Draft of Chapter 5

Here’s the fifth  in a series of chapter drafts of the Mediactive book. (Here’s everything I’ve posted so far.) Remember, this is a draft, not the final version, though my editor and I believe we’re fairly close. Feel free to chime in with ideas about what I’ve missed and especially what I have gotten wrong, or send email. The chapter begins after the jump. (Note: Some of the HTML is weird, and the footnote links aren’t working right.)

Chapter 5

Active Participation: Making Your Own Media

The tools of digital media creation are becoming ubiquitous, certainly in the developed world and increasingly on a global scale as well. They encompass such a wide variety of technologies and methods that I could spend this entire volume just talking about the ones you can use right now—and by the time you read this there would be new ones.

So in this chapter we’ll look in a high-level way at how to make your own media. As always, we’ll extend and amplify on the Mediactive website.

Tools and Techniques

Now that we are all able to create media, not just consume it, it’s useful to know the most widely used tools and techniques and understand why people are so excited about some of the emerging ones.

Our children are using most of these tools already, especially social networks. In Chapter 8 we’ll look at some of laws and cultural norms that moderate the use of these technologies, which like all tools can be used for good or bad purposes.

Simple Text: Mail Lists and Discussion Groups

In this day of video, audio, mashups, and all kinds of advanced media forms, we sometimes forget the value of plain old text. That can be a mistake, because text is easy to scan and, for most people, easier to create than linear media like video.

You don’t even have to be a blogger to use text to great effect in communities of all kinds. Even a simple mailing list can be a great way to keep people in touch, and to pass around valuable information. If you can pull people to your blog, it’s great for disseminating ideas, but often you’ll get more attention by posting a brief message to an appropriate mailing list already frequented by the people you want to reach.

There are thousands and thousands of mail lists, message boards and other kinds of systems of this sort. They exist for conversation and information, and can be amazingly valuable. They’re designed for easy participation. Some allow anonymous posting; others require a sign-up with a valid email address in order to deter bad behavior. Although some go even further and require each mail to be checked by a moderator, this kind of gate-keeping is rarely used anymore because it holds up discussion.

It’s fine to lurk, of course; in fact, a general rule on forums is that you should read for at least a couple days to get a sense of the culture and what’s acceptable to post. Ultimately, you’ll get the most out of these forums by joining in. The more you know about a topic, the more you can help others understand it, too. No matter who you are, you know more than enough about something to be a valuable participant.

Forums and mail lists are also simple to create yourself. It’s especially easy at big Internet sites like Google Groups and Yahoo Groups.[1] If you don’t already have an account, just create one. Then create a group and you’re off to the races.

The limitations of running a group or mail list via Google or Yahoo become fairly obvious once you’ve spent enough time there. You can move up to more sophisticated forum software—there are literally dozens of products and services to choose from—but going this route does add several layers of complexity.

I’ve been on mail lists and forums of various kinds for years. Many have served distinctly journalistic functions. For example, our former neighborhood in a northern-California city—a few square blocks with several hundred homes—was served by a community website that offered basic information about the area. But the more valuable online information source was a Yahoo Groups message board where residents discussed local news. One day, someone posted a message saying that the tap water had gotten cloudy. Someone else noticed the same thing. Not too many hours later, we found out the scoop: according to a resident who called the city utilities department, repairs to the system were causing the cloudiness, but it was not at all dangerous to anyone’s health; the poster of this message also linked to a page on the city’s website explaining the situation.

This incident was not nearly important enough to have been of interest to the (formerly) big daily newspaper in Silicon Valley, my old employer. As far as I know it didn’t even make the weekly serving our town. But it was real, serious news in our neighborhood, just as other messages over the years letting folks know about local break-ins and vandalism.


A blog is a series of updates in reverse chronological order, with the newest material at the top. That’s it.

But blogging is a term that encompasses any number of forms; it can be turned to a variety of purposes, as millions of people around the globe have discovered. Blogging has become one of the most preferred ways for people to post news, opinions and, yes, even what they’ve had for breakfast as they write from their basements in their pajamas.

Blogging providers and services abound. The “big 3” services for individuals are:


A free hosting service owned by Google that’s probably the least flexible of the pack but also probably the simplest to use. Google let Blogger languish for a time, but it has been improving the service lately.[2]


Currently my blogging software of choice. It has both hosted (free and paid) and self-serve options where you install the software on a computer that you or your Web hosting service own. WordPress has a large variety of “plug-ins” that let you extend and customize what you can post and how people can view and use it. [3]


A mostly paid hosting service from Movable Type, a company that has focused more and more on the business market.[4]

The main thing to understand about any of these blogging services is its convenience. You can create a blog in about five minutes, and later on you can make it pretty much as simple or elaborate as you want.

If you have a passion for something, blogging is a natural outlet. The best bloggers have several things in common:

  • They have a genuine, human voice. A blog is not a press release machine, or shouldn’t be.
  • They invite conversation. This trait isn’t universal: some extremely popular blogs don’t allow comments, for reasons that seem appropriate to the people who run those sites. But I strongly advise that you not just allow comments but encourage them.
  • They link out to other sources. They don’t just tell what the author knows or thinks, but points readers to useful material from others as well.

Should you write infrequent but long posts, or frequent but pithy ones, or something in between? My answer is—yes. Do whatever you feel is best, not what someone prescribes. (If you want to get lots of traffic, or visits from other people, then more frequent updates are generally a good idea.)

For years and years, the question has kept coming up: is blogging journalism? We may as well ask whether writing on paper is journalism. The answer, of course, is that most blogging is not journalism, but some blogging is. In short, blogs are tools to be used in any number of different ways. Let’s agree never to ask this question again, okay?

Sidebar: Terms of Service, Etc.

When you do pretty much anything online, you are confronted with a checkbox you must click in order to proceed. Almost everyone checks it, and almost no one reads the Terms of Service to which they’re agreeing.

My overarching goal in this chapter and book is to help you jump in and join the journalistic conversation, But you can’t ignore the legalities, especially if you’re planning to create media that may have a commercial aspect. Some people, including me, refuse to use certain popular sites because of restrictions they impose or how the sites might use the data posted there.

I strongly suggest that you do read the privacy policies and terms of service on the sites you use. I also hope that Internet services will liberalize their policies toward greater user privacy, freedom and re-use of what people post, such as promoting Creative Commons. It’s in the best interest of the sites’ owners, I believe, to protect privacy and promote openness; call me naïve, but I believe they’ll move more and more in those directions. I’ll talk in in several upcoming chapters about some of these issues.

Twitter (Microblogging)

The traditional media pick a Big New Thing in Technology all the time, and in 2009 it was Twitter.[5] This time, the traditional media got it right.

Twitter is a “microblogging” service that lets you post messages of up to 140 characters in length. That’s not as short as a typical newspaper headline, but it’s not long enough for more than a basic thought.

Yet the very limitation of Twitter—combined with absolutely brilliant positioning by the company—has turned it into what has aptly been termed the “nervous system of the Web.”  The flow of information on the service is diverse, of course, given the millions of users; but it’s also useful, not just entertaining.

Twitter users soon find that every event is first mentioned on the microblogs. They’re faster than the search engines, faster than mailing lists or forums, and frequently faster than well-known news sites (although they often spring from press releases and news flashes from more obscure news sites).

I use Twitter both as a creator and reader; it’s an essential part of my daily media. I use it as an alert system to get tips and early warnings, and to keep an eye on what people I respect think is important. I follow the “Tweets” (Twitter postings) of about 250 people and organizations. I’ve selected them carefully, looking for rich information from the relative few rather than a fire hose from the many. Most are involved in the media. I post frequently as well, and as of this writing have about 8,000 followers, a decent number but not remotely in the ballpark of the most avidly followed people or services.

The main reason Twitter has become so popular is that the people behind it—including Evan Williams, co-founder of Blogger (see a pattern?)—have made the service the center of an ecosystem. They’ve made it easy for other people to build applications and services on the tweets of the millions of Twitter users, in all kinds of ways. (I’m an investor in one of the companies, called Seesmic,[6] that is part of this ecosystem. The most popular Twitter client application is TweetDeck.[7])

If you have a blog, you can use Twitter to build the audience by pointing to postings you think are particularly interesting. I don’t recommend tweeting about every blog post, because your Twitter followers may well grow tired of this kind of self-promotion when they can just as easily get an RSS feed from your blog.

In general, the best newsworthy Tweets contain hyperlinks to something else. When someone I follow because I like her work suggests I look at something related to her expertise and makes it sound interesting in her brief description, I tend to click through and check it out. I can’t overstate the value of Twitter when used in this manner.

Because of the 140-character limitation, Twitter has spurred the use of URL-shortening services such as bit.ly and is.gd, which shorten the Web address you submit to a Twitter-appropriate length. The use of these services has raised a number of questions, including the permanence of the links and how search engines will handle valuable links that actually send you to something else, as well as security questions.

Social Networks: More than Facebook

The week before I wrote this chapter, Facebook announced it had reached an amazing milestone: 350 million signups worldwide. You may well be one of them. So am I, though I don’t use Facebook to the extent that my students do to stay in touch with what their friends are doing.

Like Twitter, Facebook cleverly created an ecosystem. It encouraged third parties to use the Facebook software platform to create other products and services within the Facebook service itself, everything from posting pictures to sharing travel plans to playing online games, and on and on. You can spend a lot of time inside Facebook and get a lot out of the experiences.

Should you “friend” everyone who asks? That is, should you agree to share information with other people more or less indiscriminately? Definitely not. Most people online, as in the physical world, are good. But enough are not that you should be at least somewhat cautious in how you approach social networks.

You need to take privacy issues extremely seriously. After Facebook made what I considered a dramatic change in its policies, I decided to quit and start over (see sidebar). And as I’ll discuss in Chapter 8, privacy is at the core of what I hope will be changing norms in an always-connected age.

The rise of Facebook has been meteoric, but it’s hardly the only social network. MySpace has a huge number of users, and while it no longer has its former cachet it remains highly popular, especially when used for its primary purpose: music discovery and promotion. I don’t visit it much, but researcher danah boyd has observed that MySpace still is one of the most widely used networks, second only to Facebook.

Meanwhile, the very notion of a one-size-fits-all social network has led to well deserved skepticism, and some excellent ways to escape. Ning.com lets you create your own social network, with many of the best features of the big networks available out of the box. We use Ning for our university classes, to keep students informed of events in class. The best part of Ning is that you can make the network entirely private among its members, invisible to the outside world. (As we’ll discuss later, it’s always best to assume that anything you create online for someone else—anyone else—to look at may someday escape out to the rest of the world.)

Even blogging platforms are becoming more like social networks. For example, the people behind WordPress have created BuddyPress, an add-on that brings social networking capabilities to the blogging system. The value of this is that you can create a more cohesive community around your blog.

Sidebar: Why I Quit Facebook (but Rejoined)

I use Facebook for several reasons. One is to keep track of what’s happening in the planet’s largest social network, including what application developers and users are doing there. Another is that some of my friends — actual friends — are using the site. Facebook helps me stay in touch.

But when Facebook made a dramatic change to its privacy structure at the end of 20090, I concluded I could no longer trust the service, even with the limited amount of things I’ve said and done there since I got an account several years ago. I continue to admire the company’s accomplishments in many other ways, but this was a major change.

Why did I no longer feel safe and sound in the hands at Facebook? Even though some of the changes they made in their privacy settings are actually helpful, notably the ability to set privacy options for individual posts, the overall bias was troubling. As an analysis by the Electronic Frontier Foundation concluded, the new settings were “clearly intended to push Facebook users to publicly share even more information than before. Even worse, the changes will actually reduce the amount of control that users have over some of their personal data.”[8]

Facebook’s extremely smart leaders know perfectly well that the majority of users are likely to accept these suggestions. Most people say yes to whatever the default settings are in any application, even though they should always be wary of the default precisely for reasons like this.

I wasn’t very happy with my Facebook situation in any case. Early on, I said yes to just about everyone who asked me to “friend” them, including people barely knew and some I didn’t know at all.

The privacy changes—and my continuing uncertainty, given the still- large number of pages you have to look at to modify your settings, a continuing confusion—made me realize I’d rather take fewer chances. So I’ve made a fairly drastic change.

I deleted my account. Then I started a new one.

Actually, I scheduled the old one for deletion, which is all Facebook allowed. The company figures, perhaps correctly, that some people will have made this decision rashly and wants to give them a way to reconsider. And it’s clearly in Facebook’s interest to avoid as many cancellations as possible for business reasons.

It wasn’t easy to figure out how to delete the account, which no doubt is part of the company’s strategy, too. If you go to your Settings page, the only option in this realm is to “deactivate,” not delete.

But a little searching on the site turns up this Facebook Group called “How to permanently delete your facebok account”[9] (more than 35,000 members) — which in turn reveals an actual delete-account form at still another Web address that Facebook doesn’t reveal in any prominent way, if at all.

After creating a new account, I checked the default privacy settings for new users. They’re pretty un-private, in my view, sharing way too much with people you don’t know. I systematically went through the various screens — Facebook makes this chore both annoying and obscure, perhaps on purpose — to ratchet down the settings to something I can live with.

We all know what is Facebook’s best interest: exposing to search engines and advertisers the largest possible number of pages by among the largest number of people willing to create stuff and make it all public. Marketers drool at what they can do at Facebook if the company will only let them, and Facebook’s entirely rational goal, like almost every other Internet company’s, is to make profits in almost any way it can. What’s in the corporate interest, however, doesn’t necessarily match what’s in my interest, or yours.

So I’m still at facebook.com/dangillmor—though my real Web homebase is dangillmor.com, as we’ll discuss in the next chapter—with just a few Facebook friends at the moment. I’ll be adding more, but not in any hasty way.

Audio: Podcasts and More

We are, in some ways, what we listen to. I love music, and I love the spoken word.

We’re in the early days of an audio revolution. Other digital media are also undergoing rapid change, but audio has a special nature of its own.

Whether you listen to the radio or podcasts or audio of other kinds, there is a special quality to listening. You are forced, in a good way, to use your imagination. When I listen to a news program on National Public Radio I am filling in gaps in my mind, visualizing the parts I’m not seeing.

Podcasting is the most important of the emerging audio methods, at least in the context of news and information. The easiest way to think of podcasts are as audio blogs: episodic, available over the Internet via syndication, and displaying the newest postings first. (I’d bet that most people find new podcasts through search and links from other sites, however.)

As with blogs, the variety of podcasts is enormous. The most popular podcasting delivery system, as with music, is Apple’s iTunes store[10], but you can find podcasts in many other ways as well. As with blogs, you can find services that will host your audio files on their computers, something I recommend for both audio and video. But you can also Web-host them yourself.

The software tools you need to create good podcasts come with every new desktop or laptop computer. Apple’s GarageBand software has podcast-specific features, for example. There’s also a huge amount of free or low-cost software available online[11] if you decide to get more sophisticated about your recordings.

To join the audio journalism movement, you should have a decent headset with a microphone for recording and playback at home or in the office. If you’re interviewing people in the field, you should consider buying a decent external microphone and audio recorder, although modern digital cameras usually let you record audio and video, and today’s smart phones can do what you need if you don’t mind not-so-great audio and picture quality.

Although an audio news show or segment—compiled material that someone edits before distribution—is considerably more complex to create than most blog posts, you don’t have to be an audio or news-radio pro to create a useful podcast. Sometimes a recording of a conversation is all you need; imagine talk radio, democratized. One of the most interesting podcast series around is called “Rebooting the News,” originated by blog pioneer Dave Winer and New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen (both friends of mine), who ruminate—often with guests, including me on one occasion—on the state of news. Their weekly series, far from getting stale, has only grown more interesting over time.[12]

Visual: Photos and Videos

Sooner than later, almost everyone will be walking around with a camera capable of both still photos and video—the one in our mobile phones. It’s already getting difficult to buy a phone that doesn’t at least take photos, and video recording capabilities are becoming more common, too. Meanwhile, digital still and video cameras continue to sell by the millions, and their capabilities improve on the steady pace you expect from modern digital technology.

What kind of equipment should you use? I tend to agree with Chase Jarvis, who says “the best camera is the one that’s with you”—and has written a book and iPhone app, and created an online community, to reinforce this point.[13] Without the camera, there’s no picture or video.

If you take lots of pictures, you may well want to share some or all of them with others, not just keep them on your own computer. If so, look at online services such as Flickr, a Yahoo operation that takes in some 750 photos every second.[14] If you’re going to be a heavy user of Flickr and other such services, you’ll need to consider signing up for a paid account that gives you more storage and upload capacity.

If it’s ten times harder to create an excellent audio report than a piece of text, it may be another ten times harder, or at least more time-consuming, to create an excellent video. Even here, the ease of production is rapidly improving, and younger people who grow up with video as part of their routine media toolkit are showing older folks (like me) new tricks.

A video doesn’t have to be elaborate or fancy, though. I tend to create videos for two main purposes: interviews and scene-setting. Neither is a full-blown production. Interviews are simple: Just set up a camera (and external microphone if you have one), and have at it. By scene-setting I mean using the video as a window into your subject. Suppose you’re interviewing a business person for a blog posting. You can shoot a quick video of his or her office, so your own audience can easily visualize the place you visited. This takes no special shooting or editing skills, but still has real value.

What should you do with the videos? Most people store them on someone else’s site, especially YouTube. There are good reasons to do this, notably the ease of uploading and the willingness of Google, which owns YouTube, to cover the considerable costs of making them available on the Internet. (Do keep a backup copy of everything you create.).  YouTube is so popular that as of the summer of 2009 people were uploading 20 hours of video ever minute.[15]

As with social networks and other tools, the most popular sites are not the only ones around. In fact, I still don’t necessarily recommend YouTube for videos, because YouTube, a Google service, hasn’t given users an easy way to make videos available under the Creative Commons copyright license I discussed in the introduction to this book. I do recommend Blip.TV for that purpose; the service specifically creates a default setting for Creative Commons licensing. (Flickr also has a Creative Commons option, one reason I recommend it.)

Mashups, APIs, Tagging and More

Stop reading for a second if you’re holding the printed edition of this book. Fire up your Web browser and look at the “Tunisian Prison Map” currently online at http://www.nawaat.org/tunisianprisonersmap. Click on any of the pointers in the map, and it will take you deeper into a repository of information about Tunisia’s human rights abuses. The map’s lead creator, Sami Ben Gharbia, pulled data from a variety of sources and used Google Maps to help illustrate what he found. It’s brilliant work, and in a good cause.

The Tunisian map is an example of a mashup—a combination of data and Web services that could not have existed before the Web 2.0 era. It relies on a technology called the Applications Programming Interface (API). APIs are used to make connections between different Web sites and services, by allowing one to interoperate with others.[16] The wall electric socket is, in effect, an API to devices that use electricity. As I noted in We the Media:

Software development relies on APIs. Operating systems have them so that independent software programmers can create applications, such as word processors, that use the underlying features of the system. They don’t have to reinvent the proverbial wheel each time they write software, and they help ensure a vibrant ecosystem on whatever programming platform they’re using.

You don’t have to know much technology to create your own mashup. Google Maps and its competitors let you put virtual pins on maps and then annotate them with your own information. Some news organizations have done just this; the Bakersfield Californian newspaper put up a map and asked readers to put in the location of potholes in the city streets. You could do the same in your own neighborhood (let your city government know, because they’re the ones who can fill the holes).

Mashups are fundamentally about data, but some of the best ones are also about visualizing the data. Numbers and dates and other such information don’t tell you much by themselves, but when you combine them with visual techniques they start to sing a tune we can all understand. One of my favorites in this genre is a video timeline of WalMart deployments across the continental U.S., with dots on a the map starting in a small city in Arkansas and ultimately spreading across the nation in a view that is unpleasantly reminiscent of an epidemic.[17]

The Web is loaded with excellent resources for creating mashups. We have a list on the Mediactive site, but I recommend starting at a site called, logically, Programmable Web,[18] which offers a great “how to” on creating your own mashup. It starts, “Pick a subject”—and goes into detail from there.

Content Management Systems

What if your Blogger.com or WordPress.com blog isn’t enough? What if you want to create a more sophisticated information site or service, offering community features and a variety of bells and whistles not available in typical blog software?

You may have just crossed over into the CMS zone.

CMS stands for content management system, and describes a variety of software and Web services that do what the name suggests: management of various kinds of content. There’s a CMS behind every major news site.

Content management systems typically combine two major components. The first is a database, usually a free (open source) package called MySQL. That’s where everything you create—postings, comments, pictures, etc.—resides. The CMS itself is software that a) helps you create the material that goes into the database; b) pulls data out of that database, and then creates Web pages for display on computer screens, phones and other devices; and c) helps you manage your website.

Actually, even hosted blogging software is a form of CMS, too. It just manages the content in a few specific ways, giving you less flexibility in return for greater ease of use (and ease of management for the company hosting the blogs).

Setting up your own CMS is not trivial. Unless you are technically adept, you should find a Web hosting company that will help you create your CMS, or hire someone, or both. Trust me on this.

You can choose among literally hundreds of CMS packages. Check the Mediactive website for sites that help you find and use a system that will fit your needs. Two systems of note are:


Probably the best known open-source (free to download, use and modify), multi-purpose CMS (Joomla!, another CMS of this genre, has a large and passionate following as well; in fact, it’s more popular than Drupal in some places.). It’s a highly modular system: you can plug in all kinds of add-ons to tweak and customize your site. Drupal has a large community of users and developers, a big plus if you’re going to be making significant changes to the core features (you almost certainly will). But Drupal can also be an extremely frustrating system, partly due to that very flexibility. My own relationship with Drupal is very much in the love-hate category. You’ll find Drupal at http://drupal.org.


We discussed Wikipedia in an earlier chapter. Did you know that the software used to run the site is freely available? It is, and it’s getting more powerful all the time. http://mediawiki.org, which hosts the software of the same name, is itself a Wiki, of course, and it offers downloads and thorough instructions on how to use it. Just because it’s a Wiki doesn’t mean you have to let anyone edit any page. You can allow only certain people to make changes.

Mobile, the Emerging Frontier

As I edit this chapter, Google has just announced its new “Nexus One” mobile device, combining phone, camera, Web, multimedia and lots more. (The company’s PR people are calling it a “super phone,” an exaggeration that should embarrass whoever thought it up.) Later this month, if all goes according to rumor, Apple will launch a tablet device that surely will include mobility in its core competency.

The explosion of highly sophisticated mobile devices is in a relative infancy, at least in the U.S. due to misguided telecommunications policies that have turned America into a second-rate mobile power compared with parts of Europe and Asia. But it’s reasonable to assume we’ll catch up.

Even now, the mobile revolution has changed pretty much everything we knew about our relationship to technology. The latest mobile devices have these characteristics:

  • They’re always connected (in theory, at any rate). You can communicate wherever you are, in a variety of ways including text, audio, photo, video and more.
  • They know where they are. Modern devices have built-in GPS, or global positioning within a few meters. Some also have compasses, so they know what direction their camera is facing. If you’re like me, the single most valuable mobile application I use is Google Maps.
  • They are creating not just the data you designate, but a host of other information that (if you choose) is always attached to what you create. This means, for example, that if you take a picture and send it to, say, Flickr, the photo-sharing service automatically checks to see if there’s location information and, if so, puts the picture into a map.

Software developers are off to the races to come up with novel ways to use the capabilities of these devices. One of the most intriguing uses is what’s called “augmented reality,” in which you use the phone’s camera to look at your surroundings, and then have those surroundings annotated with whatever other people have posted online about the area—everything from the location (plus patron reviews) of your local steakhouse to the location of the nearest cardiologist, with turn-by-turn directions to both.

So far, smart phones have been most valuable as devices we use to get information. One of my favorite tests is to scan the bar code of an item in a store and then check, using the device’s various capabilities, where else it’s for sale in the neighborhood or online, and at what price.

You can easily imagine the journalism potential. For example, it would be trivial to map graffitti (or potholes or just about anything else) in your city, annotated with pictures. My students created a map and photo gallery of local art galleries during a Phoenix “First Friday Art Walk,” a monthly event when people from all over the metropolitan area converge on the downtown visual arts scene.

The latest and perhaps most intriguing use of the new mobile devices is combining location awareness with social networking. Not only have Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, MySpace and other social systems moved swiftly to these platforms, but a host of new services is emerging as well. Some, such as Foursquare and Gowalla, invite users to announce their location and then see what’s happening in the neighborhood, and who else is there.

By the time this appears in print, of course, we’ll have heard about dozens or scores of new mobile devices and applications, each promising (and possibly delivering) more than what came before. We’ll keep an eye on them on the Mediactive website, in the context of media creation.

As with social networking on PCs, and with all of the content you create, there are privacy issues attached to mobility—some that are much more troubling than anything we’ve encountered in the past. I’ll discuss this more in Chapter 8.


One of the most important roles you’ll have in the new-media environment is creating and managing community. What you do in a socially mediated world is at least as much about community as what you produce on your own. The conversations you foster online, with more than one constituency of users, will help people understand what you’re doing, and will help you keep them involved.

Newspapers and broadcasters have failed miserably at creating community until very recently. They’ve barely even grasped the basics, in part because their traditional one-to-many model fostered institutional arrogance. Luckily, we can learn from people who jumped in early.

Robert Niles, who’s created a number of online services including the award-winning ThemeParkInsider.com, says tomorrow’s journalists will need to be community organizers — and you’ll need to understand that the people who pay the bills, not just the audience, comprise one of the communities you’ll need to organize and serve. This is true for the one-person effort or a larger one.

“Know what you’re doing online,” he says. “Embrace community organizing; create value for a community… and only you will find a community that will value you.

Morever, Niles says, the role of a community organizer doesn’t just imply taking stands. It almost demands that kind of effort, never losing sight of journalistic principles:

Embrace advocacy, but let it guided by smart reporting and thoughtful community engagement. That will be what distinguishes your site, and your community, from the many competing blogs and websites run by people who aren’t as capable as reporters, or as effective in community organizing. [1]

You’ll find lost of resources online about community creation. We’ll list a bunch of them online, but in the end you’ll need to recognize that the key is you: If you don’t take this seriously, you won’t be able to make it work.

Trolls and Breakage

One essential part of community management is preventing the kind of damage that bad folks can cause, and fixing it when they inevitably do. This is about more than keeping your software up to date with security “patches” and other preventive maintenance. It’s about the conversation, too.

If you’ve participated in online conversations in any more-than-casual way, you probably know how quickly they can turn wrong. Scary, ugly wrong.

There’s something about speaking anonymously that inspires people to misbehave. They’ll say things to each other that they wouldn’t dream of saying in person, partly because they’re not within physical reach.

In Chapter 10 I’ll propose a community user-management system that (as far as I know) doesn’t yet exist. It would discriminate—I use that word deliberately—among various kinds of members, giving the most credence to people who used verified real names and who had been rated highly by other credible members of the community. That doesn’t mean you’re helpless today in the face of the trolls.

Well-meaning people (including me) have suggested honor codes, blogger comment guidelines, and all sorts of other fixes. I’m skeptical of anything that we might try to impose on anyone, but I do believe we, as community hosts, have every right and even a duty to impose rules inside our own sites. Simply put, I don’t invite people into my home and then tolerate them spitting on the living room rug. You shouldn’t, either. And you should enforce the rules you set.

When I ran a community site in 2005 I consulted several friends about rules of the road for folks who wanted to join the community. They included Lisa Stone and her team at BlogHer.com,[19] who have created a thoughtful set of guidelines; I recommend you start there when coming up with your own. My own site’s guidelines borrowed from BlogHer and several other sites. The rules included:

In short, we aim here for civility and mutual respect. Beyond that, we encourage robust discussions and debate.

Members may be blocked from the site for vandalism, making personal attacks on other members, publishing others’ copyrighted material or for violating the guidelines and comments policy.

Offensive, inflammatory or otherwise inappropriate screen names are not permitted, and the use of these will be prevented through blocking of accounts. Members blocked for having an inappropriate name will be permitted to rejoin under a new name.

We also recognized that the rules weren’t the final word, and moreover that we couldn’t possible watch everything. So we added:

Remember, we need your help.

This is a community. If you see material that violates our site rules and guidelines, please contact us.

Please also make suggestions, on our forums or via e-mail, on how we might improve these terms and guidelines.

Comment moderation systems are becoming more sophisticated. And the best community sites police themselves to some degree: The users spot the bad stuff and help the site managers get rid of it. But even the best-run sites have problems dealing with the truly malevolent people. The Web still has its trolls and others who wreck things for sport. This is an arms race that won’t end anytime soon, but if the community is on your—and its own—side you can keep up.

It’s More than Technology

The most important element in your media creation is not the technology. The tools get cheaper and easier to use all the time. There’s scarcely any financial barrier to entry.

What matters is you. If you have the skills, or are willing to learn them, you can stand out from the avalanche of information that pours over us ever day. If you have the energy to pursue your media creation, you’ll get more done than someone who doesn’t care as much.

Most of all, if you have the integrity to do things right—to follow the principles that add up to honorable journalism—you can be a creator who makes a difference, whether it’s in your neighborhood or, perhaps, on a global scale.

[1] http://groups.google.com/ and http://groups.yahoo.com/

[2] [2] http://www.blogger.com/

[3] http://wordpress.com

[4] http://typepad.com

[5] http://twitter.com

[6] http://seesmic.com

[7] http://tweetdeck.com

[8] http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2009/12/facebooks-new-privacy-changes-good-bad-and-ugly

[9] http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=16929680703

[10] PodcastAlley.com is another good podcast portal, at

[11] Audacity, an excellent free audio editor for users of Windows, Mac and Linux computers, can be found at http://audacity.sourceforge.net/

[12] http://rebootnews.com

[13] http://www.thebestcamera.com/

[14] http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2009-09-22-facebook-photo-sharing-tagging_N.htm

[15] http://youtube-global.blogspot.com/2009/05/zoinks-20-hours-of-video-uploaded-every_20.html

[16] Programmable Web maintains a robust API directory at http://www.programmableweb.com/apis

[17] http://projects.flowingdata.com/walmart/

[18] http://www.programmableweb.com/howto

[19] http://blogher.org/community-guidelines

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