Should Academics Try Twitter?

Yes. Absolutely. According to this tongue-in-cheek chart. No, but seriously. You absolutely should  — at least — try it.

(Thanks, @amisamileandme for forwarding this chart to me)

At the beginning of August 2016, a Guardian article written by an anonymous PhD student attacked the use of social media for academic work. It was published under the patronising title “I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer”. It sparked a healthy and very interesting debate on Twitter under the hashtag #SeriousAcademic.

Many academics in various stages of their careers wrote tweets and articles contradicting this article. They mentioned many uses of social media for their work (as well as their social life and entertainment).

One of the most interesting and complete responses I’ve seen came from Jacquelyn Gill, an ice age ecologist at the University of Maine (Thanks, @kevinmarks for bringing it to my attention). Her two-tweet response and the discussions that ensued are worth a read.

Academics with blogs also reacted strongly.

Leigh Sparks (@sparks_stirling) from the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, offers My Serious Academic Use of Blogs and Twitter. This retail specialist summarizes lessons learned on the usefulness of social media to his career.

Dean Burnett (@garwboy), doctor of neuroscience, comedy writer and stand-up, parodies the original article. Doing so, he offers many links on the problems usage of social media in academia may address with I’m a non-serious academic. I make no apologies for this also on the Guardian platform. Social media provided him with alternative prospects since his field is oversubscribed.

Kevin Gannon (@TheTattooedProf), a history professor at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa offers a rebuke to the original article and deconstructs the notion of “serious academic” in I’ve Got a Serious Problem with “Serious Academics”.

Main benefits of a presence on social media for academics put forth by these articles and tweets are:

  • Sharing enthusiasm and supporting each other
  • Adding researchers to your network and create stronger ties which might lead to cooperation opportunities
  • Exchange sources and references which may be useful for research and/or funny.
  • Increase the circulation and readership of your work (books, peer-reviewed articles, blog posts, quotes in the press, etc.)
  • Increase the odds journalists will contact you for stories.
  • Have control of your online image and not depend on your institution’s staff web pages.
  • Using it as a back-channel for conferences and other events to get noticed by participants and organisers.
  • Promoting your field and providing expertise to the general public simply by inhabiting those online spaces and having your exchanges archived. For the Liberal Arts and Humanities, such a presence makes it easier to present our disciplines in a positive light outside of the frame of crisis / being set aside that has been pervasive in the media these last few years.

Social media is only a drag if you try to control too tightly. You have to find and/or define boundaries, yes. However, most academics who report seeing benefits use social media as humans first and foremost because that is how you can connect with people. That’s the charm of social media. Again, don’t take my word for it:

If you do social media like this, you’ll reap benefits and it won’t feel like yet another professional task. Putting on a mask is orders of magnitude more complicated than learn to inhabit those spaces as yourself.

There’s a range of openness, of course. It is a matter of personal style, how visible and likely you feel to attract unwanted attention from racists and misogynists.

One thing is for certain, trying to remain 100% on-brand on social media will exhaust you and make you come across as fake. You should be yourself, inhabit the online public space as best you can and try to be a good online citizen. As long as you let your passion and your expertise shine, you’re on the right track.

Done well, your online presence can be about work, show a bit of yourself and feel genuine while you maintain boundaries that seem clear and healthy to you. Clara Nellist’s Twitter feed is a great example. I follow her because particle physics is cool (and she seems nice). Although we don’t interact directly, her tweets are full of value and the occasional glimpse into her life as a postdoc makes her relatable. Tweets about her travels or some of her outside activities make it easy and fun to connect. For example, learning that she finished the 20 kilomètres de Paris and seeing her proud selfie put a smile on my face.

The more human you are the easier it will be to make genuine connections with other humans. That’s why it’s called social networking. You can find out all about this approach in Stephanie Booth’s one-hour talk entitled “Be Your Best Offline Self Online“. (She helps people get started and manage their online presence in one-to-one and one-to-many workshops. She’s nice and very knowledgeable. I met her through her blog.)

If you feel motivated to start on social media, I would advise you to start with Twitter: Messages are short, it is public by default, there is very little to misunderstand.

The London School of Economics and Political Science published “Five minutes with Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Gilson: “Blogging is quite simply, one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now” on their IMPACT blog all the way back in 2012.

They also have a Twitter Guide that may be a bit dated as it is from 2011. More importantly though, they have a list of Twitter users active in the Humanities and Arts for you to follow.

What is social media anyway?

Technology might change and forms of communication might shift but, at its heart, social media is based on basic human impulses of sharing. Social media platforms are a space — most often extremely public — set up to share. Sharing interests. Sharing insights. Sharing questions to get answers or more interesting questions. Sharing to make friends and meet collaborators. Sharing to be a good citizen. Sharing to raise one’s profile in a group. Technical ability will always be secondary to social abilities and the beautiful impulse to share.

The internet was always social: even before it had pages to access via web browsers (like Firefox or Internet Explorer). Groups had synchronous communications via chat rooms on IRC servers and asynchronous communications via newsgroups on Usenet.

Web pages to access via browsers and interconnected with hyperlinks date back to Christmas 1990 (only!) when Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist working for CERN near Geneva in Switzerland, invented the web. His invention spread over the whole internet during the first half of the 1990s.

Not long after, the first blogs started appearing. “Blog” is the contraction of the words “web” and “log”. These publications are defined by their format: a series of entries in ante-chronological order. They were varied in their styles, tone and lengths. Early bloggers chronicled their discoveries on the still relatively young world wide web, they shared insights about their interests, some were diarists or journalists… People started pouring their passions in this format.

In the early days, blogging required knowledge of code and web servers. In 1999, easier to use services such as LiveJournal and launched. Using these services, running a blog got easier. In the following years, there was an explosion in the number of blogs. By 2004, blogs became mainstream.

Most bloggers are read by few people. Social media is, among other things, characterized by smaller readership / viewership. Mass circulation and audience metrics aren’t the point. As you may know, mass media and their pretences of objectivity are recent (and crumbling) historical phenomena. Early in the eighteenth century, opinionated publications like The Spectator (1711) and Tatler (1709) circulated in small numbers and flourished. People read and debated them in coffee shops. They wrote and published in agreement or disagreement. Vigorous debate and fecund struggles shook the public square. In many respects, early social media was a return to these days. Bloggers knew each other and published articles in reaction to other articles frequently.

In 1999, Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger wrote the Cluetrain Manifesto. The Manifesto is a series of 95 theses insisting that the web enables global conversations between people in which the polished/cold language of organisations feel foreign. It says organisations will have to adjust and join these conversations with a genuine human voice or risk becoming irrelevant.

What the Cluetrain Manifesto observed and prophesied did happen. Online conversations influence people in big decisions such as choosing a university and a degree; or for whom to vote in elections; as well as in purchasing decisions such as choosing a refrigerator. We are more suspicious than ever when we face messages in traditional one-way channels. We base purchasing decisions more on our peers’ recommendations and on online searches.

Although blogging remains a great way to disseminate longer forms of writing, the quicker and more spontaneous sharing started happening more and more on the various social media sites which have emerged. Let us resume our little historical overview.

Social networks as we know them today with interconnected user profiles started in the late 1990s. We could go through the evolution of Friendster, the rise of MySpace, etc. It would stoke my nostalgia but it would not give you much value. If the subject interests you, there are many resources out there. Any history that I might offer would also centre around the US and/or Europe. In other regions of the world, other social networks held dominion. Suffice it to say there were many options and rapid evolution.

The most popular ones today — around here — are Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.  That’s where the party happens and everyone meets.

  • Facebook is 1.71 billion monthly active users (June 30, 2016) and 14,495 employees (June 2016)
  • Twitter is 313 million active users (June 2016) and 3,860 (June 2016)
  • LinkedIn is 106 million active users (March 2016) and 9,732 employees (March 2016). Figures come from Wikipedia.

Is WordPress indie web? Should I publish on Medium?

We spend more and more of our time in walled gardens owned by private companies: still love Twitter, ever ambivalent about Facebook, on LinkedIn out of obligation to HR departments everywhere, reading on Medium. Yet, I still think we should maintain independent spaces. So I blog here (albeit not regularly enough).

But. Is this important? Does it really make a difference? I use the default theme of WordPress. WordPress, even though it is open source, is heavily influenced by its parent company Automattic. It is becoming a default because it powers about a quarter of all websites and plans to conquer more. It is convenient but it is eating the web too and its open source nature isn’t enough to give me warm fuzzy feelings about it any more.

Waterhouse, John William; A Mermaid; Royal Academy of Arts;
John William Waterhouse, A Mermaid (1900).

I hear the sirens of calling. Their song is loud and melodious. 300 people follow me over there without me having published a word on the platform. When I compare these numbers with the analytics of this site, the potential seems very clear.

Am I shooting myself in the foot? If I were to make the jump, what would I publish here and what on Medium?

Because one does write to be read. Sometimes, you know, readers are nice.

I could scrap WordPress, transfer all the worthy content to a flat-files CMS like all the webdev hipsters do. Would that be roots enough to satisfy that part of me? Would it make a difference in the grand scheme of things? It might make my site faster for sure but it would do zlitch to get me more readers.

It all comes down to two questions: Is self-hosting WordPress indie web? If not, what would be? Are these concerns genuine or am I just hiding?

Cutting corners on social media

I’ve been a part-time social media manager for a long time now. Other responsibilities and tasks have always made it hard to focus on the social media side of things. This is far from ideal. The stakes are high, opportunities to embarrass yourself and your organisation are plenty. There are opportunities to be seized and risks to be mitigated on social media platforms. To reap benefits, you have to engage. Yet, lots of managers throw social media responsibilities on people — often young people because they’re hip — as just another task in their job description.


If you’re a manager, DON’T DO THAT.

If you’ve been tasked with starting social media campaigns with little prior experience and an already full plate, there are corners you can cut and methods you can use. Remember, however, that corner-cutting always comes at a cost. As a beginner, you won’t be good right away. You should manage expectations.

Chances are, your organisation is going to social media because they want to acquire traffic. Temptations are strong to dive head first in a paid campaign and get results on the spot. You should never start with paid advertising on social media. It would be best to establish a strategy and a baseline presence. That way, you may gather a following that will be an asset for future efforts too.

Be honest and strategize

Be very honest with yourself about the time and attention you can devote to them. Open only channels you can sustain and nourish. Think hard about what you have to contribute and what your audience wants.

What will you publish, for whom, and where? These questions are the most important. Answers depend entirely on what you’re selling and your unique constraints. No shortcuts there.

Start by listening. Research your topics, find what you can provide, find people’s pain points. This will help you determine what to publish. Once you start on social media, never stop listening and adapting. Monitor answers, comments, messages and answer them.

Before you do any kind of paid advertising, publish non-self-promotion updates/links. You should be able to publish helpful or entertaining things at regular intervals. Paid campaigns can help you build a following. It will be more effective if there’s valuable content on your profiles. People will follow your profiles in larger numbers if you have a track record of enjoyable and useful content.

Listening tools

Since you’re time-constrained and/or busy, you won’t be able to gather information actively. You’ll have to rely on tools to monitor the conversation online and find links to share with your audiences.

Large organisations circulate press reviews. You should subscribe. It will give you an idea of the conversation around your organisation and, perhaps, give you links to share.

Google Alerts remains one of my most prized tools. Set up one or several of these. Relevant Google results will pour into your e-mail account. Use straight quotes and the operators AND and OR. Like so…

Screenshot from 2016-08-30 22:36:04

Be sure to play with the advanced settings (content types, language, …) until you get the best results.

Publishing tools

You should craft updates for each social network individually because each has its own culture and “traditions”. That’s the ideal. You’re time-constrained and/or busy so you may publish links and updates on several social media services at once using Hootsuite. Remain aware that updates tailored to specific networks are best. Make sure your updates work in all their contexts.

Hootsuite also makes it possible to schedule updates. Scheduling is antithetical to genuine conversation which makes it risky. Never do it more than a few days in advance. Social media should remain a conversation. When there are major world events or other ripples through your communities, you’ll have to change your plans. Remember…

  • Monitor the conversation and events closely.
  • Have a device that can access all your accounts and especially Hootsuite to delete/cancel updates with you at all times.
  • Give a trusted colleague access to the accounts in case of an emergency.

Be ready for the traffic you buy

Acquiring loads of traffic is the dream most organisations chase on social media. Getting hits on a page with incomplete information is a waste. People will turn around and leave in an eye blink the page doesn’t answer their questions. They will leave if they feel mislead, if the page doesn’t load fast enough, if it doesn’t capture their interest… Problems with your website content can annihilate all your efforts. Best make it good before directing tons of expensive traffic to it.

Work with the people who take care of that website to iron things out. Ask yourself and them… Once they get on this page, what do you want prospects to do? What is the end goal? You can try to get as many prospects to give you their contact information and have your sales team contact them. You may want prospects to send an application through a form or place an order. Decide on a desirable outcomes and trace the steps that’ll get you there.

You should have the basics of this process (the sales funnel) figured out before launching any campaign. You’ll never get it 100% right. Be ready to keep iterating and adapting forever.

Set up your analytics right

There’s money on the line. For each paid publication or ad, you should estimate how many sales you made, how many prospects decided to contact you, etc. depending on your end goal.

Make sure the site where the traffic from the social network will land has Google Analytics enabled. Your objectives (form completions, post-sales thank you pages…) should be set as goals. Get help from the website’s developer for that. Make sure the data is *actually* collected. Require access to all relevant analytics panels to keep an eye on things.

Google Analytics makes it possible to create unique URLs to differentiate traffic sources. For each paid publication, create a unique URL and you’ll know which paid publication generated the most traffic. It will permit to accurately follow which link was clicked. You can, therefore, compare various versions of your ad and campaigns. Use the URL creation tool from Google Analytics. Everything is explained in the detailed help section.

A word of caution… You will most probably have big discrepancies between numbers from Facebook Ad Manager and from Google Analytics. This may feel weird to you and your bosses. There’s not much you can do about that. Analytics are only indications. Most marketers have to accept this as a fact of life. There are various ways to explain these differences in this Quora thread.

Take your time and let algorithms take theirs.

The more time you have to prepare and execute a campaign, the more bang you’ll get for your buck. On the contrary, the less time you’ll have to invest, the more money it is going to take to get results. With enough sharp thinking in your targeting (the criteria used to select people you want to see your ad) and enough time for the social networks’ algorithms to test and optimise your campaign, clicks, likes, comments or video play will be cheaper.

If you feel overwhelmed by these notions, you understand why this is a job ;). Being a beginner at this stuff and be put in a position in which you have to perform is stressful, I know. Don’t get discouraged though: read articles online, make mistakes and correct them, get help…

Thoughts on the latest Twitter abuse piece

The Buzzfeed piece about Twitter abuse that makes the rounds since last Thursday proves to be a very interesting read. The way the abuse problem has been left to fester is infuriating. So much so that while reading I took notes. Notes laced with profanity. Here are a few thoughts.

Free speech radicalism is an easy extremist tenet to hold in many ways. First, it is often defended by people who don’t know abuse at all. They, therefore, don’t have to make any sacrifices for this radical belief of theirs. Second, it is — in theory — a steadfast policy that protects the company from liabilities. They can then say that they’re a utility and don’t make content decisions.

It stems, however, from a weird idea of free speech. Free speech is great. I wouldn’t want the government to silence me but I want to be held accountable for the shit I say. Free speech radicals seem to have another definition. To many of them, free speech as being allowed to say whatever you want, often without suffering any consequences. Allowing people to be protected from the consequences of shitty actions and shitty words is not a moral imperative. It creates a toxic environment where a few assholes can police the speech of all the others by unleashing barrages of abuse and threats. It doesn’t help foster more productive debates. Just the opposite.

Yet, once people accept something needs to be done, the search for the ‘perfect solution’ begins… This search lead to paralysis as Vivian Schiller is reported as saying in the piece. Extremists always ask for a perfect solution before letting go of their own problematic one. Always seeking to swap an extremism for another. But that’s not how the social space works, that’s not how humans function and communicate. There needs to be moderation in every sense of the word. We need kind and intelligent judgment calls and concessions. There needs to be consistency obviously but no solution will ever be perfect.

Jack Dorsey is quoted as saying “No employee should ever be in the position of having to decide, subjectively, what qualifies as free speech and what does not”. This makes me doubtful that this problem will ever be mitigated. It will always come down to human judgment whether the judgment of a moderator or the judgment of an engineer designing an algorithm. Stress cases will always arise where the meaning of free speech will need to be discussed. Putting the burden completely on the users to moderate is again non-committal safe in the sense that investors might not punish the company and it won’t unleash lawsuits but it won’t fix the problem that for a vast majority of users, being on Twitter is very tiring work, an energy drain and often even a safety concern.

Large organizations all have things they’d rather not discuss (*cough* web governance *cough*), power struggles they’d rather not address, ambiguities that are preserved even if they hurt the business because it is believed that somehow these discussions would never end and distract everyone. I firmly believe leaders should encourage these discussions nonetheless. Especially in this case.


Adieu ThinkUp


Hier soir, j’ai appris avec tristesse la fin annoncée de ThinkUp. Anil Dash, co-fondateur de cette entreprise avec Gina Trapani a expliqué les raisons de cette fermeture sur Medium.

ThinkUp permettait de recevoir des informations sur son utilisation des réseaux sociaux sous formes de petites capsules digestes comme “Evren a utilisé des points d’exclamation dans 133 tweets au cours du mois écoulé” plutôt que sous formes de graphiques difficiles à interpréter.

Malheureusement, ce genre de service repose entièrement sur les APIs des grands réseaux sociaux. Les APIs permettent de récupérer des données depuis les réseaux sociaux pour les traiter. Les grandes entreprises qui les gèrent, font régulièrement des changements dans ces APIs — parfois pour des raisons techniques et parfois pour décourager les développeurs de créer des clients alternatifs.

Au plus beau jour de ce service, on pouvait recevoir des observations pertinentes sur notre utilisation de Twitter, Facebook et Instagram. Facebook et Instagram ont récemment fait des changements importants et assez restrictifs à leurs APIs. Twitter se prépare à en faire aussi.

Comme l’explique Anil Dash dans son billet, ces modifications entraînent des surcoûts de développement imprévisibles. Le nombre d’abonnés n’étant pas assez important pour absorber ces surcoûts et les repreneurs potentiels étant inquiets de buter sur les mêmes problèmes, le service sera arrêté le 18 juillet prochain.

Cela me pousse à me demander si on peut compter sur les APIs des géants du web. On est, au moins, obligé d’admettre qu’il faut des poches profondes pour pouvoir suivre leurs évolutions parfois brusques. Cela rend, évidemment, difficile la survie de petits projets financés par l’abonnement et qui se refuse à afficher de la pub ou vendre les données aux annonceurs. Je me réjouis de voir les co-fondateurs écrire à ce propos.

Je tiens à profiter de cette occasion pour remercier encore une fois très chaleureusement Gina Trapani et Anil Dash pour avoir créé et maintenu ThinkUp. Merci infiniment. Et bonne chance pour leurs projets futurs.

Cette annonce de fermeture me fait prendre conscience, encore une fois, à quel point il est important de sauvegarder le web ouvert et indépendant. Les technologies standardisées et ouvertes permettent, seules, l’émergence de ces projets cools. Bloguer sur nos propres sites, avoir nos propres flux RSS, … est très important pour garder ces technologies et ces usages vivants.

How To Share Online Without Worrying About Reputation

Our beloved internet never sleeps, never forgets. Worse, people often don’t understand our intents or make wrong assumptions about us. We may assume a curator approves of the content of every article he shares, for example. As a beginner on the web, I’ve been misled like this myself. Or, we may make mistakes with the tools. We live in troubled times — the economy suffers and the social norms around online sharing haven’t been firmly established yet. Employees worry about what they can and can’t do online. Job seekers worry that what they share online can be held against them. In such a context, using Facebook’s frictionless sharing and semi-automated curation tools like may seem risky for one’s reputation. Yet, the benefits of online sharing are too numerous to abstain. So, what can we do?

Letting Go of Fear

We’re all protective of our reputation. Who isn’t, right? So much so that worms and phishing attacks spread on social networks using our concerns. We, from time to time, all receive direct messages on Twitter saying “OMG, they’re saying nasty things about you here” with a link to a malicious site. Even if we suspect a trap, the urge to click that link is always strong. Yet if you click that link out of fear, your Twitter account will be hacked and send out the same direct message to all your contacts. Letting yourself get caught in this manner will damage your reputation.

Although less immediate, being defensive with your social media presence or your curation efforts will cause you harm also. People are able to tell when you let your fears drive you. Curation implies risks: you never have all the facts, you make decisions quickly, etc. Many regret having bombarded their friends with the KONY 2012 video because of the backlash and revelations about the campaign. Said friends may hold this against them.

You can’t stop people from talking. There might be people criticizing you down the street. Could you interrupt their conversation and protest that their characterization of you is anything but fair? Yes, but it would make you look freaked-out and whiny. Social media offers the unique opportunity to listen as people have conversations. Your new found ability to listen isn’t, however, a license to make rude interruptions, complaints and start petty arguments.

Letting Go of the Thirst for Control

We may have trouble accepting that we can’t control how others see us — ever. We can influence it to some extent but never control it. We can’t even control all the signals that we, ourselves, send into the world as tightly as we would like. Body-language, micro-expressions and other leakage can always be interpreted. Not accepting this will only make us insane.

It’s the same online: you can’t attend to everything all the time. Your might go out with a story you wouldn’t have shared. One of your clever “If this then that” recipes might cause feedback loops and spill large quantities of updates. Tumblr’s queue might malfunction and all your posts might get published at once. Such accidents happen.

The best we can hope for is a set of social norms and best practices to handle these problems. Call it netiquette, social media guidelines, whatever… we look to grow and spread the online equivalent of tact and manners. Lots of people have been working on this problem by now and some widely agreed upon best practices have emerged. I have reviewed some of the many social media policies that organisations have made publicly available (and that Chris Bourdreaux has listed for everyone’s benefit). there are a few constants:

A Few Guidelines

  • Once something is published, it can’t be taken back. This is the first rule. Bots, archive builders and content scrapers are constantly making copies of everything. There’s no complete “delete” function. Therefore, you should always consider your posts carefully.
  • Be respectful. Avoid being a troll, feeding trolls or flaming people. Beware of themes such as religion and politics. Treat social media like you would face to face encounters.
  • Stay calm. As stated in the example above, do not complain about misrepresentation, just point it out and always assume it was a mistake made in good faith.
  • Admit your own mistakes and correct them. If you’re willing to admit and correct your mistakes, people will be far more forgiving.
  • Do not mislead your audience. Make a clear distinction between facts, opinions and fiction. If you want to experiment with self-representation as a literary genre, make the relevant writer-reader pact as clear as possible.
  • Respect copyright laws. There are countless resources to find free or cheap images to illustrate your posts. You can search Flickr by license, browse Wikimedia Commons’ catalogue or even take your pictures yourself.
  • Ask before naming friends who don’t blog. If your blog or social media posts get high PageRank, your blog may come up in the search results for your friends’ name.
  • When you disclose who you work for, put a disclaimer up stating that your opinions are solely yours.
  • As long as such a disclaimer is very clear, express your opinions.
  • When it comes to your profession, stay around your areas of expertise.

If you keep these guidelines in mind, everything shall be OK and you’ll be able to handle the risks of online sharing. I hope you are a little less worried — I certainly am, so we can go make and spread cool stuff. Sharing’s beautiful. Let’s go!

Image credit: “Surveillance Video Cameras”. Paweł Zdziarski. Creative Commons Attribution License.

I wrote “How To Share Online Without Worrying About Reputation” on the blog, it was originally published on April 20, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Use the Editor’s Note to Tell Your Paper’s Story

Curators show who they are by exposing what they care about, what they consider worthy of other people’s attention. We use stories as currency in the attention economy: picking the best of them and passing them along.We manage a platform of stories. Yet, it seems we’re not storytellers ourselves. Or when we are, we separate the curation from the storytelling. Browsing through, I found that most editors do not use the “editor’s note” text area — myself included. Is it shyness? Do we want to put other people’s content first and foremost?

By putting your curation efforts in context, you add value to each individual link you share. It is not necessarily about taking a larger chunk of your reader’s attention for yourself.

And if you do want the attention, please, put effort in it. Pasting your website URL in there isn’t going to cut it. Whenever I see such editor’s notes, I get a spammy vibe and it hurts your credibility. Self promotion is fine, just make it elegant.

How To Unearth Your Story?

Curators care. Some care enough to set up a Twitter list and a to use it themselves. Some walk the extra miles and edit theirs every day before sending it out to their community. We have individual reasons for caring. If you tell these reasons to others, they might be touched and start caring too. To unearth your own’s story, all you have to do is ask yourself the questions that the interviewers here have asked to the featured editors. It is better to do it in writing, so open a text editor or grab some paper and a pen. Here we go.

Start with your topic. Explore the reasons why you are interested in the subject. Explain how you became the person who engages in the task of editing your paper. What happened? This is the first “crisis” of the story. Readers get a glimpse of the hero’s background and learn about the event which led you to your subject.

Next comes everybody. Our hero — yes, you! — meets people on social networks. There is a connection. And you use to achieve a goal. Maybe they help you. Maybe you help them. Or both. Even if you don’t promote your paper, it’s your chance to take a better look at your sources. What do they have in common? Why did you select them?

The resolution. The hero’s efforts have brought the to life. Somebody — it might be only you or your whole community — is now better off. To write this part, ask yourself these questions: do you get a response when you put your out there ? Does it have an impact on the people you publish?

It’s OK to not be 100% accurate. I wouldn’t encourage you to lie, but don’t let an obsession with accuracy ruin your story. It’s your inner critic trying to fool you. There are many ways to cover the same sequence of events. The way you recall events isn’t necessarily the most accurate version anyway. Tell your inner critic to shut up and re-frame your story in the most positive and active light possible using the above structure. You should, in fact, feel a little uncomfortable with the result at first.

Editing, The Funny Part

Sprinkle active verbs. Verbs which describe movements engage the reader’s motor cognition. Neurons in the parts of the brain which treat our own movements fire when we see somebody else move and even when we read or hear about movement. You should use this in your writing — even more so in short pieces. For example, you “embrace social media” and you “use to pick up interesting links from the community’s feeds”. “Embrace” and “pick up” paint a vivid picture and enhance your story without using too much space.

Disassociation strategies. If your topic is polarizing, you might be afraid to have your name associated with what could get pulled in your Paper. Framing your paper as the result of an encounter between you and the whole community (as we did) might not be enough. If you still feel anxious, describe how helps you with its algorithms.

Make it short. You want to preserve space for the stories you and the algorithms have picked. It’s the point, really. So you need to pack your grand story in the tiniest amount of space possible. Don’t worry, though: just lay down the words first. Then, take out the unnecessary nuances and modesty. Eliminate the passive voice, the adjectives and the adverbs. Replace comparisons with metaphors. And see your word count. Repeat until you have sixty words or less.

Now, you’re ready to copy and paste it into your If you do complete this exercise, it might give you the courage to tackle other text areas. For example, take the part that is most personal in your story and squeeze words out until you reach below the 160 character limit of Twitter biographies. It’s a fun game and you’ll reap benefits.

Image credit: “Story Time”, by Dave Parker. Creative Commons.

I wrote “Use the Editor’s Note to Tell Your Paper’s Story” on the blog, it was originally published on January 25, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Content Rivers and Information Gluttony

As the festive season was drawing to a close, I –like a large portion of the online population– became concerned about ending the cycle of over-eating. The sense of satiety is easy to numb and hard to get back. It is not only true for food but also for content. Non-physical items can lead to gluttony as easily as the very physical foods and beverages of Yule. Similar mechanisms are at work. Only, content doesn’t have a season. The feast is all year round.

Information overload or gluttony

“Information overload”, I hear you say, “we know that already”. Is it really the problem, though? As Clay Shirky argues in his talk “It’s Not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure”, information overload is our new environment of plenty and not a problem that needs solving. We celebrate the availability of information in many great ways. Yet we experience problems with it sometimes. It lies upon us to create internal and external filters to manage our time and attention because they are our most precious resources.

Excited by the wealth of information available, we lay the traps ourselves by using the tools in an unsustainable manner. I’ve been doing it myself. At some point, I was following three hundred Tumblr accounts and around four hundred RSS feeds. Soon, I started operating under the impression that I should see every item and extract value out of them. These expectations were unreasonable and they were making me crazy. I cut more than half of my RSS feeds. I left Tumblr for a while. Only now that I have returned a wiser man, do I understand more about this information gluttony.

More and More

As humans we’re drawn towards content. There’s a drive to accumulate experience and learn about things because it helps us survive. Putting aside immediate threats, it helps us reach our other goals too. This drive, however, has a tendency to extend. Soon, we start consuming content because it might help us reach a potential goal. Our scope widens out of proportion. That’s also why we hop from entry to entry on Wikipedia and catch ourselves only four hours later. This is why people keep updating their Tumblr dashboard to see more shiny things.

Yet, if we go down this path, neophilia –the love of novelty– becomes the purpose. In the mass of indiscriminate content, true interestingness constitutes a surprise reward. As our brains try to unveil the secret pattern which leads to more such rewards, it sends us on a quest for more and more content. Infinite scrolling or infinite pagination can keep us on a site or service for hours.

Too Little Information To Decide What To Ignore

Dumb aggregation tools collect an endless chronological sequence of content items. The absence of an unread count makes it into a “river of content”. Somehow, this should be enough to change expectations and make it OK. It doesn’t always work and we get stuck on sites like Tumblr or Facebook.

Understanding what features of such content rivers cause you to slip into gluttony is key.

  1. Piles make us want to get to the end…
  2. but rivers of content have no edges or limits. Trying to consume all that passes on our screens is futile. So, we should know what we can safely ignore…
  3. yet, rivers of content are often indiscriminate messes which make it difficult to decide what to read and what to throw out. Posts are often unstructured and stripped from categories: source and date are all we have to decide. Links on Twitter are inscrutable shortened URLs so we don’t even get that precious little indication regarding the source.

Deciding with certainty which pieces you can ignore is important for content consumers as well as curators. Design can help us with that. As publishers and designers we should ask ourselves what relevant information we can provide to help our audience decide what they should or shouldn’t read. Metadata can be richer and more relevant.

Lists and Folders

Until then, we might have to use old tools to organize our incoming streams and restrain ourselves. Lists and categories provide order and visibility. They help us decide what to pay attention to and what we can ignore. To come back to food, you have better chances to avoid picking up candy if you make a list of groceries in advance and stick to it.

Mark Zuckerberg is often quoted as saying: “Nobody wants to make lists”. Most people don’t want to, yet, some order must be imposed if we are to stop treating content like formless stuff. Lists have a long and rich history in helping us make sense of the infinite, as Umberto Eco says. What makes list-making unpopular on the web is the lack of a strong incentive. and Google+ both encourage their users to make lists and categories.

  1. Google+ asks you to put the people you follow into circles.
  2. functions best with public Twitter user lists and, hence, provides a strong incentive to use them.

Yet, there’s something to note about categorization in Twitter lists, Google+ circles and folders in RSS readers. They categorize the sources but not the items they publish. Put a Twitter user in a list and then, regardless of what she publishes, the content is going to be in the list. Same with Google+ and most RSS feed readers. You put a feed in a category or folder and then, the items from that feed are all stuck together. There’s a general lack of granularity and an opportunity for more intelligent tools., however, is different. It shows the source and puts the links in categories like Technology, Business or Education automagically. The result is not perfect but –oh so– helpful. I would love to see other tools do the same.

Bearing this limitation in mind and with practice, it is possible to gain a little control back. Take a little time aside, while we’re still in the beginning of the year, to review your lists of sources and the folders/categories they’re in. It is worth doing.

Image credit: Portion depicting Gluttony in Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things”.

I wrote “Content Rivers and Information Gluttony” on the blog, it was originally published on January 13, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

On or Off? How to Make Comments Work for You

I was prompted to think about the costs and value of comments after reading a post about the latest changes made to Gawker’s comment management system in which Nick Denton, founder of Gawker Media, laments the poor state of comments sections. Engagement is difficult to get and even more difficult to keep. Whether you get no comments at all or too many, they are always an issue online.

When and How to Invest in Comments

Comments have their place when your blog is about making sense of the world around you — for yourself and your audience. They are for you if you use it to

  • learn and teach
  • gather insights
  • and spot opportunities.

This spirit of quest can encourage great comments and launch deep conversations. If you are willing to participate in comment threads, they offer tremendous help. In “Yes, blog comments are still worth the effort”, Mathew Ingram cites Fred Wilson’s blog A VC as an example of rich comments. Wilson, a well-known venture capitalist and blogger, is ever-present in his comments and nurtures his community because their exchanges are valuable to him.

He shared the main factors behind his blogging success. On the subject of engagement, he wrote:

5) Engage everywhere. That means on Hacker News, other blog communities/comments, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc. This takes a lot of time. Too much time. But I get so much value back from doing it that I make the time.

If you’re not in tech, maybe Hacker News is not for you. Anyway, you get the idea. To get more comments, it is very important that you

  • leave comments on the blogs of people you respect. They or their audience may take an interest in your point of view
  • tweet people asking them for their perspective on issues of interest to both of you
  • advertise your post in relevant places.

For more, you can turn to Marcus Sheridan who lists many tips on engagement in comments with illustrations and examples.

Comment Management Tools

Whether you’re a multi-million-dollar publisher, a small business owner or an individual blogger, it’s necessary to filter out spam and moderate to have a healthy comments section. Fortunately, semi-automated solutions are widely available. Akismet, Mollom and Defensio, for example, offer to stop automated comment spam for you. All three have free plans. Akismet is active on blogs by default.


If you have your own WordPress install, you can activate Akismet easily. All you need is to open an account: you will receive a string of characters called an API key that you’ll then enter in the administration area of your WordPress installation.

You can also use services such as Facebook, Google+, Disqus or IntenseDebate which offer to host your comments on their servers for free. Such solutions may seem simpler and less prone to spamming attacks, but they have hidden costs. Comments may load slowly or temporarily go missing if the service goes down. Search engines may not take the comments’ content into consideration, which might impact your SEO.

Moreover, you run the risk of losing your comments if the service shuts down or you change your commenting system. Disqus and IntenseDebate let you export comments if you leave. However, few blogging platforms or commenting systems let you import comments back in seamlessly.

As you can see, solutions exist to make comments work but choosing the right one is a challenge. Whichever you choose, they always demand an investment of time and attention, and sometimes significant amounts of money.

Last year, comments on The Huffington Post crossed the symbolic 100 million line.  According to Arianna Huffington in this Mashable interview, their success comes from a commitment to

  • moderating comments using humans and software
  • personalizing the display by ranking comments from your Facebook or Twitter contacts higher
  • and recognizing good commenters with badges and privileges.

This commitment is real and costly. Their 30 moderators and a robot called Julia cost them a large sum. Lots of dedication and significant investments are necessary to make comments work well.

Another Option: No Comments

When you post reviews or opinions and have no plans to take the feedback into serious consideration, you don’t need comments. When you lack resources or an interest in moderating and participating in your comments section, you might be better off without them.

Solo entrepreneurs and small businesses have limited resources to allocate and that’s OK. You don’t have to accept comments. You can encourage engagement by other means.

If you turn off comments, be sure to write a post explaining your decision. People might accuse you of not being humble enough to accept criticism and dissent. State clearly that you’ll continue to listen to your community. Encourage them to tweet to you, send you e-mails, etc.

Blogging with comments turned off is a sensitive issue and a matter of much debate. Matt Gemmell links to many articles about this question and offers his own take (via Build and Analyze).

There are no absolute reasons for or against comments. It depends on the purpose of both your blog and its comments section. Ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish with your site and whether comments help or hinder your ability to reach your goals.

There are bad reasons for having comments turned on. They are often used to inflate the number of page views on ad-driven sites. When you submit a comment, you have to re-read it and then submit it. That’s two more page views. And when people read comments, they are often displayed on several pages, which adds even more page views. You don’t have to emulate this behavior because page views aren’t the most important metric any more.

In the End, it is Your Decision

You should have a clear idea about what your site is supposed to accomplish; you should think about your comments section with the same care for purpose. Then you can decide whether to have one or not, and how much you are willing to invest in it. Don’t hesitate to think aloud in the comments.

Photo Credits: It just won’t go on! (switch) by derekGavey and Margin Notes by plindberg.

I wrote “On or Off? How to Make Comments Work for You” on’s blog, it was originally published on May 16, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.