Archive for the ‘UGC’ category

Crowdsourcing Crime: UCrime.com

5, August, 2008

Geographic visualizations of crime data are already old hat. At least since 2005, when peerless journogeek Adrian Holovaty created chicagocrime.org, people have been mashing up public crime data with various maps to illustrate where, in a manner of speaking, the bodies are buried. [Chicagocrime.org has since been swept into Holovaty’s latest adventure, Everyblock.com.]

UCrime.com, a Baltimore startup launched last month, takes crime mashups to college, providing visual reports on incidents on over 100 college campuses. The picture is not always pretty. Here is a snapshot of the last six months of mischief that’s taken place at the University of Maryland at College Park, the school my son will be attending in the fall:

Looks like those crazy Terps have a blast on campus, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile, take a look at Brigham Young. Crime? Not so much.

The icons are kind of humorous (unless of course you’re the victim of one of the incidents). A spray can shows malicious destruction of property, a moneybag is theft, a fist a simple assault. Handcuffs show a successful collar. Users can choose to view all crimes or just, say, burglaries.

While the site is just launched, it promises to introduce a couple of social media features. It appears students can join a sort of digital neighborhood watch and report crimes. Users can “comment” on specific incidents or collaborate like junior crimesolvers.

Crowdsourced crime reports, “reviews” of certain incidents, collective responses to crime. . .Call me a worrywart, but if I were running this site I’d want to have a skilled moderator–and an even more skilled lawyer on retainer.

It’s worth noting that there’s nothing new to the information here. Campus newspapers always run crime reports. Local cop agencies make this material public. UCrime simply collects the information over time, tags it by type and connects the crimes with geography.

But it’s a good illustration of the power of even a very simple data visualization. The medium transforms a public datastream into a compelling story about a community and what goes on there.

Of course, that story is misleading. Three top-of-the-head reasons:

  • A compact campus with a given level of crime looks more crime-dense than a spread-out one.
  • The visualization does not take into account the size of a student body–“there’s no denominator,” as they say in applied stats class.
  • A quick glance makes it hard to distinguish a campus where there are dozens of open-container violations from one with a lot of gunpoint robberies.

In the end, perhaps the most valuable service is the one that lets students get alerts–via mobile phone, if they like–of crimes occurring within a specified chunk of geography. It’s good to know two kids just had their laptops taken form a certain dorm, for instance.

Of course, there’s nothing keeping a parent from signing up for this service too.

Yikes. What dorm is my kid staying in this fall again?

User-Generated Content: Can You Find the Pill Shill?

27, January, 2008

New comScore data suggest that about 30 percent of women consider user-generated content on the web when making decisions about birth control methods. Twenty-three percent said they wouldn’t consider UGC, and 46 percent said they’d consider it but haven’t tried the chat/forum method.

The data make sense. With a whole new wave of birth control products on the market—including drugs that permit women to have menstrual periods monthly, quarterly, or even once per year (!)—women are checking with those who have been there/done that for some straight talk.

UGC can let sisters do it for themselves—at least with a new form of a product women have been using for years, and is heavily advertised with direct to consumers suggesting it’s a lifestyle choice rather than a medical decision.

The survey, like so many, was done on behalf of pharma companies. The back story raises familiar questions about UGC with consumer products

Hmmm…pharma companies learn that a majority of women either are or would consider UGC to make decisions. So let’s see, what’s a more effective method of reaching these women–more direct-to-consumer advertising or hey, maybe a posse of online “brand ambassadors” and “superusers” who slyly create UGC on behalf of drugs?

The implication, well known to students of 2.0 marketing, is clear. In the world of UGC, it can be hard to tell the difference between a girlfriend and a pill shill.

Reader’s Digest 2.0? Yes

5, December, 2007

Reader’s Digest, that endearingly lower-middlebrow American institution, has been largely overlooked in the world of print-to-digital transformation. Who can blame us? What could the folks who brought us such gems as fast-reading edits of James Michener and articles like “I am Joe’s Islets of Langerhans” have to contribute to the world of digital publishing?

Fast answer: More than you’d suspect.

Check out the following:

  • An Election 08: “Grade the Candidates” tool. Rate each candidate on a 4.0 scale. (Results so far seem to suggest, unsurprisingly, that rd.com users lean right.) It’s got usability problems, but it’s a worthy entry in the ’08 2.0 derby. Even its exclusion of Internet diva Ron Paul carries a certain RD charm. Whether the producers simply don’t get out enough to know who Ron Paul is, or figure he’s not important enough to include, is inconsequential. You’ve got to admire its innocent devotion to mainstream civics.
  • The home page’s Daily Top5, a module of that eerily preserves the sweet, dorky sensibility of the publication using interactive and traditional media: carefully selected YouTube videos [today’s is a comedy routine making fun of daily mom-isms], “addictive games,” a [network] TV show of the night, etc.
  • A front-page mix that includes heart-warming inspirational stories, the expected pre-Martha how-do content, user-submitted photos and the display of such utterly safe celebrities as Tom Hanks.
  • It even markets its podcasts as “RD Out Loud”–a sort of digital-audio version of the magazine’s beloved “large print edition.”

Sure, it’s easy for us new media snobs to make fun of Reader’s Digest. But if there is an example of a publication that has prudently adopted 2.0 technologies to extend its brand online–while preserving the publication’ s sensibilities precisely–I’d like to hear about it.

Al Gore vs. Drew Carey: Another Nail-Biter

17, October, 2007

What a curious synchronicity that the same day brings announcements about key politically motivated web moves by Nobel Prize winner Drew Carey and comedian Al Gore. No, wait, my mistake! That’s Nobel Prize winner Al Gore and comedian Drew Carey. Sorry.

Gore & Co. are relaunching their Emmy-winning cable/web operation, Current.com, to incorporate more user-generated content. Meanwhile, Carey & Co. are launching a libertarian video web channel, ReasonTV [www.reason.tv; note funky “tv” domain].

Carey is clearly positioning himself as a right-wing Michael Moore: Another fat funny guy ranting against the stupidity of government, but from the other side of the red/blue chasm. As the French say, les extremes sont meme. I hope I’m doing that college French right.

[Conflict of interest revealed: Drew Carey and I lived in the same dorm together at Kent State University in 1975. He used to mimeograph jokes and post them in the bathroom and call it “The Urinal Journal.” Actually that’s not a conflict of interest at all, I just like to tell people about that.]

Let’s look at the two political broadcasting efforts and see who wins this race for the hearts and minds of America.

Mission statements

Current.com: “It’s about what’s going on, but as you’ve never seen it before. Your brain doesn’t come in boxes labeled NEWS and ENTERTAINMENT. Neither does the world.”

Reason.tv: “Welcome to reason.tv, home of The Drew Carey Project and other great libertarian videos. Over the next few months we plan to bring you the latest, most compelling stories about freedom from all corners of the Internet, and we’ll be experimenting with new interactive content and features.”

Winner, in terms of clarity of mission: Drew Carey

Position on Political Spectrum

current.com: Left, but doesn’t admit it

reason.tv: Right, but admits it

Winner, in terms of intellectual honesty about political alignment: Drew Carey

Rhetorical Effectiveness

current.com: Sophisticated, ecumenical exposition

Reason.tv: Fist-pounding, insistent propaganda

Winner, in terms of ability to connect with opposing forces: Al Gore

Diversity of Offerings

current.com: Wide range of videos offering political commentary, professional mini-documentaries, personal expression and the usual goofy UGC

reason.tv: Narrow range of issue-focused explainers and professionally produced, sort-of-funny Drew Carey explorations of libertarian anti-government screeds

Winner, in terms of diversity of offerings: Al Gore

Inexplicable Programming Decision

current.com: Some UGC links lead to . . .articles, not video clips

reason.tv: Brian Doherty on Milton Friedman

Winner, in terms of inexplicably bad content: Toss-up

Negative Campaigning

current.com: “Carey That Weight”, a harshly critical video on Carey’s “weird and awkward” debut as host of The Price is Right.

reason.tv: John Stossel book-tour speech that, in questioning the competence of government to do almost anything, complains the government “couldn’t even count the votes” in Presidential elections.

Winner, in terms of effectiveness of negative campaigning: Al Gore

Reach into Mainstream

current.tv: Broadcast via Current cable TV channel into 40 million homes

reason.tv: The Price is Right, The Drew Carey Show reruns

Winner, in terms of mainstream reach: Drew Carey

Wow, wouldn’t you know it? Another race too close to call.

But if you add the votes of the Swedish Norwegian judges. . . Gore wins!

Let’s not even imagine the results if the Supreme Court were called in to break the tie.

The 2.D’oh! Weekly Round-Up: Vol. III

11, August, 2007

Time for another weekend whiskbroom of the mischief, misdeeds, missteps and misdemeanors recently scattered about the world of 2.0.

Did So. Did Not. Did So. [Cont’d, ad infinitum

Google has announced plans to invite sources of news stories appearing in Google search results to respond to the articles: to comment, elaborate, correct the record, cry misquotation, threaten legal action, deprecate the very practice of journalism globally, make uninformed references to the First Amendment, etc. Information Week’s Thomas Claburn has an excellent report here.

Oddly–significantly?–there were no comments on Claburn’s article as of this writing.

Mommy, Make It Stop

You3b, a video viewing service now in beta, delivers 3, count ’em, trois, different videos playing across your computer screen. This is recommended, of course, only if Youtubedoubler, which presents two videos on your screen simultaneously, is not sufficient to your needs. 

In either case, we’ve found this more obscure site an even better starting place if you’d like to watch multiple videos at the same time.

Journalism (Mostly) Without Journalists

I got quite excited when I read that the Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism, has nominted The Forum of Deerfield, N.H., for one of its annual awards. It appears to be an act of journalism without the journalists–citizens who have banded together without media permission or supervision to report on their local communities.

Why does this seem like a big deal, in these days when it seems you can’t hit a 7-iron without risking beaning a citizen journalist?

Because most of these ventures are fronts for MSM or Web 2.0 venture capitalism: newspapers that bring civilians into the fold for fun and profit, academic journalists throwing conceptual goo against the walls, ex-newsguys and -gals who want to help “real” people learn the High Art of Journalism, partisans who create “news” operations to punish and reward their leaders, etc. It’s rare to find a civic journalism operation whose bloodstream doesn’t carry the MSM virus somewhere.  

What would happen if civilians who cared about their communities–unencumbered by the worldview, habits, nervous tics, muscle memory and Vulcan mind-meld that makes MSM do damn M–band together to report about their chunk of the world without journalistic oversight? The Forum appears to be one good example worth watching.

It’s easy for any journalist, or even careful reader, to look at the site and proclaim that, using familiar newsroom jargon, it’s “pretty lame.” Articles are plodding, the ledes are flabby, some of the stories appear to be slight edits of government hand-outs. But truth told, if you look at the whole site, the content is little worse, and in many ways more energetic and surprising, than most small-town weeklies published by the cousin of the town’s biggest realtor.

And if the product is inferior as a journalist would see it, so what? If it’s by the community and for the community and of the community, and if the community embraces it, why should they care what we professionals–we of the profession held in public esteem barely above lawyers, that is withering by the day, that is unlikely have a recognizable next generation to pass the baton to–think? 

But then an ad in the upper right hand corner of The Forum caught my eye: The publication is recruiting a managing editor.  The solicitation read well–it was clearly designed to identify an inspired amateur–until I read these two lines:

[duties] . . .May participate in journalism conferences and workshops as approved by the Board.

[requirements] Excellent communication, writing and journalistic skills. [Emphases mine]

Oh, god, no. Note to Forum volunteers: Fight the Power.

And finally, our ever-more-popular “Noted Without Comment”  feature: http://www.topthistv.com/

Triporama: A Long Road Ahead

7, August, 2007

They used to say that journalists are people who write news on the back of car dealer ads. These days members of social communities are people who gather under the heat lamp of Internet commerce.

Yes, there are a few high-visibility exceptions that recall the “information wants to be free” era: Craiglist, Wikipedia, and the antedeluvian versions of the YouFace/MyBook/SpaceTube trio.

But any community worth spending time in has to be built, developed, maintained and (therefore) monetized by someone. Ultimately we social creatures foot the bill by paying to play (LinkedIn) or sacrificing tiny flutters of attention to somebody’s hustle.

As I see it, this is only bad when the social community is window dressing for a selling floor. I hereby christen these sites “2.offal.”

This came to mind the other day when I first visited Triporama, a site that presents itself, and indeed at first pass appears to be, a collaboration tool for folks who want to travel together.

At second pass, however, it’s clear that the site at its core is an aggregator of qualified leads for travel suppliers. The site presents destinations, trip ideas, deals and travel supplier tabs. But click on any of these and you ultimately wind up on a supplier’s site, being told–get this–that Las Vegas “delivers spectacle on a grand scale, with entertainment, nightlife, and accommodation options that are truly unique.” Who knew?! 

All right, Triporama publishes partner travel brochures and booking tools. I’m fine with that. I’m American.

The problem is, the integration between the sales and group-planning functions is below poor.

Here you are, using Triporama to see if you can pull together the river-raft thing next summer, say. You create a trip, invite your potential raftmates to join by e-mail. But then, one of the first things you discover you can’t search the freaking site using the word “rafting.” You have to choose Adventure travel and start your sad, solo clickroam through Peru (Michu Picchu seems to be going cheap), Amazon, Costa Rica. And you’re thinking, Dude, where’s my raft?

To answer that question, you have to stub your toe on a vacation package that is tagged “rafting” at the bottom. Click on the rafting tag, get a list of rafting options–but you can’t narrow it to, say, the continental U.S. Click on U.S. domestic and–I swear to god–you’re back in Las Vegas, which of course delivers spectacle on a grand scale. My kingdom for a  search tool!

Let’s say you do like one of these trips. Click on it and you’re in someone else’s booking site. You can share this with your group by bookmarking it and sticking the book mark in the joint trip planning space. Not fully integrated, but a decent kludge for linking booking and your group trip. Of course, you haven’t been able to compare prices and features without dipping in and out of many sites and doing the ol’ apples-to-oranges-to-kumquats-to-chocolate comparisons in your noggin.

To be fair–and readers of this blog know I try diligently to be fair, even if it means having to do the Valsalva maneuver until the apoplexy passes–the collaboration tools are. . .well, let’s look.

  • After creating a trip and inviting the principals, you can perform a date poll–a cool feature that lets folks declare what dates do and don’t work for them. You can share bookmarks to said travel package/destinations options or other things, add notes, etc. Work at it long enough, you can cobble together an itinerary that everybody’s signed off on.
  • But want to rough out a budget? The FAQ directs you to give Google Docs a try, or maybe Excel. I am being serious here. Trying to keep track of who’s paid and what they owe?  Use any old spreadsheet for that, too.
  • Want opinions from others who have done what you’re doing? Why, just visit TripAdvisor! [Of course, you may wind up booking your trip there too.]
  • Want to compare prices on air fares or hotels? The “Advice” tab tells you which other sites that provide such a service. Coordinating flights? Other sites can help you do that.

As I said, I’m an American. And I know I am about to purchase a bunch of stuff–a guided trip, hotels, airfare, etc.–and I want help. If the group planning tools were integrated with the booking/sorting tools, this could be a very useful site.

And (speaking of apoplexy) I’m sure this posting will generate e-mails from the Triporama team saying it is a work in progress, the missing features I am whining about are under development, etc. All good. I wish them well.

But in the meantime, Triporama is a sales floor with a set of 2.0ish tools tacked on. It has a long road ahead.

Ning: A Grown-Up MySpace, a New Web Platform

25, July, 2007

The main purpose of this blog is to look at emerging Web features as they move from the overheated giantism of, say, YouTube and Wikipedia, to more measured mainstream use. And so today I take up Ning.

The latest project of Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, Ning lets you set up your own social network outside the teen-graffiti-ed walls of MySpace or FaceBook.

A Ning network takes less than five minutes to set up. Choose a name, template and a set of widgetized features (text box, photos, video, blog, etc.) and you’re up and running. You are now proprietor of a social network. Just add people.

What strikes me about Ning is–its likeable social-networking-without-the-idiots premise notwithstanding–how much it resembles other plug-and-play platforms that let you build, with almost alarming ease, what is essentially a free Web site under a different name.

  • Wetpaint.com lets you create a Web community using the wiki metaphor.
  • WordPress, the service upon which this blog rides, provides a growing suite of tools that help you turn a basic blog into a widgetized visitors center. [Ditto Brother Google’s Blogger tool.]
  • Netvibes started as a feedreader, but increasingly is a personalized multimedia content platform you can share with others.  
  • Freewebs lets you build a free, utterly serviceable Web site with the same five-minute drill as the others on this list.

Remember how, just two or three years ago, we all proclaimed that blogs had pushed the cost of publishing on the Web to practically zero?

These emerging products are doing the same with rich-media Web experiences. What used to be the domain of html coders and fancy Web design houses is now in the hands of just about anybody with two index fingers and a $400 computer.

I know the primitive sites these tools create will never replace the nuanced, deep and well-developed sites that major enterprises need and want. But I know this: the marketplace often rewards easy-but-servicable over complex-but-better. And certainly most folks would prefer free to paid. I would not want to be trying to sell Dreamweaver  five years from now.