Archive for the 'socialnetworking' Category

A Modest News Aggregator for the Win

To the extent that sites or services that present professional and amateur content together emerge and become successful, they will do so only after they figure out a way to give users simple, intuitive, and powerful filters that are themselves the channels that carry our conversation and shape our communities.

We will tolerate only the writing we love. Discovering what we love is a job to distribute across very large groups of users with weak ties and small groups of users with strong ties, all empowered by tools far more subtle than those that characterize current state of search. We will act mostly self-interestedly, choosing by facets, sifting, sorting, sharing, appropriating, connected to one another asymmetrically, mostly pulling not pushing, trusting when trustful. We will participate in a gift economy. Reputation will count. Attention is scarce. Something like tunkrank will help, I’m sure.

The nodes are people because people and other actors are central to what it means to be human regardless of whether we’re reading the news, writing the news, starring in it, or all of the above. The edges are the ideas that capture our common interest over time, location, and predilection. It is beautiful, Doc.

Why I dislike micropayments, don’t mind charity, but really have a better idea

A sure-fire way to think up a great idea for the future of the news is think about the fundamentals. “What’s news?” That’s a good place to start. Dave Winer gets at the fundamentals really well.

Let’s ignore most of the fundamental components of the news and focus on a couple: users and creators. Very roughly, those map to readers and writers. But “users” and “creators” emphasize that readers are active and don’t simply passively consume the news. Users want to re-purpose the news, get more out of it. We also don’t want to forget that creators aren’t just writers; they’re also photographers and editors.

inverted_jennyOne pretty important fact is that users and creators are all people. And people can trust one another. Obvious? One would think so, but there’s been a big corporate wall between them for decades now. The publication has overshadowed the writer. We viewed newspapers as the creators. Writers and photographers were faceless bylines most people ignored.

For example, we once trusted the New York Times to give us all the news that’s fit to print. It’s an awesome slogan, containing a slant rhyme and some serious alliteration, sure, but it now works much less well as a promise. I doubt its author ever intended it to be strictly accurate, but now it’s no where near artfully true anymore. Only the internet can make that promise now. It is the great disintermediator.

And so creators of news are re-emerging as real people to their users, who are also real people. That relationship, however attenuated, is a better place to locate trust. Let me put it another way: there’s greater potential trust in user-creator relationships than in reader-newspaper relationships. Humans are built to trust other humans, personally.

Now, we certainly also have relationships with groups. I’m no anthropologist, but it would certainly seem that, as humans, the concept of group identity runs deep. We can trust a person because he’s part of a club or a tribe. It’s a good thing, then, that appreciating user-creator bonds doesn’t demand that we deny the existence of reader-newspaper bonds. The internet may erode—but it doesn’t destroy—the concept of a traditional brand, anchored in a group of people who share a common purpose. The internet supplements, or unlocks, the concept of a personal brand.

Why all the fuss about brands and user-creator relationships and, ultimately, trust? Simply put, trust is an economic good. It’s worth something. It makes markets work more efficiently. As a trader might say, trust is positively accretive to value. This is not just about peace, love, and harmony. Trust creates value. Value gets monetized. Money pays journalists. Journalists save the world.

So if there’s trust to be created, there’s money to be earned. Trust is the foundation for a value proposition. All else equal, it stands to reason that users will pay more for the news in which they have more trust. If so, then it follows that users will pay more for the news they use based on a relationship with creators, in whom they can place more trust than they can in newspapers as brands.

Whew, so all that was wildly theoretical, blurry stuff. Before moving on to something more concrete, let’s sum it up. Shifting the news relationship from reader-newspaper to user-creator increases potential trust, an economic good, and unlocks value, which people may pay for. But even the strongest value proposition does not a business model equal.

So let’s move to the concrete: the business model. How do we monetize this theoretical value tucked away in user-creator relationships?

You do it with an idea I’ve been flogging the past couple weeks. You do it with Mitch Ratcliffe’s idea, in which users pay creators for “added convenience or increased interaction.” Note the elegant fit: increased interaction between one person and another is what fosters relationships and trust. Giving paying users otherwise exclusive twitter access to the creator could work. SMS updates could work, as could a permission only room on friendfeed. Even something as simple as a gold star on paying users’ comments—a symbol that they support the creator financially—would provide incentive for the creator to reply. Tiers of stars—bronze, silver, gold—are possible too.

There’s a social network lurking not too far below the surface. Because we’re in the business of fostering trust, transparency is paramount. So this social network would do best to require real identities. Users would have to be clear about whom they support, and creators would have to be clear about who supports them. Both users and creators would have personal pages of their own, identifying whom they support and who supports them and what dollar levels are being exchanged for what levels of interaction. This way, creators would have the ability to avoid potentially conflicted supporters. (Of course, a person could be both a user of some news and a creator of other news, paying for some and receiving too.)

Paying users of different authors would eventually form their own communities, if creators nurtured them well in the context of a supportive information architecture within the social network. Done right, membership in a community, which could suggest and debate tips for the creator, would represent its own value proposition for which users would be willing to pay up. Creators could have multiple communities, populated by groups of users characterized by different interests, areas or expertise, or even locations.

Creators would set their own prices, reaching their own equilibria between cost and numbers of paying users. Users would tend to pay less to a creator who offered less-value-added interaction by ignoring more questions and comments. But there would tend to be more users willing to pay a smaller amount than a larger amount. Users and creators would have to think about their elasticities of supply and demand. Over time, individual users and creators will find a balance that strikes her fancy. On the one hand, some creators might prefer a smaller set of users who pay more money and enjoy more interaction. Other creators, concerned about possible undue influence, might prefer a larger set of users who pay less money for a thinner relationship. And on the other hand, some users might prefer to be among a small community with better access or thicker relationships to the creator, while other users might prefer spreading themselves around and having thinner relationships with more creators. I don’t see any obvious reasons why a basically unfettered market wouldn’t work in this case.

Note that this represents an end-run around the problem that news is an experience good—you don’t know the value of an article till you read it. (New is not like buying a pair of pants.) This solves the problem that news itself is often nearly worthless the day after its published—yesterday’s news is today’s fishwrap. (It’s not like buying a song from iTunes. Also, ed. note: please, please, please follow that link to Doc Searls. The VRM parallels are clear and profound.) Finally, this also solves the problem that any given news article has myriad relevant substitutes—articles about the very same topic, event, or person and articles about equally interesting topics, events, or persons. (News is not like the Inverted Jenny. Yay philately!)

As with Kachingle, recently blogged by Steve Outing, this kind of freemium news doesn’t have to be the entire solution. It’s certainly compatible with advertising, though another feature might be a lack of it, just as it’s compatible with charity.

The point is that this idea and the business model on top of it are inspired by deeply human phenomona. Personal interaction and trust are constitutive of what it means to be human. They’re a large part of what makes the world go around generally, and we should look to them to save the news too. The right tools and insights can help right this airship called journalism.

Quick Thought on the New Likeness of Politics and News

Here’s a PDF to check out: Digital Government through Social Networks: A Natural Alliance?

If you’re crunched for time or lazy as can be, here’s the punchline (emphasis mine for those really, really in hurry):

For the past four years, the authors have been working on (as principle designer and as advisers) on a software platform designed to tap the “participatory surplus” of the citizenry. But, our experience and research has shown that to accomplish the aims of such a system, it is not enough simply to put citizens together into a large, open, virtual space. A social networking system designed for participatory governance needs to mirror some of the structure of the government itself, and needs to provide a range of structured ways by which the government and the citizens can affect one another.

Maybe that seems obvious, or maybe not. I happen to think it’s the whole enchilada. If you know the deep structure that underlies the activity or practice on top of which you want to build a business or a project, you’re halfway to knowing what your business or project should look like and how it should generally work.

That’s why Blaser, Weinberger, and Trippi identify what they call the “four reality principles” that “govern every campaign.” They identify viewpoints (aka issues), money, votes, and careers as the fundamentals. I’m not sure that’s correct, but getting to four is pretty good if it is.

Note that is is also why, thinking about journalism and the news, Dave Winer writes posts like this one, in which he identifies “sources, facts, ideas, opinions, [and] readers” as the fundamental “constituent components.” I tried to do the same thing here, here, and here.

So, is it the case that P, where P follows the structure of the tried and true SAT analogy?

news : journalism :: politics : governance

It’s the fundamental constituent components, stupid.

The Great Unbundling: A Reprise

This piece by Nick Carr, the author of the recently popular “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in the Atlantic, is fantastic.

My summary: A print newspaper or magazine provides an array of content in one bundle. People buy the bundle, and advertisers pay to catch readers’ eyes as they thumb through the pages. But when a publication moves online, the bundle falls apart, and what’s left are just the stories.

This may no longer be revolutionary thought to anyone who knows that google is their new homepage, from which people enter their site laterally through searches. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the new gospel for digital content.

There’s only one problem with Carr’s argument, though. By focusing on the economics of production, I don’t think its observation of unbundling goes far enough. Looked at another way—from the economics of consumption and attention—not even stories are left. In actuality, there are just keywords entered into google searches. That’s increasingly how people find content, and in an age of abundance of content, finding it is what matters.

That’s where our under-wraps project comes into play. We formalize the notion of people finding content through simple abstractions of it. Fundamentally, from the user’s perspective, the value proposition lies with the keywords, or the persons of interest, not the piece of content, which is now largely commodified.

That’s why we think it’s a pretty big idea to shift the information architecture of the news away from focusing on documents and headlines and toward focusing on the newsmakers and tags. (What’s a newsmaker? A person, corporation, government body, etc. What’s a tag? A topic, a location, a brand, etc.)

The kicker is that, once content is distilled into a simpler information architecture like ours, we can do much more exciting things with it. We can extract much more interesting information from it, make much more valuable conclusions about it, and ultimately build a much more naturally social platform.

People will no longer have to manage their intake of news. Our web application will filter the flow of information based on their interests and the interests of their friends and trusted experts, allowing them to allocate their scarce attention most efficiently.

It comes down to this: Aggregating documents gets you something like Digg or Google News—great for attracting passive users who want to be spoon fed what’s important. But few users show up at Digg with a predetermined interest, and that predetermined interest is how google monetized search ads over display ads to bring yahoo to its knees. Aggregating documents make sense in a document-scarce world; aggregating the metadata of those documents makes sense in an attention-scarce world. When it comes to the news, newsmakers and tags comprise the crucially relevant metadata, which can be rendered in a rich, intuitive visualization.

Which isn’t to say that passive users who crave spoon-fed documents aren’t valuable. We can monetize those users too—by aggregating the interests of our active users and reverse-mapping them, so to speak, back onto a massive set of documents in order to find the most popular ones.

Another boring personalized news service

I love seeing more and more copycat “intelligent” personalized news sites. The good news is that means that there are funders out there who still know in their gut that there’s money to be made on innovation in the news business. They just need the one idea that will stick. And go pop.

Meantime, more than a six months ago, Mike Arrington wrote about a site called Thoof. Back then, I was also writing and thinking about Streamy and FeedEachOther and other unmemorable twists on feed readers and personalized news sites. No matter their differences, they all seem the same. I just came across yet another—Tiinker—and I just can’t bear it any more.

In his write-up of Thoof, Arrington frames the debate as taking place between two competing positions. He believes that “the masses want popular news,” while the Thoof’s CEO believes that “the masses want tailored news.”

I think they’re both wrong and come at the issue the wrong way.

People want their news based on others’ interests—specialized news from friends (those who have similar interests) and widely popular news from the masses (everyone else). And they want their news based on their own interests, even if their friends don’t share those interests.

Now suppose there’s a continuum of users—from RegularJoe on one end to PowerUser on the other.

RegularJoe wants his news from other people. Although he has relatively few “friends” online, and is thinly connected to the ones he has, he wants them to put in most of the effort to help him get specialized news. (He likes read the “Most Emailed” news articles but doesn’t email them, or he likes visiting Digg but doesn’t log in and vote.) RegularJoe is mostly interested in widely popular news.

PowerUser is different and wants his news mostly based on his own interests. But it would be a mistake to think that he pursues his interests alone (no man is an island, says Donne). He has relatively many friends and enjoys pushing and pulling mutually interesting news to and from them. Of course, PowerUser also has news interests that his friends don’t share or don’t share as strongly, and so he pursue his news independently from his friends as well. Because he enjoys consuming a lot of information, moreover, PowerUser is also interested in widely popular news (he wants to keep his finger to the pulse).

These purely black-box algorithmic personalized news sites don’t really fit either guy.

RegularJoe: They’re too hardcore for RegularJoe. He doesn’t want his own news because his interests just aren’t sufficiently deeply cultivated. RegularJoe isn’t motivated enough to build up a profile by clicking “thumbs up” all the time (as tiinker would have him). When he is motivated enough, he isn’t sufficiently consistent over time for these fancy algorithms to get him what he wants before he strays back to cnn.com because it’s easier to let someone else decide (a person-editor, in this case).

PowerUser: They’re too secret for PowerUser. He wants to put in more effort cultivating his interests and doesn’t want to trust an (anti-social) algorithm from some start-up that might disappear tomorrow. PowerUser also wants to get specialized news from niche groups of friends. For him, the fact that friends X, Y, and Z read some blog post makes it inherently more interesting because they can have a conversation about it (broadly speaking). The personalized news sites just aren’t sufficiently social for the PowerUser who wants to interact with friends around the news.

This isn’t meant to be a slam-dunk argument. I’m not sure about what happens with the group of users who are in the hypothetical middle of the continuum. Maybe there’s some number of users (1) who care enough about the news to have non-trivial interests that don’t shift or fade over time but (2) who also don’t care very much for a transparent or social experience of the news. Ultimately, however, I really doubt that this group of users is big enough to support this kind of personalized news site.

Why I totally respect Dave Winer. Plus, seriously.

This is why I cannot help but have deep sense of respect, a kind of profound regard, for Dave Winer: “So if you don’t want to sound like an idiot, call a social graph and social network and stand up for your right to understand technology.”That’s rhetoric at its apotheosis.

There’s a substantive statement of real importance: Let’s just do without the jargon, guys, whaddya say? Can we all be easy, huh, and do away with the self-congratulating fanciness? There’s also an utterly non-substantive but rather provocative statement: If you sound like this, you sound like a monkey.

The first part is all that really matters. But in a time where there’s a sea of other statements to read, the second part is how you get people to listen. (A monkey might be tempted to call it post-scarcity era in which content is instantaneous and ubiquitous. A monkey might also be tempted to call the second part pure, shameless link bait.)

And that, of course, is why it was all over Techmeme, not once or twice but thrice, in three different forms. Yours truly is very late (about twenty-four hours) to the game.

Digg Adds Depth

Digg just added social networking to its position as the leading player in submit-and-vote news! Yes, Digg added the second component of networked news to the first.

I’m not sure enough many people will have enough friends to end up caring so much more about what they think about the news than what the universe of diggers thinks about the news. I, for one, as a twenty-something workaday guy, just don’t know enough people who use Digg to slurp up their news efficiently.

But maybe there are fifteen-year-olds who use Digg to get all their news. And maybe there are enough who have lots of other friends who use Digg similarly. If so, the submit-and-vote version of the first component of networked news could be on its way.

Many people, including me, don’t use Digg because its content—often dominated, they say, by upper-middle class geeky white dudes—just doesn’t cut it. I’ll stick with hours upon hours in front of google reader, backed up by aideRSS, of course. But with networks of friends, like-minded intellectuals, no doubt, Digg could really scratch my itch for content on the impending collapse of the dollar or Barack Obama’s position on chatting with foreign leaders or this conference I want to go to badly. (They say there’s so little room! They say Dave Winer may show!)

Anyhow, when are we going to be able to digg stories from outside digg.com? When am I going to install on my facebook profile a digg application, in which I can choose to see everyone’s diggs, just my friends’ diggs, just diggs of certain topics, just my diggs going back through history, etc.? When, indeed, am I going to be able to vote from facebook? Stick an ad in your widget and be done with it, Mr. Rose, who’s a near-hero of mine, for his lack of technical skills, mostly. (He paid a guy—someone else, someone who could code—ten bucks an hour to develop the site.)

PS. Mr. Cohn, toss me an invitation to the conference you and Mr. Jarvis are doing God’s, or at least the Republic’s, work to organize! And ask the top diggers whether they think, or under what conditions, they think their role could shrink because people like me would shift our attention away from the Digg homepage to our own friend-centered niches by way of Digg’s bringing on the second component of networked news!

Breaking Content, Building Conversation

Deep down, what makes the new kind of debate from the Huffington Post, Slate, and Yahoo! actually really exciting is the extent to which it represents the third component of networked news.

What, again, is the third component of networked news? It’s a data-driven network of the people and the issues in the news.

Although very limited in scale, this example of being able to slice and dice a stodgy debate is amazingly powerful. Jarvis knows it. He groks how this means a “conversation”—a free-flowing exchange of information among people along a topic or around some substance of interest to everyone involved, both the speakers or writers and the listeners or readers. As I’ve noted before, I think Jarvis also, at some level, gets the importance of structuring the news around the people who are in it and who consume it and interact with it.

That’s what this is. Once the candidates have had their chances, we listeners get to pull apart their interviews, re-arrange them, and piece together a conversation, organized by issue. We can ignore candidates and focus on others. We can focus on Iraq, or maybe even withdrawal from Iraq, or we can weave in and out of interrelated topics, like, say, security and civil rights or single-payer health care and taxes, comparing each candidate’s self-consistency and comparing them all to one another. (I’m for security and civil rights and single-payer health care and taxes.)

This is awesome. Huffington Post is blowing up. For realz.

To bring in the first two components of networked news, HuffPo and co would have to give us the tools to weave in our own video clips and then let us share them with one another as variously trusting members of a community.

Let me juxtapose my own counterarguments to a windbag’s dissembling. Or let me loose some praise on another candidate’s courage. For that matter, let me juxatpose my praise for a candidate’s courage with another citizen’s attack on that same candidate’s cowardice. Let us argue with one another—and do it alongside the evidence.

And then let us, users and consumers, mixers and contributors, define relationships among one another. Let us grow our relationships. Let me read some smart midwesterner’s opinions on farm subsidies and then let me subscribe only to his agriculture-related content. Or let me take a wide-angle view of the network of conversations we citizens are having. Let me find out how many people really care about extraterritorial rendition, or let me get a sense of who wants big government to let them be. Let me check out which clips are the most viewed or most mashed-up.

That would be awesome.

Love Scoble’s Facebook Yammering!

Robert ScobleI love it so much that I think I’ll add more. But let’s be kinder to ourselves—for good reason!—and not call it yammering. Blabbing? No, that won’t do either.

How about exegesis-ing? Ya, that’s perfectly highfalutin. Facebook is serious stuff, man.

And so I come to point out that Facebook should allow each of us to dismiss items in our News Feeds. Then they could learn what don’t like. In turn, that would free up lots of valuable real estate for news items we do like. The result is a personalized News Feed we all appreciate a little more.

But what to do about ads? Does it make sense to allow us to dismiss those as well? Will miserly users like me automatically dismiss all ads just to spite the advertiser? Maybe, but other users may dismiss only ones they really don’t like and make room for Facebook to serve up ads they do. Being able to separate the wheat and chaffe, of course, allows one to reap more value from the wheat.

While we’re on the topic of Facebook, meanwhile, I’d also love it if I could browse the items on the Google Reader Shared Items app by tag. I would click on a tag in the feed and then see the most popular posts, among my friends or universally. That would be one small step toward a new world of news in which the bits of content that discuss people and issues are actually contingent on those people and issues (well, in this case, issues, anyhow). That would be one small step toward letting the “story” wiggle free from the “article” or “post”—the “bit of content,” as it were. (I posted my request on Mario Romero’s dedicated “request features” discussion board.)

UPDATE: Mario responds to my request, which I called “pie-in-the-sky” on Facebook: “Josh: Thanks for the tip that is DEFINITELY on the to-do list!” Nice!

Ornery Arrington on Personalized News

streamyI can’t get enough of how Michael Arrington, at TechCrunch, rags on personalized new sites. I love it. Talking about the newest venture to join the hunt for a killer solution to online news, Arrington writes of Streamy, “It’s pretty and extremely well thought-out, but it’s not clear that it does anything new enough to grab people’s attention.” Plus, “It is well designed, has lots of intelligent features, and is almost sure to drop into obscurity immediately after launch.” What a guy!

For now, I’ll withhold real judgment—especially of the claims made here—till I’ve had a chance to check out the private beta, to which I’ve requested an invitation.

Meantime, I’m impressed with the social networking and what they call “filters,” which are essentially substance- and source-based ways browse, and subscribe to, kinds of content, by keyword and original author, respectively. Ideally, that would mean that someone could set up his personalized page to pull in everything Arrington says about, say, “personalized news.” The trick, then, is how social networking brings the virus to the filter. Your friend’s becomes your filter and then it becomes my filter; my filter becomes yours, your friend’s, his friend’s, and so on.

Note that amateurs don’t have to control these filters either. Arrington could promote his own, using them to help him slice up his content along different lines, potentially overlapping lines, and push it out Streamy readers of news, if there ever are any. Or these filters could allow someone to become an editor, much the way Scoble acts as an editor (choosing the news) with what he calls his link blog. If I were running Streamy, I’d be thinking about how I could allow users to monetize their filters. They are, after all, just platforms for subscriptions. Find a way to allow an expert on some tricky topic like global warming sell you his daily digest of the best reading on climate change. He could write his own original material as well, of course, and include it in his filter.

I agree with Arrington that integrating IM is smart, and integrating the ability to drag and drop stories is super smart. I wonder how popular it will become for sites to integrate IM. Will the New York Times have it some day? Will espn.com? It seems to make sense to distribute IM over virtual locations rather than keep it all cooped up in one place. If I were running meebo, I’d be thinking about how I could build a proprietary web-based IM client just for the New York Times. (From what I can tell, Jake Jarvis has tried to turn meebo into a Facebook app. I signed up, but got an error: “There are still a few kinks Facebook and the makers of Meebo are trying to iron out….”) I love meebo almost as much as Arrington’s orneriness.

Here’s the screencast of Streamy:


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