Newsvine: The Wisdom Of The Crowd

The reviews are in: The people are in the drivers seat.

Newspapers are already hemoraging readership, as the web has created an extremely rich bazaar, allowing us to shop for unbundled content at every turn, while unbundled advertising models begin to sprout up to support this evolution. Well, get ready for the online replicas of the print world to begin to sweat even more. Following on the heals of the mass appeal of social wisdom sites such as slashdot and digg comes a revolutionary hybrid of mainstream media, citizen journalism and participatory editing: Newsvine.

newsvine

Taking the aggregation features of a Yahoo! News, the collaborative properties of a digg and the citizen media aspects of blogging, Newsvine is staged to completely redefine the news. The common man now has stake in the game.

Old School

Top/down delivery of content, beginning with organized knowledge, is a modern construct. Since the advent of television, these organized silos of knowledge have been optimized over the years for advertising to take advantage of explicit media buys—matching business audience demographics, psychographics and geographics to channeled, programed, bundled content. Great for advertisers and the networks/publications, lousy for the “consumer,” as we end up consuming more messaging and less news or interests which match *our* needs and desires.

These constructed, mechanical relationships define false edges of our culture, which in turn raises the value proposition of media and news organizations simply by standardizing on such lexicon. This standardization of topical interests enables a succinct inventory of sales and stories, broadcast on television news and pumped through newspapers, serving as the ying to the entertainment media’s yang.

Is it easier to entertain and pacify a child within a theme park or the natural environment of a forest?

Somewhere between the crafted, paced, 4/4 movement of greased industry palms rubbing against one another, lies our percept of reality, consistently bombarded by messaging. While we struggle with this understanding of our surroundings, back in the news room, editors—the guardians of this construct—find themselves under the thumb of the financial steerings and pressures of this propped reality. Their indoctrinated intuition places constraints on the types of stories generated, the depth of coverage, even the language a writer chooses to employ.

The innovators and early adopters of the web aren’t down with that noise.

New School

Bottom/up constructs, enabled by the personal publishing revolution, delivered with flexible subscription technology such as RSS, have empowered individuals to publish cheaply within our own crafted domains.

  • RSS allows us to digest information passively (in a centralized location), instead of actively (surfing the decentalized web), which greatly increases our level of input and conversely, fine tunes our understanding of the world, which is represented by our output (blogging, conversations, actions, etc.)
  • Those of us who publish our own information objects, apply meta-data to increase the potential of findability, both now and in future interfaces
  • Many of us participate with folksonomies, helping make our POV of all information semantically rich and contextual to our neighbors interests, our future grandchildern’s recollections of us, even the desires of a family on the other side of the planet
  • We create multimedia objects to compete with elite vehicles of capital, and fuel them through the same tactical approaches

This participatory environment is one aspect of the Web 2.0 phrase that gets tossed about. It’s enabling us humans to share our creative impulses with others, helping to constantly define and then redefine the world around us through our personal representations of both explicit and implicit lexicon.

This is an open paradigm, a transparent journey, based in accelerated trust and faith in one another.

So when these two worlds meet — old school vs. new school or modernism vs. post-modernism or proprietary vs. open source — the truth of hierarchy and the truth of individual POV’s collide. Guess what remains?

A truthier truth.

Newsvine has taken a position of mixing mainstream feeds with user submitted, tagged and collaboratively greenlit content. Even more revolutionary, they’re mixing the standardized embedded lexicon of our culture—topical categories—with the co-occurance generated wisdom of the people creating relevant content living within such silos:

newsvine-tags

The secondary navigation points are all dynamic, altering over time as the co-occurance of tagged objects within a topical category shifts. This is how I think—how I search, discover, build my own archive in this blog—so in and of itself, the concept doesn’t blow me away. What does blow me away is that by simply placing this paradigm next to, say, The New York Times, Yahoo! News, my pseudo-innovative hometown Greensboro News & Record and a blog aggregator like Greensboro101, none of these domains can compete if Newsvine gains a participatory, critical mass audience.

Newsvine provides AP feeds (like a Yahoo! News), yet allows anyone to seed *any* story, from *any* site (like digging or del.icio.us tagging). Let me try to clearly paint how disruptive of a strategy this is.

  • With only the AP feed, Newsvine could potentially evolve to become a successful News aggregator
  • The addition of the digg and del.icio.us features completely change the game. Newsvine now becomes populated by the very content from the news sites (New York Times, News & Record, etc.) that it’s competing against for advertising
  • The better the content, say, a New York Times produces, the more likely it’ll end up in Newsvine, but with more context (meta-data) and a thriving, participatory readership.
  • Content will begin to be valued differently at a New York Times — as prices might become reduced at the domain, while new, shared models will be created at sites like Newsvine. Good for the Times, as they have a new market for revenue, but it will effect their organizational structure. The big advantage for Newsvine: they don’t have to completely readjust due to their recent entry into the arena and their nimble stature (compared to large news organizations)
  • Community blog aggregators could possibly fall to the wayside, simply due to the fact that people can seed their own local posts, as well as their neighbors, and leverage unbundled advertising services. The very concept of “community” will be redefined on much more granular levels, moving towards a flickr existence, as explicit tags begin to define groups of interest

The Final Touch

Mike Davidson obviously knows what he has here; not only an opportunity to provide a rich, participatory environment for the redefinition of what news means to us as a collective, a community and as individuals, but this service could very well challenge the embedded constructs of editorialized media.

In the final analysis, if Newswire succeeds, it’ll be because of the participatory nature of people. If Davidson wants to make his mark on this planet, he’ll devise a revenue model to incentivize swarms of citizen editors to contribute to the domain—editors removed from the burden and balancing act of management and politics, reduced simply to individuals focused on making our communities that much more aware, educated and inclusive.

If an incentive program can be devised along these lines—some type of a micro-payment structure based on Karma points and click-throughs for both editors *and* authors—he’ll be responsible for creating the Mechanical Turk of the news world. That could change the news media as we know it forever.

Reputable journalists could become more enabled by freelance opportunities, as news organizations would need to drastically reduce their overhead and change their business models because advertising money wouldn’t be channeled into one out of six corporate funnels. Then maybe the people will get the issues covered the way they need to be covered; maybe then we’ll uncover opportunities to 2.0 the hell out of government.

Web 2.0: The Micro And Macro Of The Matter

web2

In this post, I want to pull back a bit to focus on some of the meaning behind the term Web 2.0, touching upon aspects of the meme that have driven it to a certain tipping point within the tech community. And no, that doesn’t mean everyone is on board—as dedicated professionals are either embracing the moniker or slapping it down as a marketing gimmick—but one can’t deny the lexicon has begun to reach the mainstream business world.

The Way We Were

Each year, over the past 10 years or so, the internet has progressively behaved less like a mass of disparate domains—hooked into each other via simple hyperlinks—and more like a functioning network. If you can’t remember 10 years back, 1996 was practically the McCarthy era of the web. There was a good chance you’d be sued if your web site linked to a corporate site without permission.

Seriously.

The behavior of the web as a macro entity wasn’t very smart as well. It essentially stagnated as an enabler for people (including developers) to interact (publish, reuse, etc.) with individual sites. The two-way web was there on paper, but an infrastructure forged across a critical mass of domains had yet to be accomplished.

Then along came Amazon, blowing the roof off of e-commerce by implementing collaborative filtering. Skip over a few other ingenious domains and Google completely changed the definition of information retrieval within both its own domain and others. The IQ of the web jumped as its big players became smarter, but across a majority of domains, the web was still more of a parking garage for individual vehicles, with individual owners and drivers. Carpooling hadn’t begun yet.

The Definition Of A Smart Web

Take my home office network as an example. Each day I easily share data between three machines in order to accomplish a multitude of different goals and a subset of numerous tasks. If I’m using my PC and want to alter an image found on my PowerBook, I simply use Photoshop on my PC to grab the data from across the network, manipulate the image and save it back to its original location. I perform similar operations when marking up HTML and CSS on my PowerBook, then hopping on a browser on my PC to view the data in a rendered form.

This is my personal realm of shared data; a collaborative, transparent, usable space called a network. It stitches together my various personal computers, allowing my software to access data openly and freely. The label isn’t fancy, because the concept is finite and comprehensible. I own everything, from the hardware to the software to the authentications allowing access throughout. I am the network.

I Am Not The Web… Yet

A transition to a user-centered web will only occur once we, the web development community, take the well established premise of a finite network and extrapolate its underlying philosophies of connectivity, transparency and usefulness across a potentially unlimited amount of “networked” domains—each with varying business objectives and often at best, a subjective understanding of user goals and tasks.

In doing so, the rationale for the 2.0 label will start to become clear, as we’re dealing with an enormous number of variables in an extremely large value equation.

We’re living in an entrepreneur’s dream world.

Web 2.0 is a useful moniker to latch onto. Without a set of guiding principles, progressive domains that eat, sleep and breath collaborative, transparent and useful user experiences might end up functioning within a bubble, as opposed to influencing the adoption of industry-wide hooks of shared data and patterns. Just as Amazon and Google previously raised the bar in the late 90’s and challenged their competition to innovate or fold, this philosophical approach is a rallying cry for the entire industry.

The Micro/Macro Example

I’m going to stick with my current favorite example from around the web. A subset of interface features on flickr reads like this:

Each of these features within the flickr domain could be studied to find analogous patterns from the macro arena around the web (e.g. posting images is the equivalent to publishing a podcast), but by focusing on one feature, user commenting, we can blow out the possibilities for usefulness across a Web 2.0 environment.

While commenting isn’t unique per se, flickr does provide a commenting feature that is very useful. In order to help a user keep up with discourse surrounding their posts, flickr provides a “Recent Activity” screen, which not only presents user comments in context to the images, but notifies you when your image was added as someone else’s favorite. There’s also an elegantly designed page which documents the history of comments that you’ve made across the domain. flickr makes this so easy to track, they even provide an RSS feed for peripheral awareness.

commenting

Now take this concept from the micro space of flickr and extrapolate it across the macro space of the web and you have the means to track numerous conversations you’ve either started or joined over n period of time. Blogpulse has a similar interface with its Conversation Tracker, but that relates more to trackbacks and the movement of a topical conversation across posts. Interesting, but not personally interesting.

The captivating aspect of the localized, recent activity screen from flickr is through the exposure of an involved conversation, rather than an uninvolved and evolving perspective.

When flickr was without the recent activity feature, I was never able to remember what images I previously commented on, so in turn, my participation level was reduced. With the feature, I comment much more often, as the connection between me and other people’s information objects is now tangible.

Now, apply that same concept to the web. What would a recent activity interface centered on your comments from around the web do for your continued contribution to public discourse?

This is only one idea for how the concepts behind the Web 2.0 meme can change the way we look at the web, moving from a centralized group of branded domains to a functional network of decentralized, shared data, information and applications.

What are some of your ideas?

Yahoo!: A Change Agent At Work

kevin-sites

About a month ago, the Economist published an article about Yahoo!’s schizophrenic nature as a company. Yahoo!’s history as an Internet pioneer moved me to christen them as a change agent for Web 2.0—the complete opposite of a flaky AOLish operation.

Well, those wacky Yahooligans are off their meds again. God bless ’em.

In a few weeks, Yahoo! plans on releasing In the Hot Zone, a first person, solo journalism (SoJo) effort by Kevin Sites, who’ll cover the most war torn areas of the globe; areas which receive little to no mainstream coverage in the US. Here’s a taste of the Yahoo! approach:

Our Principles:

We will be aggressive in pursuing the stories that are not getting mainstream coverage and we will put a human face on them. We will not chase headlines nor adhere to pack journalism but vigorously pursue the stories in front of and behind the conflict, the small stories that when strung together illustrate a more complete picture.

We are professional journalists and will apply to our work the ethical code of conduct as outlined by the Society of Professional Journalists:

  • To seek and report the truth.
  • To minimize harm.
  • To act independently.
  • To be accountable.

We strongly believe, as stated in the preamble of this code, “that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.”

We also will add four more criteria to our work that will take us above the journalistic code. We also pledge in our reporting and storytelling:

Transparency
An honest and authentic accounting of both our failure and successes, to pull back the curtain on our editorial and technological process. We refuse to propagate the myths of the omniscient, infallible correspondent.

Vulnerability
We will strive to live, breathe, and experience the lives of the people we are covering — including the daily dangers they’re exposed to from combat, disease, and hardship.

Empathy
We may not always agree with our sources, but we will make every effort to understand their positions and report them with clarity, so that our audience may have context and perspective.

Solutions
Our site will contain links to organizations and groups that are working to aid victims of these conflicts and assist in their peaceful resolutions.

Will Yahoo! succeed in this venture? I don’t know, but it really doesn’t matter, because by just making this announcement, Yahoo! has already set the tone for alternative news reporting in a mainstream, internet portal format. Even if they fail in the tactical attempt based on any number of conflicts (remember the Chinese reporter incident?) more sites will undoubtedly take on the challenge and pick up the baton running. A change agent, when all is said and done, is about the change. Steering change through it’s evolutionary course isn’t necessary the goal.

Yahoo! is leading at the point where Web 2.0 crosses over into the real world. Sweet.

Newsweek Blog Talk: An Innovator?

blog-talk

Newsweek and Technorati are in bed together and I’m really hoping it isn’t a monogamous relationship.

I’m not sure when this started, but Newsweek is now citing “Blog Talk,” creating a contextual column from the Newsweek article page that links to a full Blog Talk page which presents the last 10 blogs posts that have linked to the Newsweek article. This is being done automatically, sans any editorial review.

I’m currently working on a project for which I presented this exact context scenario for our blogger design persona. I couldn’t believe the serendipity. So to ensure the API and execution would support our needs, I ran a quick test and posted a response to the “I’m So Sorry” article, linking back to the story URL. Within 10 minutes of pinging Technorati, my post appeared on the Newsweek page. Okay, that’s very progressive. Sure, it’s only a glorified trackback system, but the underlying philosophy has huge implications.

We’re quickly moving to a sustainable model for presenting the individual perspective on the same level as mainstream media’s editorial-driven journalism. It’s a win-win; a site like Newsweek gets an increased blogger readership and bloggers have the opportunity to share their perspectives with people that may not even know how to navigate the scattered blogosphere.

From my perspective, this is the first step to truly legitimizing the blogosphere.

What’s next? Well, if Google, Yahoo! and other mainstream news aggregators begin to index blogs for their search queries, we’d be one step closer to breaking through the mainstream media stranglehold on information for the average American that receives their news on-line. All of this is what the promise of Community TV was supposed to provide twenty years ago, but ran into the obvious production challenges.

This is really good. It’s good for business, good for bloggers, and most importantly, good for bubbling up numerous perspectives of a story to the surface. This is discourse.

Tag! We’re it!

Alright, I admit it—I didn’t get out (or online) much while I worked for Ameritrade. 60 hour work weeks for two straight years while building a design practice and a forward-thinking trading platform will do that to your peripheral vision. Well, I’m making up for lost time, slowing down to explore the web… big time.

The IA in me is smiling. No, not for the sheer joy of seeing community indexing, the IA in me is smiling because it’s becoming clear to me where the web is heading, and it’s not following a topical, structured, media-filtered path.

Take Technorati for example; the approach is like a Bizarro perspective of the mainstream media.

bizzaro

Technorati isn’t dumb, ugly, inhumane or bizarro as a nemesis dimension in a comic book, but they are backwards in their approach to presenting a political/news media lens of corporate America… in a very good way.

The mainstream media presents the news by using explicit filters to ensure that what is published or broadcasted supports the primary objectives of capitalism. In the past, I’ve ranted about the much needed expansion of the Google and Yahoo! news model to place blogs into the mix when drawing from indexed sources. Well, Technorati flipped the model entirely with a communal approach to exposing and digesting information. There are no “vanilla” labels of a topical navigation, splitting the world into simplified categories and driving a pre-conceived notion of “valuable” content (i.e. politics, business, sports, etc.) into the skulls of society.

Technorati leverages tagging to present information based on our desires.

Run a tag search on “free speech” and you get a descriptive page of the latest blog entries, flickr images and a contextual list of social bookmarks which include mainstream media articles (based on del.icio.us and Furl tagging). It took me a few returns to stumble upon the revolutionary aspect of this approach. I mean, three months ago, I would’ve been happy if Google News simply added a column of contextual links of blog post that corresponded to a search query. Technorati has flipped the script and featured bloggers, reducing the media to a column of “see also’s.”

This is how you build community. I love it.

So where can this go? Can this approach sustain a movement towards fundamentally altering how American society exposes and digests information? Man, “it depends” is such an understatement.

  • If Technorati can reach a tipping point, similar to Google a few years back, and devise a marketing campaign, where, say, Tony Soprano is shown “Technorating” waste management on his computer, the impact on society could be huge. People will start to look for information from other people (sans an editorial slant), which flips the trust and credibility model
  • If Technorati partners with a Google to provide user-generated content within their results pages, society will begin to experience contextual alternatives to mainstream reporting, entertainment, et al without being forced to have to go search for it through RSS and other technical means.
  • If Technorati is bought by a Google, all bets are off. Only time would tell if Chomsky’s “propaganda model” proves itself to be a truism or if new media and its superstars are exceptions to the rule.

It’s obvious that the web’s semantic synapses are continuing to form. This is only the beginning.

Ajax… About Time

So it’s Friday night and I find myself cruising around the web after a night out. In my travels, I landed on JJG’s blog and subsequently stumbled into his Ajax essay on the Adaptive site. The only real conversation I’ve had on the topic was a recent conversation with a client-side developer pal and after reading Jesse’s well defined description of the approach and the benefits, my initial reaction was pretty much, “ok.”

I don’t say that to offend, nor downplay the great client-side work anyone is doing right now, it’s just that I’ve been immersed in online application design for years now and have always attempted to communicate these types of design solutions to developers. I say “these types of solutions” lightly, as I’m a designer, not a developer, so from my perspective these communication calls have been screaming to be stiched together for a while now.

Jesse spoke to the difficulties of designing online applications due to the technical workarounds which have been historically necessary to successfully support innovative interface behavior. While I agree on the impact on next-generation type apps, I disagree with the approach to design, for while practicing interaction design, scenarios shouldn’t be modeled based on technological constraints.

As David Fore of Cooper exhorts, the period of scenario modeling should be a period of making magic—that’s how innovation occurs to support user needs; the limitations of the front-end evolve over time. I agree that one has to understand the constraints of the medium when designing for it, but only to a degree, otherwise one can handcuff a more useful experience by setting the box too tight.

So how can one design for the user, while considering possibilities of Ajax?

While at Ameritrade I was able to convince management to include our relatively small client-side development team in my UX team. That brief organizational commitment created a huge opportunity for me to espouse innovation and collaboration across both designers and developers. I didn’t know how long the group structure would last, so I instantly switched up working from the level of context scenarios and began to iterate on features

We used the phrase “push the browser until it pushes back” more times in our weekly staff meetings than could be counted. Our client behaviors needed to be supported in our online applications, so in turn, I refused to limit us to any narrow definitions of client-side technology.

snapticket

Thankfully, my CSD team latched onto my mantra with vigor and did the heavy lifting to evolve our conversations into working code, while myself and the IxD team returned to iterating user needs into interface behavior.

Did the team use the Ajax approach per se? Probably not, but they pretty much pushed the browser until their SOP is now reflected in some of the latest Ajax app behaviors, such as Gmail.

Business as usual for design and development at Ameritrade began to evolve.

Were the solutions as soundly executed across the board as Google’s current attempts in leveraging an Ajax approach? I’d have to say no again, as we were performing Ajax-type workarounds on the fly. But the mere fact that the team addressed dynamic interface scenarios on a case-by-case basis, with dynamic executions on the presentation layer, led our marketing group to center their next campaign around the slogan:

Welcome to the 21st Century. Now trade like it.

The ripple effect of progressive experience design was contained, as it only applied to the authenticated Apex trading platform, but Barrons seemed to notice it by giving us a 4 star rating (up from 2.5 stars the previous year).
deposits_withdrawals_ui
A switch to a complete Ajax approach at Ameritrade today would entail a short period of refactoring, but would make the current authenticated interface move from “singing” to “harmonizing.”

Ajax should mark the sweet spot of the golden age for presenting complex scenario relationships as simplified behavioral experience in the browser.

Elegance in motion.

All News Is Good News

they-live

A few years ago I ranted about my fear of a society where the media is absolutely controlled by corporate interests.

My head wasn’t in the sand; I obviously realized that we were already living in such a world, as money drives practically everything in this country. I was more concerned with the audacity of the FCC to even consider the type of deregulation it ended up approving. Sure, it happens every day; legislation lobbyed for by those in power increases the empowerment of those same people. I mean, this is how the free market works. But this legislation goes beyond just making money for the upper class.

The fact is that Americans are glued to the tube and this type of conglomerate legislation—spanning all media (television, print, radio and the internet)—has now allowed for a greater possiblity to create a lasting, singular, corporate perspective in the psychology of the moment and beyond. Consume messaging has been given even more proximity to our children’s brains.

They Live shades are looking pretty good right about now.

So without the prospect of landing a pair of alien sunglasses, what exactly can be done to defend ourselves from this destructive approach to creating a consumer culture at all costs? As a contributor to public discourse, I’ve always believed that the ‘net (in 1997), and specifically, blogs (over the last five years) were a key development in the fight to present a perspective to battle corporate marketing and/or government disinformation.

  • With blogging, there’s no managing editor around with advertising pressures to censor (or generate) a particular perspective. (well, that is until the corporate structure jacks blogging to apply its usefulness to its bottom line, thereby reducing its effectiveness in the wild)
  • Blogs are also a time permitting endeavor; you can publish many times a day or once a year. There isn’t a revenue figure to drive towards, which allows for individual perspectives to be expressed at will

This break from the days of publishing via the standard print revenue generation model is something akin to the advent of the printing press, yet with the merchant nation-state taking the place of the previously empowered Church. Okay, maybe that’s a little pre-mature, but the possibilities are there. And what are the possibilities?

Over the past few years, the blogging revolution has become more and more accessible and mainstream with the advent of RSS and aggregate readers. With Yahoo! adding access to RSS feeds to their My Yahoo! content modules, blogs are one step closer to being mainstream. But this last step is a big one, steeped in moral conviction.

Until blogs are automatically indexed as viable, alternative feeds when running, say, a news query at Google or Yahoo!, they are going to, at best, sit on the periphery of the conscious of the world’s inhabitants. The average person does not have the time, nor the patience, to sift through the pedagogy of managing RSS. Bookmarks are about as much as they can handle. Blogs do return in general search queries, but this “general return only” pre-supposes a value level to the quality of the information being retrieved. You know, a perspective or opinion or even investigative research presented by a blogger has less value than a feed from the New York Times, The Washington Post, etc.

That’s why this information retrieval concept would have to be one generated out of moral conviction. By keeping news sources limited strictly to incorporated, staffed and vested (in the economic structure of) newspapers, Google (or any other news search engine) is basically saying that only these sources can report and editorialize news. Even though Google has gone a long way in presenting perspectives from small and foreign sources, providing the chance opportunity for conflicting perspective, it’s still not enough.

It seems to me that with a search capability, news aggregator and a blogging tool, Google and Yahoo! are best poised to create convergence between the “professional” news organizations and blogging communities, within the boundaries of their individual interfaces. How accessible blogs become in the presentation, will be a litmus test of their commitment to providing contextual channels within the information age, while creating usable interfaces for digesting a world of information overload and disinformation.

It’s completely doable and an ongoing commitment to data mining and information presentation doesn’t seem to indicate that such domains will shy away from heading in this direction. Well, as long as blogs don’t impact their institutional investors or advertisers in a negative light.