Confidentiality in the Age of Social Media

Posted on July 17, 2009 by Comments Off

Topic of the week in social media was TechCrunch’s decision to publish confidential internal documents from Twitter, sent to them by a hacker:

On Tuesday evening more than 300 confidential Twitter documents and screenshots landed in our inbox. We said we were going to post a handful of them only, and we’ve spent much of the last 36 hours talking directly to Twitter about the right way to go about doing that. We’ll have more to say on that process in a couple of days.

The documents include employment agreements, calendars of the founders, new employee interview schedules, phone logs and bills, alarm settings, a financial forecast, a pitch for a Twitter TV show, confidentiality agreements with companies such as AOL, Dell, Ericsson, and Nokia, a list of employee dietary restrictions, credit card numbers, Paypal and Gmail screen shots, and much more.

Some comments have been very critical of TechCrunch’s decision to publish the documents, in spite of them having apparently consulted with Twitter before publishing.  (I’m willing to bet NOT publishing was not an option on the table during those discussions.)

Here are two typical negative reactions from bloggers:

Daring Fireball wrote:

What you may ask, is the dilemma, since it is clear that any decent human being would simply refuse to have anything to do with something so lurid? Arrington’s dilemma is that he’s unsure how to clean the stains from his pants, incurred during his excitement at the opportunity to publish as much of this material as he can get away with.

He is a very sad excuse for a man.

Too Much Nick wrote:

I’ve never liked TechCrunch, but before now it was mostly personal preference or distaste. Now it’s major. IF YOU EVER, EVER, EVER READ OR LINK TO TECHCRUNCH, YOU ARE NOW SUPPORTING A SITE THAT UTTERLY DISRESPECTS ALL PRIVACY AND RULE OF LAW. THEY ARE SCUM.

If you want to vote for whether TechCrunch should have published the documents, here’s a quick Internet poll.

Interestingly, in a post this week on Marketing Magazine’s blog, M&C Saatchi Asia head Chris Jaques asked readers to tell him in confidence which agencies have secretly laid off staff recently, under the reasoning that agency management are lying when they say they have fired people for being “not good enough”:

I promise to keep your name and personal details completely confidential.

But I would like you to let me know approximately how many people have been made redundant from your agency in 2009?

Everyone needs to know the truth: the real facts, not the agency management’s PR-controlled bullshit.

Because agency management throughout the region are lying, and it’s the agency staff who are suffering. Management are telling the media that they have made no redundancies, so that they can preserve a false image of success and resilience.

Which means that they are happy for their staff to suffer for the sake of their own reputation. Which makes me screaming mad, for one critical and undeniable reason:

If agencies are denying that they have made any redundancies because of financial reasons – then those people who have been made redundant, must have been fired because they are not good enough. Which, in most cases, is simply not true. I’ve personally interviewed many, many talented people this year who have only lost their jobs because their bosses are losing money.

(I took offense at that “PR-controlled” bit, but hey he’s an advertising man.)

We always say that Transparency and Authenticity are the currency of the social media age, but where do you draw the line? Some would say TechCrunch’s decision to publish crossed the line, and since Chris Jaques’ mission is to uncover the truth, he did not break any ethical standards.

Are newspapers dying? Only if they don’t innovate.

Posted on June 28, 2009 by Comments Off

Many major newspapers, especially in the US, are closing down, going online exclusively, or entering Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The reasons for this challenging state of affairs are fairly well known, including:

  • High Internet penetration and freely available news content online is causing a decline in overall print readership.
  • Online is a more prevalent environment to break news than print, diverting valuable eyeballs.
  • Drastic decline in advertising revenues since the economic downturn began.
  • Many publishers are struggling with large debt loads they took on before the downturn. They can’t invest in talent or resources to improve their product as much as they used to.

A Twitter conversation with ex-colleague @r_c led me to ponder: could newspapers have done things differently to avoid what is happening now? Tom Foremski of Silicon Valley Watcher doesn’t think so:

I was asked recently, “what could the newspapers have done to survive this disruption?”

I answered: “nothing.” Even if newspapers had done everything right: started blogging five years ago, offered free classified online advertising as Craigslist, etc. It would not have been enough to avoid the continued disruption of their business models.

This is an important point. What’s happening to newspapers, and other media companies, is not a business cycle. It’s not their fault. When an industry faces a disruptive trend there is nothing that can be done — except a complete reinvention of your business. You can’t just tweak a few things here or there.

I agree that if newspapers did nothing they would be “toast”, but many news organizations are transforming themselves in ways that may yet allow them to survive and even thrive.  In other words, a “complete reinvention” of their business is already ongoing.  But at the end of the process, whether they could still be defined as news organizations might be up for debate.

Then there are the news organizations that have modified their business model, but retained their original identity and modus operandi.

The Wall Street Journal Online’s success is an example.  In this guest post on Alan Mutter’s blog, Bill Grueskin, former managing editor of WSJ.Com, describes the paper’s (now prescient) insistence on charging for content and the payoff of 1.1 million paying subscribers today.  He also disputes some myths about how WSJ.Com achieved its unique success, such as expense accounts paying for subscriptions, high cost of acquisition, and business content slant. I found his ideas about what readers of a news site would pay for, especially intriguing:

How about a daily email that told them what traffic spots to avoid, or an authoritative reader-generated guide to the best and worst public schoolteachers? Or a regularly updated site that told readers how much and why local real estate listings had dropped or risen in the last few weeks, along with examples of how certain homeowners got appraisals lowered? Or innovative coverage of local government, providing sample bills every time property taxes go up and video clips of commission meetings intertwined with analysis and context? In other words, content that is truly of online, not just posted there.

So what can news organizations do to reinvent? 

  • Go where the readers go. Readers went online because of the Internet, so newspapers went online too (but didn’t charge for content.) Today’s consumers are untethered and access the Internet on mobile platforms, so news must go mobile too.  But let’s not forget that nearly half of US adults still read at least one newspaper daily, so print is not going away soon. 
  • Create new content to charge for and gradually lower investment in content you used to offer for free. Don’t ask readers to pay for content that was previously free. 
  • Create content that cannot be easily disintermediated or devalued. (see above)
  • Adapt to lower margins and reinvent the business accordingly. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was recently quoted as saying advertising revenues will not bounce back to pre-downturn levels, and that the global advertising economy has been “reset.” (Disclosure: MS is a client.) Food for thought: paying a roomful of editors and reporters is more expensive than managing a network of freelance journalists, or an amorphous community of citizen journalists.  Do you need an office building, or can you run a newspaper completely virtually?
  • If it makes sense, going online exclusively is an option. When does it make sense? Questions to ask include: Are your content and readership global or local? How large is your print readership base, is it going away soon and can you successfully shift their access online? Can you open up and reach new audiences online? Going online can also make a lot of business sense from a finance perspective. According to this USA Today article:

Digital media evangelists say the future will be much different. About 85% of a newspaper’s costs go to things such as presses, paper, ink and trucks. Without those costs, even modest ad sales could support lots of people to provide local news and information without charge.

Reinvention means actively tearing down existing practices and experimenting with new business models. We require nothing short of Innovation in Audience, Business, Content, and Delivery.

I also believe, in spite of the hand-wringing over how newspapers should reinvent their business in the face of disruptive technologies, that quality content will win out eventually.  The Economist’s rise in advertising revenue and readership, in spite of its perceived lack of digital savvy, is a great example. Read this excellent article in the Atlantic about why The Economist is succeeding. In particular the writer says:

The Economist has never had much digital savvy. It offered a complex mix of free and paid content (rarely a winning strategy) until two years ago and was so unprepared for the Internet that it couldn’t even secure theeconomist.com as its Web domain. (It later tried, unsuccessfully, to claim the URL.) Today, access to the site is free of charge, excepting deep archival material, but while editors have made some desultory efforts at adding social-networking features, most of the magazine’s readers seem to have no idea the site exists. While other publications whore themselves to Google, The Huffington Post, and the Drudge Report, almost no one links to The Economist. It sits primly apart from the orgy of link love elsewhere on the Web.

If the Economist, as a global “weekly newspaper”, can thrive and see advertising revenues rise by 25% in 2008, and if WSJ.Com can build a paying online subscriber base of 1.1 Million, then clearly there are ways to survive the disruption.  It would be a shame if the current decline continues, since newspapers are an essential part of modern society, especially as watchdogs. There’s even talk of government bailouts, which would certainly compromise the watchdog role.

Twitter is not a news source, deal with it

Posted on June 18, 2009 by Comments Off

 

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...

Thanks to WE colleague Tac Anderson who pointed to this John Dvorak piece about how Twitter is fundamentally flawed as a news source. Dvorak listed seven flaws with Twitter as a provider of news, including incompleteness, inaccuracy, vulnerability to hoaxers, lack of analysis, skewed priorities, and so on. 

I agree with Dvorak’s views because they refute the oft-held position that Twitter is an emerging news source. Most culpable are the media pundits who breathlessly trumpet Twitter as some form of new journalism.  Most Twitter content about current events is biased, immediate, partial, opinionated.  Sometimes they are firsthand or on-location, especially at the onset of an occurrence.  Its content creators are not vested in ensuring the accuracy of facts and usually do not fact-check.  Their personal opinions matter most and they are not shy about leading with them.  In other words, Twitter is as far away from time-honored journalistic principles as you can get. 

When it comes to conventional journalism a dose of healthy skepticism and broader understanding of the writer’s context and slant is important, whether you’re reading the New York Times or the Straits Times. I doubt many intelligent consumers of reputable news sources regard every word as absolute truth.  Why should we expect the same of Twitter?

If taken for what it is—personal, in-the-moment impressions of an event that convey sense and color—Twitter has its place. 

There is an added bonus.

Due to the sheer number of personal opinions shared, sentiment measurement on Twitter is becoming a rising business nowadays. Twendz is a great tool in that regard. [Disclosure: Twendz was developed by my employer Waggener Edstrom.] I fully expect more such tools to be launched in the coming months.

After the coming wave of sentiment measurement tools such as Twendz abates, we will begin to see tools that predict future sentiment, or even outcomes, of events.  Twitter is a perfect incubator for experiments in the wisdom of crowds.  I can’t wait to see where this leads.

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