Mastodon, décentralisation et pluralité pour le vivre ensemble

Mastodon est un nouveau réseau social décentralisé. Les différentes installations de Mastodon (aussi appelée “instances”) sont sur différents serveurs et sont gérées par des personnes ou des organisations différentes. Les utilisateurs créent des comptes sur des instances publiques. Ils peuvent suivre des utilisateurs (comme sur Twitter) qu’ils soient sur la même instance ou sur d’autres.  Je n’entrerai pas dans des détails techniques ici.

Le but de ce billet est de montrer l’intérêt social d’une telle décentralisation. Pour le côté pratique, j’ai mis des liens utiles pour vous y mettre à la fin du billet…

Un réseau social décentralisé permet, entre autre, des innovations de gestion. L’outil technologique est une chose; les règles du vivre ensemble et les conventions sociales qui s’y appliquent en sont une autre. C’est ce dont nous parlerons ici. Un grand nombre d’instances gérées par un grand nombre d’entités différentes, aux formes juridiques différentes et hébergées dans des pays différents. Cela va permettre, par exemple, une diversité bienvenue dans les politiques de modération, la gestion des conflits et du harcèlement. Cette diversité peut donner lieu à ce que d’aucun appellerait le chaos. Habiter ces espaces multiples risque d’être un peu plus difficile. Il faudra se renseigner sur les instances dans lesquelles on s’installe et faire des choix éclairés (et mettre en place des outils d’import/export permettant de changer d’avis facilement).

Les réseaux sociaux centralisés cachent un monde de complexité. Leur centralisation les oblige à chercher des solutions globales et homogènes à des problèmes sociaux qui ne le sont pas. Les règles de modération de Twitter et Facebook ainsi que les problèmes qu’elles posent sont le reflet de la société états-unienne, des idées de leurs employés et de leurs cadres. Forcément.

Les biais dans l’organisation d’un espace de parole sont inévitables. C’est pour cela que ces espaces de parole doivent rester multiples. On doit pouvoir choisir librement en fonction de ses propres valeurs dans quels espaces on veut discuter. Or les réseaux sociaux centralisés monopolisent l’attention et concentrent le pouvoir.  Ils cherchent à se donner l’apparence de l’objectivité et de l’équité en cachant le travail humain mal rémunéré de modérateurs derrière un voile algorithmique (digital labor) et en promouvant le mythe de l’objectivité des algorithmes. Mais ce paravent est trop petit pour cacher les enjeux, les luttes intestines au sein des entreprises qui gèrent les réseaux et l’impossibilité de l’équité totale dans la modération.

La polémique sur les ventes privées d’arme à feu sur Facebook en mai dernier nous donne des exemples de toutes ces difficultés. D’abord, les nouvelles règles ne pouvaient pas être appliquées de la même façon à tous les cas reportés. Les utilisateurs reportant les ventes d’armes se sont retrouvés eux-mêmes empêchés d’utiliser le réseau social lorsque leurs signalements étaient jugés non-pertinents. Chuck Rossi alors “director of engineering” chez Facebook, s’est publiquement exprimé contre la nouvelle politique restrictive de son employeur et a fédéré des administrateurs de groupes supprimés afin de les aider à reprendre leurs activités.

Le contrôle des armes est une question de société centrale aux États-Unis. Ce n’est de loin pas la seule. Un autre exemple probant est la représentation de l’allaitement. Des représentations d’allaitement ont souvent été supprimées et leurs auteures bannies de Facebook comme en témoignent de nombreux articles: le cas d’une mère nourrissant l’enfant d’une femme hospitalisée et le cas d’une administratrice de groupe sur l’allaitement. Cette question dépasse largement le cadre états-unien et touche bien sûr tout l’Occident. La réponse qu’y apporte Facebook en disant que les tétons ne doivent pas apparaître pour rendre une photographie acceptable est absurde. surtout si elle doit s’appliquer au monde entier. Un système décentralisé permet d’en expérimenter d’autres en fonction des cultures et des sensibilités de chacun Qu’une réponse moins mauvaise s’impose sur les autres avec le temps ou pas, la pluralité des réponses permettra aux utilisateurs de faire des choix. La pluralité est une fin en soi dans ce contexte.

Pour Twitter, une grande partie des réticences à agir contre les problèmes de harcèlement vient de perspectives radicales concernant la liberté d’expression et des dysfonctionnements de l’entreprise comme le montrait BuzzFeed. Cet article a été considéré “à charge” mais il montre bien les idées et les conflits menant à l’immobilisme relatif de la firme.

Les fondateurs de Twitter (qui ont eu un rôle dans la création de Blogger et d’autres services à l’impact culturel immense) semblent vouloir voir la liberté d’expression dans un sens très large et très permissif. Si la liberté d’expression est un principe nous protégeant de nos gouvernements. Elle n’inclut pas le droit à une plate-forme pour diffuser des propos. Elle est encore moins un bouclier protégeant les personnes qui s’expriment des conséquences de leurs prises de parole. Bien sûr, les idées radicales ayant cours dans l’entreprise Twitter se heurtent aux cadres légaux dans de nombreux pays et posent des problèmes pratiques. Longtemps, il semble que l’organisation ai cherché à remplacer un radicalisme par un autre. Voyant qu’il n’existait pas de solution parfaite que l’on peut parfaitement appliquer à tous, l’entreprise a de la peine à lancer des initiatives. Depuis la publication de l’article par BuzzFeed, des améliorations comme le filtre de qualité et la possibilité de cacher les comptes sans photo de profil ont été introduites. Pourtant, le harcèlement organisé et semi-automatisé visant à faire taire et écarter certaines parties de la population de l’espace public est fortement ancré sur Twitter. Je doute que l’organisation puisse régler le problème rapidement.

Là encore, la décentralisation est une solution possible. Elle est, en tout cas, une chance d’expérimenter des solutions différentes à plus petite échelle et loin de l’idéologie de la Silicon Valley. Chaque instance peut développer ses propres règles et sa propre culture du vivre ensemble. Le fait que les utilisateurs de Mastodon (et d’autres réseaux décentralisés) ont le libre choix de leur instance va pousser les administrateurs d’instance à réfléchir sur ces questions et expliciter leurs positions. Nous aurons plus d’échanges de vue et d’opinions et nous avancerons ainsi.

Cela mettra aussi la pression sur les grands réseaux sociaux centralisés. Il n’y a pas besoin d’un exode massif des utilisateurs de Facebook et de Twitter vers des solutions décentralisées. Les changements positifs peuvent se déclencher à partir d’un nombre important mais atteignable d’utilisateurs. Mozilla Firefox a contribuer à faire repartir la concurrence et à ré-orienter les efforts des développeurs de navigateurs vers un meilleur support des standards en faisant un accroc (grandissant mais tout d’abord modeste) dans les parts de marché d’Internet Explorer. Pendant longtemps, Internet Explorer et Netscape Navigator se sont fait concurrence en introduisant des balises HTMLs nouvelles et non conformes aux standards du W3C. Netscape a disparu. Après avoir gagné une position dominante avec Internet Explorer, Microsoft a stoppé net son développement.  Et le web s’est trouvé coincé pendant quelques années. Grâce à l’activisme de beaucoup de web designers soucieux de repartir sur de bonnes bases et à l’arrivée de Firefox, respectueux des standards, Microsoft a repris le développement de son navigateur. Les modalités de la concurrence entre les navigateurs sont maintenant le respect des standards pour un web interopérable, les nouvelles fonctionnalités (onglets, navigation privée…), l’accélération de l’affichage des pages et de l’exécution du JavaScript.

Comme promis, des liens pour vous y mettre. Kozlika a déjà sorti un guide de démarrage en Français. Funambuline serait en train de rédiger un mode d’emploi complet en Français (màj 19/04: elle l’a publié!). Encouragez-la à le finir car il deviendra sans nul doute un bel ajout à sa collection de guides de référence. Quant à moi, j’ai créé mon compte sur une instance lettone à majorité francophone quelques minutes avant que ce soit “cool”. Pouet!

Mise à jour 13:34: L’ami Yann Heurtaux apporte une nuance intéressante sur la différence entre réseau fédéré et réseau pleinement décentralisé.

Mise à jour 19/04 6:44: L’amie Funambuline a publié son Mastodon 101 – mode d’emploi.

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 Blogger.com 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.

The headache of staff profile pages

Team member profiles or biographies can be found on many organisation’s sites. For most of them, employees are the best resource and, also, the best ambassadors. A college, for example, must have visible teaching staff members to attract students and funders as well.

Worth it?

There are, obviously, exceptions. A few companies like Brain Traffic or Mule Design (who instead put forth their writing) have dispensed with this section of their site entirely. Maybe their communications strategy focuses on their methods and brand rather than on the specific people working there. Maybe they realise what a mess biographies can become. Maybe both. It always pays to ask if a section of your website is worth having and maintaining.

Let’s say you decide it is worth the investment. Keep in mind that all content is political. Any discussions about content can surface power struggles in the organisation. Managing biographies even more so because the self-representation needs of the employees will clash with the organisation’s agenda.

Lots of organisations just give up on having difficult conversations and they’ll leave the content up to the person being profiled.

The mess

If employees end up being responsible for their own profile pages, messes can be very costly. Quite often, in huge organisations encouraging collaboration and transdisciplinarity, people will have many profiles across different departments and teams.

Every change has to be made multiple times — most probably through people who have direct access to the CMS. Often, they’re different people in each department. This operation therefore has to be repeated multiple times. That is a horrible waste of everyone’s time and focus. It creates a lot of frustration too. People put it off for as long as possible and, in the meantime, profiles get out-of-date and out of sync with their other ones.

Sorting it

The whole organisation can benefit from having standards around voice and tone, length and even which topics are discussed and which aren’t in these biographical sections. For example, few people always insist on giving the number of their children on their profiles.

Can employees represent themselves with complete freedom on their employers’ website? Do employees get to decide which photo they want on their profiles without any guidelines?

It pays to have these conversations and put standards in place especially if the employees are represented as ambassadors for the business and their presence has to serve clear business goals. Having clarity and consistency in the biographical section of the website projects a coherent image of the team. It is achievable if you define a clear purpose for this section as well as communicate this purpose clearly to team members.

 

One-person web teams are cheap not inexpensive

Single-person web teams might seem like a great bargain but they’re not. They tend to become stuck in a content uploader role which is bad both from an HR and day-to-day business perspective.

When discussions and collaboration happen in another realm, the one-person web team only gets e-mails with attachments or content copy-pasted for immediate release. No wonder that all the person can do is make the markup remotely OK and hit “Publish”. Ron Bronson captured the challenges of being a one-person web team very well in his recent slide deck.

As a content uploader, the only way you have of gaining respect and trust seems to react ever faster and put things up as soon as they land in the inbox. It becomes the new rule of the game. You may protest that with more forethought and planning, you’d be able to edit it and content would have more impact. By putting up the content just-in-time, you allow everyone to save face. By doing so, you also remove their incentive to listen when you propose to focus on better processes. All you get is shrugs and excuses.

Having the web team stuck in this reactive mode is bad for business because the website usually ends up sucking. Always being on alert with an e-mail client open; ready to drop what you’re doing to copy-paste stuff into the CMS eats into energy, time and attention. It prevents one-person web teams from growing and learning new skills that the organisation will ultimately need.

It is much better to allow enough time and resources for the web team to work with subject matter experts, pair write and/or edit the content. It takes a little more money and effort but, in the end, the website can only be better for it.

Event promoting tweets require forethought, time and a well staffed team

Many event organisers want high-level promotion to raise attendance. They often turn to social media to promote. The tweet below is densely packed with information about “Content Marketing World 2016”. It is designed to entice the @CMIContent account’s followers to register for the conference but also to encourage the featured speaker to promote their talk.

I see conferences use similar communication tactics but seldom as expertly or efficiently as Content Marketing World. This tweet is best-of-class and emulating it is out-of-reach for many conferences. Even though it is an image and a well-written tweet, getting all the information packed in that tweet that much in advance of the event is a real challenge.

Let’s list all the elements we see in the graphic top to bottom and left to right:

  • Conference’s name: Content Marketing World 2016
  • Subtitle used across several social media posts (here, to link them to a successful movie franchise).
  • “I’m speaking!” which denotes excitement at the idea and makes the image especially suited to be shared by speakers themselves.
  • Speaker photo: standardised and square for use on the website and in all other communication.
  • Short version of the speaker bio (which complements the long version that’s on the website).
  • Conference’s logo
  • Conference’s date
  • City in which the conference will take place
  • URL of their website
  • Conference’s hashtag

And in the tweet itself…

  • The speaker’s Twitter handle
  • The hashtag
  • A promotional code (again this entices the speaker to share the post)
  • A short link to the conference website.

Once you have all those elements, it’s rather simple to produce the images either manually in a graphics program or programmatically (if there are many many speakers). Even tweets can be generated programmatically and uploaded into a scheduling tool such as Hootsuite.

The challenge is in assembling all these elements well in advance. It takes forethought, time and a well staffed team. A venue must be secured. Speakers have to be selected and confirmed. Editors have to work with speakers to hone their long biographies, craft the two line biographies, obtain the right picture and the relevant social media handles. You can’t deploy those smart marketing tactics until you have good content to support them.

Let Readers Discover Your Publication’s Personality

At first, I used Paper.li simply as an aggregator of links from all the people I followed. Of course, to an outsider, the group of people I follow looks random. No wonder I am the only regular reader of my first paper. To experiment further, I made another paper about content strategy. I thought that it would be neat and orderly at last. However, the people in the list are… well, people. So of course, they share things that aren’t related to their work. At first, this bothered me and I tried to edit things out manually but I soon gave up and then came to like it. Disorder and variety are a great vehicle of personality.

Sharpness in publications is overrated

Recently, Seth Godin threw out one of his short brain poking posts. He compared the merits of sharp and well-rounded individuals. As my brain still tries to reconcile its liberal arts education with all the unsolicited advice about sharpness floating around, it got me thinking.

I have a lot of varied interests, this is also why my first paper doesn’t make much sense to anyone but me. When people tell me to be focused, sharp or pointy, I like to remind myself: “I am no sword. I am no laser. I am a man“. Personal branding experts and their followers stay “on message”. Repeat their “value proposition” incessantly until they become so dull and uninteresting, they have to stage conflicts where none exists, churn out top sevens on their blogs, etc. Many publications I used to adore began resorting to these techniques. They publish things like “Kurt Vonnegut’s ten best tips on writing” and “What five things Hunter S. Thompson can teach you about writing”.

These blogs seem to publish for search engines and forget they address people. They cover keyword after keyword to lure us onto the business sites. This strategy is short-sighted because it doesn’t show their personalities and the full breadth of their expertise.

As Mandy Brown explained in her essay in Contents magazine, editing and publishing is about people and communities. You can’t be too sharp with people, they’re made out of flesh. Publications and editing need to take this into account.

Diversity is necessary

Editing any publication requires more than focus and sharpness. We need context and diversity. In content creation as in curation, coming to the subject matter from a variety of angles will provide both.

On the one hand, it will prevent readers from getting bored by creating rhythm. As Stephanie Booth explains in “Variety is the spice of life”:

By publishing only one type of “top post”, one turns it into the “average post”. Add a sprinkle of intermittent reward to the mix, and you’ll probably positively influence the way readers perceive your content.

Gradual discovery is a delight

On the other, gradual discovery and engagement works wonders to encourage readers to come again. Providing information little by little rewards subscribers and followers. It creates familiarity over time. In turn, familiarity provides the necessary context for you to go farther into details like in a good television series when you discover the characters little by little.

BoingBoing, Kottke and Brain Pickings, for instance, are the ultimate examples.  They are difficult to grasp at first. Even after many visits, it might still be difficult to reduce their editorial line to one sentence or even a paragraph. Does that prevent people from getting it right away? Sure. Yet, after stumbling upon interesting articles of theirs over and over, curiosity is tickled. Readers start trusting them to come up with rich and fulfilling content. A relationship develops, in short. Each author has their own numerous areas of expertise and interests. Through their long history, they develop themes that subscribers can pick up on and follow.

The point is not to forget about planning all together. To convey the breadth and depth of your or your organisation’s personality requires a strategy. We made progress in our methodologies but relationships with humans can’t be mechanized. We shouldn’t forget Tara Hunt’s advice to embrace the chaos. In all forms of publishing, you are always dealing with humans. You don’t get to choose if things are messy, they will always be. You can only choose how much of a mess you want and if the mess is rich in meaning or not.

Image credit: “Spinning Blade” by Patrick Fitzgerald, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

I wrote “Let Readers Discover Your Publication’s Personality” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on January 9, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Content Marketing for Small Businesses

Content marketing is the buzzword of the week. Yet, it has always existed: under different names, spread by different means. When a farmer talks with his customers about the compared merits of different crops on the market floor, it is content marketing already. He helps his customers make better sense of the world in a language they can understand and builds goodwill in the process.Somewhere along the way, companies lost this human connection as evidenced by the fourteenth thesis of the Cluetrain Manifesto by Levine, Locke, Searls and Weinberger:

Corporations do not speak in the same voice as these new networked conversations. To their intended online audiences, companies sound hollow, flat, literally inhuman.

But now, they’re beginning to get better at communicating in a human voice again and respond to their customers’ true concerns in conversations. There is talk of content strategy, content marketing, etc. in lots of exciting places.

Small businesses relied on these conversations and the spreading of good content for a while now. John Jantsch, in his 2006 book Duct Tape Marketing, exposes a holistic approach to marketing which is all about reaching out to the right prospects with compelling content.

The major point is this: Content Marketing is the creation and distribution of content to build trust in your relationship with your prospects. They want reliable information about their situation and how different options compare. Give them that and soon, prospects will turn to leads and leads will transform into customers.

In most content marketing efforts, there are three goals you have to work towards.

  1. Help people live happy stories by sharing relevant information.
  2. Show them how you can intervene in their stories with your products.
  3. Discover your specific way of caring in the process.

How To Join The Conversation

John Jantsch advocates reusable and modular content. So you can mix and match according to your audience and chosen means of distribution. The different pieces of content he would suggest are:

  • A statement of why they should hire you
  • A summary of how you’re different from the competition
  • A description of your ideal customer and why you appeal to them
  • Your marketing story
  • Your offerings, of course.
  • Compelling case studies and testimonial proof
  • And the list goes on…

The content types detailed above are all sound, but remember you don’t have to feel overwhelmed or constrained by the list. Don’t rush it. Some organizations can churn out content and hope for the better. You can’t gamble like this, you have a business to run. Create as much value as you can. Stay confident that each piece of content you create answers your audiences’ needs and supports as many of your business objectives as possible. Focus on the three pillars, take your time to plan your content as you would a new line of products.

Small Steps Add Up

This being said, don’t let such warnings block you. Content publishing is like any new business you dive into, you will make mistakes at first and it’s OK. Writing and publishing are processes of constant discovery. The feedback you will receive will help you get better. Start writing right now, publish when a piece is ready. Take it step by step, one piece at a time.

Most advisers, just like John Jantsch, would want you to start at the center with core messages. Enough with this obsession, I say! Start at the periphery and move towards the center later. In their time, themes and patterns will emerge and point towards core messages and values. If you can’t figure them out, don’t be discouraged. Keep writing and publishing content nonetheless. Core messages and differentiation from the competition will come as you discover subtleties in your way of caring for customers. You can’t just declare them, they have to mature and arise. If you pay attention to your education efforts, your caring and your story, you can be confident that good things will happen.

What’s Practical

Marcus Sheridan taught himself how to use the web to promote his fiberglass pools business. The content he has created became a major factor in River Pools and Spas growth. His first move when he started out was to collect questions he was being asked, answer them in writing, often breaking industry taboos like pricing in the process. His efforts were so successful that he became a content marketing consultant known as The Sales Lion. If you are just starting out or if questions don’t roll in the door fast enough, you can use Q&A sites such as Quora or Stack Exchange to gather more. Write answers in the best manner possible using your own personal voice and post them on the web. If you don’t already have one, a blog is a great format for such efforts because it is modular and flexible.

By helping people make sense of the world around them, you will gain their trust and their business. Saddleback Leather, a small business selling durable leather bags, teaches how leather work is done, on the one hand, and shows their specific way of caring in a story on the other. You also have a great story to tell — I am sure. Invest a little bit of time to write it down because it will bring context and help with connections. Follow the steps I showed to craft the Editor’s Note of your Paper.li with a broader focus and get your story heard.

Of course, curation with Paper.li is also a way of providing content to help your customers make sense of the world. Many small business owners share their experiences on this blog like Nichelle Stephens, cupcake queen, or Brendon Held, kitesurfing expert. There are countless others such as Brian from the Edison Pen company — specializing in custom pens. They edit a delightful Paper.li about writing tools entitled Writing Instruments Daily. Follow their lead: I wish you nice chats!

Image Credit: Table centerpiece representing Turkish merchants in conversation photographed at Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts by FA2010

I wrote “Content Marketing for Small Businesses” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on Mars 16, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

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 Paper.li 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 Paper.li 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 Paper.li 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 Paper.li, 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 Paper.li 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 Paper.li’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 Paper.li 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 Paper.li 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 Paper.li 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 Paper.li 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 Paper.li 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 Paper.li. 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 Paper.li blog, it was originally published on January 25, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.