Just a quicky: Stephanie Booth has a great post on paid vs free content, taking the kind of sensible and level-headed approach that I am failing to see from most media companies. Key for me was this bit:

This is a tough message to pass on to a client: “The money you’re paying me to write is actually marketing money. The content I provide will add value to your website for years to come, and help build your reputation and credibility. How much is that worth?” It’s not just words on a screen, disposable stuffing like so much of what is unfortunately filling our newspapers today. Scanned today, gone tomorrow. Great writing, online, has no expiry date.

Dead right.

Experimenting with Kachingle

In April last year I wrote about a start-up called Kachingle for The Guardian. I explained Kachingle thusly:

After registering with Kachingle, users decide on a maximum monthly donation, currently set at $5 (£3.50). When they see something they like, they simply click on the Kachingle “medallion” to initiate a donation. Kachingle tracks their reading habits, tots up how many times they visit each favoured site and divvies up the money proportionally at the end of the month.

It’s equally simple for site owners, who just need a PayPal account and a snippet of code to display the Kachingle medallion. The revenue split gives content providers 80% of the donations, with the rest covering Kachingle’s costs and PayPal fees.

I’ve been quietly keeping an eye on Kachingle to see when they would launch and was excited to get an email from Bill Lazar, Kachingle’s Marketing Engineer, last week saying that they were ready for beta testers to come on board. They will be launching properly in early February.

I think Kachingle is a really interesting idea, and I’m very excited to have the opportunity to test it out. That’s the medallion, up there in the top of the right-hand sidebar. All you need to sign up with Kachingle is a PayPal account and a spare $5 a month (although you can spend more if you want to). That works out at £3.07 per month, which even in a recession I think I can spare!

Kachingle sits very nicely with my recent decision to buy as many hand-crafted present for Christmas as I could. In an economic downturn it is more important than ever to support small businesses and I really like the fact that the vast majority of the money I spend on sites like Folksy go to the person who made the item I’ve bought.

But Kachingle is not just a way that I might earn a little spare change, it also gives me a way to support others. I’m hoping that over the course of the next few months, bloggers I enjoy will be able to join up and let me show them my appreciation.

If you want to sign up as a Kachingler or as a Site Owner, get in touch with Kachingle’s beta programme. And, of course, let me know what you think in the comments!

Focus on editorial ideas, then find the right tool

My esteemed colleague and comrade in digital arms, Jemima Kiss, Twittered this very astute observation, in less than 280 characters, about Twitter and use of the micro-blogging application by news organisations:

jemimakiss: Common mistakes news orgs make with Twitter 1) That it’s all about Twitter, rather than how people are actually using Twitter and..

jemimakiss 2) They get fixed on using a tool, like Twitter, rather than working out what they want to do & finding the best tool for it. That is all.

She’s spot on when it comes to Twitter. There is a tendency for organisations to rush with the herd to a new social media service or site without thinking about what, editorially, they are trying to achieve. I’ve seen the same thing happen with blogs and Facebook. After entering the mainstream, some journalists demanded their own blog. Why did they want a blog? They saw it as a back door to having a column. They had always wanted an opinion column because it was a sign of status and as we all know, blogs are just opinion (sarcasm noted). A typical conversation in the industry might go like this:

Editor: How often are you planning on updating your blog?

Aspiring columnist: Oh, once a week should do.

Editor: Were you planning on linking to anything?

Aspiring columnist: Why would I do that? This is my column, er, I mean blog.

Editor: Are you going to take part in the conversation and respond to comments?

Aspiring columnist:
No, of course not. I’m far too busy for that kind of thing.

Editor: So why do you want a blog instead of a column in the newspaper?

Asprining columnist: *silence*

That’s not to say that the journalist wouldn’t get their own column, er, I mean blog, thus continuing traditional media’s focus on celebrity over interactivity. Some journalists make incredibly good bloggers, but when a blog is used simply to replicate what possible in print, it is an editorial waste.

Functionally, there might not be a great difference between a column-with-comments and a blog, but editorially, there is a huge difference.

  • Bloggers post frequently.
  • Bloggers take part in the conversation and respond to comments and questions.
  • Bloggers link to the conversation on other sites.

Blogs take part in a distributed conversation in ways that columns rarely do, whereas columns – even ones with comments – provide a relatively closed, introspective conversation.

Jemima has flagged up how much the same is happening with Twitter. This all comes down to understanding how social media differs from traditional uni-directional publishing and broadcasting and thinking about the editorial concept and the unique opportunities for engagement.

Digital versus print and apple and oranges analysis

David Carr at the the New York Times has written a story that must cheer the hearts of newspaper owners as they struggle to find a way to go back to the days of fat returns. Under the headline “Newspaper Shuns Web, and Thrives“, he speaks with a small community newspaper publisher who is enjoying 10% growth by almost choosing to “aggressively” ignore the web.

Ryan Sholin said on Twitter:

Yo, David Carr, apples & oranges is a pretty fricking basic concept, isn’t it? You’re comparing them.

I’d agree. Carr’s analysis is simplistic and just plain wrong. Carr says:

A few caveats before we turn back the clock on publishing history. TriCityNews employs 3.5 people (the half-time employee handles circulation), has a print run of 10,000, and has a top line that can be written in six figures.

A caveat is an outlying piece of data that can be ignored and not threaten the main thrust of the analysis. This is just one piece of data that destroys the analysis that it is the choice of the publisher to ignore the web that has made his business successful. The publisher also has negotiated long term deals with advertisers so that he doesn’t have sales staff, and he has six part-time columnists. I could make a very successful digital or analogue news business on that cost basis.

This isn’t about digital versus print. This is difference between having zero legacy costs, a small building and I’m guessing no print plant. This is a minuscule cost basis versus the high legacy costs of existing newspapers in terms of staff, paper and distribution. As any one knows, US newspapers still make piles of money, just not enough money to cover their costs.

And it’s not just the buildings, printing presses and distribution costs that the newspaper companies are groaning under. It’s the mountains of debt that they accumulated through aggressive, highly leveraged acquisition strategies. McClatchy took on debt to acquire Knight-Ridder. In September, they had to renegotiate a $1.175 bn debt deal to account for their declining revenue. Gatehouse is drowning in debt to the tune of $1.2 bn with a preciptious drop in their stock value, and we know the result of Sam Zell’s highly leveraged buy-out of the Tribune Corporation. To compare a 10,000 circulation start-up print news operation with a media conglomerate like Tribune Corp with $7.6 bn of assets and $12.9bn in debt is ridiculous. It’s about as ridiculous as comparing Digg with a newspaper. They just aren’t comparable creatures in economic scale, business model or editorial mission.

I would argue that the more accurate analysis is that Dan Jacobson, the publisher of the TriCityNews of Monmouth New Jersey has an incredibly lean news organisations with no legacy costs. It has more in common with Nick Denton’s Gawker than the Tribune Corporation. This is not an issue of digital versus analogue but rather the result of Jacobson’s focus on exclusive local content, a recession-proofed revenue strategy and aggressive cost containment.

Newspapers used to be the most efficient way to advertise. Now they aren’t. In the first half of 2007, Google pulled in 39.8% of all online ad revenue in the US. In 2007, Google was 241 in the Fortune 500. In 2008, it leapt to 150. No, Google’s business is not to create journalistic content, but it is competing with newspapers for advertising dollars.

Digital could support a news organisation on its own, if they were willing to radically reduce costs, and I don’t mean simply cutting staff. First, let’s look at the revenue side. There are still too many people running and working for newspapers that believe the 1990s chestnut: The web is great but how do you make money with it? The LA Times web revenue now exceeds its editorial payroll costs. As commenters on Jeff Jarvis’ Buzzmachine point out, that’s not the only cost a newspaper has, but it definitely challenges the view that the web is simply a money pit. The problem isn’t that the web isn’t making money, but that it’s not making enough money at most newspapers to compensate for the decline in the print business, which is still the primary revenue generator for most big city newspapers. (Jeff just got an update from LATimes Editor Russ Stanton on their web success.)

But we also need to look at cost containment. Newspapers can still radically reshape their businesses to take advantage of digital efficiencies. I often talk about when I worked for the BBC in Washington. About 8 years ago, the bureau set up its first digital editing suite with a blue-and-white Power Mac and Avid video processing, storage and software. The total cost was around $80,000. In 2005, they replaced the system with a PowerBook, Final Cut Pro and a portable RAID array for roughly $12,000. Faster, better, cheaper and portable. Expensive equipment and production doesn’t necessarily mean better quality, and a good professional can produce 80-90% of the quality at a fraction of the cost. This may sound odd to people who know me, but invest in the people, not the kit. I’d rather have a job than a shiny new computer any day.

For many large chains neither the web, print nor anything short of selling porn would dig them out from underneath the mountain of debt they have accumulated. Highly leveraged consolidation is the problem and will be the death of some of these chains. This isn’t an issue of digital versus print. Now that the credit bubble has bust, leaner and more efficient will always win the day over highly leveraged and highly costly.

Kits and Mortar

It’s been a few years since I last started a new blog and the old itch has returned in the form Kits and Mortar, our new eco- and cat-friendly self-build blog. I’ve wanted to build a house for as long as I can remember and it’s a dream that Kevin shares too. Now that we’re married, it’s time to think about what that would really entail and, if I’m going to research something, I might as well blog it! Kev’s going to join me, and we’re going to write about every aspect of self-building, from thinking about materials to figuring out what sort of design we want to coming up with ideas for making the house cat-friendly.

This is a bit of a departure in some ways. It’s been a long time since I’ve done any “commercial” blogging, but this one will have ads and will be a bit of an experiment to see what can happen if you have passion and ads in one place. We’ve already had an amazingly positive response from lots of the people we’ve mentioned it to, which is a very positive sign.

Either way, though, I’m going to enjoy having a new writing project to focus on!

Is participation inequality actually a problem?

A few weeks ago I wrote a post over on Conversation Hub about participation inequality and the “1% Rule”, which states that for any community, one per cent of your users will participate fully, nine per cent will participate infrequently, and 90 per cent will lurk. My suspicion is that the numbers are variable, and that you would end up with a higher percentage of people participating within a private or semi-private group, particularly those within business. I currently have no numbers to back that up, but I’m going to look for some.

But despite the actual figures, I think participation inequality is not just inevitable, in some cases it’s actually desirable.

First, the inevitability. Communities have always suffered from participation inequality. Long before the internet came along, we saw participation inequality all over the place. Not everyone in a geographical community, or community of interest, could or would take part in the running of that community – people have been disenfranchised for reasons of gender, class, education, religion, affiliation (or lack of), and pretty much any other reason you can think of. Whether it’s the aristocracy, the Old Boys Network, OxBridge or any other sort of ruling elite, we’ve had inequality in offline communities since the dawn of time.

And this isn’t just about politics, but also about science, the arts, even sports. Every field of human endeavour has suffered some sort of participation inequality, and the definitions of who could take part had little to do with ability.

Online, of course, the playing field is much flatter. Most people just don’t care if you’re an Oxbridge graduate or if you left comprehensive school at 16. Some people – like Andrew Keen – get hung up on models of authority, but generally if your point is valid, it’s valid. Online participation inequality is a lot less about tertiary attributes than offline, although there are still plenty of examples where gender, skin colour and sexuality sadly still play a part in some people’s definition of who is qualified to do what. (The online environment is, after all, a reflection of offline society and we still have prejudices that we’d be better off without.)

The inequality that Jakob Nielsen writes about is, I think, a different one – it’s more about choice than exclusion. Ninety nine per cent of people choose not to participate heavily in social activities available to them and ninety per cent choose not to participate at all, and it’s a legitimate choice for them to make.

It would take some investigation to find out why people make that choice, whether it is disinterest, feelings of exclusion, lack of time, etc., but the deliberate exclusionary tactics used by people offline to bar people from a community just don’t work online. I have plenty of online friends whose skin colour, religion or sexual preferences I have no idea about, and nor should I – it’s entirely irrelevant to the conversations we have. Generally I know people’s gender, but not always.

So, if people are, on the whole, making a choice for themselves not to participate, is participation inequality actually a problem?

The idea goes, for businesses, that if people are participating in a branded website, they become more emotionally (and sometimes, intellectually) involved and therefore more likely to buy. Participation increases traffic, and provides value back to the customer. It also gives people something to talk about, which then provides you with that holy of holies, word of mouth promotion.

For many businesses, a social aspect is a good thing to have, but their businesses run fine without it. And for those who do have some way for people to participate, they don’t actually need everyone to do it for it to be helpful. Only a fraction of Amazon‘s customers write reviews, yet Amazon thrives. Indeed, Amazon thrived before it started doing reviews because it gives people something that they want.

But not all participation is created equal. The quality of participation is far more important than the quantity. Sites like YouTube attract some very poor comments which do nothing to create or cement a community, or inform or entertain the readers. Most of it is, sadly, dross and this is a common problem across high-volume, low-social cohesion participative sites. Indeed, some communities get positively poisonous. Having lots and lots of comments is not a sign of success if those comments are racist, sexist, homophobic, ad hominem, or just generally obnoxious. It doesn’t help your brand, and it doesn’t encourage the ninety percent of lurkers to either participate, or look well upon you.

Furthermore, could sites cope if participation ran at at one hundred per cent? If you are getting 100,000 unique users a month, and each person left, say, 10 comments, could your system really cope with processing a million cgi scripts? That’s 22 cgi scripts a minute. That’s a lot, especially as, for many of the blogging systems used for participative sites, the choke point is cumulative – you’d be ok for a while, then the whole thing would fall over.

(Note: Of course, visitor numbers follow a power law distribution – many sites have low figures, some sites have very high figures, so I picked 100,000 because it’s a nice round figure not because it represents anything.)

Some sites are set up to deal with volume – Flickr deals with about a million photo uploads a day, but it’s designed to. That’s what it’s there for, and they work hard to make sure that they can cope with demand. Most businesses don’t have the infrastructure to deal with all their visitors participating, whether it’s leaving a comment, or uploading photos, video or audio. The tools just aren’t designed for it.

Beyond the sheer volume of contributions causing technical strain, there’s also the issue of moderation. Libel laws in the UK are very strict, and many online community managers, particularly for commercially-run sites, choose to moderate every comment or item of content. This is expensive, even when you’re only looking at one per cent engagement. Full participation would make the moderation of content functionally impossible and economically impracticable.

And finally, the issues of the breakdown of the community. We’ve all heard of Dunbar’s number, the “theoretical maximum number of individuals with whom [a person] can maintain a social relationship”. Thought to be 150, it has profound implications in just about every walk of life, but it’s especially relevant to online communities where the social ties between participants can be very weak indeed, and prone to breakage. “Communities” of 100,000 people are just not viable – they need to be broken up into much smaller groups in order to really be communities, rather than just a big melee of random strangers.

Inevitably there will be a sweetspot, where you have enough participation to keep the site vibrant, and not so much that the whole thing degenerates into a slanging match. Where that sweetspot is will depends upon the site, the people running the community, the people in the community, the technology, and a host of other things. For some sites, one per cent might be it, for others, ten… or 0.1. I don’t know that there’s any way to predict it.

Yet, there are times when it is incredibly important to be aware of participation inequality, and to actively seek to remove it. When a business website, such as Amazon or YouTube, has only one per cent of its users participating, it’s not a big deal. It doesn’t matter that only a minority of people want to write reviews of books or leave comments on videos. But sometimes it really does matter if only a minority takes part.

The day after I posted on Conversation Hub, Steve Peterson wrote about the same problem on The Bivings Report, citing an example where participation inequality had a detrimental effect:

A recent example of participation inequality side effects is when a Utah school voucher bill was debated on the legislative wiki Politicopia. Utah State Representative Steve Urquhart — and voucher bill sponsor – launched the wiki earlier this year. With great fanfare from publications like the Wall Street Journal’s sister site Opinion Journal, many observers were excited to see how the debate unfolded around the school voucher bill; it faced an uphill battle since similar bills failed during the last several years.

In fact, activity on school vouch[er] bill page on Politicopia is what many consider the reason for its passage. Citizens upset that the school voucher bill succeeded — diverting state money from some of the lowest funded schools in the country — successfully collected enough signatures to have a referendum during a special statewide election in November to potentially overrule the legislature and reject the bill.

Although a group of Utah citizens did participate in the school voucher bill debate on Politicopia, the zeal and excitement surrounding the community was misinformed since participants were a small minority of Utahns. They simply did not accurately represent their fellow citizens.

This problem is one that cannot be ignored. When policy is being created, it is absolutely essential to make sure that it is not based on the opinions of a minority, as happened in Utah. The answer is not necessarily to ensure that every stakeholder should get a say, as this can – managed badly – result in a complete mess. Instead, policy should be based on evidence, and every stakeholder should be able to give evidence.

It’s important to note, however, that the referendum voters in Utah may not have made the best decision, even after the referendum. A process which starts off with one vocal minority and is then changed by a campaign and a popular vote is not an evidence-based process, and there’s plenty of opportunity for bad legislation to be achieved in this manner.

Simply slapping up a wiki and basing your policy on the opinions expressed there is foolhardy and irresponsible. Public debate, e-democracy and the empowerment of the electorate are essential in a modern democracy, but policy cannot be made just by those who have the loudest mouths.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden made a very good point on John Scalzi‘s blog post about his attempts to add details of author Fred Saberhagen’s death to Wikipedia:

What neither Jimmy Wales nor anyone else owns up to is the sheer exhausting corrosiveness of having to fight with obvious psychopaths like “Quatloo”. I’ve joked that Wikipedia’s tagline ought to be “The online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, so long as they’re willing to devote hundreds of hours of energy to fighting people with autistically long attention spans.” Until Wikipedia can figure out some way of reigning in the rule of its Red Guards, it’s going to be repellent to an enormous swathe of humanity: the people who are put off by authoritarian pricks.

If you want the genuine output of the whole world’s input, you need to stop empowering the volunteer hall monitors over every other kind of human.

Using social software to understand the needs, views and opinions of the community is a valuable tactic, but it must be a part of a wider evidence-gathering process and efforts must be made to involve those who might otherwise stay silent. The dominance of the loudest voices absolutely must not be allowed – they distort the discussion and imply that consensus is all you need. In fact, consensus is not the aim. Good policy based on evidence is the aim.

But when it comes to business, I’ve yet to see a compelling reason why it is inherently a bad thing for only a few per cent of your visitors to engage socially on your site. It is, ultimately, a balancing act between keeping things vibrant and keeping them civil and manageable, and at the moment I think we lack the data to say where the sweetspot is.

I, for one, am thankful that there’s some asymmetry. I don’t think I could cope if every reader of Strange Attractor decided suddenly to strike up a conversation! (And we’re only a little blog!)

Scary monsters: Does social software have fangs?

Last week I gave a tech talk at Google about social software within business, the difficulties we face when introducing it to people, and tactics for fostering adoption. I spoke for about 25 minutes, and then we had a lively Q&A for half an hour. I will admit that I was quite nervous about it – I mean, there are lots of very smart people at Google, and I wasn’t sure if what I was saying was just teaching grannie to suck eggs. I think about 20 – 30 people turned up, and most of them seemed to enjoy it, so I can only hope it was interesting and useful for them.

Google videoed it and had it up online in no time at all, so here it is:

If you don’t want to watch it all, then Steph Booth took written notes to go with it.

Thanks very much to Kevin Marks for organising it for me.

Amnesty-Observer Anniversary

I was at the one year anniversary of the Amnesty International-Observer campaign looking at challenges to the freedom of information on the internet. The event started with recorded statements by citizen journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor and Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia talking about some of challenges that Chinese Wikipedians face just to contribute to the community-created encyclopedia.

Some people think the internet is a bad idea. I think it’s a great idea, and we’re the people who are going to make it happen.

The next hour and a half had some gripping stories from bloggers and net activists from around the world talking about their struggles for freedom of expression

Continue reading “Amnesty-Observer Anniversary”

Frontline Club: Politics and blogging

Last night, Suw and I went to a discussion on World Press Freedom Day at the Frontline Club here in London. I’ve tidied up my liveblog notes and added a little commentary as well as tried to link out to the sources that were mentioned.

The moderator, Richard Gizbet of Al Jazeera English’s Listening Post, started off this evening: “We’re here to talk aboout the blogosphere and the MSM: What it is good at and what it’s not good at.”

The panel:

Ben Hammersley, former multimedia correspondent at the Guardian

Kevin Marsh, BBC College of Journalism and former editor of the Today programme at Radio 4.

Ethan Zuckerman, with Global Voices Online, OpenNet Initiative (Ethan let me know that while he lends a hand at ONI, that he’s not actually on the project team).

Alaa Abd El-Fatah, Egyptian blogger at Manal and Alla’s bit bucket

Richard first talked about his fascination with the Egyptian blogosphere. It’s one of the least covered but most active in the Middle East. Alaa has used technology to help empower activists. More on that later.

Richard: I do a broadcast at Al Jazeera called the Listening Post. In the 18 months before we pitched this and we got on air, we had an idea of what this would look like. We thought it would be a multimedia look at the newspapers around the world. That has all changed, in large part what is going on in the blogosphere. They are pushing, pushing mainstream media.

Ben: Difficult to know where to start this. Key thing to talk about over the next half hour is the results of this revolution. Free tools to express yourself. For every blogger, there is a different style of blogging. There is not one blogging, there are 50,000 different kinds of blogging. There are free or cheap tools on the internet. There is no such thing as blogging (in the sense that there is one thing called blogging, not to put words in Ben’s mouth but to try to interpret), just blogging tools and lots of people are using them.

Kevin Marsh: I think if there is one point that I really want to emphasise this evening are the claims that are being made in mature democracies on its behalf of blogging to mend politics and mend political journalism. Those aims are unachievable. It is wrong to say that blogging fixes what is broken in politics and what is wrong with political journalism. It would be wrong on World Press Freedom day to say that people shouldn’t have freedom speech, but I don’t think blogging reconnects the political disconnect that exists in mature democracies. Politics and political journalism is broken, but I don’t think that blogging will fix that.

Ethan: One of the things that we’re interested in at Global Voices doesn’t address Kevin’s concerns about mature democracies, but it is about providing views and opinions from developing nations. In a lot of countries, the blogosphere is a lot less constrained than the press or the broadcast media. If you are in Zimbabwe, you can’t really get free views from the press or broadcast media that you can get from bloggers, some blogging anonymously. The openness in this space is closing quite rapidly. The number of countries filtering the internet is expanding.

Richard: Go to Alla in a few minutes This week there was another casualty in the Egyptian blogosphere. One of the bloggers, Sand Monkey, has decided to pack it in.

Sand Monkey said that he thought security was closing in on him and that soon his anonymity would be blown.

Alaa: Sand Monkey had some complaint with others in the blogosphere. It looks grim. There are two bloggers in jail. There have been several bloggers taken by security. This is not new. This is normal. It happens to journalists all the time. It happens to activitists all the time. We are now worried that the government is attacking the medium itself. With the religious taboos, there are many who are looking to limit freedom of speech. We see people who are being sent to jail. It is difficult to say if this is a trend that will continue. It is having a chilling effect at the moment.

Ethan: Let me jump in on this chilling effect. There are two ways gov’ts can constrain access. They can limit access technically. China, Ethiopia and Pakistan limiting access to The other way is to intimidate people to tell them that they are under surveillance. When you see Sand Monkey stop blogging, you see a chilling effect.

By threatening to arrest a few people, you can silence hundreds or thousands of people.

Ben: It’s very interesting to ask yourself, these gov’ts not technically sophisticated. Why is the blogosphere being targetted as bad speech? Bloggers are the ultimate boogeyman for authoritarian governments. It’s like the moral majority in the US or UK blaming video games for violence. Is it because bloggers so efficient at spreading political ideas or just because they are new?

Alaa: We are seeing a general crackdown. It affects bloggers less than mainstream media. Bloggers use the medium for journalism but also for activism. There is media interest.You hear more about bloggers being arrested than journalists being arrested.

Ethan: I think that governments being interested in controlling information that blogging is very interesting for activism. One thing that freaks out gov’ts is that this is an international space. Ethiopia is worried about what is being said by Ethiopians abroad. They are more strident than if they lived in Ethiopian. The internet is more open than other media.

Media enthusiasm can’t be discounted. Bloggers are arrested and they blog from jail, as Alaa did. Activists can get their message out to a wider audience. If bloggers can do this, it is not just for local activists but to get the message out to the rest of the world.

Richard: Broaden this out to Virginia Tech shootings. There was the discussion about the appropriateness of using video, but this was the first time mainstream media turned to blogosphere. Students blogging in real time on Live Journal, MySpace and Facebook. They were upset. Called it digital doorstepping. In the Guardian, Patrick Barkham said that bloggers didn’t understand the public space they were in. He said they need to grow up. (The full discussion on the Media Guardian between Patrick and blogger Jeff Jarvis) Kevin, is if fair for journalists to go there?

Kevin Marsh: I might be one of the few people who think it isn’t right to go there. It’s right to say that people who were filing stuff to MySpace or whatever that they should have known the rules. You go back to people uploading stuff, it wasn’t their intention that the media …

(I have to interrupt the liveblogging with a bit of a postscript: He compared it to someone who had written something in a diary. He said that a diary because it is written is now public. I couldn’t disagree with this analogy more strongly. I have a paper journal in addition to the blogs I write. When I die, I have instructed friends that my journals are to be burnt. Just because I wrote them on paper, I do not want them public under any circumstances. These are my private thoughts, my private musings, and I do not want them ever made public. Everyone compares blogging to keeping a diary. Yes, most people blog about their personal experiences, but I have levels of what I want public and private. I think this analogy stands up very poorly, and I do not consider my personal diaries as public record or in the public domain in any way. As a journalist, I reject the idea that my personal diaries are public in any way whatsoever.)

Kevin Marsh: At the first time in history, we have the ability to build up the richest picture in history. It makes me uneasy. I do wonder if there should have been a pause button. Where is the common humanity? Is it true that they filed to the globe that that was their intention?

Richard: Any thoughts from Cairo or US on digital doorsteping?

Ethan: Most bloggers most of the time are writing for a tiny audience. Most on LiveJournal are writing in public but only writing for a dozen people. But the same is true for most bloggers. What happened for Virginia Tech, they were writing for a very small group but what they were writing was interesting to a very large audience. People find themselves committing acts of journalism. What got tricky with Virginia Tech, they didn’t embrace that identity. They found themselves writing for a much larger audience. Journalists need to be sensitive that people may be writing in public but writing for a much smaller group of people.

Alaa: Most journalists assume that bloggers want to be journalists. Most bloggers don’t want to be journalists. Sometimes when journalists are telling your story or quoting you, you are being put in a different context. It is very common in Egypt that newspaper use comments from the blog. People are angry are about it. There is this idea that you are writing to smaller public and a public online. I don’t know what can be done. It is bound to happen.

Ben: One of the things that we have to deal with is the rapidly changing standards of media literacy. We’ve only had the internet for 10 years. We’ve only had blogging as a mass phenomenon for three or four years. I think it’s very interesting what Kevin was saying with LiveJournal stuff. If you say that you can’t use found letters, then documentarians would be out of a business. Ken Burns couldn’t have made the Civil War. The British Library said that they were starting to collect e-mails.

Richard: Too bad, we can’t get the White House to do the same.

Ben: We haven’t made the rules, but we have the old rules. The idea that it was written this morning and not hundreds of years ago. Does it really change anything?

Richard: When we were first confronted by the power of the idea, it was seeing as a panacea.

Kevin Marsh: You still see it. You go to a politician’s blog site. They say it is all about engaging with the public. But it’s no more engaging with the public than knocking on doors. David Milliband quite interesting guy because we thought he was standing for leadership. When he says he isn’t running, he doesn’t do it on his blog, it goes into the Observer. It is difficult to differentiate between Boris Johnson writing on his blog and Boris Johnson writing on his blog. He has links to his articles on the blog.

In order to pass first base, you have to have a civil conversation. It’s very humbling when you look at political journalism in the last 25 years. You see the political journalism and it’s very easy for bloggers or anyone to do it better. Political blogging in the States is more or less a running commentary on the failings of political journalism. Here, it is more or less political journalism. Guido Fawkes, it’s rumour. It’s supposition. It’s the same thing that alienates people from political journalism. There is nothing special about putting Tony Blair on YouTube.

(Again, I have to interrupt. In holding up David Milliband, Boris Johnson and Tony Blair’s laughable efforts to publish content in an interactive space, I have to ask this questions: Is it a failing of blogging or vlogging, or a failure of politicians to grasp the idea, the opportunity that they could interact directly with their constituents in a new way? This is not a failure of blogging. This is a failure of mainstream politicians to truly engage, and I would say not only to engage via blogging but even through more traditional methods of political engagement. Later, Kevin Marsh will talk about authenticity. The problem with politicians moving into this space is similar to the failings of traditional media often in this space, they simply use a new tool in a traditional way. They use blogs as broadcast and publishing and forget the return channel. That’s not a failure of the technology. It’s a failure of vision and a failure to understand not only the technology of engagement, but engagement itself.)

Richard: I wondered why British political blogosphere such a quiter space. I think the blogosphere fills a vacuum where ever it is. It’s different in Belarus. The British blogopshere represents a tribute to mainstream British journalism. You felt like there were voices that spoke to you.

(I would disagree here as well. I think it’s a success in mainstream British journalism to marginalise voices that they find threatening. I think it’s a shame, not something that should be celebrated. I find unanimity, homogeneity and predicatability in the mediated conversation.

I also find a contradiction. The media here mourns a lack of civic participation, but then as some choose to participate via blogs, they attack and belittle bloggers’ contributions. And the only bloggers that get to play in the media space are those that are familiar and fit in current political alignments.

The US media is no better, using bloggers to reinforce a traditional political agenda. They highlight bloggers to perpetuate the right-left shouting match that has debased popular political discourse and leaves most people disinclined to participate out of frustration and alienation.)

Ben: The thing with the American blogosphere was that it was not to fill a void. It was to find a scapegoat. It rose with election of George Bush. America woke up day after election and recoiled up in horror at the other 50% of their country. They all blamed the media. left said Fox. Right said Hollywood. It became a meta conversation about the media.

Ethan: I am going to respectfully disagree with Ben on issue of timing. I saw a rise of political blogosphere in the lead up to ’04, not a follow up. People were desperately finding a way to participate. What came out of that was the Howard Dean campaign. It is very easy to get Americans active in online medium, but very difficult to get them helpful.

Bloggers very effective at raising money but what was less clear whether we created policy dialogue. It was the laziness of people wanting to be active without leaving their machines but feeling that things are quite off kilter in our country.

Kevin Marsh: I think that is really important. What is the most disappointing thing is seeing video of Joe Trippi on PrezVid. What did that achieve other than to campaign online? It ended no where. What was really disappointing, it was the relish Joe Trippi had that social networking sites would reveal more Macaca moments. What disturbed me was the relish he had in delivering more Macaca moments. That was the problem with traditional moment finding off guarded moment.

Alaa: I don’t know any about what you guys are talking about. If we think about blogging and fill a gap in journalism, in Egypt, we have not seen any coverage of local issues of local stories. When I looked at Lebanon, the way that bloggers see the world, it was very different than mainstream media sees the world. There is very little political blogging than goes beyond sectarian debates. There are black spots that aren’t being covered by bloggers as being covered by mainstream media.

Suw Charman: Why focus so tightly on political commentary bloggers? There are bloggers that talk about issues but not in a political world. There are bloggers talking about the ambulance service or NHS, or like the NGO I founded to talk about digital rights.

(Suw makes an excellent point, and I think one of the problems is that most people relate to governance and policy differently than politician and journalists.)

Richard: To be fair, Alaa not replicating political commentary

Kevin Marsh: The distinction of civic conversation what is connection behind sites that you are talking. What I don’t see is connection between that conversation and the political parties. I don’t see that connection. Political groups say look at all this conversation going on.

Ben: Massive class of blogs written by ambulance drivers, teachers and soldiers saying that this is broken.Their’s isn’t the failure. The failure is the political class. That is where poltics is broken. Used to say, politicians never meet nurse. If you’re in politics and dealing with health care why should you wait for Polly Toynbee to tell you that the health care system is broken.

In America, they are trying to ban military bloggers. It absolutely shows that it is broken, because you’re not listening to people you are serving. (Talked about here on Captain’s Quarters, here on Black Five or on Wired.)

Journalist with Japanese online newspaper: In Japan blogging is so huge, grown out of alternative media. Is there distrust of blogging in Britain?

Ben: Certainly, there was a distrust. Ben outs me as the Guardian blogs editor, as he says that it is entering the mainstream.

Ethan: I want to respond to Suw. I do think that we limit when we just talk about the political blogs. We show you the blogs talking about life and everyday issues. What are the issues of everyday life in Cambodia? I think that Ben’s point on milbloggers is spot on. What life is like for a soldier in Ramadi is critical for us. Bloggers that are taking a specific journalistic function.

Kevin Marsh: The trust element. The mainstream media is finding in blogs something difficult to find: Authenticity. Not out for out and out verification, but trying to find authentic voice. There is another thing. The BBC reported a story about riots two years ago. Thought it came out of nowhere. Look at Where I Live sites on the BBC, you could see tensions between West Indian and Asian communities. The precise elements pulling out there.

Ben: World Press Freedom day. Censorship doesn’t work. All of insurgents in Iraq are blogging themselves themselves silly. If you want to see US soldiers being shot, go to YouTube, on al Qaeda blogs. For Department of Defence to shut their side of the story down is silly.

Richard: The Department of Defence is outposting Iraqi bloggers 10 to 1. They are not stopping.

Ethan: This is the same mistake that the US government made with Radio Sawa. US government sees that YouTube is being used and think that to have US government video on YouTube is the answer.

Jonathan Charles, BBC Correspodent: While I think that this provides a slice of life, but I wonder whether bloggers’ lack of restraint harms their own case. Watch news, and I see that it is dissected by right and left. It is still a cacophony of voices. Do they discount themselves by their lack of restraint?

Kevin Marsh: I think it’s hard to talk about standards. I think you have to live with it. It feels a bit like journalism.

Jonathan Charles: Let me give you an example. I received an e-mail by someone. I responded and then it was posted on someone’s blog.

Alaa: It is precisely not a mature conversation not following norms and laws that it is important. If we chose to follow libel laws in Egypt, we would not be unable to talk about torture, unable to talk about corruption. You remove barriers that journalists have been unable to break through.

Member of audience: Blogs change standards of media literacy. I do question pilfering comments on MySpace for Virginia Tech. The second question is most influential political blogs. Philadelphia, Dan Rubin, Blink blog, tackles politics in very dispasssionate way.

Ben: The question about media literacy and privacy on MySpace answers itself. The social norms in MySpace and Live Journal are really only understand by people under 25. If you are the AP national reporter who discovered Google a couple of months ago, then they don’t understand the medium. We have to wait for everybody to catch up.

In US political blogs, there are people very good. In American political sites, you can always tell which side they are on. The non-mainstream blogs, you can always tell what side they are on.

Richard: My kids are on MySpace and Facebook, and my wife calls it MyFace.

Member of audience: Ask Alaa, if you see blogs as the new political opposition.

Alaa: I don’t think that blogs can go anywhere on their own. It is not what you can do on the internet, it is the network on the ground. When you add the blogosphere and SMS and e-mail to a thriving community of opposition, it can become very powerful. But if you don’t use these tools on the ground, you don’t have anything but debate. You see the rise of the new generation of activitists. It is being reflected in the blogs and empowered with technology. But it is turning out very easy to intimidate the activist bloggers.

Ethan: There are a wealth of other tools. You can’t neglect mobile phones or e-mail. What is great about the blogosphere, it is an international space.

Question from woman from Moscow human rights group: Several speakers have spoken about ethical limitations of blogging. To me, blogging is private, it has no ethical limits. It is about people getting on web and writing their private diaries. If there are politicians, it is public. If not public, how to apply ethical standards.

Ben: The ethics come in when you publish it in a public space like the internet. If you want it private, write it down in a book and put it under your bed.

Question in Russian: Director of journalism from Moscow. I wanted to draw attention that very important in Russia to situation of journalists to the rest of the world. Number of demonstrations around the world, police would arrest journalists. It is very important to have bloggers. Because of state control of internet, very hard to get information.

Ethan: Tremendously active Russian blogging scene. One of really interesting things is that Russian bloggers have attached themselves to LiveJournal because it makes it possible to constrain posts to certain audience. Some LiveJournal posts only limited to certain group. Different than in US where writing for a global audience.

Bill from Greece: What I feel from countries like the Middle East not as free as Greece, Europe or the US, feel like more free than working at BBC or Fox News. How are we going to protect this? How can we talk about these restrictions? Should we journalists put this on first level of information.

Richard: Not a plug for Al Jazeera. Egyptian blogosphere is a big story. We need to amplify the blogosphere where it is being shut down.

Kevin Marsh: I think that broadcasters do have a duty here. It comes back to the point of authenticity to take that point and amplify it. I think that blogging needs protection from a whole host of things. Mature democracies need protection as politicians look to social networking sites and they think that will solve their problems. You overlook at your peril of western politicians that these networks represent what is on the ground. This is free civic conversation but it isn’t politics.

Ben: Yes, there is a lot of nasty uncivil stuff on the blogosphere. If you want to see nasty comments, write a post about Israel-Palestine or read Richard Fisk’s e-mail. Free speech is a bitch, and the blogosphere needs to be defended even though at times you don’t want to look at it.

Member of audience: On one hand, we’re told we missed the story by not reading blogs in Birmingham, but we can’t go into blogs for Virginia Tech. But it is OK to send in large number of cameras to Virginia. Isn’t it less invasive to use found comments?

Kevin Marsh: Intrusion is part and parcel of journalism. This is a new phenomenon, a new medium. I agree with you rushing into a campus with a large number of cameras. that’s the nature of news. I’m much more equivocal about dipping into blogs and exchanged messages. I don’t think we have the etiquette sorted out. If you’re posting in what is your mind is half a private space or a public space.

Ben: A lot of people assume that they are writing under Chatham House rules.

Richard: Ethan, last comment from you.

Ethan: I think that a lot of this is learning how to read in this new medium. There are questions of how to read blogs. Look not just at post but through history of what they have written. Look back at who they writing for. Are they writing for the wider world or for just a few friends? It’s a new medium. We are learning not only how to write in this space but also how to read in this space.

Search useless for blogs

Interesting little piece from eMarketer about how people find the blogs they read. It’s really no surprise to discover that 67% of respondents find blogs through links from other blogs, and 23% via recommendations, but I like the way they analyse this for the benefit of businesses used to dealing with old-style websites who try to use search engine optimisation techniques to make their site more visible:

The fact that blog awareness is effectively spread by word-of-mouth is key for anyone using one in a campaign. Not only can you not build it and expect them to come, you cannot even build it and optimize it for search and expect them to come. Blog launches must be accompanied by links on established blogs, and some good recommendations from established, influential bloggers.

My only quibble with that advice is that you have to launch your blog without links from established blogs – you can’t just go round emailing influential bloggers and asking them to link to a blog they’ve not yet had the opportunity to read! Trust – and links – have to be earnt over time and there’s just no way round that. You can’t have a “launch accompanied by links on established blogs”, you have to launch, write what you write, and the links will come if you are good.

Another quote:

Two-thirds of blog readers said that they read to be entertained, and 43% said that they read to keep up with personal interests or hobbies (multiple answers were allowed).

Businesses really need to understand this point. People don’t read blogs to be marketed at, they read blogs to be entertained and kept up to date with stuff they are interested in. If your blog doesn’t do either of those things, it just won’t be read. Bunging any old crap up on a blog isn’t going to cut the mustard – you’ve got to be passionate, interesting, and entertaining.

Of course, none of this is news, but it’s good to see some statistics to back it up.