Content Ninja's Weblog

An exploratory journey on the edge of newspaper evolution

Get ’em talking July 16, 2008

Filed under: community,content — contentninja @ 4:58 pm
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most talked about brands - 2008Image by Will Lion via Flickr

I have wrung my hands here, repeatedly in fact, over whether I’m adding value to the conversation.

Yes, says Umair Haque and his colleagues at Havas Media Lab. They’ve put out a paper called “The New Economics of Consumption: User Generated Context.” In it, they argue that user-generated content is in short supply, but what the market has lots of is user-generated context. Huh?

Take Content Ninja’s blog. A lot of what I offer here is my riff on the stuff I read in my feeds — good points made by bright minds in the field and then I analyze and expand (or try to) on them. What I’m doing is adding context to someone else’s content.

Haque et al. suggest that media’s future lies not in figuring out how to get user-generated content and use it for little or nothing.  The key is to put content out there that generates a contextual discussion. That discussion is important for two reasons: 1) It’s proof that your content is of value to users, and 2) the value of the context comes not from individual users but from the collective discussion.

“A naked rating, ranking, or review on its own has little value or meaning – but millions of them, in
the aggregate, weave complex and multilayered webs of meaning. Put another way, context is the result of the complex, multilevel, network effects that happen when millions of consumers connect,” they write.

And the context is specific to a community or network. Outsiders won’t get it. Think of it as a circle. Give the community content of value to members, and they’ll want to provide context of value to the community.

The white paper goes on to discuss how this viewpoint can be used to change the way advertising, business models and media strategy are done. How that works is less clear to me, but I’m sure Haque and his folks will have more to say.

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Stone soup May 21, 2008

Filed under: content,innovation — contentninja @ 4:52 pm
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UPC-A barcode image

Image via Wikipedia

The Association of Food Journalists asked me to help judge its annual writing contest again this year. I was given my choice of categories, and I jumped at the chance to judge the online category.

Although I cannot give specifics (winners will be announced in October), I shall say I was rather disappointed. Entries were relatively few and — get this — on paper. It’s hard to miss the irony in that. Only one of the entries made reference to an alternate delivery form (audio) or clearly contained links for more and related information for greater context.

Only ONE.

And not one made reference to related video.

In fairness, it should be noted that the category is actually called “best food writing on the Internet,” not best online or multimedia food content, which is what I think the category should be.  (In my mind, traditional newspaper writing that just happens to pub online doesn’t warrant a separate writing category. Same stuff, different delivery.)

I’m told that the category will be reworked for next year. That’s great. AFJ is a group of earnest, sincere people with a love for food journalism. I’ve no doubt AFJ can see where it needs to go and is trying. Being ahead of the curve this year, though, would have been even better.

In an ideal world, entries wouldn’t come on paper. Contest judges would get a list of links to interactive packages online, where not just the words would be reviewed. Audio and video tracks could be played, and links could be followed. THAT’S what an online journalism contest should look like.

Of course, there are issues. Like whether that awesome multimedia package from six months ago is still alive somewhere when a contest rolls around. And visiting the actual Web site would conflict with AFJ’s usual MO of keeping entries anonymous to the judges.

I’m hopeful, though, that as journalists embrace online delivery methods and multimedia tools, they’ll insist that their work be judged differently. And AFJ has an opportunity to drive that change.

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Invest a little, gain a lot May 14, 2008

Filed under: content,innovation,social media — contentninja @ 5:04 pm
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AudienceImage via Wikipedia

I’ve been saying, “It’s not about us; it’s about the audience,” for a while now. Forrester’s Jeremiah Owyang takes it a step further in a blog post today: “On the Value of Investing in Your Own Customers.”

Owyang is writing from a consultant’s perspective, but it’s interesting if we consider how journalism might apply the principle as well. He writes:

“By investing in your own customers, making them smarter, exposing them to best practices, and to let them form real relationships amongst each other, the benefits go beyond the pure relationship stated in the service level agreement, but bring an intangible human value that often can’t be measured.”

It seems to me that an online community is a great opportunity to invest in our customers. “Making them smarter, exposing them to best practices, and to let them form real relationships amongst each other” seem crucial to successfully engaging them in helping us build context around content.

I’ve been thinking about what features/functionalities a thriving online community would need and have come up with a list. It’s a pretty simplistic list, and nothing is presumed to be a given (because I don’t believe most items here have reached a saturation point for a majority of users). I have vainly titled it:

Content Ninja’s Wish List

  • Customizable interface: Lets users choose info that’s served to them. Require users to fill out a profile, and info is tailored to their interests? Or drag and drop content boxes, like iGoogle? Could advertising content be customizable, too?
  • Twitter feed. Twitter could be a useful tool for communicating with core group of activist members. Opt-in for others?
  • Content/context: Posting to the site must be super simple. User must register name to post, though.
  • One button “e-mail to a friend”
  • One button “rate this” polling
  • Comments: Easy to post, but not anonymous.
  • Build an event function: Like Facebook but better. Click “event” button, and it automatically pulls in calendar info for selected local event. Lets you invite friends. Lets invitees see who’s invited and who’s accepted/declined/pending.
  • Photo/video sharing: Must be super simple. One or two clicks simple. Or drag and drop simple.
  • RSS
  • Forums

What’s missing? What would you not include? What context can you add? Please share!

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Group think May 12, 2008

Filed under: content,social media — contentninja @ 4:35 pm
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Each line is drawn between two nodes, representing two IP addresses. This is a small look at the backbone of the Internet.Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been on a Clay Shirky kick lately, but not by design. Quite by chance today, I came across a transcript of a speech he gave in 2003: “A Group is its Own Worst Enemy.”

In it, Shirky looks at patterns of group behavior. Although the research predates the Internet, it does apply to online communities as well. The gist of it is that groups of people will act as “aggregations of individuals” AND “as a cohesive group.”

There are identifiable patterns of group behavior that get in the way of the community’s success unless there is structure in place to regulate the members’ interaction.

Shirky writes: “Group structure is necessary to defend the group from itself. Group structure exists to keep a group on target, on track, on message, on charter, whatever. To keep a group focused on its own sophisticated goals and to keep a group from sliding into these basic patterns. Group structure defends the group from the action of its own members.”

Shirky concludes with three things to accept and four things to design for, if one hopes to build a long-lived community. I’m paraphrasing greatly for the sake of brevity:


  1. That you cannot completely separate tech and social issues.
  2. That members are different from users, and the core group matters most.
  3. The core group has rights that sometimes trump individual rights.

And design for:

  1. User handles and reputation building.
  2. A way for members to be “In good standing.”
  3. Barriers to participation. (Yes, you read that correctly. Shirky says that if it’s too easy, the core group will not have the tools it needs to defend itself against the larger group.)
  4. Spare the group from scale, which kills conversation.

It’s a lengthy speech, and I cannot do it justice here. I urge you to take the time to read Shirky’s words for yourself. Find it here.

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Connecting flight May 9, 2008

Filed under: content,innovation — contentninja @ 2:17 pm
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last step is funnyImage from Flickr

Today I had lunch with Erik Madsen, a Cedar Rapids man who has innovative ideas percolating in his head, likes biking and photography, and whose kids are into the fine arts. Check out one of his side projects, True Grin (think lolcats, but without hair balls).

We talked about community building, content and context, business models and scaling mountains. We talked about what an online community might be like. Erik, like many of the folks in the focus groups, would like a customizable interface that tailors information to his interests but allows him to search for more. He’d like such a place to help him locate likeminded people and create groups around the topics of interest they share (like Saturday morning biking breakfast clubs). He wants to share photos and video, if doing so can be simple.

We talked about profiles and whether he’d be comfortable filling out one for such a community. Some folks in the focus groups said they didn’t want profiles being used to target advertising at them; it creeped them out. Advertising is content, too, though. Erik suggested that folks also be allowed to customize what advertising came their way. That’s interesting.

We also talked about recruiting and connections, how to find the people who are most likely to engage in such a space.

Take show choirs, for example. Seven years as features editor taught me that school staff/administration is not always the best source of timely, street-level information. Parents often are, but once a parent’s child has graduated and the parent moves on, the community will need another contributor of that info. A school’s show choir director, however, knows who those parents are and could be a great source of ongoing introductions.

So the community may be all about street-level interaction, but a cadre of community catalysts — maybe public figures, experts or staff — can be invaluable for recruiting and maintaining the community.

I love vetting these concepts with real people who aren’t all geeky over the tools, the way I am, and it’s gratifying to hear Erik and others say, “What an interesting time in your industry.” Yes, isn’t it?

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Do something! April 21, 2008

Filed under: content,innovation,social media — contentninja @ 3:32 pm
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A personification of innovation as represented by a statue in The American Adventure in the World Showcase pavilion of Walt Disney World's Epcot.Image via Wikipedia

Lisa Williams and I talked last week about journalists innovating at the individual level. That may seem like an insurmountable task, but look at startups. What makes them work is not the grinding machinery of business processes; it’s people — a mere handful of people who roll up their sleeves and DO.

So we innovate on the individual level by thinking like a startup, but I concede that we won’t “turn the Titanic” (to borrow Williams’ metaphor) without management support.

Author Scott Berkun, interviewed for AIGA, puts it this way:

“Casual Fridays, innovation offsites or giving people copies of Who Moved My Cheese are all nice things, but have zero direct impact on creativity in the workplace. It’s the behavior of leaders and managers that determines how innovative a group is, and most of what enables creativity is entirely free. You can spend a zillion dollars on creativity efforts, but if the basic behavior of managers doesn’t change, you’re wasting your money.”

CEO Chuck Peters has been “walking the talk” for some time. He’s asking if I know yet how I will do this. I have not mapped all of the abyss, but in the darkness I can feel something taking shape, a mixture of content and context creation, aggregated community-generated context and social tools or their best functionalities used to connect with the community.

Every day I learn something from other voices in the dark. Take Furqan Nazeeri’s blog Altgate. His post, “10 Web 2.0 Tips: $75,” speaks to that entrepreneurial, startup spirit. He created a social network for Obama supporters to recycle used campaign material. He did it cheaply and quickly. No teams to build, meetings to hold or spreadsheets to fill out. It’s a beautiful thing.

Lesson for me? There are three types of community members (emphasis is mine): “My guess is that for every 1,000 members, about 900 are lurkers, 90 are participants and 10 are activists. Each of these segments has different needs. For example, blogs are great for activists, but polls can be a better way to engage participants. The lesson here is to think about these segments separately.

This is why audience discovery is so important and where I’m concentrating my efforts at the moment. What do people want? How can we help? Focus groups start tonight and go all week.

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Man on the scene April 11, 2008

Filed under: content,journalism,video — contentninja @ 4:52 pm
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David Howell is a mobile vlogger in Cedar Rapids whom I follow on Twitter. He makes videos using a cell phone.

He made a video of last night’s weather non-event. See it here:  (He’s a grown-up, and so’s his language.) Despite the fact that nothing much happened weatherwise in his hood, his video is fun to watch. His anxiety is palpable when he gets spooked by the sirens.

How cool would it be for reporters to create video content with their phones? Forget the expensive pro-grade video cameras, and equip folks to do this right now with a piece of equipment they can carry in their pockets. Invite folks in the community who already have the right phone to shoot video for us, too.

I know, it takes time to edit and polish the finished product. That’s what product managers on the backend would do.

Imagine the possibilities: Reporter or community member shoots video on phone and uploads raw content to our content pool, where a product manager — TV or online — can pull all the raw bits, edit and polish, and present a terrific finished piece.

Hello, world!