Hashtags: Your Social Media Radar Screen and Magnet

Twitter Trending Hashtags
Image by mobatalk via Flickr

Later today I’m giving a talk at an entrepreneur’s group about how you can get more benefit out of social media by using hashtags. I’ve found that these can be exceptionally valuable tools to connect with topics and people. They also can help you make yourself (or a topic, organization, or event that matters to you) much easier to find and connect with.

I’ll be fleshing out these ideas in a later blog post. But for now, here are my main points I intend to make — Plus some resources I will to demonstrate…

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Chicago Tribune Story Idea Survey: Good Idea, Poorly Executed

CHICAGO - DECEMBER 8:  Flags wave in the wind ...
(Image by Getty Images via Daylife)

The Chicago Tribune recently reported that it has halted a “short-lived research project in which the Chicago Tribune solicited responses from current and former subscribers to descriptions of Tribune stories before they had been published.”

The project — a collaboration between the paper’s editorial and marketing departments — was stopped because reporters raised journalistic concerns. Originally it had only surveyed selected “would-be readers” about general topics and previous Tribune coverage. But in the last two weeks, participants had begun being surveyed about their preferences on synopses of stories currently in the works.

In all, 55 reporters and editors voiced their complaint in a letter to Tribune editor Gerould Kern and managing editor Jane Hirt. The letter “expressed concern that providing story information to those outside the newsroom prior to publication seemed ‘to break the bond between reporters and editors in a fundamental way.'”

Here’s more detail about how the research was conducted: “Surveys were sent by e-mail to around 9,000 would-be readers on two occasions. About 500 responded to each, indicating which of 10 story ideas they preferred. Kern said the stories ‘tended to be news features,’ and the results never made it to him or had any impact in how stories were handled.”

I can understand the reporters’ complaint if their story ideas were shared outside the newsroom without their prior knowledge and consent. However, if that consent can be obtained, I personally think this type of research could be surprisingly useful. Especially if the people being surveyed truly represent younger people (i.e., the news organization’s future market) as well as demographics that historically have not been well served by the news organization…

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MediaCloud: Tracking How Stories Spread

Last week, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society launched Media Cloud, an intriguing tool that could help researches and others understand how stories spread through mainstream media and blogs.

According to Nieman Lab, “Media Cloud is a massive data set of news — compiled from newspapers, other established news organizations, and blogs — and a set of tools for analyzing those data.

Here’s what Berkman’s Ethan Zuckerman had to say about Media Cloud:


Ethan Zuckerman on Media Cloud from Nieman Journalism Lab on Vimeo.

Some of the kinds of questions Media Cloud could eventually help answer:

  • How do specific stories evolve over time? What path do they take when they travel among blogs, newspapers, cable TV, or other sources?
  • What specific story topics won’t you hear about in [News Source X], at least compared to its competitors?
  • When [News Source Y] writes about Sarah Palin [or Pakistan, or school vouchers], what’s the context of their discussion? What are the words and phrases they surround that topic with?”

The obvious use of this project is to compare coverage by different types of media. But I think a deeper purpose may be served here: By tracking patterns of words used in news stories and blog posts, Media Cloud may illuminate how context and influence shape public understanding — in other words, how media and news affect people and communities.

This is important, because news and media do not exist for their own sake. It seems to me that the more we learn about how people are affected by — and affect — media, the better we’ll be able to craft effective media for the future.

(NOTE: I originally published this article in Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits.)

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Pew on Social Media: It’s Bigger than You Think

An example of a social network diagram.
Image via Wikipedia

On Jan 14., the Pew Internet and American Life project released a report on Adults and Social Networking Services. It said, “The share of adult Internet users who have a profile on an online social network site has
more than quadrupled in the past four years — from eight percent in 2005 to 35 percent now.”

Over at the Knight Digital Media Center News Leadership 3.0 blog, Michele McLellan observed: “It appears that American adults are moving into social networks more quickly than top 100 news organizations…”

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Tipsheet Approach to News: The Launching Point IS the Point

Typically news is presented in narrative story format (text, audio, or video). Often, that works well enough. But what about when people want to dig into issues on their own? What if they want to learn more about how the news connects to their lives, communities, or interests? Generally, packaged news stories don’t support that leap. It generally requires a fair amount of reading between the lines, initiative, research skills, and time — significant obstacles for most folks.

The growing number of citizen journalists (of various flavors) obviously are willing to do at least some of this work — but they don’t always know how to find what they’re seeking, or have sufficient context to even know what might be worth pursuing beyond the narrative line chosen for a packaged news story. Also, lots of people who have no desire to be citizen journalists still occasionally get interested enough in some news stories to want to check them out further first-hand. They just need encouragement, and some help getting started.

Therefore, it helps to consider that news doesn’t always have to be a finished story. In some cases, or for some people, a launching point might be even more intriguing, useful, and engaging. Here’s one option for doing that…
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Being a Citizen Shouldn’t Be So Hard! Part 2: Beyond Government

NOTE: This is part 2 of a multipart series. See the series intro. More to come over the next few days.

This series is a work in process. I’m counting on Contentious.com readers and others to help me sharpen this discussion so I can present it more formally for the Knight Commission to consider.

So please comment below or e-mail me to share your thoughts and questions. Thanks!

To compensate for our government’s human-unfriendly info systems, some people have developed civic info-filtering backup systems: news organizations, activists, advocacy groups, think tanks, etc.

In my opinion, ordinary Americans have come to rely too heavily on these third parties to function as our “democracy radar.” We’ve largely shifted to their shoulders most responsibility to clue us in when something is brewing in government, tell us how we can exercise influence (if at all), and gauge the results of civic and government action.

Taken together, these backup systems generally have worked well enough — but they also have significant (and occasional dangerous) flaws. They’ve got too many blind spots, too many hidden agendas, insufficient transparency, and too little support for timely, effective citizen participation…

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Being a Citizen Shouldn’t Be So Hard! Part 1: Human Nature

NOTE: This is part 1 of a multipart series. More to come over the next few days. See Part 2.

This series is a work in process. I’m counting on Contentious.com readers and others to help me sharpen this discussion so I can present it more formally for the Knight Commission to consider.

So please comment below or e-mail me to share your thoughts and questions. Thanks!

If you want to strengthen communities, it helps to ask: What defines a community, really? Is it mostly a matter of “where” (geography)?

Last week I got into an interesting discussion with some folks at the Knight Foundation and elsewhere about whether “local” is the only (or most important) defining characteristic of a community. This was sparked by an event held last week by the new Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy — an effort to recommend both public and private measures that would help US communities better meet their information needs.

From the time I first heard of this project, I thought it was an excellent idea. It bothers me deeply that many (perhaps most) Americans routinely “tune out” to issues of law, regulation, and government that not only affect them, but also that they can influence — at least to some extent. (I say this fully aware that I often fall into the “democratically tuned out” category on several fronts.)

The problem then becomes, of course, that when citizens don’t participate, their interests are easy to ignore or trample.

Why do so many Americans abdicate their power as citizens in a democracy? It seems to me that many are too quick to “blame the victim,” pointing to widespread apathy, ignorance, or a prevailing sense of helplessness as common democracy cop-outs.

I think there’s a different answer: The way our democracy attempts to engage citizens actively opposes human nature. That is, it just doesn’t mesh well with how human beings function cognitively or emotionally.

Fighting human nature is almost always a losing battle — especially if you want people to participate and cooperate….

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