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Thursday, 17 September 2009

How should the media be using social networks? Given the parlous state of media companies' balance sheets nowadays, it's not surprising that many people are writing about how to solve the malaise.

I don't pretend to know the answer but I have recently read two pieces on the website Nieman Reports. The Nieman Foundation for Journalism is at Harvard University. I picked these two stories because there was a whole page of similar stories about journalism and social media and I got to the end of the third one before throwing up my hands.

But I'm going to try to pick out a theme. It doesn't have to do with what news companies should be doing but, rather, with how they should be doing it.

The first story I want to point to is by Robert G. Picard, a fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. He says, at one point:

Reasons can be found to use some [social media] without full cost recovery, but those should be based on strategic thinking and informed choice, not on technological hype and exuberance.

Now before making any comment, I want to point to another story on the same page of links. It is by Richard Gordon, an associate professor and director of digital innovation at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Gordon illustrates what he thinks news websites should be doing by describing a project undertaken by two IT-cum-journalist students in a class he oversaw. They developed an interface called News Mixer, which allows readers to leave traces of their personalities on the website in a way that doesn't require a lot of personal capital to be invested.

The News Mixer, however, also lets readers who write good, interesting and valuable 'letters to the editor' and see their productions featured on their own page, where comments can be left by others. It's an interesting mix and I won't go into all the details now.

What I wanted to show is that it is precisely 'exuberance' that will enable the media to engage well with its audience. Or, rather, that will allow the audience into the conversation. Gordon quotes from Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li, who said that

“… in the future, social networks will be like air.” It will seem “archaic and quaint,” Li wrote, that we had to go to a Web site to “be social.”

It's like the status field in Facebook. The status field was once a single feature among many when I joined the site in 2007. It was just one way the site allowed users to engage with others. It was located obscurely, in the corner near your profile picture.

The Facebook status moved to a more prominent position. Then Twitter happened, making the status field the only game in town. And I think that it's enthusiastic approaches like this that characterise the web today. Even agile software development has allowed developers to move away from the traditional specification-develop-test model that meant long time delays and difficult implementations.

We are in a different place, now. The apps4nsw initiative, launched this month by the NSW premier, Nathan Rees, follows on from a debacle that involved a rogue developer with a good idea for the iPhone and the state rail authority, RailCorp. In March, Rees got a tweet from the developer complaining that RailCorp had tried to prevent the development of a timetabling app on copyright grounds. Rees stepped in and ordered them to allow the project to go ahead.

Under apps4nsw, which is based on Apps For Democracy, an initiative in Washington DC, prizes will be given for the best applications that use government data. Data will be provided in an open source format and licensing will be open source. So instead of investing millions to develop software that may not work, ordinary citizens will be the ones spending time - for fame and fortune - making things people want to use.

Exuberance, again.

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