Citizen journalism is more fun to do than to talk about

At Blogher, I was at a birds-of-a feather session on citizen journalism. It was moderated by Amy Gahran. Jay Rosen was there, along with several others who are doing citizen journalism of various flavors.
The discussion focused on the tired old wordgames — what is a journalist, what is a citizen journalist. Are bloggers journalists or not? How can citizen journalists be ethical? Is citizen journalism a good term, or is it intimidating for citizens, and exclusive of people who are non-citizens.
The discussion implies a zero-sum game of prestige and reputation between “old” and “new” journalism. I say it’s boring, and I say the heck with it.
Citizen journalism is more fun to do than to discuss. In the battle to save municipal wireless projects in Texas, Chip Rosenthal and I set up a weblog and a mailing list. And we covered the ins and outs of the issue through the legislative process. Someone attended the hearing, or watched it on video. We tracked the latest version of the bills.
We were doing “advocacy journalism” — we have an opinion — we’re not neutral on the question about whether cities and towns should be able to support broadband access. But we were covering the story. We often “broke” the story, simply because we following an issue closely, and the mainstream media has a broad beat and can’t cover everything. When we had news, we sent email to the reporters who were covering the issue for the mainstream media. And we became a source for the reporters.
We assembled a community. We found the people who were doing community broadband projects, and we wrote about them. We used the mailing list as a primary means of staying in touch with the community. And the blog did a great job of helping us link with others who were participating and covering the story, through comments and Technorati-discovered cross-links.
We didn’t complain that we were a few citizens fighting the phone company. We didn’t complain that the issue was undercovered by the mainstream media. We took the resources we had, and we used them. We didn’t spend time trying to define what we were doing. We just did it.
By committing acts of citizen journalism, whatever you call it, the new definitions will emerge.

The algorithm of network power

danah boyd just made a striking point at Blogher.
The link algorithms that drive “Top 100” lists at Technorati and other services are based on a broad and shallow pattern of linking. This is characteristic of male patterns of networking. By contrast, characteristically female patterns of networking are smaller and denser.
The “Top 100” pattern recaps the hit-based attention and financial economics of the mass media. It just doesn’t measure the sub-communities that should be visible out of the “Long Tail.”
Mary Hodder says that she is assembling an algorithm that will highlight the subnetworks and the long tails, using critera like comments and interlinks.
This is needed. Today’s algorithms are missing communities of interest. And frankly, it’s missing opportunities for power and money.

Does Technorati Top 100 count

The conversation at BlogHer is about how and whether to break into the Technorati 100. This misses the point of the Long tail— what makes the Blogosphere different from the mainstream media. You can aim to be a top celebrity. Or you can be an authoritative voice on an important topic, and be the media for an important issue. The blogosphere isn’t just about celebrity, it’s about subcommunities.

Technorati and the discovery of community

Thanks, Chris Anderson for the kind words. I’ll have to repay them by explaining where he is wrong again.
Chris writes:

Technorati is a blog aggregator without a community

This is true when you use Technorati as a pure zeitgeist-check, to find what the blogosphere is dithering about today (Karl Rove and Windows Vista).
But it is false for one of the most interesting and valuable applications of Technorati — conversation discovery. Bloggers use Technorati to find which other blogs are responding to their posts, so they can continue the conversation.
In an era of comment spam, Technorati has become a primary method of knitting together cross-blog conversation. Technorati helps make conversations and subcommunities visible. The “community” of Technorati is not a feature of the service itself. But Technorati is a key, and hidden component of the blogosphere’s long-tail communities.

The “long tail” is social

Chris Anderson writes a refreshing rant about the misuse of the Long Tail. But he’s partly wrong.
Anderson writes:

There are many distortions of the term, but the most common one is to use it as a newly-positive synonym for “fringe”. Invoking the Long Tail is not a magic wand to explain away the apparent lack of demand for what you’ve got. The Long Tail is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for poor-selling product. Or weak sectors. Or bad ideas.

Anderson goes on to say that business models that focus only on fringe content are doomed to fail. Effective “long tail business models”, like Amazon, combine popular content with niche content, and use the popular content to draw people in.
Anderson’s right — Indy-only online music services draw much less business than providers like Amazon that can use popular content as a draw. A customer might check out a Britney Spears album, and then use the recommendation engine to traverse to related and much less well-known music.
But Anderson is partly wrong. LiveJournal and Flickr disprove his theory. LiveJournal is an online journal community that has historically had a large population of young people. They congregate in social groups, often starting with people who are friends offline. The software gives users tools to control the level of privacy. A user can define which friends can see private content, what content to share with intimate friends, and what to share with the wider world. Similarly, Flicker is an online photo sharing community, where users can share photos with their friends and the world.
Cultural preferences are social. When people like strange music, unusual fashions, or minority religious practices, they most often do so with a subculture of like-minded folk.
This is hard to see in the mainstream commercial economy because of the history of technology. Until now, mainstream marketing has had two main kinds of choices.
* Mass media is used to reach wide audiences. Coarse-grained targeting is used to reach market segments — viewers of the Cooking Channel, or readers of Parenting Magazine. The audiences for these niches is still quite large, many thousands of people.
* Direct marketing is used to reach individuals. Direct postal mail, telemarketing, and legitimate targeted email is used to reach individuals who are selected by personal history (e.g. bought the product before), or by membership in a targeted demographic group.
Until now, the smaller social networks in which people share culture have been largely private and noncommercial, with a small number of exceptions, like Tupperware parties and Amway.
What’s worse, the content industry has done its best to make sure that social content-sharing is illegal. Rather than seeing opportunities in tools that let people share content, the industry sees all sharing as piracy, and tries to stamp it out.
So, the successful examples of social content-sharing are based on non-commercial content, like LiveJournal and Flickr. There are also grassroots networks of cross-linked music blogs where people review and recommend music. And there are networks of cross-linked knitting blogs where people review and recommend patterns. Classic long-tail stuff.
So, Chris Anderson is right that catalog retailers like Netflix and Amazon need to have hits, which help draw users to the niche. Their recommendation engines serve as an automated proxy for the natural social recommendations that people make every day.
But that’s true only when you start with the content. When you start with groups of people, then opportunities for “long tail” are abundant, and don’t depend quite so much on mainstream content.

Search vs. RSS?

Kevin Hale writes that RSS is becoming more important than search.
I think that gets something not-quite-right. It’s true that when you find a superb resource, RSS lets you subscribe to the stream, rather than having to go back and find it again. RSS processors like the clever new Feedshake let you be even more picky about your subscription reading.
But the universe is always going to have more good information than a person can read every day. By an awful lot.
That means that when you’re looking for new information, you’ll go out and search for it. Sometimes you’ll want to subscribe to the good sources you find. Sometimes you’ll want to subscribe to the search. And sometimes you’re looking for a one-time goodie.
So RSS sources, as a superset of blogs, are important to a search algorithm, because they are well-structured, and selected to be timely. And RSS is a good way to subscribe to a search. Search and RSS are complementary in these ways.
But RSS doesn’t displace search. That makes no mathematical sense.
This wants to be an infographic… there’s a medium number of resources you want to consume most of regularly, and a vast number of resources you want to tap into occasionally, using really good search.
The Hale article via Jeff Jarvis

Wiki titles vs. blog titles

Blog titles are headlines. They’re supposed to be catchy and attention-getting. You’re not supposed to need to remember them.
Wiki titles are subjects. They are best as unadorned nouns and noun phrases that are easy to remember and stimulate collisions.
Take the last post, for example. The title is a blog-style headline — Oishii, a smarter zeitgeist check. If this were a wiki-blog, I’d be tempted to give it a dull, basic title — just “[Oiishi]”. Then I’d link it to a page called “[Zeitgeist]”, which would cross-link the various zeitgeist checking services, like Daypop and Blogdex, and the New York Times most-emailed pages.
This way, anytime someone tries to link to [Oishii], they’ll find the entry and add their new thoughts and information.
One of the bits of damage done to the wiki paradigm by the addition of the blog feature in Socialtext and the blog nature of our shared intranet wiki is the use of catchy, blog-style headlines that will never generate a link happy accident in a million years.
One healing practice is to create “index pages” that link together the various catchily-phrased pages. When the newsworthiness is gone, the content can be refactored into a page with a duller topic.
The obverse danger can be seen Bill Seitz’ blog-wiki, Not to pick on Bill, but to show the opposite risk. Bill writes regular, interesting updates, but they often have boring subjects like Jabber and Paul Allen.
The wiki-blog has a valuable pattern, where people have incentive to post and share new content, which can be annealed into longer-term knowledge. But there are also gaps that need to be cleverly bridged in order to get the best of both genres.

Oishii – a smarter zeitgeist check

Oishii “polls the front page every 5 minutes, and returns all sites bookmarked by at least 30 people.”
This is cleverer than the typical “highschool popularity” algorithm. The traditional zeitgeist checks, like Daypop and Blogdex, only show the “most popular” stories. Oiishi shows “all sites bookmarked by at least 30 people” — so it captures a more diverse range of shared content.

Feedshake – easy aggregate feeds

Feedshake lets you create a feed out of several combined feeds, filtered by a keyword.
This is an early beta. You can filter by only one keyword, with no wildcards. And it supports only RSS 2.0 feeds right now. It will be better when it supports more feed variants so you can make combined feeds out of more of the available data.
In the meantime, FeedShake works nicely with Esme Vos’ site, Glenn Fleischman’s , Broadband Reports municipal section, and Free Press broadband section. The feedshake pulls all feeds that contain the word “municipal”.