Why is mainstream media still confused by the 80/20 rule?

A recent study by Purewire revealed that only around 20% of Twitter users are contributing to the service, with 80% having fewer than 10 followers, and 37.1% having no tweets – leading Techcrunch to suppose most people on Twitter are sheep.

Meanwhile the New York Times reports the shocking discovery that bloggers who assume it’s an easy way to get a book deal or give up their day job often get disillusioned and give up. The article quotes the 2008 Technorati State of the Blogosphere, with 7.4 million (5%)  of the 133 million blogs tracked by Technorati having been updated once in the last 120 days.

The most active 2% of Wikipedia users made 73.4% of edits in 2006 (including maintenance and administrative edits).

The iPhone OS had 8% of the smartphone market, but generated 43% of mobile web requests and 65% of html usage.

Are we noticing a pattern here?

I suspect around 20% of the people reading this post will be knowingly thinking of Vilfredo Pareto, who noticed that 20% of the people of Italy owneed 80% of the land back in 1909, which was then generalised by Joseph M Juran in 1941 into the Pareto Principle, as the common rule of thumb that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes, i.e. a Power Law with a The Long Tail.

Internet access gives everyone the ability to self-publish – it doesn’t mean everyone will. Or entitle everyone to be able to make a good living out of it.

And more importantly…

Even if just 1% of bloggers, people uploading video to Youtube, or podcasters achieve sustainable fame and income – how does that compare to the number of aspiring writers, film directors or radio DJs who never even got published or broadcasted under the old model?

The Long Tail never said everyone would get rich – you can either try to rise up to the hit end by being one of the small percentage working harder, being smarter, and getting luckier – or you can aggregate the long tail by working harder, being smarter, and getting luckier, just as Google did with Adsense.

As usability godfather Jakob Nielsen broke it down in 2006: “In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.”

The internet doesn’t radically change that dynamic (although it’s definitely possible to move the figures slightly within a specific online community). What it does is hugely increases the numbers included in that 1%, and in that 9%, which has a bloody big impact on the 90%.

That’s the big lesson – a small number of people can get Wikipedia over 55 million U.S. visitors in a year, or create the fact that 20 hours of video are uploaded every minute (equivalent to Hollywood releasing 86,000 films every weekend!). It’s what got facebook to over 200 million users, and Twitter to over 32 million.

It doesn’t mean it’s all popular, or high quality.

It just means that most of mainstream media is likely to end up covered in content as if it went out in a desert sandstorm – and successful businesses need to figure out how to engage and build on that 1% or 20% which creates the value for everyone else.

Are efforts to get boys reading more barking up the wrong dead tree?

As a relatively new father, I’ve suddenly become far more interested in the educational merit of the transition from dead-tree print to digital,  in addition to the implications for journalism and marketing.

So I paid a little bit of attention to the Oxford University Press launching a range of ‘computer-esque books to encourage boys to read‘. (link to BBC story).

Apparently the books have been tested in 2000 schools, and can be made interactive via CD-Roms (Are we back in 1995?) and whiteboards.

Two quotes in the BBC article got me thinking:

One from Charlie Higson (author of the Young Bond books):

‘”The point is that books are different to computers – that’s the whole point. If kids want to play with computers, they’ll play with computers, not read these stories.”

And one from Elaine Millard from the National Assocation of Teaching English

“What we have to do in schools is get that enthusiasm back for words on the page.” (emphasis mine)

Seems to me that Charlie makes a very good point for all print businesses – instead of bemoaning the fact that kids or adults are spending time on computers, perhaps we should either be making better print experiences, or better online experiences?

And I think that ties into the idea that we need to only have enthusiasm for words ‘on the page’.

Because, presumably, going into the school library and spending 40 minutes trying to find the right entry in an Encyclopedia bought the last time a school governor donated funds in the 1990s has more merit than searching Wikipedia, and it would be impossible to find literary merit in staring at a computer screen, or to combine something like a great computer game with some humour, intelligence and problem solving?

Coincidentally, whilst writing this, I spotted Dave Cushman linking to Dr Chris Thorpe‘s thoughts on both Dave’s book, and the power of print.

There’s an interesting change taking place – I still love reading books, and used Christmas as a chance to catch up on quite a few, and I can agree to an extent with Chris that reading print can have benefits (not getting distracted by links, or by other online services would be probably the main point which couldn’t be replicated online).

But what’s also interesting is that Cush’s book collects and organises thoughts which have appeared on his blog in a way that perhaps gives them more meaning due to the recurring themes – but the interactions that led Chris to read it is from meeting in person, and doubtless interactions via email and social networks.

Perhaps it’s not the actual content of great books which would have to change, but the ways in which we can help people discover them?

As an example, off the top of my head – people seem to have vastly different views on the idea of enjoying Shakespeare outside of academia, which seem to be driven by how they experienced it. For instance, I had some great English and History teachers who really put some life into Shakespeare – and also had parents who took me to see a handful of excellent Royal Shakespeare Company productions – some of which transposed Shakespeare with modern props and settings – Julius Ceasar stood in a transformed Kent sports centre next to a tank for example.

So rather than trying to corral kids into reading books by imitating things they’d rather be doing, perhaps we should be looking at how the things they’d rather do could be inspirational and interesting – could there be English and History scholars having conversations on Twitter, or could kids be siding with the Montagues and Capulets on a Facebook application?

After all, most of the books I read are by people I can contact via their blogs, emails and social networks and engage with to increase my understanding. Why should kids be denied the same opportunities?

The important thing is that we should be teaching children about the huge amount of ways they can find, enjoy, share, discuss, and interact with information in every format, and the benefits of each. And ensuring that we work with them to make sure what is produced is something engaging rather than patronising.

Should you stop linking to Wikipedia? (Black Hole SEO)

I’m not a huge fan of ‘Black Hat’ SEO (i.e. bending the rules, or breaking them to game SEO), but I do like to be aware of what goes on. And a recent discussion on ‘Black Hole SEO’ struck a chord with me outside of simple search engine optimisation, so I thought it was worth flagging to the wider world (that readers TheWayoftheWeb, anyway!).

Basically it refers to sites which are large enough to have authority across topics, which then ensure all links are internal, or ‘no-follow’ links (meaning they give no authority in Google ranking). There’s been discussion about ‘no-follow’ since it’s introduction, mainly around whether a blog comment should result in a legitmate link, or whether it discourages spammers to make them no-follow.

But this is far more worrying, as it essentially means large sites are following the example of Wikipedia. Because Wikipedia has so much content and authority, we all boost the site rankings by linking to it. But when it needs external information it rewrites it, and links to it internally, or links out with a ‘no follow’. You still get a traffic boost, but no ranking advantage.

There’s more on SEOblackhat, and they use examples from mainstream media, including the New York Times and Business Week. Daily Blog Tips has an open discussion on whether to boost your own sites in this method, while SEOBlackHat gives a ‘how-to‘ guide.

But noone has looked at the ethical debate around this, as far as I’m aware, which is what I’d like to do. I have sympathy for Wikipedia as a reference work limiting external links in this way, although I do question whether it’s the correct approach, as it essentially limits the reward of any site putting time and effort into creating something valuable on the subject.

But I seriously question the likes of Mainstream Media (MSM) or sites like Digg etc for doing it – these are organisations which make a profit from the content they display, and the position they occupy within search rankings. As ‘link journalism‘ begins to rise, and more people are recognising smaller blogs and websites as relevant within their field, it’s only right that they should receive the reward for their efforts, whether from recognition or financial reward.

And in the long term it has serious implications for these sites – if they rely on people providing content to enable a wide range of topics, internal rankings, and high search results, then they need the content provided. If hundreds or thousands or people who provide this content start to become disillusioned because they aren’t getting the recognition or reward for their efforts, will they start to rebel by removing content, embedding code, or starting to copyright their work and charge MSM?

Will we end up with an internet which is based around paying to be able to link to someone, rather than rewarding them by sending them PR and traffic?

I can understand why large sites do have the content available for internal linking, and this is to be expected. But as I write this I’m becoming more and more convinced that by not rewarding external sites when they are linked, is akin to stealing.

(Disclosure: I work across various titles for Bauer Media, and as far as I’m involved, and aware of, external links are encouraged, and are ‘do-follow’.)

Do you agree? Or do you think it’s nothing to worry about? And if you’re a ‘do-follow’ advocate, what action would you suggest to counteract these seo black holes?

Online collaboration isn’t always an easy option…

There’s a tendency to look at User Generated Content and online collaboration as an easy way to create content, products and services without some of the hassles of a traditional business.

And it’s easy to understand why: No ground rent, no equipment or infrastructure costs, no limitations on who can be involved etc. And no need to necessarily pay contributors.

But it isn’t an easy option, and there are several major risks to any online collaboration which requires more than one or two people:

Trust: How quickly do you place your trust in people to deliver on their promises, to deliver them on time, and not to take good ideas elsewhere?

Management: Is there some kind of leadership or guidance to keep things moving, and to clearly articulate the vision and strategy etc – which may have been decided democratically. How do you keep momentum going and inspire people to continue even when things can be tough?

Politics: How do you deal with disagreements? Infighting? Rivalry?

Reward: How do you supply a justifiable return to contributors for their time? Financial or otherwise?

Communication: How do you keep people updated, and make things simple and easy to contribute?

Those are just the first few problems off the top of my head. The reason they come to mind is that I have basically decided to cut all responsibility for Disposable Media, leaving only the possibility of contributing the occasional blog post or article at some point.

It’s been a lot of fun, particularly when I was given the honour of being Editor, and we had a fast growth in audience – all from a group of people working for no financial reward and contributing articles, designs etc via a forum. In my time on DM, I only ever met two of my colleagues in real life in the space of two years!

But having realised that I don’t have the time and energy to drive DM forward, I stepped down to take a back seat and a more advisory role. And what then happened was quite painful to watch, as some infighting and sabotage began, communication became worse, trust was lost, and many people started drifting away.  I don’t place all the blame on the Editor who replaced me, as there have definitely been people who have used a period of change for their own agenda.

Hopefully it will rise from the ashes, as over the years it’s had some very talented people, and some great articles and content. On the bright side, it’s shown me that although I was far from perfect, and made several mistakes, I did achieve a lot in keeping things going, and always trying to drive more organised and efficient systems to make life easier for everyone – and it also highlighted the need for communication and rewards, which will hopefully help me on other projects.

To be honest, the real risk to online magazines isn’t just the problems of collaboration – it’s also the arrival of new aggregated delivery services in a magazine format – i.e. systems that take your favourites from services like Last.fm, and then produce a custom magazine around them, like Idiomag. It plays on a simple philosophy of mine which is becoming more and more realistic and reinforced – ‘The most effective targeting of an individual, is the targeting they do for themselves

Word of Mouth Marketing and Community Marketing defined

I’ve read a myriad of works attempting to quantify Word of the Mouth Marketing and Community Marketing, ranging from the likes of the Cluetrain, to Wikipedia. Many attempt a philosophical or pseudo-scientific approach, citing ideas such as messages spreading like viruses, key advocates, and bi-directional customer feedback flow.

That’s fine, and some of those approaches have a lot of worth. But I like to make things simple as possible.

Community Marketing and Word of Mouth Marketing is simply helping people to find the solutions to their problems (including finding news/sports/entertainment) by asking around. And it leads to the feeling you get when someone you know recommends a good plumber or carpenter who can fix your house, or a mechanic who can get your car on the road. For half price.

That’s it in the most basic nutshell. As a community marketing person, my job is to make the tools on our websites as simple and easy to use as possible to allow people to get to know each other and ask those questions in whatever is the best way for them at the time, and also to let people not currently on our sites know we exist in order for them to satisfy their needs.

That’s why most of the best Word of Mouth and Community Marketing experts aren’t employed by companies or marketing agencies. That’s why the best Word of Mouth and Community Marketing experts are those people who work for some spare cash as plumbers, electricians and carpenters. Because they can’t advertise, and they totally rely on recommendations.

Scheduling your work with the ‘kitty litter’ method…

Don’t worry, I haven’t decided to switch to blogging about my pets! There’s already enough people filling that niche quite nicely.

The reference to kitty litter comes from the fact that I quite enjoy doing all the stereotypically manly jobs around the house, like DIY, changing light bulbs, and heroically standing up to insect and rodent invaders. And that’s despite the fact I exude the aura of someone permanently bathed in the glow of a computer monitor, laptop screen, or videogame.

But the one task I do hate is cleaning out the cat litter tray, especially if I’ve let it go for a day or two. If it’s done daily, it’s not too bad. If it’s a day or two late – you can probably imagine…

And by the same token, I’m lucky enough to have a job I’m really enjoying, but it does come with some tasks that are either new, or things that don’t always fill me with joy. But the more I do them, and the more regularly I schedule them, the easier it is to get them done and then get on with something more enjoyable. Hence kitty litter scheduling…

In other news, I picked up a shocking story about the UK Government and plans for healthcare from the excellent Communities Dominate Brands. Trying to be impartial, I can see why increasing private sector healthcare makes sense for a Government run like a corporation. But it deeply offends me that the Government isn’t putting service to the electorate first, and seems to have ignored the problems that many people in the U.S encounter every day due to private healthcare. It certainly means I know exactly which party will no longer get a vote from me.

Finally, some other interesting tidbits:

BBC Iplayer drivers online TV in the UK.
General Motors is compiling it’s 100 year history via a wiki
And
A call to boycott writing for academic journals who refuse to allow open access
Proving that even the most exclusive and respected academic journals face the same problems as consumer media and newspapers – and in fact, may find it even harder to adapt to survive.

The internet will always develop new niches… make them yours…

Ever wondered why networks tend to grow more quickly if they allow groups of self-form?

It’s because, no matter how well you know your subject and your customers, you’ll never predict their most interesting motivations for starting a group. And the ones that you might dismiss can end up being incredibly popular…

Take, for example, the Lolcat Bible… a wiki constructed to translate the Bible into the language of those lolcat pictures you’ve doubtless seen around the internet.

(Spotted thanks to a post on Dana Boyd’s blog)

Now would you have created a group for people interested in creating a Lolcat Bible? Would you have been able to quantify how many people would be interested in contributing, and how many people would then view it? Would you have even guessed Lolcatz would take off?

Me neither.

But by allowing anyone using your website to make their own choices, decisions and ideas, you’ll capitalise when one of their groups does take off. If you’re trying to explain it to the type of people who inists on quantifying everything by Return on Investment, you could try explaining that rather than spending time and money on second-guessing how to force people into categories, you’ll be hiring an unlimited number of people to do your research and development for you, and then reaping the benfits…

Still not convinced? Take a look at Wikipedia’s list of internet phenomena, and see how many you recognise. Then take the list round your peer group, and prepare to be shocked how many people who you’d have thought closely shared you interests will have radically different knowledge (Idea taken from The Long Tail…see reading list, right)…

One of the biggest joys of the internet is the fact you can find people, products and information on pretty much anything you might need, want, or be interested in. So why would you ever want to stop people experiencing that joy?

Oh, I can’t resist:
funny cat pictures & lolcats - Your problems are irrelevant to Technical Support-cat

Don’t swap journalists for users quite yet…

User generated content (UGC), citizen journalism, blogging. I’m a huge fan of all three when used correctly, but they all need to be handled with care by traditional media companies, whether it’s not serving them properly, or, in the case I’m going to hypothesise about, overestimating their effect.

Way back in June I quoted figures which put submissions to Youtube at 0.16% of users, while Flickr submissions were at 0.2%. Wikipedia was the involvement leader with 4.6%. Which should be one worry to the people I’ve spoken to who believe traditional journalists will be replaced by users in the near future.

Putting this to one side, along with discussions of trust, I think there is a further concern which anyone should consider before cutting journalists in favour of UGC.

And that’s going to be a growing rise in the need for payment for UGC. The oft cited example of OhMyNews already pays for submissions, and some bloggers are now being paid to produce work professionally. At the moment, these are exceptions rather than the rule for User Generated Content.

But there’s an established global market which already handsomely rewards creativity, and which will have an effect on any creative efforts produced. Users of MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Rolepaying Games), or users of Xbox Live will already be familiar with the concept of creating virtual items, Forza Motorsport car liveries, or a wealth of other content, and being reward in game currency, or via online auction sites in real money. And then there’s Anshe Chung, the Second Life millionaire

As increasing numbers of people are playing online games, and are familiar with the concept of virtual capitalism, then they won’t be satisfied with the fame of having their content published on a large website, and will increasing expect fair recompense for their efforts…

And to get the best UGC, to make it worthwhile, you’ll need to be making your site more financially rewarding…

And the worst part will be that your submissions will now come from people who aren’t tied by a contract or a notice period. Instead they’ll be free to submit to any site which appears overnight with a more attractive offer…

(None of this is meant to dissuade you from using UGC on your site… But as with anything, it’s one aspect of the future of online publishing, not the only answer…)

Users vs Editors: A case study

Rather than actually conducting a case study, there’s a rather easier way to compare ‘pure’ User Generated Content with some that has been edited, and the effect on accuracy, trust, and audience figures.

Most people are familiar with the famous (or infamous) online, user created and edited Wikipedia.org.

But last October (2006) a new, almost identical in design, wiki started. Called Citizendium, it’s founded by Larry Sanger (Co-founder of Wikipedia), and it also accepts user submitted content.

Except with Citizendium, UGC is subject to moderation by experts who have to provide proof of accreditation and qualifications.

Bearing in mind Citizendium is nine months old, whereas Wikipedia has six years behind it, it’s unfair to start comparing traffic figures etc at this stage. But it’s certainly interesting to take a look at the Editors of an area you have an interest in, and see if you’re more reassured by their watchful presence. Let’s just hope noone is able to dupe the system

Plans for 2007

I know that the time for New year resolutions has ended, so my attempts at planning may be a little late. Then again, who says you can only make plans on Jan 1?

So here are some of the things I’m aiming to get completed…

1. Finish the redesign and implementation of the new Disposable Media website.
2. Help inspire others by getting my copy in waaaay before deadline for DM issue 6.
3. Investigate web hosting, and moving my blog to a domain of it’s own.
4. Investigate commercial opportunities, to see if I can let the blog pay for itself.
5. Investigate the possibilities of getting free stuff…

Now I know that it’s terribly bad form to admit that I’d be happy to receive free things. And that it’s a path lined with the fallen blogs of those who failed to disclose the exact nature of their involvement with a project. But, it’s also nice to get new toys to play with and review for my elite group of readers.

And I’d be particularly interested in UK and European tech stuff. There’s already enough Americans embracing blogging and technology (God bless ‘em!). It’s time us limeys got some free stuff!

Incidentally, a thought came to mind this morning. As more and more information sources become aggregated into the likes of Wikipedia, and video becomes aggregated by Youtube, Google and Flurl, are we losing part of the fun of searching 20 different websites before arriving at an opinion?

Lastly…with all the talk of web 2.0…how come no-one has mentioned the Internet Movie Database? it’s been around for years, offered lists, comments and comparisons, and does a good job… Does it not have enough rounded gradients? Maybe it should rename as IMDBer.com?