This post is greatly delayed from the Readers’ Revolution panel that I spoke on last week for Journalism.co.uk.
Robin Hamman, a friend and former colleague at the BBC, spoke about the Manchester Method and engaging with ‘stuff’. Like me, Robin doesn’t like the dry as dust term, user-generated content. (Jon Pareles of the New York Times questions whether we’re not seeing something a bit more basic: Self-expression. And Cynthia at IPDemocracy asks whether users are better filters than media moguls. I ask, “Better or more successful?”)
Robin said that people are creating all kinds of ‘stuff’, whether it is video on YouTube, photos on Flickr, podcasts or even meaning through social bookmarking on del.icio.us or Amazon recommendations. (Robin is an important part of my del.icio.us network and often sends bookmarks my way.)
He used to sheepishly admit that he was a blogger, and I can understand the way he feels. The Church of Journalism often seems to me to want a purity test for membership. I’ve spent most of my career trying to justify my self-identification as an ‘online journalist’. Many friends simply left journalism after the dot.com crash. Industry purists were going to make them pay for their dalliance with the trendy internet by making them take many steps backward in their career. We lost a lot of smart people in the post crash schadenfreude surplus. We could use those people now.
I digress. Ironically, Robin found that the average income for a blogger in the US is $39,000, a good $10,000 more than most journalists or reporters. (That’s not necessarily from blogging, but still, it means that bloggers aren’t doing badly for themselves.)
But Robin went on to highlight a very fundamental change in thinking in the Web 2.0 age, which is decentralisation. In
the past, he said that we talked about building big expensive stuff, huge big systems,
like message boards to host discussions and recommendation systems. They were resource intensive and took massive amounts of development and time. But he admitted that the BBC was a broadcaster, not a software developer, and the BBC made really second-rate systems. “Our software is several years behind in comparison to the
industry,” he said.
And after the sites and systems were launched, the BBC was opened up to ongoing management costs and legal issues. Now, the BBC is heading in a new direction. “Sustainable development is sexy,” he said. “We are trying to figure out a way that doesn’t force us to develop big expensive platforms”
Robin had his first job with the BBC eight or nine years ago. With the the first message boards, people would sign up and select a user name and
password. Editorial Policy blanched. “You can’t possibly allow people to post on our website
without verified first name and surname,” Editorial Policy staff protested.
Fast forward to the present with the BBC Manchester
project. It is a more honest and more sustainable
approach to dealing with ‘stuff’.
Thousands of people send pictures to the
BBC. But what happens to them? “Thousands of people send us stuff but never
get anything more than an automated response,” he said. It’s a fair question of any project that deals with ‘stuff’. How to evaluate the ‘stuff”? You can’t have a strategy based on failure, based on a paucity of submissions. Also, most organisations can’t just throw more people at the problem of evaluating submissions, and I would argue that simply having your staff evaluate submissions misses the point. The audience should be involved not only in creating ‘stuff’ but also in determining quality and relevance for themselves.
Robin’s basis for the BBC Manchester project is that there are mature tools out there: Flickr, YouTube, Revver, Photobucket, Del.icio.us, Furl, Reddit and on and on. Robin knew that just as he began blogging that he was joining a conversation, and that by using tools like Technorati he could plug into this conversation.
Robin is pointing out such an important point. Instead of simply trying to create parallel tools – MySpace or YouTube killers – media organisations looking for a community strategy would be smart to plug into these communities not trying to steal other sites community. No big media site is going to get me to move my photos from Flickr because part of the importance is the community that I have at Flickr with friends and professional contacts. However, media organisations can become hubs in these networks, but the thinking is completely different than a traditional media strategy.
Robin put it this way. He’s like the host of a party, and hosts are different than police. Hosts get their guests started talking. They wander around and make sure that no one gets too
drunk and that friends don’t get too disorderly.
Blogs are a great source of contacts, context and content. Every
once and a while, Robin says that he will wrap some of his own editorial content around other bloggers’ posts, but that’s pretty typical blogging behaviour. But his motivation is “all about linking
and sending them to traffic”. They are doing their first workshop in Manchester on January 18 for bloggers or people who want to learn. They will teach people
how to put Google and Amazon ads on their sites. They will teach them about best blogging practices.
Having worked for the BBC, I will admit that they are free of market pressures that a lot of companies face and can do things other companies probably can’t. Part of Robin’s Manchester Project is about digital literacy, which is one of the goals of the Nations and Regions division of the BBC. But linking out, being part of the network instead of trying to dominate it or co-opt is one of those clueful Cluetrain ideas that also make good business sense.
- You can see Robin in action here at an edited version of his talk on YouTube. (He told me at the BBC Backstage party -sponsored in part by ORG – on Saturday he was a little disappointed that the edit focused on his comments about the BBC development process.)
- Clyde Bentley’s talk is here on YouTube.
- I am here talking about something I called: Newsgathering in the Age of Social Networks. I am seriously jet-lagged. Having driven 15 hours the Friday before across New Mexico and Texas, only to grab a few hours of sleep before hopping on a jet back to London.