Adopt early, adopt often

Back in 1998 when I started teaching myself web design, I would spend a lot of time talking to clients and trying to explain what the web is, and why they needed a web site. Most of them didn’t grok it, and disappeared back into their analogue world. The internet wasn’t all that new, but it was new to them.

The design cycle was pretty long. There’d be meetings where I’d try to figure out what they wanted. Then I’d go away and put together the site architecture – which pages link to which and what do they have on them? I tended to work very hierarchically, starting with a home page at the top and then creating a sort of family tree of pages. I’d do draft designs at the same time – screens, rather than wireframes, because most of my clients weren’t sophisticated enough to know what a wireframe was. (Come to that, neither was I.)

Then we’d haggle. They’d tell me I was charging too much, so I’d pare down the scope of the project and give them a cheaper price. Eventually – hopefully – we’d have a deal. I’d then go away and design the site, frequently also editing or writing the content, and Photoshopping the images.

Then I’d upload the site to their hosting, they’d pay me (or I’d sue their asses), and that would be that. Job done.

Some projects took months, half a year or more. How quaint all that seems now.

That was eight years ago, but I am still having the same conversations now. All you’d have to do is replace ‘internet’ with ‘web 2.0’ or ‘blog’ and you could parrot one of my client meetings from ’98 almost verbatim and no one would notice.

The problem is, companies are still have very long decision making cycles. These painfully slow processes are fine when the world around you moves slowly, but technology changes quickly. If you want to get the best out of social software and ‘web 2.0’, you have to be on top of what’s going on. That doesn’t mean jump on every bandwagon that goes past, but it does mean assessing and adopting new tools at a speed a bit faster than glacial.

IT departments are used to the traditional software development model – one, two or more years before releases, and what you get is what you’re stuck with until the next update, bugs or no.

Web software doesn’t work like that. The adage ‘release early, release often’ has been taken to heart by many of the developers working on social software and web apps. Start with a limited alpha, move on to an invitation-only beta, scale your beta slowly and then, eventually, you might reach the mythical Version 1.0. Or not, depending.

For users of this kind of software, the update is a regular attraction. Some software even updates on a nightly basis, with test builds released for the keen user to try in between major releases. And you do have to keep up, not just for the bug fixes, but for the new features which are quietly released, with no fanfare and, usually, no additional fee. Major upgrades you might have to pay for, but in the most part, these small apps accrete features as a matter of course.

Within big business, this poses a problem. If you have a traditional IT department that likes to slowly do its due diligence, it’s going to find that the software it assessed a few months ago is unrecognisable today. It’s tempting to say that this is irrelevant – businesses use enterprise software so why should they care that the small developer releases early and often?

Well, if you want a decent RSS aggregator, or a desktop blogging application, or even just a blogging platform, you’ll be hard pushed to find anything half decent from a major player. All the good ones are created by companies (or individuals, or open source communities) orders of magnitude smaller than your normal enterprise mush.

Why does this matter? Well, whilst your IT department is faffing around on a never-ending cycle of due diligence, you’re failing to take advantage of the really useful stuff that’s out there. The opportunities to use blogs and RSS and wikis to help your staff do their jobs more easily and more efficiently are passing you by.

So I’d like to propose a new adage for those struggling with the concept that software doesn’t have to be perfect to be useful: Adopt early, adopt often.

PodCastConUK 2006: Podcasting and the Citizen Journalist

Neil McIntosh, Chris Vallance and Suw Charman sat on a panel last Saturday talking about citizen journalism and podcasting. Apart from knowing and liking everyone on the panel, I like how moderator John Buckley kept a tight lid on the prepared talks so that this was more of a conversation rather than the panel talking at the assembled podcasters.

Suw started off by burying the ‘us versus them’, journalists versus bloggers and podcasters old yarn. Suw and I are really tired about this false dichotomy. Instead, she tried to frame the question this way: “How can we support journalistic endeavours?”

She asked the audience: “Who here has never blogged a fact?” Only one hand went up in the back.

Chris added a great disclaimer saying that no one should ask him about BBC policy because in the BBC eco-system, “I am just above pond life.” Chris might be low in the BBC hierarchy, but he is doing some of the most forward-thinking work with citizen media anywhere in the BBC.

Chris and I helped launch the Pods and Blogs show on 5Live in April 2005, when I came to the UK to do some work on a blogging strategy for the BBC. I was in London, and Chris in LA. We worked together using e-mail, IM and Skype. He asked whether people would like to hear three pundits on the Iraq war or the voices of soldier-bloggers, Iraqi bloggers and others on the Iraq war, and said that that was where citizen journalism has an advantage over traditional radio – the opportunity for previously unheard voices to be able to tell their stories.

Chris said that podcasting had really opened his eyes to doing new things in radio. Knowing Chris, he’s both a great advocate for podcasting and new technology while also being a huge fan of traditional speech radio. He has seen how podcasting can open up a world of voices to improve traditional radio journalism. During the midterms, he put out a call for citizen journalists, and he
received not only text submissions for the blog but also audio clips,
one of which he played during the panel. He received the clip ahead of the US midterms from a podcaster that really demonstrated some of the divisions amongst US voters.

He rejected the ethos of crowdsourcing, saying that this isn’t about getting as much out of your audience as you can just to cut costs, but stressed that this was more about collaboration. Most of mainstream broadcasters are now frequently asking people what they think, but Chris said that this was only a small step. Podcasting allows a way for all these wonderful voices to be heard.

Chris stressed that this was a cultural shift for broadcasters more than anything and added that broadcasters needed to rethink their definition of news, making it more expansive than pundits and experts.

Neil, the head of editorial development at the Guardian, doesn’t really like the term citizen journalism, and he said that he felt a bit like an imposter being on the panel. He admitted that the Guardian news site is more interactive than Guardian podcasts. (That’s on my to do list when I get back from a couple of weeks of leave.) Neil said that citizen journalism was promoted by former journalists and academics who wanted to get on the conference circuit, and he said that while bloggers and podcasters pointed out things that journalism needed to do better, it was journalists’ responsibility to sort out these problems. He didn’t see citizen journalism as a solution to those problems.

The questions from the assembled podcasters began with one about fact-checking and the quality of information from citizen journalists, specifically about a rumour started by a podcaster that had been picked up by a tabloid. After a few questions from Neil, we found out the tabloid was The Sun, and that the podcaster in question was actually the guy who had asked the question. He made up a rumour about Doctor Who that a character was coming back.

Suw said that most media outlets are relying on a traditional paradigm of trust rooted in their brand. For instance, she said that the BBC rely on their brand, and say, “We are the BBC, and we have trust.” It’s led to arrogance, and it’s led to sloppiness like the podcaster described. She speaks to journalists in her role as executive director of the Open Rights Group, and after the article comes out, she sees her words quoted back to her incorrectly.

I would add that journalists worth their salt understand that they are only as good as their last story, and that credibility is something earned and all too easily lost these days. Over-reliance on trust in the brand of an organisation is an invitation to disaster. It can breed complacency amongst staff. Individual members of staff must understand that trust in the brand is everyone’s job.

As Suw often says: “Your brand won’t save you now.” And she questioned the question about fact-checking:

How can we progress citizen journalism when there is no fact-checking? …That’s the wrong question. How can we progress journalism and fact-checking?

Another question from the audience was about the changing relationship with the audience, a smart audience that can assess information in a very savvy way.

Neil said that it’s faintly depressing thing when you know a lot about an issue that you read an article that doesn’t quite get it right. And he said that even he has been misquoted in press trade publications.

Suw said that there are patches where the media has respect for their audience, but she said that many in the media treat their audience in the Points of View paradigm, a programme where Barry Took and then Ann Robinson would condescendingly read out letters from the audience, often attributed to Angry from Milton Keynes.

Many in the media believe that their audience is insane or only give feedback when they are pissed off. But that belief allows them to dismiss the views of their audience and keep the audience at arm’s length.

Chris said that comments and feedback have always been important to radio. He spoke to Dave Slusher of the Evil Genius Chronicles about the difference between traditional feedback and what goes on with podcasts. Dave felt that it was one of power. In the past, the radio presenters always came from a position of power relative to their audience, now there is equality between podcasters that allows them to have a genuine conversation.

Culturally, Suw said that this was about niche content, and she called on a re-definition of news. News is not all about current events. She wishes that there was better hyperlocal content.

I’m spotting a trend here. Both Chris and Suw have called for a redefinition of news. Chris wants to bring in other voices. Suw thinks that news is more than current affairs. I remember shortly before I left the BBC, one of our presenters had contacted a blogger in Indonesia about a ‘news’ story. The blogger said that no one in Indonesia was talking about that story that had gripped the international media. Everyone in Indonesia was actually talking about some popular song.

I often joke that the only people who are generally interested in news
are journalists and maybe politicians. Most people have a range of
interests and personal passions.

I wonder, in this post-scarcity age with respect to information, why the agenda can sometimes still be so narrow? We can cover so much more, and work with our audience to expand the agenda. But as the amount of information increases, we also need to develop much better tools to help people find their way through this information.  

Back to PodcastConUK and another question from the audience: If you listen to the comments, do you focus too much on a vocal minority? That’s a good question. Participation models usually show that only a fraction of our audience currently participate, although that participation occurs on several levels.

The conversation ended on democratisation of media, based on a question from Ewan Spence. Ewan said that we were in a golden age, a renaissance, but as we emerge from the industrial age, but “we are fucking it up”, screwing up the planet through our shortsighted ecological mismanagement. Suw commented that the one thing that was different now to past renaissances was that now we have democratised media, this is a renaissance of the people, not simply a change in power from one elite to another. And that it was this democratisation that gives her hope that we might help turn the tide.

The key thing, I think, is the change in culture and the change in relationship between journalists, podcasters and the people formerly known as the audience: More voices, a broader agenda and more collaboration.

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Exploding the blog myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2. Myth number two: Bloggers just want to become journalists or pundits
    Again, as the study found out, most bloggers write for a small audience of their friends and family: “Most bloggers do not think of what they do as journalism.” They write for the pure love of self-expression, not for recognition or money. Mass media doesn’t really understand the motivation of most bloggers because they can’t understand publishing for a small audience for no money. (And in some ways, it’s one of the reasons why most mass media blogs suck. Most bloggers write about and are interested in their personal passions and interests, which is slightly anti-thetical to general interest publications like newspapers.)
  3. Myth number three: Blogging is all opinion
    This is such a common yarn, but unfortunately, this view itself turns out to be only uninformed opinion. First off, see myth one. Most people are just writing about their personal experiences. Of course it’s their opinions. That is totally the wrong yardstick with which to assess blogs.

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

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

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

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

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

Blogging isn’t a publishing strategy

It’s become a new mantra for me: Blogging isn’t a publishing strategy; it is a community strategy. That simple statement drives a lot of my thinking. I’ve always railed away against what we used to call ‘shovel-ware‘ back in the boom. It was simply shoveling your content onto the web. It was a stop-gap, not a strategy.

But I see the same mistake being replicated with blogging. Newspaper publishers and broadcasters often fall into the trap of trying to understand new media behaviour through old media paradigms. Podcasting becomes another distribution channel, and blogging becomes another publishing platform. Adding comments to the bottom of stories or columns is a step, but it’s missing the point. It’s treating blogging strictly as a publishing tool, not as part of a broader community strategy.

My question has been for 10 years: What can we do on the internet or other digital platforms that we can’t do in newspapers or on TV? What is the real opportunity here? Is it republishing more content that we already publish somewhere else?

I’m not saying that it’s a mistake to allow comments on the bottom of articles or columns. But that doesn’t change the fact that simply allowing comments on static content isn’t taking full advantage of blogging. It’s is treating blogging as a content-management system that allows comments. If that’s your goal, just adapt your content-management system to accept comments.

Recently, Shane Richmond of the Telegraph wrote: What is the point of newspaper blogs? in response to Andrew Grant-Adamson’s post, which questioned whether newspapers were blogging simply to get snaps from the kids (Bob Cauthorn was a little more adamant that newspapers needed to get a clue and stop blogging, which I disagree with). Andrew wondered if blogs were just content that got lost on the cutting room floor and didn’t make it into the paper.

I agree with much of what Shane wrote. My only quibble with Shane’s post is one of emphasis. I would move interactivity or engagement right up to the top. Yes, blogs allow us to focus on niches. Yes, websites in general and blog in particular promise a bottomless newshole that we can fill with additional content.

But it’s the engagement that really matters. And as Scoble says, from a business standpoint, an engaged audience is more valuable commercially than the drive-by surfers. It’s hard to measure, and Scoble rightly calls for a new metric. We used to call it stickiness, how much time people actually spend on your site. But this is even more than stickiness. This is about people actually doing something, not simply consuming content. I remember in BBC meetings about the blog pilot project, we decided that we wanted to measure how engaging or interactive blogs were. It was more than the number of comments or the traffic.

What happens when you view blogging as a community strategy rather than simply a publishing strategy?

  • Comments and other forms of participation are highlighted as well as the blog posts written by your own writers.
  • The site is designed to encourage participation on several levels.
  • The site is designed to allow like-minded participants to find each other.
  • The content must change to suit the nature of the site because its purpose has changed. What makes good content in a newspaper doesn’t necessarily make sense in a space created for participation.

That next-to-last point is key. Shoveling newspaper content onto the web was always a stop-gap, not a strategy, and it continues to be. For the last point, I leave it to Dan Gillmor who said this as he stepped aside from his citizen journalism/community project Bayosphere:

Tools matter, but they’re no substitute for community building. (This is a special skill that I’m only beginning to understand even now.)…

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The democratisation of everything and the curators who will save our collective ass

Over the last few years we’ve seen old barriers to creativity coming down, one after the other. New technologies and services makes it trivial to publish text, whether by blog or by print-on-demand. Digital photography has democratised a previously expensive hobby. And we’re seeing the barriers to movie-making crumble, with affordable high-quality cameras and video hosting provided by YouTube or Google Video and their ilk.

Music making has long been easy for anyone to engage in, but technology has made high-quality recording possible without specialised equipment, and the internet has revolutionised distribution, drastically disintermediating the music industry.

Even sculpture is going to succumb, as Second Life residents can create complex avatars and then have them 3D printed into a physical item. It’s early days now, but it’s not going to be long before you can create any shape you like and have it printed, allowing anyone to become a sculptor without ever having to deal with physical materials.

What’s left? Software maybe? Or maybe not.

If you read my personal blog, Chocolate and Vodka, you’ll know that I’m learning Ruby on Rails. Ruby is a programming language, and Rails is a programming framework. The way it works is that you set up your database, and then you ask Rails to, say, create your input form, and it writes the Ruby and the HTML you need in order to create a web page that allows you to input data into your database. I have very little ability when it comes to programming, but I am learning Ruby on Rails and I see no reason why I can’t start creating my own web-based applications within the next few months.

Like 3D printing, this is just the beginning. Ning and Coghead are attempts to make web app development easier, but as they, and RoR, evolve we’re going to see people with no programming skills able to make their own web apps without ever having to learn a line of code.

The future is going to contain lots of small, agile development projects, and I’m not the only one who thinks this. Evan Williams recently wrote about what he calls the Obvious model for building and running web products:

The Obvious model goes something like this:
* Build things cheaply and rapidly by keeping teams small and self-organized.
* Leverage technology, know-how, and infrastructure across products (but brand them separately, so they’re focused and easy to understand)
* Use the aggregate attention and user base of the network to gain traction for new services faster than they could gain awareness independently

evhead: The Birth of Obvious Corp.

Hosting is affordable; Google’s AdSense makes raising revenue from ads simple to set up (which doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get much revenue, mind); and blogs make it easier to promote your app. Just like every other area of human creativity, the barriers are coming down.

I was at a ‘future of…’ session the other week, and one of the trends I suggested was important was ‘the ubiquity of everything’. My fellow brainstormers didn’t seem to agree with the word ‘everything’, but I think we are moving towards a world where the only things that are rare are certain physical resources, and attention.

We already have more movies available than any one person can watch; more videos on YouTube; more blogs; more podcasts; more internet radio; more books; more software; more web apps; more games; more everything. It’s not like we’re starting from a point of scarcity here. And the flood of stuff is going to turn into a rampaging torrent as more people get online and more people get excited by their ability to participate and create.

In the past, the media acted as gatekeepers. They were the ones that went to the movie previews and told us which ones were good or crap. They were the ones who went to all the gigs and told us which bands were cool or rubbish. They were the ones who got the advance copy of the game and told us whether it was playable or tedious. They were the arbiters of taste, the people in the know, the ones with the connections needed to get at culture before us plebs got at it.

But we don’t need gatekeepers anymore. We don’t need people who stand between us and our stuff, deciding what to tell us about and what to ignore. We don’t need arbiters of taste. There are so many blogs out there reviewing software and web apps and films and books and every other sort of creativity that we don’t need to rely on the media’s old gatekeepers telling us what we should like.

We do, however, still need help. There’s just too much stuff around for us to know what’s out there, to keep up with what’s good, what works for us, what is worth investigation. What we need are curators. And we need them badly.

We need people who can gather together the things that are of interest to us, things that fit with our tastes or challenge us in interesting ways, things that enrich our lives and help us enjoy our time rather than waste it on searching.

Curators already exist. Some are people: Bloggers who sift through tonnes of stuff in order to highlight what they like, and who, if you have the same taste as them, can be invaluable to discovering new things to like. Some are aggregators: Site that gather lots of little bits of stuff and present them in aggregation and help us find the bits that the majority find to be good. Some are algorithms: recommendation systems and search.

But curation of the web has barely started. Much of what you could call curation that exists today is flawed: too many noisy opinions and not enough capacity to understand what I as an individual want; recommendation algorithms that produce seemingly random results; and the problem of ‘popularity begetting popularity’.

The great challenge for us, and the web, going forward is no longer breaking down the barriers to creation, it’s finding our way through the huge amounts of creativity that’s resulted.

Is Flock the ultimate blogging tool for journalists? Almost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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