Social media IS engaging in the political process

I have a voice. You have a voice. Everyone using the Internet to connect with people all over the world has a voice.

We deserve to be heard.

Social media is amplifying that voice, letting us reach people and institutions like never before. Smart companies and individuals have leveraged social media to connect with more people than ever before.

But this week I had a local politician tell me my voice didn’t matter. I didn’t show up for a public hearing, and thus what I have to say — while publicly — isn’t the same. But he wasn’t just talking to me. No, he was saying that anyone who engages him on his official Twitter and Facebook accounts isn’t really engaging in the political process.

I have to ask, why would you even be on social media then? The idea being social media is to engage people.

So, what was this hearing about and why wasn’t I there? For several years now, a small but vocal minority has been trying to get a pedestrian bridge built from a parking garage to a new library under construction in downtown Silver Spring. All pedetrian bridges were expressly forbidden by CBD Urban Renewal Plan and the proposal has been voted down before. But this vocal minority won’t rest, and thus we have more hearings.

The reason I — and almost everyone else who lives in Silver Spring — wasn’t at the meeting was that the meeting was in Rockville, Maryland, at least a 30 minute drive from the proposed spot of this bridge. Why would that be? Well, to officially engage in the official process one must travel to the official place of politics, which is Rockville, the county seat of Montgomery County, Maryland.

I don’t own a car, and many people who live in the area don’t either. Silver Spring has great public transportation and is increasingly becoming more walkable (that public transportation is much better to get between Silver Spring and DC, Arlington and Alexandria. Getting to Rockville isn’t quite as easy). This is one reason why so many people in the area are against a bridge that’s designed to serve car drivers from outside of the area at the expense of local residents.

You might understand then why I was a little bit upset when one of my local politicians wrote this:

“I agree that social media has its benefits but I don’t think it substitutes for actually engaging in the process.”

How is reaching out to an elected representative to personally — and publicly — engage in a dialogue about issues not engaging in the process? Why does showing up for “official hearings” the only way to engage in the process?

This is archaic and a great way to keep people disinterested in politics. Local politicians count on low turnout at “official” events to justify decisions. “If you were so against this bridge being built in your town, how come you didn’t show up to this other town while you were working to voice your opposition to it?” As polarscribe said on Twitter, “brilliant, nobody under 50 matters.”

It is true that the way politics are conducted — especially at the local level — the process is largely aimed at older constituents. There are formal hearings held at times that younger people are often working or trying to raise their families. The idea that social media isn’t a way to engage in the political process will only further keep younger voters disinterested in politics.

But social media is popular with older cohorts too. The Internet is popular with everyone. The only thing I see old about this is how many politicians act like it’s the 1980s still.

The Internet is a transformative technology. It’s one of the biggest inventions in human history. It has the power to make the political process more transparent, open and inviting.

Let it. Embrace the Internet. Embrace social media.

Social media can help liberate the Arab world, but it can’t help me reach my local politicians? Social media can’t help me explain to my politicians why I would be against a $1.5 million bridge to serve car drivers over those of us who live in the area, while the county has had to make huge cuts to close a $779 million budget gap? That’s ridiculous.

Before Silver Spring was redeveloped and given a walkable core, it was economically depressed. The urban renewal plan forbade pedestrian bridges (also know as skywalks) because they are precisely the kind of thing that leads to an urban area becoming blighted. These bridges are built to get people off the streets, which allows cars to move faster. These areas become opening hostile to people on foot and to ground-level business activity.

My hometown of Cleveland, Ohio has them and many depressed rust belt cities do too. These cities are hemoraging residents left and right because they are little more than places for suburban commuters to work in and watch sporting events in. To the immediate residents of downtown Silver Spring, building pedestrian bridges to serve commuters from elsewhere in the county is a great way to throw Silver Spring back into the economic depression it emerged from.

Bridge proponents are pushing for the bridge under the guise of accessibility for the disabled. The argument goes that disabled people that drive to the library can’t be expected to use crosswalks on the ground level, and thus we should build a pedestrian bridge to make it easier to cross. One person even suggested that this bridge needs to be built because this library houses materials for the visually impaired.

Obviously, this is a ruse, because no one wants to admit that they support this bridge because they don’t want to step foot on the sidewalks of Silver Spring. Yes, some disabled people do drive. I would submit that the visually impaired do not.

I have several disabled people in my condo building, and downtown Silver Spring has a lot of disabled people because it’s not car-dependent. There are ample sidewalks, ramps and curb cuts. Many of these people do not drive, but they are able to live full lives because they live in an area that makes it easy to get around without a car.

To recap: A local politician said that the only way to engage in the official political process about a bridge for the disabled in the city I live in was to somehow travel to another city to discuss it. And not being unable to make the meeting and instead sending him messages via social media does not count as engaging in the political process.

How accessible.

To every Montgomery County politician reading this blog, I am against the pedestrian bridge to the new Silver Spring library. The people who live in the immediate area largely agree. I’m going to send you tweets, Facebook messages, e-mails, phone calls.

This blog post is written in ink far more permanent than any faxed or mailed letter ever could be. It’s public and people have the power to share it and comment on it. If I wasn’t serious about this issue, I wouldn’t have written something so public, so permanent.

I may never make it to a hearing in Rockville, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a voice. Or a vote.

We have a voice

We will be heard.

My best advice for social media

Be yourself. Be passionate.

Social media is nothing like the tightly controlled, sterile communication messages of the past. Want to get good at social media? Be passionate about something and let that passion show through.

It’s really that simple.

Journalism needs a down and dirty revolution

A lot of businesses could benefit from the I like to call the down and dirty principles.

Down and dirty says you should never make something that your users don’t care about. Down and dirty means focusing on return on investment. It means admitting that we don’t have unlimited time, money or staff resources.

Once we realize that we have limited resources, we’ll focus on maximizing our resources to produce the best overall product. The core of down and dirty is incredibly simple: How can we maximize time, money and staff resources? Instead of saying, “If we only had more of X,” you’ll be saying, “this is how we can make the most with Y.”

And, perhaps most importantly, down and dirty abhors the idea of, “that’s how we’ve always done things.” Listen, if you don’t know why you’re doing something, you’re probably doing it wrong.

I ran BeatBlogging.Org on the down and dirty principles. We never made subjective changes to posts for the sake of making changes. Every edit we made had a clear purpose.

We also weren’t afraid of making changes or corrections to posts. Especially on the Web, the idea of finality doesn’t exist. We can publish content as the story unfolds. That’s really liberating.

We didn’t put monster production values into our podcasts (they are still better than most journalism podcasts, however). Rather, we focused on providing great content and we realized we couldn’t do it all. We knew that we weren’t going to be able to match broadcast level production values, but we also realized our users didn’t care.

Down and dirty means less overhead, less meetings and more of listening to users. If there was ever an industry that needed down and dirty, it is journalism today. Resources are being drastically cut, and the old bloated way of doing things doesn’t work anymore.

Here are some of the core principles of down and dirty:

  • Focus on ROI — With limited resources it’s all about getting the most out of what we have.
  • Balance quality with quantity — After you admit to yourself how much resources you have, you need to realistically figure out how much of something you can produce. From there, the quality will follow. You can’t put quality before quantity in a world of limited resources. If you don’t produce enough content on the Web, for instance, you’ll drastically hurt your ability to get page views, find users and build an audience. The next principle will help guide you further.
  • Good enough is usually good enough — With limited time and resources, our goal should be to produce a product that the vast majority of people consider to be quality. You can’t please everyone. It will never happen. If you try to, you’ll please no one.
  • Perfection is an enemy, not a friend — The problem with perfection is it’s an inherently nebulous concept that leads to subjective changes and wasted time. Journalism is inherently an imperfect business. We can make changes down the road. Perfection suggests finality. There isn’t a lot of finality in the world, so why should we strive to create it? The pursuit of perfection is more of a mental disorder than a sound management principle.
  • More content creators than managers — Journalism is all about content and products, not about managers, editors and meetings. A certain amount of managers and editors are needed, but most news organizations are very top heavy. You want to be bottom heavy. That’s called being down and dirty.
  • Beta is the new gold master — There is nothing wrong with creating a beta product. Even so-called shipping products have mistakes. Gold master software always has bugs. Cars always have defects. If mistakes happen anyway, why not embrace them? Why not say, we’ll put out what we can now, solicit feedback from users and then create a better product? In fact, there is rarely a greater sin than trying to create the perfect product without user input. You’ll usually find better results with creating a limited product, and then getting users involved to help improve the product. Same thing with reporting a story. Don’t wait for the perfect story. Get out there and report. Connect with users. Collaborate.
  • Don’t duplicate work — If someone else is already doing something, do not also do it. Link, embed or excerpt their content. If parents are taking pictures at a high school football game, for instance, it’s makes much more sense to work out a deal with them than to spend staff resources on taking pictures at said game. If another news organization already covered a story, link to it. If you have something new to add, add it to a post excerpting the other news organization, but under no circumstances should you ever re-report. Re-reporting is something newspapers did in the 1980s. Don’t be a fool.
  • Embrace open source — If someone else has already created a great piece of software, use that instead. Proprietary software is usually a money pit that quickly becomes outdated. Unless a proprietary CMS, for instance, is substantially better than Drupal, WordPress or Joomla, don’t invest in it. You’re wasting time and money for an inferior product (open source CMSs like Drupal are rapidly improving too). Open source also applies to processes and ways of conducting newsroom business. Learn from the best. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
  • Creative commons and social networks are your friends — There is a lot of good content available under Creative Commons licenses. There is also a lot of good content available on social networks like Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, etc. Utilize it.
  • Understand your audience – Every news organization has a slightly different audience. Different audiences prefer different content and different ways of covering content. Some audiences like long-form content, while others like serial blog posts and bullet point lists. You better understand which audience you have, because if you don’t, you’re wasting your time and your users time. Maybe your users would like podcasts. If they would, give them podcasts. If, on the other hand, your podcasts are flops, move on to something else.
  • Don’t follow the herd — News organizations constantly do this. Editors and publishers hear some buzzword (podcasts and Twitter) and they jump on it. Listen, everything you do should have a purpose. Maybe creating podcasts makes a lot of sense (this was a huge buzzword in journalism five years ago). For a lot of news organizations, podcasts were a huge mistake. Why? Most news organizations created radio-like crap, instead of trying to create a Web-friendly product like Buzz Out Loud. It ended up being a massive waste of time and money. If you’re going to create something, understand why you’re going to create it.
  • Let your users help — I’m a big gan of big photo galleries, but many journalists seem to think they’ll take forever to make. I mean, imagine writing 100 captions! Yeah, about that. Most people aren’t interested in reading 100 captions for one event. So don’t do it. Write one overview, and then allow users to tag and create their own captions for each photo. It will provide a better user experience and will save a lot of time. Note: I’m talking about big photo galleries, not short photo essays that rely on detailed captions. But the principle still stands.
  • Never turn down free labor — If users want to help, let them help. Maybe they’ll tag photos for you (this is how Facebook works). If people are taking photos and videos of events and uploading them to Flickr and YouTube, use them.
  • You can’t do it all — The day you realize this and go about your work realizing this, is the day you finally get what down and dirty is all about.
  • Light IT – Heavy IT usually equals big headaches and inferior productivity. IT should always help you do your job better, but Heavy IT leads to the IT department fighting people over changes. Instead, use Light IT and Web apps. I’d much rather go with Light IT and Google Apps, Zoho, wikis, Web-based e-mail, BaseCamp, WordPress, etc than rely on Heavy IT. How do you tell if you have Heavy or Light IT? Simple. Is your IT department about helping you figure out what’s possible or about telling you what’s not possible? Oh, and, Heavy IT is really expensive. If IT isn’t making you money, what is it doing exactly?
  • Throw crap at the wall — While everything should have a purpose, experimentation is needed. But there is a difference between good and bad experimentation. First, any experiment should be based on some research and logical thought process. “We should do X because it’s a better way to convey Y to readers.” But the other key to experimentation is to not be afraid to pull the plug. Experiment fast. Experiment cheap. Always experiment to make a better product.

In future posts we’ll look at examples of down and dirty work in journalism, as well of examples of the opposite.

Bringing engagement to an old, one-way medium

This is a cross post from BeatBlogging.Org. I thought the post may be more relevant here:

I want to share with you a project I’ve been working on, and why I think it illustrates how engagement and interaction are coming to all old medium platforms.

Since earlier this year I have been helping best-selling thriller author Joseph Finder with his social media strategy for his new book Vanished and the book’s main character, Nick HellerHeller is on Twitter and Facebook (Facebook is an experiment that we just launched this week, while we have been using Twitter for months). But he’s not just tweeting lines from the book or providing a Twitter novelization, but rather Heller’s Twitter account is a complimentary experience to the book that is centered around engagement.

I believe that within a generation it will be expected that characters like Heller will interact with users. The days of one-way experiences are coming to an end. Think of the generation after mine that has grown up with both the Internet and social networks. Do you really think they content with the same products that my grand parents loved? Doubtful.

We really wanted to create an experience for people:

  • We interact on social media — If you tweet something worthwhile at Heller, he’ll tweet back at you, in character. Want to know some back story about him? Just ask. Want to ask questions about the case he is working on right now? Just ask. Heller responds to DMs and @replies. He also retweets interesting tweets. There was no point in putting Heller on Twitter if we were going to treat Twitter like it was a book.
  • Blurring the lines between reality and fiction — We wanted to create a social media experience that made people believe that Heller was a real person, even if they already knew he was a character (and that the stories of corruption that he discusses could be real). First, Heller is always in character, but he acts like a character in the real world, not a character in a distant novel. Heller might be tweeting about a current investigation that he is working on about an AIG-style firm that involves some misplaced funds and possible corruption. Heller will then tweet links to real news stories about companies that did the same thing. Or if Heller is talking about looking over CCTV footage to find out what happened to someone, he’ll then tweet about how many CCTVs there are in DC, American, the world, etc.
  • Additional content – Heller has additional fictional narratives that aren’t in the book that he tweets and talks about. We decided early on that we had to offer additional fictional content on Twitter. We always try to tie these side narratives to either current events or events in the past. This way we can link to news stories and provide facts and figures that help us blur the lines between reality and fiction.
  • Creating a great experience even if you’re not a fan — You don’t have to be a fan of Joseph Finder, Nick Heller or Vanished to get value out of Heller’s Twitter feed (or know of any of those). We link to and discuss interesting stories involving politics, political corruption, espionage, corporate espionage, information technology and general stupidity. If you just want awesome links and witty takes on the news and world, Heller is an account worth following.
  • Photos, why not? – We have a treasure trove of research photos for this book that we’ll be incorporating into the Twitter feed. Vanished takes place mostly in DC and the surrounding suburbs. All the events in the book either take place at real DC locations or are modeled after real locations. In addition, we’ve used smartphone pics and TwitPic for side narratives too. It’s all about creating an immersive experience.
  • It’s an experiment – We would be the first to admit that sticking a fictional character on Twitter is an experiment, and it may not be a success (although it is low risk). The book isn’t out yet, so it’s hard to determine the success (Nick Heller will be appearing in a four book series over the next four years). Our goal is to provide a complimentary product that serves fans of the book, while also keeping interest up in between books.
  • Social media is here to stay — I don’t know if Twitter and Facebook or any of the other current social networks will be around in 10 years, but I do know that the idea that media should be social is here to stay. People like interactivity and smart journalists, musicians, movie stars, book authors, characters in books and movies, etc will grok that.
  • If Heller can do it, so can journalists — Journalism and social media go together so well. If people on Twitter are enjoying Heller on Twitter, I certainly think people will enjoy journalists on Twitter. Our research at BeatBlogging.Org indicates that journalists can get a lot of value out of social media. The best advice is to go where your audience is, and people are flocking to social media.

Here are some sample tweets of Nick’s that show the range of what he tweets about:

A response to a question about Heller’s life:

I’m a private spy, @Battleborne. No kids or wife. Not sure if I’ll ever settle down. Too busy with work, investigating firms, politicians…

Book based

Got a phone call from my Nephew Gabe. My brother is missing. His wife is in the hospital with a concussion.

Political corruption

Non-shocker of the day: Louisiana ex-congressman William Jefferson convicted of bribery in freezer cash case:

Helping out servicemembers (Heller is ex-military, so he’ll tweet military-related tweets and links for people)

Crafty? @OpGratitude needs #handmade scarves for holiday care packages–sent with LOVE to deployed #military#knit#crochet #fleece #SOT

ATM news (Heller requently tweets about the lack of safety at ATMs)

Apparenty arming an ATM with pepper spray is a really bad idea:

The WTF?

High Fructose Corn Syrup, just like sugar, with an extra bit of Mercury thrown in for extra goodness:

I encourage you to follow Nick Heller on Twitter (@NickHeller) and give me feedback. I’d love to hear what you think.

CICM offering internship to Web savvy students


Are you a student who is Web savvy?

Are you looking for an internship that will help your future career in the changing world of journalism?

If so, check out Innovation in College Media’s internship opportunity.

The Internship has several advantages over traditional media internships. First, it’s sorta paid ($500 stipend), unlike many internships. Better yet, you can telecommute to it, which will you save you time and money (telecommuting is one of the most awesome things ever). Most importantly, however, you’ll have the opportunities to produce new media journalism:

The possibilities for editorial production are limited only by your imagination and energy. Some of the possibilities:

  • Podcast interviews with media movers and shakers.
  • Reviews of college media online initiatives.
  • Maps and databases of college media online sites.
  • Live video streams of conferences and/or interviews.
  • Round-ups of relevant new media writing.
  • And more.

Now, you do need to have social and new media skills. If you’re a student and you don’t, what are you doing? Trying not to be employable?

All you need to do to apply is to either send a copy of your resume and a 250 word essay on what your plans for the site would be to Better yet, you can do this on you blog.

You do have a blog, don’t you?

This is a fantastic opportunity to work on a real resume builder. You’ll also have a tremendous amount of flexibility in what you produce.