Get the New Fear, Same as the Old Fear

It’s early January, the first post of the year and already I’m feeling a bit weary of Web 2.0 and blogging. My ennui is really fear: fear that journalists don’t get blogging, that bloggers don’t get journalism, and that all of us are covering something that isn’t half as exciting as it was looked a year or so ago.

First off, the sense the that Web 2.0 isn’t quite what it was cracked up to be. Word is out that more dot.coms are hitting the dust, or at least sniffing it: TechCrunch and VentureBeat both have something to say on the subject. My sense? Amidst all the money, the cute (and samey) logos and cute (and samey) names, we’ve kind of forgotten what Web 2.0 is about. It’s about doing things that make sense online, not doing things online for the sake of it.

But then there’s the bigger worry, at least for me: is my job about to be taken over by bloggers who can’t write and have PR cards up their sleeve? Nick Carr thinks so, laying in less than subtly to Andy Abramson, pointing to what he says is poor grammar, sloppy spelling and half-baked sentences masquerading as New Journalism. I declare an interest here: I know and personally like Andy, so I’m not going to join in what is to me in any case a tad too personal. Suffice to say that we need this year to get sorted out the ethics of being a blogger before we a) start calling blogging journalism and b) start seriously alienating both reader and traditional journalist. My rule of thumb is: If you’re hawking something other than the objective unvarnished truth, declare it and leave the building. Let’s not muddy the waters further.

Finally, let’s not confuse being nice with being honest and being straightforward. I count Steve Rubel among those I personally like in this terrain, but it shouldn’t stop me saying what I think. Steve makes a strong argument in favor of ignoring ‘mean people’; he’s struck dozens of ‘mean-spirited blogs’ off his reader list this year. Steve is of course free to do what he likes and read who he likes. And I am certainly not crazy about some of the pettiness and personal attacks that the technorati blogosphere seems to mistake for trenchant writing of late. But here’s my suggestion for Steve and others: be careful to distinguish snark from critical writing. The two aren’t always the same. Sometimes there’s stuff we don’t like to read but we should.

My new year’s resolution is to try to keep remembering that the only person we should be writing for is the person who wants to know the truth, and wants to know that we don’t carry any extra baggage — either for or against the subject — when we write it. Have a good year.

The Real Conversation

We all keep talking about the idea of conversations — the “market as a conversation” (as opposed to the companies shouting at us to buy their stuff) and, nowadays, as the blogosphere as the manifestation of this. The problem is: A conversation between whom and whom? And, more important, what happens when the conversation starts getting spun, as all conversations do?

I’ve grown increasingly skeptical of the genuineness of this conversation: as PR gets wise, as (some) bloggers get greedy and (other) bloggers lose sight of, or fail to understand the need to maintain some ethicaleboundaries, the conversation has gotten skewed. I’m not alone in this, although cutting through to the chase remains hard. The current case of the Wal-Mart/Edelman thang, where the chain’s PR firm reportedly sponsored a blog about driving across America and turned it into a vehicle (sorry) to promote Wal-Mart, helps bring clarity to some issues, or at least to highlight the questions.

(Because there’s so much out there already on this, I should probably point out the facts as we know them: A couple hoping to drive across the country , BusinessWeek reported, discovered that Wal-Mart allows Recreation Vehicle users (RVers) to park in their lots for free, so they decided to do that every place they stopped. They sought the approval of an organisation called Working Families for Wal-Mart, an organization set up by Edelman to fight bad press against the chain. The organisation decided to sponsor the couple’s entire trip, paying for the couple to fly to Las Vegas, “where a mint-green RV would be waiting for them, emblazoned with the Working Families for Wal-Mart logo.” The group also paid for gas, set up a blog site, and paid the woman a freelance fee for her entries. The final post on the blog discloses all this, including the connection between the couple and Edelman. But until then the only evidence of a link to Wal-Mart was a banner add for the Working Families group.)

This is how I’d put the issues:

  • Can a blog written by someone with an interest beyond merely informing the reader be ever considered something other than promotion for that interest, however well-concealed or unconscious? We get all upset about PayPerPost (rightly so) but far more insidious are blogs that earn their wages in less obvious ways.
  • What happens to a conversation when it turns out to be between people who aren’t who they pretend to be? The conversation, in this case, appears to be between, not two ordinary folk casually mentioning how good Wal-Mart is on their travels, but between the PR company and their employer.
  • When is a spokesperson not a spokesperson? How should we regard Edelman’s Steve Rubel if the one thing he’s not really covering in his blog is the issue about his own company? At the time of writing the story’s been out there for three days already, and not a mention, even a “I can’t comment on this at the moment, let me get back to you.” Given that Steve is well-versed in these nuances, I’d expect him to be quicker off the mark in this case, company sensitivities and procedures notwithstanding. (Update: Steve has now, on the fourth day, posted something.)

Why do I sometimes feel we’re caught in a kind of Groundhog Day in the blogosphere, where we are doomed to repeat ourselves until we learn the lessons our forebears learned? Are we so arrogant that we think we’re smarter? The lessons are:

  • The Chinese Walls aren’t just for the Chinese. They’re for us: to protect us against conflicts of interest, snake-oil salesman, shysters and shills. These walls were built over centuries, and we shouldn’t think we’re so smart we don’t need them, however imperfect they are.
  • You write to promote your company, however tangentially, and you speak for that company. It’s not a cherrypicking job. You can’t just ignore topics you don’t like the look of. If you don’t know what the line is, find out and tell your audience asap. If the story is wrong, get your version out asap.
  • Define the conversation, and the conversationalists. Too much talk about conversations, already. It’s a nice, neutral, inclusive word. But it’s not really. Because most of the time we don’t know who’s talking, and what their real purpose is. When PR firms with clients, or venture capitalists with an interest in seeing their investments rise in value, or whatever, start to get involved they naturally want to steer the conversation a certain way. Nothing wrong with that, except they must accept that they remain on one side of the conversation. They can’t claim to be on both sides. Journalists learned this a long time ago. It’s time we all remembered it.

Has PR Taken Over The Conversation?

Here’s the hot news for a Monday: PR firm Edelman has teamed up with Technorati to develop localized versions of their offering in German, Korean, Italian, French and Chinese. Edelman’s PR teams worldwide will retain exclusive use of these sites as they are being developed, beginning with French this summer. These localized versions – which will include keyword/tag search and more – will evolve into more robust public-facing sites that everyone will be able to access beginning in the first quarter of next year.

Interesting. And, I have to say, puzzling. What is a PR firm doing developing content for what is basically a blog search engine? (I’m sure both companies consider themselves more than that, but strip it away and that’s what you’re left with.) Here’s to me what is the kicker, from Steve Rubel’s blog (Steve now works at Edelman):

This is the first in what we hope will be a series of collaborations with the Technorati team. It is designed to help our clients participate in global conversations. In addition to working with Technorati, we also plan to align ourselves with other companies that are developing outstanding technologies that will help us further this important goal. We look forward to hearing your reaction and ideas.

Now, I’m trying to think this through. Edelman’s interest is in promoting its clients. Fair enough. Technorati would be a great place to do that through advertising. But are there not conflicts of interest, and if so, where and when do they arise? What happens if blogs critical of Edelman’s clients start appearing on Technorati? How do readers know that the rankings are not being tweaked to hide such blogs lower down the search results? How do we know that faux blogs or PR-sponsored material is not finding its way up the rankings, or that the material being translated on these non-English Technorati sites is being developed in-house, so to speak?

I guess I worry too much. Perhaps this is all good stuff, a merging of minds intent on the same transparent goal: better information for all. But some of this new blogosphere world is starting to sometimes sound like a parody of itself; of a court full of people spouting all the right buzzwords, but lacking a lot of their original meaning or sincerity. Or maybe I misunderstood it all in the first place. Technorati man Peter Hirshberg, for example, writes about the Edelman/Technorati deal thus:

With the incredible growth of the blogosphere, brands and media companies worldwide realize that their communications environment is also in for big changes. The clout that bloggers have developed the U.S. is going global. The lessons that marketers have begun to learn here— get a clue, listen, participate, engage— will soon apply everywhere.

Yes, it’s true that the blogosphere is big and going global. Well, it already has gone global. And it’s true that a lot of marketers still need to get a clue. But does it mean that a PR firm takes what sounds to me like a board-like, potentially gate-keeping position in one of the key starting points for anyone looking for information in the blogosphere?

I’m no staunch fan of traditional media. But it spent decades, centuries even, building Chinese walls between the marketing and the editorial departments (and, in some cases, between the opinion pages and the news gathering pages.) This was so that what you read wasn’t influenced (or unduly influenced) by the guy paying the bills, whether it was the proprietor or the advertisers. It didn’t always work. At some places it never worked. But you kind of knew where, as a reader, you stood. For sure, we’re all struggling to find this new balance in the blogosphere, and there’s no reason it needs to look anything like the old model. But we should be talking about it, not just gushing about it, just because everyone is using the same satchel of buzzwords.

Perhaps the key to all this lies in Richard Edelman’s blog. He goes into greater detail about the deal, and it’s clear he’s focusing on the analytics side of Technorati — it’s phenomenal ability to track the blogosphere, not merely in terms of users, but in terms of what they’re talking about. This is a goldmine for marketing folk, of course, and having a global presence Edelman is going to love to get its hands on the analytics of Korean and Chinese blogs — a relatively unknown territory to anyone who doesn’t read those languages. There’s lots in there for them, as there is in the idea that “every company can be a media company”, although I think this one, too, needs a bit more analysis.

But the key is in the last two goals Richard mentions: “make PR people valued contributors to the discussion, not the often-reviled spinmeister or hype artist lampooned in the media.” This means, at best, PR becoming more honest and factual in their presentation of information, rather than spin. At worst, it means that the average user will increasingly find it hard to sift between what is PR and what is objective, impartial commentary. For every independent blog there will be a spin blog, or a blog that might be independent on 99 subjects but one. After a while, you’ll forget which one, and that’s when the message finds its way through.

The fourth goal Richard mentions is this: “we are certain that this tool will be useful to brand marketers and corporate reputation experts alike. Look at the corporate reputation benefits for Microsoft, GM and Boeing, all three getting praised for new openness as they initiate blogs such as Scobelizer or Randy’s Journal.” What I think this means is that companies are getting praise for setting up blogs  — although one should distinguish between Scoble and Boeing, I fear; one was a guy and a laptop, carving something out of nothing; the other was a major initiative using hired help. Richard concludes: “For brands, the blogosphere will be a unique way to solicit expert opinion, to mobilize the base of enthusiasts and to monitor worldwide trends (avian flu if you are KFC). A globalized world needs global tools and analysis.” Several different issues at play here, not all of them compatible. “Solicit expert opinion”. Does that mean listen to the bloggers who know what they’re talking about, before it becomes a big mess, a la Kryptonite? Or is “mobilize the base of enthusiasts” put out the word to people who understand its importance, or mobilize as in pass around freebies to key bloggers in the hope they’ll say nice things about your product?

Many bloggers, I believe, do a great job, even a better job than journalists in their transparency and sourcing. But that doesn’t mean the genre is settled and invulnerable to manipulation. Perhaps we’ve already hit the intersection where these potentially conflicting interests collide and merge into something new. If so, what is it? PR was invited to the conversation; they may well be the smartest people in the room, and, while old media was wringing its hands, they may have already taken the conversation over. If so, what was the topic again?

Newspapers, And Exaggerated Reports of Their Demise

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Steve Rubel, powerblogger (does anyone blog more than Steve? No one in my feed list does) complains about how newspapers offer only partial RSS feeds: for those of you not following this, an RSS feed is a bit like a newswire, a stream of stories as they are published, arriving in the subscribers inbox (or reader software, or customised homepage, or dynamic bookmark folder. A partial RSS feed is a bit like a newswire that only gives you the first few paragraphs of a story, requiring you to go to the newspaper’s homepage (in my newswire analogy, run into the next room to find the rest of the story on the the whole, scrolling ticker tape machine).

I agree with Steve, it’s dumb. Not a smart way to go. Where I don’t agree is when he reckons that newspapers as physical folds of paper will be dead in a decade:

Flash forward 10 years from today. We will look back and laugh how quaint it was that we received our news on dead trees. Yes, I am saying the word “newspaper” will be a misnomer. News will be delivered automatically each day, not by the paper boy, but via wirelessly enabled e-paper devices that are easy to read. All of it will be powered by RSS.

Steve is being a tad provocative here, although not as provocative as he would have been had he said it a few years ago. The conventional wisdom is that newspapers as a delivery mechanism is dead. To which I’d like to be equally provocative: let’s meet again in 10 years and see whether this is true. Yes, we know the younger generation aren’t reading newspapers. Yes, we know newspapers are in financial trouble. Yes, we know that newspapers are not an elegant delivery mechanism. Yes, we know that there are better ways of getting information to us. And we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of how better to represent news information. But we also know this:

  • people love great writing, and it’s rare to find it on blogs, where by definition writing is fast and, usually and unlike this post, brief;
  • people love great reading — as in, laying back with a coffee, sitting on a train, by the pool/sea/prison wall, reading something they enjoy. No technology has replaced paper for this, nor is it likely to. Yes, there are cool tools for e-paper, and these will have their uses, but they won’t replace paper.
  • people love good editors. Editors are not there just to put all the stories together. They’re there to decide what may make interesting reading, from commissioning articles to laying them out on the page and deciding a headline. When we buy a newspaper we’re paying in part for the editor’s choice of stories on the page. We’re effectively saying to the editor: You have a better idea of what is out there, and I trust you. Tell me. Inform me. Entertain me. (Today’s front page of one of my regular newspapers today had three great stories I would never have found had I just confined myself to my regular newsfeed: on reclassification of U.S. documents, on a failing Hong Kong plan for a cultural centre; on East Timor trying to avoid the pitfalls of an oil bonanza.)
  • people love to get their newspaper wet/dirty/crumpled/folded/annotated/left behind/eaten by the dog. A newspaper is a very flexible device, and it’s cheap enough so I don’t mind that I drop it in the bath. I’m not sure the Sony ePaper device is going to be as easy to dry off.

Paper
You can also hit people with it

Newspapers are in crisis. And they should be smarter about RSS, and understand their value is not in hot news, but in a perspective, a gathering of features, commentary and semi-hard news stories. We can laugh at their slowness — especially in covering things online, which for them is a bit like an adult trying to figure out what the hell is going on in the minds of their teenage offspring. But we should be really careful about writing off them, or their tried and trusted delivery mechanism, any time soon. See you in 10 years Steve, and let’s see who’s right.

Are Blogs Replacing Press Releases?

Well noted by Steve Rubel on tide turning against press releases in favor of blogging. He cites a recent post by Google’s associate general counsel Nicole Wong on Google’s blog:

Google has come out swinging, defending their stance in the DOJ search data matter. However, they did not issue a press release. Rather they went with a blog post by Nicole Wong, Associate General Counsel. AP takes notice. I think the tide has turned. The press release is dying. Someone ought to do a study tracking daily press release volumes. I bet they’re decreasing in favor of blogging.

He’s probably right. In a way blogs are perfectly suited to companies needing to get the word out there:

  • They’re easy to monitor: Just subscribe to the blog’s feed;
  • They don’t need to include lots of repetitive background information
  • They don’t need to read like press releases. Savvy companies can choose the tone of the posting to fit the subject matter (Nicole’s was legalistic, naturally enough, concluding that “For all of these reasons, the Court must reject the Government’s Motion”.) The previous posting on the same blog was from Braden Kowitz, User Interface Designer, showing users how to add a heart emoticon to Gmail chat;
  • You can overdo the number of press releases but a well-fed blog can never look too well-fed. Too many press releases dull the journalists’ senses, with their forced headlines, jaunty and self-congratulatory style and unexplained technical jargon, meaning journalists may miss a good story because it looks and sounds like all the other press releases.

That all said, there are possible pitfalls:

  • Journalists need to be steered towards blogs, and not many of us know what an RSS feed is. You may be missing a big audience — unless that is your Cheneyesque intention;
  • Blogs can also be poorly written, leading to misunderstandings, missed stories or poor (or no) publicity. Press releases are generally very badly written, but blogs often are too, sounding like they’re starting halfway through a topic. Not everyone reads everything you write;
  • And, as ever, a blog is the beginning of a process, not the end of it. Like press releases, it is no substitute to a good dialog and ready availability of real employees to explain or expand. A good journalist would never just recycle an important press release without, at the very least, checking its authenticity, at best insisting on a phone interview to get more detail and better quotes;
  • So a company blog still needs links to the PR department or author of the blog for journalists. Google has an email address on its blog, but nothing for journalists to follow up on. Sadly an absence of contact names, phone numbers and email addresses is also true of most press releases.

Blogs may be replacing press releases. But they shouldn’t be an excuse not to do things properly and give the media what they need. Let’s not allow blogs to make the same mistakes as Internet press releases have made.

The Bookmarklet

Good list by Steve Rubel of Bookmarklets Every Blogger Should Have:

Here’s a bunch of bookmarklets that I use every day in Firefox. I highly recommend them. To use these, drag each one individually into your Favorites or Links toolbar (in IE), or your bookmarks folder/toolbar in Firefox

Good stuff. What I’d like to find is an extension to the toolbar in Firefox that let me add more bookmarklets (God, I hate that term. Anything ending in -let is ripe for extermination). Anything out there?

Widgets And The Active Desktop

Steve Rubel tells of the imminent launch of Konfabulator for Windows, “a wildly popular OS X application that lets you run little apps called Widgets“. From what I can see Widgets are small applications that sit on your desktop and do things like collect data, tell you the time, inform you of new email, that kind of thing. It looks great, but I have some reservations about how this might work on Windows.

I’ve noticed how there seems to be one fundamental difference between Windows and Macs: Maximising Windows. Most folk using Windows seem to use their programs so they take up the full screen — indeed, that is the default for many programs. Mac software doesn’t think like that. The key is when you double click the bar along the top of a window: In Windows that will toggle between maximising the window; on a Mac it will hide the window. (Another example of this is difference is that there is no maximise button on a Mac window, while there is on Windows.)

Why is this important? Well, assuming I’m right on this (I’m no Mac expert, and I certainly don’t know the history behind maximising windows on Macs), the desktop (your screen, basically) is a more valuable place for Mac users. It’s unlikely a Mac desktop will be smothered by open programs, because of this lack of maximising. For Windows users, it’s much less likely this is true. For most users, having one or more programs open will usually mean their desktop is hidden from view. The only way to alter that is to reduce the size of open programs, minimize them, or to right click on the Windows taskbar and choose ‘Show Desktop’.

This is why the System Tray — the thing at the right-bottom corner of the screen — is so important in Windows. It serves as a place to collect stuff and to offer at least some information to the user. I’m not going to get into which is the better design here, but to me this is one clear reason why Microsoft’s Active Desktop — the closest forebear to Konfabulation’s Widgets, I’d suggest — never took off. Active Desktop offered a screen alive with information and little widgets keeping you informed of, er, the time, new email arriving and other data. But it never really worked. After all, what’s the point of an active desktop if you can’t see it?

I wish Konfabulation luck, and perhaps they’ve got a way around this problem. I can imagine that if you allow the widgets to sit above existing windows, this argument might be moot. But, once again, I don’t believe many Windows users enjoy having stuff overlapping or sitting atop active windows, which may explain why great products like Klips have only a limited audience. Probably, in the end, it comes down to Microsoft figuring out that as screen sizes grow, the old default maximising approach no longer makes sense.

Scobleizer, Microsoft And Waggner

Robert Scoble, the Microsoft blogger whom I wrote about in a recent column, has scaled back his accessibility to the media (thanks Steve Rubel). From now on, journalists’ requests for interviews are forwarded to Microsoft’s main PR company, Waggner Edstrom.

Robert and the other bloggers at Microsoft have been a breath of fresh air for journalists like me trying to get a bit of a grip on a company that has, I have to say, been somewhat patchy in the way it deals with media questions. I do hope that the transparency of Scobleizer and other Microsoft blogs will not be tempered, and that Redmond understands the extraordinary benefits of making employees part of the company’s PR machine, not just farming it out to people who are always saying they’ll get back to you, and never do.