Social Media and the Decline of Editing

Earlier this month, after writing his final column for Inc. magazine, Joel Spolsky blogged about his experience in the magazine world. His feelings, clearly, were mixed:

“Writing for Inc. was an enormous honor, but it was very different than writing on my own website. Every article I submitted was extensively rewritten in the house style by a very talented editor, Mike Hofman. When Mike got done with it, it was almost always better, but it never felt like my own words. I look back on those Inc. columns and they literally don’t feel like mine. It’s as if somebody kidnapped me and replaced me with an indistinguishable imposter who went to Columbia Journalism School. Or I slipped into an alternate universe where Joel Spolsky is left-handed and everything he does is subtlely [sic] different.”

What bothers Spolsky isn’t that his intent or his ideas were changed; in fact, he says, they were communicated more effectively. His problem is that his voice was changed.

Spolsky’s observation illustrates a key difference between traditional publishing and blogging. Publishing is about communication. Blogging is about speaking. Yes, blogging is about communication too, but the voice is essential—more so than in publishing, though it matters there as well. A blog, in other words, is conversational.

You can, and usually should, edit a written communication. But unless you want to be a jerk, you shouldn’t edit a conversation.

For traditional editors thrown into the digital world, that’s a problem. Why? Because much of what makes up the Web is a conversation, not publishing. Which means we don’t get to edit as much as we’d like. At best, we get to throw in a “sic” here and there (not counting wikis, of course, but that’s a topic for another day).

The blogosphere flash point for this conflict lately has been comments.  You can turn off comments, either altogether or selectively, but you can’t simply edit them. It’s as wrong as changing a quote. If you write it, I can edit it; but if you say it, I can’t.

From the old-media viewpoint, this just doesn’t seem right. Blogger Mark Schaefer wonders, for instance, “why newspapers, who have so staunchly defended the integrity of the published word, would suddenly open the floodgates of stupidity just because the forum has moved to the Internet.”

In a point-counterpoint blog post with journalist Jack Lail, Schaefer notes that “if I submit a letter to the editor of the newspaper and comment on a news story or issue, it has to come with clear proof of who I am, and even then might be subject to editing for appropriateness.” So why, then, he asks, “would the same newspaper allow the public commentary in their online versions to turn into a virtual free-for-all of hate”?

In response, Lail gives the new-media comeback:

“I don’t view comments as ‘letters to the editor.’ I often find them more akin to callers on talk radio, where people are identified as ‘Jim’ or ‘caller from Knoxville.’ (If you applied the ‘same rigorous identification standards’ to radio call-in shows, they wouldn’t have any callers.) The dynamics of online story comments are similar to what happens in forums and fairly open mailing lists.

They are, I think, a participatory experience unique to the online medium and whose benefits outweigh its negatives.

Intellectually, I side with Lail; emotionally, I’m with Schaefer.

I take some comfort in learning that Jeff Jarvis is torn about comments. No, he says, you don’t get to edit the “shit” out of them. But that doesn’t mean you have to like or accept the “level of discourse” they represent: “I’m coming to believe that comments—which I defended when I ran sites—are an inferior form of conversation.”

The solution he sees is not editing, but social controls of the sort found in Twitter and Facebook, built on “real identities and control of relationships”:

“The result is better discourse. I don’t find Twitter or Facebook littered with fools and nastiness and when I do stumble upon them, I unfollow; when they occasionally spit on me, I block (if only I could instead give them their meds).”

Jarvis doesn’t claim to know exactly how this can apply to comments, but “somewhere in there,” he says, “is a secret to improving discourse online.”

We may never uncover that secret, but the point is still valid. On the Internet, the only realistic  goal is not to improve individual expression, but to improve discourse as a whole.

So I’ll just have to face it. In the new-media world, editing is not what it used to be. I may yearn to fix Spolsky’s spelling or complete Jarvis’s sentence fragment at the end of paragraph six—but I’ll have to settle for blogging about it.

Comments, anyone?

Signals of Quality vs. Good SEO

Last month, I wrote about a discussion on an episode of This Week in Google (TWiG) featuring Google’s Matt Cutts. I noted that Cutts seemed to say that Google was aware of the rise of so-called content farms like Demand Media and that it would adjust its search algorithm so that low-quality commodity content didn’t overwhelm better material.

The following week, TWiG host Leo Laporte cited my article at the start of an expanded discussion of Google’s intent regarding content farms. In the clip from the episode below, Jeff Jarvis speculates that Google will “try to get more links to original content . . . and have signals of quality.”

What that means, he said, is that “if all you do is rewrite the 87th page about how to fix your toilet,” no matter how great your search engine optimization, you shouldn’t rise up in the search results. Instead, “Bob Vila’s original masterpiece about fixing toilets should rise up because it’s original and high quality.”

As Jarvis suggested, Google isn’t directing this effort against Demand Media or other content producers per se. Rather, it’s trying to ensure that quality content always rises to the top, regardless of who creates it and what SEO tactics are used. In other words, it’s pretty much business as usual for Google.

The entire episode can be viewed at Twit.tv.

Hire Your Future Competitor

On his excellent B2B Blog last Friday, Chris Koch reflected on Forrester’s recent decision to make all its analysts move their blogs into Forrester’s web site.

Forrester claims the move was made to protect its intellectual property. Koch’s view, though, is that Forrester’s motivation is to do the very thing it urges clients not to do: exert control over the way its employees use social media.

Though he doesn’t cite it specifically, I have to wonder if a related motivation isn’t to avoid creating competitors. As Koch notes, “The most powerful example of one of these personally branded blogs is Web Strategy by Jeremiah, by Jeremiah Owyang, an analyst who left Forrester prior to the policy change.”

While Forrester obviously wants its analysts to be well-known, it probably doesn’t want them to become so well known that they don’t need their employer anymore. The corporate brand wants to dominate its personal brands.

That might have been a smart business attitude for a content company once, but it’s dead wrong now.

In the publishing world, it used to be that when you interviewed editors and writers, you looked for evidence that the candidate would stay with you long-term. Likewise, most candidates wanted a chance to build a career within your company.

For the employer, it meant minimizing your hiring and training costs and benefiting from the ever-increasing experience of staff. For the employee, it meant not just job security, but continuing opportunities in experience and career advancement. It was, of course, a pairing of unequals, a master-servant relationship. But in the publishing world of old, it was the only way for the individual to gain access to the machinery needed to do the work.

That relationship has changed dramatically in the last decade. In the new-media world, individuals no longer need employers to build and maintain a publishing career. With the tools necessary for online publishing now essentially free, the employee has become, in terms of production, the equal of the employer. As Jeff Jarvis put it four years ago, “The empowered individual can create a media company, using blog software; create a manufacturing company, using somebody else’s factory and somebody else’s distribution; create a multinational enterprise, using nothing more than a Skype line.”

In such an environment, it makes no sense to hire people because they are likely to stay put. What you want is just the opposite: people who are likely to burst through personal and professional boundaries, to innovate, to try out new and untested ideas and technologies, and to build up their personal brands. In other words, you want editorial and journalistic entrepreneurs.

The best employees in the new-media world are those who have the potential to become the employer’s strongest competitors. As an employer, your goal should be not to repress, but to nurture their competitive instincts. If you don’t, you won’t be maximizing your own competitive potential.

Five Reasons Not To Fear Content Farms

The recent surge of so-called content farms has inspired a torrent of commentary from new-media pundits, most of it disapproving. Content farms (also called content factories) are web sites that produce huge numbers of short articles based on keywords popular in search engines. The leading examples are Demand Media, Associated Content, Answers.com, and, most recently, AOL. Some of these sites rely on free user-generated content; others, like Demand Media, pay small sums to content contributors.

Objections to the content farms fall generally into one or more of three categories:

  • They are bad for writers
  • They are bad for readers
  • They are bad for the Internet

It’s not surprising that people who write for a living would be troubled by the pay rates of content farms. Folio:‘s Jason Fell, for instance, noting that he used to get $100 for 300-word reviews, is appalled at the $15 per article averaged by Demand Media writers. He concludes that “online content and its creators have been devalued.” Similarly, Wired’s Daniel Roth sees Demand writers as “the online equivalent of day laborers waiting in front of Home Depot.” How, he asks of the pay, “can anyone survive on that?”

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Information Also Wants to Be Expensive

Editors are rarely comfortable using the word content to describe their line of business, given that it suggests a kind of “undifferentiated slurry,” to borrow a phrase to be discussed below. They might prefer instead to substitute the word information, but they would be well advised to resist the temptation. There is a not-so-obvious but critical distinction between the two words that is worth preserving.

This topic came up in a sidelong way on the Web over the last week or so, in a flurry of blog postings and tweets about a new essay by Paul Graham called “Post-Medium Publishing.” The number of posts and their level of enthusiasm suggests that Graham’s essay may be close to meme-level status. Jeff Jarvis, for one, thinks Graham’s piece may rank near a “seminal” essay by Clay Shirky on the “demise of news on paper.”

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