Google Plus as Google’s glue

Suw and I have been using Google Plus for the last day. The company’s latest effort to try to get social definitely learns a lot from it’s previous failed attempts to inject some social into its ever growing collection of services. More than learning from past failures such as Buzz and Wave, Google does something that it had to do, it started to knit together that sprawling collection.

Google was running the risk of pulling a Yahoo. With the rise of web 2.0, Yahoo not only developed its own services but also went on a shopping spree, buying up Flickr, Delicious and other services. One of Yahoo’s issues is that it has never been able to tie those services, as excellent as they are on their own, into any kind of meaningful coherent network or business plan. On one hand, it’s probably down to leftover 1990s portal thinking for Yahoo, and on the other hand, Yahoo spent a lot of time over the last decade pursuing Terry Semel’s dreams of becoming a major content player. (A strategy that AOL’s Tim Armstrong seems intent on giving another go, possibly with similar results.)

For a while, Google seemed to struggle with its quest for another growth driver apart from search advertising and Android. They seemed to launch and acquire service after service without much overarching strategy. The services seemed isolated and often poorly integrated. That has started to change with some very subtle navigation changes, but Google Plus really starts to knit them all together, including Gmail, GTalk or Picassa. It’s a good start, although I’m a little baffled why Google Reader is not integrated into Plus. I’d guess that is because Google Readers is a minority sport, but it seems like a logical addition, even if they had only added a tool that easily allows you to share from inside of Reader as you can already with Twitter, Facebook, Blogger and a range of other blogging platforms, bookmarking services and social networks.

They also seem to have learned some lessons about privacy from the Buzz debacle and also Facebook’s issues. Privacy controls are woven throughout Google Plus, and I think that’s a welcome addition to social tools. While folks who live in public like Jeff Jarvis believe that “social is for sharing, not hiding“, most people want to be able to exercise some choices with their online privacy.

As a journalist, I’m going to be keeping an eye on Sparks, which is a social content discovery system built into Plus. It’s not quite there, and it feels much more of a search product than the solid type of social recommendation service that I’ve come to love with services and apps such as Zite on the iPad. Sparks are supposed to be driven by Google’s +1 service, and maybe it’s an indication of a lack of uptake on that. At the moment, the recommendation is weak. Jeff Sonderman at Poynter has some excellent suggestions on how Google could improve Sparks. It’s well worth reading.

Google has dealt itself back into social and managed to start to integrate its offerings into a cohesive whole. Even if the social aspects weren’t all that compelling, bringing some order to what had seemed a bit of a haphazard collection of web services is crucial for Google’s ongoing success.

Some services I explore because I feel I have to. Others I start using because they offer me something. Google Plus definitely piqued my interest enough to take a proper tour and explore more in the past day. I like the ability to group people as I see them in my life and share things with the appropriate group.  I’m sure my Mom won’t use Google Plus, but I’m not sure I agree with Scoble that this is early adopter only service. If you’re a Google or Android user, Google Plus makes a lot of sense. I’ve watched a lot of my friends in media and tech flood into Google Plus. It already feels quite a friendly, busy place. For Facebook diehards, those people for which Facebook is the internet, I doubt that Google Plus will have much pull. Google also is facing increasing anti-trust (anti-competition in the EU) scrutiny, and integrating its services will seem to its detractors as another attempt to seize new territory. Despite that, Google has shown that it can learn from its mistakes. It showed that it can do social, including some innovation in what is a very crowded space. It will be interested if the early adopters who flooded into Plus over the last 36 hours will stay around and what happens when the doors are opened to the wider public.

Journalism: Opening up the ‘insider’s game’

I met Jonathan Stray this past summer when I was speaking at Oxford, and I’ve really enjoyed keeping up with him on Twitter and on his blog. He’s smart, and if you’re thinking about journalism in new ways and thinking of how we can, as Josh Benton puts it, change the grammar of journalism, then you definitely want to add his blog to your RSS feeds.

I noticed Jonathan was having an interesting exchange with Amanda Bee, the programme director of document hosting project DocumentCloud, about the need for a service to help her get up to speed on an unfamiliar news story. I captured their conversation using a a social media storytelling service called Storify.*

In writing about information overload, one of the solutions that Matt has advocated and explored is the wiki-fication of news. Reading Matt and also based on my own experience as a journalist, I think there is another solution that involves journalists bringing their audiences along with them as they explore topics in-depth. In 2004, when I started blogging as a journalist, I turned Fox News’ tagline “We report, you decide” on its head. I said: You decide. I report. In describing this to Glyn Mottershead, who teaches journalism at Cardiff University, he called it concierge journalism. Put another way by Matt, having a good journalist around is like having a secret decoder ring to explain the news.

Editorially and socially we need deep engagement strategies like this. It’s not just about promoting our content to the audiences using Facebook an Twitter. It’s actually about engaging with them so that they will spend some of their precious time and attention following news rather than the myriad of other entertainment and information choices they have.

There are some important issues and challenges with this approach. One is an issue of scaling. When I started blogging in 2004, I had support at the BBC News website to manage the interaction and help with the production. You need that level of support to scale to that level of audience and also that level of engagement. I also think there has to be a better way to capture all of the insights and intelligence that this approach captures. A traditional style blog probably is a little too simplistic, although smart use of tags, meta-data and categories can overcome some of it.

Matt put the challenge to status quo this way:

I started to realize that “getting” the news didn’t require a decoder ring or years of work. All it took was access to the key pieces of information that newsrooms possessed in abundance. Yet news organizations never really shared that information in an accessible or engaging form. Instead, they cut it up into snippets that they buried within oodles of inscrutable news reports. Once in a while, they’d publish an explainer story, aiming to lay out the bigger picture of a topic. But such stories always got sidelined, quickly hidden in the archives of our news sites and forgotten.

As Jonathan says, this is serious problem worthy of serious discussion. It’s one that I think a lot of about, and there aren’t any easy answers. It’s complex and it really does require a lot of rethinking of not only how we present journalism but also how we practice journalism. As I’ve found, it’s much easier to change technologies and change the design of websites than it is to convince journalists that they need to change how they do journalism. Technology is easy to change. Culture is devilishly difficult to change because so many people, very powerful within organisations, have an investment in the status quo.

The difference now as opposed to any other time in my career is that there are new news organisations that don’t have a status quo. They have no legacy operation tied to another platform. They are digital.

* A few words about Storify: This is the first time I’ve used it. It’s the embedded element highlighting the conversation on Twitter. It’s a system that makes it easy to build a story out of content from the social web, whether that is tweets, Facebook updates, Flickr pictures or YouTube videos. The drag-and-drop interface is nice, and the built-in search makes it easy to find the content and conversations you want.

In terms of adding text in between the updates I wanted, I found a few tools missing that I’ve grown used to in my normal blogging. One was paste and match (or strip) formatting so that when I copy a quote from another site I’m not cluttering up the page with lots of different fonts and type styles. I’d also like blockquote. It might be available by simply adding the HTML, but with a tool like Storify, this would definitely be a good shortcut.

In terms of Storify, I’ve watched with interest as social media journalists have embraced it quickly. My quibble with it hasn’t been in the tool itself but with how it’s been used. I’ve seen some instances where it seems little more than a collection of tweets and actually seems to be doing exactly what Amanda and Jonathan are worried about, playing an insiders game. They assume knowledge of who the people tweeting are. Collection without context is poor journalism.

Al Jazeera Unplugged: Twitter and the US State Department

This is a live blog. It may contain grammatical errors, but I tried to be as true to the essence of the comments as possible.

William May, US State Department and the office of innovative engagement, talked about public diplomacy as government to people or people to people diplomacy. The end game of that is mutual understanding. What we have now is very different than what we had 10 years ago. Ten years ago, we had 40,000 people that we moved across borders, and we had broadcasting. We have two bookends, the exchange programmes and on the other end, broadcasting. In the middle, we have all this new stuff like Twitter and QQ. Quoting another person at the State Department (Judy Hale), “The new media will work in certain places, and we’ll use the right media to reach the right people.:

There are segmented audiences (you won’t reach 15 year old via a newspaper), and we are moving form monologue to dialogue to communities. Where are those conversations taking place? Where are those communities? Mobile is a huge game changer for us. They may have never touched a laptop or a computer but they have a mobile phone. Virtual worlds is another opportunity to us. Using the right tool is a huge opportunity for us.

  • 2007 they began using Second Life. They used chat and IRC for training.
  • 2008 ECA Social Network on Ning to engage not just people in exchange programmes but engaging the whole world. Their own video contest. Went from zero to 20,000 users in months. They created a mobile game called X-Life for English language learning. They created a digital outreach team. (6 writers in Arabic, 2 in person. They are transparent that they work for the State Department. They attempt to counter misinformation.)
  • 2009 They created the Office of Innovative Engagement. They created 23 Things and the FSI training (institutional things he said)
  • 2010 They created the American Center in Jakarta and implemented a metrics programme (using something called Crimson Hexagon a metrics and opinion analysis tool )

He provided some examples such as President Obama’s speech in Ghana. They wanted to increase the engagement. The embassies in Africa created hard copy press releases to traditional media asking for text message questions. They got 17,00 SMS messages from 85 countries. They filter the questions into five categories and created a podcast that they sent out to traditional media in Africa. (FM radio is to Africa what Satellite TV is to the Middle East, a transformative shift in media.)

Global versus local. Everything is local again. He gave the example of climate change. Do people want the global picture or how sea level will change where they live?

The Department of State has 180 Facebook pages, 50 Twitter accounts and also YouTube accounts.

They are bringing contacts they made in virtual worlds in Egypt to the US, bridging the virtual and real worlds.