Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The blogger: private citizen or public figure?

There are a number of debates raging at the moment that variously pit bloggers against PR workers (see the comments by Tom Coates) and bloggers against journalists (see the debate between Steve Rubel and Michael Skube).

Both these debates are relevant to what Keith and I are trying to do at Yoosk because we are working at the interface of blogging, PR, journalism and social networking

It seems to me that one obstacle to useful debate is the vocabulary we are hampered with. Starting with the blogger v. PR conflict first, I think we first need to ask the question: who or what is a blogger? This needs to be answered because if all bloggers are essentially private individuals, then the PR industry has no business seeing them as a resource. But are bloggers a homogonous group, all to be treated the same way?

As with so many nouns used these days (e.g. terrorist, insurgent, Muslim, Christian) it describes such a broad group as to be at best meaningless and at worst woefully misleading. The word ‘blogger’ covers such a disparate set of sub-groups with such diverse motivations, beliefs and actions, as to render it a real barrier to understanding. I wish the world would get to grips with its nouns, I really do.

Blog comes from web-log. Traditionally, a log was a daily, first-hand recording of events, perhaps containing some subjective reflections. I think when the term blog was coined that was probably a reasonably fitting description of what they were.

Now the term encompasses the following: online diarists who share the minute detail of their daily lives; creative writers; people who report on events they or their friends have witnessed (dramatic examples include the Charleston University shootings); self-appointed pundits who analyse events and take up a position on them; people who report on what the pundits say and make counter arguments; academics and intellectuals who publish extracts and summaries of research and theories; consultants, PR and marketing staff who write about a subject as a means to indirectly promote their company; new product and website reviewers; authors seeking to promote their books; other artists and entertainers wishing to do the same; politicians wishing to ´connect´ with voters…. I guess there are far more….

The answer to my question is that bloggers are in fact many different things, whose roles often bear absolutely no relation to one another. Clearly we need more terms to describe people who write online than the current one in common use-blogger.

Why does it matter?

Recently, Tom Coates, one of the UK’s outstanding ‘bloggers’ (I’m going to start putting the term in inverted commas now that I have dismissed it as unhelpful) wrote a strongly worded piece about his disgust at being sent press releases by PR people who wanted to promote their clients. Tom’s view, as I understand it, is that real ‘bloggers’ (that is, people like him and other blogging pioneers from the old days) should never be viewed as being a publishing commodity to be exploited for financial gain . The implication is that blogs are no places to disseminate product information, even innovative new products of interest to the blog readers, unless the online writer concerned stumbles across it or is told about it by someone from within their network.

Well, it seems many online writers do want to receive that information-clearly they are not authentic bloggers (ok, I've got fed up of putting it in inverted commas) in Tom’s book. And I think perhaps he has a point- they are a type of online writer, but not close enough to the original term of blogger to be described as such.

Tom also wrote that he considers his blog a personal space, despite the fact that it is clearly in the public domain. Here I think he is on shakier ground and this brings me to the second of the three main questions I have on this subject (the third, asking whether ‘bloggers’ can really be compared to journalists, will appear in the next post).

Which online writers can be considered as public figures ? When is it ok to freely comment on, criticise and hold up for scrutiny the work of an online writer and which of them can be legitimately questioned on their views by any member of the public?

Once people start analysing and commenting in public on events that are external to them, and do this consistently, then I believe they put themselves in the category of public figures. So online diarists who write about themselves and their family are not ‘public bloggers’ but pundits who routinely make judgements on events do fall into the category of ‘public figures’. And by ‘public’ I mean that because what they say is in the public domain and not directly related to their own lives, that the public deserve a right of reply, a right to question their motives and to be given a platform that allows them to do that.

For example, two of the most famous online political commentators (who perhaps more closely resemble owners of a media platform: Adriana Huffington of the Huffington Post and Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos) are definitely public figures.

Which brings me back to Tom’s very strong objections to being sent PR releases…

Tom, I admire your ideals but isn't it time to accept that the kind of blog you write, which contains an element of punditry, is a public statement made in a public place?

The logical conclusion is that like it or not, you are entering the public arena by attracting a large readership and so people will want to use your publishing space to get their message across. You can always put up a 'no hawkers sign', as in fact you have done.

Additionally, since you are a public figure, making pronouncements for public consumption, surely you have to accept being treated like one- and this includes by the press as well as by the PR and advertising industry. I'm not saying you are fair game for gratuitous public gossip and stalking, just that you can't apply the values of old world privacy to the present-where private individuals freely express views that reach thousands. Times have changed and you are part of a group of people responsible for that. So be prepared to be asked questions in public about your publicly expressed views (but never your personal life, naturally).

With this in mind, I am therefore asking your permission to enter you as a public figure on Yoosk!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Can Yoosk’s crowd-sourced interview features help bridge the cultural divide?

Today on Yoosk we have started a new feature by Anglo-Irish journalist Nick Ryan which looks at UK Muslims and the issues surrounding their integration into British Society. We are inviting Yoosk users to ask four leading politicians and commentators, Muslim and non- Muslim, hard questions on topics like terrorism, racism and prejudice -the most popular of which will be answered in two weeks time.

A part of our vision at Yoosk is to break down the obstacles to sensible and open intercultural dialogue that traditional politics and media have created. We expect some of the questions to be raw and provocative but we sincerely believe that Yoosk users will make sure the best ones rise to the top.

Nick writes eloquently of the issues and invites questions from all sides. White secularists can put questions to the Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation which wants to establish a new Caliphate and which many politicians have called to be banned. Muslims worried about the stereotypes that sometimes appear in the right wing press and their portrayal in the media in general, can put their questions to Peter Hitchens, a leading columnist.

We hope the answers will also offer some surprises and open a few minds.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

An open letter to bloggers and citizen media enthusiasts

Dear friends

Imagine a blogosphere where bloggers conduct thousands of interviews every week with public figures- politicians, business leaders, sportspeople and celebrities. The interviews cover all the major issues- international, national and local. The questions come directly from the public and the answers directly from the people being interviewed- with no involvement of mainstream media.

We believe this would represent a step change in the way the Internet is used to engage people in the news and the issues it covers. True, bloggers and their readers already comment and report on the news very effectively. But what is needed is for bloggers to more effectively set the news agenda by mobilising their readers to ask questions of the public figures in the news and- with the help of crowd sourcing techniques- to deliver the answers.

A lone approach for an interview to a public figure has very little chance of success for all but the most high profile blogger. Yoosk is a portal that will allow any blogger to start a campaign or set up a panel interview with key public figures around any issue.

As you will have guessed, this is an appeal for your help to get our particular contribution to citizen media, namely the fusion of campaigning citizen journalism and crowd sourced interviews, up and running.

But we also passionately believe that what we are offering will bring real value to your own blog and help to take citizen media in a new direction.

As bloggers, many of you are campaigners at heart, or at the very least have a strong position on a number of key issues. Your readers almost certainly share this. What we are suggesting you do is to use Yoosk as a platform for your readers to ask questions of public figures on these issues- with you taking the lead. If you really like the concept, you could use it to start a campaign.

Here’s how we see it working:

Yoosk has a features page that allows bloggers and citizen journalists to create an interview feature on a particular issue, with questions from the public being directed to key people (politicians, business leaders, celebrities) linked to that issue. In some, we secure the commitment of the public figures beforehand in partnership with freelance journalists, in others, we hope that enough questions and votes for those questions by our users will lead to us securing answers.

We are asking bloggers to start their own features on Yoosk (I’ve written here how to go about this), to write some short background and then to ask their readers to submit questions. We’ll do everything we can to get the answers directly from the people concerned (although we welcome any help you can give).

The time involved in creating the feature should be no more than the time it takes to write an average blog post- and if nothing else, it’s an interesting exercise!

What do we offer in return?

Well, of course we’ll link to your site. We are small at the moment, but the more commentators and bloggers submit features, the more traffic we’ll get.

When we get answers, we will post them on Yoosk and the interviews will also be yours to post on your own site.

We hope you’ll go for it. Imagine being able to get four or so leaders in a room being quizzed on a specific issue of your choice by members of the public. We are offering the chance to do this-we are familiar with the objection that the public figures concerned might not condescend to answer, but we really believe that with your help, they will.

Please use our contact form or better, email us directly at timhood at Yoosk dot co dot uk or keithhalstead at Yoosk dot co dot uk.

Tim Hood and Keith Halstead
Co founders of Yoosk