Wednesday, July 25, 2007

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.


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