Archive for June 2009

The benefits (and challenges) of user-generated news


A old telegraph machine
Image by tibchris via Flickr

I’ve spent the last ten days with no Internet and very little access to English-language news sources. On my return I turned to my three favourite sources for getting up to speed quickly on what’s been happening: BBC News, Twitter and Google. The first of these for an overview of what had happened and the last two to really delve into some depth, to find out what people have been saying and to see what’s really been happening.

It turns out I missed a lot.

Only a few years ago, my main source of information on anything from the events in Iran, to the events in Los Angeles would have been a printed newspaper or magazine. I could have picked up one of the weeklies at Heathrow airport on Sunday and found out most of what there was for me to find out on the journey home. Today things are very different. There’s a vast array of information out there from news outlets to people like you and me. People who might (at least claim that they) know more than the new outlets, or at least are more willing to tell us.

Both the aftermath of the Iran election and the death of Michael Jackson have highlighted the role that users can play in generating  news content. Keeping us up-to-date on what they are seeing, hearing and thinking. And often doing this more quickly than traditional news sources. The way we find out about what is happening is now quicker than ever  before.

Speed of reporting is important for news and has been the focus of many important developments. The Crimean war in the 1850s saw the arrival of reporting that must have felt to readers of the day like ‘real-time’ updates. For the first time, electric telegraph enabled news to travel across Europe in hours and not weeks. People could find out what was happening at the Front. This was a real revolution. The increased speed at which we could get news and reporting changed what people wrote about and how they wrote about it - the birth of the ‘embedded’ journalist with the troops. This was the first time people could hear about battles and what was happening in the war whilst they were still pertinent. People felt they knew more and knew more quickly. They felt like they could change things.

And the use of user-generated news is bringing similar changes thanks to the speed at which it is letting people tell us what they are seeing and hearing. This is changing the kind of news we are exposed to. Whereas previously we would see reports that a journalist had crafted and would assess how much credit we gave to that particular journalist, source or publication. We are now getting snippets of information from multiple sources and each time  have to assess what we think about that source and that piece of information. The many thousands of comments an news-snippets on Twitter about Iran or Michael Jackson need to be evaluated  - which do we trust (and why); which are we interested in find out more about (and why); which snippets when put together give us a fuller picture of events (and why).

There is a danger with this kind of news. A danger that people will question less and that things that are not true or have less critical appraisal will start to influence what we think and what we do. I’m more optimistic. I think that the  massive growth in real-time news will make us be more critical and help teach us to process this new kind of information - taking in more from a wider range of sources and filtering out what we don’t trust and query things by looking for other sources. This has to be a good thing.

And of course it means that we will get this information quicker than ever before. What this means for traditional news outlets is probably another story…

  • Michael Jackson: Information Overload (
  • Web slows after Jackson’s death (
  • Twitter and the news cycle, perfect together (

The limit of hashtags as a way of sorting data on Twitter


Girton College Library

The real power of all the user-generated content and ideas that result from an increasing use of social media depends on our being able to find it. It’s no use to have millions upon millions of comments added each day if we can’t find them, or if we can’t sort for the ones most relevant to us at a particular moment.

This is, of course, not a new problem. Information from the earliest Medieval libraries to today’s online communities and social networks has needed sorting, categorising and cataloguing so that we  can find it successfully. Twitter users have a simple way of helping to sort data - the hashtag.

The concept is simple. A short code is added to the end of a Tweet to associate it with others - this then lets people search for everything on this  subject. So, for example, if you were tweeting at this weekend’s Glastonbury music festival in the UK then you could add the code #glastonbury to your tweet. If you wanted to search for what’s happening then you just need to search for everything with this code.

Hashtags are great for events and are a really effective way of associating related tweets with each other. But they are quite limited. As a means of sorting and cataloguing data they are very simple, perhaps too simple.

This became quite clear over the last couple of weeks with the use of the hashtag #iranelection. The tag was originally used by people in Iran who were tweeting updates about what was happening. Others in Iran were able to find out about  events, protests and developments by tracking these updates. The hashtag wasn’t the most used on Twitter but it was serving it’s purpose. Then it suddenly became popular, very popular. And that’s when you start to see the weaknesses of this way of organising information.

The #iranelection hashtag started being used by people not in Iran searching for information or merely expressing concern for or interest in what was happening in the country. The tweets from people on the ground were much less easy to find with hundreds of tweets from well wishers mixed in there. Information was much more difficult to find as the hashtag became more popular.

Whilst simple, the hashtag has limitations associated with this. One of the real challenges for Twitter (and indeed for many other social media sites) is finding ways to sort, file and catalogue information in a way that makes it easy for others to find. This is not easy - in part it depends on the fundamental structure of the site itself, and in part on the ways in which users use the site.

The ideal might be a way to filter content by type, by user information and by a series of categories. But this requires that you gather more profiling information than many of these sites do (or indeed than many users would want to give) and providing a way to categorise both at a parent and child level, which is complicated from an information architecture perspective. Resolving this is the real challenge of social media - finding a way to search for and discover information we want. It is this that will really show the benefits that social media can bring.

  • Social Media and #IranElection | bigMETHOD (
  • How to Search Twitter (
  • Twitter numbers up thanks to Iran (
  • Iran Twitter: Why The Movement Adopted This Medium (
  • Iran, Twitter and the value of new media (
  • ‘It’s Hot in Iran’ Is Latest Tech PR Gimmick (

Michael Jackson Flash Mobs


crowdI’ve been fascinated by the flash mobs celebrating the life of Michael Jackson. Clearly there’s no surprise people are reacting to his death, but that flash mobs have become a de-facto public response is intriguing.

Wikipedia informs me the first flash mob was created in 2003. I am sure there are many earlier examples - the U2 video Where The Streets Have No Name, seems a possible contender. Whatever the case, they’ve really only hit the popular psyche in the last two or three years (in Britain at least).

Is it a need to feel part of something that draws people in? A sense of community? of belonging? I’m not sure, but I suspect it’s a trend that’s going to stay. And I’d love to hear your pet theories.

Three recent flash mobs:

Last month I saw a great example. The Sasquatch Dance Guy. It’s an extraordinary video of how one man can build a crowd and start a craze in no time at all. It’s not an organised flash mob, but it’s a fascinating insight into instant community building.

Here’s this evening’s Michael Jackson flash mob in London:

And this appears to be a gather by bicycle flash mob for Michael Jackson in San Fran:

A few of the best flash mobs
While I am on the subject I thought it only fair to share a few of the best flash mobs ever:

The big freeze flash mob in Grand Central Station:

The T-mobile dance flash mob at Liverpool street

The Ninja flash mob

The MC Hammer flash mob

Wrapping up community management


Community managementI’ve loved putting together a series on debunking community management as part of FreshNetwork’s commitment to promoting best practice and sharing knowledge. The hardest part, of course, was boiling such a huge subject down into just five blogs. And they ended up behemoths…

So to help any time-poor, interest-rich readers out there, here is a summary of the key points from the series:

Introduction to community management

The what, who and why of community management. It’s a strange job to explain, and a challenge to do well. The way you splice your day depends largely on the community set-up, size and specific-goals, but there are general rules that cross all communities.

  • Respect your members
  • Retain good, safe boundaries and rules
  • Be fair
  • Don’t allow yourself to appear provoked (even when a member is driving you potty)
  • Listen to the group, and the individuals within it
  • Balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the group
  • Keep records of everything

Read the full blog post

Champions, active users and trolls

We looked at who is using your community and how they are using it. The 90-9-1 principle has been a trusted favourite of community people for over a decade, but it’s looking increasingly dusty as new forms of micro-activity (such as rating, thumbs ups etc) come in and blur the edges between readers and editors.

We talked about that precious core of users that behave wonderfully, use the features, have the community’s best interests at heart and help keep it thriving and healthy: community champions. But what really came across in the comments is how not to underestimate the ‘lurkers’, as they are hugely important to the success of your community – especially if the number of page views is a KPI for your site.

Respect your ‘readers’ as well as your top contributors!

The toxic team, bores and trolls also got an airing. As delightful as it would be, it’s nigh on impossible to bring together a group of people without at least a handful of them behaving in a way you find aggressive, unpleasant or just really annoying…

Read the full blog post

Growth of a community

So you’ve got your community, now what? How do you know if it’s healthy? In fact, what do you consider to be a healthy community? If one of the core aims of your community is a vibrant and colourful debating space, the number of posts and replies plus the subjects being debated will be far more important than the number of overall members, for example.

How do you judge the health of your community, what should you measure? We talked about the importance of thinking about this way before you build anything. It should be central to your plans and your ongoing strategy.

But now you have your community, how to keep it vibrant, how do you recruit new members. Do you even want to actively recruit new members? Is it more important to you to increase engagement with the members you currently have?

We drew some top-line hints:

  • Think open questions, talking points
  • Keep it simple
  • There’s more to engagement than posts
  • Trust your own interests and be authentic
  • Careful with current affairs

Read the full blog post

Moderation and safety

What are the risks to your company or name, health and happiness? How can you spot risks, and help eradicate them? What are the options for moderation, and the potential drawbacks of each type? You pre-moderate all content, and be sure of the quality of everything you let through, but this will create a very different (almost certainly slower and lesser used) beast to a post-moderated community, which in turn will behave differently to a reactively-moderated community where more of the control and responsibility is shared with the members.

The right moderation entirely depends on the community and its context, so we pulled together some thinking points to help your decision-making:

  • Who is the community aimed at?
  • Is it particularly at risk of malicious posting?
  • Does your membership feel comfortable with self-regulation?
  • Do you have the resources to pre-moderate quickly enough or will messages take too long to go live?
  • Is the subject matter particularly legally-sensitive?
  • Are children or vulnerable people going to be using it?
  • Is there a high chance of defamation e.g. a celeb gossip community?
  • How much control do you need rather than want?

But what about when the community doesn’t police itself very well, or show the restraint necessary to stay out of trouble?

In 2007,, an online community started and managed by a group of mums in North London, paid author Gina Ford a five-figure sum to settle a libel claim.

Gina Ford, a well-known figure in the baby book market, advocates strict, routine-based methods that some members of the Mumsnet community took exception to and allegedly defamatory comments were posted.

A legal fight ensued, with Justine Roberts, Mumsnet’s founder telling the press the site’s 15,000 daily comments were “impossible to monitor unless you have eyes and ears everywhere”.

Read the full blog post

Community metrics

Metrics are vital. Understanding the who, what, where, why and how many of your online community is vital. Understanding if you’re doing your company some good (or bad), is vital. Setting KPIs is vital and knowing whether you’re hitting them, is vital. Metrics are vital.

But which metrics are vital to you and your community? And how do you learn from these and share them with the wider organisation?

We spoke to various community managers, all of whom had a different favourite metric. And we also introduced some thinking about newsletters and external communications. In many ways, we argued, this is a more fragile relationship:

Mainly because unlike communicating within your community, where members have chosen to come to the space you have provided, here you are pushing your content into their domain. Their private space.

If you do it badly, intrusively, it could result not just in an unsubscribe from the mailing list, but a reaction on or an exodus from the community.

Put simply: You need to be as certain as possible how best to use newsletters. You need to know what works. And what doesn’t.

You need to measure everything that you do and be able to learn from it, because if you don’t, the health of your community is on the line.

Read the full blog post

To friend or to follow - connecting with people online


Holding HandsImage by WolfS♡ul via Flickr

I have friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter. There is a temptation to think that these are two names for essentially the same thing. That Facebook and Twitter have just chosen different terms to describe the same thing in order to differentiate their offerings, distinguish their brands. But actually there are some fundamental differences between ‘friend’ and ‘follow’, and the two concepts signal very different types of site and user experience.

There is a basic and fundamental difference between these two ways of getting to know people in social networks and online communities. To ‘friend’ is a two-way process; it requires both parties to agree that they want to connect with each other. To ‘follow’, on the other hand, is where one party finds somebody they are interested in and tracks them, with no need for the followee to give their consent. So friending is two-way and following is one-way.

At FreshNetworks, we build online communities with both types of connection. Which one you use, if any, leads to a very different user experience, and suits a different type of site.

To friend

Friending suits sites where we are interested in personal connections. Where we expect people to identify others like them, that they share experiences with, are in a similar situation to, or have similar interests to. Both parties are interested in connecting and so both have to feel that there would be a benefit from this. It is a high-intensity connection.

Friending allows users to follow what each other are doing - they may be interested in the same discussions and so want to know when their ‘friend’ has added something. It allows users to navigate their way around the online community based on the activity of a smaller selection of people they have connected with. At its most developed, friending allows a user to create their own sub-community of people that they feel close to and are connected with.

Friending really works when you are building a community with persona types who really want to share their experience with individuals across a range of topics and areas of the site. Where people are going to be able to quickly identify people they want to connect with in this way. Either by showing shared areas of interest, concerns or ideas. They want to engage with each other and that is what friending helps them to do.

To follow

By contrast, following is a low-intensity connection. It suits sites which are very much content-led with discussions, reviews or ideas take priority over the individuals who suggest them. One user needs to identify that they are interested in the content that another user has posted and that they want to be informed of all other posts that they make. The are less interested in engaging with the other user, sharing ideas and discussions with them, or even conversing with them directly. They are more interested in the content the other user creates and wants to read more of it.

Following is great for search. It allows users of the online community to select people whose content they admire and then build a large feed of such content. They might then use this feed to find out what is new, as an entry point into the community and the discussions.

Following really works when you are looking to build discussions on specific topics and want people to gravitate towards one set of discussions rather than another. It can be great when building a community around product reviews as users are typically more interested in certain types of product. It is also great for sites where there are a number of different discussion types and certain users are only interested in certain ones. But following works less well where you are tying to engage people across the content, and critically engage people with each other.