links for 2010-03-31

  • Kevin: It's often difficult to come by hard numbers and agreed upon metrics when it comes to the impact of social media on traditional media so it's great that NPR in the US is sharing numbers publicly about how social media engagement strategies are reaping benefits. Ben Robins and Sandra Lozano write: "The results (of research) provided us with a first look at how social media is not only changing the way that news organizations report the news, but how some listeners are learning to engage in new and different ways."
  • Kevin: From the summary of an excellent guide written by Michael Galpin, a software architect for eBay: "For years Web developers have salivated over some of the features promised in the next generation of Web browsers as outlined by the HTML 5 specification. You might be surprised to learn just how many of the features are already available in today's browsers. In this article, learn how to detect which capabilities are present and how to take advantage of those features in your application. Explore powerful HTML 5 features such as multi-threading, geolocation, embedded databases, and embedded video."
  • Kevin: Peter Kirwan looks at the possible reaction by The Guardian (my employer for one more day) if Murdoch's paywall strategy works. First of all, I think one has to define 'work'. However, that doesn't detract from the article's main point. He asks some very important questions. "What if the combination of digital advertising revenue and subscription charges generated by Times Newspapers Ltd exceeds the £25m a year that brings in from advertising? What if the ad spend diverted from Times Online doesn’t benefit the Guardian or the Telegraph as much as everyone expects?"


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

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

Dead right.


A good (but too brief!) post by Mahendra about the importance of relevance. Mahendra is spot on to say that relevance is more important than big numbers and way more important than real-time. This is true not just in public-facing social media applications – it’s not just Facebook that wins because it’s relevant – but in Enterprise 2.0 too. Slapping up some social tools because it seems like a good idea will not get you as much traction as providing people with tools and information relevant to their needs. If I juggle a lot of incoming information on a day to day basis, I need help filtering that information and so something like social bookmarking becomes relevant. If I’m organising meetings, I need something that can help me cut down on repetitive tedious tasks like agenda writing like a wiki.

Relevance. It should underpin every social media project we do.

links for 2010-03-30

  • Kevin: Alexandra Jaffe looks at the plans and pricing for iPad apps from the FT and the Wall Street Journal. Good quote from News Corp digital chief Jonathan Miller, who believes that the iPad isn't a a communication device but a media consumption device. I'd agree to a point, but there is also a bit of a content publisher's bias in that comment.
  • Kevin: Jon Udell writes about a project from the team that work on MIT's Project Simile and now working at Metaweb. Jon writes: "As the open data juggernaut picks up steam, a lot of folks are going to discover what some of us have known all along. Much of the data that’s lying around is a mess." They are building a system that will clean up the data, especially the metadata on datasets. This will be a godsend for anyone using messy datasets and speed merge functions and also help with the creation of new 'facets' ( eg a year column from a data column).
  • Kevin: Mahendra Palsule, Editor at TechMeme writes at the Skeptic Geek about a shift in social media from a numbers game to a relevance model. Very interesting post with lots of succinct detail and thinking. "Social media and Businesses on the web today are driven by the numbers game – of traffic, page views, and follower numbers. But the trend I foresee is:

    The web is evolving from a numbers model to a relevance model."

Telecommuting: Just do it!

I’ve worked for a lot of remote clients over the years, reaching back to when I was a web designer during the Dot Com era. From the company in California for whom I designed and built a website during the late 90s, to the start-up in Montreal that I worked with last year, my professional engagements have been as often remote as on-site. I’ve been freelance one way or another for over ten years so working from home is second nature.

In the last decade, many of the problems with remote working have been solved. It is now trivial to do video conferencing: All you need is a decent internet connection and Skype. Transferring large files is easy using services like DropBox or DropSend. IRC (internet relay chat), which was once a staple communications channel, has been replaced by instant messenger and Yammer. The emailing round of documents for discussion has been replaced by wikis like Socialtext or PBWorks. If you’re willing to be inventive, working remotely isn’t technically difficult.

This certainly seems to be experience that the editorial staff of had when they decided to all work from home whilst putting together the most recent issue. Technologically, telecommuting is pretty simple and there’s no reason why more companies couldn’t just decide to get on with it. The social aspects of distributed working are a little bit thornier: it suits some personalities more than others and you do have to think very hard about how your emotional needs get met. I’ve always been pretty happy being on my own all day and getting my social fix online, or at meetings and evening events, but some people need a bit more face-to-face interaction to be happy. But homeworking needn’t be all or nothing. There’s no reason why more people can’t do two or three days at home and the rest of the week in the office.

The benefits may well outweigh the downside too. gathered these stats from Kate Lister from the Telework Research Network, who asked what the numbers would be if 40% of the American workforce worked from home half the time:

  • $200 billion: productivity gains by American companies
  • $190 billion: savings from reduced real estate expenses, electricity bills, absenteeism, and employee turnover
  • 100 hours: per person not spent commuting
  • 50 million tons; of greenhouse gas emissions cut
  • 276 million barrels: of oil saved, or roughly 32 percent of oil imports from the Middle East
  • 1,500 lives: not lost in car accidents
  • $700 billion: total estimated savings to American businesses

The social enterprise isn’t just about helping people realise the benefits of social media in the workplace, but is also about the vast possibilities in flexible working that social tools offer. And from what has experienced, it seems that there’s no reason not to dive in and give it a go.

links for 2010-03-29

  • Kevin: Dan Lyons at Newsweek looks at the upcoming launch Apple's iPad. The analysis is largely bullish and looks at how Steve Jobs of Apple has turned conventional wisdom that 'walled gardens' on the internet don't work. "The closed system also lets Apple make more money, because it collects 30 percent of whatever customers spend on apps or content. Same goes for movies, music, and books. Instead of making a one-time sale, each iPad sold becomes a recurring revenue stream for Apple."

    In the end, I think it's not a black and white issue of closed versus open systems. The biggest issue with many of the closed gardens in the past is that they often worked well for the people that ran them but they didnt' work so well for consumers. Also, while Apple is often criticised for its control over the iPhone apps market, it stil offers a huge range of choice.

  • Kevin: Felix Salmon at Reuters looks at revenue per page on professional blog networks like Nick Denton's Gawker and Henry Blodget's Business Insider. It came out of a Twitter conversation Blodget. The post is interesting, especially the last paragraph. I spotted this in the third comment: "The reason why very few can make money on content alone is because the people selling the product have some warped idea that the product is less valuable than the format that was once very profitable in a print format." Currently there are a few reasons why print advertising is more profitable than digital, but we'll see a shift over the next decade if not the next few years. The problem currently is down to metrics. Not all web traffic is created equal. Sales teams need to sit with their web metrics team. There is a good digital story to tell. Ad teams often aren't telling it.
  • Kevin: Ian Delaney looks closely at miniblogging services such as Tumblr, and Posterous. He points out, "None of these platforms currently have any form of advertising, premium features or any other way to make their business sustainable." To survive as sustainable businesses, he says that platforms will have to differentiate, and he offers a few suggestions on what those might be.
  • Kevin: Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures looks at web traffic outside of the US to popular sites and services such as Facebook and Twitter. He concludes: "The conventional wisdom is that international usage cannot be monetized as well as US traffic and that is certainly true. But with >80% of your potential users outside of the US, I think the web sector needs to start working harder on international monetization."

Can problems be solved by blogging?

Davide Castelvecchi writes for the Scientific American about how mathematician Timothy Gowers from the University of Cambridge used his blog to crack a complex Naughts and Crosses (Tic-Tac-Toe) problem. In an experiment to see if “spontaneous online collaborations could crack hard mathematical problems,” Gowers and commenters on his blog looked for a simpler proof for the density Hales-Jewett problem, (which asks, in a more complicated way than I am about to, how many squares can be removed from a naughts and crosses grid in N dimensions to make the game unwinnable).

It won’t be surprising to anyone familiar with social media that the answer turned out to be yes, you can crack complicated problems through discussion in a blog post’s comments. In this case, the new proof was derived in six weeks through hundreds of comments and was written up into a paper authored by the collective entity DHJ Polymath.

The methodology will be familiar to many bloggers too:

When trying to solve a problem, mathematicians usually make many failed attempts, in which they try lines of reasoning that can turn out to be “blind alleys,” after weeks or months of work. Often those lines of reasoning that seem promising to one expert look obviously fruitless to another. So when every attempt is exposed to public feedback, the process can become much faster.

Although not groundbreaking, what this experiment does do is throw up an interesting thought about the nature of problems. Castelvecchi draws a distinction at the top of the article between problems like the density Hales-Jewett problem which cannot be solved by breaking work up into smaller tasks, and those that can. In the distributed problem solving world, Galaxy Zoo is a great example, bringing together thousands of people to successfully classify millions of images of galaxies (and that’s just the start of their success!).

But the density Hales-Jewett problem also has key property that makes it amenable to collaborative solving which Castelvecchi doesn’t mention: It is possible to know when you have answered it. That means that there’s a specific end-point to which all participants are heading. Many problems that we seek to solve do not have such a neat solution, but the process of attempting to answer parts of the problem is valuable in and of itself. Wikipedia, for example, attempts to solve the problem of collating and verifying information and although it will never be “finished”, the process results in a very valuable information set. Some problems are even “wicked problems” which change their nature as we try to solve them. Wicked problems, and other problems with no solution, may yet still benefit from exploration.

So, we end up with this handy matrix:

Problem Matrix

Social media or specialised collaborative platforms can be used to in all instances to help find a solution to the problem, if it is possible to do so. Otherwise, it can at least provide an opportunity to discuss the problem which in itself is a valuable exercise. The only thing that surprises me is that more companies don’t turn to social media, internally or externally, to help them define, discuss and possibly solve business problems.

links for 2010-03-28

Models of authority

When I talk about social media culture to people, I often wind up talking about models of authority, i.e. the different ways in which we view what makes someone a person worth taking notice of. As I see it, there are four main models of authority:

  1. Claimed authority: “You must respect me because I say so”
  2. Institutional authority: “Respect me because of my affiliation”
  3. Historical authority: “Respect me because I’ve been doing this a long time”
  4. Earnt authority: “I have been consistently reliable on this topic”

When I look at how people react to these different modes, the only one I see gaining any traction in social media circles is the last: earnt authority. If you are consistently helpful, reliable or accurate you will be given kudos for that. Furthermore, anyone can earn respect and authority online, if they are willing to put the legwork in.

Claimed authority is particularly reviled, and you can see this in the sceptical way people deal with journalists who claim to knowledge of something but can’t back it up with actual facts. The internet is rife with blogs debunking rubbish journalism of all stripes, whether in the mainstream or fringe media.

Institutional authority gets ignored or challenged. Just because you’re affiliated to a big brand doesn’t mean that you get a free pass. If you’re boring or predictable, you’ll wind up just talking to yourself. If you screw up, you’ll be held to account.

And historical authority – whether of the “Est. 1723” or “I’ve been on the internetz longer than you have so nyer” sort – doesn’t really wash either. You may have been doing what you do for ever, but if you’re rubbish at it people will notice.

Clearly there are other cultural issues at work here too. Speaking in generalities, America is much more open to new people coming into a space and showing what they are made of, whereas in the UK there’s a lot more of a “Who the hell do you think you are?” attitude, with appeals to traditional models of authority much more common.

But where I think this is important is in understanding why some social media projects fail – whether they are internal or external. There are many, many people who are well versed in social media culture and who have a very solid set of expectations, often informed by books such as the Cluetrain Manifesto. And because this culture revolves around individuals exchanging value with each other as equals, they are very keep to preserve a dynamic that they see as beneficial to both themselves and their wider community.

When people steeped in traditional behaviour sets, more focused on extracting value than exchanging it, start dipping their toes into social media, they do so with the wrong models of authority in mind. They think that they’ll be successful because of who they are, how long they’ve been around or simply because they just believe it should be so. That, of course, doesn’t happen.

Instead, businesses need to enter social media humbly, with the assumption that they are going to have to earn respect by consistently being a good and valuable participant in a wider community. And I’m not just talking about how to do social media marketing, but also about internal use. There’s no point just chucking up blogs or a wiki and saying to people, “Right, use these. It’ll be good for you.” You have to understand that social media is about an exchange and ask yourself, what are our people getting out of this?

“Users will scroll” says Nielsen

Jakob Nielsen, once an opponent of scrolling, has now said that users will scroll, but only if there’s something worth scrolling to. This totally fits in the “No shit, Sherlock” category, but I suppose it’s good to have one’s experiences backed up by the evidence.

What’s disappointing about Nielsen’s column is that he doesn’t appear to have taken different types of content and behaviour into account. So there’s no sign that he adjusted for interestingness of the content, its relevance to the test subject, or whether the site already prioritised key information at the top of the page. Nor does he say whether he adjusted for content that provokes seeking behaviour or what I shall call here ‘absorbed’ behaviour, e.g. reading an interesting blog post.

All three of Nielsen’s examples are sites where I would expect to see seeking behaviour, i.e. the user glances through the content until they find what they want. If the sites are well designed, then the user should find that information quickly, at the top of the page. It is thus not necessarily surprising that he found participants spent 80.3% of their time above the fold (i.e. the point on your screen where you’d need to scroll to see more), and 19.7% below, and that people’s attention flicked down the page until it settled on something interesting.

If Nielsen had used websites that provoke absorbed behaviour, such as well-written blogs or news sites, I would have expected to see a more evenly distributed eye-tracking trace. The third example, a FAQ, is starting to move towards that territory, but FAQs aren’t known for being fascinating. If a blog post or news article is interesting, I will read to the bottom without even realising I am scrolling. If it’s dull, on the other hand, I’ll either give up quite quickly or I’ll skip to the end to see if there’s anything juicy down there, i.e. the low quality of the content flips me from absorbed behaviour to seeking behaviour as I look for something more interesting.

Overall, I find this research, as presented in this column, rather lacking. You can’t just separate out user behaviour from content type and quality because the content has a huge impact on the user’s behaviour.

Nevertheless, Nielsen’s recommendations are sensible, even if they are also somewhat obvious:

The implications are clear: the material that’s the most important for the users’ goals or your business goals should be above the fold. Users do look below the fold, but not nearly as much as they look above the fold.

People will look very far down a page if (a) the layout encourages scanning, and (b) the initially viewable information makes them believe that it will be worth their time to scroll.

Finally, while placing the most important stuff on top, don’t forget to put a nice morsel at the very bottom.

And for those of you who made it this far, here’s your nice morsel (of cute):

Grabbity and Mewton