The hidden power of social media algorithms

“Social Media is not really a filter bubble but a boxing ring: You are both bonding with people with similar values, views, interests and in conflict with people with opposing views.”

The quote belongs to techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, today a professor at Columbia University.

I've recently read two books - "Stolen focus: Why you can't pay attention" by Johann Hari and "Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to go Viral" by former Buzzfeed-editor Ben Smith - that both strongly reminded me of an excellent talk Tufekci gave in Oslo late 2019.

I almost always take notes from such occasions, but for some reason I did't blog about the talk back then, but since it's still relevant and interesting (re: those books and ongoing debates) I thought I'd just post those notes now. The talk was called "The hidden power of algorithms".

The caveat? The following are my superquick notes from a super interesting debate. All speakers were very eloquent, but I’ve just jotted down the essentials.

ZT: I grew up in Turkey and it influenced my work. As a kid I was very interested in maths, physics etc. I picked a practical topic that could give me a job with no political dilemmas - so I majored in programming.

Now obviously very wrong: I find myself in the middle of all these ethical dilemmas.

Worked for IBM in Turkey. Was a coup in Turkey = media very censored. But through my work for IBM I could go on IBMs intranet and people would answer all my questions - people from all around the world would answer her questions.

I thought: If we can talk to one another like this it will change everything - and it did.

Internet opened up the world for me.

The Internet was designed for a community of people who trusted each other: For academics at CERN.

Very few, if any, of them had an idea this would end up being the infrastructure of the global internet. I don't think there is one scientific breakthrough where we don't have problems.

A couple of things happened, like the ad financing of the public sphere. No intention of creating something bad. I know one of these who invented the ad model: Ethan Zuckermann, and he's very sorry.

There are countries where Facebook is the internet, like Indonesia.

To make the ad model effective you need SCALE. You need millions of people and you need to be everywhere.

A lot of data is the other thing you need - in order to personalize recommendations etc.

These issues create the whole infrastucture problem.

The business model locks in all of this.

We also have AI. When they say AI today they almost always mean machine learning or deep learning.

In machine learning we're feeding in enormous amounts of data and tell machines to go figure out / optimize this data - and we don't understand it.

The turning point is 2012 for machine learning - a major paper/ study published about identifying cats.

(In 2012, Google made a breakthrough: It trained its AI to recognize cats in YouTube videos. Google’s neural network, software which uses statistics to approximate how the brain learns, taught itself to detect the shapes of cats and humans with more than 70% accuracy.  It was a 70% improvement over any other machine learning at the time )

Google then starts using this technnology to make money, to optimize Youtube to keep you longer on the site. It's a story of how Youtube "lost its mind".

I researched Trump on Youtube, incl. watched his rallies to get quotes accurate - and then Youtube "lost its mind" and started to recommend white supremacy things.

I started doing the same type of research with other candidates like Hillary Clinton or Sanderson - and a similar thing happened: Youtube did not recommend white supremacy stuff but it was sending me more  towards leftwing conspiracy stuff.

What's happening here is that the machine learning algorithm has figured something out: That conspiracy, polarising content is ENGAGING and keeps people on the site longer.

The design of all social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, is that they’re designed to keep me on the page as long as possible. Social Media not really a filter bubble but a boxing ring: You're both bonding with people with similar values, views, interests and in conflict with people with opposing views.

Machine learning can do wonderful things - but you can do all sorts of analysis at scale (like gayness etc) and governments are going to use this for social control.

Youtube has curbed some of this to some degree after various research on this. But you can only curb it to a certain degree if you want to optimize a site for engagement.

These platforms are building a public sphere to keep us on the site - using data, AI, machine learning – it’s not a healthy public sphere.

This is also happening in countries lacking the democratic infrastructure we have, like Indonesia etc. Facebook and social media platforms do not create the ethnic conflicts there, but they are adding fire to existing conflicts and exacerbating them.

I think this is superfixable. We've solved much tougher problems before.

On the ashes of the World War 2 there was a lot of thought that went into building democratic institutions to prevent it ever happening again.

I don't think GDPR is going to fix this. GDPR is focused on individual consent: Can I get your data? At the individual level it makes sense to give away your data say e.g. for a new avatar.

The public sphere is something we all live in. If we allow every individual to use cars, we are going to get pollution.

I would like to see us regulate social media at the public goods level. People say data is oil. We cannot allow this very lucrative accidental business model to be our public sphere.

The people who go into computer science is often people who like to solve closed puzzles - the opposite of what today's technology really is like.

We need a new kind of education that teach both.


Professor Petter Bae Brandtzæg: On FB we are triggered to use system 1 of thinking, re: Kahnemanns ideas on thinking systems 1 and 2) all the time. Even intelligent ppl do studpid things on FB

ZT: When FB switched to the engagement model/ recommendation engine their numbers went way up. Absolutely increase the time people are using on the platforms

Think we see subsets of people - like some people (vulnerable) use WAY more time /drags up the average. In the US middle schoolers often get Chrome books - very hard to disable Youtube on them. AN have this survey that shows Youtube is THE go-to-thing for middle schoolers

Some may not be affected by the engagement model (like, they have parents who counterbalance it etc.) but we’ll have kids where parents are not present. Poor xx with little awareness/ few democratic institutions - gonna affect vulnerable populations and people

Professor Bente Kalsnes: Mainly young people who get their news on FB. Fake news have a tendency to be more exciting, more engaging etc. On FB we see more focus on friends than who published the news and what the source is

ZT: I don't think Zuckerberg should be the one to decide what we get to see on the public sphere. I think this is a political issue, not a descision to be made by the CEO of one company.

If FB find a snippet of copyrighted content they'll take it down asap. But extremist content? I think FB has got better, at least for English language content

It's super complicated, but compare it to other industries we have regulated - say e. g. food or adding lead to food to preserve it - social media is a very regulatable industry. Having a healthy public sphere is a political issue.

Faceball: How to make your story go viral using the phone

How do you make a news story go viral again? Well, you call people or email them asking to share your story on Facebook, Twitter etc, right? Especially those you’ve quoted in the story.

You use your finely honed journalistic skills, such as your immaculate powers of persuasion and impressive contact book, phoning contacts en masse to make them share the stories you’ve written that are relevant to them all over the social web, right?

At least that’s what you might do if you are Mette Bugge, sports journalist at Schibsted-owned Aftenposten, and take to this brave new social media world of ours like a fish in the water:

Naturally employing every trick in the book from your almost 40 years in journalism to make the social web work for you.

Bugge will share these insights into how she works with social media and distribution during «Kommunikasjonsdagen», a big national conference for the Norwegian communications industry in Oslo today (hashtag: #Komdagen ).

I’m able to share some of them here ahead of her talk, as I was privileged enough to listen to her during a smaller, Girl Geek Dinners Oslo, event last year.

To describe what happens when a story really takes off on Facebook - or goes viral / receives a massive amount of likes and shares – Bugge uses the endearing term «Faceball», and she uses it as a verb (as in «to Faceball» or «a story Faceballs / Faceballed».)

On the photo I've shared below, she explained that she uses the term "Faceball" to describe 'when a story starts 'to roll by itself on Facebook'. It's similar to, but obviously not the same, as to "snowball" , a term I believe Doc Searls coined many years ago, which I've written about here.

I was very taken in with Bugge’s enthusiastic talk, especially since a lot of the stories she covers have sources that are far from the early adapter crowd, such as local sports clubs, and might only be too happy to receive a friendly reminder via email or phone.

It only goes to prove that, as Jay Rosen said some time back when introducing this story on Connie Schultz: «Good journalists (of any age) are naturals at social media, if they take the time to learn the form and do it right» - and perhaps, one might add: even better when they merge their traditional journalism skills with digital journalism skills.

NB: Mette Bugge was presenting at Girl Geek Dinners Oslo in her capacity as on of the «spearheads», or digital ambassadors if you like, for Aftenposten's "Digital Spearheads"-project, read more about this here.


The Utöya election and lessons in social media campaigning

“I for one want to vote the Utøya-generation into office.”

I’m not certain where I read that statement now: on Facebook, Twitter, blogs.

It probably flashed past me frequently on all those platforms after 22/7, and after the municipal and county elections last moth it’s clear that many people did exactly that:

Several of those who so tragically lost their lives on Utöya were elected, as were several of those who survived the atrocities.

That must be unparalleled: How, as a symbolic action, people voted for those who lost their lives but who’s names had not removed from the election lists.

As for those who survived the atrocities and were elected, it will be interesting to see how their influence will play out.

22/7 was certainly a big influence on the election, but mostly in a positive way.

Let it be that after 22/7 too many politicians just trotted out the same old slogans and solutions which now feels oddly like ghosts from a bygone age.

There were also politicians who met the tragedy with great compassion and strength, who somehow became much more real, more human as a result of it.

That side of them was probably always there, just now we got to see it.

I thought a lot better of many politicians for it. Not that it made me vote for someone I otherwise wouldn’t have voted for, but I hope it will lead to a wider recognition that letting your guard down can be a good thing – even for a politician.

Also, for the first time in perhaps a decade or more I felt good about how I cast my vote. See, in the words of an acquaintance, I voted for the internet party.

Not that there is a party by that name in Norway, but it was the first election where social media played a major role for me:

I voted for lots of really clever people I know from the Internet (in Norway you can cast personal votes for your favorite candidates from more than one party at municipal and county elections).

But among those candidates there wasn’t one I voted for because I’d seen him or her with a Twitter-profile stating their name and their political party.

I never follow those kind of Twitter-users back. All the folks I voted for were people I know, either just online, or online and in real life, for a long time and not primarily as politicians.

They were all people I “know” because of the work they do, the blogs they write, or because we have interests in common.

In fact, while casting my vote I found myself thinking I could easily have voted for a blogger I’m a big fan of despite being on the opposite side of the political divide.

What I’m trying to say, both when it comes to my “internet party” and those politicians who let their guard down and thereby became more real, more human after 22/7:

Personality matters, humanity matters, being real/genuine/allowing yourself to be vulnerable and go off script is a good thing.

Nothing revolutionary there you may say. In fact it’s all very Cluetrain.

But it is also quite the opposite of the social media strategy many politicians and/or political parties seem to subscribe to.

To them just getting a Twitter-profile spewing out politically correct or mundane and largely uninteresting stuff seems to equal a social media strategy.

Well, it’s not a very successful social media strategy.

It has to be personal.

Not necessarily in the sense that you have to share personal stuff, far from, but you have to get a sense of the person behind the social media profile even if it’s just their genuine passion for a certain subject.

But it has to be genuine, and it’s definitely not a short-term fix.


Food for thought: opt-out is the new opt-in

Here's an excellent observation from a talk I've just been convinced I would have loved to listen to (thanks to Adam for liveblogging it):

"Highly technical people are dictating how we communicate with each other. The least social people are dictating how we interact. They force us to opt-out not opt-in. There's software that kills you internet connections for a set time to allow you to focus. Opt-out is the new opt-in."

Nothing all that new in the higlights Adam posts from Jeremy Tai Abbett's talk, but the way Abbett coins these key trends is refreshing and very much to the point. Read the full post here.

Do you remember back when revealing an opinion could get you fired?

A decade or two from now I suspect people will look back with amusement and incredulity on how once upon a time revealing online that you had opinions or flaws could get you fired.

In a world where most everyone who is someone has said and done plenty of stupid things online, revealing their most awkward traits or most foolish decisions, it will be those who have no online history to speak of who will come across as suspicious.

While thinking about how social media has changed, some would say blurred, the lines between private and public, between work and play, for an op-ed published yesterday (in Norwegian) it struck me that what we're experiencing now is just growing pains, a temporary phase while we transition from old to new ways of thinking, or perhaps we could even speak of paradigms. And when I say temporary it may be that we're speaking of a generation or two, Roland Inglehart's Silent Revolution also springs to mind.

But already the two mindsets I'm thinking of, the old buttoned up professional aspiring to reveal as little as possible about him or herself, and the new, open culture of sharing, some would say oversharing, and transparency exist side by side.

As the op-ed was written just after the Octavia Nasr affair, I used hers and Dave Weigel's case to say that neither revealed something all that surprising: Nasr revealed she had sympathies and Weigel an arrogance which is far from uncommon among up and coming journalists who's had great success very quickly. In other words, they revealed themselves to be human. Their timing and sense of judgement may have been askew, but both explained the reasons for these lapses well, and the instant firing of the two seemed to me like knee-jerk reactions.

After I submitted my op-ed, I came across this brilliant piece by Thomas Friedman for New York Times (worth reading in full) on the Nasr-affair:

"What signal are we sending young people? Trim your sails, be politically correct, don’t say anything that will get you flamed by one constituency or another. And if you ever want a job in government, national journalism or as president of Harvard, play it safe and don’t take any intellectual chances that might offend someone. In the age of Google, when everything you say is forever searchable, the future belongs to those who leave no footprints."

I agree with most of what Friedman has to say in this piece, except I don't believe the future belongs to those who leave no footprints - quite the contrary. Two other recent NYT-articles, both well worth the read, Bent Brantley's Whatever Happened to Mystery and Jeffrey Rosen on How the Web means the End of Forgetting, serve to illustrate how increasingly unrealistic leaving no footprints has become.

Friends and acquaintances who teach in junior and upper high school tell me that these days even some of their best and most ambitious students keep blogs where they frequently err on the side oversharing, divulging personal, sometimes very private, things which may come back to haunt them. But seeing how widespread this "oversharing" on blogs and social networks is, as more and more people steeped in this culture enter the job market and eventually gain power, I think this will soon start to be seen as quite normal.

That is not to say that I think we'll end up with an anything goes kind of mentality, or that good sense of judgement won't be recognised and awarded also in the future, but I think we'll learn to live with how much more of our personal histories are publicly available at the click of a button. And I do think the buttoned up journalist, clothed so as to reveal as little as possible of who he is, will come across as a stranger in a strange land in this type of environment. In fact, is already doing so when dealing with the social web and its inhabitants.

So I think we'll see the end of the cult of objectivity that media has worshipped for so long. That is not to say I think objectivity as such is unattainable, or that striving for impartiality necessarily is a bad thing, only that the idea that a journalist should be like a mirror, an inanimate object with no opinions or personal history, reflecting his or her surroundings objectively, is long overdue for a reality-check.

Journalists are not inanimate objects, we're human beings who, under constant deadline pressure, make, and are required by our employers to make, decisions about what to cover and not, and how to cover it, all the time based on editorial values - or sometimes on which glasses we see the world through. The only way we could just objectively mirror the world around us would be to set up a surveillance camera and stream the video from it online, and even then we would only be streaming a (geographical) selection of reality.

I'm not even so sure this whole idea of just mirroring the world is conducive from a journalistic point of view. Reuter's David Schlesinger has talked about how (financial) journalism at its best should be as a mirror (scroll down for English version). However, I think it's fair to say that as long as that mirror only was turned towards a bunch of experts who mostly said the same, there's no wonder financial journalists couldn't see the financial crisis of 2008 coming. Schlesinger called it unreasonable to expect journalists to predict the future, but I think, in this increasingly complex world of ours, spotting the connections and making sense of the world, is one of the most important ways the media can add value.

Also, the people we are supposed to serve, our readers, do not see us as objective or think we have no political or business ties. They're just not quite sure what those biases which they feel must be dictating the news agenda are, so we often find ourselves accused of being racists and cultural relativists, or socialists and conservatives in the comment section of the same article.

Even more frequently, commenters don't even see us as persons at all, but synonymous with the institution we represent, and will attack us in the comment sections based on this. Incidentally, that is often a rather difficult position from which to nurture a constructive and healthy online debate.

If we then compare and contrast the media's "objective approach to covering an issue to that of bloggers, we see something really interesting. Namely, that looking at successful niche or issue bloggers – such as e.g. Jeff Jarvis, Guido Fawkes, Karl Denninger, Mark Horvath – they gain credibility and influence by doing the exact opposite of what media always has held up as the key hallmark of credibility.

They gain credibility not by pretending they have no ties, as the media, but disclosing those ties openly; not by pretending they have no personal history, but by using their own personal histories in ways which make other people share their own stories - thereby creating a critical mass highlighting a particular issue.

All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that I think it's about time the media industry wake up to the fact that we live in a transparent society, and that insisting on staying fully dressed and buttoned up in this environment won't do us any favours.

I agree with David Weinberger that yes, transparency is the new objectivity – at least in the respect that transparency is the only way to make our journalism more credible in today's increasingly transparent society. That does not mean that, as was suggested on Twitter, I think media organisations have to become more like Fox News. I don't think journalism necessarily needs to become more opinionated – opinionated journalism has pros and cons depending on the editorial format – but it desperately needs to become more honest.

For the record I should perhaps say that I ruined my back on the way home from London late June and ended up confined to bed for a few weeks, which gave me a lot of time to think about the changing media landscape. I'm somewhat shocked at the verbosity of this post, but suspect I might be back with more on this and other related topics soon....

Social media start-ups as agents for social change

What are the best ways to use social media to change the world, and could there possibly be a business model in doing just that?

I recently had the pleasure of being in the jury when participants of the Swedish Institute’s Young Leaders Visitors Program (#YLVP 2010) presented projects aimed at meeting global challenges - such as cultural prejudices, censorship and lack of democracy - through social media solutions.

The projects ranged from creating a social media academy for activists, to using various social media platforms to find, collect and present artists from a specific region to counter cultural prejudices (the #YLPV participants came from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, West Bank-Gaza, Yemen and Sweden).

All the projects were presented with great zest and flair, and even thought most of them were perhaps a bit too ambitious, a bit too complicated – I think the beauty with social media, and what make these tools so effective, is the how they enable you to start small with a shoestring, or even non-existent budget – the event was a great reminder for me as well of how powerful an agent of change social media has the potential to be.

One of the other judges, Mikael Ahlström of Sprout Park, who describes himself as a serial entrepreneur in digital media, also told me he would consider investing in some of the projects presented – which I took to mean that he saw business potential there.

Another thing I was reminded of during the event was an interview I did with Fareena Alam in 2003 when she was editor of the now defunct Q magazine. She said part of the problem with the way media represents Muslims is how they’re always interviewed in connection with issues such as Islam, immigration or cultural integration and rarely presented as normal people with ”normal” problems such as housing or transportation.

I don’t have the interview before me now, so I don’t remember her exact words, but this, the way immigrants or ethnic groups are presented in mainstream media was also an issue which at least one project was aimed at improving. I think social media can be a great tool in this respect, as it’s a great arena for building an online identity on your own terms. There are of course lots of challenges as well: access to and knowledge of these tools are in no way universal, but through them more people than ever have access to the equivalent of their own printing presses, and it’s interesting to see how this e.g. can be put to use to improve democracy in various parts of the world.

But I must admit I’m not so sure this will be a mass endeavour. Even though I recently read that Facebook users outnumber newspaper readers in The Middle East and North Africa – perhaps not surprising when you consider all the restrictions on free press in the region – I think we’ll probably see the 90-9-1 law played out here as well.

Incidentally, I happened to spend my last school year before university attending an experimental college with "complete student democracy" (a coincidence, sort of). The college was started by students in 1967 and was, at least in theory, run by the members of the school: all students and teachers had one vote each.

A lot can be said, both good and bad, about that experience, but even in this sort of setting – at a school (in)famous for the democratic way it was organised – it was at best no more than 10 per cent who actively played a role in this "democracy" other than at times, and often reluctantly, turning up to vote.

That, of course, is not to say that the work of individuals or small groups of dedicated souls can not make a huge differences, quite the contrary, and social media can make, and in some areas is making, it easier to organise those scattered groups and indviduals and rally people behind a cause.

I also gave the keynote presentation at the event, and will return to that soon, but the day gave me so much to think about, also in terms of the shortcomings of, and possible fixes for, journalism, that, given a very busy schedule, it's taken me some time to start blogging about it all. 

Social media monitoring for parents

I do my share of talking to journalists about monitoring what's being said about companies or keywords on their beats online, so when I stumbled across these videos on how parents can use social media to do the same I couldn't help but laugh and have found myself unable to get them off my mind since.

The first of these is from September 2009, the second from mid-March this year, but they are both such great illustrations of our brave new media world that they can stand re-watching. First, the how to:

Then some of the wider implications (via Adam on Roaming Originals):

It must be said that I've always thought age is a state of mind and am delighted to see friends of all ages on Facebook, one of the latest being a friend fast approaching seventy. Still, I've kept my Facebook profile family-free, save siblings, and the fear of uncomfortable family discussions about not friending near and dear ones is part of the reason why I chose to use a nick when I first set up my current Facebook profile...

Google Street View: bringing the world closer together

We often hear about how technology leads to alienation, hampers personal, real-life relations and ultimately cuts us off from reality. But technology, like any tool, is just what you use it for, and I'm more often struck by how it helps me stay in touch with near and dear ones no matter the geographical distance.

Only yesterday I was looking through some of all my unread RSS-feeds and came across this touching blog post from Kaz, a former flatmate of mine. We have both moved away from London - she to France, me to Norway - and haven't seen each other for many years, but we stay in touch on Facebook, and I read her blog.

But back to that blogpost: she describes her relationship with an old and lonely neighbour of hers when she had her own flat in England (I can't quite remember the name of the place now, but it was past Loughton on the Central line, so we're probably talking Essex). This man was always very helpful to her while she lived there, probably because she "saw" him, and she had found herself wondering how he was doing in the years since she moved away. Then her husband recently spotted a figure on Google Street View in that very same area she used to live, and Kaz thought it must be him getting on with his life. It may or may not have been,  but it's a touching thought. Now, if he only he was on Facebook...

Update 19/03-2010 09:30 CET: On the other hand, would I have been happy to find myself on Google Street View without any prior knowledge (or consent)? Probably not, it would give me a queasy "big brother is watching you" kinda feeling. I much prefer to be able to choose whether or not I want to sign up for that visibility myself.

Do we need rules for journalists’ use of social media?

Are you a journalist 24/7? Does the company you work for own you? Does it harm your credibility as a journalist if you share personal opinions online? Are some opinions more appropriate to share than others?

These are just some of many questions raised by the recent debates on journalists and social media. Some companies, such as Bloomberg, have very strict policies on how journalists may or may not use social media, but in Norway such rules have been absent until now.

However, it was recently brought to my attention that several of the country’s biggest media organisations are working on social media rules for their journalists, which caused The Norwegian Online News Association (NONA), an organisation I’m heading, to host a debate on this last week.

The reason? We thought it was much better to get such a debate out in the open than have it confined by the walls of each individual media company. If Norwegian is not Greek to you, you’ll find video and notes from the debate over at NONA’s blog, but as these are questions many media organisations are discussing these days, I’ve also translated some key quotes and questions here:

"The home alone party is over"
'The home alone party is over, now the adults are back and they want rules,' said Jan Omdahl, internet and technology commentator for Norwegian tabloid Dagbladet. He said Dagbladet’s journalists had been playing around with social media from an early stage, but now the media executives had entered the arena, demanding rules.

'It’s very typical that those who don’t use social media, or have started using it very recently, want rules, whereas those who have used social media a lot take the contrary view,' said Nina Nordbö, a social media advisor at Norway’s public broadcaster (NRK) and NONA board member.

'It is perhaps our smallest problem that we lack rules for social media. At the same time one of our biggest problems is that we are part of a tradition for one-way communication that makes us ill-equipped for exploiting the social web,' said Espen Egil Hansen, editor-in-chief of and NONA board member.

Grey areas
He felt it as important that we learned how to utilise this arena, and make our mistakes now rather than later. He also emphasised that had strict rules on ethics and he couldn’t see that they needed any more rules than these.

However, Omdahl also pointed out that journalists encounter a whole new set of challenges online. ’Even if I as a social media user think we can just continue as we always have done, I do see that we can benefit from raising awareness about these challenges. For instance: should I reply when I get questions on Twitter about why Dagbladet has used five different angles on that sex podcast on Should I confer with my bosses before I reply? Is it appropriate that I share my opinions on one of our most heavily criticised front pages?'

Guidelines or rules
Hanne Kirkenes from pointed out that in their organisation it was not the editors but the journalists who had asked for rules.

'In my experience, our journalists are divided: those who take to social media very naturally and those who think journalists should not be using social media at all,' she said, explaining that as a result of this they had a few simple guidelines on social media. They also had held internal discussions on this and would continue to do so.

John Einar Sandvand, a digital strategist with Aftenposten, Norway’s newspaper of record, explained that his company was in the process of implementing rules for how their journalists use social media, but suggested three very simple ones:

'For social media I would start with three very basic principles, and then one can elaborate on each of these according to specific issues:

1) The media company should be genuinely positive to its staff being active in social media

2) Social media activities must be done in a way which maintains the professional integrity of journalists

3) Stay loyal to your employer

You can read more about his thoughts on this on his excellent blog Beta Tales (in English).

Impartiality, sources and PR
We touched on several other issues which tend to come up in one form or another whenever journalists' use of social media is up for discussion, hence I'll just mention three of these briefly here: 

Impartiality: Can a blogger with a strong political agenda or view on a particular issue work as a journalist? Or would it be more useful to ask if a journalist or commentator can do more credible journalism when we know his our her agenda? Espen Egil Hansen suggested that bloggers were blurring the lines between reporting and commenting, that commentators like Omdahl could still do credible journalism and that we in the future would see more journalists becoming individual brands .

Consensus: Is it a problem that journalists and commentators mostly just talk to their peers online, and does this not exacerbate media's herdlike behaviour? A Norwegian editor recently argued this was the case, that discussing their ideas on Twitter created a consensus among the country's commentators, and therefore we need rules to regulate media's use of social media. To this it was pointed out that hacks and columnists have always associated mostly with other media folks, but that at least on Twitter they do so openly and not behind closed doors in the press club - and on Twitter they also have (an opportunity) to engage with their readers and can make an effort to expand the network of people they talk and listen to.        

PR: Oh, and somebody asked if it wasn't problematic that marketeers and academics could get to know a journalist's interests so well on Twitter that they would know exactly which journalist to pitch a certain issue to. My answer? No, no, no: I would LOVE more targeted pitches, if all PRs and marketeers would make the effort to figure out what my beat is and what issues I'm likely to write about I would be absolutely delighted....

Update 23/11-09, 21:59 CET: see also Think Before You Re-Tweet: L.A. Times' Updates Social Media Rules for Journos.

Twitter mishaps and netiquette for journalists

Evidence suggests navigating the social web can be a bit of challenge for journalists, but does that mean we need a new set of ethical guidelines to safeguard their conduct?

Last week, while organising a debate on whether we need rules for journalists’ use of social media, I asked friends, colleagues and Twitter-followers for examples of journalists’ missteps and transgressions on the popular micro blogging site. My question threw up some interesting examples, and I’ll highlight some of those here.

Digital Doorstepping
But first I feel I should point out that, even though Twittiquette is the hot topic these days, it would be wrong to single out Twitter: these examples are very similar to journalists’ "missteps and transgressions" on other social media sites such as blogs and social networks.

For instance, only two years ago we had a similar discussion after bloggers and others reacted sharply to how some journalists solicited comments from bloggers who themselves experienced, or had friends who were caught up in, the Virginia Tech Massacre – leaving blog comments like "I would love to chat with you about this horrific event."

"Journalism has a long and dishonourable tradition of doorstepping the victims of tragedies. But in the digital age, the communities around the victims have voices to express their outrage at the media's behaviour - and that's what we're seeing here," said Adam Tinworth in a blog post.

Bullying your sources
Now, I’m not so sure it would not be entirely far-fetched to say that journalist have a long dishonourable tradition for bullying their sources either. However, it does look rather embarrassing when the bullying is conducted in a public place like Twitter, such as in this exchange between former National Post technology reporter David George-Cosh and marketing consultant April Dunsford earlier this year.

After Dunsford tweeted an observation from being interviewed by George-Cosh, leaving his name out of it, he identified himself when he answered back with some very aggressive tweets. You can read the whole exchange here. Ouch. There are of course situations where journalists feel bullying, e.g. politicians, is entirely legitimate, even create TV-shows devoted to it, but here?

Twitter reveals journalists have opinions
An entirely different kind of example is that of Odd Myklebust, society editor for Norwegian regional newspaper Drammens Tidenede, who, two weeks before this year’s Norwegian parliamentary election, tweeted that this year’s regional political candidates were the worst ever. This created an outcry and spurred a debate on journalists and social media, and Myklebust later apologised saying the statement was too tabloid.

This incident reminds me of the Washington Post’s new, much ridiculed social media policy which came about after one of its managing editors, Raju Narisetti posted a few tweets that revealed he had opinions on issues such as health care, deficits and term limits. Impartiality is crucial to the WaPo policy, and Techchrunch has a ball with it in Twitter Unearths A Secret: Journalists Have Opinions:

"When word leaked out that he had his own opinions and was sharing them on Twitter, apparently the WaPo top brass scrambled quickly to get this under control. That included Narisetti deleting his Twitter account. Pathetic."

On the Norwegian incident, Per Valebrokk, editor-in-chief of business news site E24, wrote: "If Myklebust really means what he said on Twitter, why doesn’t he write it in his newspaper? What is really the biggest problem? That those working in the media have opinions, or that they’re not clear enough in their newspapers?"

Now, I can’t get myself worked up over these incidents revealing journalists to have opinions, but I should also, for the record, mention, that I know Myklebust from my time as a columnist at Drammens Tidende (where I effectively started my media career).

Making offensive remarks, then deleting them
I think a worse case is that of The Daily Telegraph’s former technology blogger Milo Yiannopoulos. I remember reacting to the tone of several of his tweets when I followed him on Twitter, but one incident in particular was later brought to my attention by someone who followed the situation more closely.

"Back when he was @yiannopoulos rather than @nero, Milo Yiannopoulos tweeted that he hoped the police 'beat the shit out of those wankers', referring to the G20 protestors. Then he deleted the tweets when one was killed," this person said, and described how @yiannopoulos also made aggressive remarks to some tweeters and deleted the tweets once they had been seen - adding that unpleasantness seemed not to upset people so much as deleting your remarks once they had caused a stir.

What a lot of this comes down to, especially Yiannopoulos’ and George-Cosh’s cases, is bad editorial judgements. If editors see one of their reporters or commentators make such ill-informed judgements repeatedly online, I imagine they would question how well this person is suited to represent the media company and at the very least have serious talk with the person in question. Also, we can all make gaffes, say things that are not well thought through, but most people recognise this - and apologising for it makes all the difference.

Personally, I don’t think a whole new set of rules is called for, but I organised a debate on this issue last week for The Norwegian Online News Association (NONA) as it had been brought to my attention that rules are under way in Norway’s biggest media organisations. It proved a very constructive and useful debate, and I’ll get back to some of the key points raised in a separate post.

Essential Advice
Still, this debate reminds me of something I copied from my friend Adriana’s blog several years ago, in 2006 I believe, and have often used when explaining netiquette to various audiences:

"On the internet you are not an institution. If you want to be and behave like one, you get isolated and bypassed... It's back to communication between human beings, communities and sometimes mobs. The rules of social interactions apply - if people challenge you on something you have done or said and you don't respond, expect a commensurate impact on your reputation or credibility.

"If people make fun of you or try to embarrass you, the choice is to remain silent in hope of appearing dignified or to shoot back, with indignation or with humour. It depends. Different responses will be appropriate at different times and different circumstances. That is why etiquette is so complicated. Media and communications strategies don't even come close. The main difference is that you don't need to be 'trained' for online communication; it's the one that you already know. And whether you are good at it or not has nothing to do with communication skills but with respect for others and some good manners."

This post has been edited following Milo Yiannopoulos' objections in the comments.

"There are no conferences for fax machines"

I loved this wry blog post from The Oxford Social Media Convention by John Kelly, whose blog from his year in Oxford  I really enjoyed. Here's a highlight:

"I think my favorite observation came from Bill Thompson, a BBC tech columnist and all-around digital gadfly. When speaking about his work with computers (as a student at Cambridge in the 1980s), he said that computers weren't all that interesting or exciting to him. They were just what he did. "Social media is not there yet," he said. 'Which is why we can fill a room with 350 people. There are no conferences for fax machines.'

"His comment underscored the relative newness of things such as Twitter and Facebook and how we're still trying to work out how to integrate them into our lives. I don't think there's anything wrong with that--with pausing to reflect--despite the insistence of some new media prophets who think anyone without an iPhone in each hand and a touch screen on each wall is some lesser form of life.....'

Do check out the full post. Now, I'm painfully aware that my own blog has gone very quite as of late: it's been almost a month since my last update, which is a record of sorts for me, but it's all due to some exciting projects I've been working on lately. I'll get back to those soon, but thought this meta-perspective on social media conferences was a good way to break my blog block. Kelly's post, found via an update from Kate Day on Twitter, also reminded me to replace his Oxford blog with his Washington Post blog in my newsreader - which I should have done ages ago.

Six quick social media lessons from the Obama campaign

Jodi Williams from the Obama Campaign Team was in Oslo last week to talk about lessons learnt from the 2008 presidential campaign. Here's a few quick highlights I took away from her talk (I'd have posted this sooner if it wasn't for ongoing computer trouble):

Picture of Williams by Tord Nedrelid published under a CC-license
  • Social media turns out to be very crucial these days for reaching out, not only to younger demographics, but quite widely - especially for reaching the demographic that’s really busy and not home to sit down and watch ABC News at six
  • The Twitter effect will play a much bigger part in future elections along with texting. We could have used texting and twitter much more effectively
  • Really excited by how mobile networks will change campaigning and reporting
  • No longer one way comunication but a two way coversation that can turn into a movement
  • It’s about giving people the opportunity to organise themselves. Social media offers good tools to organise people and to help them find each other
  • The Clinton-campaign was stuck in the past. We had younger people who were not stuck in ideas on how to do and organise things and were free to look ahead
These notes are taken from a talk Williams gave at a seminar on politics and social media organised by The Institute of Journalism 05.06.2009. My write-up of key headlines from the Norwegian talks are here (in Norwegian)

"Modernisation" Minister launches book on sharing culture

I just learned that an anthology on sharing culture, edited by Heidi Grande Röys, the Norwegian minister of Government and Administration Reform, is out today (via Sermo Consulting). It's called "Shared opinions - about the web's social side" (my adhoc translation, more about the book + excerpts for download in Pdh here in Norwegian)

I must admit my gut feeling is scepticism because, well, she's hardly at the forefront of the social media (r)evolution, but I see that many clever people, such as Eirik Solheim, Gisle Hannemyr and others, have contributed to the book, so I'll try to get hold of a copy as soon as I'm back from London. If it really is a sign the country's Government has caught on to what's happening it is very encouraging. I have seen various attempts at Government blogging which hasn't really impressed me, and I know some Norwegian politicians are getting pretty good at twittering, even blogging, so maybe... I'd like to be convinced....   

Heidi Grande Röys, Norway's minister of Government Administration and reform, photographed by me at the 25 year anniversary for the Norwegian edition of Computerworld last year.

Top social media strategists put their time up for auction on eBay

Here's a golden chance to get two hours of consulting services from social media veterans Adriana Lukas and Chris Heuer for a bargain.

Adriana emails to say they are currently auctioning two hours of their time on eBay. I'm a bit late to this story as I've been on the road for a few days: the slot is for tomorrow, in London, but at the time of writing the only bid submitted is on $50 - so still possible to get an amazing deal.

"This is a low cost way for a smart company to take our minds for a test drive, to see if what we know, and to improve what you are doing with social media, marketing and web strategies to make your organization more succesfull in these effort," writes Adriana. Read more on why the two have decided to put their time up for auction, in what is a one time opportunity so far, on eBay here.

Now, at this point I should tell you that Adriana is the woman who kicked me into the blogosphere in the first place. After listening to her musings on social media, and reading the books she recommended, with fascination for years, but always blaming my deadlines for why it was never the right time to have a go at blogging myself, in the end she just set up this blog for me in 2005 and told me to get going.

It was a big white canvas for me, and I was quite surprised by how, after a few months, I revealed myself to be a media junkie... ;-) Of course, blogging changed my world, my focus and opened up new previously unthought of opportunities for me. Still, even after immersing myself in social media for years, had I been in London tomorrow and had I the time, this would have been an opportunity too good to miss....  

Update 14:25 CET: Message from Chris Heuer on Twitter just now, saying "unfortunately I glitched & UK folks werent able to bid, so am taking it down :( #lessonlearned". Still, seems some lucky person might have secured those two hours with Adriana and Chris after notifying Chris about the glitch - see more in his comment on my post here.

Using social media to change the world

Here's something which, despite all the current doom and gloom, makes me both hopeful for the future of the world at large and despondent about my own industry (and if you'd rather focus on the former, feel free to jump past my chronology of frustration:-) )

A chronology of frustration:
Mainstream media discovers Twitter and moves en masse there. Incidentally, politicians discover Twitter about the same time and follow suite. "All of a sudden" everyone that is someone is talking about Twitter, hence media commentators are ordered to write about it and conclude - surprise, surprise - it's the social network of the elites.

Now, this secenario is taken from Norway, where journalists and politicians have really only discovered Twitter's potential over the last few months. Since I do my share of talking about why journalists should be on Twitter, and how they can use it in their work, I'm hardly going to complain that a much larger contingent of Norway's hacks have finally started using the microblogging site, but the scenario in the above paragraph is a potent reminder that our understanding of social media is defined by how we use it.

It's not the technology... As a result, our arguments about what social media is often become circular, and categorisations such as "it's the network of the elites" or "it's just people sharing trivia" will often reveal more about how people making those statements use or don't use Twitter than about the site itself. I am, of course, fully aware that sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter have different demographics, but, at the end of the day, it's neither the technology, nor the individual social media brand as such I find interesting: it's what it enables us to do.

And since commentators, in Norway and elsewhere, have been so busy analysing what they and/or their colleagues talk about on Twitter lately, let's instead look at a compelling way to use the site to raise awareness of a social issue. I've been followingMark Horvath for a few weeks now, after a shout out from Tim O'Reilly alerted me to his Twitter profile:

Giving a voice to the voiceless
"Mark Horvath was a top TV executive in Hollywood and then lost it all. Out of work and with a home going into foreclosure, Horvath quickly became homeless. With no income or a roof over his head, Horvath still had to do something. So he started, a personal first account video blog designed to give homelessness a face and voice," Mashable wrote in March.

Or to use his own words from 1 April this year: "Fifteen years ago I was a TV executive. Fourteen years ago I ended up homeless on Hollywood Blvd. I now am 14 years sober and am rebuilding my life but homelessness is once again a very real possibility. I lost my job in St Louis over a year ago. I took a job here in Los Angeles, moved here, and was laid off. I lost my house to foreclosure last week. With $45, a small camera and a laptop I started, a homeless awareness vlog. I had to do something.

"Every week I take a few minutes to get to know a different person without a home. I learn how they survive, how they came to find themselves homeless, and who they call friends. I ask them about their biggest wishes, their greatest hardships and their plans for the future.

"Then, I introduce them to the world via social media. My video blog is a testament of the character and strength of people living on America’s streets. It gives them a voice and a chance to tell their story and become more than a coat sleeping on a park bench. To get the word out about my vblog, I began using twitter ..." (full post here, follow Horvath at @hardlynormal ).

Now, you may fault me, of course, for citing a former TV exec as an example, but his forceful example of being 'the change he wants to see in the world' somehow gives me more faith that we will find our way through the current crisis - and doing what he does while facing homelessness and personal ruin is truly something...

Here's video clip from The Berkman Centre, about The New Change Makers which is also well-worth checking out (via Paul Bradshaw on Twitter)

Media and disruptive technology (or why change is so hard for entrenched companies)

What if we were to look at mainstream media's response to social media, such as blogging, thorugh the prism of disruptive technology?

This is an issue I've been mulling over since I heard Espen Andersen's talk on disruptive technologies, open source and mobile at Open Nordic conference in May: how does this apply to media?

Diverse 041

It occurs to me that looking at media and social media through this prism must have been done before - but I haven't come across any such analysis, and, regardless of whether or not such analysis already exist, I think looking a the changing media landcape this way is a very useful thought experiment for trying to understand how big media companies tend to approach disruptive innovations, such as social media. Now, feel free to join me in this thought experiment, I'm just playing around with ideas here, but I think it's a very useful exercise.

What is a disruptive technology?
Espen quoted Clayton M.Christensen's book The Innovator's dillemma (which I haven't read) when describing disruptive technology:

1) your best customers don't want it,
2) it gives poorer performance,
3) if you did it you would loose money.

Core attribute: the incumbent market leader is the least suited to adopt it.

Two examples on disruptive technology listed in Wikipedia:
- Early desktop-publishing systems could not match high-end professional systems in either features or quality. Nevertheless, they lowered the cost of entry to the publishing business, and economies of scale eventually enabled them to match, and then surpass, the functionality of the older dedicated publishing systems.

- The music and movie industries see file-sharing as a very real threat to their livelihood. With technologies like Bittorrent becoming part of pop culture the current business model for these industries, selling physical units, has been completely shattered.

Seeing MSM/social media through this prism
I think sharing news via social media such as blogs, social networks, and microblogging sites also fit the bill here, because

1) your premium subscribers are unlikely to be the first to jump the ship

2) social media, like say blogging platforms and twitter, are often, especially in the first stage(s), less reliable than the big expensive content management systems mainstream news sites tend to run on/ it's cruder and gives less functionality

3) big MSM players are often hampered by their own size, prestige and institutional slowness (for lack of a better word) and utilising these tools effectively from an early stage is easier for a small nimble start-up with nothing to loose.

Also, according to Wikipedia:
"Disruptive technologies are not always disruptive to customers, and often take a long time before they are significantly disruptive to established companies. They are often difficult to recognize. Indeed, as Christensen points out and studies have shown, it is often entirely rational for incumbent companies to ignore disruptive innovations, since they compare so badly with existing technologies or products, and the deceptively small market available for a disruptive innovation is often very small compared to the market for the established technology. Even if a disruptive innovation is recognized, existing businesses are often reluctant to take advantage of it, since it would involve competing with their existing (and more profitable) technological approach."

The Entrenched Player's Dilemma
The latter point leads to The Entrenched Player's Dilemma, which is featured in Wikinomics, as the authors attempted to find out why corporations resisted crowd sourcing and mass collaboration.

"The problem with mature companies is that the very commercial success of their products increases their dependency on them. Making radical changes in the product's capabilities, underlying architecture or associated business models could cannibalize sales or lead to costly realignments of strategy and business infrastructure. It's as though popular and widely adopted products become ossified, hardened by the inherent incentives to build on their own success. The result is that entrenched industry players are generally not motivated to develop or deploy disruptive technologies."

I think we can even take this phenomenon down to the indivual level, rather than look at abstract entities such as companies: "People who have built up power and status in a particular specialty are scared of change that calls the knowledge and experience that got them there irrelevant," says Carrie Lisa Brown in this brilliant post (I'm not so interested in the Jarvis/Rosenbaum dustup described in the intro, but the last five paragraphs give a great description of some of the reasons change in the newsroom is difficult and often met with resistance)

There: I think this is a pretty useful prism for decribing why change is so difficult for many media companies. It's also interesting because describing the obstacles is often the first step towards finding solutions. Most notably, I can think of one media company that has been successful perhaps exactly because, at least to some extent, it has managed to break away from The Entrenched Player's Dillemma - I'll return to that in a separate post later.

Is social a bubble? On web 3.0, web 4.0 and Vendor Relationship Management (VRM)

“Social” is a bubble. Trust me on this. I urge all consultants on “social ______” (fill in the blank) to make hay while the sun shines. Even as the current depression deepens, lots of companies are starting to realize that this “social” thing is hot stuff and they need to get hip to Twitter and the rest of it. (Just ask the Motrin folks.)

"And it is hot. But much of that heat is relative to its absence in other areas. “Social” has sucked a lot of oxygen out of the online conversational room. Meanwhile, here’s the challenge: make the Net personal. Make relationships personal. Equip individuals with tools of independence and engagement. That’s what VRM is about," says Doc Searls, go read the full post on how VRM is personal here.

Check out this page if you're unfamiliar with the term Vendor Realtionship Management (VRM), which Doc, one of the authors behind Cluetrain, and others think will be the next big thing.

I was privileged enough to be able to attend a VRM meeting with Doc in London back in February, and it's very exciting stuff: the aim is to radically shift the balance of power between vendors and customer in favour of the customer and give the individual more control over his or her relations with companies online. Adriana explains more here and here.

The reason I mention web 3.0 and web 4.0 in the title is that I half-jokingly suggested to Jude that perhaps web 4.0 is about VRM, after she posted this hillarious take on web 4.0 (from 2006) on Twitter. I've only recently been learning a lot more about web 3.0, and though I'd be exaggerating if I said I grasp all its implications, it strikes me as something that will give the individual less control, not more, though perhaps I'm just getting too hung up in the privacy implications.

A quick google search on web 4.0 also throws up Seth Godin's musings on web 4.0, which seems to be a few steps further down the line web 3.0 or the semantic web takes us, making web services even more "intelligent" in terms of giving us relevant recommendations, making the web even more social, but at the same time increasing the privacy concerns plentifold.

So I wonder where VRM fits into all of this, if we should assign it a number in the stage of the web's development or if it will be part of next stage and develope alongside it. As we get more and more "intelligent" web services, will there be a backlash? An urge to wrest back control, to at least be able to better control access, privacy settings, control over our own content and electronic footprints? I'm just thinking out loud here, input and thoughts on this appreciated....

On equipping customers to be independent leaders, this struck me as a very powerful image though it's not taken from a VRM context, but from this presentation.


Today's food for thought

I stumbled across two great SlideShare presentations that really gave me something to think about today - in the best possible way as they are both quite uplifting takes on the times we are living in (the first via Fred Wilson, the second from Neil Perkin).

Despite the disparate titles, they're also vaguely related:

The crowdsourced journalism lecture

Great stuff from Robin Hamman: in preparation for his first day teaching on the MA International Journalism programme at City University, he asked his twitter and facebook followers to help him come up with an outline for the lecture. Here's the results from twitter. Makes me feel rather envious of this year's class of students (I graduated from the same course in 2002).

Rules of online engagement: learning to speak human

In my introduction to using the social web - which I should have put the sign "work in progress" on, but have now gone over and added more links/ edited for clarity - I only thouched very lightly on the all important issue of rules of engagement online (towards the end), describing briefly, with what I believe to be Adriana's words, how the web is a conversation, and behaving like an institution is bound to fail.

Perhaps I didn't say the latter, but this presentation by Adriana explains the new rules of engagement brilliantly - MUCH more in-depth, and much better than what I could. Incidentally, if the estimable Astrid Meland (just added to my blogroll) is looking for a corporate bullshit-talk generator, though she is doing very well in that department herself in this post (in Norwegian), at least much to my amusement, this presentation is worth checking out: