Monthly Archives: January 2013

Want good online comments? Create communities and moderate them.

I’ve been clear that about why I value blog comments before. If you’ve spent any time online, however, you know how bad many comment sections are. Why is that the case? Read Bora Zivkovic on commenting threads, in easily one of the best posts on the topic that I’ve ever read. It’s a long post, but it’s well worth your time. Zivkovic links to a forthcoming paper [PDF] that anyone in charge of comments should read, regarding how the tone of comments affects readers.The short version is that unmoderated, acidic comment sections polarizes readers and can lead them to believe in science less.

I discovered the post through NYT Journalism professor Jay Rosen, when he tweeted it:

Zivkovic, who is the blogs editor at the Scientific American, did nail it. I guessed that the answer to Rosen’s tweet was a lack of active participation by a moderator/author, and that’s more or less what I took away from this post. (I suspect he may have been directing his tweet at journalists who don’t — or can’t — spend the time moderating blog posts and social media profiles, along with the editors and publishers who employ them.) Rosen explained more about why he thought the post was important on a public post on his Facebook profile:

Nothing gets people pumped to denounce the Internet for destroying reasoned discourse like the state of online commenting. And it is difficult to deny that many comment sections are sewers. Also, it’s not true that to be a smart, web-smart publisher you MUST have comments. It’s a choice. There will always be good reasons not do have comments, and good reasons to have comments. But as to *why* the comment sections are sewers, we actually know a lot about this. We also know a lot about how to make them better. But many online publishers and newspaper journalists don’t want to know because they are looking for a “set it and forget it” solution that does not exist. Bora Zivkovic covers all of this and more in one of the best posts you will read about online commenting. Well worth your time.

I think good comments require persistent identity (not “real” identity), moderation tools and active moderation. Without that mix, you get the toxic stew that is pervasive across far too many forums online.

Agree? Disagree? Hey, let me know in the comments!

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I Heard It Through The App Vine

After surfing around a bit tonight, I’m not sure yet whether the new Vine App will be to video what Instagram is for pictures. (Vine went live last Friday, when I was on vacation in Anguilla.) The amount of buzz I’ve found upon returning from vacation suggests at least a few of the people I follow and read think it’s possible.

It sounds like the initial launch was a bit buggy for some users, though I had no issues when I downloaded and installed Vine tonight. I found it quite easy to join, find friends from Twitter and my address book (if not Facebook) and then to create and share a 6 second spot using the app, which I promptly deleted.

Vine is Twitter’s first standalone app, like Facebook’s Poke or Messenger. As is the case with tweets, vines have their own permalink and play in embedded tweets, like Twitter CEO Dick Costolo’s tweet that shows how to make steak tartare:

A mobile social network that’s built around mobile sharing of videos from iOS devices and integrated into other media, particularly tweets and blog posts, could have legs online — along with many other body parts. Tonight, posts on multiple outlets suggested that Vine has a “porn problem.”

I’m not sure if this revelation will not shock many long-time observers of people’s behavior online, when faced with webcams. Exhibit A: Chatroulette. I instantly thought of Avenue Q’s classic assessment of what the Internet is for.

(With a little help from Twitter, I was able to source the quote to Ethan Zuckerman’s 2008 talk at ETech on the cute cat theory.)

I tend to agree with Joshua Topolsky’s assessment at The Verge: it’s Apple that has the porn problem, not Twitter or Vine. We’ll see how Apple responds. Steve Jobs was clear in 2010 when he wrote that Apple has a “moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone.” Apple does not, however, censor the websites or, critically, user-generated content (UGC) on them when users access them through the Safari mobile Web browser. Treating UGC platforms like Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google+ like Web browsers might make more sense to users. (I don’t know how that approach would sit in Cupertino or the Federal Trade Commission.)

Regardless of the larger issues surrounding Apple’s policies as a powerful gatekeeper for app makers, parents take note: letting young children search raw Twitter feeds or Vine apps for #porn is going to turn up media that’s NSFW, much less NSFK(ids).

While there’s certainly porn to be found, I didn’t see any when I watched the automagically randomized selection of vines at Vinepeek, which I found thanks to a tweet from Mitch Kapor. Despite inevitable flashes of crudity and banality, I found many of these glimpses of shared humanity endearing, just as YouTube can be at its best.

There are many other ways Vine can be used for business or other less salacious purposes, however, as Chris Brogan pointed out on Friday. Given my interest in cooking, I think creative spots that show how to make different recipes, like the one Costolo filmed, could be particularly interesting. While there are plenty of possibilities for media creation, for I’m not sure whether journalists will wholeheartedly move to quickly adopt Vine professionally, although there were certainly plenty of early adopters on Instagram.

I remember the idea of a social network of video shorts when it first floated to the top of my social stream: it was called Seesmic, and Loic Le Meur shuttered it in 2009. That said, the context for Vine is different, given the tens of millions of iPhones and iPads in people’s hands today.

I think Vine will be worth watching, so to speak. If Vine does catch on, expect “vining” and “vines” to become part of the tech vernacular.

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With more than 5 million users, “We the People” want to be heard online

Use of one of the White House’s signature open government efforts, its e-petition platform, has exploded over the last six months. New data released today by the White House strongly suggests that We The People is the first open government platform that has gone mainstream.

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As of January 14, 2013, there are now 5,410,525 total We The People users.

That’s up from 2,756,057 in late August 2012, doubling over the course of 6 months.

There are 141,310 total petitions, up from 45,901 in late August 2012, more than a 3-fold increase.

There have been 9,178,278 total signatures, up from 3,320,520, nearly a 3-fold increase since late August 2012. The majority of this growth came after the election, when petitions to let states secede from the U.S.A. popped on the platform and drew broadcast media attention, which in turn drove more awareness of the platform.

On many levels, this makes sense: more people have access to the Internet now, particularly through their mobile devices, and the use of social media has exploded. These three factors have connected more people to government and to one another, combining to enable them to use the Internet as a platform for collective action to speak out about issues that matter to them.

We the People was launched in November 2011 as an effort to give citizens a voice in government in the Internet age. While the platform was new, the idea was not: the British government has had online petitions for years. Across the Atlantic, however, there’s special context: the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States protects the right of the people to “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Petitions have played an important role in the nation’s history, from the Virginia Legislature to Quakers petitioning the colonial government and Continental Congress to abolish slavery.

“When I ran for this office, I pledged to make government more open and accountable to its citizens,” President Barack Obama said in 2011, when the platform was announced. “That’s what the new We the People feature on WhiteHouse.gov is all about – giving Americans a direct line to the White House on the issues and concerns that matter most to them.”

Prior to the election, this open government effort was a relatively slow burn, in terms of growth. Until the fall of 2012, the most significant role it had played came just under a year ago, when the White House took an official position on petitions on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), changing the political context for the bills.

On the evening of December 20 2012, however, President Barack Obama responded to 32 different e-petitions related to gun violence. It was the first direct response to an e-petition at +The White House by a President of the United States. While this remains the only e-petition that the President has responded to personally, before or since, it was a milestone in digital government, marking the first time that the President spoke directly to the people through the Internet about an issue they had collectively asked to be addressed using the Internet.

While We The People has been used as a punch line for DC political reporters, given some of the more edgy petitions that have gone up on it, this new set of data strongly suggests that a majority of users not only found the responses meaningful but intend to keep involved. According to the White House, of the more than 50,000 people who responded to a survey after receiving a response to their epetition:

  • 86% said they would create or sign another petition
  • 66% said the response was the administration was “helpful”
  • 50% learned something new

To date, according to the data the White House released today, 201 petitions have crossed the 25,000 threshold that means the White House will give an official response. Of those, 162 e-petitions have received a response, which results in an 80.6% clear rate. 2.1 million users have received a response to their e-petition, a 38.8% response rate. The remaining 3 million or so users are either awaiting a response or signed on to petitions that didn’t meet the threshold. Responding to the growth in user base that has come with more attention, the White House raised the threshold for an official response today. In a blog post at WhiteHouse.gov, White House digital director Macon Phillips talked about the change:

When we first raised the threshold — from 5,000 to 25,000 — we called it “a good problem to have.” Turns out that “good problem” is only getting better, so we’re making another adjustment to ensure we’re able to continue to give the most popular ideas the time they deserve.

Starting today, as we move into a second term, petitions must receive 100,000 signatures in 30 days in order to receive an official response from the Obama Administration. This new threshold applies only to petitions created from this point forward and is not retroactively applied to ones that already exist.

In the last two months of 2012, use of We the People more than doubled. In just that time roughly 2.4 million new users joined the system, 73,000 petitions were created and 4.9 million signatures were registered.

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The most signatures on a single petition to date (319,782 and counting) are on one that remains open, asking the administration to declare the Westboro Baptist Church a hate group, followed by two other related petitions. Other popular petitions remain open, from one to recount the election, one to support the release of standards for labeling genetically modified food and one to require free access over the Internet to scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research.

It isn’t an accident that there’s a wide variety of causes and issues on We The People. The White House made a notable design choice when it left the platform open to any petition, instead of constraining it. It was also a politically risky one given the potentially unwelcome distraction in an election year. Yes, that resulted in less serious outcomes, like a petition to build a Death Star, or edgy ones, like secession, but it also enables the people to petition their government about issues that don’t fall into pre-selected buckets, talking points or lobbying areas.

Given that the platform is in part aimed at creating more participation in government, it would be fair to judge that aspect of We The People a qualified success. On other counts, the effort is more of a mixed success. Open government advocate Jim Snider, who has been critical of the democratic function of the platform, has made other specific suggestions for ways that Congress could improve We the People, from verification of identity to standardized data to a deadline for an official written response from the head of the relevant federal agency.

There are several other ways the platform could be improved, which is always true if you think of open government being in beta. (That’s particularly true architects are improving a given government platform using citizen feedback). Once again, the White House is releasing a snapshot of data about the nature and growth of the platforms use but isn’t sharing open data about the Web analytics behind We The People as it changes. It would be useful to have more than twice yearly check-ins on use and to be able to see how long petitions have been open or how quickly they’ve passed a threshold. Micah Sifry made even more significant suggestions for how We the People could help form a more perfect union in November, recommending that the petitions be used to enable signers to talk more to one another, not just the White House.

Last August, the White House open sourced We The People on Github. If more civic coders get involved in “hacking the government, some of the improvements might come sooner rather than later. While the code hasn’t been repurposed by another national government yet, In the months since, they’ve continued to work on an API that would allow other petition services, like Avaaz, Change.org, 38 Degrees or SignOn, to tie into it. Phillips referred to this work today:

It’s wonderful to see so many people using We the People to add their voices to important policy debates here in Washington and bring attention to issues that might not get the attention they deserve. This increasing adoption strengthens our resolve to build new features, including an API that would allow other popular online petition platforms to integrate with our official one.

Such an API could also allow integration into Facebook or other social networking services, which could expand the reach and power of e-petitions, particularly if networks of people can be activated to engage in offline actions, like phone calls, in-person visits, demonstrations or votes.

For more discussion of the pros and cons of online petitions, tune in to the episode of Kojo Nnamdi from earlier today, where I discussed We the People and other platforms with representatives of Change.org, MoveOn.org and a member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

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Are online petitions the next step in e-democracy or an e-exercise in futility?

At noon today, I’m going to be on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU, DC’s local NPR station, to talk about the power of online petitions.

What do you think of them, in general? Have you signed one or more? Why? What outcomes have petitions created at Avaaz or Change.org had? What about White House e-petitions? What about e-petitions in the UK or in other countries? If you have comments on these questions or relevant research, please let me know in the comments or email me at alex [at] oreilly.com.

On one of those counts, I’ve linked up some relevant reading below on the White House e-petitions platform, “We The People,” which has been getting much more mainstream media attention in recent months. (The response to an e-petition to build a Death Star, at least, was epic.)

1. Jim Snider, White House’s ‘We The People’ Petitions Find Mixed Success, NPR’s All Things Considered, January 3, 2013.

2. Micah Sifry: How We The People could help form a more perfect union, TechPresident, 2012

3. Jim Snider: The White House’s We The People Petition Website: First Year Report Card, Huffington Post, September 23, 2012.

4. Jim Snider: The Case of the Missing White House Petitions, Huffington Post, October 31, 2011.

5. Nick Judd: Is the White House doing enough for We The People?, TechPresident, November 2, 2011.

6. Jim Snider: What Is the Democratic Function of the White House’s We The People Petition Website?, Huffington Post, October 20, 2011

7. Jim Snider: The White House’s New We the People Petition Website, Huffington Post, October 31, 2011

8. Alex Howard: White House launches e-petitions, National Journal, September 10, 2011

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“This Isn’t the Petition Response You’re Looking For”

The official response from The White House to the epetition to create a Death Star is, in Internet terms, epic.

By turns geeky, funny, informative about U.S. space programs, and unabashedly supportive of science and technology education, the response to a popular petition on the “We The People” e-petition platform instantly entered the annals of online government history this Friday night.

“The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn’t on the horizon,” wrote Paul Shawcross, Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

“Here are a few reasons:

  • The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We’re working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it. 
  • The Administration does not support blowing up planets. 
  • Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?” 

However, look carefully (here’s how) and you’ll notice something already floating in the sky — that’s no Moon, it’s a Space Station! Yes, we already have a giant, football field-sized International Space Station in orbit around the Earth that’s helping us learn how humans can live and thrive in space for long durations. The Space Station has six astronauts — American, Russian, and Canadian — living in it right now, conducting research, learning how to live and work in space over long periods of time, routinely welcoming visiting spacecraft and repairing onboard garbage mashers, etc. We’ve also got two robot science labs — one wielding a laser– roving around Mars, looking at whether life ever existed on the Red Planet.

Keep in mind, space is no longer just government-only. Private American companies, through NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office (C3PO), are ferrying cargo — and soon, crew — to space for NASA, and are pursuing human missions to the Moon this decade.

Even though the United States doesn’t have anything that can do the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, we’ve got two spacecraft leaving the Solar System and we’re building a probe that will fly to the exterior layers of the Sun. We are discovering hundreds of new planets in other star systems and building a much more powerful successor to the Hubble Space Telescope that will see back to the early days of the universe.

We don’t have a Death Star, but we do have floating robot assistants on the Space Station, a President who knows his way around a light saber and advanced (marshmallow) cannon, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is supporting research on building Luke’s arm, floating droids, and quadruped walkers.

We are living in the future! Enjoy it. Or better yet, help build it by pursuing a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field. The President has held the first-ever White House science fairs and Astronomy Night on the South Lawn because he knows these domains are critical to our country’s future, and to ensuring the United States continues leading the world in doing big things.

If you do pursue a career in a science, technology, engineering or math-related field, the Force will be with us! Remember, the Death Star’s power to destroy a planet, or even a whole star system, is insignificant next to the power of the Force.

Paul Shawcross is Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget

When White House director of digital strategy Macon Phillips replied to a tweeted question about an outstanding petition on open access, he proved his Star Wars bonafides with a echo of Yoda’s unusual grammar.

This Star Wars fan is glad to have hilarity to share on The Kojo Nnamdi Show on the power of online epetitions on WAMU next Tuesday.

Photo Credit: Noel Dickover, Carving the Death Star Pumpkin

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Why journalists need to pay attention to Google Author Rank in 2013

Remember back in 2011, when Google linked the Google Plus profiles of journalists to Google News, and folks like Emily Bell,  Erik Wemple, Amy Gahran, Megan Garber  and I had a cross-platform conversation about it? (OK, probably not.) I thought then that Google integrating Plus with journalism online was probably inevitable. Here we are in 2013, where Google’s “Author Rank” is now putting journalists’ faces into search results and linking to their Google+ profiles.

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If you focus on online marketing, journalism and SEO — and like it or not, if you publish on the Internet, you need to keep an eye on these areas — this is a noteworthy development. It’s worth taking the time to understand Author Rank, learn how it works, why it matters to SEO, and think about how it might apply to what you do online. To learn more, check out  Google’s Authorship page on Plus.

I’m far from the first to point this out. Denis Pinsky wrote in December 2012 that journalists should care about Author Rank a lot more than Amazon sales rank. Megan Garber, who teased apart some of the issues in a November 2011 post on Google+ at the Nieman Lab, noted Google ran a pilot that in the summer of 2011 that put profiles into search engine results. The article that caught my attention yesterday and prompted this post was by Erin Griffith at Pando Daily, who looked at how Author Rank changes marketing and journalism.

As Griffith suggests, the addition of Author Rank is likely related to the quality of search results. By prioritizing posts written by verified authors who have authority in a given topic in search, Google users will be exposed to better results — and posts created by spammers and link factories will be deprecated. Or so the thinking goes.

According to an SEO agency president cited in a PandoDaily article about the shift, “bylined stories rank higher, and they get more real estate. Most importantly, they return clickthrough rates that are 40 percent greater than normal.”

If accurate, that’s quite a carrot for Google to dangle in front of SEO-obsessed media organizations and freelancers alike, which will lead to influence that may well call for renewed caution about the power the search engine giant holds to organize the world’s information. There are reasonable concerns about how Google has proceeded here. For instance, Google could have given journalists the option to link to a profile on another social network, or to a page on their masthead’s website. Instead, Google Plus is being put forward.

The road ahead

Is linking a Google+ profile to search results a negative for journalists? Given what I’ve seen since 2011, on the whole, I still don’t think so. I’m willing to be proven wrong, as always. As I wrote then (self-plagiarism alert!) Edd Dumbill opened my eyes to the transition ahead of us some time ago in his post about why he thinks Google Plus is the social backbone for the Internet.

I highly recommend reading Edd’s post and thinking through what else might be tied together beyond journalists and their articles. It could be connecting people and places. Or teachers to schools, bartenders to pubs, managers to stores. Or other makers or creators, like musicians to tracks, filmmakers to videos, or photographers to their photos. Connecting coders to their code would be a natural fit for Google. Communities could advance those signals.

Facebook has followed much the same sort of thinking in extending the semantics of its social graph within its network — and has more than 1 billion users at present. Given this shift, I have to wonder whether we’ll eventually see the public Facebook profiles of journalists associated with bylines and stories in Bing search results — and how quickly publishers and journalists will move to associate themselves with Google search engine results.

Media now have a clear choice before them: join Plus to connect profiles with their stories or stay out of the social fray. It will be a different decision than joining Twitter or Facebook was in years past, before it was clear to the general public that social networking would not be a passing fad. There will be more pressure for journalists to join Google Plus now, given the rewards in traffic and profile visibility that will accrue to having your face in Google News and search results.

I chose to tie my profile to my bylines in the summer of 2011, in that pilot, so that people looking for information would see my face in search results and connect to me. New readers are now finding me through many social networks (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Plus and others) and search. Given what I do, it made sense for me.

It will likely not be the right choice for investigative journalists who cover organized crime or government corruption, or for those who operate from conflict zones or under autocratic regimes. For many others, however, being “discoverable” to their communities, beats and colleagues on Plus now looks as professionally relevant as participating on Twitter or Facebook.

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