Journalism and the Internet: fumbling toward the future

Last Saturday I hung out with about 30 members of the Association for Women Journalists – Chicago and talked a bit about the 25 things I learned from SXSW, and then it just morphed into an overall discussion about journalism, technology and what’s happening next.

There’s a lot of curiosity and just a little trepidation about this new, uncertain future of journalism, but it was heartening to see a sense of optimism and opportunity from my fellow media professionals, rather than the usual doom-mongering. Things are scary, and at this point I don’t think there’s anyone in the media industry that knows what is going to happen next (if they claim to, they are lying) but rather than just leave the industry completely,  some look toward the future with an entrepreneurial eye, coming up with innovative and new ideas to reinvent the field.  

Apparently the AWJ – Chicago crowd isn’t the only one who feels an tenative sense of optimism. There was a recent Pew Project survey that states that online journalists:

… are less likely to think journalism is headed in the “wrong direction” than are journalists from legacy media. They are also more confident than they are pessimistic that online news will find a self-sustaining revenue model.

That’s a good thing, right? I think general journalists, who are curious by nature, want to ride this storm out to the end. I talked to AWJ – Chicago president Karen Kring over the weekend and she had some ideas as to why it’s been so difficult for “legacy journalists” (i like that term) to fully embrace change.

I like to tell my fellow media professionals that we’re all fumbling toward toward whatever future this will lead us to. It’s a very scary time, butthere are no shortage of dedicated, smart professionals who want to see this through.

TLF @ SXSW Interactive Days 3 and 4: There’s no one solution

Day 3 was a mixture of practical workshops and  topical discussion. I spent the morning at  a panel on user experience design: the “soft” red headed stepchild of web design  that’s secretly its backbone.  Of all of the panels I’ve attended here, Leah Buley’ s insight on how to work as a UX team of one will stick with me and hopefully guide what I do for years to come. I want to do more UX design!

I was not too impressed with a panel on online communities, and headed to the Can Social Media End Racism? panel. Of course it can’t, but considering how homogenous the SXSW crowd is for the most part, to be able to have the discussion in an environment like this was really important. For me, I still see so much opportunity to use online communications to really mobilize people to connect with each other and do outstanding things in real life, and panels like that one remind me that there’s a lot of untapped potential,  I want to be a part of it all.

The Web In Higher Education panel was PACKED. I was shocked at how well higher ed was represented here., in this standing room only crowd. It was, as co-presented Dylan Wilbanks noted, a “dour looking crowd.” Lots of frustration, staff vs. administration vs. faculty, it’s complicated and frought with politics, and lots of people seemed to need to get stuff off of their chest.

Wilbanks said that “higher ed web combines the worst part of startups with the worst parts of large corporations: limited resources + tons of bureaucracy.” Putting it that way, it made me want to throw myself out of a window.

He also noted that women in technology tend to be underrepresented in every industry -EXCEPT higher education. So is higher ed the pink ghetto of technology? Is it one of the few places where a female may be able to advance their careers? We didn’t actually have that discussion in the panel, but it’s worth thinking about. Ultimately, though, I met a lot of wildly creative people at the higher ed web panel and meetup later that day. Together there’s a metric ton of great ideas and potential innovation. Dour though the crowd seemed, no one was lacking in passion when talking about their jobs. That gives me hope.

I pretty much covered a lot of Day 4 in my post yesterday. The one panel that stood out was Engagement 1.0: Understanding the History of Fan Interactivity featuring one of my academic heroes, Henry Jenkins.Nothing new was said if you’ve ever read any of Jenkins’ work, particularly Textual Poachers, his groundbreaking look at fan culture, but as with the racism panel, I think it opened up the dialogue to some folks who may not be aware of this subculture. And since so much of online media these days about niche rather than broad audiences, it’s important, I think, to understand the role that fan culture has played in really shaping the “social web” we see today. There were a few marketers in the audience who essentially asked how/if any of this information can be leveraged on a marketing level. basically everyone on the panel said the same thing. “yes, if you actually listen to your fans rather than telling them what you think they should hear.”

Jenkins used Star Trek as an example of a media company that destroyed it own fanbase by trying to police fan activity (trying to shut down fan run clubs and fan made movies) while at the same time trying to force new Star Trek spinoffs down fans throats. The lesson: fans know what they value from the experience, so listen to them and learn from it.

I’ve got one more day here, ending (for me) with a talk by another one of my gurus, Chris “The Long Tail” Anderson of Wired. I am winding down from the SXSW Interactive experience, excited and frustrated about the future, but ultimately still psyched by its possibility. I feel like we are all learning from each other here, as we all fumble in the dark toward whatever future online media brings our way. But the fun is in the process,  I think, and as long as that is the case, SXSWi will continue to blow minds each year.

One more day to go!

Some SXSW-inspired thoughts about online communities, affinity, and the rules of engagement.

I am starting to get a bit overwhelmed by all the SXSW talk. But much of the palpable tension regarding social media and corporate interaction I’ve been able to crystallize and articulate in a way that may actually be useful; at least for me.

It was best explained in the “Make Yourself More Interesting” panel on day one: the tension between developing a transactional interaction with users versus a relationship building interaction in their social media initiatives. I think the real tension comes from corporations/organizations trying to force  their online engagement into a transactional interaction while in the process of  relationship-building.

It rings false; consumers know it, so they leave and create relationships on their own.

The fact is, we don’t need companies to create communities for us to interact online. We can do it on our own. We do it better, and we have more fun in the process. Companies need us more than we need them, so the onus is on companies to give us a reason to interact with them online. Whether it’s through interesting content, or discussion, or free stuff. (Never underestimate the power of free stuff. It was my big reason for going to the Google party last night.) But with “social media marketing,” companies assume that affinity alone is the going to be the draw to a Facebook page, Twitter feed, whatever.

I think people get involved in online communities for three reasons:

1.) to interact/communicate with like minded people

2.) to feel more connected to the source of their affinity (product/celebrity/cause)

3.) to get information that they can’t get anywhere else about the source of their affinity

In theory, a company should be able to achieve the last two things better than any fan could, but often they don’t.

Mostly because companies are so focused on the end-game (buy our product! give us money!) they don’t spend enough time really doing the first thing on my list, interacting and communicating with the community they are trying to build. They are too eager to exploit the community interaction before it’s even had time to build.

That’s why bottom-up, fan-based communities tend to grow and mobilize more effectively, the rules of engagement are different, people want to connect with each other; the end game is the connection, not the transaction.

The ROI (if you really want to define one)  is a community of like minded people who share information  and resources freely, so when the time comes (if it ever does) to mobilize that community or to get them to do something (like pay for something), all you really have to do is ask, if you even have to do that at all. Think Obama, or read my Nine Inch Nails post from a couple of weeks back for an example. No really, READ IT.

If companies /organizations want to do this (and honestly, I think very few of them can do it successfully) they will have to do a few things:

1.) Be more open. In real life (hopefully) your friends are diverse and far from “ideal”. Same goes for social media.

2.) Shut up and listen to your fans. Really, that’s it. SHUT UP. and LISTEN to us.

3.) Don’t freak out so much about the right thing to say, talk to people like it’s a conversation, not a press release. Admit when you screw up, when you are mad, be random, like a real person would. It’s OK. we will love you more for it.

4.) Be patient. Just because a whole slew of people don’t love you immediately doesn’t mean they won’t ever love you. Like real-life, the best relationships take time to build.

5.) Accept when we get mad at you, and know that if we love you enough, we’ll be back.

That’s it for now.

TLF @ SXSW Interactive Day 2: FAIL HARD and Make People Happy

Happiness  and love were the buzzwords today. From Zappos Tony Hsieh to the comedy stylings of John Gruber and Merlin Mann, there was a lot of talk about making your social media audience happy, delighting them, about blogging out of love and obsession for your chosen topic, and about really connecting with whatever social media audience you serve.

There’s a lot of discussion about control when it comes to marketing and social media: controlling your message, controlling your audience, etc, and I think for a lot of corporate communications/tech folks (and frankly, non-profit and education folks ) too, the idea of measuring love and relationships sounds like a bunch of hippie crap.  But there’s truth to a lot of this mindset and it will definitely filter out the social media tourists from the folks who are in this for the long haul.

Anyway, I started with  Is Privacy Dead or Just Very Confused? , a panel that included Danah Boyd and Siva Vaidhyanathan, who are pretty much rockstars on the topic.  It really put into perspective our shifting ideas of privacy, and  just how much of it we all are abondoning when we use Facebook, Google, basically any free social media/online service. Too late to freak out about it, and delete your Gmail/Yahoo email account and Facebook status. What’s done is done. But we can, as consumers become more proactive and aware of it, especially as we use these services over the years. I  talked to two other conference -goers who didn’t attend the panel. Their answer to the issue? “oh just change your privacy settings!”

So it’s clear that the discussion of privacy is one that a lot of us don’t really interrogate too deeply, and it’s clearly changed for many of us who live our lives online.

Still, I just want to go on the record as STILL LOVING GOOGLE.

I went to a panel on what you can learn from the social media strategies of the Dean and Obama campaigns, and I was all ready to roll my eyes and be bored. At this point, you can’t read a social media-focused blog (including this one) that doesn’t lose it over how awesome the Obama campaign was. I figured there was nothing new to learn, and I was wrong.

The big revelations from these insider strategists weren’t necessarily in the strategy itself, and not at all in the technology, but in how the strategy was conceived and tested. FAIL HARDER,was the mantra I took away with from this panel.  Experiment, knowing that a good chunk of what you do may not work.

Again, many organizations won’t want to hear this, as they are struggling for a magic bullet to monetize and define social media success, but that’s why the political sphere and the indie music world – two fields that have recently had to deal with some serious back to the wall urgency, have the guts to experiment boldly with social media.

After doing some wandering and talking to folks for a few hours, I went to the tail end of the simulcast of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. It was cool to hear his approach to relationship oriented consumer relations and social media (he’s the one who really made a point of the “make people happy” thing) because that is going to be such a hard sell for folks, but to hear it from a CEO will probably be a lot more influential to execs than hearing it from the office  geek who runs their  Twitter feed. So thanks, Tony!

The 149 Surprising Ways to Turbocharge Your Blog With Credibility! panel seemed like more of a diss on problogging than anything else. But it was a hilarious and much needed diss. Rather than going on and on about personal branding and messages , Gruber and Mann really stressed to bloggers the importance of writing about what you’re enthusiastic about/obsessed with. Sounds basic, but let’s face it there a lot of boring problogs out there because there are people who haven’t  figured that useful little nugget out.

The Suxorz 09 panel was prettty cool.  Of course lots of discussion about Skittles, and whether their social media campaign was WIN or FAIL.  FAIL, seemed to be the general consensus, but KFC and I think I’ve had my fill of social media related panels though, I am really looking forward to getting my geek on with some usability- related panels today.

A bad run-in with a taco ended my night at the Dorkbot party early, and I missed karaoke night, but that’s OK. I’ve got three more days.

TLF @ SXSW Interactive: Day 1 – “Waiting for the Tourists to Leave”

touristsNo, I hven’t finished the “Kill Social Media” t-shirt I threatened to wear to SXSW, but I plan to.

 Fact is, it may not be entirely necessary. A lot of the frustration that I vented about in my earlier post has been shared by a couple of panel presenters already, and it’s only been one day.

I don’t think there’s going to be a revolution of any kind, but I think we’ll start to see some  social media stalwarts “give push back” (to borrow one of my “favorite” corp-speak phrases) to traditional marketing agencies/corporations shoehorning old practices into new media. Skittles’ recent foray into social media was a big topic on this first day, and I’m sure it will come up again, and again and again. Was the idea of making the Skittles website a social media hub, to give up the brand to its consumers, a bold and audacious idea or just another example of a big compnay paying lip service to the power of social media without investing in actually buidling community? One attendee at the (awesome)  Blacks in Tech meeting I attended later in the evening said he was “personally offended” by the Skittles campaign, that it was like “co-opting” the practice and culture of social media. That was probably the strongest opinion I heard but for the most part , but there were few people  I heard that were impressed by it all.

If you’re reading and attending SXSWi as well, a quick word of advice: if you want to attend any panel with the words “social media” in the title, either come early or make other plans. It’s standing-room only conditions here and likely to get even crazier. Being shut out of two social media panels, I instead attended two web design panels and they were fantastic. At one of them, Oooh, That’s Clever! (Unnatural Experiments in Web Design),  web designer Paul Annett challenged designers to create not just usable website, but beautiful ones; that creating a delightful experience for users is just as important for marketing as usability, Here’s where my  web usability freak, Jakob Nielsen fangirl side comes out: “Ugly and user-friendly all the way!!!!” But I do appreciate a becautiful website. For a couple of minutes. The two things don’t have to be mututally exclusive.

I guess.

The last panel I attended for the afternoon, Try To Make Yourself More Interesting, was when the Kill Social Media sentiment started to rear its head. The palpable tension between practicioners of social media and the companies that employ them is growing.  There’s defnitely a push-and-pull  between the needs of traditional marketers/media professionals  to quantify success, to measure ROI, and social media practioners for whom experimentation for its own sake, connecting and building community is the main – if not only – goal. Can these two goals co-exist, and perhaps lend themselves to supporting the other? I don’t know. One panelist (i think it was DL Bryon from Bikehugger) mentioned that he was waiting for the social media “tourists” to leave (ie marketers) so that the natives can get back to business. I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen completely.

Panelist Kristina Halvorson commented that “social media has not changed the corporate structure.” It hasn’t, yet, though it probably will, over time. Convincing marketers  and media professionals that they no longer have complete control over their message, or their audience (and that they probably never will)  is a hard sell. I understand the reluctance to embrace what is essentially spitting in the face of decades worth of communications/marketing dogma. I don’t have an answer, but to acknowledge the change that’s already on the horizon, and it’s resulting struggle was very cathartic. For those social media folks who aren’t working at a free-wheeling start up or PR firm but use social media  in more traditional communications fields, this tension is a big part of the work. It was nice to have that acknowledged.

That’s it for now, I’ve got some thoughts about blacks in tech, blogging and personal branding that’ll I’ll save for later.

Kill Social Media! Kill it Dead!

burning-house1I know this will sound crazy coming from someone who spends 12-14 hours a day working and socializing online in social media (including writing for this social media focused-blog) but, boy I am really ready to see this sucker die.

In fact, I’ve personally declared 2009 as The Year of Killing Social Media (make a note of it) because it’s really time to put a fork in “social media” as a term, a concept and a professional field.

Bogged down by meaningless buzzwords and riddled with experts, social media is in danger of becoming just as tedious, as insular and as conventional as the much derided MSM, in just a fraction of the time.

Don’t believe me? Start a Twitter account, then tell me how long it takes before a bunch of  “social media expert” types start following you. I’ll guess about half a day. And it just gets boring. At some point, there are only so many tweets about transparency, about social media optimization, about the “semantic web” before you just stop caring.

This blog post at calls it “social media deafness,” and yeah, it’s happened to me. With all of the industry talk about social media, the enthusiasm about it, the potential of online communications to really democratize media is being lost in the noise of social media hype and navel gazing.

Don’t get me wrong, I do still love this stuff; I still read Mashable every day, I still talk about this stuff with co-workers and geeky friends, I still ogle my Google Analytics dashboard everyday and update my Twitter/FB status regularly. Hell, I am still blogging. It’s my job to know about this stuff, to do this stuff, to find out what the so-called experts think.

But I’m also tired. I’m tired of reading about the rules of blogging, about who’s really working their “personal branding opportunities,” on how to replicate the social media success of the Obama campaign to sell widgets or raise money for homeless puppies (note to all: unless your widget/puppy comes with Barack Obama, don’t even bother trying.)

I’m sick of the discussion of how to leverage the influence of social media for immediate profits, without any discussion about actually creating a dialogue with your audience. That’s just too scary for some folks.

If the future of social media means sitting around all day talking about one’s “retweetability”, then bump that noise: let’s burn that house down now. Or perhaps it will choke on its own hype, the way the dot-com boom did in the late 90’s/early 00’s.

Right now, “social media” is shiny and new for the general population that recently discovered Facebook and Twitter; it means executives are starting to take notice, at least superficially, and want to slap up a Facebook page and watch the money roll in.

What I am looking forward to is the day social media is fully and seamlessly integrated into the traditional media ecosystem; it’s already happening, for good or ill. This is the year we’ll see many print papers move to an online-only format, and adopt user-generated content into their mix. Millions of people already go online as their main source for information. “Social” media is becoming the media.

It can’t happen soon enough for me. But the novelty needs to wear off of social media, the shine needs to fade so that fads and buzzwords can settle into action and progress, and we’ll see media professionals adopt these tools as a regular part of their work. It will happen, mostly out of necessity.

I think the future is bright, once the social media hype runs its course, I am just eager for someone to pull the trigger so that we can watch the rebirth happen.

What fandom and cultural context can tell us about the Obama Hope controversy


Creative Commons photo of La Justicia no es ciega in Chile-- Another interpretation of the Roman Goddess Iustitia with her scales broken

There’s been much bloggage about the AP-photo based Shepard Fairey Obama Hope poster, but one issue I haven’t seen discussed in the midst of discussions about fair use (or copyright violation) is the role that cultural context can play. A related issue is the attribution/ownership/licensing of the original photo, discussed on Fresh Air — plus the initial filing in the suit (PDF).

So what role can cultural context play in quoting / remixing / appropriating /  the work of another? I give you

(Lady) Justice metal-style and

(a) Supreme Court Justice’s Imagin(ation).

Unless you are a fan of metal or hardcore, you are likely unaware of the deep admiration that The Dillinger Escape Plan and Metallica have for each other (NSFW info).

Based on this mutual crush, DEP made a shirt with the graphic to the left available for sale for one day only, with Greg ranting on their blog (entire post Greg-style NSFW):

Here’s a preview…(please don’t sue us Lars! I know you’re reading! It’s an homage!!!)…
Inspired by the Metallica album “…And Justice For All”, and the lady justice visual, this limited edition “82588 : NO JUSTICE FOR ANY” shirt features a headless Lady Justice crumbling and falling apart on the front, with “Dillinger Escape Plan” written in the classic Metallica “Justice” font at the bottom, and the uneven scales of justice being tipped by money on the back. … Then after you order one make sure you listen to something gnarly off of that album like “Dyer’s Eve”, or “Shortest Straw”, or the middle part of “Blackened” on a loop for 30 minutes…

So for you non-hard music fans, your eyes have glazed over, so how about some cultural context about Lady Justice and and the imagery as used by Metallica? For anyone who is within the metal/hardcore subculture, the shirt is meant to honor the contributions of Metallica as almost legendary — their music, their imagery, and their importance. Yet it uses much of the original to make its point.

Would this quoting or homage count as fair use under copyright? Especially for those in the know, it uses a large amount of the original, yet does so in a call-back respectful way — NOT as a parody. Oddly enough, if the DEP used musical elements that recall Metallica, yet sound different, this community may consider it to be more of a “copyright” violation than this shirt. And note that the idea of symbolic justice, even justice being destroyed  — as portrayed in a similar means by Lady Justice — is an idea that has been portrayed elsewhere because of its larger cultural resonance.

So moving beyond copyright — what about possible confusion / dilution of trademark issues? Metallica does not seem to have a trademark in the complete imagery — Doris, the Metallica stylized writing, etc, but they do have a trademark on the well-known stylized Metallica writing — 2213592 & 2038081. But would a reasonable hardcore fan get confused by the two? Hardly! That is about as likely as confusing The Mechanix with The Four Horsemen!

One of Metallica's trademarks

Another divergence about cultural context and fair use — think about John Lennon’s song Imagine, about an idealized possible world that includes lyrics mentioning a lack of religion. If you owned the copyright and were protective of the song , you might not want it to be used without your permission to compare life without religion with communist dictators. And sue the filmmakers.

But why would the filmmakers want to use *that* song? Because it has has larger cultural resonance — a larger cultural meaning that Supreme Court Chief Justice Alito uses in his majority Free Speech clause ruling in Pleasant Grove City, Utah v. Summum (PDF), quoting the entire song lyrics in a footnote (footnote 2). To make this almost time-travel circular, now can I quote the footnote to make a point about the case? What about John Lennon and Imagine? If it’s good enough for the Supreme Court and fair use, what about regular people?

I hope when a court determines whether the use of the image from an AP photo by a freelancer remixed by an artist into a new work is fair use the transformative cultural context is considered. After all, this image now has a larger cultural significance — hanging in both the National Gallery and on flagpoles all over Chicago.