Erik Sundelöf

entrepreneur, thinker and Swede

The Myth and Mystery of Social Media

150 150 eriks

“Pfff! Social Media. Hah! I tell you what. It amazes me how people are always trying to reinvent the wheel… Social media is nothing else but a bunch of hot air. It is a creation of a whole lot of nothing.”

I guess as usual there are some truth to it, but mostly I would say it is a rather pessimistic way of looking at it. To me it seems as if many have the attitude to social sciences in general, that it is gibberish, hot air just talk. Nothing can be more than wrong. In all innovation processes you have different stages. Conceptualization is one of the more crucial one. Breakthroughs in history comes wen people start to think outside the box, and not get caught up in a set of preset rules or old mindsets. I refer to think the glass is half-full rather than the half-empty glass mindset that the comment above breaths together with an unnecessary conservatism. In general what this world need is more people, who believe things can be done and that change is good. We have enough pessimists and road blockers already. :-)

Nevertheless, if I would get a nickel for every time I hear that comment, I could retire young. :-) The argument is actually pretty easy to face without much trouble. Social media is a bit funny in a way. Everyone has their opinion on it. The truth in the statement is but only that the intention of the web very much resonates with what what the father of the web’s Tim Berners-Lee intended with the creation of the web.

The original thought of the web really is connecting people and information. The creator of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee writes in the second paragraph of his book ”Weaving the web” where he explains his thoughts around the creation: ”The vision I have for the Web is about anything being potentially connected to anything. It is a vision that provides us with new freedom, and allows us to grow faster than we ever could when we were fettered by the hierarchical classification systems into which we bound ourselves. It leaves the entirety of our previous ways of working as just one tool among many. And it brings the workings society closer to the workings of our minds.”

Interesting enough but a bit off topic, he continues one paragraph afterwards: ”The irony is that in all its guises – commerce, research and surfing – the Web is already so much a part of our lives that familiarity has clouded our perception of the Web itself. To understand the Web in the broadest and deepest sense, to fully partake the vision that I and my colleagues share, one must understand how the Web came to be.”

Let us for a moment also remember why this process has taken time. As in all businesses the market and business forces are strong and sometimes cloud the vision and intention of the product. This is very much the case for the web, but do remember that for the web we have had a lot of technology constraints. The growth of multimedia component (Flash, Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro, iMovie, MovieMaker), client side frameworks for JS, HTML/CSS, faster server side prototype languages such as PHP, Ruby on Rails, information retrieval (especially contextual analysis) to mention some have made it possible to create the social sites we now see coming.

The shift from normal, traditional software or media to the very lively, organic and interactive social software or media. More people inside the tech sphere start to realize that in order to build social software (and working inside open-source projects) you need to understand that the word ’social’ is there for a reason. Duh? Yes it is there for a reason. Yeah, the pain. I have to admit that developing social media application is notoriously hard. You have to constantly think of the social part of the application, which is hard when you are dealing with ones and zeros. You forget that the most important part of the application is to foster the human element. I guess it is as simple as I put it in a tribute to the 15 year anniversary blog of the World Wide Web: “…that successful and sustainable technology solutions all fulfill true needs of real people.”

Before we come in to the real address the quote in specific, let us look at some basics of social media. I covered this in more details in the blog The Social Web also known as Web 2.0.

Most people are a bit reckless when they discuss the social web and forget to really define what they mean by it. A bit simplified the new version of the web or the social web. Dear child have many names ya know. Yet I usually summarize this new “beast” in these bullets:

  • Connected (one-to-many, many-to-one, many-to-many)
  • Stupid yet smart technology
  • Inexpensive
  • Human
  • Immediate
  • Ubiquitous

Now that is not that difficult. Right? It is frickin’ awesome too.

Back to the quote keeping this single points in mind. It amazes me how people are always trying to reinvent the wheel… It is very true that social media is doing very little to the originality of the vision of the internet. However, are social media advocates really trying to reinvent the wheel? Nope, they are trying to shape it different, make it more accessible, making the vision more clear. Making the vision transparent. If you would say that social media advocates would be trying to reinvent the wheel, you are also saying that any reshaping for instance by a tire manufacturer of their products would be reinventing the tire. SHaped different using different material it is still a tire.

Is it a bunch of hot air? Maybe, maybe not. I am not sure I am a big supporter of fundamentalism n any concept so keeping balance in mind is true of course. However, the statement in itself have raised what needs to be raised. if anything just the pure reaction in the statement to the notion of concept social media means that it is not anything but hot air. All of a sudden a discussion arises whether the web is changing or not. If it has stayed the same. If it is new. If it is evolving. I do agree that over use of terms like social media dilutes the core of the concept as it becomes harder to grasp what it is all about.

On a broader note: It doesn’t really matter what term we use. What matter is that we look upon the products, society or in fact anything we have in critical minds and see if we can improve. If using social media as an example accomplish part of that so be it. If anything, the term does group a set of different applications together and get a term to use to discuss it. Ironically it is an old known methodology to conceptualize new areas.

The concept of editor driven media is outdated!

150 150 eriks

“Hey now, we cannot just put up citizen reports. That is just not possible! Let us have a separate page for the people who are interested in this in particular. Oh, and we need to control every entry too.”

The comment above is heard way too often in the traditional media news rooms around the world. I think it is a road blocking mentality for change of the media arena, that is prohibiting the media to move into the next obvious phase – the symbiosis between the social media and the traditional media. I said this very early that it is the right way to take this. Anyhow. It is both hard and extremely easy to understand the reasons. The main reason that explains it all is that it is stepping out of the comfort zone. It is about redefining the space. If you want to use some hotter business development terms, it is the blue ocean strategy. Define the new market. Innovate it. Create it. The ride of your life to be honest! Stepping out of the comfort zone is something most people dread, fear or are uncomfortable doing. It is broadening your views to something else. Something never seen. It is about taking the risk. I guess it is a survival instinct. Never divert from the known path. Boooring!

I got news for you, my friend. The media arena is already redefined. Sorry guys. The unedited, unmediated, unfiltered real community-based media is here. It has been redefined for ages. It is more a matter of having the guts to move into it. Realizing that the change is here. Traditional media will not. Many bloggers will not realize this either. It is my content. Me, me, me… Sorry guys, but the community model is here to stay and it is pretty hard to fight. Remember that the music industry is still pursuing the war against file sharing. Not taking any sides in it, I doubt it is the right tactics. In the forces you learn one thing: Adapt and move on. Evolution says the same thing: The species which adapt to the new environment will survive. It is the survival of the fittest. We live in a market economy where the consumer is getting more and more power so you better adapt as a business. In a highly competitive market as the media business you better be willing to innovate. YouTube did it for video. Flickr did it for pictures. Wikipedia did it for facts. It has now come to bringing all these pieces together and turn this upside down.

Will you take the red or blue pill? I for one prefer the travel down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.

Stepping back a bit again. The bloggers attitude of “walled garden” is maybe the most surprising of them all. They should have realized that the media today is conversational. It is interactive. It is free. I am still waiting for an answer from such a blogger how they believe a conversation is moderated comments. “Wait, I do not approve of this. Let me delete the comment.” How is that an prelongation of freedom of speech in any possible sense? Beats me… Smells censorship to me. Sure it is, but yet not. It is the bloggers page so she or he will have the “right” to control it. But shouldn’t it be another way? It sure is another way…

What?! You cannot be for real Erik. How can you possibly say that you cannot have moderation of content?

Okay, this is almost too easy to answer to. The first reason is the most obvious one. Controlled, edited and mediated forums are a direct opposite of freedom of speech. As long as you provide the community(!) with the power to control oversteps of this right if someone posts abusive or copyright violating material you are and will be fine. Secondly, people in general want to be entertained. They want to have fun. They want to feel that tickling feeling of fulfillment, entertainment and escape from the very often dull everyday life. Oops, I let out the secret that the every day life is not a party. Sorry about that. :-) Seriously, most people do not worry about more things than having food on their table, roof over their heads and being able to hang out with their friends and dear ones. What has that to do with moderation? Simply imagine 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.

You have to be able to relate to the media you consume. It has to be human. You realize now that media is not about what you think others think. It is about bringing that human face to the story with all its warts, dirt and shit. But it is real. It is authentic. It is genuine. It is the real story. Not perfect, but relatable.

Hey now! Stop it. Halt. Wait a minute! What about credibility? What about quality control? Come on! Are you for real? Yikes, Erik…

Of course you need credibility. To make it credible you need to make it non-biased.

How can you accomplish that? Do you really think you can assure anyone not to be biased? Nooo way!

You cannot assure that, but can assure that the end result is non biased. For that you will need three components: technology, community and a reputation feedback loop of the contributors and content creators. That is all you need. The technology should be used to find related stories such as news articles and blogs. That will give a measurement of how much content on the web is relevant to the report. It bring a sense of validation via aggregation and coordination, and is the Google like validation. The community or readers to which the report is presented should be able to rate it up or down, and/or add content and perspectives to it. This brings in the Wikipedia or Digg like validation. In a way you enable the community as a whole to become an editor. Not the sole editor, but will have the vote. You create the UN Security Counsel for content. :-) The user reputation is easily understood. Take any group of people. You will find a natural sense of credibility of who says what. Some people are more well read in certain areas, some in others, but basically who the person saying (ie reporting) something is matters for its validity. Making all these three cornerstones play together will bring out a new dimension of content validation, and is a very scalable model for user generated sites. The secret is in the dynamics between these there components. As you bring all perspectives together you will provide all biased opinions, but together they will give you a new picture that is non-biased as you show all the perspectives. Now that is frickin’ cool.

Yes, it is that simple. This is also how http://www.allvoices.com handles the validation of content. It is new, it is fresh and never seen before. The really cool part is that you then will be able to provide the readers with multiple perspectives, weaving all the angles of a story and present it to the reader.

Now that is sweet.

The New Media Arena

150 150 eriks

“I have been thinking that the newspapers have got it right! Only the popular topics gets all the hits… The rest get… well… just the spill overs.”

He is right on one part, but oh so wrong…

The news papers and media in the US today predominantly covers entertainment news, and very little international news. In Feburary 2007, the coverage was around 79% US news. The remaining 21% was dominated by coverage of the situation in Iraq. Here is the really scary part: “The combined coverage of Russia, China and India, for example, reached just 1%.” We all know about the BRIC countries and their influence over the world economy today and in the future. Does it really make sense to have such a infinitesimal coverage of these big forces? Not to mention the non-existing coverage of the natural resource intense fourth BRIC country Brazil. I won’t go in to a international policy discussion about the reasons behind it here, even though it is an interesting angle.

The world becomes more and more flat. The borders – geographical, political, ethnical, cultural and religious – are becoming more and more fuzzy to even non-existing. We are living in a global society. The issues we have to tackle are predominantly global and multifaceted. They have to be solved and understood by us all, together as one society. At the same time the media who should cover this is decreasing their international covering staff by around 50% already. We are witnessing a very dangerous development from a societal growth perspective.

I came to Stanford back in 2005 with the task to figure out ways to increase the coverage in troubled areas and it became obvious that the web as a distribution channel was not the issue. It was the lack of coverage of the events taking place. The few journalists there were getting killed, threaten or in some way worse stopped from covering the events on-the-ground. Today in the US we see an increasing number of unemployed, in many ways suffering core of journalist, photographers, video makers and other media workers. The industry is seriously wounded. Any organism, organization or company will in the state of being wounded turn to survival mode and the quick fix. It is about surviving for the moment. Go for the easy win. In here lies the reasons for the media business trend, as well as we as consumers have very few other alternatives at the moment.

The reality however is that the web has forever changed the possible revenue models for news papers and the media business in general. The music industry got their piece of this change first. The time has come for the news media business to realize that the era of the traditional media is gone. A lot of the revenue streams have for news companies come from either the classified (in the printed editions) or for the big news agencies syndication of content. Look at Reuters for instance who earn their revenue from financial data, not their news arm, where you need accurate massaged data to make balanced and accurate decisions. Syndication is an ancient, today non-working and dysfunctional solution. The freedom of content – both on the publishing and consumption side – on the web these days make syndication notoriously hard, or let us be honest impossible in the traditional sense. The news media industry is starting to realize this fact.

Syndication models work well if you have access to purely unique content for which people are willing to pay for. These days you have to have the emotional and human touch to it. It needs to have that little extra. It needs the entertainment value. Content has a life cycle of it’s own and the value of content is pretty much built up by it’s freshness (how breaking is the content), how unique is it, and how emotional the content is. Breaking news content will always be in high demand. The life time and stickiness of the content increases as you add supporting material such as context and opinions, and provide the audience with the capability of interacting with the content.

Wait a minute! Can you not get this via a traditional media model? Sure you can, but it will cost you as content creation is incredibly expensive. It will cost you, it will cost you a lot. You will have large head counts, which lead to large expenses, and the margins for content are not there anymore. Charging for content clearly does not work in the web era where everything should be free, at least on the surface. Should it be free? That’s another question, but it is naive to think that will change either. The unconstrained, immediate distribution of content online have set a stage where you need small slim organizations, that let the content flow freely. The era of the “walled gardens” is forever over, even though the cellphone business is still stubbornly fighting this trend. Remarkably, even the cellphone industry has started to realize the absurdness of the fight, and probably already realize that it is lost already. The model for the future has been set. We as a media consumption society shaped it- for good and bad.

The option left is to adapt as in all paradigm shifts. We should just realize that we have entered a completely new era of media. A more exciting. A more dynamic. A more un-predictable. A more interactive. Yeah! Where do I buy the ticket to tag along on the ride? I want in on this ride!

How do you do this? You turn to multipurpose, flexible and moldable solutions. This is surely nothing new as all big changes throughout history have come from such solutions. You have the steam engine. Multipurpose. You have the PC. Multipurpose device. You have Microsoft Office (regardless what you think of Microsoft). A multipurpose package to solve most of your needs. On the web you have YouTube. A multipurpose video sharing site. You also have Flickr. A multipurpose photo site. The list goes on. Now in here the opportunity lies. The opportunity of changing the news business to something the world has never seen before. The opportunity is to create a multipurpose news media platform where anyone can publish, any one can share any piece of content and anyone can discuss it? The opportunity is the creation of a multipurpose news platform. To use some buzz words the ultimate social media mashup experience. Wouldn’t that be awesome and cool? It sure would be.

Now to the really, really cool part. It exists. I will get back to why after I have laid out some of the main issues you face in any long tail media application or site.

First, let us take a brief look at the coverage issues laid out initially about the skewed news coverage in the US. The main issue with the traditional media model is that is completely incapable of catching the long tail market of any component of the long tail. Again the cost is one of the main reasons, but also the traditional editor model will never be able handle the vast amount of content produced in the long tail. Today’s media market is all about content packaging as the entry barrier for content publishing and creation is in every mans hand. The explosion of cellphones and the incredible growth of the web has enabled anyone to become a reporter, an opinion maker or just enable anyone to share their voice. The birth of citizen reporting or as I see it sharing of their voices and opinions is made possible by the access of publishing technology for no cost especially since web space is incredible cheap these days. The long tail encompasses a lot of challenges such as How do you navigate through the vast amount of information? How do you explain and make the relation between the different content pieces obvious?

Moving forward in the media and news business, the game to play is about content packaging. How do you relate traditional media content and marry it with user generated content and other related content? How do we combine and package this content to make sense out of it and make it digestible for a normal content consumer? Technology is again the answer with the guidance of a community. The main issue throughout time has been to efficiently validate content – user generated or not. Positioning yourself as trying to take on the task of covering the long tail you expose yourself for a large discussion about quality assurance as for any process aiming to substitute humans with machines. In traditional media, human editors have been used as the major part of the content quality assurance process. This is not a scalable solution and never will be a scalable solution. Why? They all rely on a human decision at some stage of the process, and consequently, there will always be a scaling limit even though the associated cost is lowered or at least not increasing. Furthermore the traditional editing model via human editors has furthermore 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 NYT via their photographers during the conflict in Lebanon 2006, as well as the plagiarized and fabricated stories by the NYT-journalist Jayson Blair have really seeded doubts that human editors/journalists are really the solely solution on the long term. Not to mention the issues with the super editors in Wikipedia.

The solution is clearly a never seen combination of Wikipedia and Google. You use the community to drive the content creation and use technology to guide the community and fill the gaps in where the community fails to fill in the gaps. You create the rewarding dance between the community and technology. Letting them interact and learn from each other. The secret lies in a free publishing model together with providing the context via aggregation and contribution and ranking the content based on validating elements.

The solution becomes simple in it’s core, but technology heavy, community and participation intense. It becomes the ultimate mashup between traditional and user generated media. It is allvoices.com (a company I co-founded). Shortly, there are three main components to the site:

  • Report – Anyone can report from anywhere via cellphone or PC, sharing news, images, videos and opinions.
  • Related voices – Weaving together multiple perspectives:
    • News stories
    • Blog posts
    • Images
    • Videos

    via contributors and aggregation.

  • Discuss – Emotionally connect with other voices around the world through discussion and complete the human story.

The free publishing of the Report by any means – web, SMS/MMS or email – is central, especially as it should not be “controlled”, “checked”, or especially edited before it is published. If you share your voice, it should be your voice. When you hit the Post-button, the content should be published. The Related voices is the most technology intense component and is central for the validation of the content. By looking for validating content, the context around the report is also built helping the consumer to understand the report and to fill in any gaps in the report. All these components the human side of the story and the context built up by other users contributions and aggregation will provide the user with the grounds for a well-grounded Discussion. You will have all the angles and opinions right there for you to react on and to share with others. The social networking and community aspect of the news creation, consumption and interaction is central and key. It brings more life to the content and makes it more engaging.

Now that’s cool. Very cool. Especially since it brings the media arena to a new level. A whole new level.

The need for an unedited, un-mediated media forum proven once again…

150 150 eriks

Currently the world have been struck by the events in Tibet, where the recent provocations by the Chinese government has stunned the world once again. As an example for how this interaction can become and how rich the discussion can become here is an example: Tibet is Chinese for Palestine. By reading the comments you see that the whole world is participating in the event and a global dialogue emerges. That is the very cool piece of it.

This is also why this forum is needed where you can express yourself – unedited, unmediated and in context of an event.