All in Social Media/Web 2.0

Debate about the future of newspapers won't die for some time yet I think . . . at least among journalists, news media watchers, some bloggers and Clay Shirky.

Roy Greenslade on Greenslade Blog wrote this week on newspapers and magazines charging for their online content. Greenslade's title alone raises the key question: "Paid content is all the rage with US publishers - but where's the proof that anyone will pay?"

I chuckled over the comment from Steven Brill, founder of Journalism Online, in the piece that JO "has helped shift the debate over charging for online news from 'if' to 'when and how'" because beleaguered publishers have moved past the "abstract debate" to agree that paid content is the way ahead." (JO's goal is to help them get there.)

Now there's a shock right? Publishers think the solution to declining print revenues is to charge people for accessing onlne content.

Megan McArdlein The Atlantic online framed the debate marvellously this way "The problem besetting newspapers is not that there are hordes of bloggers giving it away for free . . . Even if every newspaper and magazine in the country entered into a binding cartel agreement not to put more than a smidgen of free content on their websites, newspapers would still be losing money, and closing by the dozens.  It's the economics, stupid . . . We're witnessing the death of a business model."

So how exactly is pushing people to pay for online content recognizing, as people like Shirky and McArdle (and dozens of others) have been rightly trying to point out, that the paid online content model which has been tried many times before will not revive the fortunes of "old" media.

Some bickering broke out this week between Michael Arrington at TechCrunch and the folks at Twitter about some documents leaked to Mr. Arrington and then published in a column/post. I haven't been following the chatter about it, but there is a good summary at Social Media Today.

What caught my eye from Amy Mengel's report was this comment:

"But, let’s all remember that bloggers, like Arrington, aren’t journalists. They don’t operate under a professional code of ethics. they don’t report to an editor or publisher who tells them what to write about or what they can or can’t reveal. Many of them are ethical, many of them are former journalists, many of them would have chosen not to publish the documents."

Separate from the facts or otherwise of the particular events (now heading to the courts apparently), the question in my mind is this: When does a blogger who writes for a group-edited blog become de facto a journalist and perhaps subject to the same standards of ethical conduct to which journalists are expected to adhere (to the extent that they do in reality anyway)?

Wikipedia describes Mr. Arrington -- a lawyer -- as a "founder/co-editor" of TechCrunch. Many think of TechCrunch as an online news source. So, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck . . . ?

Social media pundits are often critical of bloggers who devote too much of their digital space to referring to the posts of others. It is looked on as a form of solipsistic hackery.

But from time to time a writer posts something that is so to our advantage that it makes the charge worth bearing. So here goes.

Euan Semple, a fine writer and an intelligent, relaxed speaker (I heard him at an IPRA conference in London about three years ago) starts a short post with this almost axiomatic observation on the resistance of some in business (and to a frightful extent many communicators) to social computing:

"On an almost daily basis I am faced with someone asking me to tell them the return on investment of social computing in business or proclaiming that Twitter is all about people telling us what they had for breakfast. These interactions are always delivered in a particular tone -- at best pompous, at worst sneering and condescending."

Read the rest of the post here and be delighted that someone is pointing out what a waste of time - and how counterproductive - such conceit is.

Lots of juicy factoids and information today that add a little more to my thinking on new communication memes:

  • Twitter_logo_header Of the many striking statistics in a report called 'Inside Twitter' out of Canada's Sysomos people, this one stands out for evidence of the sheer stupidity of the hordes who now call themselves  'social media consultants': "Of people who identify themselves as social media marketers, 65.5% have never posted an update (on Twitter)."  I guess they just can't be bothered . . . or don't have time?
  • To be filed under the tab 'Public Relations Through the Rear View Mirror', according to an article today in the Ottawa Citizen Canada's National Defence HQ has a new 'conduit' approach to public relations (in which all media questions are funneled through public affairs staff, with the journalist never allowed to speak to a subject matter expert directly) that the writer calls the 24 DAY news cycle: "Into this brave new world of hyper-speed news gathering, NDHQ has rolled out what I’ve termed, the “24-day news cycle. Yes, 24 days…..That’s about the length of time I figure that it takes NDHQ to answer a question from the news media…..if it is answered at all."

  • Bear with me on this one. Those who follow me on Twitter will know that as a native 'Geordie' I am an ardent -- and frustrated, some would say foolish -- supporter of the Newcastle United football club, formerly of the English Premier League now relegated to tier two football as a result of an abysmal season this past year. Thankfully, the owner has put the club up for sale (at 0,,10278~3488677,00 about US$200 million). Before he did so, he published a statement in which he said "I'm sorry" about four or five times. Frankly, it sounded hollow given Ashley's unwillingness to invest in the club and his lack of commitment to its success in spite of having one of the most loyal fan bases of any football club. The lesson here is simple . . . saying 'Im sorry' in a crisis is not enough. An apology has to be backed up by action to resolve the underlying problem. In this case, the owner getting out is the right move, although that is not counsel I would give to many CEOs.

  • Finally, this about philanthropic giving . . . "Today, the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP) shares a first-look at results from its annual philanthropy survey of nearly 140 leading companies, revealing that 53% of companies increased their total philanthropic donations in 2008, and 27% increased their giving by more than 10% year-over-year." So things are not as bad as the CR critics would have us believe.

More Fortune 500 companies are blogging, but the pace of growth is still shall we say restrained.

The full results of a study by Dr. Nora Ganim Barnes, Ph.D. and Eric Mattson, CEO of Financial Insite Inc., a Seattle-based research firm are available here and a summary of the key findings are in a news release by the Society for New Communications Research.

Of the findings posted in yesterday's statement, here are few of particular interest:

  • 81 of the Fortune 500 or 16% currently have public-facing blogs, compared with 39 percent of the Inc. 500, 41 percent of the higher education sector and 57 percent of the nation’s Top 200 Charities.
  • 28 percent of the Fortune 500’s blogs link to Twitter accounts
  • 90 percent of the Fortune 500’s blogs have the comments feature enabled

Thanks to a colleague with a personal blog here (really good, especially if you like indie music), I took a look at a CBC report of a blogging campaign targeted at pushing the song of an independent band to the top of the iTunes charts, bypassing the major record labels. The campaign -- called Bum Rush the Charts -- asks people to purchase a copy of the song Mine Again, by the alt-rock band Black Lab, at the iTunes Store on March 22nd.

Says podcaster Mark Yoshimoto Nemcoff, the campaign organizer, "Taking an artist like Black Lab and making them No. 1 on the [iTunes] charts would be making a statement. It would be like giving the music industry the finger.”  On Nemcoff's blog (here), he describes the motivation behind the campaign as creating a social movement: "Podcasting gets little respect from traditional media. To them we're little more than a joke, than amateurs. What they don't understand is that podcasting is more than just a delivery mechanism - it's a social movement."

Since I'm personally (let me tell you about my background sometime) and professionally (our clients can sometimes be the benefactors or objects of these campaigns) fascinated with the potential of such social movements finding a home online, I will be watching to see how viral this becomes. Stay tuned. 

The final episode in Ira Basen's Spin Cycles series is a bit of a schmozzle (not to be confused with 'schlimazel' which refers to someone who is inept), a mix of the habitual juvenile sniping at public relations (especially agencies who create those corporately funded front groups or astroturf organizations that propogate "junk science"; Basen's example is Friends of Science,) some thumping of his colleagues in the media for being merely the "stenographers" of the powerful, and more unchallenged commentary by the Center for Media and Democracy, an organization that can spin with the best of them. Frankly, though, Basen finally hits a couple of home runs -- well, maybe infield singles -- in this episode:

Idea One:

Public relations professionals, and many companies, need to do some soul searching about our efforts to deny, or support the denial of, the impact of carbon emissions on climate. Basen claims "Audiences were led to believe there was a meaningful debate (over carbon emissions and climate change) within the scientific community long after there ceased to be one." Evidence now suggests this might be the case . . . see the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change and the Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change.

Idea Two:

Social media represent in the words of Richard Edelman as heard on Spin Cycles "the wisdom of the crowd . . . the cacophony of participation." While still in its infancy, and suffering from childish bouts of self-absorption and silly pop culture pre-occupations, social media hold out hope as a replacement for retreating journalistic integrity and independence. I would argue that legitimate, intelligent, curious, and investigative bloggers may now become the "estate" for asking questions of power. George Pitcher, the author of The Death of Spin, says to escape spin we need a more vigorous public sphere: social media may be that sphere.

Idea Three:

Basen offers up two commentators who provide some truly interesting texture to discussions about the future of journalism and the role of public relations. Jay Rosen argues there is potential for a natural convergence of social media and journalism. His own blog, while dense, is focused on a fascinating idea: "The people who will invent the next press in America--and who are doing it now online--continue an experiment at least 250 years old. It has a powerful social history and political legend attached."

Julia Hobsbawn even accepts a role for public relations in this new convergence. To get the best sense of her ideas, don't bother listening to the audio which suffers from Basen's prejudicial subjectivity: her transcipt interview here is more instructive about her views and provides some evidence about what has been wrong with this whole series . . .

"But I also think it's worth emphasizing that journalism also has its paymaster. It's extremely rare for journalism not to have an actual expectation of bias in some quarters or an institutional bias. Now I don't mean that is to say that all journalism is coloured but what I do mean is that editorials and comment pieces are bias and that they're absolutely standard in many newspapers and broadcasters, that a certain kind of coverage will be given to one thing and not another. So I think we have to be, at the very least, philosophical and . . . quite apart from anything else, getting a bit more real about the actual differences between the moral parameters of PR and the moral parameters of journalism."

Hobsbawn's comments -- be philosophical; get real -- underscore the chief failings, on balance, of the Spin Cycles series. It allowed prejudice about public relations to get in the way of exploring the complexities of transparency and truth in the information-sharing industries. It assumed a fundamental moral superiority to broadcast and newspaper journalism corrupted now by political and business spin, and a basic bankruptcy to the whole concept of public relations now simply more slick and manipulative. And it looked at the nature of the new online demos and its "cacophony of participation" with the same unfortunate cynical, even dismissive, tone that it approached most of the major questions about communication in our age. 

Comment, argument, disagreement and, of course, praise about my assessment more than welcome.

I read on someone's blog -- I know, I should have saved it so that I could post it here -- that IBM has a central blog dashboard in which IBMers now can find more than 3,600 blogs written by their co-workers. Apparently as of June 13 there were 3,612 internal blogs with 30,429 posts. I gather that these internal blogs are still being tested, but the number of them is growing rapidly. They cover everything from water cooler talk to discussions about IBM's business strategies. With this kind of evidence, it seems almost self-evident that even people working for one of the world's largest technology enterprises still feel the need for "connection".

Debate on public policy should find a natural outlet in the demos of social media. It is a stage set ready made for the presentation and exploration of complex ideas (maybe best in single rather than multiple acts.) Of course, social media also require commitment to engagement at a minimum and dialogue at best, which timid or over-academic think tanks might find a little menacing. 

Nevertheless, I have asked our research department to help find and analyze best practices of North American think tanks with respect to their use of various social media -- including blogs and podcasts -- as a forum for engaging with their audiences about the ideas they research and present . . . although I assume we can rule out You Tube as a popular  infrastructure for releasing white papers.

If any one can direct me towards a think tank or academic center that is using social media well as tools for the presentation and discussion of focused ideas (other than those U.S. think tanks which seem to specialize in the interminable discussion of the minutiae of popular politics), I would love to know about them. Post a comment and link if you don't mind.  


Having tried on a number of occasions to argue with clients and friends about social media, social computing, citizen journalism and their collective impact on how we are talking and creating differently, I have more often than not been met by blank stares. I suspect it is the same genre of blank stare that faced people who made a passionate case ten years ago about the new 'paradigm' (They likely used that beleaguered word.) to which email, e-commerce and webcasts gave birth. Evidently, there are many clients and even colleagues who don't seem to get it.

So, why the incredulity? Well, a light went on the other day when I was scanning some posts on Alexandra Samuel's blog --Social Signal -- that linked me to the online Netsquared conference. I parsed the posts and chats and realized I was labouring to understand what was actually being said . . . a problem I often have whenever I read posts by bloggers on blogging. (Let me say that I learn a great deal from Alexandra even if I sometimes need a 'Blogging for Dummies' book beside my keyboard or phone as I read or speak with her.) 

I'll admit it . . . I don't fully understand the infrastructure of 'tags' and 'tagging', am fuzzy about 'tag clouds', know too little about how wiki's work, prefer the word 'taxonomy' to 'folksonomy', know the function of RSS but wouldn't know how to use it, and find 'del.ici.ous' (Do I have the periods in the right place?) pointless. So am I, a relatively active professional and personal blogger, and all those incredulouous corporate communications types, simply dense or a Luddite?

Frankly, I don't think so. The language of many who are enagaged and passionate about social media production has becomie increasingly insular, self-referential and, dare I say it, almost cultish. The language of Web 2.0 is unnecessarily obscure . . . almost as if some bloggers who blog about blogging are satisifed just to speak to each other about it, and not proselytize in an idiom that actually explains and teaches.

Those of us who believe social media and social computing strategies should increasingly stand side-by-side with traditional communication program approaches will have to find a lexis to describe the technology components that encourages abductive (a lovely word I learned today at  Rotman Business School conference on creativity which means 'the logic of what could be') reasoning about these new models among audiences. Cute terms like 'tag clouds' and 'folksonomy' simply push people away.

When the language of social media creation becomes less self-referential, less murky, more self-evident, then we will have an easier time convincing organizations and companies of the logic and merit of engaging in the online conversation. 

Next week I will be in London for the International Public Relations Association (IPRA) Summit. Although at the Summit as a paying attendee, I will be facilitating something called a "champagne roundtable" around the issue of social media and its impact on issue management strategies.

I suggested the topic because I am hoping to learn whether the phenomenon of social media as a connector and driver of new communications strategies is as global as those of us engaged with it believe . . . or hope. There are some top notch speakers and program subject areas during the conference, but not much focus on digital communications in general or social media in particular at least that I can see.

So, my roundtable may be an outlier, sparsely attended and, therefore, featuring a surfeit of champagne which I will feel compelled to consume! Nevertheless, I promise to report on the outcome fully and with appropriate sobriety. 

At another conference at which I presented last week (Yes, I do a lot of public speaking on behalf of Hill & Knowlton Canada), I again asked the audience of communicators whether anyone blogged. Not one person put up their hand. This is the third time I have asked that question of a conference audience, which means there at least 60 professional communicators in Canada who haven't even tried blogging. 

Given how easy it is to get started, what's the problem? I'm not sure: Fear of the medium? Confusion about its impact? Not enough time to care? Surely, though, it can't be because they need more evidence of its efficacy as a method of talking directly with people who care about a subject, an idea or problem -- dialogue with stakeholders as we like to call it. Ask Dell or GM. 

Again this morning, an article in our national newspaper provides evidence of another case in point. A Canadian petrochemical company created a series of "pump talk" videos with employees exlaining why gas prices rise and fall, as they have a propensity to do daily. The videos were posted on YouTube and on the company's web site. Since August 1st, there have been 350,000 downloads of the videos! Even assuming repeat downloads by the same individual, that's a hell of a lot of people the company has reached with its message . . . people who have self-selected engagement with the company's point of view.

I am an issue manager, so my interest is not in the ways social media can be used to influence buying behaviour. But I would be less than responsible to my clients if I didn't recognize -- and try to get my mind around -- how a direct connection can be made and conversation started with an audience that simply couldn't be reached before without some form of intermediation. 

Toronto business lawyer and active blogger Ron Hyndman wrote this weekend about what he calls "content discontent", a feeling he has that some blog prose is getting stale in part because "of the common attitude that to get one’s traffic up (a common web 2.0 mantra, it seems) one needs to 'blog early and blog often'." His later explanation is probably more on the mark; It's August; it's hard to care too much. Never mind . . .  the kids will soon be back at school (for my two sons -- university), and time -- like price in economics -- will become more elastic. It will, won't it? 

Some Wednesday morning links with purpose . . .

Iran's rather odd president has commissioned a "nuclear symphony" inspired by the country's push to become a nuclear power. It will debut next week. The argument that culture is politics has been given new credibility.

According to an article in New Scientist, researchers at Newcastle University discovered that simply placing a photograph of a pair of eyes next to a box where people paid for their coffee or tea on the honor system resulted in triple the amount paid for the beverages. CSR practitioners may now have a new tool at their disposal to ensure responsible corporate conduct.

A young man in Santa Cruz, California was so affected by a screeening of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth he decided everyone should see it. So he established an online process by which he is encouraging people who want to help others to see the movie to donate to a PayPal account. These funds will then be used to offer free admission to people who can't afford the ticket price. The web site is fascinating because he descibes the chronology of his decision to undertake the campaign, the building of the site and registering the domain, creating an activity log, etc. It is a chronicle of individual citizen activism.


I am delighted to see that Business Week's Robert Hof agrees with me about the somewhat abstruse nature of Web 2.0 language. After nodding to its language "peculiarities", he goes on to argue that  "For all its appeal to the young and wired, Web 2.0 may end up making its greatest impact on business", and later quotes Canada's own Don Tapscott on a similar note.

The article is a primer on how companies are trying to get their minds around the idea of the folksonomy of online conversation (Yes, I do know what it means . . . although I think the descriptive power of the word extends beyond its Wikipedia defintion of a community-oriented way of categorizing Web content) and its application to management and business strategy. Read it for verification that we are on to something here.

With all due respect to my colleagues who practice government relations, political parties seldom lead when it comes to communication strategies, preference being given to door-to-door campaigning, legacy media relations and staged debates.

When it comes to web strategies, however, political campaigns -- in the US at least -- seem to be one step ahead of many corporate communications departments in taking full measure of the web as a campaign tool. A recent report by The Bivings Group on the 2006 US Senatorial campaign found that 97% of the candidates had live web sites. Most sites were used to provide a combination of news, biography, online donations, etc. However, a large minority of the candidate sites offered blogs, multimedia presentations, RSS feeds and downloads  

The key word here is "campaign". Political campaigns are engagements . . . with citizens and opponents (and sometimes with staff). Engaging with voters and making them feel part of a decision process is essential to a successful election effort.

Now, think about it. Aren't corporate issue management programs actually campaigns in which the company hopes to engage stakeholders, communities, regulators and the public at large in understanding its point of view on a problem? If so, then it seems self-evident that corporate issue managers should be watching closely -- even adopting -- new online information management and dialogue facilitation strategies being employed increasingly by political parties.

A few weeks ago, I posted a short comment on potential uses of wikis as a means of creating collaborative engagement between a company and its communities, for example in the development of a regional environmental strategy.

Well, I just finished reading an article by Andrew McAffee in MIT Sloan Management Review called Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration which carries the same theme into positing new ways for companies to use Web 2.0 technologies to create and manage knowledge.

His thesis quite simply is that 'old' knowledge management platforms such as intranets will be replaced by group authorship -- mediated by blogs, wikis, tagging etc. -- which make "an episode of knowledge work widely and permanently visible." With Web 2.0 technologies you not only get the results of knowledge work stored in a searchable fashion, but you also get the process of creating the knowledge made observable.

His conclusion . . . "Enterprise 2.0 technologies have the potential to usher in a new era by making both the practices of knowledge work and its outputs more visible. Because of the challenges these technologies bring with them, there will be significant differences in companies' abilities to exploit them. Because of the opportunities the technologies bring, these differences will matter a great deal."

Exactly the same can be said of companies which choose -- or do not choose -- to explore how Web 2.0 technologies might change their relationship with their external stakeholders.  

Politics and economics aside, I will buy the whole book.

I am talking about a book praised lavishly by Lawrence Lessig called The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom by Yochai Benkler.

How do I know I will buy the book? Because it can be read for free under a Creative Commons License and very early this morning I downloaded and skimmed three chapters . . .  Chapter 6  Political Freedom Part 1: The Trouble with Mass Media; Chapter 7 Political Freedom Part 2: Emergence of the Networked Public Sphere; and Chapter 10: Networking Together. It is an academic exegesis of the impact of the shifts in politics, business, culture, and music being wrought by networks and digitally intermediated social connectedness.

I might have stepped right by the book at my local bookshop had I not been able to read a few chapters over early morning coffee. Hence my praise of Benkler and Yale University Press' willingess to make it available for donwload.