Let the Users Generate

Elizabeth S. Bennett   June 6, 2012

Carried by the crowd (photo by tantek)

Last week GOOD Magazine celebrated the launch of its latest issue and fired most of its editorial staff in one fell swoop, as chronicled by Poynter.  This might have been just another tale of a publisher downsizing, until I read this nugget of intrigue:

“GOOD appears to be exploring a community-based publishing system with a public beta site described as ‘a platform for 21st century citizenship’ that includes aggregation (GOOD Finder) and a tool for mobilizing locally (GOOD Maker).”

The organization is clearly in flux, but it appears that the GOOD enterprise, which was founded on the basis of original reporting and editorial curation (at first by amateurs), is starting to rely more heavily on its users to seek out finds that jibe with the site’s mission of, yep, doing good.

Looks like anyone can “add something good” to the site, like a link to an app that helps the homeless or MIT’s Freaky Non-Stick Coating Keeps Ketchup Flowing.

So here you have a platform that is trying to create something new, and presumably profitable, by turning over a chunk of its content creation to the masses. It certainly sounds like a thrifty move but is it sustainable?  We’ll check back in a few months and see.

Instagram Beyond the Numbers

Natalie Rodic Marsan   October 4, 2011
Brooklyn rush hour in an instant. (image via Natalie Rodic)

The Breakdown: Natalie Rodic Marsan tells us why Instagram has been embraced so broadly since its launch less than a year ago. Read on to see why it’s not just about taking compelling photos. >>

Have you tried Instagram yet? I installed the App the first week it launched, and it’s been a gradual progression from dabbling to completely hooked.

At least I know I’m not alone. The sheer numbers of Instagram users and the volume of their posts are phenomenal.  The mobile photo sharing App boasted 100,000 “Mobile Photo Addicts” in less than one week after its public launch in November 2010.  The most recent count is that 1.3 million photos are uploaded every day. Users have shared a whopping total of 150 million photos on the platform in only 9 months.  The top users are garnering enough attention to threaten the world of professional photography. And early adopter businesses, some big names even, are utilizing the App for community building around their own brand. Best practices for business engagement are even emerging. All this for an App that only runs on one operating system: iOS.

For all its success, Instagram is not an isolated case. It belongs to a new, exploding category of Applications focused on mobile photography and mobile photo sharing, which are collectively changing the way we think about photography. With the device we have with us constantly, we can capture quality shots of practically any subject, then choose from a plethora of free or cheap Apps to edit or filter these shots to enhance the feeling of the moment.  These photos can then be shared instantly in any of our social networking sites (and syndicated across platforms if so desired).

It is the next step in the democratization of content. Instagram (also referred to as IG by members) enables anyone to be a content creator, and a narrator of his or her world via images. As we begin to understand and relate to our world increasingly on a visual level, soaking up information by way of data visualization, infographics, and digital images, anyone who chooses to engage can be empowered by this technology.

A Wired article in September 2010 “The Web is Dead” outlined that content distribution and engagement is going, “to simpler, sleeker services that just work”. Why didn’t Flickr, or even Facebook, currently the largest repository of social photos, foster the same kind of rich interaction around images that Instagram has in such a short time? Most likely because of the lack of attention on the mobile user experience, their mobile apps aren’t laser-focused on sharing photos socially, nor do the Apps make it easy to do so. Conversely, Instagram is a singularly-focused service on your iPhone that works well, without endless options to pull you in a million directions and lose focus of what you’re there for — to share images, the context of those images, and to connect with others around the subject  (or even simply the beauty of that content). It is what an IG member and community manager, Rachael King @rachaelgk, called “so peaceful, like the ‘going fishing’ place in Social Media Land”.

There is something unique in this design and intent. Other widely adopted social networks have brought us closer to those we already know (Facebook), or have enabled us to build our professional networks (LinkedIn). Others (like Twitter) have enabled us to find new people who share information we find interesting or helpful. But Instagram is bringing us closer to people all over the world whom we’ve never met, but whose take on the world and aesthetic choices resonates with us. Just as the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch followed bohemian intellectual Hans Jaegger’s advice of discovering and telling the story of his life with his paintings in the mid 19th century, so is each Instagram user in the 21st century.

Being the narrator of one’s world through imagery is an intimate experience. Because of this, real life Instagram communities are forming all over the globe. To understand this next step of interaction, the in real life aspect, I attended a NYC Instawalk hosted by Postagram one recent Sunday morning. The group was roughly 20 people of all backgrounds and persuasions, iPhones in hand, and eyes wide open.

Walking from Union Square to the Highline Park, we shot pictures that encapsulated the moment: an elderly lady in a walker skillfully navigating her way through our swarm, reflections in windows, other Instagrammers taking photos. We shared knowledge on photo editing Apps, and got to know one another. The saying that you belong to New York in five minutes as much as you do in five years could also be true about Instagram. To have an active account on Instagram, and to be at this event is immediate inclusiveness.

Seeing this thriving community in real life hit home the raison d’etre of Instagram. The proliferation of this mobile photo App and the focused slick mobile interface has created grounds for creating great content and human interaction. The unprecedented rate of adoption, the popularity factor, is impressive – it proves something is working. But ultimately all this exists for an unquantifiable next step:  the fostering of community and relationships. The IG community is one any community builder emulates. And it is only getting started.

Natalie is Founder of Broken Open Media, where she consults on building communities and creating social media strategies. She is currently managing the Razorfish Idea Tank community amongst others. She can be found on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr as @rodicka.

How Egypt Got Her Voice Back

Robert Stribley   February 7, 2011
In Tahrir Square, a man thanks Facebook. (image via monasosh)

The job of a despot just ain’t what it used to be. Ask Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He tried taking down the internet. He tried cutting off cellular communications. Still, the Egyptian people found a way to speak. Not just to speak though, but also to communicate their message broadly, through the Internet, to all the peoples of Earth.

Dramatic stuff, huh? Indeed, we’re lucky to live in such times. A hundred years ago and for eons before, such an uprising would’ve been put down quickly and violently and few would have heard or seen the details of what unfolded beyond the immediate area. Now, however, there are cameras and cell phones recording. And there are content distribution platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr to feed the resulting information quickly to the rest of the world. For this reason, many believe that the current uprising in Egypt originated not with any political or religious faction, but with what’s been rather loosely referred to as the “Facebook generation.” That may be a somewhat inexact descriptor, but it speaks to something that feels like the truth.

When Mubarak and company shut down the phones, the Internet and any other form of communication they could get their grubby hands on, some suggested that reliance upon social media as a coordinating force had been overrated, since the crowds continued to gather in Tahrir Square anyway. Regardless, we began to see an interesting pattern: whenever communications channels were cut, the Egyptian people and those sympathetic to them found effective ways to restore those channels – or to create new channels. The need for communication proved a rushing stream: throw a few boulders in it and the waters soon began to lap, then run as a torrent around them. Give people the ability, the technology to communicate and not only will they embrace it, but they’ll fight to keep it.

How’d they go about this? Who helped them? Let’s have a look.

Some big names stepped up to fill the communications gaps Mubarak enforced in Egypt. Namely, Google and Twitter rushed voice-to-tweet functionality to market, specifically for the Egyptian people. People can call one of two numbers and leave a message, which is then posted as a tweet to the Speak to Tweet account on Twitter. Clicking on a tweet sends users to SayNow, a company recently acquired by Google, which hosts the files as audio you can listen to and share. These tweets include #Egypt as a hashtag, so they can be found easily, or any other country calls are originating from when possible.

I’m not sure how successful this effort has been, especially since the tweets apparently aren’t curated and, other than the hashtag, each tweet gives no hint as to its precise content. However, the new functionality was certainly trumpeted far and wide, and it must be a valuable trough for anyone with the time and skill to wade through it.

The Arabic-language news network Al Jazeera also found some creative ways to give Egyptians their voice back. Using services like ScribbleLive, Al Jazeera has been able to expedite stories from their reporters online via technology as clunky as a landline, if cellular networks aren’t available. Analog again meets digital for the benefit of the people. ScribbleLive’s service allows calls to be saved as mp3s and published with minimal hassle. It’s a service that first emerged when it enabled another news service to extend a megaphone to the voice of the people: Canada’s Global News used it to cover the protests at the 2010 G20.

Deprived of access to the Internet, some Egyptians are really kicking it old school, resorting to Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and other computer-to-computer communications to exchange information. You’ll recall that BBS were originally set up to mimic real-world cork bulletin boards, where people could pin up flyers and community announcements. They also allow users to communicate via something called a “modem.” You remember those, right?

Word of these creative if retrogressive steps can be found in the chatter on Twitter, where so much of the news from Egypt has surfaced first due to Twitter’s extraordinary immediacy. For that reason, the networks and the news channels find themselves constantly referring us to Twitter, with ABC, CNN and NBC even highlighting and referring to the tweet aggregator TweetDeck by name on occasion, which must mean a boon for that little company.

Those tweets aren’t just coming from Egypt either. They’re coming from Tunisia and Jordan and other points across the Middle East, too. Worldwide, people yearn to be free. We’re still learning exactly how powerful and provocative the Internet can be in enabling them towards that freedom.

What creative ways have you seen people use to reestablish and maintain channels of communication under duress? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Want to know more?

User-Generated Chaos

Rachel Lovinger   December 22, 2010

Our holiday advice: don’t leave your stuff unattended. (image via kalebdf)

The Breakdown: Rachel shares a holiday tale about the first time she encountered the downside of the “wisdom of the crowd.” Luckily, the same Internet that brought the attackers to her door also gave her a window on what they were thinking and doing.

The holidays: so much to do, so many memories. For me, one of the things I find myself reminiscing about at this time of year is my first professional run-in with the trolls. Today the cautionary tales of social media mishaps are reported, analyzed, and reanalyzed almost as they happen. But in 2001 – almost a decade ago – we were so much more innocent about the possibilities. I learned my lessons the hard way, but I’m glad I learned them when the playground was a lot less crowded, and a lot less rough than it is today. Here’s what happened.

In 2001 I was the manager of the developers and producers at a website for a national entertainment publication. Our editors decided to put up a write-in poll for Entertainer of the Year, right before Thanksgiving. We had never done a write-in a poll before. A write-in poll, where people can type in whatever answer they want. There was no login required to submit an answer to this poll, but we were assured that the “robot protection” features of the in-house polling system were in good standing. Nonetheless, I was very wary of having this go live right before a four-day weekend, and I strongly advised against it. But the editors were determined to get it posted so that they would have a good set of responses by the end of the month, in time to do a follow-up poll of just the finalists by mid-December.

I checked in on the poll over the weekend, and it was immediately evident that it was being hit by robots. A script was voting for Janet Jackson hundreds of times a minute. Most of these duplicate votes were detected and removed, but many of them still got through. Similar efforts were weighting the tallies for Joss Whedon, Christina Aguilera, and others.

In the early hours of the poll’s victimization, the names showing up in the top 10 were still well-known, mainstream entertainers. But it wasn’t long before several online communities started to mobilize, most notably Fark.com and SomethingAwful.com, and things started to shift. On the discussion boards they conspired to elect their favorite geek-hero personalities, and people posted scripts that others could run locally to rapidly submit votes. The readers of Something Awful backed the site’s founder, Rich “Lowtax” Kyanka, as well as several of its other contributors. Fark readers mostly backed their patron saint, Wil Wheaton.

On Friday at 6pm, the only names most people would recognize in the top 10 were Wil Wheaton and Joss Whedon, and you’d kind of have to be a real entertainment nerd even to recognize those two. Kyanka had over 200,000 votes, almost twice as many as the person in second place (who was also someone you’ve never heard of), with a pretty steep drop-off after that. By 5pm on Sunday, Kyanka had 561,895 votes. Believe me, this poll was not getting that much legitimate traffic on Thanksgiving weekend.

On Monday we came in and the IT folks scrubbed the results, but the discussion on the various communities ramped up, and they renewed their robot activity with even more vigor. Luckily, these discussions were happening in such localized places on the web that I could actually follow along with them in real time– a fact which seemed to baffle the people who were publicly discussing their attempts to rig the vote. 

When their votes stopped being counted (either because their IP had been identified as a source of robot votes, or because they and others were running scripts that were overloading the system, essentially causing a partial denial of service), the tenor of discussion on the boards became paranoid and indignant. They seemed to think we were somehow identifying them and singling them out to ignore their votes. They started saying things like “Why do they even bother having an open vote if they are just going to fix the results?” and “We should all email them to complain about the rigging (I did).”

I couldn’t tell if comments like these were outright hypocritical or just naïve. On the same boards, people were not only sharing code for various voting scripts, they were also posting information about how to use IP spoofers. And still they acted like it was terribly unjust that we would “rig” our poll to deflect their attempts to hijack it. At the same time, they made fun of us when we failed to deflect the attempts. We were being portrayed both as ignorant chumps who deserved to be messed with because we should have known better and as evil media bullies who were tricking the innocent public into being interested in something that was really just a thin marketing ploy for the entertainment industry.

Eventually I started to feel frustrated with these people who seemed to think that they were performing some kind of righteous social action by messing with a meaningless entertainment poll. That’s when I did something that I really shouldn’t have done. I sent the trolls a message.

At around 5:30 Monday evening, after a full day of trying to fight this thing as it played out in public, we changed the results page so that it no longer showed the running tally. It said something along the lines of “Thanks for voting. Come back later to find out the results.” In a brief show of very poor judgment, I hid the following comment in the HTML of the new “results-less” results page:

You run a bunch of scripts that vote hundreds of times a minute for some geek with a superiority complex, and then you complain because *we* rigged the poll by dropping those votes?

The only way to see this was to look at the source code of the page, something that most normal people would never think to do. Around midnight someone noticed it. In their discussion board, they posted a message that said, “I looked at the source code of the “Thanks for voting” page… Think the guy is bitter?”

The next day my boss came to see me and asked if I had put some comment in the code. He asked me to take it out, it was only aggravating things. To his credit, he was probably really pissed, but he didn’t yell at me, he just seemed exhausted. What I didn’t know at the time is that members of another community who had been thwarted in their attempts to mess with the poll – a community that shall remain nameless – had become so irate that many of them had emailed my boss death threats. Security and the legal department had gotten involved, and I imagine it must have been pretty nerve-wracking for him.

So, I took the comment out and by that afternoon the communities started posting about that, too. “Hmm… now that comment is gone… I wonder if they get paid for reading Fark at work?” (Of course I was! They were publicly discussing how they were sabotaging our poll!) Luckily the whole game was starting to lose steam, and it didn’t go anywhere. But I realized later that baiting the trolls like this can be really dangerous, and the backlash could easily have been much worse.

If the same thing happened today, I suspect that their response would have been more aggressive, swift, and distributed. Having that visibility on the unfolding drama taught me to expect the unexpected when it comes to inviting user participation online. And while it’s true that some people will mess with things just because they can, there are others that feel they have a moral imperative to shine a light on the gaps in your security.  Don’t let this scare you off from incorporating audience contributions, but make sure you’re aware of where the weaknesses are. You may not be able to anticipate everything that the Internet-abusing segment of the public might throw at you, but you can be prepared to react and adapt. 

Turning the Page on Q & A

Haven Thompson   November 1, 2010

Got a smart question up your sleeve? (image via Oberazzi)

I started thinking about Q & A sites after spending time this weekend on Quora.com, a website which opened to the public this summer. Former Facebook employees founded Quora, aiming to build a product with a new spin on the Q & A site. When you create an account with Quora, the site connects to your Facebook profile. It uses your personal information to suggest question topics you might be interested in and enable you to easily find other friends to “follow” on Quora.

Because of this, almost every question you ask or answer is linked to your real identity. There is an option to ask and answer anonymously, although it isn’t heavily used. So unlike sites like Yahoo Answers, Answerbag, or Askville, your true signature is attached to nearly everything you contribute to the site—and your reputation affected as you post.

So, Quora’s utility lies as much in its value as a social network as it does in answering user questions. Users get to show off and share their expertise as they post, often discussing topics among a group of their peers (the start-up and tech communities are particularly active). This is further emphasized by the fact that questions asked on Quora rarely have a sole correct answer—instead, they encourage debate. It is interesting to see how social media principles have integrated themselves into, and arguably improved, a stalwart web product like the Q & A site.

Have you noticed other examples of social media integrating with web products in thought-provoking ways? Are you an active user of Quora or any other question and answer sites? Please let us know by adding your comments below.

The new keeper of the digital afterlife?

Patrick Nichols   August 5, 2010

Maintaining  the digital footprint of the deceased is not without its challenges. (image via lanier67)

As content strategists, we’re used to working with lifecycles. We create content, watch it flourish, and then put it to rest when outdated or no longer useful. The same lifecycle exists (or should exist, anyway) for brands, campaigns, websites…any medium, really. But in this social media age, our creations can develop lives all their own. Content may be repurposed and exist outside our control, it may be archived as just one among a stream of our creations, or it may even truly outlive us.

The latter observation entered my consciousness in an unwelcomed fashion this spring. A very good friend died much too young, losing a lifelong battle with depression and all its demons.

My friend was always connected, always available. In the days following his death, it pained me to log into instant messaging and see his account still online, though “Idle.” It pained me even more when I noticed one day he’d been logged off, his icon never to again grace my active contacts list. The FTP server where we’d shared media soon went down, too. It was official: my friend was permanently offline.

But in the social cloud, traces live on. His Twitter account remains active, but only in a technical sense—he hadn’t tweeted anything in nearly a year. He wasn’t terribly active on Facebook, either, yet his profile wall has taken on an afterlife all its own.

Around the funeral date, friends and family gathered virtually to share their grief. A particularly moving memorial was posted upon request days after the service. Remembrances continued to trickle in, their frequency dwindling as the weeks passed by.

I stopped checking his wall about a month after he was laid to rest. The stories and reminiscences continued to move me, but oftentimes too much so. I thought it time to let my friend go in the online space, just as I was forced to do in offline reality. And for a while, that tactic worked. Mutual friends occasionally would ask if I’d seen such-and-such post, and when I answered no they would relate it to me so we could share in its wisdom and our pain.

But, Facebook being Facebook, every once in a while I’d be prompted to “say hello” to my friend. I could not willfully ignore his profile without hiding it or de-friending him—neither acceptable options.

Just this week, I decided to stop by his wall. Four months after his passing, my friend’s Facebook wall now functions as group therapy where anything goes, ranging from wish-you-were here sighs to irresolvable anger at our collective loss.

I’ve discovered the ability to smile at and sometimes laugh along with the posts. A lump still rises in my throat every now and again, but it’s reassuring to see that he continues to factor just as vividly into the daily thoughts of others as he does with me.

And thanks to the social cloud, we can share in our healing among the company and comfort of friends. For as long as we have media like Facebook, the content lifecycle can be endless.

But some people are questioning whether this is necessarily the best way of handling the digital footprint of the deceased. The New York Times points out in a recent article “As Facebook Users Die, Ghosts Reach Out” that Facebook has an ongoing challenge in balancing the need for public memorials with the acute pain of personal loss.

What do you think? If something were to happen to you, would you want your social networking accounts to remain open for use by friends and family? Are there risks associated with open-ended memorials?

Channeling the Wisdom of the Crowd

Melissa Sepe   December 22, 2009


Truth at your fingertips, courtesy of Hunch.com. (Image via Laurie).

This summer I found myself with an absurd amount of free time between finishing graduate school and beginning my new job. Amid marathon sessions of Rock Band and America’s Next Top Model, I logged many an hour on Hunch.com, the latest brainchild of Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake and a group of MIT and Harvard alums. For those unfamiliar with Hunch, it is a decision-making site that provides personalized answers to questions ranging from “Which camcorder should I get?” to “Do I have bipolar disorder?” Or even more timely inquiries like “Have I had an affair with Tiger Woods?” to “Should I get my DNA sequenced?” Hunch relies on its community to generate and maintain a myriad of content, much like Wikipedia. In addition to providing their own questions and results, users edit, flag, approve, and refine their peers’ creations to improve the advice that the site doles out.

I hopped onto to the site at the tail end of its public preview phase, and after the June 15 launch there was a noticeable jump in both the site’s membership and its coverage in the tech blogosphere. Industry buzz about the NYC-based startup intensified last week when Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales joined the board of directors on December 7. Wales cited Hunch’s unique combination of algorithms and collective intelligence as its major draw, saying,

[U]ntil recently I hadn’t seen a great example of how the two approaches could come together, co-exist and truly complement each other to form something greater than the sum of the parts – which I believe is the future of the web.

Staff members pitch in as well – one of Ms. Fake’s most recent additions was a thoughtful list of pros and cons about her dishwasher. The quantity of submissions continues to rise with nearly 15,000 as of this writing, and while every submission would ideally jibe with Hunch’s witty tone, even expert users’ contributions probably won’t be 100% perfect. As a result, Hunch employs some unique features to manage this deluge of user-generated content.

The “Workshop” section of the site helps determine which topics are of publishable quality; it provides a space where users can view and edit recently created topics, promoting the stronger contenders and voting down weak or redundant ones. Once a topic receives enough votes the staff promotes it to the main library, while unpopular topics become dormant. Hunch also provides a “Training” feature in which users adjust the logic of both promoted and Workshop topics, after which staff members lock thoroughly trained topics to prevent further unnecessary edits. Finally, a system of badges and points – “banjos” in Hunch-speak – encourages a steady stream of new content by making participation addictive and fun. While the satisfaction of contributing to a greater cause may inspire altruistic types to remain active members, racking up pieces of flair provides the extra nudge that the rest of us need to do the same. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t go on a contribution spree while chasing after my “10,000 Banjos Club” badge.

Of course, just as information-seekers must remember that Wikipedia entries aren’t always reliable, it seems twice as true that Hunch results – especially regarding major life decisions – should be taken lightly. Whereas Wikipedia’s vast and active user base allows for rapid self-healing of its inaccuracies, mistakes seem less likely to be corrected on Hunch, which has a much smaller community. However, as Hunch attracts a larger and more diverse audience it will hopefully grow and evolve to truly harness the wisdom of the crowd. It is already far more content-rich than when I first logged on, and while I still wouldn’t seriously listen to Hunch’s advice on how many children to have or whether to leave the East Coast, maybe it will help me plan my next vacation or choose a new hobby. I’ll also keep doing my part to make the site smarter for my fellow Hunchers. Why stop now? There are so many more banjos to be had.

News That’s Fit to Tweet?

Robert Stribley   November 13, 2009
News lovers beware. (Image courtesy of the talented Eleanor Rudge)

The breakdown: Robert Stribley discusses how a recent national tragedy was covered in the Huffington Post through a consolidation of local tweets.  What’s the impact of using these Twitter lists on citizen journalism?  Read on to find out.

“Good lord, is this hen scratch they call tweeting REALLY supposed to keep us informed?” – goodog, Comment posted 06:10 PM on 11/05/2009, The Huffington Post

Late last week unwitting citizens of Fort Hood, Texas suddenly found themselves serving as national correspondents, when the news-aggregation site Huffington Post began livecasting their tweets. HuffPo corralled their tweets via Twitter Lists and presented them within a Twitter widget—both shiny, new features the micro-blogging service had released just days before.  The implementation by the Huffington Post was somewhat shoddy. As of this moment, it’s still running.

Some background: On Thursday, November 5th, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan began a shooting rampage at the Fort Hood military base that left 13 service men and women dead and 29 injured. In an attempt to tap into local reactions to the event, The Huffington Post set up the Fort Hood List and began streaming the tweets of people whose profiles indicated they lived in the area. I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.

HuffPo should have considered the impact of posting random tweets simply based upon their geographic location. Instead they let loose with a torrent, and the results, as people quickly noted, weren’t pretty. Don’t get me wrong: There were some poignant and informative tweets. However, many of them weren’t particularly relevant, were inaccurate, or made little sense out of context.

Some examples:

iTraceyRenee: watchin Gucci Mane ft Usher – Spotlight Video

Barbaramagana: Writing blog. hmm what will the topic be!!!

RicoRossi: I’m about to go assist in oral surgery, ill tweet later

sunnylena: @ArmyBarbieGirl do u have children?

One 17-year-old participant mentioned the Fort Hood incident precisely once, before resuming her random, typically sexually explicit tweets. Which are still being posted to HuffPo, as of this moment.

A few issues are at play here. Let’s take a quick look at them.

Security by Obscurity

Ideally, people should be made aware when their tweets are being broadcast in a more prominent venue. Now, arguably, the whole point of Twitter is to disseminate information in a public venue. And, by publishing content to Twitter (and, increasingly, Facebook, too), folks are engaging in a privacy transaction each time wherein they tacitly agree to make their content public. Unless they make their profiles private. For better or worse, people depend on “security by obscurity” where Twitter’s concerned. They realize their tweets are observable (one would hope), but they sometimes depend on their mutterings being lost in the noise. As we all continue living our lives more publicly, we’ll probably adapt and learn that security by obscurity is a myth.

In the meantime, publishing people’s tweets at such a visible level raises some issues. For example, in an internal conversation, Razorfish content strategist Rachel Lovinger suggested that HuffPo did Tweeters an injustice by publishing their tweets out of context:

It makes me wince that the top comment from a local says “Andy Pettitte, Houston misses you!!” I feel embarrassed for the person who said it and is going to be judged as shallow and insensitive, just because she used her Twitter account the way she always uses it, perhaps not aware that she’s now an unfiltered spokesperson for her troubled community.


How to avoid this context problem? Tweets should be curated, of course, at least automatically by keyword, if not manually. When they published their Twitter list, HuffPo claimed, “we’re capturing all the tweeted updates related to the terrible events at Fort Hood. This search is targeted, filtered, and local.”

Really? Targeted and local? Somewhat. Filtered? Not so much.

The first thing I thought upon seeing the Huffington Post widget was that many of the tweets weren’t remotely relevant. It desperately needed some curation. Of course, Twitter lists aren’t currently set up to do that. Since HuffPo couldn’t do the filtering, they put the onus on us. And why should we take on the cognitive burden of filtering out irrelevant, often inaccurate information? We came looking for signal, not noise.

Accuracy & Authenticity

For a news-oriented site, of course, accuracy should be the weightiest concern of all: by placing those tweets on their site, The Huffington Post amplified some misinformation, a problem more serious journalistic enterprises would be excoriated for.

Some have suggested we shouldn’t expect a high level of accuracy from real-time, citizen journalism. Perhaps. But relying on it is a mistake we’re seeing all too often. A more stringent process for participation certainly would’ve helped in this case.

Maybe we’re entering an age where – more than ever – news needs to be viewed with the admonition Caveat Lector, “Let the Reader Beware!” We should certainly maintain a healthy sense of skepticism when reviewing content, which comes our way. But news practitioners – and aggregators – should also be aware of the damage that the careless use of such information does to their sense of authority.

Unless sensationalism, not authority, is what they’re really aiming for, of course.

Further Reading

Columbia Journalism Review, “Fort Hood: A First Test for Twitter Lists”

Paul Carr, TechCrunch, “After Fort Hood, Another Example of How ‘citizen Journalists’ Can’t Handle the Truth”

Matthew Ingram, “Citizen Journalism: I’ll Take It Flaws and All”

The Future of User-Generated Content

Matt Geraghty   October 20, 2009


In the future, technology enables us to give birth to precious little content babies. (Image via Alberto+Cerriteño)

The Breakdown: User-generated content You are all too familiar with it. It’s where the mob rules. It’s where anything goes, where anyone can post anything, and where the experts and the crazies exist as equals. It’s information overload where expert opinion is often hard to find. There is much at stake for those who can capitalize successfully on the evolution of user-generated content. We asked a panel of UX and Media experts about the future of user-generated content for good or bad.

Shiv Singh, VP & Global Social Media Lead

User-generated content — or content that we create as regular people influencing, entertaining and informing each other is the most important form of content. It is what we create — our conversations, our thoughts, our opinions and our imagination expressed. The notion of it being considered something risky, dangerous, damaging or a bit too voluminous is looking at user-generated content through the wrong frame. It is time for marketers and individuals alike to realize that everyone else’s content (in all its forms) is the greatest asset that they ever had. The question really is whether the technology is where it should be to allow us to sift through all the user-generated content and figure out what’s important to us as individuals. The problem isn’t with UGC, it is with the filtering, sorting and prioritization and that’s where the technology, the semantic web and also the ability to filter through the lens of a social graph is going to make a big difference.

David Deal, VP of Marketing

Consumers will create more powerful personal brands thanks to our culture of self-idolatry and the proliferation tools that make consumer generated content more slick and professional. We will make our own “American Idols.”

Michael Barnwell, Content Strategy Lead

Allowing user-generated content usually has the goal of enfranchising the user and, indirectly, giving a greater sense of authenticity to the content — two noble goals, surely, although with very mixed results. How can anyone sort through the ton of dross to find commentary that’s in some way useful? It’s probably too late to recall the invite, but there may be a way to salvage the intention. It might be described as UGC light touch, or in other words annotations. A simple ranking of content — one basic example of annotation would be an easily sifted way of letting you know what someone thought about a piece of content, without the noise. Collectively, this kind of user contribution could lead to something resembling real added value, while saving a place for the user’s voice.

Steve Clough, Media Planner

We often talk about social media like it’s reinventing marketing, but the reality is that the fundamental strategies for success in social media and leveraging user-generated content are the same ones that marketers and sales people have been preaching for decades: 1) build relationships, and 2) provide value that fills consumers’ needs/wants. While the means may change slightly, I think the future of social media and UGC will continue to fulfill these fundamental business strategies.

Chris Boese, Information Architect

Now hear the user-generated First Principle of the Internet. First there was the Word, and the Word was the Internet. Users uttered the Internet into existence with their socio-communicative acts from the very beginning.  Non-social interfaces are an anachronism, a horseless carriage phase, like the early days of television when programs looked like filmed radio plays.

I believe the social Internet has always been profoundly destabilizing and politically empowering, and will remain so.  As with the French Revolution, there is an upside and a downside to this kind of grassroots empowerment, but that Cluetrain Manifesto left the station 10 years ago. This is no news flash. Former media monopolies are discovering it very late, to their own detriment. All businesses will face the same grim realities as the newspaper industry if they depend on old models for controlling and restricting commerce to futilely manipulate these empowered and uppity “customers.” Real power has already shifted. Some sectors just didn’t get the memo.

Robert Stribley, Senior Information Architect

There’s a lot of talk about the dark side of social media, as everyone clamors for their 15 minutes of fame – every day. But social media and the increasingly ubiquitous use of user-generated content are also ushering in an era of transparency unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Companies (and individuals) have long espoused transparency, of course, but the economic and viral advantages of tapping and responding to user-generated content are nudging us into arenas of more authentic rather than staged transparency. This open, real-time dialogue not only forces companies to maintain their brand more rigorously, it also demands that they express it more clearly.

Matt Geraghty, Content Strategist

One of the biggest areas for UGC innovation lies in global rights management. Who’s thinking big about the future of copyright? Well, YouTube has launched a service called Content Identification allowing major content partners and rights holders to better identify user-uploaded versions of their videos. With these content management tools, major media companies partnering with YouTube are deciding if they want to block, track, or take steps to reduce infringement. But it’s a two-way street. They can even encourage fans to market or distribute the content for their own benefit. The future of UGC global rights management will lie in solutions that strike a perfect balance between the goals of the copyright holder and that of the user.

Melissa Joulwan, Senior Content Strategist

It’s imperative that clients relinquish a bit of control over their brand voice and buy into the true value of UGC, i.e., arming customers with the mechanisms and information to be brand ambassadors. We recently had a client admit they were thinking about hiring writers to impersonate community members so that the resulting content was of higher quality. This kind of thinking will absolutely doom the future of UGC. An important component of our job as user experience professionals has to be to educate our clients to do UGC right or not at all.

The Content Wild Child: Your New PR Nightmare

Matt Geraghty   October 6, 2009

The Breakdown: Our own Rachel Lovinger gave a presentation at the MIMA Summit about what can happen when you don’t have a clearly defined content strategy. She showed several examples of common problems, and talked about content best practices that could have helped avoid these problems. The Summit will be posting video of all the presentations soon (including great keynote talks by Jackie Huba and Seth Godin), but for now, explore Rachel’s slides above.

Razorfish Blogs


  • SXSW Interactive

    March 7 – 11, Austin, TX
    Several of our contributors will be speaking this year. If you’re going, say hi to Rachel, Robert, & Hawk.

  • Confab Minneapolis

    May 7-9, Minneapolis, MN
    The original Confab Event. Rachel will be there doing her Content Modelling workshop with Cleve Gibbon. Get details and we’ll see you there!

  • Intelligent Content Conference Life Sciences & Healthcare

    May 8-9, San Francisco, CA
    Call for Presenters, now open:


  • Confab for Nonprofits

    Jun 16, Chicago, IL
    Another new Confab Event! Early Bird pricing until March 7:  http://confabevents.com/events/for-nonprofits

  • Content Strategy Forum

    July 1-3, Frankfurt, Germany
    International Content Strategy workshops & conference: csforum2014.com Call for speakers now open!

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What is this site, exactly?

Scatter/Gather is a blog about the intersection of content strategy, pop culture and human behavior. Contributors are all practicing Content Strategists at the offices of Razorfish, an international digital design agency.

This blog reflects the views of the individual contributors and not necessarily the views of Razorfish.

What is content strategy?

Oooh, the elevator pitch. Here we go: There is content on the web. You love it. Or you do not love it. Either way, it is out there, and it is growing. Content strategy encompasses the discovery, ideation, implementation and maintenance of all types of digital content—links, tags, metadata, video, whatever. Ultimately, we work closely with information architects and creative types to craft delicious, usable web experiences for our clients.

Why "scatter/gather"?

It’s an iterative data clustering operation that’s designed to enable rich browsing capabilities. “Data clustering” seems rather awesome and relevant to our quest, plus we thought the phrase just sounded really cool.

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