Online norms

It seems to be turning into Christian Crumlish Week here on The Social Enterprise, but the man’s on fire right now! If you’re not reading Mediajunkie, you really should.

Christian has been blogging recently about the various essays written by guest contributors to the book he co-authored with Erin Malone, Designing Social Interfaces. The most recent guest essay is by Gary Burnett, who writes about Explicit and implicit norms in online groups:

Social norms may be defined as a set of values particular to a group, the purpose of which is to provide a sense of balance, a mechanism by which people may gauge what is “normal” and acceptable in a specific context or situation. Such norms are not defined by outside factors; rather, they emerge directly from the activities, motives, and goals of the group itself. Social interfaces function as settings within which such a process may take place. The sociologist Robert K, Merton, in a classic formulation of social norms, distinguished between attitudinal and behavioral norms. However, since attitudes are visible in online settings only through visible behavior – only, that is, through the medium of textual production – it seems more appropriate to think of norms in online interactions in terms of a different distinction. Online social norms can be divided into two types: Explicit and implicit norms.

He then goes on to discuss explicit and implicit norms in more detail, explaining how they are formed and how they affect the community. Read the whole essay, it’s well worth it.

FOR HIRE: I’m leaving the Guardian

FOR HIRE: That was the subject line of an email that I sent to Neil McIntosh, then of the Guardian, in the summer of 2006. I had met Neil at the Web+10 conference at the Poynter Institute in the US in 2005 before I came to London, and the email was a long shot. I wanted to stay in the UK with my then girlfriend, now wife, Suw, and my options were running out at the BBC. I had managed to extend my temporary assignment in London once, but now we were bracing for my return to the US to my old post, Washington correspondent of We expected to be separated by an ocean for months. Fortunately, that’s not what happened. A few days later I met with Emily Bell and, after what can be described more as a meeting of the minds than a job interview, I had an offer.

Now, three and a half years later, I’m joining many of my colleagues in accepting another offer from the Guardian, voluntary redundancy. My last day is 31 March. I don’t have a new position confirmed at this point, although Suw and I have a number of exciting possibilities. Like my colleague Bobbie Johnson, I’ve picked up a bit “entrepreneurial zeal” not only from the technology pioneers that I’ve covered, but also from the journalism pioneers that I’ve worked with both at the BBC and the Guardian. Suw and I want to continue to push the boundaries in our fields and we’re both open to new opportunities. If you’ve got a cutting edge journalism or social media project, get in touch.

It’s been a real honour to work at the Guardian and I’m grateful to everyone who helped me. We’ve achieved a lot in the past three and a half years, although it felt like we were always impatient to do more.

Despite the wrenching changes in journalism right now, I’m optimistic. Suw and I are excited about writing the next chapter of our careers. For me, I’m hoping it will be one that helps journalism make the transition to the future. I have almost 15 years of experience in digital, multi-platform journalism, both in strategy, implementation and just doing it, and I’m thrilled by some of the options that Suw and I have before us at the moment. Nothing is settled, though, so I’m still open to offers, as well as being available for short-term writing and freelancing. If you’ve got something exciting in the works and need one of the most experienced hands in digital journalism, get in touch.

links for 2010-02-25

Social network overload?

Are we getting swamped by social media? David Armano thinks so. I think that it’s a little bit more complicated than just trying to amp up the signal in the noise and has to do with a whole bunch of issues involved in, well, just being human:

1. We’re all interested in status

Actually, we’re all obsessed with status whether we realise it or not. Social networks make status explicit in some way, or at least they seem to. Number of followers on Twitter is a very bad proxy for our status within the different communities we inhabit, yet we can’t stop our status-obsessed brains from over-interpreting it.

2. We’re all interested in success

Status and success are two sides of the same coin: If you have success you probably also have status, although it very much depends on your definitions of success and whether others share them. We often don’t define success and can’t recognise it when it happens, so we use apparent status as a proxy for it. If you believe that in order to prove to yourself that you are successful you also need to have high status within your community, and your community is online, then you’re looking for high status there too… which means you’re looking at numbers which are a proxy for a proxy. Great stuff!

3. Phatic communication is as important as informational communication

Social media makes a lot of phatic communications, i.e. that stuff you say to show the world you’re not dead yet, explicit whereas we are used to them being almost unnoticeable. Those little grunts, sighs and snarfles you normally make to tell the people around you, “I’m still here” become “Making a cup of tea” on Twitter. Because we’re use to the written word containing useful information we get frustrated when it contains phatic information and fail to realise just how very useful that info actually is.

4. We’re completists

We evolved in a world where it was possible to know everything everyone else knew: Where to hunt, where to gather, how to cook, who’s in charge. Now there is so much information in the world that we can barely learn a tiny fraction of it, yet it feels like somehow we ought to know it all. Our dopamine system rewards us for seeking and there’s no end to what we can find. There is no end to the internet, so the seeking just goes on and on and on.

5. We’re stretching our wetware

Armano is right that we’re using tools that allow us to shatter Dunbar’s Number into tiny bits, and this is causing us some problems because we are trying to treat everyone as ‘friends’, instead of accepting that some people are closer than others. In actual fact, then number of close friends we maintain remains at around ten, or less. It’s the number of acquaintances that’s booming, and we’re not quite sure what the social etiquette is for our interactions with all these people we my well like but barely know.

This is problematic, to be sure. The technology is evolving faster than we are figuring out how it fits into our social natures. Manners and etiquette vary wildly between communities and society has not settled on a common ruleset. But I think a few simple guidelines can help us all:

  1. Don’t try to be everywhere
  2. Don’t try to know everyone
  3. Feel free to ignore content and people
  4. Don’t be offended if someone ignores you or what you write
  5. Accept that your brain is not the size of a planet and you can’t know everything. Yet.

Of course, all bets are off once the Singularity occurs.

links for 2010-02-24

  • Kevin: Ken Doctor writes about the expected cuts of about 300 jobs at ABCNews in the US. (Out of a current headcount of 1400.) "I’ve placed ABC among the Digital Dozen companies, those with more than 500 news staffers, those with the potential of creating bigger digital businesses given their global distribution power — if they can restructure their costs in line with still-meager, but growing, digital revenues."
  • Kevin: A list of games 'with real world impact'.
  • Kevin: "At first glance, a start-up social media company with a focus on bar reviews and meeting up with friends might seem like an unlikely partner for newspapers as established as The New York Times, or as widely distributed as the freesheet Metro. But at this stage, the deal seems to be less about news and more about the restaurant reviews so key to Foursquare's appeal. "
  • Kevin: The New York Times has collected all of their interactive graphics for the 2010 Winter Olympics on one page. It's a great collection showing off some excellent techniques in visual story-telling.
  • Kevin: Brilliant visual of 'blogosphere'. (I hate the term. It's not a monolith.) It's a very useful bookmark for relevant statistics about blogs. The one stat that surprises me is that the US represents 48% of the global blogging population. That really surprises me. I'd like to see the underlying data. That aside, still very useful.
  • Kevin: In the satirical column Grey Cardigan about newspapers in the UK: “The daft thing is, we all knew that it was going to end. We knew that the internet would eventually take away our ad revenue; that classified would go first, followed by property and sits vac. And yet we did nothing about it. We didn’t plan for the future or invest in innovative content and means of delivery. We just carried on snuffling up the profits like pigs around a trough.” How close to reality is this? (Answer: Probably damn close.)
  • Kevin: This reminds me of the US Air Force social media strategy. It's important to be able to determine what kind of feedback you're getting. "The number one rule when responding to all criticism, even the negative type, is to stay positive. Adding more negativity to the conversation by letting yourself be drawn into a fight with a customer or user will only reflect poorly on your business."
  • Kevin: Chris Brogan makes a really important distinction in this post, which he expands on in the comments. "First, let’s be clear: the pursuits of journalism and the pursuits of publishing aren’t the same.

    Journalists seek to create compelling information that is helpful and news-worthy.

    Publishing seeks to push more product, deliver higher circulation value, and create more value for sponsors/advertisers/money-holders."

  • Kevin: Frédéric Filloux of the Monday Note looks at the issues surrounding the iPad for publishers. Publishers agree that Apple is difficult to work with, which Frédéric says Apple needs to reconsider. "nlike the iPhone, the iPad will leave or die by the content it will deliver." It needs to treat publishers better. Lots of good questions here. Will content providers subsidise the iPad as mobile phone operators subsidise the iPhone? What kind of market data will publishers be able to capture from the iPad?
  • Kevin: Charlie Beckett, the director of the journalism and politics think tank Polis at the London School of Economics, writes about th difficulty that serious journalists will have in covering allegations that Gordon Brown has 'bullied' his staff and has a volcanic temper. The journalists reporting the story have not been able to get their sources to go on the record. Charlies says: "If they don’t report these things then they stand accused of keeping secrets in the cozy club of the lobby. If they use journalistic conventions then they face the bluster of people like Prescott. You decide."
  • Kevin: Mark Jones of Reuters writes about the very interesting campaigns online in the UK that parody the political posters of the parties. He says: "t’s early days in the run-up to the general election and no-one is expecting this bout of social media satire to entirely kill off the art of political billboard posters. But something has changed and campaign managers have one more thing to think about — the scope for online corruption of their messaging. And might it at least add some fun to the campaign?"

The cost of inauthentic communities

Roger Martin has an excellent post on Harvard Business Review that looks back at how business executives used to be embedded in the community they served but are now disconnected from it, as are the businesses they work for. It is a must read.

In the 60s, business were smaller, executives knew their customers and their staff. Shareholders were in it for the long run so tolerated long-term planning. Companies had more loyalty to their home city, so “doing things to benefit the city made sense both corporately and personally.”

While not perfect, this structure enabled the executive to live a reasonably authentic life; the way he wanted to live personally was largely aligned with her corporate responsibilities. He wanted to make the customers — whom he was likely to know personally — happy. He wanted to support his employees’ well-being — employees who he and his family probably knew. He wanted to be a respected figure in the city, a city that was important to his company and his family. And he wanted to make his shareholders happy because he knew that they had placed a long-term bet behind his company. If he worked on all those aspects of his community, he could be successful and happy. And by serving customers and employees well, the corporation was likely to keep on prospering.

But now companies and the executives that work for them have become dissociated from their environs, their staff, their customers and, crucially, from long-term thinking. Martin says:

[T]he idea that shareholder value was a corporation’s principal objective function took hold, largely, I think, through the agency of business schools, whose dramatic rise coincided with the decline of the traditional business community.

This disintegration of community is not a good thing for the exec, his business, the community or frankly, anyone else. It leads to the sort of short-termist thinking that led to the Crash.

Martin paints a fairly bleak picture, but I think there is a cause for hope: Social media. Blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn and a host of other tools provide a way for the people in business, whether executive or not, to get back in touch with their wider community. It also allows customers to collaborate and to become a countervailing force to shareholders, Wall Street and analysts who encourage companies to make bad decisions.

The new community that businesses find themselves in isn’t a geographically constrained community, but a community of interest, or rather, a community of people who have an interest, whether they are customers, staff or curious onlookers.

And there’s nowhere to hide, either. The sunshine of the public’s attention can illuminate any previously hidden nook or cranny, and behaviour that businesses once got away with can now be exposed and challenged. The broader reach of businesses also frequently allows customers to swap away from the worst offenders, using their dollar or pound to vote against a company’s policy or behaviour.

I think we have a long way to go before we make real progress, and the largest of companies frequently have the longest journey, but I think the tide is finally on the turn.

links for 2010-02-23

  • Kevin: A fascinating interview with Michelle Leder of, a financial news site that was recently acquired by Morningstar. Footnoted digs through securities filings to find nuggest of interesting information. She challenges a number of assertions made about the web and journalism. She challenged Jeff Jarvis on the sustainability of the advertising only model for blogs. For entreprenuers, she says that they need a safety net and a backup plan. Excellent advice based on some experience and success. One take away for me is that if you add value to information, you've got a product that you can sell. If you don't, you'll struggle.
  • Kevin: If you're working on a hyperlocal project, you'll want to read this. Howard Owens, formerly of GateHouse Media launched a hyperlocal site in Batavia New York. It just won the New Frontier Award from the Inland Press Association. Very interesting. Look at the answer to the second question: "First, that online advertising works. Second, the way the typical handles online advertising doesn’t work.

    Ads are content."
    The other thing to do note is that this is a two-person flat out operation. He says he works 16 hours a day, which might be an exaggeration, but it still shows how lean the organisation is.

  • Kevin: If you look at your web stats, your site probably has a lot of 'drive-by' visitors. Visitors who either came from a search engine, an aggregator or your front page expecting one thing and getting something else. They stay a second and leave. This post has some good ideas on how to reduce the 'bounce rate', how to keep people on your site longer by showing them other things they might be interested in. Related content works, but it has to be more.
  • Kevin: Tim Beyers says that the infighting at the New York Times Company "will be lucky" if infighting over pricing for its iPad edition doesn't destroy the venerable newspaper. Gawker has reported that the print subscription department wants to charge £20 to $30 a month for the Times iPad app. As Beyers points out, News Corp only charges $12.50 a month for web access to The Wall Street Journal and Barron's.
  • Kevin: A good list of web data and visualisation tools from Matt Stiles of The Texas Tribune, a new news site and service focusing on Texas politics.

The truth does not lie midway between right and wrong

There’s a habit amongst journalists to act as if there’s a continuum between opposing viewpoints and that the truth must therefore lie somewhere roughly in the middle, especially on health, science and certain tech stories. We saw it before with the reporting on now disgraced ‘scientist’ Andrew Wakefield and his very well debunked claims that MMR causes autism. And we’ve seen it regularly since.

Now the House of Commons science and technology committee has examined homeopathy provision on the NHS and has concluded that evidence shows homeopathy works no better than placebo and that the NHS should not provide or recommend it. The media seems to have decided that solid science is one end of a continuum of truths with homeopaths at the other end, and that it’s their job to shilly shally around in the middle and to present both sides in a ‘fair and balanced’ manner. To which I call bullshit.

Science isn’t about the balance of opinions but the balance of evidence. Evidence is bigger than any one person or research institute: it’s the findings of experiments that can be consistently repeated by anyone, anywhere with the right knowledge and equipment. When the evidence stacks up in favour of one theory, then that’s the theory that we must hold as true until/unless reliable and repeatable experiments lead us to refine or change it.

And that’s the thing. The reliable and repeatable experiments show that homeopathy performs no better than a placebo. Yet journalists seem intent on portraying this story as “MPs say one thing, homeopaths say something else, and who knows who’s right?!”. The Guardian, for example, uses a lot of fightin’ words (my bold):

To true believers, including Prince Charles, homeopathy is an age-old form of treatment for a wide range of ills. To most scientists, it is nothing more than water. Today the sniping between the devotees and the denialists became a head-on collision, as the House of Commons science and technology committee challenged the government to live by its evidence-based principles and withdraw all NHS funding from homeopathic treatment. …

…the money could be better spent, said the committee, accusing the Department of Health of failing to abide by the principle that its policies should be evidence-based. …

The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health countered the MPs’ attack by citing a peer-reviewed scientific study in the International Journal of Oncology which, it said, proved that homeopathic remedies were biologically active. …

But this isn’t a fight. It’s not seconds out, round one. Evidence points overwhelmingly to the conclusion that homeopathy doesn’t work.

The Guardian, along with many other news outlets, also gives quite a weight to pro-homeopathy voices as if all opinions are equal and that this is a debate. Ben Goldacre is collecting examples over on Bad Science. The BBC, for example, comes in for a lot of criticism in Ben’s comments:

fgrunta said,

I just saw this story break on BBC News. They brought on a Homeopath GP who just went and told I don’t know how many millions of viewers that the “evidence is clear” that homeopathy works and she then proceeded to start quote papers.



ALondoner said,

An excellent report, nice to see that MPs can sit down, review the evidence and then say something intelligent.

On the other hand, The BBC (and some other news outlets) seem to be so obsessed with giving each side of the story, they make it sound like there is reasonable evidence for both points of view.

When someone is found guilty of a crime, journalists doesn’t put guilty in quotation marks. Nor do they pick a self appointed expert to rant about why that person was actually not guilty. So why doesn’t the BBC simply report that supporters of homoeopathy say it works, but all independent reviews shows that it does not.

Instead, we get “many people – both patients and experts – say it is a valid treatment and does work”, without at least caveating that with “but all systematic reviews show it is no better than placebo” and explaining who these “experts” are. Experts in giving homeopathy perhaps, but are they experts in telling whether it works better than placebo?

Just sent a few comments to the BBC via their well hidden complaints website:

The problem is, this is not a debate. The evidence is in: Homeopathy doesn’t work. Perpetuating the myth that taking ‘remedies’ which amount to nothing more than sugar pills or water that’s been shaken up a bit is potentially harmful. In fact, people die because they are convinced that homeopathy will work and so don’t seek proper medical attention. The media is complicit in those deaths because they help to keep the myth of homeopathy alive.

What I don’t understand is why journalists feels the need to create this false dichotomy in the first place. When astronomers discover a new planet orbiting a distant star, journalists don’t start looking for dissenting astrologers. When palaeontologists discover a new dinosaur, journalists don’t seek out creationists or intelligent design advocates to say that it’s all just a big trick by God. Why is it that in other fields they feel at liberty to talk utter hogswash and to ignore solid evidence?

This isn’t a science problem, or a science communications problems, this is a serious journalistic problem. This is journalists imposing a frame onto the story that is utterly inappropriate. This leads to a misrepresentation of the evidence and does a serious disservice to everyone who reads these stories and takes them at face value.

There is always some doubt in science, but this does not mean that science is unreliable or that opposing views are always as valid. In homeopathy, the level of doubt is very, very low, so low in fact that I feel perfectly happy saying “homeopathy doesn’t work”, because that’s the hypothesis that’s been proven correct time and time again.

Other scientific theories have more doubt and there we do need to be careful to be clear about what levels of confidence we should have. But this doesn’t mean that even in those stories that we need to give equal weight to for and against: we just need to be clear about how tentative or firm the science is.

And again, let me reiterate: This is important not just from a journalistic integrity point of view, but because misinformation kills. Actual people actually die. They actually get ill, actually fail to get the right treatment, and actually suffer because of it. Any action on the part of journalists that encourages people to believe in provably ineffective treatments is unethical. I just wish more journalists thought through what they are writing when covering stories like MMR and homeopathy.

Book: Building Social Web Applications, Gavin Bell

I’ve yet to see a copy of Building Social Web Applications
, but Gavin Bell is a not only a friend but someone whom I respect and admire, so I’m already convinced it’s going to be a good read! The official blurb is:

Building a social web application that attracts and retains regular visitors, and gets them to interact, isn’t easy to do. This book walks you through the tough questions you’ll face if you’re to create a truly effective community site – one that makes visitors feel like they’ve found a new home on the Web. Whether you’re creating a new site from scratch or embracing an existing audience “Building Social Web Applications” helps you and your fellow web developers, designers, and project managers make difficult decisions, such as choosing the appropriate interaction tools for your audience, and building an infrastructure to help the community gel.With this book, you’ll learn to: understand who will be drawn to your site, why they’ll stay, and who they’ll interact with; build the software you need versus plugging in off-the-shelf apps; create visual design that clearly communicates what your site will do; manage the identities of your visitors and determine how to manage their interaction; watch for demand from the community to guide your choice of new functions; and, plan the launch of your site and get the message out. “Building Social Web Applications” includes examples of different application types – member-driven, customer service-driven, contributor-driven, and more – and discusses different business models. If your company’s ready to move into the world of social web applications, this book will help you make it a reality.

Christian Crumlish has a short review, GameDev take a bit of a deeper look and there are currently five 5-star reviews on Personally, I can’t wait to have the time to sit down and read this cover-to-cover!

Are we building better tomorrows?

Via Christian Crumlish, I discovered the excellent essay Are we building a better Internet? by Matte Scheinker. Matte’s essay looks at how seemingly small design decisions can have huge impacts on the way that the internet evolves. He says:

The first design meme I encountered with true deleterious power was the opt-out check-box for marketing emails on sign-up forms. Our argument for it to be opt-in instead was user-experience focused with a nod to the business folks. Undesired emails would hurt the brand, annoy the user, and not necessarily generate qualified leads. What we didn’t consider back then was how that small decision would help create today’s Internet. These undesired marketing emails — along with the invention of V1@gra — contributed to the cacophony of commercial noise that now pollutes the Internet. As far as I know, this noise hasn’t killed anyone. Yet most of us would prefer the Internet to feel a little more like relaxing on a secluded beach with a good book and less like Times Square on a muggy Saturday night.

Imagine for a moment what today’s design decisions will do to mold the Internet’s future. What if every product decision you made last week became a successful design meme? Would that create an Internet where you’d want your kids to play?

Sometimes we get lucky and it’s not difficult to discern the difference between right and wrong. Don’t sell user data because you’re short on beer money. Don’t keep emailing users after they unsubscribe. Don’t read user emails to find the next great stock pick. These are certainly over-simplified dilemmas, and sadly, most ethical dilemmas aren’t as clear-cut.

He goes on to talk about other ethical decisions that designers and businesses make and the impact that they have. You really should read the whole thing.

But Matte’s questions are not just for web designers and developers, they are also for business managers: Are you making business decisions that might affect the future of the internet? Of your business? Of Business? If everyone behaved as you do, would the world be a better place?

Decisions that affect the internal world of your business don’t just affect your staff, they affect their spouses, families, friends. If you’ve ever known someone who’s unhappy at work you know how far and how fast that unhappiness can travel. And if you’re making good decisions – enabling and empowering the people you work with to communicate, collaborate and be more effective – then your influence will also spread as the people you work with pick up good management habits.

Of course, this isn’t just about feeling good: if you have passionate employees you have a whole raft of potential evangelists who can represent your brand in the wider community. If you treat your customers with respect, they’ll be more likely to recommend you to their friends. And if you make good decisions about your website’s design, you’ll gain much more goodwill than abusing customer’s trust.

Being ethical isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.