“Crowd Powered Media” can’t be Crap

Citizen journalism is a great idea; and hats off to NowPublic for being recognized for their efforts in this area:

NowPublic announced Monday that the fast-growing citizen journalism website has scored 10.6 million dollars (US) in financing to fuel its drive to become the world’s largest news agency.

The Vancouver-based start-up says it is growing at a rate of 35 percent monthly and has nearly 120,000 contributing “reporters” in more than 140 countries.

In part of a trend referred to as “citizen journalism,” NowPublic lets anyone with digital cameras or a camera-enable mobile telephones upload images or news snippets for dissemination via the Internet.

Citizen journalism website gets multi-million-dollar boost

But a quick check for stories on the site exposed the problem with “Crowd Powered Media” – a lot of it really sucks. I decided to check my local news on the site. It correctly determined that I was in Natick and served up what meager content it had – photos from the 2006 Boston Marathon. Not exactly the kind of current information I was looking for.

Further down the page there were sections for Massachusetts and US News. One of the stories, “The Couple Founds Out That Freedom Of Speech Was History,” caught my eye due to it’s strange headline. I clicked through to the original story and was confronted with some of the most perplexing prose imaginable. Here’s just a taste:

Do you know why the communist regime and the many dictatorship regimes had got their ways? Do you know why the peoples that still live in such a regime are suffering? These evil regimes had got their ways because they depended on the ignorances of the peoples, and the more peoples that were less educated the better for them to carry out their suppressive plans.

Huh? I don’t know – perhaps English is the writer’s second language. From his profile I was not able to learn much. I did see that he recommends that kids get their parents’ permission before reading the site. An excellent recommendation.

I read a number of stories in different categories and found that most of them were pretty bad. I’m all for user generated content and citizen journalism; but those things can’t simply become synonyms for shitty writing. Based on what I saw on NowPublic, that’s a real risk. To make matters worse, Time Magazine has named the site one of the 50 Best Web Sites of 2007.

Social media and user generated content are still nascent and need to prove their merits to a largely skeptical society. Producing sub-sub-sub-par content, while perhaps satisfying for its creators, may well alienate the people this new media is intended to serve.

[tags]NowPublic, Citizen Journalism, Crowd Powered Media, News, Social Media, Journalism[/tags]

Tag clouds: gadget, gizmo, gew-gaw or generation gap?

Yesterday I had a meeting with some smart people – really, legitimately smart people – to discuss creating a Web presence for the organization they run. I’d brought a few examples of sites that show a balance between presenting as an expert group and an advocacy group. One of these included a tag cloud on the front page.

Several people voiced concern that the tag cloud could be confusing or alienating and that it was something that didn’t add anything to the site. I’ve been thinking about that since yesterday and totally disagree. This is a device for visualizing the prominence or popularity of ideas. It can be viewed as the equivalent of an index for non-linear content. Would these smart guys argue that books would be better without indexes? I don’t think so. If you think about it though, an index is a far less intuitive means for displaying and organizing ideas.

First of all, you need to know which ideas are important before the index will do much good. You also need to remove yourself from the content in order to access the index; and finally, it is only by reviewing the contents of an index (which may span several pages) carefully that you can get a sense of the weight or prominence of the ideas it includes. Compare that to a tag cloud. It can be persistent on every page of content. By using size, it makes it very easy to see which ideas are most important and it allows access to those ideas in a simple and organized way.

I don’t know, it makes perfect sense to me. Does anyone find tag clouds confusing?

[tags]tag clouds, social media, generation gap, index. visualization[/tags]

Digging Stickam

Back in January I signed up for and wrote about Stickam, a live video community. I fooled around with it for a while, could imagine how it might be used but never really got that into it.

A few weeks ago it popped into my head to try it again and since then I’ve been using it almost every day. Not for anything profound or earth-shattering; but only to connect with people and pass some time in pleasant company. This past week though the site has been having trouble due to an increased load. I’m hoping that things will settle down again soon.

[tags]video, stickam[/tags]

Bully for Buzzword

Back in March I saw Virtual Ubiquity present their Web-based word processor – Buzzword – at WebInno11. The demo really kicked ass and I wanted to get my hands on it. In early June I got my chance when I was invited into the beta program. I’ve fooled around with Buzzword on and off for a while and can say that while it’s clearly still beta I am very impressed and excited.

It’s a really polished looking product that has functionality beyond those of some existing commercial software. It’s formatting capabilities in particular need to be seen to be believed. I also really like the ability to share editing of documents with others – I had to test it on my own but it worked really well. At the moment, you can’t spell check (which I depend on) or save documents locally (which, like spell, will be available).

Check out what some others are saying about Buzzword:

2.0 – Rich Internet Experience
Venture Beat

Given that this is relatively early-stage software, it is a very strong effort and one that I’ll be using more and more as additional features come online.

[tags]Virtual Ubiquity, word processor, buzzword[/tags]

Photowalk wrap

Last Thursday’s photowalk sure was a lot of fun. Ten of us met on the Esplanade and hung around there for a while. We headed into the Back Bay and headed down toward the Public Garden alternating between Marlborough Street, the public alleys and Comm Ave. The chimneys and chimney pots were something that caught my attention. I went to college at Emerson back in the 80s and spent a lot of time in the area but never notice the chimneys. Here are a couple of the ones I liked:

Back Bay Chimney

Back Bay Chimney

Back Bay Chimney

We ran across a group of people at the First and Second Church (at Marlborough and Berkeley) discussing a kid’s book one of them had recently published. I took a few shots in the area but nothing special.

The two Hancock buildings looked great that evening and I did take a couple of pictures of each:

Old Hancock

Hancock Tower

The Public Garden is always pretty nice. I’ve wanted a shot of the ether statue for a while and was able to grab one:

Ether Statue

After the Garden we headed down Charles Street and over the top of Beacon Hill. There were a few nice things to see up there. Here’s one I like of a utility symbol mural on Revere Street:

street symbols

We refreshed at Kinsale and went our separate ways. I still had to walk over the river to get back to my car in Kendall Square. Crossing the Longfellow Bridge, I stopped a few times to take shots of traffic passing. Here are a couple:

Red Lines - Longfellow Bridge

bent light Storrow Drive

All in all, it was a pretty fun night. I got some good pictures and am looking forward to seeing everyone else’s shots soon.

[tags]Boston, SMCBoston, Photography, social media[/tags]

One of the dumbest stories I’ve seen in a long time

I saw this on my local news last night; and today it is on the front page of CNN.com: Experts warn of lightning-strike injuries with iPods.

Emergency physicians report treating other patients with burns from freak accidents while using personal electronic devices such as beepers, Walkman players and laptop computers outdoors during storms.

Now maybe I’m missing something here, but getting stuck by lightning – with or without and iPod – is a pretty big deal. The coverage did point out that personal electronic devices don’t increase ones likelihood of being struck . . . so why did anyone even bother doing the story? As a PR guy, when I read or watch the news, I find myself asking, “who’s behind this story? what might be their agenda?” and frankly I have no idea about this one. Just dumb.

[tags]lightning, ipod, injury[/tags]

Photowalk tomorrow – I’m excited . . . but should I be?

Yes the photowalk I’ve been planning is almost here and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t looking forward to it; but after my own recent experience with urban outdoor photography and a spate of other posts along similar veins, I wonder if I ought to be.

Let me give you a taste for what people have been saying:

A few days ago, I fretted about the possibility that Boston might follow places like New York and Silver Spring, Maryland, and try to restrict what you can take pictures of in public places.

Turns out it’s already happening, even without any action by municipal officials.

Universal Hub – Restricting street photography in the Boston area

Welcome to Boston

Also known as NAZI FUCKING GERMANY! Or the SOVIET FUCKING UNION! I’ve written about the idiocy of our domestic reaction to terrorism once or twice, but it continues to piss me off. I was up at an unholy hour this morning to get someone to Boston’s South Station. It was a wicked nice, foggy morning, so afterward I thought it would be a good idea to wander around the waterfront and take some pictures. Silly me: PHOTOGRAPHY IS A TERRORIST ACTIVITY.

fornya.com – Welcome to Boston

So how will some number of camera-toting clowns snapping the city be seen by the powers that be? Will it be recognized as a legal and protected assembly of carefree clicksters? Or will we be viewed as a coven of creeps casing the city for strange and nefarious purposes. Being an over-the-toptimist, I always expect the best . . .

How about you? Have you felt the man bearing down on you for doing your thing with camera in hand?

If you want to come and join the fun, here are the details:

Thursday, July 12th
The Esplanade (at Gloucester St.)

[tags]Boston, photography, trouble[/tags]

WebInno13 Scorecard

So WebInno13 was last night and its time to see how close my pre-impressions were to reality. Before I do that though, just a few quick comments on the event overall. This thing just keeps getting bigger. I suspect that this was the last one that the Sonesta ballroom will be able to handle. It’s been a SRO event for a while but last night it was truly packed. I was also glad to see people I know from other Boston networking events there; some for the first time.

There weren’t many questions during the formal presentations by the main dish companies; but folks did seem to stick around longer than usual (partly, I suspect, due to the open bar graciously provided by Venrock) so there was ample opportunity for conversation. All-in-all, an excellent evening. The event is now on hiatus until September.

Now, without further ado, here are my post-event impressions.

Main Courses

BandDigs – is a video/video chat site for bands and fans. I checked out a few band pages, watched some videos, etc. The site made me think Stickam meets MySpace – not a bad thing; and I can certainly see the appeal if you are a) a band wanting to create a stronger connection with your fans or b) a fan that wants a closer connection with your fave band. At the end of last year I met with a company (whose name I probably shouldn’t mention) with a technology that promised a similar experience. The biggest difference was that theirs was a desktop application. BandDigs seems like a much better approach. One thing that impressed me was the number of live events already taking place.

I had a chance to chat with BandDigs president Gary Wheeler before things got underway and he confirmed many of my impressions of the company. There were a couple of things that I hadn’t realized. One was that bands are using this for more than just presenting live music or scheduled chats. Some are taking fans backstage or onto the tour bus. It’s also being used to survey fans and do Q&A sessions. On the business front, Gary described an interesting option. Fans are able to record a video of themselves talking with band members which they can purchase through the site as a keepsake. Kind of cool I guess if there’s a band you absolutely love.

Expectation that I’ll be wowed – given that I’m not a real hardcore fan of any bands , I don’t expect BandDigs to be something that’s going to have me rushing home for video chats any time soon; but I can certainly see the appeal in what they are doing and am expecting to at least be impressed. Hopefully they’ll be able to do a live demo that will include connecting with one of their bands on the 9th.

They did include a band in their demo but I couldn’t tell if it was live or not (I don’t think it was) as well as a live chat with a band manager. The live chat was pretty cool. It supports 50+ people and allows private video chat between fans (critical for killing time as you wait your turn to speak with the band one-on-one). A couple people felt that BandDigs was a bit rough around the edges but that didn’t strike me as a major issue.

Chances that I’m way off base – pretty low. These guys have a good idea, a solid site and strong content.

I’m pleased to say that I was on target with BandDigs. I like what I saw and can see the appeal of the site to bands and fans alike.

Beacon Street Girls – I really like the idea of Beacon street Girls. My daughter is a little young for the site but I’ll probably check it out with her sometime soon. The idea of the site is to provide girls from 9-13 with positive online and offline play and developmental experiences and it’s pretty hard to argue with that. I fooled around with the site a bit and liked what I saw. A related resource is My Pop Studio, a site to help girls of develop their media literacy skills.

I ought to note that I used to work downstairs from Beacon Street Girls and that a former colleague of mine is their director of marketing. I don’t think either really has any meaning but thought I ought to at least point it out.

A lot of people were impressed by Beacon Street Girls and I was too. While they’re not a start up, they did offer a glimpse of how the Web can be used to extend, support and enrich offline brands and content. A couple of people felt that it was just another flavor of Webkinz but I have to disagree. Webkinz strikes me as simply being marketing content while Beacon Street Girls has a pretty ambitions social/educational goal in mind. They also show that rich off-line content can move successfully online. The reverse is much harder and I think it’s because online narratives just aren’t rich enough to hold our attention offline. But what do I know?

Unintentional laugh line of the night – founder Addie Swartz kept talking about “touching girls.” By the fourth or fifth time the crowd lost it. Swartz recovered nicely though, saying, “at least you’re paying attention.”

Expectation that I’ll be wowed – I’m not really sure what exactly they might demo so it’s hard to say whether I’ll be wowed or not. I already am somewhat familiar with the company and have a positive impression of them.

So I wasn’t really wowed by the demo. That’s because it wasn’t really a demo at all but rather a tour of the site and a discussion of how the online and offline content work together.

Chances that I’m way off base – pretty low. As I said, I have a positive impression of the company and their goals so unless they do something really crazy I expect those impressions to be reinforced.

I have to say that I feel like I got this one right as well. I like the company, what they are trying to do and how they’re going about doing it.

GameBrix – I love games. I still have fond memories of playing Q-bert on my family’s TI computer back in the late 70s/early 80s. Since then I’ve played lots of games on computers, consoles, phones and handhelds and I’ll be honest, there have been times when I’ve thought that it would be great to make a game myself. But facts are facts and I don’t have the patience or aptitude to become a game developer. GameBrix promises to change all of that by providing an environment for people to easily create casual games. I played a few of the games that others have posted to the site and have also signed up to test it out but hadn’t been validated when I wrote this.

It reminds me a bit of MIT’s scratch project that allows for the simple creation of animated applications. Like the scratch, GameBrix seems cool and engaging if a little limited (which is to be expected).

I caught up with founder Naveena Swamy before the demos began and really enjoyed speaking with her. She is very enthusiastic about what they are doing. She described offerings that target two set of users – casual gamers as well as professional developers. GameBrix is pretty slick and looks like a lot of fun. I give it a big thumbs up.

Expectation that I’ll be wowed – frankly pretty high. I really like the idea here and while the games that are being shared on the site are simple it’s cool that regular jamokes like me made them.

I was wowed by GameBrix. They did a really nice demo that showed how easy it is to work with their system. One of the cooler things they allow is the sharing of game assets. I’m not talking about magic armor here but actual game elements – characters that can be created for one game and then used by another developer in their game. I think that’s a pretty cool idea and one designed to spur collaboration.

Chances that I’m way off base – moderate. I could see it happen that the best that can be done with this isn’t really that cool.

Well I wasn’t off base with this one either. I was hoping to be wowed and I was. GPC is three for three!

Side Dishes

iZync – Ah yes, Zync. Earlier this year I came across this site and spent HOURS answering hundreds of questions. When I finished, all I got was a “thanks!” – no bells or fireworks or explanation. I wrote about Zync back in January so I’m really interested to see what they are up to.

Pretty much as soon as I walked through the doors I bumped into the guys from Zync. “So, pretty low expectations,” they said, “that’s good; easier to live up to them.” I have to say, I was really impressed with where they are at this point. They are in private beta now but will slowly be opening the service up to more and more people. (Sign up as a tester in you’re interested.) The site is essentially a recommendation engine built around making predictions based on correlations. It sure sounded pretty sophisticated to me. They also have plans for several layers of user-defined filters that seemed pretty novel – who were you going out with, what kind of occasion, were kids involved, what was their behavior like, etc. Their goal isn’t just to offer some generic recommendation but to provide the very best recommendation based on the person, their mood and the moment. If it all works as planned it will be very cool. (Oh, and by the way, it will be able to integrate content from other sites like Yelp, etc.)

Expectation that I’ll be wowed – pretty low. I am still smarting from spending so much time for so little return back in January but am curious what the Zync guys have been up to over the past six months.

I was pretty wowed by these guys. They’ve been busy and it really shows.

Chances that I’m way off base – pretty low. I don’t have high expectations and expect them to be matched . . .

A swing and a miss . . .

TeachAde – this is a social network/resource site for teachers. Given that I’m not a teacher myself, it’s a bit hard for me to judge whether it is a good one or not. As an idea, though, I like it. The chirpy voice encouraging me to register was off-putting for some reason; but as I said, I’m not a teacher.

I’m not 100 percent sold on this idea. I get creating a space for teachers to share content and ideas but I probably have too romantic an opinion of how that should occur. Now it can happen on TeachAde but there are many opportunities for extra chefs to get into the kitchen. Administrators can limit the types of content are available and educational content companies pay to have their materials on the site. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that but I sure hope everything is transparent to the teachers.

Expectation that I’ll be wowed – pretty high. Since I don’t really know what I do and don’t know about how teachers might use social networks, I can imagine being pretty easy to impress.

I wasn’t especially impressed by what I saw. There were some nice features (I really liked the ability to drag content onto a calendar so it could be associated with the days specific topics would be taught) but compared to many of the social networks that are out there it seemed pretty flat.

Chances that I’m way off base – pretty good.

So I got this one wrong as well; but I thought that might be the case going in . . .

NextCat – from education to show biz there’s a social network just waiting to be tapped and NextCat hopes to be the network for the star set. I will give it points for some hotitude on the homepage.

Take the degree that I’m not a teacher and multiply that by a million; that’s how much of a celebrity I’m not. I understand the premise of the site just fine but wonder if the connections made through NextCat are really going to be strong and beneficial ones. That said, there are A LOT of people on the site so there are plenty of opportunities to connect. I hope that folks from NextCat will be able to show how easily and effectively people can meet and work together through the site and have some examples of successes.

My time with NextCat was cut short by the program getting under way; but I did have a few minutes with Richard Viard, the company’s SVP of product development and one of its co-founders. He described a use of the site that hadn’t occurred to me – mixing and matching production personnel for specific projects. When I went onto the site I checked out the models (what can I say?) rather than the sound engineers . . .

According the Viard the site has >15,000 members (all by word of mouth), is working and is getting good feedback from its members. People, he explained, are moving away from general sites like MySpace and they want NextCat to be the home for talent.

Expectations that I’ll be wowed – pretty low. This – like a million other social network sites – makes sense but is it going to be strong enough to make it?

Wowed is probably too strong a word for my impression of NextCat; but I was certainly impressed.

Chances that I’m way off base – pretty high. If they can come in showing how this has made a real impact I guess I’ll have to be impressed.

So I was kind of off base with this one too; more like I was taking a lead off first and got picked off.

Curbside.MD – aside from a vaguely creepy name, this is a pretty cool site. Essentially it is a natural language search engine for health and medical information. The site encourages people to use real questions (rather than key words) to get the very best results. Makes sense, but will it offer enough value to enough people to keep them coming back and telling their friends?

CurbsideMD has only been around since April and the only marketing so far has been word of mouth. Despite that, the site has been growing well. One of the things they are happy with is the fact that doctors are using it. They reviewed 2000 questions and found that half of them came from physicians, a third were what they described as “interesting patient questions,” and the third were presumably boring patient questions.

Expectations that I’ll be wowed – very low. I used it today and was impressed; but it’s not like I used it and went running to tell everyone I knew about it.

I wasn’t especially wowed by what I saw. I think it’s cool and I actually think that it’s very cool that doctors are using it; but I’d want to know how regularly and repeatedly it’s being used. I also didn’t get a very clear impression of how it’s going to make money.

Chances that I’m way off base – very low. It is what it is.

I think I scored this one right. Dave Evans, on the other hand, thought this was the most interesting company of the night.

– can you remember how frustrated you were the last time you were trying to make a form on the Web and just couldn’t? Neither do I. That’s the problem that Frevvo is aiming to solve. They offer both hosted and non-hosted flavors. Forms can be created quickly and that’s probably a good thing. Is this a big enough problem – and are there either no solutions or only really crappy ones out there – to sustain a business?

It turns out that Frevvo isn’t really trying to assuage my form-making angst. Their target are SMBs and it sounds like they are doing it well. They claim that the demand for form creation is enough to sustain the business but I still wonder if this is still too niche a product. It seems like a logical feature in a Web content management systems like a PaperThin or something rather than a discreet product.

Expectations that I’ll be wowed – low. I get the idea but don’t see the demand (of course just like I’m not a teacher or a star, I’m also not a big form creator).

I was really impressed by the UI and integration Frevvo provides so I guess I’ll have to say that they beat my expectations (but I’m still not sold on the concept).

Chances that I’m way off base – very high. I’ll bet that they have an awesome demo and that I’ll leave the event thinking of ways to use Frevvo.

I think I was pretty close to the mark with Frevvo.

So how’d I do overall? I went five for eight – a .625 average. Not too shabby. Let me know if you agree or disagree; if and where I missed the boat; and your impressions of the event and the companies.

[tags]WebInno, BandDigs, Beacon Street Girls, GameBrix, iZync, Zync, TeachAde, NextCat, Curbside.MD, Frevvo[/tags]