Using the social web: an introduction to distributed conversations and the benefits of beat blogging

If you've followed this blog for a while you will have heard me muse on many of these issues before, but these are my notes, in a more coherent form than I had them jotted down, for the talk I gave on Saturday, which was just to set the stage for our seminar on using the social web.

I opened the talk by showing Day of the Long Tail, as it's still one of the best flicks I know for depicting the new media landscape, which I believe presents us both with opportunities and challenges.


Now, I certainly don't believe that getting on the blogging bandwagon is the (only) answer to mainstream media's many challenges, or that all journalists necessarily should blog, but I do think that journalists ignore the social web, and the many tools it offers to do better journalism more effectively, at their peril, simply because other people easily will out compete us at our own game by using these tools - and inability, or lack of will, to use these tools will effectivley will render us impotent and irrelevant in this brave new media world of ours.

Tuning into the virtual pub

It used to be that what was said in the pub stayed in the pub unless some intermediary, such as a journalist, reported it, or someone tipped off a news desk. Today we don't need any such intermediaries, anyone who's there can blog or tweet about it, upload video and photos to say You Tube and Flickr etc. The upside of that development is that I, due to permalinks being searchable, can sit in my office chair and tap into thousands of virtual conversations, even monitor every time people write soup online, or perhaps more conducive for my trade, News Corp. Better still, I can set up agents that do this for me - rather than employ stringers to go to all of these real-life pubs. This development also enables me to effectively "shout" across great distances, such as the Atlantic, for help, and get an answer within minutes or hours if I'm lucky.


This way, as a beat blogger and journalist, I can tap into peoples conversations about a company I follow in all the various countries it operates, and sample the private notes of an influential academic and the latest Whitehall gossip and banter at the same time; track multiple conversations and keep in touch with friends and contacts all over the world, again: without leaving my office chair. None of this constitutes journalism per see, but it's a marvellous starting point for broader, more informed reporting.

Listen to the blog buzz

One example of a story monitoring keywords and companies threw up is this on Mecom trying to buy a group of regionalpapers in Southern France. It started as blog buzz, then El Pais ran a story on it, but I believe I was the first to cover this story outside of France. I worked for Propaganda at the time, so ran a story there first, then blogged it linking up some of the buzz around the story, as Propaganda doesn't encourage its journalists to link.

Using RSS to monitor what is being said online about companies and keywords in this way is great for throwing up story leads and increasing your source pool. As journalists we often end up talking to the same heads all the time, this is one way to cast your net wider.

By linking up blog buzz, as in this example, I also invite or alert people to the conversation, as most bloggers monitor the conversations around their blogs by way of Technorati, Alexa or similar. Twingly, which more and more Scandinavian news sites use, a paid-for-service which links up all the blog posts linking to each of the site's articles, is another way of doing this.

Follow your beat online

So if you're a beat reporter covering say music: track keywords such as the big music companies, band names etc - if you don't know which music bloggers to follow, tracking keywords might also throw up the most interesting blogs on your beat - follow music bloggers - and over time you'll also learn who to trust, what's their biases etc. I've written a guide to evaluating your online sources here, which I believe isn't that different from evaluating real life sources (in Norwegian)

This will also enable your publication to work closer with the various communities it serves and become more relevant and important to those communities as a result of this. If your work is online, it will also enable your site to become part of a broader distributed conversation; which again will create opportunities to increase traffic and revenues through better distribution, increased credibility and more targeted, or rather relevant, marketing

On distributed conversations

If I attempt to explain, to myself as much as anybody else, how blogging and reading blogs is useful, if not invaluable, to me as a journalist, or as a human being for that matter, it comes down to distributed conversations. Or, to use Doc Searls' more powerful metaphors: snowballs and fires.

In the framework of my blog it works like this: I write about a company like Mecom in Norway and another blogger adds a German or Polish perspective, another tips me off about a story I might find interesting in my comment field. Or I write about a law I find worrying - in this instance a new French law banning non-journalists from filming acts of violence - another blogger picks up on the thread, in this case Dave Winer (other side of the Atlantic) and asks a hard question or two, a third does a video interview to clarify the situation and adds some very valuable thoughts on what impact the law might have on regimes in Africa, and another cool person analyses the law in a comment (follow-up here).

ZuckermanAndLoicInterview copy

'This is where snowballs and fires come in. The story of the French law I blogged about an example of snowballing. Famous blog fires: Kathy Sierra, Dell Hell etc.

Now, I'm not going to go into how to deal with blog fires or potential blog fires here, but in essence it's worth keeping in mind that the Web is a conversation. Join in: adopt a relaxed, conversational tone. Admit your mistakes. The beauty of engaging in online conversations successfully is that you don't have to be trained to do it; it's a type of communication you already know. And whether or not you're good at it has nothing to do with communication skills, but with respect for others and with some good manners (I'm paraphrasing Adriana Lukas here).

My favourite example of how to defuse critic effectively in the online environment: the brilliant parody on virtual world Second Life, Get a First Life, and how the company behind Second Life, Linden Labs, dealt with an invitation to submit a cease and desist letter.

GetAFirstLife copy

Now, that's a quick introduction to how tapping into the social web can be useful for journalists, but we've been so lucky as to get Colin Meek, who's much more technically advanced than me, to give us a crash course in using Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 tools for in-depth and investigative research (check Colin's slides here). Then Heidi will show us how mainstream media's efforts to enlist readers to take part in creating journalism went - what worked and what didn't. We conclude with a debate: should media care about conversations on platforms other than their own?

On the topic of using the social web, Carsten Pihl also alerted me to this post (in Norwegian) on what journalists miss just by keeping an eye on media folks' conversations on Twitter.

Using the social web, Oslo 25/10 - live notes

Happy to see so many find there way to #socialweb so early a Saturday morning (see previous post for twitter feed). Note to self: don't put yourself up for the opening talk for seminar you're also organisning next to working full-time as a journalist.

As expected, kicked off 10:30, took some extra time to fix web connection etc, as always, but everything seems to be working and had planned for 30min of fumbling at the start so we're on schedule. Must be my most rambling talk ever, but will sum up neatly, and add lots of links, here later.

Using Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 tools for investigative and in-depth research

Colin Meek: Web 2.0 tools fantastic tools for journalists to monitor their beat, especially Not like Facebook where you can only network with people who'll accept you as friends, with delicious you can follow all people whose bookmarks you like. You effectively create a network of experts who monitor your beat for you (see Colin's slides on this here)

Furl: archives copies of entire page, delicious saves links, furl saves entire pages. 

Track breaking news with Twitter. People often twitter about events as they happen or straight after, remarkable tool. California wildfires a breakthrough for twitter coverage of events. Covered this here

# developed as way of tracking an issue on twitter. Twine and Twemes add additional functionality.

As a reporter you should really use all of these tools to help monitor your beat

Colin: I'm getting fed up with all this fuss about information overload. What's the fuss? Yes, there's information overload, deal with it. If you feel overwhelmed you're not using RSS - and if using RSS you haven't set your filters properly.

Search social networks

Use advanced Google operaters to refine your Google searches. Use Google to search socialnetworks such as Beebo: site:Bebo inurl:memberid inurl:Bebo (see Colin's slides on this here)

When using advanced operators you have to think differently, have to think like the documents you are trying to find, do what some call forensic surfing. Big privacy issues connected to all the info you can find using these search techniques, but we can do it because we are professional journalists, can use this information responsibly - but big concerns related to this.

The Semantic Web

"Social media sites are like data silos" said John Breslin  when Colin interviewed him for . Semantic web about linking up different clouds of information, has profound implications for journalists. Practical consequences of semantic web: can search Twitter, Facebook, Technorati, Bebo etc simultaneously. Will be like a snowball, once people get used to this, will come to expect it and think what's the use of say twitter if it doesn't allow you to do this.

Twine makes searching much easier, just released from beta

(Note to self: this is why I'm uncomfortable with the new Typepad composer, have to set it up differently. Of course I should have started typing in Html mode, not Rich text as I did without thinking. Now its adding all sorts of errant formatting, like addional spaces, I have to go over and fix afterwards.)

Semantic Radar is a free Firefox plugin to alert you when you come across a website where the metadata underpinning the semantic web exists. Headup another application that layers useful information on top of the page you're using.

Indice and SWSE search engines worth knowing about, but need to be semantic web expert to use them really efficiently. Don't know of anyone using this for search yet, but think it will come. Open Calais another interesting application, a smart way to tag (or keyword) your archive in a way that makes sense to the web (developed by Reuters). Search Monkey is Yahoo's foray into the semantic web. These kind of sites and the technology underpinning it is something we'll see more and more of, but the privacy issues connected to it are huge. Do people know that some of their information may end up on the semantic web, say if they choose the wrong privacy function on Facebook? Journalists need to keep talking about the implications of this (See Colin's slides on the semantic web and journalists here)

Anders Brenna to Colin: isn't one of the biggest problems that media is so far behind on everything that's happening, so behind the curve? Colin agrees completely, says: What sets journalists apart from citizen journalists and bloggers is a certain skillset: like investigative skills, training in ethics etc, that's what sets journos apart. I believe this is what can save the newspaper industry and something the industry should invest more in.

See also Ingeborg's comprehensive bilingual notes from the first half of the seminar here.

Okay, that's the first half covered in brief. My brief notes from the second half, in Norwegian, are here. 

Journalists ignore the social web at their peril: here's how to fix it (Oslo, 25/10)

No, I'm not leading up to rant, the time for that is passed, rather I'm going to invite bloggers, journalists - and everyone interested - to share in whatever competitive advantage I get from tapping into the social web

Better still, I've put together a seminar on using the social web for Saturday, together with a few other partners. The seminar is open to everyone (registration and program here, more background here, in Norwegian. This is a non-profit event, but we've had to take a small participation fee, 250 NOK to cover our costs. The fee includes lunch, coffee and, of course, wi-fi). Keynote speakers are:

Colin Meek, who'll tell us how to  'Get the most out of web 2.0 and web 3.0 tools for in-depth and investigative research'



and Heidi Nordby Lunde (aka Vampus) who'll give us an insight into mainstream media's weird and wonderful attempts - some successful, some not - to enlist readers to help them report on events, under the banner "Citizen journalism is dead! Long live Citizen journalism!"

I'll kick off the seminar with a talk on how I benefit from using the social web, or "the virtual pub", as a journalist and blogger, giving an introduction to how the web's distributed conversations can be used for research purposes, to increase your audience and improve your reputation (yes, this is just to set the scene, an introduction to using the social web). However, we've also been so lucky as to get someone much more technically advanced than me to share of his expertise, namely Colin Meek, who's worked on investigative and in-depth research projects for over 15 years as a journalist and policy analyst

"Web 2.0 and web 3.0 resources shift internet research to another level. In many ways the future of the internet is through 'networking'and 'semantic' technology. Using web 2.0 and web 3.0 isn't just about getting better results more quickly. If you invest a little time you can harness these powerful new search tools to more accurately follow trends and key words, breaking news, and find new ways to monitor your beats through 'networks' of other users," Colin says.

Now, the Norwegians among you will probably know that Heidi, voted Norway's best political blogger for her personal blog, is the citizen journalism editor at ABC Nyheter, the first commercial news site in Norway to feature a mix of citizen- and traditional journalism. Her talk will look at how mainstream media's efforts to enlist readers and attract so-called user generated content really went.

We conclude the seminar with a debate on whether there are benefits to be had for mainstream media from engaging in conversations on platforms other than their own - such as on the sites of their competitors, on blogs or social networking sites - or if it's just a waste of journalists' precious time. Helge Ögrim, editor-in-chief of, and blogger George Gooding kick off this debate with short intros, but we'll run this session more as an "un-conference" than a panel debate, as we expect a good mix of journalists, bloggers, editors, citizen-journalists, online developers etc with strong opinions in the audience.

Now, I say "Journalists ignore the social web at their peril" in the headline simply because, armed with a blog, someone who knows how to harness the social web can easily out compete journalists at their own game. I've optimistically hired a big venue, so I don't really think room will be an issue, but it would be great to know if you're planning to show up so we can order enough coffee, food etc. Time and place: Saturday 25/10, 10am to 4pm, Håndverkeren, Oslo, more info (in Norwegian) here.

Follow the seminar on twitter: #socialweb , technorati tag: swOslo