Dialogue vs. Monologue: Six New-Media Principles, No. 1

As I wrote in yesterday’s post, over the next six days I will be discussing six new-media principles, adapted from my forthcoming e-book, the New-Media Survival Guide. Today’s principle is based on the importance and power of conversation, reflecting new media’s emphasis on dialogue rather than monologue.

Photo by Shel Israel: Doc Searls and David Weinberger

Doc Searls and David Weinberger: "Markets are conversations"

In 1999, when Doc Searls and David Weinberger wrote in The Cluetrain Manifesto that “markets are conversations,” it was a fresh, radically new idea. Today, for anyone who’s thought much about social media, it verges dangerously on being trite. But however obvious the idea may seem, it remains a powerful, foundational concept for new media. We ignore it at our peril.

Searls and Weinberger were addressing their comments above all to public relations and marketing people. In the beginning of their chapter, in fact, they point to magazines as a “form of market conversation.” But the publishing industry’s advantage is only relative; it too has tended either to ignore or to dominate the conversation.

Before the Internet, journalism was largely a one-way form of communication. Publishers talked to their readers, but few readers could talk back, and in only limited ways. Digital technologies have dramatically changed the balance. Now, readers can easily and immediately comment on stories by commenting on blogs. What’s more, they can now be publishers themselves, whether through their own blogs, Twitter, Facebook, or other forms of social media. Not only can they talk back to publications, but they can also compete against those publications by talking to other readers directly.

This change means that traditional distinctions between the journalist, the reader, and the news source are breaking down.  Journalists can no longer rely on the idea of professionalism as separating them in a meaningful way from “amateur” bloggers and other kinds of citizen journalists. Now, as Storyful’s David Clinch told Mashable, “journalists must be able to pivot quickly between the idea of using the community as a source of news and as the audience for news, because they are both.”

As a result, the nature of journalistic discourse is transforming. It is no longer a one-way speech, but a two-way exchange. The journalist’s role is no longer to dominate or control the conversation, but to participate in the conversation, support it, and help a variety of other voices to be heard.

(SImilarly, the publisher’s role is no longer to dominate or control the journalist. Despite the ongoing efforts of organizations like the Associated Press to control when and how their employees speak, journalists now have the same power as everyone else to speak directly to their audience.)

As I say, all this is old hat for anyone even slightly familiar with new media. But that’s the challenge. We tend to forget that a conversation is not simply one person talking, then the other. For any participant in a communication, the most important elements are first, truly listening to what others say, and then meaningfully responding to them. As their use of a social-media platform like Twitter shows, even today journalists tend to think of their primary media role as talking. But true dialogue demands an equal emphasis on those other conversational skills: listening and responding.

Tomorrow: Collaboration vs. control.

My Love for Magazines Lies Bleeding

MUD day 17:

There are days, perhaps when my inner curmudgeon breaks through my usual resistance, when I’m convinced that magazines, as a useful format, are truly dead. Yes, it may just be me or my desperation for a topic in this month of mandatory daily blogging. Ask me tomorrow and I may feel more hopeful. But what has me worried is my oddly sour reaction to this Folio article on magazine design. A few years ago I would have been vitally interested. Now it just seems irrelevant.

It’s not just the paper version of magazines I’m pessimistic about, but the very concept. There are some who feel that tablets will be the salvation of magazines. I’m not so sure. One of the negatives in Linda Holmes’s review of the new Kindle Fire today is that its 7-inch screen is too small for magazines. Full magazine pages, she says, don’t work well: “You can zoom, but when you [turn] to to the next page, you pop back out to seeing the full page, and to read anything, you have to zoom again.”

But having just last night downloaded with some interest the December issue of The Atlantic to my iPad, more than a third larger than the Fire, I’m not so sure size is the real problem. Paper pages just don’t translate well to the screen—the turns are slow, images build too slowly, the fonts are too big or too small. You need to enlarge and shrink too often, or tap too many times to get to the better “reading view.” The articles might have been pretty good—but I don’t know. I was too distracted to actually do any concentrated reading.

To me, books seem like an eternal format. They work as well for me on a tablet as on a page. But the format to which I dedicated most of my professional career has a poor prognosis in any medium. I fear I will soon be attending a funeral for my old friend, the magazine.

Are Publishers Afraid of Social Media?

In Folio: today, Matt Kinsman reports on an MPA conference session called “Who Controls Social Media at Your Magazine Brand?”  To my ears, it’s a question that’s at odds with the essence of social media. It suggests that not only do magazine publishers not yet understand social media, they’re actually afraid of it. The unstated assumption seems to be that if someone doesn’t control it, all hell will break loose.

In his article, “For Publishers, Who Are the Gatekeepers of Social Media?”,  Kinsman quotes Hearst’s Matthew Milner as asking whether all stakeholders should “be given the capability to tweet.” Moreover, asked Milner, “is the ultimate stakeholder necessarily editorial, or marketing, or could it even be the technology department, which may ultimately own the cost of social media?”

Thinking of social media in terms of control simply doesn’t work. Social media’s not a product you control, but a conversation you participate in.When you try to control a conversation or restrict who gets to talk, it won’t be very productive. You might make your point, but you won’t hear everything you should.

It makes sense to develop a clear brand strategy for social media and share it with all your publishing staff. But why should a single department, whether editorial, sales, or marketing, “get the keys to the engine”?

Perhaps I’m being naive, but I’d rather let leadership in a brand’s social media efforts develop naturally. In the end, if you try to rigorously control who is given access to social media and what they say, your efforts are bound to fail.

The Cooks Source Copyright Outrage: Not the Norm

One of the hottest Internet memes last week was the story of how blogger Monica Gaudio complained to a print magazine, Cooks Source, that it had used her work without permission and got told that, really, she should be grateful to have it stolen. (The incident was covered well by TechDirt, Wired, and many others.)

Sadly, the only thing that made this story go viral was the editor’s response:

“But honestly Monica, the web is considered ‘public domain’ and you should be happy we just didn’t ‘lift’ your whole article and put someone else’s name on it! It happens a lot, clearly more than you are aware of, especially on college campuses, and the workplace. If you took offence and are unhappy, I am sorry, but you as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally. Now it will work well for your portfolio. For that reason, I have a bit of a difficult time with your requests for monetary gain, albeit for such a fine (and very wealthy!) institution. We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me! I never charge young writers for advice or rewriting poorly written pieces, and have many who write for me… ALWAYS for free!”

In other words, not only was it OK to use the content without permission, but in fact, the magazine was doing the poor writer a favor, both by giving her more exposure and by improving it with a little crack copy editing.

The aggrieved author is quoted by Time as saying that the magazine “broke the rules of the Internet basically, and the Internet got pissed off.”

If only. For the most part, the Internet blithely overlooks such transgressions. What caught its attention here was the irresistible combination of ignorance, arrogance, and bad writing in the editor’s response.

Though the Internet makes feckless appropriation of other people’s content easier, there’s nothing new about the practice or the attitudes that underly it. As editorial director of a B2B publisher, both before and after the advent of the Web, I often dealt with unauthorized use of our content.  Except in the most egregious cases, no one I spoke to understood that there was anything wrong with such use.

We used to make a decent sum of money from reprints of our articles, mostly for companies that we covered. But not infrequently, those companies would object that we were charging too much “just to reprint” the articles, and would instead do it themselves. The idea that they owed us anything for the value of the content itself never occurred to them.

It got worse once the Web arrived and reprinting was simply a matter of copying and pasting. I remember speaking with one company manager who said we were charging too much for the right to reuse our articles on his Web site ($500 for unlimited use, as I recall). The Wall Street Journal, he said, only charged him something like $10. What he didn’t understand, of course, was that $10 was the fee to download the article for personal use, not to republish it on his own site.

The most irritating offenders were the sleazy market research firms that published high-priced reports based largely on reuse of our content or, worse yet, outright plagiarism of it.

What I learned, ultimately, was not to get too upset by all this unauthorized reuse. Economically, it never made sense to do much more than make a phone call to object. Though it was morally offensive, in practical terms, the harm done was minimal.

Now more than ever, the reality is, if it can happen, it will happen. That doesn’t make it right, but what it does tell you is that you shouldn’t waste too much time and effort fighting it—unless you’re given the kind of spectacular opportunity for viral browbeating that the Cooks Source editor extended on a platter.

The best strategy for dealing with copying is to accept that it will happen and stay ahead of everyone else by continuing to put out valuable and unique content. Yes, your content will get ripped off by others, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. Often that copying will be to your benefit. But even when it isn’t, you have better things to worry about: all that content you still haven’t produced.