Tuesday, July 31, 2007

New on Yoosk: create your own issue panel and start your own in-depth interview feature

As a Yoosk user you can now submit a proposal for a feature on an issue you care deeply about and see it through from conception to completion- an article based on a series of interviews with public figures, answering Yoosk users’ questions on that issue.

We are adding this feature because we are finding that users often want to ask a collection of people questions about the same issue (a minister and the opposition shadow minister, for example, or the US Presidential or London Mayoral candidates).

If there is an issue you care about or find especially interesting and would like to see what key figures have to say on the matter, then here’s how it works:

Step 1
Think of a title or headline for the issue: his could be one of the following:

-a simple title, like ‘The 2008 Elections for the Mayor of London’
-a broad question, such as ‘Are our teenagers getting more violent?’
-a specific issue relating to a particular time or place, like ‘The Floods in England: were the authorities prepared?’
-a campaign-orientated title: ‘Let’s stop subsidies for EU farmers and ensure fair trade for African producers’

Step 2
Do some research on who the influential and outspoken people on the subject are. Choose up to eight of them for your panel, although four is an optimum number. Try to get a good mix of positions and views.

Step 3
Write a short introductory piece explaining the issue (be as impartial as possible) and a short biography of the people on your panel. Put any hyperlinks in that you think will be helpful to Yoosk readers. We will edit this as necessary, but very possibly many of you will write better than us! Anyway, this is just to reassure that if you don’t have time to worry about style or syntax, then send it to us anyway and we’ll do the rest. The bare bones will do.

Step 4
Send the text to us. For the next few weeks, please use the form on the contact us page. After two weeks, we will have a special form for submitting your proposal for a Yoosk feature.

Step 5
Go to the ask a question facility on Yoosk and start with an opening question to each of the panel members whose details you have sent us. You will probably need to add a few of the public figures who don’t yet exist on our public figures page- please do this if you can, as it will help speed things up for us our end.

Step 6
Wait a day and we’ll contact you to tell you that it has been posted in the upcoming features on Yoosk or to ask for more information.

Step 7
We will contact the people on your panel and ask them if they are willing to be interviewed. Some will, some won’t, but we’ll make sure the questions go to them anyway.

Step 8
We will promote your feature on Yoosk and ask members to submit questions by a certain deadline then we’ll send the questions on to the public figures concerned.

Step 9
When we get answers, we’ll write them up into an article and post it on Yoosk, giving you credit for your part in the article.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Upcoming Interview Features on Yoosk

Look out for these- they will be up at the same time as the new skin design-early next week.

We will be offering Yooks users the chance to interview leading public figures associated with:
  • the problematic London Olympic Preparations (including Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone)
  • the issue of the integration of Muslims into British Society (with high profile members of the Muslim community)
  • controversies surrounding Money in Sport, with senior officials and leading sports people
  • the Erosion of Individual Rights, with some of the UK's leading human rights campiagners

Yooks users will be able to pose questions and vote on other people's questions and we'll be putting the answers up on the site a few weeks later. Guaranteed answers to questions that could well be yours.

YouTube debates: the first user-powered fight?

...ok, not such a good pun / analogy- CNN and Google might just be a tad better funded than the Wright Brothers were for the first powered flight. But by the end of the century we might well look back on the recent debate and see the parallels- how a small hop actually turned out to transform the way politics, the media and the public interact forever.

I’m going to attempt, as objectively as possible, to analyse the YouTube/CNN Democratic Primary debate and to draw some conclusions as to how the processes and format for future political debates could be improved.

There has been plenty written or broadcast by both sides in the last few days (see techPresidents excellent video and Josh Levy's post mortem on the same site). Following the debate, battle-lines between old and new media have been well and truly drawn, with one example being the exchange between Jeff Jarvis, Guardian columnist and new media guru writing on PrezVid and Kevin Marsh of the College of Journalism, writing on the BBC editor’s blog.

The briefest of glances at my own site will show that I tend towards Jeff’s side when it comes to the principles of citizen participation in journalism and news (although I wouldn’t describe myself as an ‘uber-zealot’ and I suspect, neither would Jeff so describe himself). However, in practical terms, I think the YouTube experiment throws up a lot of difficult questions and my first reaction is to agree with Kevin’s closing comment, ‘maybe there is a way of fusing ‘big’ and ‘citizen’, ‘old’ and ‘new’ but this wasn’t it’. Or not quite…

First of all, the pros- and these have been cited so widely that you’ll forgive me for not quoting individuals.

1. Range- the debate threw up a wide range of questions from a reasonably wide demographic, although as I’ll say more about later, there was a heavy tendency towards certain groups. Certainly, it’s likely that CNN journalists would not have come up with such a range of themes.

2. Freshness and interest- there can be no argument that most questions had a freshness about them that is missing from many traditional journalist-led debates.

3. Challenge and authenticity-the fact that many of the questions came from people who were clearly suffering as a result of policy decisions (cancer patients, bereaved relatives) made them all the more challenging for the candidates, who found it difficult to strip away the real life emotion behind the issues. That said, there are some problems connected with such emotion...

4. Free and open participation in the democratic process-or at least an improvement in that direction.

5. The promise of change- Marsh writes that one of the strengths of the traditional journalist-led debate is to ‘field ego and against ego, personality against personality... not the most attractive aspect of big media but its most necessary given the politics we have’. Surely Kevin, the point of the new media revolution is to try to change the nature of political discourse?

Now the cons, which as usual, are often the flip side of the pros:

1. First up among bloggers was YouTube’s continued reliance on old media staples, such as the mediator/anchor and an editorial team to choose the questions. Jarvis reports his friend Michael Rosenblum wants CNN's anchor, Anderson Cooper to ‘get out of the way’ and David Borham and his editors making the picks to ‘go home’.

Mary Anne Ostrom, writes in the San Jose Mercury News that ‘the debate is being heralded for turning a new page in presidential politics, beginning to transform staid debates into an endeavour taken in the spirit of YouTube- technology driven, a little offbeat and with voters at the controls’. But this signals two problems, which she touches on later in her piece:

2. The technology driven format actually excludes those on the wrong side of the digital and technological divide: not everyone has a camera, broadband or cable.

3. On YouTube, the more offbeat a video, the more hits it tends to get-so if we were to follow many bloggers’ suggestions (and my own preference) that future questions are chosen by YouTube users, the more offbeat presentations may rise to the top. This is hardly representative.

The idea of true crowd-sourcing of questions, with users voting on which questions should get asked, leads me to a practical reservation which I have mentioned in other posts.

4. How could users browse 3000 plus videos and vote on them? It would take hours to get through all of them (25, to be exact). Considering this was the first exercise of its kind, we are likely to see 10,000 plus entries in the next debate. Is video really the most efficient and practical way to pose the questions and have people vote on them in the first instance? And would the votes then be representative? Only the most avid internet users or those with a disproportionate amount of leisure time would have time to properly sift even a fraction of the 30 second questions. David Colarusso responded admirably quickly by allowing users of his site
www.communitycounts.us to vote on the videos, but I found browsing the questions very time consuming.

5. Another problem with video is that as a visual medium, inevitably people will focus on presentation: in both their conception, execution and the subsequent voting there is a real risk that style, creativity and polish may triumph over content.

6. To be measured against the advantages of freshness, authenticity and challenge, is the risk that the emotion and sympathy that naturally arises when we view questions asked by cancer patients and bereaved relatives may skew the voting. In any future YouTube debate where users decide by voting, we might see a disproportionate number of questions that tug at the heart strings, rather than achieve balance.

So what is the way forward?

If YouTube are brave enough to go down the genuine crowd-sourcing route and allow users to vote, which I think they should, then they will surely need to make some adjustments to the site and perhaps retain filters within the whole process and even introduce some more.

I would recommend:

-partnering with terrestrial TV and one of the traditional national newspapers, like USA Today

-categorising questions for easier browsing
-allowing text based questions as a filter, with readers and viewers voting for a shortlist on an Internet site such as Yoosk.
-where the short-listed questioners don’t have the resources, ask YouTubers to help them produce a video
-have a second round of voting on the shortlist on YouTube- and by phone or text (perhaps showing them on TV)
-make sure that all winners have enough time to get to the debate and are able to respond to answers when they are there (even if it is afterwards)
-genuinely popularise the event by having a competition on YouTube for the host and moderator (inspired video-bloggers like zefrank immediately spring to mind but I'llreadily admit, may be utterly unsuitable)
-make sure there is systematic feedback with audiences being able to rate candidates performance as well as their overall favourability- again using a feature such as we have on Yoosk.

All a lot of trouble, but this could go someway towards genuinely providing for real participation and at least partially offset some of the other problems I have identified above.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Yoosk: the principles, part 1

News interplay is where digital leisure meets group activism. We want young Angolans to be able to ask questions of the heads of diamond mining corporations and get thousands of people in Islington and San Fransisco backing those questions until we get an answer. We want EU commissioners to be asked difficult questions about trade policy by African farmers who suffer the consequences of subsidies and protection directly. We want a plantation worker in Uganda to be able to ask the Head of Starbucks about the wholesale v. retail price of coffee and then for the CEO's answer to be rated by Seattle coffee-drinkers.

How are we going to do this? We plan to have a local Yoosk site in every country managed by a freelance journalist or local publication, feeding through to a main site where all questions appear.

There are many of us in the west who want to know why unfair trade poilcy and business practices are followed in our name. Yoosk promises to bring voices from north and south together.

New feature: rating the interview performance of public figures

What Yoosk members think about Hilary Clinton











Well informed















Well intentioned





Hmm, not sure we have got this completely right yet. If you want to let us know what you think, please fire away.

The theory is that Yoosk users can rate the way public figures aquit themselves in interviews. Take Hilary Clinton for example, you can rate her performance and say whether or not you think she comes across as honest, clear, well informed, well intentioned,inspiring and consistent.

True the presentation is not exactly funky, but we like the substance of the idea. As Sarah Wurrey of Customscoop has commented about Yoosk, the site could earn itself 'a bookmark in a communications team’s media monitoring efforts'. We think the rating of interview performance feature could add to the value of Yoosk for public figures, as well as the public they serve.

And saying what we really think of a politicians polished performance is going to be very satisfying...

Asking questions: an amateur's guide written by an amateur

Yoosk sounds like a great idea to everyone we talk to but for some people, faced with a blank screen and a waiting keyboard, somehow all those things you wanted to ask just don’t form themselves into a coherent question.

Questions often arise from chatting with a friend, from reading or watching news or mulling over something in a relaxed environment-then they are lost in the fog of everyday life, or more likely every day alcohol. So although we hope you will, you might not want to go to Yoosk and ask something now. But if you don’t, then please remember us, bookmark us and come back when something raises your interests or your passion.

But if you haven't gone already, let’s look at the processes involved in asking questions for a few minutes.

The first step is obviously what issues you feel strongly about or what famous people you most admire, or what people most fascinate you for either positive or negative reasons.

So, what issues do you feel most strongly about?

What part of the country are you interested in, what part of the world, what worries you, what excites you, what action do you want taken, what do you want changed, what do you want preserved, what progress do you want to see, what views would you like to hear, what reassurance do you want, what promises do you demand, what do you want stopped?

And who can change things?

Who are the key players, who can influence this, who is blocking this, who is the source of the problem, who is contributing to the problem, who could solve it, who has information about it, who is lying, who is telling the truth? Who should we listen to, who should we follow, who is hedging their bets and who is sitting on the fence…who is right, who is wrong, who gains and who loses? And you….what do you want them to change, to explain, to predict, to justify, to start doing or to stop doing?

What public figures and famous people most fascinate or trouble you?

The concentration of wealth and power into the hands of an ever smaller percentage of the world’s population is a fact of life. But on the bright side, so there is growing evidence that the internet and new media are quickly developing the power to harness public opinion to hold these extremely influential people to account. We are not used yet to using this power, just as the rich and powerful may not yet have fully comprehended the extent and implications of their power to do good as well as harm. Yoosk stands as a mediator. We are politically neutral, we just exist to provide a channel between those with power and influence and those who have the right to hold them to account through asking them questions. Maybe we'll convince them to do more good and less harm.

It still all feels a bit awkward

Of course it does, you didn't train to be a reporter. But to want to question a public figure a question does not make you are a stalker or a wannabe or a fan. It just means you want to ask something to another person whose actions affect your life a question.

Ok, so what then?

Think about this person and what issues they are connected with, what their position is and what power they have. Go to their page on Yoosk if they have one and look at the links we have. Who are they connected to and how can they make difference? What is it that you and the rest of us want to hear from them? If you want a bit of language to start off with, there are a lot of ways to ask in English....

Why do you, why don’t you, how can you, how could you….. when will you, how will you, what might you, what wouldn’t you…under what circumstances, when will you ever, haven’t you ever, do you foresee…why can’t you, isn’t it possible, don’t you think, can’t you see,…do you feel, do you do you sense, do you ever doubt …… how long have you, how long will you, when do you think….where in the world, what on earth, how in heaven and what in god’s name….. whether you would, have you considered, did it ever cross your mind…how much, how many, what toll, in what numbers and at what price…if you hadn’t, if they had, do you wish, if you could just….which person, which group, which incident, which place, which time ….what changes, what comment, what action, what measures, what sanction, what improvements….do you regret, do you apologise, do you enjoy, do you ever stop to think….would you change, would you explain, would you tell us, would you justify….was it good, was it bad, was it worth it….. when will you go, when will we change, when will you stop?And when will you start………?

Alfie will be eligible to vote and drink in 17 and a half year's time. What form will democratic participation take then?

Yoosk: the new design is coming soon

We hope it will be up by the end of this week, or if not next week. The guys at Orient, our outsourcing company in Saigon are working really hard to get it up, along with a few new features. It will look something like this....

Yoosk: the ideas behind the site part 1

A quick overview of the ideas behind Yoosk, for those of you who are interested and want to comment. First, the vision- every new business needs a grandiose vision and ours is no exception.

Yoosk will make a major contribution to changing the nature of journalism and participative democracy. It will transform the way journalists and citizens interact, forming a partnership that cuts through the barriers created by big media, the PR industry and spin doctors, mobilising public opinion in new exciting ways. Our core promise and value propositions are that we will enable anyone, anywhere to ask a question directly to those who have power over them and for people to read the news and interact with their leaders at the same time.

We know the site might not succeed, but if it does, we believe this vision is achievable.

We are working on three assumptions: that there is a need and demand for wider participation in the media and the democratic process via the Internet; secondly that current offers don’t meet this need for many people and finally, that the features that Yoosk offers will do.

Is there broad demand for citizen media?

With reference to the first assumption, the question must surely be, what kind of people and how many of them, see the Internet as a means to give their reaction to the news and to participate in political process? Heather Green in Businessweek reports that Technorati's figures show that the number of active English language bloggers seems to have peeked. Do most people really have the time, interest or inclination to interact with the news and media beyond phone-voting and the occasional post on forums and message boards? Is it possible that we are talking only about the educated middle class? Is what we are looking at really on the formation of a new media estate of elite-amateurs? I think there is far more demand than this for citizen media and that it has the opportunity to become as mainstream as established media (or very widely integrated into mainstream media).

Do current sites meet that demand?

Let’s agree that there is evidently a market for internet sites that offer the opportunity for citizens to get more involved in news and politics -there clearly is judging by response to the YouTube debates. But is it true that despite the growth of ‘Web 2.0’ user-generated content sites, the current offer still falls short? This is why I think it does:

  1. Barriers to entry: text based citizen journalism sites like Newsvine have their own barriers to entry such as time, confidence, level of education and language ability.
  2. Sustainability and commitment: once you have set up your own blog (not the doddle it is made out to be for many) and started to post, it is all too easy to quickly let it lie fallow. This has resulted in huge numbers of inactive blogs.
  3. Many people coming to the web for news are interested in the concept of user generated content and citizen media but are sometimes put off by the stridency of some comment facilities in online news sites. Whether it is true and fair or not, there is a perception of the comment pages being dominated by angry males.
  4. Reporting and commenting on the news requires training, expertise and talent.. Perhaps Andrew Keen has a point about the quality and reliability of some contributions. At Yoosk we have decided that the only way for our project to work is to build a partnership between pro-journalists and our users.
  5. Sites like openDemocracy and Global Voices online do a truly excellent job of promoting engagement and debate between cultures at the international level. But again, there are barriers to entry and we feel there is a need for site that enables engagement on a much wider scale, with ease of use for people without fluency in English being a key factor.
  6. A whole group of sites, led by Digg, enable more casual users to get involved in the news by bookmarking and voting on news stories, thus leading to crowd-ranked news. This seems to me a fairly passive activity and one that doesn’t necessarily lead to real interaction with the news agenda.
  7. An effective business and operating model still hasn’t been found, as the recent problems faced by Backfence have shown.

So, the crop of current offers has the following problems: it’s hard to get started, it’s hard to keep going, it’s difficult to do it well and often done badly, it errs towards the polemical, language problems make cross-cultural dialogue difficult, when it is easy it is less interactive and creative and it’s hard to make money out of many sites. The answer to the question must therefore be: yes, it does meet the demand for some but not for many people.

How does Yoosk differ?

So many new sites want to position themselves as breaking new ground and creating a new genre. So we are going to do the same! But honestly, we do think we are among the first and it could be that we have at least given a new name to an emerging concept. I’m not sure whether Comment 2.0 has been used yet, but I am pretty sure that News Interplay hasn’t. Ok, so maybe it is a bit clich├ęd to create a new category of site and maybe you are thinking that there is often nothing of substance behind these buzz words. But news interplay I think sums up perfectly what Yoosk is about, and I do think that it has features that mark it out as different enough to deserve its own classification.

Interplay is reciprocal action and reaction. Yoosk’s news interplay features allow people to act creatively to shape the news agenda, and to react in new and interesting ways to what the people in the news say and do.

We also like Comment 2.0 because it is the next generation way of interacting with the news: it is more rewarding that posting comments on news sites and writing letters to newspapers, and also has lower barriers to entry.

In part two, I'll look more at the thinking behind the various features and give more details about future developments.

YouTube debate brings Yoosk’s concept of crowd sourced interviews into the mainstream

Yesterday's YouTube / CNN debate which involved members of the public putting questions directly to US democratic primary candidates showed the concept of crowd sourced interviews that Yoosk will deliver has mass appeal.

We feel vindicated- we have had a number of comments, including from professional journalists, that cast doubt on whether the whole idea was feasible. Some said the public would trivialise issues by asking silly or obscene questions. Others thought that public figures would be shy of answering questions directly from the public.

In the press and the blogosphere, on the matter of YouTube's debate the jury still seems to be out. The BBC are asking if it is hype or history. Wired report that reaction 'runs the gamut from praise to contempt'. Colin Delaney writing on techPresident was impressed. What many bloggers were agreed upon was that not allowing YouTube users to select the most popular questions was disappointing. In other words, this was half-way there, but not a true crowd sourced interview.

Personally, I’m actually not sure the video format for submitting questions works that well -aren’t we getting a little obsessed with the medium? If YouTube had allowed the public to vote and choose the questions to be asked, then how likely would it be that many people would have browsed 3000+ 30 second clips? And if the format is here to stay, as seems likely, then next time around there could be tens of thousands of submissions- voting on these could become very problematic. I agree that for TV, the questions do work well on video, although if the questioner was there in the studio and could ask follow up questions, then we'd have genuine dialogue. Some were there in Charleston, but not all.

Writing may not be as sexy as video posts, but questions in text form are far more browsable and the process of writing questions enables people to edit and hone. Submitting questions by text is also more inclusive. True, video cameras are far cheaper than they used to be but how many members of the excluded sections of society have access to them? Isn't there also the risk that in future competitions using video, that those making the selections are biased by style and quality of production over content?

We plan to add video to Yoosk very soon, but we still believe that text questions have many advantages and that video creates its own barriers to democratic participation.