Social Media and Ethics: An Interview with B2B Editor Maureen Alley

Maureen Alley: Never tweet what you wouldn't say in person

In preparation for my talk in an ASBPE webinar on ethics next week, I’ve been speaking with B2B editors about how they use social media. Though it’s true that the trade press in general is decidedly behind the curve in this respect, there are notable exceptions. One is BNA Tax Management editor and former ASBPE president Steven Roll, with whom I spoke last week (you can hear some of our conversation on his latest blog post).

Another is Maureen Alley, the editor of Cygnus’s Residential Design + Build (RD+B) magazine. Like Steve, she is an outspoken advocate of social media and an active blogger and Twitterer. I sent her a few questions on the ethical use of social media by e-mail just for background research, but her responses were so insightful and revealing that, with her permission, I’m posting them here.

Do you use your personal twitter account (@MaureenEditor) in your professional role as editor of Residential Design + Build?

Absolutely. I don’t believe there is much of a distinction between personal and professional when it comes to the Web. It’s very fluid. There have been studies that show people respond better to people versus brands. Because of this, I manage the RD+B account as the place for news, events, articles, reaching out to readers, listening to readers, etc. But I use my @MaureenEditor account as the face of the magazine. I want people to know there is a person behind RD+B who they can connect with.

Do you manage a social media account for your magazine? If so, how is your use of it different from your personal accounts?

I do manage RD+B’s Twitter account plus my @MaureenEditor account. I use HootSuite to do that successfully and easily. As I mentioned, I use RD+B Twitter for straight reporting—little opinion. I’m also careful so it doesn’t look like I’m promoting advertisers/manufacturers. If I tweet something from the magazine’s account that is from an advertiser/manufacturer I make sure it provides value to my readers first—just like print B2B.

I also manage RD+B’s Facebook page. Facebook is a different animal from Twitter so I keep that in mind when posting anything to this page. My goal with the Facebook page is a place to provide more content than 140 characters—enhancing information that was provided in a tweet. I don’t want people who are our fans and follow us to see the same content and decide to only follow/friend one of the media.

LinkedIn is actually huge for my audience: custom builders, designers and architects. This is a high-level group where being with influencers is important to them. They strive to stand where the influencers are so they are recognized for their work, develop a reputation, and get word-of-mouth marketing. Our LinkedIn group is very active and important to these members. They use it to find what CAD software is best, and to share projects they’ve just finished, and even press coverage they’ve received.

How do you deal with potential ethical conflicts between your personal and professional use of media?

Well, I try to keep my opinions to my personal account and away from the RD+B account. Again, I try my best to keep RD+B to straight reporting. As for my own, people want opinions, so I do provide that on my Twitter account. For example, I live in Madison and there is a huge budget/political scene right now. I follow a lot of people in Madison and therefore I participate in the conversation regarding what’s going on. I would not share that opinion on RD+B’s account.

You talk about a wide variety of topics on Twitter, including your personal life, your work life, the weather, politics, pop culture, builders’ issues, and a lot more. Do you have any explicit or implicit guidelines about how you cover these topics on your personal accounts?

Great question. I taught business writing to college students last semester and my number one rule was ALWAYS remember who your audience is. I have many different people following me: Madison residents, writers, editors, journalists, PR reps, builders, designers, architects, associations, teachers, and some of my past students. I try my best to post tweets that reach out to each audience. It’s a hard task when I have that many different audiences, but it keeps things interesting.

In regards to guidelines, I keep it professional at all times. I think of it like when you’re at a cocktail party—you never know who is who and you want to make sure you are representing yourself correctly. I never tweet anything that I wouldn’t say to someone in person. And I stand behind all my tweets. No passive aggression here.

I also try to keep some space between Twitter and my personal life—although it may not appear that way. I don’t tweet pictures from inside my house that show a lot of detail—for security reasons. I never tweet when my husband and I will be gone on vacation leaving our house empty. I never say exactly where I live, and so on. I try to keep it safe. I am a woman and this is very important to me.

To the extent you’ve thought about it, what would you say are the differences, if any, between traditional journalistic ethics and social media ethics?

Journalism ethics are important and they do cross over to social media ethics. I show an opinion in my tweets or, as I see it, personality. But not when it comes to reporting on my industry (home building): I keep it straight reporting. And I think that’s a must. Just because we have different ways to share information doesn’t mean we throw our journalism ethics out the window. Our readers need good reporters—even in B2B. And I would argue that B2B is easily becoming B2C. For example, I can send a tweet about an article I wrote on the housing market and a local reporter/news station can see it, pick it up and run with it. It’s important to provide good, quality content to our readers with good ethics backing them up. They deserve it.


Content Marketers: Think “Editorial”

One of the most exciting areas today in the realm of what we used to call publishing is content marketing. As befits a rapidly evolving discipline, there is no single, satisfactory definition for this new activity.  A few days ago, Joe Pulizzi itemized some of the different ways to describe content marketing, then added, “there are another 30 names for this including branded content, customer media, custom publishing and the list goes on.”  But one word that rarely shows up in such lists is editorial. That’s a pity.

Not that I object to content. It’s a useful word that covers the variety of media that marketers can use, while editorial is narrower, mostly limited to writing. That is, all editorial is content, but not all content is editorial.

But as a word, content has its downside. To my ear, at least, it suggests an undifferentiated mass extruded by machinery.  Editorial, by contrast, suggests active involvement in content, a filtering of it through a careful act of judgment. Where there’s editorial, there must be an editor. Where there’s content, there must be . . . who knows?

Then why is editorial such a rare word in blogs about content marketing? Perhaps because the field is, so far, being driven largely by people with marketing backgrounds. That’s not to say they don’t appreciate the qualities the word connotes, but that by training, it doesn’t come immediately to mind to describe what they do.

That may be why the one place you’ll see the word in content marketing blogs is in discussions of editorial calendars. As every editor knows, that’s a marketing tool as much as, if not more than, an editorial one. But when it is not conjoined with calendar, the word editorial rarely appears.

Resistance to other uses of the word may be due to the traditional separation of powers between editorial and marketing. In the old media world, marketers didn’t do editorial, and editors didn’t do marketing.

All that, of course, has changed. Marketers absolutely do editorial now–they just don’t use the word. But as more editors enter the content marketing fray (the hiring of Jesse Noyes by Eloqua is but the latest example), that old habit may die off.

Why is one word so important? Because unlike contenteditorial isn’t a neutral term. There can be good editorial and bad editorial, but buried not so deeply in the word is the intent to get the facts straight, state them effectively, and serve the reader well. It may just be my bias as an editor, but to me, the word reminds us that the greatest success of content marketing will come from adopting not just editorial tools, but editorial values as well.

We’ve Got Algorithms. Who Needs Editors?

In an article published last weekend on Mashable, Sarah Kessler asked the question, “Can Robots Run the News?” It’s an important question not just for journalists, but for anyone who creates or curates content on the Web.

The examples Kessler cites span the range of content creation, from automatically generated sports news to the use of algorithms to identify news topics. There’s obvious value to automated content creation, and as Jeff Jarvis has declared, “Data is (are) journalism.” But we should be careful not to confuse computed content with communication.

Computed content is a set of data; communication is the expression of an attitude toward, or perspective on, those data. Without a point of view, content is just an audience speaking to itself.

Using Web analytics from a test period to automatically choose between two headlines, as we’re told the Huffington Post does for its stories, can make sense—if both versions are true to the content. If you balance crowd-sourced feedback with the content creator’s point of view, you’ll have a productive conversation. But if the crowd takes precedence, it may simply replace content’s individual vitality with the bland mean.

Take, for instance, the English title for Stieg Larsson’s novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It may not have been crowd sourced, but it certainly plays to a corporate idea of the crowd. Is it really better than the literally translated original title, Men Who Hate Women? (That’s a rhetorical question. The original title nails the book’s central concern; the English version just wraps it in a pulp-fiction cover.)

Even in content marketing, where knowing what people want is critical to the content provider’s success, a one-sided conversation dominated by the audience won’t fly. For a conversation to work, there must be differences between the participants. The power of new media is the way it enables the audience to challenge the creator. That doesn’t mean, though, that the creator should stop challenging the audience.

This balance seems to be what Yahoo VP of Media Jimmy Pitaro is after in the company’s news blog, The Upshot. In her interview with him last week on All Things D, Kara Swisher noted that while some see computational journalism as a “‘democratizing’ of the news, others are more concerned about relying on algorithms to determine the best coverage and the implications for a society guided by its own searches.”

But as Pitaro noted in his video interview, “data and audience insights” constitute just one component of the content. In addition, Yahoo uses the “old-school” methods of “manually identifying topics” through its team of editors and writers.

Similarly, as Kessler mentioned in Mashable and as Claire Cain Miller explored at greater length in yesterday’s New York Times, the tech-news site Techmeme uses both algorithms and editors to produce its content. Why? Because “humans do things software cannot, like grouping subtly related stories, taking into account sarcasm or skepticism, or posting important stories that just broke.”

If readers didn’t care about such things, algorithms alone might be enough. But they do care. The same audience whose searches drive the algorithms also want the human touch in their content.  Until computers can pass the Turing Test, it isn’t likely that they will replace people in content creation.

Monetize Your Typos

Portrait by Joi Ito (, licensed CC-BY

Doctorow: Make money with typos

A while back, I lamented how social media seem to lead inevitably to the decline of editing and proofreading. I was given new hope this weekend, though, while listening to Leo Laporte’s podcast “This Week in Tech.” Towards the end, guest Cory Doctorow, the science fiction writer and Boing-Boing co-publisher, mentioned a publishing project that involved, among other things, offering readers incentives to alert him to typos.

Doctorow’s project, which he’s been documenting in his Publishers Weekly column, is a self-published short story collection called With a Little Help. His “freemium” model includes free e-books and audiobooks, donations, a print-on-demand (POD) paperback, a premium hardcover edition, advertisements, and a commission fee for a new short story.

Since this is a self-published project, Doctorow wants to keep expenses to a minimum, and that means no outlay for proofreading or copyediting. As he points out, the stories were all copyedited and proofread for their original publication in magazines, and his mother, a “king-hell proofer,” will help out. But the POD model offers a third option:

“Now, lots of people have used POD as a way of avoiding a lot of sunk costs in publishing ventures. But I want to see how far I can push it. With my previous books, my readers have sent in typos as they discovered them and I’ve fixed the electronic texts immediately, storing up lists of changes for my publisher to incorporate in future printings. But POD means that I can fix typos as soon as they’re reported, and what’s more, I can add an acknowledgment to the reader who caught it on the page where the correction appears, as a footnote. I have a feeling that readers will happily buy a second copy of the book in order to have a printing in which their name appears.”

As Doctorow put it on TWiT, he’s “monetized typos.”

The result is more likely to be a revenue trickle than a stream, and, if you took it seriously, it would give authors an incentive to include typos, or at least not to look for them too strenuously.

But the more meaningful exchange here is the payment Doctorow offers to his readers. By naming them in footnotes, he is rewarding them for finding errors.

Though it wouldn’t work in many forms of social media, this seems like a good tool for bloggers to employ. Of course, it requires the blogger to care enough to offer such an incentive. That comes naturally to a serious writer like Doctorow, but maybe not to the average blogger. It also requires a thick skin, something many writers manifestly lack.

So, in the spirit of Doctorow’s experimentation, I hereby offer a mention in my blog and a tweet to anyone who finds a typo or other error in my posts. If you’re a blogger, why not do the same?

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?