Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Listening and following back on Twitter

@johnrobinson: I admit I'm suspicious of media folk who join Twitter, attract 100s of followers & follow only a handful. They're talking but not listening?

@smalljones: @johnrobinson don't fear the followed, they are simply stuck in broadcast mode.

@ryanbruce: @johnrobinson Very few people can pull off not following people. Then they are simply a 140 character newsletter.

@jiconoclast: @johnrobinson I think your instincts are sound. Many media folks see Twitter as just another one-way publication medium.

@robyntomlin: @johnrobinson Agreed. There needs to be give and take or it's just broadcast. Best when it's a conversation.

@johnrobinson: I mean, I love addressing an audience, too, but reading you guys is much, much more entertaining and informative.

@BIF: @johnrobinson To me, the value of Twitter is listening in on what folks are talking about. Plus we've gotten some great stories via tweets.

@kiyoshimartinez: @johnrobinson Dunbar Number reality & having a good signal/noise ratio could be a good reason. Not everyone has equal value to you.

@johnrobinson: @kiyoshimartinez I got that. But 1,000 followers and 32 followed?

@chrislowrance: @johnrobinson Personally speaking, I keep my list short because otherwise I can't keep up with everyone.

This is an old discussion in Twitter years, hashed out by many in the pre-Ashton and pre-Oprah days, but still a stumbling block for some users on Twitter.
It seems particularly difficult for some people in the media, those most likely to consume massive amounts of information and to suffer the guilt of not being able to consume it all.

Some points:
1. No, there are no rules on Twitter. But there is etiquette. Following back is generally accepted good Twitter etiquette.
2. Unread tweets piling up in your Twitter stream are not like unread magazines piling up in your living room. You don't have to feel guilty about failing to consume all the information.
3. Following back on Twitter is not like accepting a connection on Facebook or LinkedIn; it's a looser connection. It's not like following back gives away all your social and personal data, as can happen when you accept a friendship on Facebook. Your words are already out there on Twitter, if you have an unlocked Twitter account and you're trying to broadcast your messages. (Of course, you can always have another, real, friends-and-family private Twitter account.)
4. Half the value of Twitter is for listening and reporting. People cannot send you private, personal messages if you don't follow them back. So if you ever plan to use Twitter for gathering information, asking questions of others that they might not want to answer publicly, you should follow people back. Or if you want to be accessible to people offering you unsolicited information privately, you should follow people back. If you ask a question and seek information, without following people back, you will place a barrier of frustration in front of your sources. Many of them won't try to to get over that barrier.
5. There is a thing as the Dunbar number, a theoretical limit to how many relationships people can sustain. And there is such a thing as a time limit on how much online social networking can fit into a balanced life. And there is such a thing as a tension between broad, shallow networks of contacts and deep, narrow networks of contacts, and even gender differences about what people prefer. Those anthropological and psychological implications are part of the fascination of social networks. You get to choose. But take time to understand the implications of your choices.

Self-promotion: Read more about listening to Twitter and figuring out the Twitter news cycle at twitter cycles.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The big hump in the long tail

Everyone's linking and talking about Clay Shirky's latest thoughts on journalism this weekend. He makes valid points about how news and information have changed in our digital world. He predicts an explosion of experiments and new models to replace news on paper.

He's a big hump in his own long tail in our attention economy, and his words draw attention to a subject near and dear to my heart.

At the same time, I can't help but feel his post is essentially a Cliff's Notes version of Phil Meyer's "The Vanishing Newspaper," written in 2004. Perhaps that's good: His name brings awareness to a new audience.

Still, I worry about the costs in our attention economy. I hope we can move on to examining the next steps instead of merely walking ground that's already been covered.

As a companion piece, many people are pointing to Steven Berlin Johnson's talk at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin. Johnson, one of the people behind aggregator Outside.In, notes that news, analysis and information exploded during the last presidential election, and he notes that local news is quite available in his Brooklyn neighborhood through local bloggers.

His point: The digital revolution has given us more information than ever before.

I don't doubt it, for some places and people. But we need to acknowledge that his examples illustrate, again, the big hump in the long tail. Objective Independent information in this last election season for local judges' races, or small county commissioners' races, was quite difficult to find, outside of media-rich places like Brooklyn.

Local, objective independent information in other places is drying up faster than you can say the word "layoff."

Indeed, the future is coming, and it isn't evenly distributed yet. Society needs to find a way to distribute reporting, analysis and information-gathering resources away from the big hump to the longer tail, so that we don't gorge in some places and starve in others.

Brilliant photographers always remind us that the best shots are those taken when everybody is looking the other way. They say, "Turn around. Look elsewhere."

That advice goes for those seeking answers about journalism as well.

So try looking in different directions:

What Philip Meyer was thinking four years after "The Vanishing Newspaper."

What Matt Thompson says about "us" versus "them."

What reporter Meranda Whatling worries about before she goes on a cost-saving furlough.

What Shannan Bowen and others are launching in Wilmington, N.C.

What Jim McBee and friends are doing to provide a new marketplace for journalists and publishers.

What Steve Buttry is learning about top newspaper editors on Twitter.

What some good people have been hatching in Charlotte.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Computer-aid journalism: GIGO or the next wave?

John Mecklin of Miller-McCune research writes an intriguing post about Duke University's search to fill an endowed chair of computational journalism.

He makes many points worth considering.

Let's take one, for now.

"If you live in one of the 11 American cities EveryBlock covers, you now can enter your address, and the site gives you civic information (think building permits, police reports and so on), news reports, blog items and other Web-based information, such as consumer reviews and photos, all connected to your immediate geographic neighborhood. In the not-too-distant future, (Duke's James) Hamilton suggests, an algorithm could take information from EveryBlock and other database inputs and actually write articles personalized to your neighborhood and your interests, giving you, for example, a story about crime in your neighborhood this week and whether it has increased or decreased in relation to a month or a year ago."

Intriguing idea. Charlotte is covered by EveryBlock, and my neighborhood blog has a widget with an Everyblock feed. Could EveryBlock's data be combined with tools like Tansa or similar to "write" stories or create readable, understandable lists of local information that wouldn't be shared any other way? Like zoning cases? Or city council actions that affect a small, specific neighborhood?

The idea intrigued me so much that I considered offering it to Howard Rheingold for his master's degree students to explore. He recently tweeted a question asking for ideas for those students.

Then I did a little homework. The latest zoning minutes available today from EveryBlock for Charlotte are from May 19, 2008. The latest city council meetings are from July 21, 2008. EveryBlock lists frequency updates for both kinds of information as "sporadically," and the source as the Charlotte city clerk.

What that lag shows is the need for a real person to contact public officials to remind them of the need for sharing information in a certain way, with a certain audience. EveryBlock isn't funded to be a government watchdog and to make that call.

Charlotte's feeds for crime, building permits and food inspections are relatively up to date, and light years beyond what less-wired, lighter-funded nearby governments are doing.

But the quick reality check shows that even in a year, or two, or five, as the tools advance, technology will not replace human contact that reminds government employees to provide public information to the public.

If nobody's watching, it won't happen.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The need for speed

By now everyone in the world has written about Twitter and the Denver plane crash Saturday night.

But from earthquakes and Mumbai, we already knew Twitter can break news.

Let's move on to the next headline: Twitter and links to live information can make newspaper websites look horribly slow, in these days of tight newspaper staffing.

This isn't a little inside dirty newspaper secret: Readers everywhere are seeing the problems. Local newspapers and websites must retain an old-fashioned commitment to speed to retain any credibility with audiences.

If there's a plane wreck or other big breaking news in our town, on a lightly staffed Saturday night or any night, we have to own it and remember the world is watching our coverage, in real time.

I was working in the Charlotte newsroom Saturday night and watching Twitter. The first our newsroom heard about the crash was a Tweet from Ryan Sholin. It alerted us to be prepared for remakes of pages and to watch for clear, reliable information coming out of Denver. But that information was painfully slow.

A couple of intriguing side notes: Readers appear to expect a high level of quality, speed and accuracy from newspaper websites, as if those sites are public utilities, even when they're getting the information for free. And as Ryan Sholin noted in a Tweet Saturday night, now the whole world gets to watch and try to figure out what's true during the early confusing scanner and live reports of breaking news. Newspapers have the experience to know initial reports are often wrong, and we can use that experience to help guide others through the firehose of live information.

What follows are some comments from the Denver Post's initial online story.

I hope everyone is alright, but why would the Denver Post allow spelling and grammatical errors in articles posted on the web? It is painful to read news articles like this.

It's hours after this occurred, and this is all you have posted?
The Rocky, Channel 4, 7 and 9 ALL have much more complete stories. Is this what we have to look forward to when you're the only paper in town? Sad.

Three hours after this plane crash occurred, and you've got a total of five sentences posted, and some of it is gramatically suspect. This is why journalism, especially print journalism, is dying. Meanwhile aviation-oriented websites from to to are reporting this story with speed and enthusiasm -- if you want to know what's going on, go there. I guess the "professional journalists" aren't as vital as they think. Tonight they seem to not even be working.

John, that's why newspapers are dying. It takes longer to put out news in a paper than you can get on TV or the Internet.

Man, some of the people here sure do expect a lot from a newspaper that is providing it's services at no cost to any of you.
If you notice a grammatical or spelling error, why don't you email someone at the paper and let them know? Or were you all those annoying kids in elementary school that when the teacher asked a question you would shoot your hand up yelling "OOOOOH! OOOOH! I KNOW, I KNOW! OOH! OOOOH!"
Get over yourselves.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Twitter visuals: They matter

Now that everyone's a-Twitter, a quick look at the visuals. While part of Twitter's beauty is its simplicity of setup and use, visuals still matter.

A few points, many obvious, but important:

1. Twitter avatars are small. Most people looking at your Twitter avatar will see it about the same size as a mugshot in the current skinny Charlotte Observer: 44pixels wide, or 3.6 picas or so. If you're using your face, crop tight. Consider radical crops that only expose eyes, or other pieces of you.

2. Twitter avatars are displayed in groups. So the color and design, or lack thereof, need to be simple and clean to stand out to be remembered. My three favorites, from designers, are in the Twitter block at the top. Can you pick them out?

3. Twitter avatars and backgrounds convey your brand, your visual sense and the amount of time and care you put into your product. If you use a standard theme, you're demonstrating your lack of originality and commitment to your brand. If you don't want to take the time to do a quality background that will tile (or not) and look good (settings/design/backgroundimage), then consider not using a background image and only changing your design colors to be easy on the eyes. Consider color-blind people and others with accessibility issues. Consider recruiting a friend with visual issues to test the ease of your avatar and page.

4. Technical tip: At times, it appears Twitter doesn't like photos in .gif format. Try .jpg instead.

5. Fun matters: Laughter, whimsy and fun matter on Twitter. Putting on a Santa hat, no matter how cheesy, or changing your avatar to reflect a season in some other subtle way will help endear you to your community. But numerous changes will confuse your followers. If your avatar reflects a standing brand, take care in changing too frequently: A touch of seasonal color might be all you need.

6. Numerous websites exist that will customize avatars for you, and trends, fads and fashion come and go. Dress accordingly.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Journalism education: Begin anywhere

"Before it was InDesign, it was paste-up and darkroom courses."

"J-school == glorified trade school."

"A few can teach themselves."

"lynda should replace formal education."

"for some students class definitely gets in the way."

"the important point is that you have a whole community of 'tweeple' now to to help advance your learning."

Some journalism students held a discussion on Twitter late Saturday night about journalism education. The ideas go beyond the young students.

These days, all smart journalists are looking at how they should retrain themselves or update their skills, and many have moved beyond waiting for their company (or their school) to hand the tools to them.

The question even for experienced journalists: What kind of class should I take? Should I just focus on the software? Is a community college course in HTML as valuable as a certificate program like the one offered by UNC's journalism school? Should I just focus on the technical tools I can learn on my own? Who needs a high-priced program anyway?

Funny thing:
I remember having these same conversations 25 years ago. It wasn't on Twitter, and didn't span a group from Alaska to Florida, but the questions remain quite similar:
"How will counting headlines by hand help my career in a world of new technical innovation?"
"How will writing programs on sequential punch cards help me in a world of new computers?"(Yes, I punched cards.)
"These professors are old and out of touch. I can learn everything I need at the school newspaper. I'm switching my major to something else." (Some did, successfully).

Those memories have a point: No matter what software you learn now, you will have to learn something new later. No matter how good (or bad) your journalism school or company is, your education and career are in your own hands. To continue to be marketable, you need to demonstrate a continued ability to learn, to cross discipline boundaries, to make connections and to think.

I can't tell who will get more bang for their buck at the moment: Those who pick up skills online or in a tech class, or those who go for broader programs at established schools like UNC. But as one young tweeter said: Having community support and role models, tweeple or otherwise, helps immensely.

Begin anywhere.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

CLT Wordcamp roundup

The Wordcamp conference at The Charlotte Observer was a great success. Jason Keath of The Stratius Group organized the event, presented on Wordpress blog basics and got a Wordpress keynote speaker, Mark Jaquith. The Observer contributed space, some volunteers and some organizational help. Steve Gunn led The Observer effort and made the partnership happen.

Slides from keynote speaker Mark Jaquith, plus links to deeper stuff.

The official CLTWordcamp blog.

Ben Ullman on The Ultimate Tweetup.

Corey Creed of Hippo Internet Marketing on what he liked.

The Guy Trapped in the Elevator speaks.

Short story in The Charlotte Observer. (Ben Ullman noted the story did not mention Wordpress. Good point.)

And yes, My Other Blog is on Wordpress.