Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Listening and following back on Twitter

@johnrobinson: I admit I'm suspicious of media folk who join Twitter, attract 100s of followers & follow only a handful. They're talking but not listening?

@smalljones: @johnrobinson don't fear the followed, they are simply stuck in broadcast mode.

@ryanbruce: @johnrobinson Very few people can pull off not following people. Then they are simply a 140 character newsletter.

@jiconoclast: @johnrobinson I think your instincts are sound. Many media folks see Twitter as just another one-way publication medium.

@robyntomlin: @johnrobinson Agreed. There needs to be give and take or it's just broadcast. Best when it's a conversation.

@johnrobinson: I mean, I love addressing an audience, too, but reading you guys is much, much more entertaining and informative.

@BIF: @johnrobinson To me, the value of Twitter is listening in on what folks are talking about. Plus we've gotten some great stories via tweets.

@kiyoshimartinez: @johnrobinson Dunbar Number reality & having a good signal/noise ratio could be a good reason. Not everyone has equal value to you.

@johnrobinson: @kiyoshimartinez I got that. But 1,000 followers and 32 followed?

@chrislowrance: @johnrobinson Personally speaking, I keep my list short because otherwise I can't keep up with everyone.

This is an old discussion in Twitter years, hashed out by many in the pre-Ashton and pre-Oprah days, but still a stumbling block for some users on Twitter.
It seems particularly difficult for some people in the media, those most likely to consume massive amounts of information and to suffer the guilt of not being able to consume it all.

Some points:
1. No, there are no rules on Twitter. But there is etiquette. Following back is generally accepted good Twitter etiquette.
2. Unread tweets piling up in your Twitter stream are not like unread magazines piling up in your living room. You don't have to feel guilty about failing to consume all the information.
3. Following back on Twitter is not like accepting a connection on Facebook or LinkedIn; it's a looser connection. It's not like following back gives away all your social and personal data, as can happen when you accept a friendship on Facebook. Your words are already out there on Twitter, if you have an unlocked Twitter account and you're trying to broadcast your messages. (Of course, you can always have another, real, friends-and-family private Twitter account.)
4. Half the value of Twitter is for listening and reporting. People cannot send you private, personal messages if you don't follow them back. So if you ever plan to use Twitter for gathering information, asking questions of others that they might not want to answer publicly, you should follow people back. Or if you want to be accessible to people offering you unsolicited information privately, you should follow people back. If you ask a question and seek information, without following people back, you will place a barrier of frustration in front of your sources. Many of them won't try to to get over that barrier.
5. There is a thing as the Dunbar number, a theoretical limit to how many relationships people can sustain. And there is such a thing as a time limit on how much online social networking can fit into a balanced life. And there is such a thing as a tension between broad, shallow networks of contacts and deep, narrow networks of contacts, and even gender differences about what people prefer. Those anthropological and psychological implications are part of the fascination of social networks. You get to choose. But take time to understand the implications of your choices.

Self-promotion: Read more about listening to Twitter and figuring out the Twitter news cycle at twitter cycles.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The big hump in the long tail

Everyone's linking and talking about Clay Shirky's latest thoughts on journalism this weekend. He makes valid points about how news and information have changed in our digital world. He predicts an explosion of experiments and new models to replace news on paper.

He's a big hump in his own long tail in our attention economy, and his words draw attention to a subject near and dear to my heart.

At the same time, I can't help but feel his post is essentially a Cliff's Notes version of Phil Meyer's "The Vanishing Newspaper," written in 2004. Perhaps that's good: His name brings awareness to a new audience.

Still, I worry about the costs in our attention economy. I hope we can move on to examining the next steps instead of merely walking ground that's already been covered.

As a companion piece, many people are pointing to Steven Berlin Johnson's talk at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin. Johnson, one of the people behind aggregator Outside.In, notes that news, analysis and information exploded during the last presidential election, and he notes that local news is quite available in his Brooklyn neighborhood through local bloggers.

His point: The digital revolution has given us more information than ever before.

I don't doubt it, for some places and people. But we need to acknowledge that his examples illustrate, again, the big hump in the long tail. Objective Independent information in this last election season for local judges' races, or small county commissioners' races, was quite difficult to find, outside of media-rich places like Brooklyn.

Local, objective independent information in other places is drying up faster than you can say the word "layoff."

Indeed, the future is coming, and it isn't evenly distributed yet. Society needs to find a way to distribute reporting, analysis and information-gathering resources away from the big hump to the longer tail, so that we don't gorge in some places and starve in others.

Brilliant photographers always remind us that the best shots are those taken when everybody is looking the other way. They say, "Turn around. Look elsewhere."

That advice goes for those seeking answers about journalism as well.

So try looking in different directions:

What Philip Meyer was thinking four years after "The Vanishing Newspaper."

What Matt Thompson says about "us" versus "them."

What reporter Meranda Whatling worries about before she goes on a cost-saving furlough.

What Shannan Bowen and others are launching in Wilmington, N.C.

What Jim McBee and friends are doing to provide a new marketplace for journalists and publishers.

What Steve Buttry is learning about top newspaper editors on Twitter.

What some good people have been hatching in Charlotte.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Computer-aid journalism: GIGO or the next wave?

John Mecklin of Miller-McCune research writes an intriguing post about Duke University's search to fill an endowed chair of computational journalism.

He makes many points worth considering.

Let's take one, for now.

"If you live in one of the 11 American cities EveryBlock covers, you now can enter your address, and the site gives you civic information (think building permits, police reports and so on), news reports, blog items and other Web-based information, such as consumer reviews and photos, all connected to your immediate geographic neighborhood. In the not-too-distant future, (Duke's James) Hamilton suggests, an algorithm could take information from EveryBlock and other database inputs and actually write articles personalized to your neighborhood and your interests, giving you, for example, a story about crime in your neighborhood this week and whether it has increased or decreased in relation to a month or a year ago."

Intriguing idea. Charlotte is covered by EveryBlock, and my neighborhood blog has a widget with an Everyblock feed. Could EveryBlock's data be combined with tools like Tansa or similar to "write" stories or create readable, understandable lists of local information that wouldn't be shared any other way? Like zoning cases? Or city council actions that affect a small, specific neighborhood?

The idea intrigued me so much that I considered offering it to Howard Rheingold for his master's degree students to explore. He recently tweeted a question asking for ideas for those students.

Then I did a little homework. The latest zoning minutes available today from EveryBlock for Charlotte are from May 19, 2008. The latest city council meetings are from July 21, 2008. EveryBlock lists frequency updates for both kinds of information as "sporadically," and the source as the Charlotte city clerk.

What that lag shows is the need for a real person to contact public officials to remind them of the need for sharing information in a certain way, with a certain audience. EveryBlock isn't funded to be a government watchdog and to make that call.

Charlotte's feeds for crime, building permits and food inspections are relatively up to date, and light years beyond what less-wired, lighter-funded nearby governments are doing.

But the quick reality check shows that even in a year, or two, or five, as the tools advance, technology will not replace human contact that reminds government employees to provide public information to the public.

If nobody's watching, it won't happen.