NMK Forum: Old Guard; New Tricks
The first panel of the day covered the ways in which established media players are working to capture some of the excitement that’s been generated around social media. Ian Delaney reports.
- Mike Butcher, Chair
- Adam Gee, New Media Commissioner, Channel 4
- Ashley Norris, Shiny Media
- Jeff Revoy, VP of Search and Social Media, Yahoo! Europe
- Jem Stone, BBC New Media
- Meg Pickard, Head of Communities and User Experience, Guardian Unlimited
- Nico Macdonald, Spy.co.uk
- Paul Pod, TIOTI
- Tom Bureau, Managing Director, CNET Networks
The panel offered a varied discussion of how ‘old media’ is adapting to embrace the new expectations of user participation.
Nico Macdonald kicked off the panel discussion with a summary of his observations (which he has helpfully recorded here). He warned that media owners be wary of fads and that a sceptical approach to embracing social media is the best approach. When forums and comments mean that everyone is talking at once, then that is not really a move forward.
Meg Pickard attacked the notion that large media companies are embracing social media in order to win back lost trust. They shouldn’t be imagined as the snake in Jungle Book, attempting to lull a defenceless public into acceptance. Rather, she suggested, big media has realised that it can learn from the new ‘upstarts’ about ways of creating extra user value. They aren’t in the business of copying the likes of Facebook for the sake of it, but in finding ways to help people connect with each other or the topic at hand, and including people in the conversation. Comment is Free, the Guardian’s blog site, is only one slice of the ‘user engagement pie’, said Pickard. There will be moves across the site to bring users from being casual to connected to commited to catalysts for editorial direction.
Adam Gee agreed and pointed to his company’s recent Big Art project as a good example of this. People are encouraged to use camera-phones to capture instances of ‘public art’ - whatever that term might mean to them - and to upload them onto the site, which geo-maps these uploads. His position was that networks are simply in a great position to create frameworks for engagement, since they already have large audiences willing to contribute.
Jem Stone was more sceptical about large media owners’ abilities in this regard. The ‘Have Your Say’ sections on the BBC news website is sadly susceptible to ‘drive-by commenting’: people signing up semi-anonymously and simply ranting. There’s little interaction, just people ‘hammering [their] fists on the keyboard’ in the words of a recent Mitchell and Webb satirical sketch on the subject. He also expressed some anxiety about BBC clips shown on YouTube - since that community and audience and the culture of commenting there is quite different to the BBC’s, might it not hurt their brand, he asked.
Tom Bureau stated that it’s simply a fact that users expect some form of interactivity nowadays and that if you do not provide it, you’ll lose. However, media owners can set various barriers to entry to ensure that quality is assured. On the CNet property Gamespot, comment is free, however, contributing an article goes through a lot of editorial checks and balances. The possibility to interact is there, but subject to quality controls. Bureau pointed out that journalists will need to be re-educated if the true value of user content is to be realised. On Gamespot, user engagement very much drives the editorial agenda, since the site can see what is popular or controversial quite easily and thus have a very clear steer about what to write more about.
Jeff Revoy pointed out that this may not be such a ‘fad’. The trend towards interactivity has been driven by broadband adoption, a social change that will not go back. Large media owners will buy into interactive, social media models when it has to be incorporated into their offering.
Ashley Norris agreed with the point about the necessity for some sort of re-education for journalists. He said that large media owners were setting a poor example for the rest of us. While they might have blogs and comments, those sites rarely link out to the blogosphere. Jem Stone suggested that this issue was more about lack of awareness than lack of education, while Nico Macdonald pointed out that the CMS systems employed by mainstream media owners don’t properly support ‘modern’ practices such as linking to a blogger.
The audience was keen to know if mainstream media’s interest in UGC was motivated by money; by the possibility to create large swathes of cheap content?
Kevin Anderson, the Guardian’s blog editor, sitting in the audience, said that ultimately this is a red herring. Not everything is a blog post or a submitted comment. There’s still plenty of room for hard journalism on the paper. Tom Bureau added that his company employs more journalists per product than ever before. The ideal, suggested Nico Macdonald, would be for companies to lay their social features across their content as an independent layer.
Paul Pod, who has been building social networks for a number of years, before starting TIOTI, an aggregator of television content and comment, agreed that this was an ideal, but argued that, in practice, it’s a very difficult thing to achieve.
The podcast of this session is available here, courtesy of Yada-Yada. I am grateful to the live-blogging efforts of Jemima Kiss, Kevin Anderson and Katherine Hannaford for their input into this account.