Social communities

Why Twitter Really Is Not A Cellphone Powered News Site

150 150 eriks

I remember when I first heard about Twitter, which was early spring 2007. There was this enormous buzz about this new cool site where you could update your friends about what you were doing and when – all this via text messaging. At first I did not notice the site at all as text messaging is old news in Europe so it didn’t seem very new. At first it actually sounded a bit obnoxious and it really was at first. However it matured and here we are in 2009 with a highly popular site used for a lot of different purposes.

First of all and importantly, Twitter has never really positioned them as cellphone powered news. We every day hear about how Twitter is growing in popularity and I myself am a big tweeter so I am not out to bash Twitter. It is a really cool platform for quick little link exchanges, updates and discussions with your friends. Others have however claimed that Twitter is a news site.

Twitter is not a cellphone-powered news site. It is a tremendous source for what could become news, and a resource for journalists, but on it’s own, it is not.

There are two main issues with Twitter from a news perspective:

  • It is hard to find things on Twitter.
  • The tweets are not validated, or fact checked
  • It is very much a one-perspective story, and the short format is not favorable here.

Let us first take a look at the first point here. The intention of Twitter is not to make things searchable. It is a cellphone powered social network to stay in contact with your friends and others. There will be other applications as natural extensions but primarily Twitter was built for friendship discussions. As all platforms people play with them, but the fundamental architecture is built for interaction only with your friends.

But hey now, Erik! There are search engines that let you search Twitter. Sure, but they are not on Twitter. I get very little support to find other content that is outside my social sphere. It makes the discovery part of news consumption pretty much impossible. Your consumption will be as strong as your community.

I have to admit here that the news consumption is changing and the media arena is moving more towards gatekeepers who help us stay in touch with our news. Before the media newsroom was that, but now the consumption is relocated to the spheres around the information hubs in the social network. The social media reaches the journalistic arena. This is the right development and pretty sweet of course. You still need to assist the users with other tools to navigate through the content and find content. Nope, hashtags will not solve this. :-) They are bandages, not a solution.

The second and third issues are related. One of the main challenges with user-generated content is to validate and guide your consumers whether a specific piece of content is credible or not. The need cannot be underestimated and I have seen different approaches here, but clearly the content creator will not be able to solve this for you sufficiently. The content creator should be free to publish and we as a news industry should do assist in the guidance of the consumer of whether a particular piece of content is credible or not. The length of the message is not playing in favor here as 140 characters

Can Twitter overcome this? They might. They might not. Ultimately I do not think this is in their interests, as it would kill the fundamental idea of Twitter.

Ok. So what is the solution then?

The media scene is continuously moving more towards the ultimate content mashup on a topical basis. The articles are no longer essay like, but more a mosaic of different media types, angles, presentations and such. Essentially, you will have three main components to the presentation:

  • The Report – The report is the foundation of the media experience. Anyone can report from anywhere via cellphone or PC, sharing news, images, videos and opinions.
  • The Related Voices, Opinions and Facts – Around the report multiple perspectives are woven together that is have a collection: news stories, blog posts, images and videos via contributors and aggregation.
  • Discuss and Rate – For each of the presentations you will enable the community to emotionally connect with others around the world through discussion, rate the story and in the community spirit complete the human story.

Key in all of these components is the freedom of contribution, interaction and discussion. It is an absolutely necessity to have this free, and really a natural consequence of freedom of speech. It has to be free and open. To all people. By any means. Everywhere. Essentially, all these components build the human story and the provided context, facts and opinions built up by other user contributions and aggregation grounds the discussion. Ironically all these characteristics of the content actually provide you with the necessary components of the quality assurance system. It is the ultimate long-tail system.

First of all let us kill a myth. The long tail content market, especially including the user generated content, has always been the subject of a broad and intense discussion about quality assurance, especially since most of the solutions proposed includes heavy emphasis on technology. Traditionally human editors have been used as the major and gate keeper part of the content quality assurance process. The use of hired human editors is not a scalable solution and never will be a scalable solution. In addition the traditional editing model via human editors has also been proven to have some concerning issues especially for high profile news stories/events. The vast number of surfaced staged photographs published by for instance AP, Reuters and New York Times via their photographers during the conflict in Lebanon 2006, as well as the plagiarized and fabricated stories by the New York Times-journalist Jayson Blair have really seeded doubts that human editors/journalists are really the solely solution on the long term. This problem is also seen in the new social media sites and one of the more important examples are the issues with the super editors in Wikipedia.

The concept of content ranking – yes even PageRank – have always struggled between diversity and singularity. Usually they turn to the singular answer. This-is-how-things-are solutions have ruled the content ranking scene. Maybe the paradox is us as humans. Singularity is simple. It is transparent. Diversity is not. It creates this twilight zone reality where you do not really know what is the true or false. The easy, simple, neat answers disappear. PageRank… The amazing and brilliant algorithm that disrupted a whole business and market. It gives us what we need. Or does it? Really? PageRank works (simplified of course) very much like biological evolution. The strongest (or here most reputable) survives. The strongest win. They conquer the weakest. The alternative voices such as the extinction threatened species are not heard. They are lost in the noise. Is this right? Or is it “just” the natural choice? Hard question right. It ties into the news worthiness of a piece of content. PageRank type os ranking solutions are designed to give you one answer, but do not adequately rank in the long tail market where you would like to present clusters of information. At least not without modifications and conceptual changes to the overall nature.

Clearly we are looking at a solution that is simple in it’s core – technology heavy yet community and participation intense. It turns out that the main features of the solution should be:

  • The reputation of the contributor
  • The collective power of the aggregation around the user generated content
  • The community interaction with the content such as viewing, rating, commenting and other contributions

It is obvious that the right, sustainable solution will be a combination of these three ranking attributes. Basically you turn your challenges into assets in the editing process, as well as use them as opportunities to address the business concerns. This combination will be much more scalable, much more robust, completely technology based and still addresses all the issues with the ranking of user generated content. This is especially true for the long tail market where the amount of content is just too big for humans too handle – both practical and consistently. Think of it as a simulation of the traditional newsroom process yet with less bias. Isn’t that cool?

Why will this work? Easy. :-)

A contributor sends in a text message, which gets instantly published. Now by extracting keywords from the message related content online – news stories, blogs, images and videos – can be associated with the text message. As the context around the message builds up the community interaction with the content is constantly growing.

During the whole life cycle of the message we can define the credibility of the message at any given time and guide the user. The important conclusion here is that we are not reliant on a single point of failure here. If the contributor is unknown the other two components can take over. If we do not find any related content online we will be able to use the reputation and the community for validation. If the interaction from the community is small (which for the long tail it might be for some content) we will be able to use the reputation of the user and the related content to assess the credibility.

Oh wait a minute. That will help us tremendously to strengthen weak voices, detect breaking news and also complete and broaden the story telling of a particular piece. I am pretty stoked it already exists.

Always remember that the future media scene is like a dinner table conversation. It is free, open, interactive and human. I usually describe with thinking of a party. Which party would you like to go to: the party with all the detailed instructions what to wear, what to do, what to not say, what to say. Or would you prefer the laid back come as you are party. I would choose the rock n’ roll party any day. Why? It is fun. It is free. But… Most importantly I can relate to it. I can relate to it. That is the key. Sure, you will need some logistics for the rock n’ roll party too, but the script is not already set.

The proper cellphone powered news site should be free, open, interactive and human – yet credible. That is where I see Twitter fail (as a news site) and Allvoices succeed.

A Shed of A Plant

150 150 eriks

I attended SXSW 2009 down in Austin, Texas a few days back. I was thinking back to see a theme between all the panels. Anticipation. Faith. The opportunity. Being lost. I think most people there realized the times are tough and that we are experiencing one of the biggest crossroads of our time. We have a set of, in many ways intimidating, challenges ahead of us. Challenges as diverse as environmental, political and recently a seriously wounded and rotten financial market. These challenges will force us to start questioning where we are, why we came here and more importantly how we will overcome these.

It is a responsibility as a citizen of this world.

The panels really breathed, and yet not at all breathed, this change. They all tried to address the challenges in their little niche area, but sadly enough nothing groundbreaking or innovative was really being put forward. I have to say I felt a bit disappointed. I caught myself fading out of the discussion when they did not really challenge previous conceptions and beliefs of the world (here mostly in the shape of the web and the media industry).

This is the time of change. That is a funny word. Change… We throw it around frequently. Do we really know what it means? What it really means to go through change?

What I do know it is intimidating to most people.

I guess this is something like growing up. Finding your identity. Meeting yourself. The world of today is in a serious identity crisis. We have lost our identity. Why? Who knows. But we have. We have to find it again. It will probably be a different identity than we knew. I think that would be awesome.

Personally this is a quest for me. I am a 33 years old guy born and raised in Sweden, a pretty calm, democratic neat wonderful little place in northern Europe. Some say it is even one of the few idylls on earth. Some say we have it too good there. Maybe we do. I have been informed about everything – wrongs, rights and everything else – ever since I made my stumbling steps in this world (and probably even before that). I have been taught since kindergarten how to behave towards my fellow human beings, what they expect from me, what is expected from me, and how to treat other people with respect regardless of skin, ethnicity, cultural background or religion. There is a big emphasis in Sweden on being able to have your own opinion and being able to express it. It is also a big emphasis on conformity – for the better, and for the worse.


In addition the schools in Sweden, which are predominantly public, we are very keen on teaching in depth what has happened through history and how it has affected us without anything being censored. We also study a lot of the present issues around the world and the roots of the issues we see with the focus on looking on all sides.

Ever since I was around 12 years old I have had access to computers and played with them constantly. I wrote programs and then especially a text- based golf game. During my time in college, the IT-boom began and I got my own personal Internet connection and gained immediate access to information and could follow the growth of the Internet and the web from the “orchestra seats”. Astonished by the freedom online, I usually spent hours in front of the computer browsing the web for all sorts of information, and I quickly started to interact via various chat programs and instant messengers. I was amazed and intrigued by the technology.

I can, therefore, honestly say that I have been able to read whatever I want to, and have (at least the right to) my own opinion. Basically, I have spent 11 years of my time at a university level including PhD studies, a Stanford Fellowship and working as an associate director at Stanford with alliances between Stanford and Sweden, which has made me a full-feathered, full-blooded academic guy. I have become who I am because I’ve lived in a country where that is possible, and more importantly, because I know I have (or the very least should have) the right to do so.

Now consider some boy or girl in a developing country, emerging democracy, who might be living in state run by a dictator, corrupt regime or even just a troubled area. By troubled area I mainly refer to an occupied territory. What kinds of information will that boy or girl have access too? Who will provide this information? Will it be accurate? Will it be diverse? Will it be free and uncensored? What difference between that information and the information I can see, hear or read is there? Will they feel as entitled as I do to both access and to create that information? Who knows… What I know is that they should have the choice. At least in my opinion. That is their right. That really should be their right.

Unfortunately, alternative news sources in media are a rare occasion in the world. Too rare. However, via cellphones you will be able to share news, as the cellphones are ubiquitous, immediate and simple. By creating a tool for anyone in the entire world to share their stories at anytime from anywhere about anything you will start to bridge this media divide and create a more diverse media scene. We definitely need it.

It is something that is very important as everyone has the right to have an opinion and the right to express it. The freedom of expression. The freedom of speech. The freedom of the individual.

The freedom. The freedom.

This discussion might seem a bit far out, and a bit too philosophical, but a big issue for the areas I mentioned previously is that the sources of news coverage are very scarce and limited. There is a tremendous gap here between the media coverage, even though the media in the “developed” world has their deep issues in coverage as well. In a constrained landscape either by the number of news sources or narrow owner structure you will have an issue here. It becomes very easy to force an opinion on people, and not have an open discussion. Take for instance Iran, which spends billions of dollars on filtering the web for information that the regime does not feel should go online or opinions they have decided the people should not hear. If you are exposed to one news angle, that angle will become the truth even if it is far from the truth. It is the version you will hear. The only version. It is easier to believe something than not believe anything. You feel part of something, even though this something is artificial.

A few weeks back during the WeMedia conference, I recently spoke to a guy from Cuba when I was down in Miami drinking a Mojito. He told me that when his friends and family came to visit from Cuba, he was amazed how “inaccurate” their perception was. He has to spend time explaining that the stories about Cuba are biased to one viewpoint and “filtered” by more corporate interests. Or is it? I really do not know. Yet ironically who knows who and what is right here. He has his views. They have their views.

What is the truth? I don’t think anyone knows. I for one do not believe in the (expressed) absolute truth. The perceived truth will only be in the eyes of the beholder. Oh, there are so many analogies to quantum mechanics, but let us stay out of that one. Look up Schrödinger’s cat as an example.

Back to the conference, during which I was listening to a panel at SXSW with amongst other Clay Shirky and Deborah Schultz talking about the future publishing model. Once again the discussion between the panel and the audience ended up being polarized. “We should have free publishing. No. We should keep the old model. We need to safe the publishers.”

Hmm. I both understand and don’t understand why we find comfort in the extremes. The world, the media industry is not black and white. It is gray. It will be gray. Embrace it. Move on. Just accept it.

One of the comments from the audience on the publishing models were: “What purpose do you [publishers] serve in the future since you can’t be a filter anymore? That’s why you’re disappearing.”. I guess I see his point, but he is still wrong in my eyes. The “we-against-them” mentality will not work. It will never work. Maybe it is easier to think it would, but it is not. It is actually inhibiting to the process we need to carry out.

It was a bit symptomatic for the whole conference.

Ultimately I think and hope that we now start to think about the new identity of the media industry. How it will change and should change. Why it has to change. Find comfort in the change and see it as the shade of a plant.

I do believe SXSW is the right place for these paradigm shift thoughts and ideas. It would be embraced by the audience. The attitude of the conference participants were forward-thinking and open. They wanted to change. They wanted to innovate. They believed.

Let us find the shade of the plant that grows our future.

Ombra mai fù
di vegetabile,
cara ed amabile,
soave più.

Never has there been a shade
of a plant
more dear and lovely,
or more gentle.

Google Search Results – A Place for Alternative Voices?

150 150 eriks

I read this post at the OnlineJournalismBlog that covers a post from the It raises a few very interesting questions, but the primary one is whether Google Search Results Pages are really the right place for alternative voices? However do alternative voices have another good outlet is the second question you have to ask yourself?

First of all Google’s business is primarily designed to get revenue from SEM (Search Engine Marketing), and the nature of PageRank is specifically designed to make the most reputable voices (i.e. websites) heard first. Diversity will disappear though per definition. It is kind of intended (somewhat simplified). Originally to make informative, on-point search results. However you get the trust, but will effectively filter out the diversity and weaker voices.

The second issue is that a search result page (and Google’s in particular) is designed to show clear, on-point single entries. It shows you The Answer. Nothing wrong with that but diversity comes from several answers. :-)

Now over the the more interesting question: Is a search engine the “right” place for a diverse media outlet? I would say no. The irony however is that the technology behind a search engine can be used for it, but the purpose of a search engine is not inline with the presentation of alternative, diverse voices. It is a complex topic indeed, but once again brings up the issues we have seen presented in the movie EPIC 2014. I know, I know. It is a very common link in all my blogs, but it is so on-point and highlights the challenges we have right now pretty well.

I guess we have to start asking ourselves what type of media outlet we would like to see in the future and who that actors on this new media arena will be. My bet is not a Google Search Result Page is the right place for it, and probably never will be in the traditional sense. Can Google be an actor? Sure, but I doubt that too. It would be sidestepping their core business.

The most common failure of any community site

150 150 eriks

The challenge is to as a company be open and diverse in itself, as well as really listen to the community. I have seen so many community sites fail because they try to stick down their own beliefs, preconceptions and opinions down the throat of their community. Or even worse speak about themselves in the sense of “I did this…” or “I did that…”. Self-glorification should be banned from any representative for the company, and constant self-reflection strongly recommended. Ask yourself this. Which party would you go to? The one where the host/hostess only want to show off, or the party in the park where it is come as you are and you feel like one with the group.

Inviting a community is “simple”, yet one of the most challenging things to attempt. It is about realizing that what you as a community site think is completely non-important. You have to genuinely speak, think and breath community in all your interaction and realize that communities are not built, they are invited. It is not about design. It is not about functionality. It is about people. People come if they feel connected and invited. You have to realize that you are but only a part of the community. You have to become the community.

Think of your role as a company as being the shepherd. Your role is to keep the sheep together and to find them grass and leafs to eat. Telling the sheep how to be sheep doesn’t really work or make sense. Yet so many community sites try to do that.