Using the social web: an introduction to distributed conversations and the benefits of beat blogging
October 29, 2008
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, marketingOn 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).
'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.
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.