Lesson from MySpace: “Never Stand Still”

MySpace has gone from fast rising social network to a fast falling has been, waiting to be sold by News Corp. In terms of mindshare, it’s already joined the deadpool. Chris Thorpe flagged up this great blog post this morning:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/jaggeree/status/32066764669980672″]

The blogger, John Willshire, is also a member of a band, and he managed to cobble together a new presence for his band, Gamages Model Train Club, by pasting together a number of other services: Tumblr, Soundcloud, iTunes, Facebook, Google Analytics and Feedburner.

Most articles written about the fall of MySpace focus on the lack of focus after News Corp acquired the social network. Rupert Murdoch turned his attention to other areas of his empire, and MySpace simply failed to keep pace with Facebook.

John’s big lesson from MySpace is that digital businesses must never stand still. As he says, MySpcace was never easy to use, which left open the huge opportunity that Facebook exploited. More than that, while MySpace had been improving incrementally before News Corp acquired it, those improvements stopped after it was bought by the Beast.

Don’t launch things small and often, let’s launch things infrequently, but talk about all the changes we make at once.  So don’t talk about anything in between that spoils this, please.  Oh, and we need a major review of what we’re doing with the site, platform, tech, so don’t do anything till that’s complete….

…and so and and so forth.  By trying to sort everything all at once, as old, established companies want to, and as you’d have to do with a newspaper redesign, Myspace stopped evolving.

Lessons for news organisations

When I started in digital journalism, I worked for small organisations, and we ran on shoestring budgets. It wasn’t until I joined the BBC that I worked for a well-resourced operation, and even then the BBC News website had (and still has) a tiny budget compared to BBC TV (but then my former colleagues in radio will say the same thing, and be right).

However, with integration, bringing together the print and digital or broadcast and digital newsrooms, resourcing is improving, but those digital organisations are now being brought into larger, sometimes less nimble, organisational structures. It’s a challenge that only a few news organisations have successfully met.

Prioritisation: How do news organisations decide what they must do?

Since leaving The Guardian last April and striking out on my own, I joke that I’ve become an occupational therapist. I’ve had the chance to speak to journalists, editors and media executives around the world and hear the issues and challenges facing them. Most of them are instantly familiar, but one issue that I first heard about in Norway in 2009 and heard with increasing frequency in 2010 was prioritisation. In digital, there are a myriad of things we could do, but in this era of transition and scarce resources, the real question is what we must do.

In the comments on my last post covering the opportunities for news organisation in location services and technologies, Reg Chua, the Editor-in-Chief of the South China Morning Post, had this insight:

Kevin’s point on prioritization is a critical one. We can’t do everything well; in fact, we can’t do everything, period. I’d argue that we should think about the product we want to come out with first – and then figure out what data is needed to make it work. I realize that leaves some value on the table, but I suspect we all need to specialize more if we’re to really create products that have real value.

For the news organisations that I’m working with now in developing their digital strategies, one of the things that I look at is where they have the most opportunity. I agree with Reg that there are a number of opportunities in terms of creating products using data, and I also think that data is important in determining which products to develop. News organisations need to get serious about looking at what their audiences find valuable, digging into their own metrics. Right now, we’ve got a lot of faith-based decision making in media. It’s critical that we begin to look at the data to help determine what new products we should deliver and how we can improve our existing offering.

For a good start on this kind of thinking, Jonathan Stray wrote an excellent post last year, Designing journalism to be used. He wrote:

Digital news product design has so far mostly been about emulation of previous media. Newspaper web sites and apps look like newspapers. “Multimedia” journalism has mostly been about clicking somewhere to get slideshows and videos. This is a little like the dawn of TV news, when anchors read wire copy on air. Digital media gives us an explosion of product design possibilities, but the envisioned interaction modes have so far stayed mostly the same.

This is not to say that the stories themselves don’t need to change. In fact, I think they do. But the question can’t be “how can we make better stories?” It must be “who are our users, what would we like to help them to do, and how can we build a system that helps them with that?”

Josh Benton of the Nieman Lab says that we have an opportunity to rethink the grammar of journalism during this period of transition in the business. Jonathan and Reg are definitely thinking about rethinking the grammar and rethinking the products that we create. Digital journalism is different, and the real opportunity is in thinking about how its different and how that creates new opportunities both to present journalism and support it financially.

Location: News organisations must seize this opportunity

Since I started geo-tagging content during my trip across the US for the 2008 elections, I’ve been interested in the possibilities of location-based services and news. Location is one way to deliver timely, relevant content to audiences. Smart news organisations such as TBD.com in Washington DC in the US are already leveraging geo-tagging to deliver their content, and now Examiner.com has struck a deal with Foursquare in 288 cities. MocoNews.net, part of the paidContent network, is reporting that:

In essence, Examiner’s 68,000 contributors, known as “Examiners,” will provide reviews and recommendations on nearby venues, restaurants, events, businesses and landmarks that will surface within the Foursquare mobile app when users following Examiner.com check in.

This is one of the opportunities that news organisations must not miss. Location allows for better delivery and discovery of content by readers, but it can also deliver new revenue streams to support journalism.

Hacking the BBC

I spent several months last year working with a team of people, including Kevin, on a retrospective of BBC Backstage, which has now been released as a free ebook. As I wrote for the introduction:

BBC Backstage was a five year initiative to radically open up the BBC, publishing information and data feeds, connecting people both inside and outside the organisation, and building a developer community. The call was to “use our stuff to make your stuff” and people did, to the tune of over 500 prototypes.

This ebook is a snapshot of some of the projects and events that Backstage was involved in, from its launch at Open Tech 2005, through the triumph of Hack Day 2007 and the shot-for-web R&DTV, to current visualisation project DataArt. We take a diversion to Bangladesh to see how a Backstage hacker helped the World Service keep reporting through the horrendous Cyclone Sidr, and look at the impact of the ‘playground’ servers, used inside the BBC.

Backstage’s mandate, throughout its history, was for change. It changed the way people think, the way the BBC interacted with external designers and developers, and the way that they worked together. So what remains, now Backstage is no more? The legacy isn’t just a few data feeds and some blog posts. Backstage brought about permanent change, for the people who worked there, for its community of external developers and for the BBC. What better legacy could one ask for?

Jemima Kiss has written a great piece on The Guardian about it:

Night has finally fallen on the visionary and quietly influential five-year project that was BBC Backstage, a collaboration of ideas, experiments and talent that informed and defined some of the corporation’s best technology work.

Now set to be replaced by a cross-industry developer network – a repository for data from many media organisations and tech companies – this special corner of the BBC devoted to developers has been wound down.


Woolard talks of Backstage in three phases: creating a space to make this kind of experimentation and open innovation possible; engaging the developer community; and a third stage that takes these findings and this attitude of openness further across the BBC and its output. He points to last year’s BBC 2 series Virtual Revolution, which explored the impact of the web, and was heavily influenced by the R&D TV project led by Rain Ashford, which also filmed wide-ranging interviews with high-profile technologists and allowed viewers to cut and shape footage for their own use.

Now, says Woolard, it is normal to talk about openness, innovation and working with external developers – and he claims the BBC is “fully technology conversant” in what it needs to do.

Backstage was born on the same day as the Open Rights Group, on 23 July 2005 at the Open Tech conference. I was rather busy bootstrapping ORG whilst Backstage was getting off the ground, but I kept my eye on it nonetheless.

Backstage and ORG had a lot in common beyond their birthday – a desire for more openness, a fervent dislike of DRM, and a strong DIY ethic. We also shared a community: many of our supporters were also Backstagers. In many ways, we were two sides of the same coin, with ORG campaigning publicly for change, especially around DRM, and Backstage working the inside line. I like to think we had a nice pincer movement going on.

Backstage had some amazing moments, most notably HackDay at Ally Pally, which I sadly missed due to being on a plane at the time. Spending time last year reading over old blog posts, it was great to be reminded of what a vibrant community Backstage built and what groundbreaking work they did, especially with events. Most importantly, they redefined expectations around open data and standards.

Congratulations to everyone who was involved in Backstage, and huge thanks to the Hacking the BBC team!