Categories
Social Media

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.

Categories
Content Strategy Social Media

Presenting Pearls: Stakes of Content Discovery

Users of fast growing services face challenges discovering relevant content. To address these challenges is hard because relevance is an ever evolving concept which depends on the context. When the user has a clear goal or specific question, relevance is straight forward: that’s how we got search engines. But it is less obvious to address the needs of users who want to discover content that they don’t know about yet, or who watch a specific topic over a period of time. Search is about asking questions and getting answers. It doesn’t help you to figure out which questions to ask. Paper.li recently unveiled their Topic Browser to address these issues and let users of the platform extract more value out of our collective curation efforts.

Problems of Visibility

As the number of users to social networks and publishing platforms grow, the signals multiply. On the one hand, owners of the platform celebrate the growth of their service and the success of their company. On the other, this threatens to diminish the value of the platform as users get overwhelmed. The social signals which were supposed to help them make sense of the tidal waves of content become a part of the waves themselves. Moreover, potential users have difficulties understanding what the service is about or where the best stuff is. Each growing platform faces the same issues: Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress.com and Paper.li.
In our world of plenty, each service wants to give users tools to navigate the oceans of content and find the true pearls. If these tools can be developed, problems of visibility will not only be averted but the community will get more value.

Content Discovery Mechanisms

Relying on content discovery mechanisms means that we are outsourcing part of our choices. They present us with manageable amounts of options and we choose from this instead of choosing from the bigger pool. This is how we get a suggested user list on Twitter, Flickr’s interestingness index, WordPress.com’s homepage, or dedicated services such as Squidoo or Paper.li and its Topic Browser.
Tumblr faced a problem with their vast amounts of signals. Tumblr relies on tags and human editors to surface the best content. Tag pages are produced by contributors and editors working together. Users, then, can subscribe to this curated experience.
Squidoo is another service which relies heavily on human editorial skills to create pages about topics with original content and material from around the web: images, videos, RSS feeds. The addition of Amazon and Ebay affiliate modules brings revenue that is shared with editors who can then give it to charity or keep it.
Paper.li is in a position to solve this problem differently. With their Topic Browser, they inverted the process. Instead of having topics curated by few editors, they rely on the massive numbers of Paper.lis edited every day by their algorithms in tight collaboration with their users to surface content. The scale at which the Topic Browser operates is impressive: more than 13 million articles are categorized in one or more of the 20,000 curated topic pages. The filters ensure that the most topically relevant content gets added. Each topic page also features links to the individual Paper.lis which contribute to it, making it a topic watch as well as a discovery tool.

Personality Through Taxonomy

Using the wisdom of crowds to perform editorial tasks may seem risky but it gives us access to new information about our own community. On the one hand, individual personalities of the community’s members and publications may not shine as much anymore. This is a loss, since personalities are to be cherished. Yet, on the other hand, we may discover more about our collective biases and quirks. The culture of services and the communities they gather shine through their taxonomic choices. Tagging and categorization practices give us insights into the choices made when developing algorithms, and about human editioral practices of both administrators and users.
On Tumblr, for example, the Explore function is based on enlisting moderators to curate topic pages. They introduced this function with a limited array of topics in December 2010 and slowly added more to finally merge everything into the Explore function. Today, the page shows a selection of what the service has to offer.
This page does say tons about the Tumblr community: their love of pictures, leisure-related content and cuteness becomes apparent.
Paper.li’s Topic Browser is still in Alpha but the tagging system already shows signs of personality — especially on broad topics. Recreation, for example, seems to be synonymous with exercise for most of our community’s members. Love’s topic page points to an impressive array of posts about interpersonal relationships, wonderful personal blogs, and some NSFW images forming a striking portrait of the topic online.
As we explore the Topic Browser together, we will gain new insights about our community and our world. Dive in. And when you come back out, tell us what pearls you found and what you learned about the Paper.li community in the process.
Image credit: “Pearls” by Dr. John Supan for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
I wrote “Presenting Pearls: Stakes of Content Discovery” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on February 6, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Categories
Social Media

How to Select Only What You Need and Leave the Rest

“Information Gluttony”, a previous post, provoked interesting reactions among social media enthusiasts and editors. The need to become more picky is widely felt. Jan Gordon wrote:

I think this is most important for all of us, continually refining our ability to select only what we need and leave the rest. Today everyone is a publisher and everyone has an opinion. Aren’t we suffering from meaning overwhelm as well?

To address her comment and the others, I will try to deconstruct the process of content selection and explore ways in which we might fine tune our filters together.

How to Select Content

In my own journey through content, I try to consistently refer to first filters. A piece of content must pass a series of tests before I link to it. They may be performed consciously or unconsciously, but these questions do get asked. At least, one of the following must get a yes.

  • Does it support a goal?
  • Does it make an emotional connection?
  • Did I laugh while reading it?

Yet, these three questions aren’t specific enough. Meaning overwhelm occurs because there’s too much “good” content out there. In fact, it makes me quite uncomfortable to talk in terms of good or bad content. This distinction isn’t helpful or clear anyway. If it were, we wouldn’t be discussing “content gluttony”, “meaning overwhelm” and how to avoid being “content fried”. Relevance seems to be a far more appropriate way to talk about content. Unfortunately, relevance is contextual. Aiming for relevance in edition is trying to align your goals and purposes with the ones of your readers and the ones of the content creators you share, re-blog, etc. As Jan Gordon wrote, it will be a “continual” process of refinement but you need a solid and documented strategic foundation.
If you are starting out, choose your topic wisely. Then, there are three main areas which require your focused attention.

  • Know what your curation efforts’ purposes are. Do you want to learn more about the field? Establish credibility? Do you want to encourage people to action about a certain issue?
  • Understand your audience, their purposes, and goals. Once you have started, listen to them and ask questions. Take notes of the articles which gather the most responses. Try to figure out what features distinguish them: topic, tone, format, angle.
  • Develop a talent to quickly evaluate content. Revisit the basics for evaluating web content. Determine whether or not it aligns with your goals and your audience’s.

Whether you are doing it for yourself or an organization, create a short document about your findings, the tools you will be using, ideas for recurring sources, etc. Review it often. Your future self will be glad.

What You Can Safely Dismiss

After that, it’s practice, practice, practice. Even with a strategy in place, the actual task of monitoring all the sources has no clear beginning nor end. This is taxing. Beth Kanter offers insights in how to stay sane while doing it. Her last piece of advice “Just say No” is where the most power lies.
Saying “No” is useful, not only to pace yourself and make pauses during the week, but also to dismiss pieces of content in a heartbeat. I would love to learn how to become more picky. In other words, what can I safely ignore? is a question I ask myself often. Here are a few answers:
Poor form. Good writers pay attention to grammar, edit, and proof-read. As an editor, you should pay attention to these things as well. Here’s how to do it. By directing people’s attention to well-written content, you prove how much you value their time and attention.
Tips and tricks. Nobody acts on tips and tricks — especially long lists thereof. Unless you have acted upon them and have personal experiences to add, don’t pass them along. For example, when I identify a problem in my workflow, I go on Lifehacker.com or search the web for solutions but it never works the other way around. The problem with tips and tricks is that you never get enough because they feel like action when they are anything but. They don’t encourage anybody to do anything. Really.
Advice. Shoulds and shouldn’ts can be just as toxic as tips and tricks. Everybody bathes in “expert” advice all day. We should (!) all raise our standards or stop paying attention to advice altogether. Each situation is unique and advisers try to shove a standardized solution in them. Pieces of content which ask questions and encourage your audience to see their situations more clearly will bring more value in the long run.
Helping each other update our filters will save us from becoming content fried. I hope to make this list longer with your suggestions. What types of content do you say “No” to?
Image credit: “Workers sort through dried tea. Kunming, China” by Steve Evans. Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial License.
I wrote “How to Select Only What You Need and Leave the Rest” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on February 23, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Categories
Content Strategy Social Media

The limits of automation and the curator’s role

Frank posted earlier about Popping the Filter Bubble, arguing that there wasn’t a real problem. Although, as he argues, the concerns about the filter bubble are framed as a conflict to sell the idea, it doesn’t mean the filter bubble is not a real and potentially problematic phenomenon. As he shows using the example of his Paper.li, editors and curators have an increasingly important role to play.

Filters require intention

Filtering makes social media platforms more appealing and useful. Algorithms select what you see on Facebook and Google Plus. Even Twitter does. It used to show every update of the people you followed until @replies got filtered out. The change brought by these filters is that those willing to expose themselves to new subjects or dissenting views must work towards “intentional surprise”, as Frank wrote. And those unwilling to do so aren’t forced to confront other views any more. This “noise” filtering adds barriers to discovery and perhaps to dialogue which must be intentionally overcome. It’s a change. Problems may arise when these filters work in secret and can’t be tweaked by the users.

The limits of automation

Fortunately, the services which relied heavily on automation until now are aware of these problems. They are coming to the conclusion that algorithms cannot solve all problems. It takes a human editor to craft great experiences with the right mix of familiarity and novelty, confirmation and healthy dissent. Karyn Campbell’s Return of the Editor: Why Human Filters are the Future of the Web on Sparksheet quotes interesting numbers which suggest that, as we’re figuring out what algorithms are good at and what they’re not so good at, editors and curators are given a bigger role in organisations like Facebook.

The curator’s art

To understand where the editor’s art lies, we might turn to Maria Popova, curator extraordinaire of Brain Pickings. Her article: Accessibility vs. access: How the rhetoric of “rare” is changing in the age of information abundance explains it with clarity. The value “human sensemakers and curiosity sherpas”, as she calls them, bring is tremendous in a world in which everything is accessible but not necessarily accessed.
Of course, you won’t find every post of generalist curated blogs such as Brain Pickings, kottke.org, Bobulate, or Boing Boing interesting. But skimming through them, you find gems that often light fires of life-long interests. As the Paper.li community exemplifies, real magic happens when technology is harnessed by editors to craft great experiences.
Image credit: Kneading, Soyer Isabelle.
I wrote “The limits of automation and the curator’s role” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on November 5, 2011. Reproduced here with permission.

Categories
Copywriting Social Media

Report and Curate With the Same Passion

Recently, I wrote about the focus on original reporting that online magazines such as Salon.com and Gawker have decided to develop. According to this article by David Skok, these changes in editorial strategies are normal and have historical precedents: TIME magazine went through a similar transformation.Skok, therefore, concludes that “the aggregators of today will be the original reporters of tomorrow”. Yet there will always be a place for smart curation. Each publication has to find the right mix to serve its audience.

Curation Lacks In Journalistic Institutions

However, original reporting and curation aren’t mutually exclusive and one isn’t necessarily better than the other. They both need to be used in their place and adapted to our purposes.
As Mathew Ingram writes in this GigaOm article about the debate around aggregation and curation as theft, “the question that matters is whether it serves the reader”. Patient, thoughtful and enthusiastic curation is helpful to both author and reader as another way to make sense of a complex and noisy world.
As journalistic institutions take the narrow view of journalism, they miss out on opportunities to bring value through curation. This is what Martin Belam calls the “curation gap”. He writes:

For me ‘the curation gap’ is that, at present, most mainstream media organisations seem lacking in the tools, or the will, or both, to bring the best of the voices in those niches and make them relevant to the mass audience.

He also says that journalists have the right tools with their “ethics, legal training, mass cross-platform audience” to become great curators. I second this with all my heart.
Some institutions and old-school journalists have a hard time understanding the value of curation because they focus on their feeling of being ripped off. They don’t make the distinction between content scraping, aggregation and curation. They fail to see that curation and writing share most their core processes.

Writing and Curating, Same Skills

So much so, I would argue curators are bound to be good writers and good writers have it in them to be tremendous curators. Both are a labour of love, a constant learning experience, and take courage. The courage to face the gaps in your argumentation and build bridges over them to be clear.
Taking different arguments made by other people, using them in a new argument, and taking the whole thing one or several steps further than the preceding authors did is the essence of essay writing, isn’t it? Curation is like that: curators summarize, quote and link other people’s work. They also add contextual information which tells audiences what the information means and — more importantly — why they should care.
Like strawberry picking, the process of curation is difficult, time-consuming and impossible to fully automate. Sometimes the ties that bind collections together are shy and take time to come out. The context is hard to explain clearly and the purpose of the collection might be hard to uncover and convey.
There is a real difference between reposting content and creating meaningful collections. Gawker’s lone strange goat pales in comparison with Buzzfeed’s collection of disappointed animals, for example. Both are trivial but the latter represents a greater curation effort.
The result of these efforts is valuable, too. Journalists need not fear but join curators as we touch the audiences who wouldn’t understand or relate to the relevance of a piece right away. We make the wonders of the world more accessible. We need more attempts at making sense of the world, not fewer.
If you need a quick way to understand or explain curation, Percolate offers a thoughtful definition of curation and a manifesto packed in a short video (via Brain Pickings). Time and attention, contextualization, communicative enthusiasm: the most important aspects are covered in the video.

Thorny Question of Money

Since curation is an emotional and intellectual labour much like writing, true curation can’t be cheap. The thorny question of publications’ business models is still hanging over our heads. Whether they produce curation, original content or a mix of the two, money remains an issue.
Brain Pickings is supported by donations. Salon.com has a freemium model. The Browser makes money through Amazon referrals and plans to move to “a mixture of sponsorship, advertising and ‘freemium access’,” according to The TelegraphGawker‘s 100% ad-supported.
There’s no single business model for web-based publications and probably will never be. Curation is as expensive and hard to monetize as any content but it is a useful service and represents true opportunities to serve needs which aren’t fully served yet.
Top image credit: “Strawberry Picking” by bigbirdz. Creative Commons License BY.
I wrote “Report and Curate With the Same Passion” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on May 3, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.