disillusioned. And at the bottom of the Trough of Disillusionment is when a blogger or social media evangelist is most likely to quit.

This is the point at which the good social media manager steps in and supports the blogger/evangelist, encouraging them to carry on, helping them refine their blogging style and giving them tips on how to promote it. Evangelists whose work is appreciated internally, who are supported by peers and management, and who feel that they are producing something of value are more likely to persist with their social media work during these difficult periods.

Evangelists are subject to the same time pressures as anyone else and if they are are not completely committed to their social media work they will find it too easy to sideline it. Successful evangelists find ways to embed their social media activities into their work day and create new habits that support those activities.

If I were running an evangelist programme, I’d create internal communities of practice and encourage evangelists to support one another, share best practice, and sense-check each other’s reactions to difficult situations. This kind of peer support has proved very helpful in some of the projects I’ve worked on, and often it’s so useful that it springs up all by itself as the evangelists naturally start to help each other. Giving them a place to talk right from the beginning jumpstarts that process.

Now, you might wonder why all this matters. So what if someone starts a blog or a LinkedIn Group and doesn’t carry it on? Blogs die all the time… Well, frankly, I think that abandoned blogs, Twitter streams, LinkedIn or Facebook Groups do not reflect well on the company. If I turn up at a Twittter page or a blog and see that it’s hasn’t been updated in months, it tells me that the company just doesn’t care about communicating with its customers, which I interpret to mean that it’s not going to care about me either.

Even in a professional context, using social media is an experience that involves human emotions. It’s easy to lapse into the ‘we’re all professionals here, emotions are irrelevant’ attitude, but that’s clearly nonsense. Business is made of people and people are emotional. Pretending we aren’t doesn’t get us anywhere useful. Acknowledging that we all have ups and downs, that social media is a long term investment requiring long term emotional investment, and supporting that investment are essential to the ultimate success of any social media project. Company ignore the emotional at their peril.

A web for introverts, privacy gradients and trust

Adam Tinworth draws attention to a blog post on GigaOM about how the social web is great for extroverts but not so good for introverts, whether or not that introversion is a general mindset or specific to the internet. From Kevin Kelleher on GigaOM:

Much less noticeable is another trend: the rise of the web introvert. But while some web introverts might be introverted in the classic sense — that is, uncomfortable in social settings — many of them aren’t shy at all. They are simply averse to having a public presence on the web. And in time, they are going to present a problem for social sites like Facebook and Twitter, whose potential growth will be limited unless they can successfully court them.

Web introversion isn’t a question of technophobia or security concerns. Anyone who has tried to build out their online networks on Facebook knows that there are a lot of people they know in real life that they can’t friend online. Many people who have been involved in technology for years — or who are entirely comfortable shopping at Amazon, paying bills online, buying songs from iTunes — will have nothing to do with social networks. Others see it as a chore necessary for their jobs. Still others have accounts languishing on all the major social networks.

Adam says:

Unless we can find a way to draw these people into the social web – and that probably means more thought around both privacy and data ownership – we’re only ever going to get a subset of a subset of people involved. And that, in turn, will massively limit its potential.

The main issue here is privacy. Many social networks haven’t really give that much thought to how people will emotionally respond to their progression through the site, i.e. along the privacy gradient.

The idea of a privacy gradient comes from architecture and refers to the way that public, common spaces are located by the entrance to a building and as you progress through the building the spaces become more private until you reach the most private ‘inner sanctum’. If you think of a house, then the most public part would be the porch (in the UK, a fully or semi-enclosed space around the front door, in the US, it’s often open or screened). The hallway is common space shared by everyone, and spaces like the kitchen and lounge are semi-private. As you progress deeper into the house you end up at the bedroom (and in some cases, the en-suite) which is the most private part of the house.

Understanding the privacy gradient is important, because when buildings ignore privacy gradients, they feel odd. Think about houses where there’s a bedroom directly off the lounge and how uncomfortable that can make visitors feel. I once had a friend who lived in one of the old tenements near Kings Cross, now torn down. To get to his bedroom and the kitchen you had to walk through his flatmate’s bedroom, a deeply uncomfortable act.

Websites work on the same principles, welcoming people via a publicly visible screen, and progressing into increasingly private spaces as the user’s interactions become more personal. A well developed and carefully considered privacy gradient is essential to social sites – even incredibly simple sites/services like Twitter do it, with the public timeline being like the front porch and the direct message like the bedroom.

Facebook, on the other hand, has gone for a walled garden model, which provides an illusion of security for users: even before they set their own privacy levels, they feel they are in a private space, despite the fact that it is shared by several million others and that information can quite easily leak out of it. Facebook’s recent changes to its privacy settings have made its walled garden a bit more like an old, knot-holed fence, letting people peek in through the holes and see glimpses of what goes on inside. This is problematic because it has exposed information that users used to think was private, blurring further the line between private and public.

The inability to see inside a walled garden can alienate people outside the system, who can’t see what or who is inside and may feel that they are being made unwelcome. This brings to mind certain shops (some Abercrombie and Fitch stores do this), that obscure the windows and ensure that one cannot ‘accidentally’ see inside when the door is opened by creating a shield around the doorway. They also have a privacy gradient internally, with more open public areas at the front and fitting rooms at the back.

As one moves along a privacy gradient, one is also moving along a parallel trust gradient. As you invite me deeper into your house, so you are displaying increasing trust in me. If you only talk to me at your front door and don’t invite me in, you’re displaying (in certain circumstances) a lack of trust, or that I have yet to earn your trust. Letting people move up the trust gradient too quickly can cause all sorts of problems, perhaps resulting in a betrayal of that trust.

The same, again, is true on websites. The more we communicate, the stronger our relationship becomes, the more I trust you, the more of myself I am willing to reveal and share. Different people, of course, feel comfortable in different areas of the trust/privacy gradient, so some people prefer to keep things private and require a lot of communication and relationship building before they are willing to trust someone. Others are happy to plunge in at the deep end, revealing everything about themselves to everyone, newcomer and old friend alike.

Both extremes can have negative repercussions. The shy user may fail to realise full utility of social sites because they cut themselves off from helpful strangers. The extrovert may find themselves swamped with many shallow relationships that they can’t maintain or strengthen and, sometimes, being hurt by people using their trusting nature against them.

What is key, though, is that people understand the repercussions of their behaviour and that their expectations of privacy and trust are met by the site they are using. When websites reveal items that were thought to be private, as Facebook and Twitter have both done, then people’s trust in the site is violated and the social consequences for them as individuals could be dire. Equally, when a website makes people feel as if their interactions are private when they are not, they will fail to understand who can observe them and may make mistakes that they would have avoided if there was no implication of privacy.

What I see in this discussion about web introverts is a reflection of the fact that most social sites have been built for gregarious people, often by gregarious people. The privacy gradients aren’t clear to the outsider, or simply haven’t been thought through in enough detail. Twitter, for example, makes it very easy to accidentally respond to a direct message via SMS with a public message instead of a private direct message: That’s a huge violation of privacy and potentially can be extremely embarrassing.

Until social sites get their act together and start to view the web from the point of view of the web-introvert, considering exactly how their sites embody the privacy gradient, shy people will just stay away. And every time companies like Google make mistakes of the magnitude of Buzz, trust in companies to respect our privacy is whittled away. Personally, I can’t blame people for wanting to keep themselves to themselves. With the social web the way it is, I would never attempt to persuade someone to use it if they felt uncomfortable with it. It’s much more important to respect their privacy.

Perceived barriers to wiki adoption

Alan Porter writes a great blog post – one I wish I’d written! – over on Ars Technica examining some of the perceived barriers to wiki adoption that he has come across. He says:

As I continue to research and write my upcoming book on wikis, I keep hearing one word over and over again. That word is “BUT” (complete with all-caps), as in, “I would like to use a wiki, BUT…” or “We tried using a wiki, BUT…”

What follows is usually an excuse for why the speaker feels that a wiki isn’t a worthwhile tool for collaboration in his or her environment. I use the word “excuse” deliberately, because rarely does anyone articulate an actual business reason, such as a lack of need. When I ask deeper questions, I invariably find that the objection isn’t to the wiki technology itself, but instead to the concept of collaborative authoring and a perceived loss of control over the content.

Porter’s post is an excellent view into the cultural and technical barriers people erect in order to isolate themselves from change. Cultural excuses include:

  • We tried one once and no one used it
  • The cost/benefit ratio is too high
  • I’m too busy doing actual work to try anything new
  • It’s overwhelming, and I don’t know where to start
  • If my management doesn’t care, why should I?
  • It won’t be accurate
  • I prefer meetings

Technical excuses include:

  • I need to learn a mark-up language
  • Search doesn’t work
  • It’s a black hole
  • It isn’t like (name your favorite application here)
  • It’s a security nightmare

Porter debunks each myth with great care, and then poses a set of questions that everyone should ask themselves before they embark on a wiki project.

The whole post reminds me of the Why Don’t You/Yes, But… Game from Transactional Analysis where one person offers the other help, but that help is rejected every time with an excuse. I have certainly observed managers (even quite senior ones) playing Why Don’t You/Yes, But… around social technology, particularly wikis and blogs. Let me write you a sample script:

Manager: We need to improve collaboration and capture knowledge.

Consultant: Why don’t you use a wiki?

M: Yes, but it’ll take us 18 months to get it through IT.

C: Why don’t you use a hosted wiki?

M: Yes, but then our data won’t be secure.

C: Why don’t you create a regular back-up schedule?

M: Yes, but that’s too difficult.

C: Why don’t you go with a vendor that backs up for you?

M: Yes, but that’s too expensive.

C: Why don’t you install open source software on an under-the-desk server, Trojan Mouse style?

M: Yes, but if IT ever find out, they’ll kill me.

As Wikipedia says, “”Why Don’t You, Yes But” can proceed indefinitely, with any number of players in the [Manager] role, until [the Consultant’s] imagination is exhausted, and she can think of no other solutions. At this point, [the Manager] “wins” by having stumped [the Consultant].”

Every time I have found myself embroiled in this game, the project has stalled, often before anything has happened. It’s so easy to think of reasons why something won’t work and much harder to think of ways to make sure it does. And when I say Manager in the above example, I don’t just mean middle managers; I have played this game with CxOs, people you would think could just say, “Make it so”, people who are supposed to be the ones setting their company’s technology agenda.

We have to recognise that many companies behave like dysfunctional mega-personalities, with each member of the collective reinforcing each other’s bad behaviour. We can’t always use logic and evidence to deal with people playing these games, but instead must draw from other sources of inspiration such as psychology in order to understand how to move things forward. And that’s easier said than done!

Should we provide incentives for engagement with social technology?

It may seem odd, but a question I get asked quite a bit is “Should we pay our staff extra, or provide some sort of bonus, for engaging with social media?” Sometimes it’s asked in the context of getting people to use an internal wiki or blog, sometimes it’s about getting them to engage externally with business-relevant communities.

My answer is always the same: No.

I have based this answer on an understanding of what drives people to engage with social tools, an understanding I have developed over the years through experience and observation. People generally use social tools because they find them useful or helpful in some way, because to do so increases their status amongst their peers or wished-for peers, because they are curious, or because the tools are enjoyable to use, amongst other reasons.

Putting a financial value on the use of social tools feels wrong. Not to mention simplistic, patronising and a gross misunderstanding of what social software is all about. I think it feels that way because social media is all about relationships, and we don’t explicitly “incentivise” (what a horrible word!) the creation and maintenance of relationships in any other context, so why would social media be different?

If I said to you, “I’ll give you £5 for every friend you make” you would rightly understand that this incentive both encourages you to be promiscuous in your friendship making (quantity over quality) and implies that you are incapable of going out and making some friends without financial reward. For some people the incentive itself would devalue the action that it is designed to encourage, thus leading to contrary behaviour.

This interpretation of my gut feeling turns out to be correct, as Samuel Bowles explains in the Harvard Business Review article, When Economic Incentives Backfire:

Experimental economists have found that offering to pay women for donating blood decreases the number willing to donate by almost half, and that letting them contribute the payment to charity reverses the effect. Consider another example: When six day-care centers in Haifa, Israel, began fining parents for late pickups, the number of tardy parents doubled. The fine seems to have reduced their ethical obligation to avoid inconveniencing the teachers and led them to think of lateness as simply a commodity they could purchase.

It seems that scenarios where altruistic, or other social behaviours, are involved a financial incentive devalues the behaviour to the level of an economic transaction, removing the moral and ethical aspect and making it easier to behave badly.

The psychology of social tools has not been adequately* examined, but I suspect there is an altruistic component, despite the fact that I often appeal to self-interest when discussing adoption. When you look at a healthy wiki, some people spend time tidying up other people’s work for no real recognition or reward, a behaviour that could easily be interpreted as altruistic. There are similar altruistic or semi-altruistic behaviours in other tools too. Using tags/categories on blog posts to enable discovery could be an altruistic behaviour if the author themselves never actually benefits from having used tags/categories, e.g. never goes back to look a their old entries.

To social media people, all this is blindingly obvious, but the incentive question is one that I get asked often enough that it’s something I feel we need to address and nip in the bud.

* Did I say ‘adequately’? Aah, the wonders of British understatement.

A recession: Perfect time to implement social software

We’re in recession. The global economy has bronchitis and is coughing up dead and dying banks all over the place. Governments are scrambling to put together bailout plans. The housing market has zombified, with house values plummeting and foreclosures sky-rocketing. Consumers have no disposable income and are struggling with food and fuel prices. Businesses everywhere are pulling their horns in, wondering how – and if – they are going to survive.

Now, more than ever, it is essential that businesses reconsider how they communicate, collaborate and converse, which means that the most important thing they can do is invest in social tools. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Wow, Suw, what are you smoking?” But bear with me here.

Recessions mean you have to do more with less. You can’t afford to have your people wasting time, even unintentionally, using inefficient tools or sticking with bad habits. For many, that means that email is a liability. As I found when I was researching my article for the Guardian on email, some people in business are checking their email every five minutes. Given that it takes some 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after being interrupted by a ‘new mail’ alert, that’s over 8 hours wasted each week.

Of course, that’s not the only way that time is frittered away in the course of day to day activities. Using email to collaborate on documents is astonishingly wasteful, compared to working on a wiki. We lack studies that specifically look at how email is used in this way and how long it takes to collaborate via email attachment compared to on a wiki page, but my experience is that using a wiki really cuts down on the time and effort required to co-author a document.

Then there’s duplication of effort. I did some work with a company recently who had started to use social tools to improve collaboration. One unexpected side effect was the discovering that there were two teams, in different locations, both trying to solve the same problem. Once they knew that they were both working on the same thing, they could share resources, information and expertise.

Institutional knowledge also often gets lost: people end up re-learning what others already know, because there’s just no communication between them. That’s especially true of day-to-day knowledge which is important, but not the sort of thing that gets encoded into documentation (which is out of date as soon as it’s published anyway). Opening up the conversation by encouraging people to do their work on a wiki is a great way to capture information as it happens. It’s not about cataloguing it after the fact, but keeping info alive as a side-effect of just getting on with things. In a recession, you can’t afford to be reinventing the wheel all the time.

A recession is also not a great time to just throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. But businesses don’t need to experiment, they just need to work with people who truly understand social tools. More than anything, businesses need to invest in their people, in understanding how they work right now and how they could be working.

Personally, I fail to see how any business right now can afford not to address the inefficiencies inherent in their organisation’s existing comms tools. Now, more than ever, businesses need to raise their game, improve communication, improve collaboration, improve conversation. But in this climate, they can’t afford to get it wrong – there’s no slack in the system anymore. Luckily, there’s no need to get it wrong. There are some great people out there who can help you do it right.