Category Archives: Communications

Context is king. Book’s web site has lesson for us

I was looking up author, David Carr, after using a quote from him in my previous post. His is a fascinating story captured in his book, The Night of the Gun.

Since every book today has a companion web site, I nearly skipped it, assuming it was another content dump with blurbs and links. I was wrong!  It’s a trove of context, not content.

  • One of the tabs opens a page laid out in a grid of 60-squares. Click on each square and it takes you deeper into Carr’s story by way of candid interviews, photos, scanned documents etc.
  • Another tab has a timeline, which takes you on an online experience you couldn’t even come close to in the pages of a book.

The publisher, Simon and Schuster, notes that it created a database of content because Carr ended up with a large stack of material, recording his thoughts and interviews using many formats – video, audio, notes etc.

With help from the New York Times‘ digital guy, (a ‘User Interface Specialist!) they built a site as a multi-media backdrop, or more precisely, a back-story, to his memoir.

While it makes for a novel way to market a book, we could learn some important lessons in how to surround any other form of communication with rich, contextual information.

In the end The Night of the Gun is more than a book -a living story that cannot be contained within templates, hard covers or style sheets.


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Lost in translation – when jokes go sour

With so many channels permitting us to share so much chatter, it’s alarming how people forget that what seems private could be very public. Twitter is “a village common” says David Carr, media and culture columnist for the New York Times. He considers what someone says on this channel as very public. (There is a journalistic debate on whether a tweet is actually public content.)

Humor often has a way of going wrong. If you are planning on posting a zinger remember the Aflack guy. The comedian Gilbert Gottfried, who was the voice of the duck in the Aflack commercials, made a few off color tweets soon after the tsunami in 2011. One of them was: “I just split up with my girlfriend, but like the Japanese say, “They’ll be another one floating by any minute now.” He quickly became the ex-Aflack voice.

Even a comedian ought to think before he tweets.

Speaking of humor, this joke gone wrong, involving the Dalai Lama would crack you up. Nothing offensive, but the punch line, lost in translation, just didn’t connect. Karl Stefanovic, the anchor of the Today show in Australia explains.



Why Journalists go for your blog

There are some studies that compare a company’s Twitter profile to a blog.

The 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer study, which I’ve always found to be a fascinating read on where we are in social media practice, had some equally strong indicators as to where traditional and digital media sit on the trust scale.

For instance, trust in company’s web sites are (hold your breath!) up!

So this infographic, which summaries a survey by UK-based Text 100 is a good sidebar to the study. It speaks of engaging journalists using social media.



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Will tablets and smart phones kill conversations?

A few weeks back, I passed a sad tableau of an Asian family: a dad and two sons waiting for Mum outside a Chinese grocery store. All three of them were silently thumbing away on their iPhones. In cars, in waiting rooms, the tablet and the smart phone has become the new baby sitter.

Over the past five years, having reported social media’s many benefits I often have to step back and wonder about what it means to be too much digital.

We have become so used to being ignored while having a conversation with someone with a Blackberry that we sometimes take it for granted.

It’s not just an etiquette problem as some have alerted us to in the past few years. It’s a social problem that will have deeper ramifications -too much ‘media’ perhaps - as we marvel at how connected we are.

It generates caricatures such as this and this.

  • Smart phones don’t automatically make us smarter. (Perfectly captured in that Geico commercial that poses that rhetorical question.)
  • Likewise one more screen in the home won’t make us better informed. While we do see attempts to engage students better using tablets, social media and other digital platforms, parents and educators need to add some caveats. Teaching children media literacy would be a start.

There is a connection between learning to have ‘conversations’ and learning how to learn by deconstructing information presented –a.k.a. discourse analysis. I am planning to connect my Robotics class with a class in Thailand, soon, and have given much thought to the balance of a traditional class with a digital experience where students will talk to each other with and without digital devices. More on this later.

I will leave you with two great pieces :

Enjoy! And do send me your thoughts, comments.


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Online Privacy for the rest of us

If you didn’t see the blackout yesterday in protest of the Online Privacy Acts going through the House of Representatives and Senate (known by their acronyms SOPA and PIPA) it’s time to pay attention.

It won’t be trampling on the Wikipedias and the Facebooks of this world alone. Google, Reddit, and Craigslist, WordPress, Mozilla, and O’Reilly also protested the acts.

As Shel Holtz rightly noted in a great insightful piece, SOPA threatens much of the content residing on websites of organizations “as long as it resides on a .com, .org or .net domain. All it takes is for a user to upload a video, a photo or a presentation that violates someone’s copyright—even if it’s someone singing a cover of a song at a party—and under SOPA, Internet service providers could be ordered to block the domain name.”

Even those involved in advertising and SEO work.  Even Higher education! Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, according the ReadWrite Web.

I just submitted an article for publication on infographics, so this one caught my eye. It summarizes the issue well. But…. does that mean this blog too could come under scrutiny by the SOPA police?

If you care about having your voice heard, you can sign the petition here.

Updated: The House of Representatives statement on the blackout, says that this was a Wikipedia ‘publicity stunt.’ In a press release (responding to the claim that some organizations had dropped their support of SOPA) it stated that ““Contrary to critics’ claims, SOPA does not censor the Internet.”


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2011 dominated by people rather than technology

It’s impossible to overstate how tumultuous a year 2011 has been.

Every year we seem to think that we have been shaken, twisted around, rudely awakened. Usually it’s about technology. But usually it’s about some life-changing technology, or a new ways of doing things. Refreshingly, this year there was a large human dimension to it, some of which I covered here on this blog.

It was as if we were looking through a camera and switching between two filters:  Pro-democracy and Anti-terrorism. But we also saw a share of media events, some even about the media!

  • The people’s revolutions in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Russia, Libya…
  • In a surprising move, the US captured and killed of Osama Bin Laden – ten years after he declared war on the US.
  • Then there was Occupy Wall Street, a movement pooh-poohed by many but seemed to catch on, franchise-like, sprouting  arms, posters, and megaphones…
  • The shooting (and amazing recovery) of congresswoman Gabby Giffords dominated the early part of the year. At least here in Arizona.
  • The media scandal in the UK rocking Rupert Murdock’s empire.
  • The Kate and William extravaganza in the media -a.k.a. the royal wedding.
  • The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan in April.
  • The passing away of Steve Jobs –perhaps slightly exaggerated as an ‘event’ (even on this blog!) But it made us consider how one man could have impacted so many.
  • Aung Su Kyi returned to the political arena, registering to run in upcoming elections

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Hippies or hipsters protesting? Is it the seventies all over again?

‘Peace through protest’ may sound the flavor of the month, or at least the theme of 2011, considering that peaceful uprisings overturned dictators during the so-called Arab Sprint.

But it reality, this is just the old recipe, delivered to our table on new tableware.

I watched a History Channel documentary on Nixon last night, and just seeing the short powerful segments when they cut away to the anti-Vietnam movement across the country made me realize this. You could cut-and-paste the present protest on Wall Street. Except for the bandanas and peace tattoos of the seventies, the similarities are striking.

People are fed up with their politicians (81 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way the country is being governed; confidence in Congress has dropped). They believe that the best way to send them a message is to show up on the street with hand-painted signs and chants.

OK, so we do have web sites, Twitter hash tags (#occupywallstreet) and Facebook, but it is easy to give too much credit to the mechanical tools of movements.

  • It does help when Salman Rusdie helps out with a tweet.
  • It does help when there is speculation that the Nobel peace prize this year may recognize Arab activists.
The revolution will not be televised.   But just watching the images, and the live stream makes you wonder if the hipsters have taken notes from their predecessors.
But what does this kind of speech, and technique forebode? Watch!


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Graphics, info-graphics and flat-out dubious statistics

I thought I loved info-graphics, until they were run over my marketing people.

Seriously. I used to find the art of info-graphics irresistible long before we they grew like weeds, online. The people who wee good at it were illustrators who worked for newspapers. Some complex heist, or a catastrophic event would be nicely compressed into an info-graphic in a newspaper.

Now there are so many info-graphics, I found this infographc about infographics!

But what exactly is an info-graphic?

It is usually used as a synonym of Data Visualization. But is it? The simple definition of DV is that it tells a story using data points. But it need not be a ‘graphic’ per se. It could be a dynamic time line, such as the Time Line produced by the Guardian, London. They created what seems like a nice graphic of the incidents of rioting in London in August. But it contains a slider that allows the reader to move through the days from 6th August onward, as towns from Tottenham to Ealing to… Liverpool reported incidents.

Here’s what it looks like. Click on image to launch visualization.

Contrast this to an Info-graphic, Big Brothers, about satellites that countries from Mexico to Pakistan to Iran have sent up.

To me the best info-graphic does these five things:

  • It summarizes a large volume of data in a snapshot.
  • It tells a story by helping our eye navigate complexity, and move between icons or illustrations that represent events, people, trends, hierarchies.
  • It is great at providing supplemental information on a page, when the publisher does not want to lose the reader who might turn the page, and jump to something else.
  • It provides a sense of scale, through visual tweaks, to explain something that might be difficult to comprehend, even with traditional data we cram into presentations (tables, lists, quotes, price points…) The orbiting satellites info-graphic above does a great job of this.
  • It provides direction, and relationships of where that direction might take you. The simplest info-graphic for me is the compass. I do not need to know the ‘degree’ of the direction, as long as I have the four data points. The best known inf-graphic in this category is the London Underground map.
So what then, is an info-graphic? To Alberto Cairo, an info-graphic specialist, and author of Infographia,  who teaches this stuff,
 “Infographics are difficult to define precisely because of their multiple and flexible nature….an information graphic is an aid to thinking and understanding.
He goes on to say that an info-graphic makes patterns arise, helps readers stumble upon trends, and it does this in a very small space. Because an info-graphic is so easy grab attention, especially in a world where few people have tolerance for long-form content (such as this post; sorry folks!) an info-graphic can be completely distorted and not get too mush scrutiny.

I am working on an article on just this topic. So if you have some examples -the good, the bad, the completely distorted– please leave a comment here or send me a tweet.

I will leave you with a great resource by Aaron Weyenberg. His post, “How to distort data” looks at the dangers that lie here.

Be warned. This is not a short form content, but it does have some cool graphics!

Posted by on September 30, 2011 in Best Practices, Communications, Journalism


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Inconvenient truths about citizen journalism

This article was published by LMD magazine this month.

“This is not good anymore… Once the battery charges, I’m going to download it from the camera and stream it to you live. I mean, I don’t believe this is happening. Seriously, I don’t believe this is happening…”

They were the last words of one of the bravest citizen journalists of our time – Libyan Mohammed Nabbous, killed in Benghazi in March (find the story at

When we talk about citizen journalism, we think of accidental reporters who, in the face of a catastrophic event, grab a cellphone and capture a story that would otherwise never have been recorded.

Many in the West recall the first heartbreaking reports of the 2004 Asian tsunami, captured by citizens in Sri Lanka. Commuters, not trained reporters, provided the first grainy videos when terrorists bombed subways and buses in London in 2005. Likewise, the first images of the dramatic ‘splash landing’ of an US Air­ways flight into the Hudson River in Manhattan were captured by a citizen journalist. But like those in mainstream media who have put themselves in harm’s way (those like Daniel Pearl of The Wall Street Journal, who was killed in 2002; and Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Misrata, in Libya recently), citizen journalists are following in their footsteps.

Now that large media organi­sations have downsized, citizen journalists are often filling the gaps.

Whether we approve of them or not, they are often the first responders, covering a broad range of events – wars, hurricanes, earthquakes, elections, civil un­rest, famines and terrorism – that seem to be taking place with greater frequency these days.

Media Test Kitchen. There are many questions of course, as this ‘accidental profession’ shows signs of turning more professional (‘Pro’) than amateur (‘Am’). How will established news-media organisations deal with this new phenomenon? Or the more pertinent question is, how will governments adapt to this reality?

First to the Pro-Am relationship. In the early years, the Pros were sceptical. Yet, more recently across the world, as mainstream media organisations began cutting back on staff, this gave rise to newsrooms where Pros could be sought after (or outsourced) like Ams. Steve Outing, Direc­tor of the Digital Media Test Kitchen, once observed that “few news organisations have the manpower to cover everything that their readers are interested in, but by tapping the volunteer (or cheap) resour­ces of the citizenry, a news organisation can potentially provide coverage down to the little league team and church-group level, as well as offer better and more diverse coverage of broader issues by bringing in more voices and perspectives”.

In 2006, probably the turning point of citizen journalism, the BBC announced that it would in fact pay Ams for their contributions that could include video footage taken and saved on cellphones. The BBC’s Direc­tor of Global News Richard Sambrook observ­ed how invaluable citizens’ input had been in reporting the London bombings the previous year: “Within six hours, we received more than 1,000 photographs, 20 pieces of amateur video, 4,000 text messages and 20,000 emails. People were participating in our coverage in a way we had never seen before.” (For a discussion of the struggle between Pros and Ams, listen to the BBC report at 0711)

Sambrook called this new phenomenon ‘open-source journalism’, where there was collaboration between a Pro and his or her readers on a story. In other words, the Pros were working alongside the Ams!

Indeed, citizen journalism has pushed the boundaries of traditional journalism. Just like the BBC, many major news organisations have begun tacking on a citizen-powered news stream, and it is becoming more of a hybrid. And the vast number of events taking place in parts of the world that are hard to access has created the perfect conditions for niche-media outlets.

In Libya, a citizen journalist noted the following: ‘Before the revolution, there was only one newspaper that belonged to the Government. But after the revolution, now there are almost five…” He appeared jubilant that even he could play a small part in making that happen.

His profession – when he isn’t a citizen reporter – is…? A dentist!

Just this June, The New York Times opened up a story for citizen participation in making sense of a trove of email records (24,199 in all) from Sarah Palin, released by the Governor’s Office in Juneau, in Alaska: “We’re asking readers to help us identify interesting and newsworthy emails, people and events that we may want to highlight. Interested users can fill out a simple form to describe the nature of the email, and provide a name and email address so we’ll know who should get the credit.”

Likewise, The Washington Post invited readers, saying: “That’s a lot of email for us to review, so we’re looking for some help from Fix readers to analyse, contextualise and research those emails right alongside Post reporters over the days following the release.”

Note the words ‘alongside Post report­ers’. To qualify, people didn’t need to have a degree in journalism… just a computer and an internet connection!

Others have been cooking up different recipes in the test kitchen of citizen participation. Media observers have been calling it ‘non-profit journalism’ and ‘grassroots journalism’.

“Non-profit journalism organisations as well as citizen journalists are producing news that too often is overlooked by traditional media,” observes Jason Stverak, President of the Franklin Center for Govern­ment and Public Integrity, a non-profit journalism organisation.

The distinction between online journalists and those who write in to newspapers and magazines or work in radio or TV are disappearing, and their skill sets are being cross-pollinated. Stverak rightly says that “not all those who write online stories are journalists yet, but the ones who are should get the same access and treatment as those few still employed by newspapers, television and radio”.

For the Ams (who are often videographers, bloggers and podcasters), access and ‘treatment’ are sticky issues. Consider the following. Even when it comes to major events such as the World Economic Forum (where bloggers and YouTubers provide up-to-the-minute and live coverage), press accreditation is reserved for ‘all accredited media’. Three bloggers who called themselves ‘alternative journalists’ sued the New York Police Depart­ment for giving them the cold-shoulder treatment – by denying them press credentials.

In the UK, the Tameside Council (a borough of Manchester) ruled that bloggers could not be permitted to tweet, since they were technically not members of the press corps. The council however permitted the Manchester Evening News and the Tameside Reporter to use Twitter during its meetings. In many instances like this, a person needs to prove that he or she is an ‘accredited representative’ of the press.

Which begs the question: would someone like Nabbous have been considered an accredited member? Probably not!

Jay Rosen, a promoter of the Pro-Am model for many years and a journalism professor at New York University, thinks that the profession has not been making much progress in this area – for the simple reason that the Pros have not been making it easy for citizens.

“The ergonomics of participation in Pro-Am journalism are poorly understood. We don’t have enough experts in it,” he says. In order to engage people in this model of reporting, “they need to see and feel the connection between the small part they are asked to contribute and the big story that will result”.

Then there is the credibility factor. Citizen journalists do not have the built-in reputation of a news organisation, especially if they are working solo. But this has been changing. As the BBC’s Michael Buerk noted while talking to an Egyptian citizen journalist, “it’s not important because of what old-style journalism can’t do, but for what they won’t do”.

There is an upside to all of this, not just for the media but for communities and for democracy. The ‘inconvenient truths’ in a functioning democracy, says Sanjana Hattotuwa, Editor of citizen-journalism outfit Ground Views, is that with citizen participation “you risk the multiplicity of voices and strengthen media literacy”.

And yes, it is messy… but you end up with an informed citizenry, which isn’t a bad payoff. They, the hoi polloi, decide on which media they will believe – and as has been the case in Iran and Egypt until recently, they often do not believe the official narrative coming from the mainstream media.

Professional Amateurs. Some ex-journalists and entrepreneurs have spotted opportunities in this space and begun to create business models, albeit non-profit businesses. One of them, The Uptake (, is a ‘citizen-fuelled news organisation’.

“Online tools will not solve community development,” says The UpTake. It stresses the need for a different type of citizen journalist – the Professional Amateur.

It also explains how one person wearing many hats is not the norm in citizen-fuelled news. Shooting the video, editing the story and publishing it online is more than what a Pro-Am ought to be asked to do.

Uptake recommends three core areas a citizen-fuelled organisation needs to focus on: train, organise and crowd-source. More importantly, it looks at citizen journalism not as a reactive means to cover a story as it breaks.

The co-founder of The UpTake Chuck Olsen calls it “committing an act of journalism” – meaning, going out there and finding the story, not reacting to it. “Most acts of citizen journalism are simply documenting something – a London subway cellphone photo, for example. And that’s very important,” he notes.

But as the model matures and takes on a Pro-Am status, Olsen calls for more: “We want to elevate citizen journalism from being reactive to being proactive. Go out and find stories that interest you, and provide some training on how to capture and tell that story.”


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San Francisco’s ‘language of the birds’

I recently, serendipitously, came across an inspiring sculpture in San Francisco, called the ‘language of the birds.’

It had been commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission, and is located very close to a landmark bookstore, City Lights. Created by two artists, Brian Goggin with Dorka Keehn, they describe it as:

“a flock of twenty-three sculpted illuminated books, which appear to have just taken flight from the plaza like pigeons scared up by a passer by.”

In a city named after St. Francis of Assisi, I couldn’t help but notice the thematic homage to someone who was said to have been be fond of –and communicated with birds.


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