David’s now a blogger

In 2006 The Guardian published “The rise of the blogger”, an article marvelling at the number and influence of bloggers. A mere two years later, the blogosphere is believed to contain 200 million blogs, and be more powerful than ever. President Obama’s victory last November has barackobama.com to thank. Celebrity sites like Gawker and Perezhilton (now receiving more than 10 million visits a day!) mean that no celeb goes under the radar – making or breaking careers.

And it’s not just the popular bloggers that are shaking the boat. A few months ago, Dave Carroll, a relatively unknown Canadian musician, used his blog to cause a big stir around the world. He had taken a flight with United Airlines and watched as his guitar, which he had entrusted the airline to handle carefully, was mishandled and damaged. After being declined compensation numerous times by an unhelpful customer service, Carroll decided to take his revenge – in the form of a YouTube video which boasts of 5 1/2 million views. 

Little did United Airlines realise how influential this video would be. It became an instant success, snowballing as soon as the mainstream media caught whiff of the scandal. In the article “Revenge is best served cold – on YouTube“, the UK’s The Times says the United’s stock price dropped by 10 per cent, translating to a loss of $180 million to shareholders. 

I love this idea that the Davids now have a fighting chance against the Goliaths. Businesses keep honest and consumers are empowered. And it may even do away with automated, unhelpful customer service centres!

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Content micropayment – the savior of online news?

Last May The Guardian reported that media mogul Rupert Murdoch intends to start charging for access to News Corporation‘s newspaper websites within a year, saying, “The current days of the internet will soon be over.” He believes this change will offer a solution for he considers a “malfunctioning” business model. Many agree with him. We’re seeing newspapers fold and journalists and editors out of work. The situation isn’t being helped by citizen journalism – news reported by non-professional journalist/bloggers, the majority of whom are unpaid.

The news – in whichever form – is now being offered for free, and the concept of paying for it has people up in arms. But, if we remember, just a few years ago we willingly paid for this content. Has the internet made us cheap? Do we no longer value the role of journalism in society?

Walter Isaacson, author of February’s Time article “How to save your newspaper“, believes that the future of journalism is at a crossroads: either we rejig the current online news business model to save it or we keep the one we’ve got now – asking professional work to go unpaid – and see the institution go down in flames. He says, “I am hoping that this year will see the dawn of a bold, old idea: getting paid by users for the services they provide and the journalism they produce.” He says that the current system is profitable only for search engines, portals and news aggregators who “piggyback” on the content created by others. He also criticises ad-based revenue models as toxic since they make content providers cater to the advertisers rather than the readers.

He suggests users pay for content through micropayments according to the content accessed, much like the iTunes system. He reasons, “We have a world in which phone companies have accustomed kids to paying up to 20 cents when they send a text message but it seems technologically and psychologically impossible to get people to pay 10 cents for a magazine, newspaper or newscast.” He concludes:

This would not only offer a lifeline to traditional media outlets but also nourish citizen journalists and bloggers. They have vastly enriched our realms of information and ideas, but most can’t make much money at it. As a result, they tend to do it for the ego kick or as a civic contribution. A micropayment system would allow regular folks, the types who have to worry about feeding their families, to supplement their income by doing citizen journalism that is of value to their community.

In February, Isaacson appeared on the US’s The Daily Show to talk about his article. Although it was basically a regurgitation of his article, host Jon Stewart makes an interesting suggestion for the industry’s business model to mirror that of cable news TV which charges for syndication. 

Being a bit of a cheapskate, I love that the internet is a virtual free-for-all. Paying for clicks!? It will take some getting used to, but I think it’s the only reasonable solution we have for saving journalism and a big chunk of the publishing industry.

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A critique of travel websites

Successful commercial websites strive to strike a balance between the content and profit-seeking services they provide. The better the content, the better the Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), which is key to a successful online business – increasing traffic, sales and brand loyalty. Although there are many competitors in the area of travel websites, this study will analyse three frontrunners: National Geographic Australia(NGA), Lonely Planet (LP) and the US’s Frommer’s. This critique will analyse the three websites in terms of audience/intent, content, narrative style, interactivity, keywords and linking. Ultimately, the comparison will illustrate how the sites are excelling, but also the areas in which I feel they could improve.

Audience and Intent

NGA’s myriad media products (magazine, TV, books, radio, maps, etc) reach 325 million people a month. Its award-winning website, with versions specific to the US, UK, Japan, India, Serbia and Australia, receives more than 12 million monthly visitors. Its target audience comprises adults interested in travel, photography, animals, the green movement and the environment. Not wanting to exclude their younger audience, there is also a special National Geographic Kids section of the site filled with games, educational activities and photos. The company has a mission “to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge [and] to inspire people to care about the planet”.

LP’s webby award-winning site, visited monthly by 5 million people, has versions in Italian, German, Spanish, French, Japanese and Chinese. Lonely Planet says that people visit the website “to get hardcore about travel. To dream about it, plan it, book it and talk about it. They come to shop, to read features, to enter competitions, to watch videos. They come to find a job, share advice, read reviews.” The majority of Lonely Planet’s audience are adults in their 30s or 40s who enjoy travelling and interacting with others who share the same interests. 

Although only in English, Frommer’s site recieves 500,000 US visits per month. It also appears to have a large overseas audience, as evident by its popular international community section. Frommer’s website has the mission “to empower today’s traveller through trusted travel editorial and welcome them to Frommer’s community of travellers”. 

Content

Jonathan Dube, in his article “Writing News Online” says that “online journalists must constantly think in terms of different elements and how they complement and supplement each other [and should] always keep an eye out for information that can be conveyed more effectively using interactive tools.” 

NGA’s homepage boasts of varying types of content. Textual content comes in the form of news articles and feature articles. Every news article is accompanied by a colourful photograph and easy-to-access links to articles providing further reading on that particular topic. Feature articles – clearly taken directly from the magazine – have no links or videos. The site provides lots of interesting videos on a separate video page organised by categories like environment, animals, travel and culture, kids, etc. Another form of content is the child-friendly games section. Then, there are beautiful map and photography sections.

LP’s content also comes in different forms. The majority can be found through the site’s “destinations” tab. Which allows users to search for a particular destination, either by clicking on the world map or typing in the name. Doing so will lead the user to text adapted from the LP guide booksand organised into categories like practical information, history and work & study. Other content takes the form of articles and blog posts written by LP staff and authors. All of these articles are accompanied by a minimum of three photographs, links to further reading within the site and occasionally video. The majority of video content can be found at their sister site Lonely Planet tv.

Frommer’s content is very disappointing. Although there is a great deal of well-organised and easy-to-locate content, it isn’t accompanied by other content forms like photos or videos. The text also has a surprising lack of links (although there are a few internal ones). The text has the appearance of a static page out of a physical book – definitely unsuitable for a website. 

Narrative Style and Readability

Research has shown that the narrative style of web writing must differ from that of print. Dorothy A Bowles and Diane L Borden, in their book Creative Editing, state that research shows “Web users do not like long, scrolling pages; they prefer the text to be short and to the point [since] reading from computer screens is about 25 percent slower than reading from paper”. Nancy DuVergne Smith says, “Many sites are built from documents created for print publications [so] the transition to the web is an opportunity to cut the fat…Dense prose murders a web site.” These three travel sites are faced with this challenge of adapting their print content to the web – but not all of them do it successfully.

NGA’s news articles are well-suited to the web. They use scannable sentences within short paragraphs. However, the longer feature articles, which do not seem to have been altered for the web, are inappropriate since they use a narrative style better suited for print: long sentences built with poetic language meant to be consumed at a leisurely pace. On the other hand, it does a great job with the features‘ titles and kickers, which are descriptive and concise.

LP does a better job of adapting its print content to the web. It keeps sentences snappy, the tone conversational and paragraphs short. The article’s titlesalso typify the informal toneand use their introductory paragraphs as the kickers.

Frommer’s articles do a pretty good job of adapting their articles and keeping the language and style web-appropriate. However, their choices of article titles are underwhelming. Also, no kickers are included in the text.

Interactivity

The World is Flat: The Ten Forces that Flattened the World” by Thomas L Friedman argues that consumers are becoming producers. He says that this process “is fundamentally reshaping the flow of creativity, innovation, political mobilization, and information gathering and dissemination.” For any site to survive it must provide users with interactivity options. In the realm of travel sites, users enjoy trading tips, stories and pictures, and asking for and giving advice. All three of our travel sites realise the importance of promoting interactivity on their sites.

NGA lets users upload their photographs and vote on their favourites. Users are encouraged to comment on editors’ and photographers’ blogs. Also, in the section called “The Green Guide: just ask” users are encouraged to type questions which will then be displayed with an answer. Unfortunately, however, this site hasn’t yet created a real sense of community. I would suggest it create a user forum.

LP does just that, creating The Thorn Tree, a travel forum boasting 300,000 members who together post 5,000 messages a day. There are over 200 groups within LP such as “The Quest for the Perfect Beach” and “Travel Writers Group” which encourage interaction within the site. Lastly, there is Lonely Planet’s flickr group for people to upload their travel photos and see the best displayed on the site’s homepage.

Frommer’s, too, motivate users to get involved. It has an active forum divided into thematic categories. It also encourages people to upload their photographs, for them to be displayed on the homepage, inviting further user involvement.

Keywords

Google‘s “Webmaster Guidelines” offers invaluable advice for optimising a website’s SEO. It stresses the importance of keywords, saying, “Think about the words users would type to find your pages, and make sure that your site actually includes those words within it.”  

Looking at NGA’s sitemap indicates which keywords are most important to the website. Keywords include: animals, education, history, kids, magazines & books, photography, shopping, etc. The titles of the articles under each of these categories are fitting. So under the photography category are articles with titles such as “Action and Adventure Photography Tips” and “Photographer: Becky Hale“. At the end of the former article are links to further reading, repeating the keyword photo* increases the site’s SEO.

LP is careful to always include the name of the place in the article’s title. Example articles about Barcelona have titles like “Top 10 architectural gems of Barcelona” and Feisty fiestas: it’s always party time in Barcelona!“.

Frommer’s does the same by focussing on specific destinations. Its articles on Barcelona repeat the city’s name as well: “What’s New: An Online Update for Frommer’s Barcelona” and “Barcelona: In One Day“.

Linking and Homepage

Jeff Jarvis’s “New rule: Cover what you do best. Link to the rest” talks about the importance of linking internally when you think you can provide expert information, but externally when you can’t – to better serve the needs of the user. These three websites need to heed Jarvis’s advice; the sites rarely link externally, probably out of the fear of losing site traffic. They instead do their best to maximise traffic within their site through internal linking and promotion through the homepage. 

NGA’s articles are consistently formatted to include two internal linking tools. At the top right there is a box of links called “Related Topics” and at the bottom of the article “Related Features“. The homepage has two main menus at the top and left-hand side for in-site navigation. The remaining space is filled with small boxes highlighting the site’s content: news, videos, NG magazine, NG channel, etc. Though rarely, NGA will link externally – when referring to an organisation, for example.

LP also predominantly links internally. Articles all have a box to the right called Related Tips & Articles with links. The homepage regularly rotates articles that it chooses to feature for the day. The photographs and titles may be tweaked to give them a new feel. Occasionally LP will link externally to tourism websites or businesses as a means of providing authoritative information.

On the other hand, Frommer’s links very little at all. At the end of its articles it occasionally offers links to maps and products. However, aside each article is a menufor that particular destination providing easy access to further exploration. Frommer’s homepage offers an interesting rotating display of its content, as well as a list of articles organised by date, popularity or having the most comments. 

Final Recommendations

I think NGA is very successful in achieving its mission to instruct and inspire. The site offers informative articles, inspirational photographs and lots of opportunities to get involved in groups, conservation and the green movement. However, it needs to re-think options for adapting its print magazine articles to a web-friendly format. Also, adding accompanying video alongside articles would be a nice web 2.0 touch.

LP is a true master of encouraging interactivity, adapting print content and inspiring travellers – just like it hopes to do. Lonely Planet is successful in providing numerous avenues for travellers to share pictures and tales, plan trips and read informative and entertaining stories from the Lonely Planet authors and fellow web users. However, it shouldn’t be so worried about linking externally – as avoiding it can be off-putting to users. Like NGA, LP needs more videos linked to its articles.

I think it does a great job of encouraging interactive use and creating a sense of “membership” into the Frommer’s community. However, the fact that Frommer’s receives the least traffic of the three sites is not surprising. It hasn’t grasped the important theories of  web 2.0 which have the potential to maximise the site’s content and improve business.


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Getting your audience wrong

We can all agree that before writing anything that you intend to publish, it’s vital to have your audience in mind. Doing so defines the choice of style, language and content. But how can you really know your audience? And what if you get it wrong?

I came across an article recently which provides an example of this exact blunder. Earlier this month, the New York Times published “Housewares the way God intended them”, an article by writer Cintra Wilson. In it, she criticised American department store JCPenny, offending many people as it was widely deemed condescending. Fashion/celebrity/gossip blog Jezebel blogged about the controversy in the article “NYTimes Issues Apology For Cintra Wilson Article” saying:

In the Public Editor column, Clark Hoyt notes that…the entire brouhaha brings up “an issue that The Times and other news organizations sometimes struggle with: What is the difference between edgy and objectionable? “Times Editor Bill Keller attempts to answer this question by noting that “The key, I guess, is to imagine that you are writing for an audience with a broad range of views and experiences, and to write with respect for them.” 

It is a trap, I suppose, that anyone who publishes anything online falls into at times: you think you know your audience, only to find that your audience may extend farther than you’d imagined. For the Times, this seems to be an ongoing theme: the completely tone deaf articles the paper continues to spin out about the plight of millionaires during the recession (“How to I host a dinner party on only $2000?! What will I do with only 8 homes?!”) aren’t doing them any favors.

While the Times learned their lesson with this one, what hope do us lowly bloggers have? How can we know we are reaching our – perhaps imagined – audience? And what if we’re posting stuff that simply doesn’t interest them? If we’re lucky, a reader will leave a comment to that effect, but I reckon most would just leave the site and never come back. So what then? 

On a side note, Seattle now has the coolest vending machine ever – one that sells books! Let’s cross our fingers they install one in Southern Cross Station!

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More proof of the world’s technology dependency

I spent the afternoon happily surfing the internet for cool new publishing-related news. 

First is a video from a TED talk unveiling new technology designed by MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group. Researchers Patti Maes and Pranav Mistry have created “sixth sense technology” utilised by a necklace equipped with a camera, cell phone and projector. The necklace, along with finger sensors, provides you with relevant information that you need – without having to search for it. So, if you are searching for a book in a book store, you simply have to hold the book in front of you, and the necklace will project information like reviews, best-seller ranking, etc. If you want to know the time, you simply have to raise your wrist and draw a circle with your fingertip and suddenly the time will be projected. But the most mind-blowing? When you meet someone and are facing them, the person’s chest will immediately be projected with their name and information gleaned from google or their personal blogs or sites. You must watch this: 

Next, is a cool new video packed with facts about the “social media revolution”. My favourite facts? That if Facebook were a country, it’d be the fourth biggest in the world. And this blog is just one of 200,000,000 worldwide. 

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Webby Awards inspiration

In my recent internet wanderings I stumbled upon The Webby Awards which is the highest international award for excellence in websites. Little did I know, the awards ceremony is “the oscars of the internet world” and 2009 was its 13th year. Check out the list of winners to see some amazing sites that will definitely inspire you!

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“Networked thought” or stupidity?

I recently read Nicholas Carr’s fantastic article, “Is Google Making us Stupid?”, which argues that the internet is to blame for attention problems that are afflicting many an internet user. He says, “My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” He later compares it to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey, saying, “As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.”

While it horrified me, this article was strangely comforting in that it quieted my fears of being the only one feeling this way. I’d never before blamed the internet, but thought my increasing difficulty in concentrating on large chunks of text on screen was simply a part of growing older – and being only 28, I was (and still am) very concerned!

In his article “The Evolution from Linear Thought to Networked Thought”, Scott Karp doesn’t see anything wrong with consuming information online in a fluid way. He admits hopping from one link to another without finishing reading a text – and sees nothing wrong with web consumption being “kinetic, scattered, all over the place.” He then compares this “networked thought” to the information processing of Google, in an attempt to validate it. He even muses about whether or not this new thinking process might be a positive thing.

The way I see it, euphemistically renaming it “networked thought” simply sugar-coats this unsettling change in cognition. I mean, what’s next? Is the next generation of internet users going to completely lose their ability to read the old-fashioned book? newspaper article? anything longer than a tweet? And if a novel can’t be stomached, how do can we expect new literature to be written when it can’t even be read?

Furthermore, in the blogosphere, it seems to me like bad taste to admit skimming or link-hopping away from posts. I got a laugh from  one comment’s irony: “I think you’re on to something there, Scott — but I’m not sure what, because I never made it to the end of your post.”

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