Can comments withstand Google-scale communities?

Not long after I joined the Guardian as blogs editor in 2006, I was at an online publishers event in London. Forefront in my mind was how to build engagement at the scale that we would quickly find with Guardian blogs, a particularly important question given that this was several months after the launch of Comment is Free, which was already suffering from serious teething pains socially. I asked Tim O’Reilly how to scale community, and he said:

You have to stay small as you grow big.

Being at a conference, Tim didn’t elaborate on his Zen k?an, but I still ponder it today, especially as I read this: How Ta-Nehisi Coates built the best comment section on the internet—and why it can’t last.

Flipping back to 2006, I had recently done a lot of work in my previous job at the BBC regarding social media – blogging as social media was then – I wondered how well the social aspects of blogs would hold up when we threw the scale of audience at it that the BBC could generate. I foresaw some of the issues that BBC bloggers would have in terms of trying to deal with volume of comments that they would instantly face.

In traditional blogs, the core audience is a community of choice, a group of people that shared an interest in a particular topic. That community of commenters grew to have social connections, bonds that helped foster civility. At the BBC, our bloggers could quickly generate an audience, but that didn’t mean we could create anything like the thoughtful communities of choice that we saw with smaller blogs. Our commenters didn’t know each other and would often be drawn to hotly contested topics because of strong, often diametrically opposed opinions.

To make that kind of conversation work, you need people with a very different skill set than your traditional columnist, who often come at issues with a ‘what do I want to be outraged about today’ type of mindset. What you need in order to make comments sections really work is exactly the kind of mindset that Coates’ brings to his work, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t still face the challenge of staying small as you grow big.

The issue is that the internet rewards scale and some social strategies simply fall apart at Google-scale. Once The Golden Horde – the name given to Coates community of commenters – grows beyond a community of choice and starts to attract people wanting to vent about some of the most sensitive issues that we face today, the comments often become unmanageable.

Back when I was blogs editor at The Guardian, I was often asked how I measured success, and I said it was not by the number of comments. Any fool can generate comments. You simply pick the hot topic of the day, push people’s buttons until they bleed and then survey the wonderful wreckage of human outrage. That is why in 2015 the internet sometimes feel like one gigantic generator of human fury.

Outrage was the standard editorial strategy in the 20th Century, when the only return channel was analogue and scarcity of letters to the editor set a high enough bar to keep the Angry from Milton Keynes interplay to a manageable and highly controlled level. That editorial strategy does not work in the 21st Century with a completely open return channel for which the technical and social tools have not kept pace.

In this century, the big challenge is generating thoughtful conversation. I have tried it a number of times, to the point where commenters knew that I was building a digital media Skinner box: Rewarding productive contributions more than punishing transgressions and guiding the comments towards conversation rather than confrontation. It is hard work and it does not scale particularly well. I was blessed with the autonomy and time to do it, but it takes time and a lot of effort.

At the end of the of the day, maybe staying small as you grow big is like Google where you break up a team when it gets too large. Maybe the only way to make this work is to keep the communities and conversations small enough so that people actually develop the kind of social bonds that allow them to disagree with civility. But that runs counter to the gigantic scales that make a business sustainable on the internet.

So, what happens when the business imperative to scale comments runs counter to social strategies to manage them? Things fall apart. It’s that simple. They become unmanageable and eventually people burn out and the communities of choice leave, in search of some other space where things work on a more human scale. I’ve seen it happen time and again. Some people seem like serial early adopters, but what they are really doing is seeking a space in which they can find community.

As an editor, this raises all kinds of questions. But the one thing I would say is that while we all want the biggest audience possible, we have to accept that strong, highly-engaged community strategies operate on a different scale. Push them beyond their social bounds and they will simply fall apart.

Update: After thinking about, small communities of choice also tend to be rather homogenous. This begs the question on how we develop technologies and social techniques that allow for diversity of thought and civil dissent.

Rebuilding journalism through building a community platform


Last year, as my job search started to lead back to newspapers and back to community journalism, I started to think about the challenge and how I might meet it. When I wrote that blog post, I got a bit of pushback on Twitter about how stretched local newsrooms are. I knew that then, and now, I live that challenge. I wrote then:

After years of declining readership and revenues that have led to savage cuts, to say that local journalists are stretched thin is an understatement. They are stretched to breaking point.

Newspapers need to fight for new audiences and new revenue, and they must do that without new resources. As I said in my blog post last year:

When the cuts started, the talk was about ‘doing more with less’. It was about finding efficiencies and cutting out the duplication of effort, but after years of cuts, newsrooms now find themselves able to do less with much less. Editors have had to become a lot more creative on how they work with the staff they have left, with other resources if they are in a group, and with their communities.

When I landed in my new job as executive editor of two newspapers in Wisconsin, I had to prioritise what I would do, and to be honest, I didn’t think I would really be able to start my community platform strategy for months, possibly not until the autumn. But then my communities surprised me. Many people I met said they wanted more from the newspaper. I was honest with them and told them that they wanted the same thing I wanted, a vibrant newspaper. To achieve that, I told them I would need their help, and I was concrete on how they could help.

Since I started marrying social media and journalism way back in 2000, I have continually been surprised by how people and communities engage when you give them a specific thing to do. My communities have really responded, especially the schools.

As a new editor and very much new to my communities, I have made a point to meet leaders in my communities. As I met school leaders, they were very enthusiastic about the partnership that I wanted to create with them. I wanted to give students an opportunity to be heard in the newspaper, and I also wanted to give school leaders the opportunity to take their message directly to readers beyond a quote in a story. Yes, our reporters would report and write stories to put these contributions from students, teachers and school leaders in context, but we also had room to give people in our communities space to share their expertise and opinions.

I have to admit that the stars really aligned on this project. The head of a charter school in Sheboygan suggested that we do something about technology in education, due to a switchover from iPads to Chromebooks at high schools. My reporters were already working on a number of stories about new technology initiatives in local schools, and I had already arranged to visit some high school journalism and creative writing classes. This came together much faster than I had anticipated.

Across both of the newspapers, school administrators, college presidents, teachers, college faculty and students have contributed some 30 articles. What the students have written has exceeded all of my expectations – articulate, passionate and authentic. For instance, the social media editor of the high school news site at Sheboygan North wrote about how she tried to give up social media for Lent. We had another article in which students voiced their opinions about having their mobile phones seized by teachers. From the local charter high school, we had two passionate pieces arguing the pros and cons of technology in education.

More than that, my education reporters uncovered leads for future stories during the process, and I’m working hard to free up time for them to manage these partnerships directly.

This has been such a positive start that we’re now exploring other ways that we can partner with the community. Sheboygan is a real foodie city, with lots of local food traditions plus some stunning high end restaurants in downtown Sheboygan and at the resorts in Kohler. We’ll be launching a digital food hub with a blog and video series in the summer. We are also looking to launch a Community Champions discussion series in which we will give passionate advocates of our communities space to discuss how we help them achieve their full potential.

As I said when I started, I wanted our newspapers to be at the centre of the conversations in our communities, and with the momentum building around our community platform, we’re well on our way.

On blogging

David Weinberger just wrote a slightly sad elegy for blogging, looking back on what we did when blogging was young, and why we did it. I left a comment, for the first time in a long time on a blog, and it got so long I thought I would repost it here. Again, I don’t remember the last time I converted a comment to a blog post, though it used to be something I did often. Do go over and read David’s post, though. It’s well worth it. 

I owe my current career to blogging. Without it, I would never have developed an interest in how people connect through technology, and never would have met all the people who helped me turn that interest into a job. It is not an overstatement to say that without blogging — and without #joiito on Freenode — I would not have founded ORG, would not have met my husband, would not have started Ada Lovelace Day, and so on. I am incredibly grateful to blogging for all that.

What was awesome was how permeable the blogging community was back then. I was just some nobody with no reputation, no real contacts, no network, but yet, everyone treated me as an equal, they respected me based on what I wrote. We really did live by the word. I never felt that I was judged on where I came from or what university I’d gone to or what I looked like. (I don’t think many people even knew what I looked like!)

For the first time in my life, I felt like I had finally found my peer group. I stopped feeling isolated, as I had for years previously. My peers turned out to be scattered around the world, and to come from very different backgrounds to me, yet they took me in and made me feel welcome. They – you! – gave me confidence, a community, and a career.

So it was with some considerable sadness that I began to note the decline in blogging a few years back. When I first started Ada Lovelace Day in 2009, we had something like 1,000 blog posts added to our collection. Last year, 2013, we had about 100.

Personally, I’ve found it hard to carve out the time to write, and I miss it. In fact, one of my New Years Resolutions this year is to blog at least once a week. I used to blog daily. I used to keep two blogs going full steam without even thinking about it. Maybe it was because I was underemployed at the time…

I wonder too if my lack of blog writing is related to a lack of blog reading. My RSS reader became so clogged that I feared it, wouldn’t open it, and ultimately, abandoned it. And then Twitter and now Zite arrived to provide me with random rewards for clicking and swiping, showing me stuff that I had no idea I wanted to read. Instead of following the writings of a small cadre of smart, lovely people whom I am proud to call my friends, I read random crap off the internet that some algorithm thinks I might be interested in, or that is recommended by the people I follow on Twitter.

That may or may not be a good thing. We were all aware of the problems of homophily, and the random clickage does help combat that. But the problem with not following people’s blogs closely is that there’s no conversation anymore. My blogs used to host great conversations, and I would happily engage in fascinating discussions on other people’s sites. You can’t do that so easily with Twitter, and Facebook. Indeed, most of my interactions on Facebook, which are scarce as I loathe it, end up being pointless arguments with friends-of-friends who turn out to be idiots.

I’d love to see a resurgence in blogging. I think, personally, I need to delete Zite from my ipad and find a good RSS reader so I can follow the blogs of those people that I really care about. Not the worthy blogs I ought to read, but the works of people who matter to me. And then I need to get back to commenting, like this, because there’s nothing more encouraging than finding out that people care about what you write, that people appreciate it. And David, I really do appreciate your writing – you’re as inspiring and fascinating now as you were back in 2001!

Finally, I do still think that blogging is important. For me, it’s becoming even more important as I try to ramp up my book writing/editing, but as I wrote recently, trying to find the time to blog is so difficult in the face of the sheer volume of work that I have now that I perhaps didn’t have back in 2001 when I started blogging! Somehow, though, I need to find a way to prioritise it. Please keep your fingers crossed for me, and let’s all keep on blogging!

Newspapers, changing paradigms and defining priorities

If you like this post and are looking for an editor or digital media leader, I’m still in the market for a full-time editorial management job, so get in touch. After a few years of working independently with news organisations including Al Jazeera, CNN International, B2B publisher RBI and India’s Web18, I’m looking to invest in a news organisation that will invest in me. 

Although John Robinson has stepped out of the editor’s chair at the News & Record in North Carolina, (a beautiful state if you haven’t been), he is still challenging his newspaper and his fellow journalists to think different. In his latest post, he looked at how he spent his time and how those priorities were reflected – or not – in his newspaper. He writes:

My newspaper isn’t alone in not reflecting how I live. It is typical of most people and their papers. And it’s not restricted to newspapers; TV news has the same news diet, and it’s not in touch with mine.

Is the disconnect between how I live and what the news covers unusual?


This reminded me of a report from 2007, Frontiers in Innovation in Community Engagement, by Lisa Williams, Dan Gillmor and Jane Mackay, which challenged news sites to become better at “translating the lived experience of their community”. I blogged about the report at the time, and the quote that really jumped out at me then is still relevant now:

Broadly speaking, the most successful sites are most effective at translating the lived experience of their community onto the web. But only a tiny fraction of lived experience is news. One way of looking at the process of wrapping an online community around a news organization is that it’s an effort to dramatically broaden the range of lived experience represented by the news organization’s output – output that now includes content supplied by nonjournalists.

Recently, I interviewed for an executive editor’s position in the US and, during part of the interview, I did have a moment when I was possibly too honest and said the papers seemed to be “subsisting on the fumes cast off by official life”: Crime, council meetings and planned events. They did have features, in which I could tell the reporters were trying to stretch their wings a bit, and excellent coverage of school sports, but it still was a heavy diet of life as seen through the lens of cops and councillors. A bright spot was their blogs, which covered a range of lifestyle issues including local music and even video games. They promoted them in the paper (minus a link or QR code), but the blogs were hidden pretty effectively on the sites themselves.

Were I to get that job, I would love to revamp the blogs into a mixed community platform that opens up to outside contributors. For the live entertainment blog, I’d get free tickets for contributors. It would take effort and some editorial resources, but it is a formula that scales. I think a food and drink blog would be essential, and it is easy to monetise. And that is exactly what newspapers need right now, editorial projects that generate income to allow them to cover what the blogger won’t or can’t – cops and councils – while bringing in their community to cover that broad range of lived experience.

Dan Conover, left this great comment on how to choose the verticals for this type of community network:

For new media ventures to be successful, they need to fit a formula like this: It needs to assemble a coherent audience (a precise fit for a defined group of potential advertisers) with a sustainable audience-to-reporter ratio, around a topic with intense interest. Forget what people do. Forget what they tell you in focus groups or surveys. Find out what they groove on, and then see if you can do better than break-even on covering it.

To put it succinctly, Ken Sands, who set up a pioneering blog network in Spokane, told me a few years back that the sweet spot is the intersection of location and passion. Local isn’t enough, and hyperlocal plus hyper-niche simply doesn’t work. It’s too narrow to generate enough of an audience to justify the effort or to attract advertisers and sponsors.

Setting priorities

That brings me to another point. This post grew out of a post on Facebook in which John asked about rethinking beats. He quoted Matt DeRienzo of Digital First Media who left a comment on Facebook and said:

We recently established a full-time poverty beat. We are also going to be dedicating more resources to commodity breaking news, though, because competition with TV station web efforts is killing us.

I applaud Matt for establishing a poverty beat because when I’m back in the US I see green shoots of growth after the Great Recession, but I also see a lot of people struggling mightily. I also hear about the struggle to prioritise because of competition from local TV in real-time, breaking news. TV is brilliant at it, and the workflow is much better suited to it, which is something I realised during my years working for the BBC.

Newspapers are facing all kinds of challenges these days, and one of the biggest is how to set priorities in an era of scarce resources. As John says later in his post:

Mass is dead or dying. News orgs can’t do everything.

In digital, in fact, in journalism, there are so many things you can do that you have to decide what you must do. As Rob Curley at the Orange County Register says to new hires:

• Truly understand what our readers need from us
• Truly understand how our readers consume our stories
• Truly understand relevance

Relevance and needs go beyond hard news, and newsroom leaders need to figure out how to cover more of the lived experience of their communities in a way that scales and supports public service coverage. Understand relevance to set priorities and find out what people really groove on, and allow the community to help you cover those passionate niches.

UPDATE: Thanks to Francesco Magnocavallo who let me know in the comments that the original link to the Frontiers in Innovation of Community Engagement no longer worked. I’ve added the working link to the post.

Reuters Digital News Report: Live blogs, smart TVs and paid content

It is a measure of how well respected the Reuters Institute Digital News Report is in how much coverage it received. Most of the attention was focused on the rise in people paying for digital content, but there were a few things that leapt out at me including some fascinating figures of digital media use in Brazil and in-depth coverage of live blogs, news via smart TVs and digging into paid content trends.

Urban Brazil: Social media standout

Most of the last year, in my work with the Media Development Investment Fund, I’ve been focused on the development of digital media outside of North America and western Europe so I paid a lot of attention to statistics from urban Brazil.

With all of the talk about the ubiquity of Twitter in the UK, I would have expected more Brits to have turned to social media to access news than the report found. In the survey, 87 percent of Brits in the YouGov online poll said they turned to traditional news brands with only 31 percent saying that they had turned to social media and blogs.

What was more surprising was that out of the nine countries in the report, Brazil stood out for the highest percentage of respondents saying that they had accessed news via social media at 57 percent. Now, this was urban Brazilians. It would be interesting to see this broken out by rural versus urban populations in other countries just as a point of comparison. It would also be interesting to see research in countries like Malaysia or Indonesia, southeastern social media giants.

Traditional news brands versus aggregators versus social media from Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2013

In another part of the survey, urban Brazilians were off the charts when compared with other countries in terms of participation around news – sharing, commenting, voting and rating. The survey found that 93 percent of Brazilian respondents participated with news in one of the 12 listed techniques. Again, I’d be interested to see if urban users in other countries used the internet in different ways that the population as a whole. (One other interesting thing about sharing news is how popular email remains to pass along news items.)

Live blogging: More engaged audiences

Working with a range of news organisations in the past three years, one area of intense interest has been live blogs. For newspapers, it allows them to play in the breaking news game with broadcasters. Live blogs, especially around major events, can be resource intensive, taking the time of a number of journalists. The question has always been: News organisations seem to like live blogs. Do audiences?

Neil Thurman with City University London answered that question emphatically. He wrote:

According to the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, who oversees the UK’s second most popular newspaper website, live blogs outperform all other modes of online journalism.1 Such anecdotal evidence is supported by hard data showing that live blogs receive more visitors for longer periods of time than conventional articles or picture galleries on the same subject..

Live blogs are especially popular with heavy internet users, he said, and the survey found that 62 percent of UK respondents found them a “convenient way of following news while I am at work”. The other interesting finding is that the short, quick updates common to live blogs work well on mobile devices, a platform that 79 percent of news consumers in the UK used for getting their news fix during the day.

Thurman’s findings were largely positive, although he stopped short of saying that it was helping readers to become more interested in hard news and public affairs. He would say:

what we can say is that, because the format has developed uniquely for the web, and matches so well with readers’ consumption patterns, it seems to appeal as much through its form as its content.

Smart TVs as a platform for interactive news?

For the past several years, I’ve been watching the development of smart TVs and other digital devices that bridge traditional television and the internet. I’m thinking far beyond IPTV and catch-up services and much more about internet services over TV screens. Traditional TV still commands a large percentage of attention in terms of media, and as Dan Brilot of YouGov points out, 97 percent of the UK population now has access to digital television. Brilot considers the possibilities of bringing internet content onto this popular and ubiquitous platform.

I have to admit, my enthusiasm for these services far outstrips their general popularity. In the US, about 9 percent have ever used a smart TV and about 4 percent have ever used a smart TV to access news. Smart TVs are much more popular in European countries such as Spain, Italy, France and Demark, with smart TV usage hovering around 15 percent. This is still pretty low in terms of use.

Brilot quotes Gartner statistics saying that by 2016 85 percent of all flat panel TVs sold will be smart TVs. My question is whether people will actually use these services. Last year, I was staying with a friend who had started his own internet company, he was totally unaware that he could connect his TV to his home network.

In that vein, I don’t really find statistics looking at popular apps as all that relevant. So what if Facebook is really popular on smart TVs in the UK if only 10 percent of those polled ever had used a smart TV?

More interesting was the research looking at what types of apps would be popular based on polls in the France and the UK. On screen news alerts, I would assume similar to tablet or smartphone notifications were the most popular internet news format, followed by news video clips. News text and tickers were quite popular with French respondents with about 50 percent saying that they were interested in those kinds of apps. Weather maps were also popular in both France and the UK.

Interest in news applications for smart TVs from Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2013

Brilot was surprised about the popularity of news alerts considering they would interrupt TV viewing.

One of the major issues with apps on smart TVs is fragmentation in the market. News providers don’t really have the resources to build apps for all of the platforms, and although Android set-top boxes are being sold, there is no one provider that dominates.

Paid content: Growth from a low base

Paid content has become an important source of revenue for some news organisations such as the New York Times in the past few years, and the report looked at the growth of paid content over the last year. Those paying rose in some countries in the survey including the UK, France and the US, but it also fell in Germany and Denmark. In the UK, those paying rose by 5 percent to 9 percent of those polled. Sure, you can say that was almost double the rate of last year, but it is still a relatively small part of the audience.

Robert Picard did find that across all of the countries in the survey, of those who don’t pay, about 15 percent said that they would be willing to pay amongst all news consumers and almost 20 percent amongst “news lovers”.

However, as Nic Newman found, 50 percent of those surveyed said that they had paid for a newspaper in the last week but only 5 percent said that they had paid for digital content. Digital paid content is still a long way from being a mass behaviour.

One last thing I found interesting is that digital subscriptions were more common in countries where print subscriptions were the norm versus single copy sales, and in country where single copy sales were the norm, then users were more willing to buy digital day passes.

I do hope that next year that the Reuters Institute are able to expand their research to more emerging markets. It would be fascinating to compare across a wider range of markets, but even with these nine countries, there is a wealth of information. It’s great to back up or knock on their head a lot of assumptions about digital media audiences.

When commenting systems go bad

Just recently, one of my favourite blogs moved a new home on Wired and, in the process, moved to the Disqus commenting system. I’ve sat in many meetings where Disqus has been named as the desired commenting system. I have often found myself on the fence, preferring, say, the built-in WordPress commenting system over any third party system, but still understanding that the issues with managing very high volumes of comments can encourage companies to outsource them. Until recently, though, I hadn’t had any real in-depth experience of using Disqus as a commenter.

I have now. And I have discovered that Disqus kills conversation and frustrates users.

The problems with Disqus surprise me, because they’ve been around a while and I would have expected them to understand how online discussions actually work, and adjust their tool to facilitate conversation. Instead, Disqus quashes conversation. Here are the issues, and possibly a few solutions:

Comment display is broken
There has long been a debate in commenting circles about whether threaded comments or flat comments are best. The truth is, neither are better than the other, both have their strengths and weaknesses. But Disqus, or at least the installations of it that I have recently seen, do not provide an option to view comments in a flat, strictly chronological or reverse-chrono order.

When you have a rich and fast-moving conversation in blog comments, threading kills it because it is nigh-on impossible to know where the new comments are in the various threads. An option to show comments in a flat view would allow users to quickly see which comments are most recent. We are smart enough to thread the conversations we’ve read already in our memories, but wading through threads in order to find the one new comment is a chore no one will bother with.

This means Disqus kills conversation in big, complexly-threaded discussions.

Being able to easily switch between views would be even better, so that you can find the newest comments, but then switch to see them in context of their threads.

Comment paging is broken
If there’s one thing that drives me nuts about Disqus it’s that there is no “view all” option. On my favourite blog, I have to page through comments in chunks of 40 at a time and, once the thread gets over 80, it becomes very tedious on page reload to have to re-page through to the newest comments if I want to actually see them in reverse-chrono order. My only option is to then view them newest-first, which means I have to then find the join, which is again a pain in the arse, especially if when I last looked there were 100 comments, and now there are 200.

I recently saw a blog post with 900 comments, which were only accessible in pages of 10. If anyone thinks that people are going to bother to page through all those comments, ten at a time, they need a reality check. It’s already hard enough to get people to read comments before they write their own, but this just encourages drive-by commenting, which is very bad for conversation and community-building.

Disqus needs to have a “view all” option. I don’t care if it takes a minute or two to load, I just want everything, on one page, so that I can scan it at speed to pick out the comments I care about.

Other issues:
Login kills comments. On the train into London this morning I wrote a comment, then realised that I wasn’t logged in. I logged in with Google, as I usually do, and Disqus threw away my comment. WTF? Really? That’s how you treat logging in?

Newest first is weird: Newest first also does really weird stuff with within-thread threading which I haven’t get got my head round, but it bloody annoys me.

Page refresh breaks flow: On a lot of commenting systems, if I refresh the page in order to fetch new comments, the browser will remember where I am on the page and all I need to do to continue reading is, well, continue reading. Not with Disqus. Refreshing the page essentially resets Disqus, meaning that I have to re-page through everything and search for my place. A comment bookmarking system might help with this, or they could just offer a persistent single page view.

Just say No to Disqus
I have to say, I would now actively militate against clients using Disqus if they have any desire to create conversation and community. Disqus frustrates passionate readers, drives away interested but less committed readers, and makes genuine conversation difficult or impossible. It seems to be a great system for collecting comments to be ignored, but it’s terrible if you actually care about your comments or your commenters.

Given that Disqus has been around since 2007, the fact that it hasn’t cracked comment display yet is shocking to me. I honestly thought they of all people would have nailed it. Quite the opposite, in fact: Their design can only be described as user-surly.

Annenberg-Oxford Summer Institute: Continuing the Conversation

A couple of years ago, I spoke at the Oxford Internet Institute, and after my talk, the conversation carried on via Strange Attractor and the blogs written by some of the students there. I went back to Oxford today to talk about social media, journalism and broader media trends with the very international group of “scholars and regulators? at the Annenberg-Oxford Summer Institute.

As I did from my talk a few years ago at the OII, I’ll follow up some questions that came after my talk and some questions that came in via Twitter.

Does participatory media make public service media obsolete?

I met Shawn Powers at the Al Jazeera Forum in Doha in May, and he invited me to give a talk at the institute. After my talk, he highlighted what he thought was a contradiction in my presentation, which he thought could be interpreted as supporting James Murdoch’s attack on the BBC. Not to over-simplify his point, but with all of the examples I gave of people creating their own media, Shawn wondered if I was making the point that British society no longer needed a public broadcaster like the BBC.

It never really occurred to me that my presentation could be interpreted like this because four years after I left the BBC, I value public service media even more than when I was working there. Most of the examples I talk about in my presentation (a version is here on SlideShare) are collaborations between professional journalists and members of the public not examples of the public supplanting or replacing journalists.

When I came to London in 2005 to research how BBC News could use blogging, I actually saw the possibility of a public service broadcaster like the BBC deepening its public role by developing stronger relationships with people formerly known as the audience.

James Murdoch’s argument delivered in Edinburgh last year:

We seem to have decided to let independence and plurality wither. To let the BBC throttle the news market, and get bigger to compensate

I see commercial media and public service media combined with emerging participatory media as creating greater plurality, not throttling it. Murdoch’s argument is a rather unsophisticated and transparent attack on the BBC because he knows that most surveys show that when consumers are asked to pay for news online, most of them (74%) would switch to free options, such as the BBC. Only about 5% in the and Harris survey would pay to continue to use the service. (For a good critique of the Murdochs’ hard paywall that they just erected around The Times and The Sunday Times, see Steve Outing’s look at different commercial strategies.)

Returning to the strategic white paper I wrote for the BBC, I also thought by encouraging media creation by a wider part of the population that it actually would expand civic participation in new ways and possibly reverse trends in the decline in traditional forms of democratic participation such as voting. (Andy Carvin at NPR is demonstrating how social media is public service media can be a powerful combination.)

Maybe in the future, I should start with a statement of principles or values. I assume that my career choices say a lot about my journalistic values. I have worked for two very unique journalism organisations, the publicly-funded BBC and the trust-supported Guardian. It was an honour to work at two places that value journalism as much as the BBC and The Guardian.  I don’t see social media as an argument for ending subsidies to public media in favour of a “pure” market-based media eco-system. Rather, I see my interest in social media as a perfectly logical extension of my passion for the social mission of journalism, a mission to inform and engage people and to empower them as citizens in democratic societies.

Choosing the right tool for the job

Another person at the institute raised the issue of whether I was focusing on the tools rather than the editorial goals. Was I seeing social media as the hammer and every story as a nail?

In reality, I’ve long argued against using a tool for the sake of using a tool. In my original presentation at the BBC, one of my slides was a herd of cattle with a little Photoshopped brand on one of the bulls labelled MSM (mainstream media), complete with the song Rawhide playing in the background. I said that the media was engaging in a lot of herd-like behaviour, rushing off to blog without any clear reason as to why. I used to play a clip of Jon Stewart of the Daily Show sarcastically congratulating MSNBC and their blogging efforts as “giving a voice to the already voiced”. I questioned why the media needed blogs when we already had publishing platforms.

To justify blogging, we had to have clear editorial goals and not just blog because it was the new media flavour of the month. I did see benefits in blogging and using social media. We could engage our audiences directly and take our journalism to where they were instead of relying on them to come our site. We could enhance our journalism by expanding our sources, adding new voices and highlighting expertise in our audience.

Often people saw blogging not as a conversational, engagement focused media but as a means to secure their own column. They didn’t want to write more than once a week. They had no interest in actually responding to comments. Although I didn’t see this as an appropriate use of blogging, usually, they got a blog because I wasn’t in a position to deny them one.

It’s important to understand that social media is only one tool in a journalist’s toolkit. It is powerful, but it is very important to understand when it is appropriate to use social media and when it isn’t.

As someone at Oxford also pointed out, as journalists we need to make sure that we don’t over-interpret opinion on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks as truly representative. I often use social networks and blogging to find expertise and first person experience of an event, not necessarily to canvas for opinion. The same student at Oxford also was concerned that journalists would rely solely on online social networks to source stories or generate story ideas. That’s the mark of either a lazy journalist or one who is so overburdened with work due to staffing cuts that social media becomes an all too easy shortcut. (I understand only too well the time pressures that journalists are under due to the hollowing out of newsrooms.)

Do location-based networks have staying power?

One of the students told me that she had asked a few questions via Twitter while I was talking, and here is one of her questions:

#AnOx10 Kevin Anderson @kevglobal– Social Media for Social Change: great talk today but do u really think Loc-base has staying power?

I’ve been working with location for a couple of years ago, starting with my coverage of the US elections in 2008. I’ve been testing location-based networks like BrightKite and the location features with Twitter since 2008, and I’ve been trying the newer networks such as FourSquare in preparation for a keynote that I’m giving at the SpotOn conference in Helsinki in September.

As I started saying in 2005, in this age of information-overload, two things are key to success: Relationship and relevance. Social media allows news organisations to much more directly build and maintain their relationships with both members of the public who simply want to consume their content and also with people who want to collaborate or contribute to news coverage. In a world with so many information choices, relevance is extremely valuable. This weekend, I spoke to the Gates Scholars at Cambridge, and many of the questions to the panel that I was on were about finding and filtering the vast ocean of information available. To me location is one filter for relevance.

There are two ways to interpret this question: Will the current generation of location-based networks have staying power? Will location itself have staying power?

In using FourSquare, I actually find the game element rather simplistic. Without a native app on my Nokia N82 (am considering buying Gravity, but its £8 is higher than my impulse threshold for buying a mobile app), the friction is too high for me. I am too aware that FourSquare is trying to trick me into surfacing my location. For Google’s Latitude, I set it and forget it, and I see my friends on my Google Map. That service hasn’t hit a critical mass of users in my offline social networks to be all that useful.

However, in convincing people to reveal their location, FourSquare is already beginning to partner with media and other companies to sell other location-based services. Frankly, I don’t need the psychological trickery of points and mayor-ships to get me to check-in, if I get a useful service from revealing my location.

That’s where I see location being interesting, not as an element of games like Gowalla or FourSquare, but as a fundamental enabling technology like RSS. Very few people use RSS directly in standalone readers as I do, but many more people use RSS without even knowing it. Location will be one of those underlying, enabling technologies.

The big difference between RSS and location is the issue of privacy and security connected to revealing one’s location. Lots of people follow me on Twitter who I don’t know. I have a category of contacts on Facebook “People I don’t know”. I am not going to let people I don’t know in the real world know where I am in the real world. I’m working through whether I want to be selective in my contacts on FourSquare or selective in checking in.

Location is going to be a powerful feature in new services. That has staying power. Part of me thinks that services like Gowalla and FourSquare are very first generation at this point. They have a certain Friendster feel about them. However, FourSquare is evolving very quickly, and its very clear business model means that it will have the space to experiment.

Those are the questions that I can think of off the top of my head. If people have more, leave a comment. I’ll try to answer them before Suw and I start our summer break on Thursday.

Chart: Who Participates And What People Are Doing Online

Kevin: An interesting chart based on Forrester Research that looks at online behaviours across age groups in the US. One thing that is very interesting is the relatively small group of "Collectors", those who use RSS and tag content to gather information. Even amongst the very active Gen Y group (22-26), the highest group of collectors is 18%.

New Statesman – Welcome to the fifth estate

Kevin: Laurie Penny writes in the New Statesmen about the continued prejudice shown by mainstream commentators towards political bloggers in the UK: "Cosy members of the established commentariat eye bloggers suspiciously, as if beneath our funny clothes and unruly hair we might actually be strapped with information bombs ready to explode their cultural paradigms and destroy their livelihoods.

This sort of prejudice is deeply anodyne.

Bloggers aren't out to take away the jobs of highly-paid columnists: we're more ambitious than that. We're out for a complete revolution in the way media and politics are done."

Journalism’s loss might be an opportunity for other sectors

It’s no secret that media companies are shedding jobs left, right and centre and it’s unlikely that those jobs will ever be replaced, even once the recession is over. Conservative estimates say that the number of journalists employed by the industry will decrease by 40% – 50% compared to before the crash. Less conservative estimates put that figure at 80%. Journalism schools, on the other hand, are producing more graduates than ever before. So what is going to happen to all these journalists?

The obvious path would be for them to go into PR and certainly many ex-journalists do. But this is an amazing opportunity for businesses in every sector, as Adam Tinworth and David Meerman Scott point out. David says:

[M]any organizations — corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, and educational institutions — finally understand the value of what I call “brand journalism,” creating interesting information online that serves to educate and inform consumers. People in companies now realize web marketing success comes from creating content-rich web sites, videos, podcasts, photos, charts, ebooks, white papers and other valuable content.

However, many of the companies I speak with are trying to figure out who will create the content that they need for their online initiatives. Marketers, executives, and entrepreneurs say things like: “David, I need help. If I knew how to create great content, I’d already be doing it.”

At every speech I deliver I say to corporations one of the best ways to create great Web content is to actually hire a journalist, either full- or part-time, to create it. Journalists, both print and broadcast, are great at understanding an audience and creating content that buyers want to consume–it’s the bread and butter of their skill set.

The rise of social media as a community engagement tool – and blogging in particular as a tool for companies to get their own, unedited story out – means that there is an increasing need for talented storytellers and communicators. Writing full time is not as easy as it looks and the skills that journalists bring to the table are valuable and hard to acquire.

Businesses who want to really bump up their social media presence should seriously consider hiring dedicated writers in addition to any evangelist program. Of course, you still have to take care that you’re hiring someone with the right sort of social media nouse (or at least, the right attitude and a willingness to learn about social media), which is not something all journalists have. But nevertheless, there’s a huge pool of talent searching for work right now and businesses would be daft to ignore it.