How do you make local news on Twitter engaging?

Like this:

Web poll (modern!) what gets your goat on Norfolk's roads? Vote here. It's like AV, but more fun - http://bit.ly/ltuXcW
@EveningNews
Norwich Evening News
Options include 'suicidal pheasants' and 'caravans'. Am glad to see my driving didn't make the final cut.
@EveningNews
Norwich Evening News
We already have two votes for an option that isn't on the poll: cyclists. Cycling pheasants have picked up 458 votes.
@EveningNews
Norwich Evening News
@ @ Note I didn't mention you in case the cycling mafia came en masse to mow you down. I am thoughtful.
@EveningNews
Norwich Evening News
RT @: @ Cars? They're always forming queues that I have to cycle past.
@EveningNews
Norwich Evening News
Car haters: 1 Cyclist haters: 3 FIGHT! (best not to think of this in paper, scissors, stone fashion, or the cars will win hands down)
@EveningNews
Norwich Evening News

This is @eveningnews, and it’s not your average local news feed. Delivering a wry, funny take on the day’s news in Norwich, it’s not scared to poke fun at the newspaper – and the results are a far cry from the sterile RSS-based robots that many news brands use on Twitter.

@eveningnews has, at last count, nearly 3,700 followers – not bad for a local newspaper with a print circulation of 18,923 – and it’s talkative. It doesn’t follow many folks back but it does engage with the followers it has, talking back, retweeting and chatting about what’s going on.

The voice behind the tweeting is Stacia Briggs, current UK Columnist of the Year and feature writer for the Evening News, who also tweets as @womaninblack. She says that far from seeing Twitter as something difficult, it’s child’s play by comparison to traditional writing: “Give me 140 characters in comparison to 1,500 words any day.”

"Production of the Aunt Bessie’s frozen potato products range will not resume until a full assessment has been made."
@EveningNews
Norwich Evening News

The feed was originally started by a colleague but quickly taken over by Stacia, and these days it’s very rare that anyone else uses it. Stacia admits being “extremely territorial”, and says that when the account was started she “was one of the only people on my newspaper who had some experience of Twitter – it’s not much of a basis for my unstinting belief that I could do the best job with the account, but it was a start”.

Like many folks looking at local news feeds, Stacia says she struggled to find something engaging out there – a feed that actually made people want to click on links, rather than simply treating the medium as a one-way publishing stream. So she set out to create something different.

“I consider the account to be fairly informal, hopefully amusing and friendly – sometimes a bit edgy and slightly naughty,” she says. “I don’t want bland RSS feeds or po-faced updates that command me to read a story. What I wanted to do is make the feed like a conversation: I’ll tweet a link, and then I’ll sometimes make an observation. Sometimes, the observations are quite oblique – I like oblique observations.”

Can there BE any more joy today? http://t.co/e3rXEUQ
@EveningNews
Norwich Evening News

“One of the things I feel most strongly about is maintaining a voice, one which people recognise and can relate to,” Stacia says.

“Clearly, there are stories which are serious and which must be treated as such. I don’t post a story about an inquest and then make a joke – if I did, I’d imagine it would be my career that required an inquest after a very sudden death.”

But between the straight tweets that link the reader to important stories and keep people up to date, @eveningnews is genuinely funny and wonderfully compelling. It’s a fantastic mix that makes readers feel they have a genuine relationship and a line into the paper – as is shown by the number of stories that come straight to Stacia via @eveningnews – and it has a nice side line in gently mocking the newspaper’s occasional online mishaps in a way that brings readers into an inside joke.

It's a happy return for my favourite picture of all time - http://bit.ly/lmqQwQ
@EveningNews
Norwich Evening News

Looking at @edp24, a feed run out of the same office by the same team, the difference is clear – the Eastern Daily Press feed is entirely automated, even automatically passing on reporters’ tweets. The Eastern Daily Press has more than three times the circulation of the Evening News in print, and the circulation area is much wider – but it has just a few more followers than @eveningnews.

And despite regular attempts at engagement from the people who follow it, it simply doesn’t talk back. In this, it’s like most other news brands, both local and national – but it’s clear from what @eveningnews has achieved that much more is possible when someone committed and talented takes ownership and makes the news their own.

I hadn't read the comments on that gunman negotiation story. I have now. And I think you should, too - http://bit.ly/kdUHo9
@EveningNews
Norwich Evening News

Readers tell @eveningnews their stories freely, they pass on ideas, they offer case studies and point out errors – but the open dialogue has drawbacks. Stacia doesn’t stop when she goes on holiday or is unwell – keeping @eveningnews going is a constant task that transcends normal work hours and boundaries. But it’s worth it, she says.

“There’s a mine of untapped data and information on Twitter which hugely benefits newspapers – and I’m trying to access it. I’ve got some great, breaking stories from Twitter, and within minutes we’ve had them on our websites.

“A huge city centre fire was first reported on Twitter and we then followed it with live tweeting, pictures from our photographers and Twitter followers and regularly updated reports. It directed people to our website and was a great example of how Twitter can break the news and we can expand on it.

“I’ve been given feature ideas, news stories, pictures, video, song clips – it’s been like a news sweet shop.”

This reminds me of the Blackadder episode with the turnip shaped like a thingy - http://bit.ly/lcvZa7
@EveningNews
Norwich Evening News

And the best advice for people tweeting as news brands?

“Don’t churn out corporate slurry. Talk like a human being. Engage with people. Reply to people who talk to you. Look for the unusual in a story and highlight it. Encourage your reporters to find lots of stories about UFOs, big cats, sharks or local eccentrics – they’re Twitter gold.”

A vicar on a spacehopper. Brilliant http://bit.ly/iW7tq6
@EveningNews
Norwich Evening News

Full disclosure: I worked for the Evening News from 2008 to 2010, and I am a total Stacia fangirl. Stacia’s job at the Evening News is currently at risk due to Archant Norfolk’s editorial review.

Digitally divided

This is the second of (I hope) four posts coming out of the Powerful Voices roundtable I attended earlier this month. The first was a resource-dump for concepts we discussed there; the third and fourth will tackle major issues raised. This one is about the divide between digital haves and have-nots, and what the future looks like for connectivity.

Back in Norwich, the newspapers where I used to work have just launched a campaign to back a bid for better broadband. Areas of rural Norfolk suffer badly from a lack of coverage – businesses relying on connectivity to function, to process payments or to do work, find themselves crippled by slow or unusable broadband access. Mobile coverage can be patchy. 3G is a luxury. There is an ongoing fight for change.

It can be very, very easy to forget that not everyone is online. When everyone around you is eyeballs-deep in social media and those without smartphones are a rarity, the statistics on digital inclusion are startling. According to the ONS [pdf], 27% of UK households have no access to the internet at home, and 9.2m adults have never used the internet.

Those figures are likely to fall. But they’re likely to fall faster in areas where broadband speeds are high, where there is free internet access for those who can’t afford a home connection, and within certain demographics – people who can afford smartphones even if a home broadband connection is out of reach, for instance, or young people in house shares who can split the costs of connection if not of hardware.

For some rural communities, fast broadband is unlikely to come from the telephone companies. Despite promises to the contrary, a fair few Norfolk businesspeople are bitterly aware that telecoms giants go where the profit is – and that means not laying cables and updating infrastructure in areas where the usage wouldn’t pay for the work to be done.

And that profit motive has other unpleasant effects. The fight for net neutrality is being fought much more loudly on the other side of the Atlantic – but it’s a growing issue in the UK too. The introduction of a tiered system in which those who can pay get their websites served faster than those who can’t threatens the free proliferation of information across the net, and threatens to limit access still further for those who can’t pay. The internet has democratised processes of creation and dissemination; any move towards a tiered web will move us away from open access; and the future for net neutrality in the UK remains unclear.

Already there are communities everywhere taking matters into their own hands. The Open Rights Group is one of several organisations fighting to protect net neutrality and working to protect other digital rights. Remote Cumbrian villages are raising money and building their own broadband networks. And it is technically and technologically possible to share your wifi connection with your neighbours – and to drop free wifi networks over wide areas, like the (now sadly defunct) network that blanketed Norwich with free connectivity a few years ago.

But we’re not there yet. Any project tackling social change – like the ones rising out of Powerful Voices – has to consider the implications of the digital divide, whether they’re trying to solve the problems it creates (by replacing lost library services with online access, for instance) or trying to use digital methods to influence issues that also affect those who find it difficult to get online (like volunteer schemes for the unemployed, or community projects looking for professionals).

It was fascinating and eye-opening that the suggestions that struck home with the Powerful Voices crowd were not so much the online ideas – they already knew they needed to be where their communities are, use whichever social networks they already use, and fragment their work across multiple platforms to reach people. It was the offline thoughts that got a big response. One idea, that if your community hangs out in a coffee shop then you should go put some flyers there for your project, prompted a discussion about how difficult it is sometimes to remember that there are offline ways of connecting with people, too.

There are still ways of reaching and empowering people in remote communities who aren’t online. And local newspapers are still one of those ways. The physical, newsprint paper finds its way into houses where the internet does not; its distribution networks, though they are under threat, already work to put it in the hands of physically and socially isolated people. It’s a symbol, a mark of social belonging, and a link to the wider world. Local papers can and do campaign for their communities, using their established clout and power to fight for what’s right for them.

That means, sometimes, a newspaper fighting for something that could threaten its bottom line – when what matters to its readers is something that could indirectly mean the print paper’s circulation falls. Better broadband and connectivity isn’t going to mean an immediate sales drop – but as more and more remote communities come fully online, the need for the newspaper as a wider community champion link will decrease.

Facebook: Sim Social

Facebook is a simulation game.

Hear me out. This is the culmination of quite a long period of mashing obscure concepts into my brain and seeing what sticks. If it doesn’t make sense, please rip it apart in the comments.

Sim Social is a massive multi-user dungeon (MUD) about building an identity, which you do by making “friends”, “sharing” digital artefacts (photos, videos, links, text), and “liking” things – objects, concepts, individuals, brands, the aforementioned digital artefacts. It’s played in real time with real people, and the level to which you decide to play yourself or a character is entirely up to you.

It functions, in a way, like old-school text adventure games. At a basic level, text games let the player use verb noun combinations – “get sword”, “kill snake”, “drink potion” – to act on the game world and progress the game. The verbs involved tend to be very limited and to have strictly defined fields of action. So for instance “get” is a one-time-only action which only works on a particular class of object. It changes the status of that object from being in the game world to being in the player’s inventory, and it opens up the possibility of further actions – “get sword” leads to “use sword”, or in slightly more sophisticated games, “kill snake with sword”.

“Get sword” and “friend Mary” function in fascinatingly similar ways. From your perspective, “Mary” is lying around in the game space – you might come across her through both interacting with certain things (like being in the same room of the MUD at the same time) or you might go into the game specifically looking for “Mary” because you know that she’s there and you want her to be part of your experience on Sim Social. So you find her, and you friend her, and now she’s in your inventory and you can do other things with her, like tag her in photos or get access to her status updates.

This is not to imply, of course, that people are things. But the way Facebook’s interaction is set up – the rules it imposes on the simulation – does imply certain things about the game world.

That’s not a new thought. Ian Bogost talks about the procedural rhetoric of video games – the explicit or implicit arguments that games make about how something works, simply by modelling processes. And George Lakoff, in his work on conceptual metaphor, argued that the metaphors we use define the potential field of action. The language used to discuss something defines how we think and talk about it.

So Facebook (as a text) argues, increasingly with the Like button takeover of Share functions, that if I “like” or “recommend” something (one-directional relationships, indistinguishable from each other, in which ambiguity cannot be expressed) then I must also want to “share” it. And, with the new comment plugin, it gives site owners the opportunity to argue that if I comment on their work I must also “share” it with all my “friends”; that I must be non-anonymous; that I must want to be notified of responses.

By casting a certain interaction in the metaphorical field of “friendship”, and by modelling the processes of “being friends” in a certain way, Facebook (as a game, as a text) makes an argument about socialisation and about relationships in the real world. So does Twitter. So do most social apps.

Facebook, in particular, lays claim to metaphors of relationship, interest and appreciation through the verbs it uses to describe and interact within the game world; it makes wider arguments about identity and privacy too. It simulates building relationships on a deeper level than SimCity simulates city-building, sure, but both exist on a continuum where complex social processes are modelled with certain assumptions built in.

Mark Sample talks about close-reading SimCity, looking at the rhetoric of its models, and unpacking the underlying assumptions behind the simplistic assertion that tax increases cause crime. I’d like to do that with Facebook, if the code was more open, but there are plenty of open assumptions to unpack – Is “liking” something the same thing as “recommending” it? What’s a “friend”? Can identities fluctuate? Facebook has an opinion on these things.

And a closing, background thought is something half-remembered from Shelly Turkle’s Simulation and its Discontents, which is referred to by Play the Past here:

Sherry Turkle tells us about a 13 year old SimCity player who told her about the “Top Ten Rules of SimCity.” One of those rules was that “raising taxes leads to riots.” Now, if the adolescent had simply understood this as a rule in the model, it would be fine, but Turkle insists that the adolescent did not understand that the simulation was a simplification. Turkle claims that this adolescent had uncritically extrapolated a set of rules she used to understand society from SimCity. The claim is that the 13 year old did not understand the game as a model or a toy but instead saw it as a kind of direct representation of the world. In a world increasingly dependent on simulation as basis of knowledge it is important for us to begin to become literate.

Braindump: just add points

Interesting presentation by Sebastian Deterding looking at what user experience designers can learn from game design.

Although news orgs face very different challenges from UX designers, the basic messages about shallow vs deep engagement, using multiple interacting points/currencies and measuring achievement, effort and attainment in a meaningful way are very relevant. Take a look:

It’s interesting to look at the Huffington Post’s community moderation badges in terms of this presentation. My gut instinct is that they fall, along with Foursquare, into a category of too simplistic game-like systems (“Just Add Points”) that don’t actually tap into the power and fun of learning that is one of the fundamental building blocks of good game design.

It’s also worth checking out this post on rescuing princesses at the Lost Garden. If you click through to the slides (PDF) there’s a thoughtful discussion of the differences between app and game design, and a very useful breakdown of STARS atoms – essentially, small chunks that introduce players/users to new skills, let them discover how to use them, and ensure they have mastered them.

Between them, these two posts and the thoughts behind them make a mockery of the idea of game mechanics as simple point systems you can pop atop pre-designed apps or comment systems or whatever it is you’re already doing. You have to design with exploratory learning in mind, with a learning curve that doesn’t flatten out horizontally or vertically and with end goals and nested goals to maintain engagement.

I wonder how the Guardian’s crowdsourced investigation into MPs’ expenses would have gone if they’d added this sort of rich game-led design? As well as giving long-term and short-term goals/rewards (like Twitter translator levels, perhaps) with status bars to show progress, perhaps they could have rewarded people who found something of real import with a status bump, or added exploratory learning elements by advancing users towards the goal of signing off on things other people had flagged as interesting. Or teaching basic maths, or collating data into a wiki-style “what does my MP spend” database, or encouraging/letting users learn to create their own visualisations of the data. Hard to say how well or whether that would have worked, but it’s easy to see wider possibilities in projects like that.

/end braindump

Directing the shambling hordes

Zombies at the doorI’m running my first social media campaign, and so far, it’s working.

Let me explain. I’m one of the two head organisers of a live-action simulation game called Zombie LARP (we wish we’d picked a better name sometimes, but it works) in which a whole bunch of people run around in the dark pretending to be zombies and taking it in turns to shoot the zombies with NERF guns. Think Left 4 Dead in real life.

It started out as a daft idea at university. We ran the first one on a wing and a prayer. It went so well – so blisteringly, terrifyingly, incredibly well – that we’ve been running one every six months since then. We got players initially by running something no one else was doing; then, later on, we started getting them by wor of mouth.

Last autumn 57 people turned up from my home town to a game designed for about 30. Many of them were regular players but many of them were new, buzzed because they’d been told about it by their friends.

We’ve grown up a little now, and we want to take it professional, and that means moving out of university buildings and a student mindset and tapping into the wider community around live gaming, NERF/Airsoft play, and zombies.

Which means an entrepreneurial mindset, learning web design, and running a social marketing campaign that opens us up to a wider market while maintaining our relationship with the core group who got us where we are now – our regular and most loyal players, the people who make our game possible.

In late September our website went live. In November we ran our most recent event, with bookings online. It sold out. Shortly after the event – while everyone was watching for photos – we made the move from a dying and mostly inactive Facebook group to a page, which had 50 fans within 24 hours. Globally, that’s not many, but in our niche it’s fantastic. Every one of those fans is a player, or a potential player. We are reaching the people we need to reach.

And more. In November our website had more than 80,000 hits.

Our fan page is slowly filtering through to friends of friends, people who are interested in the concept, people in that slightly wider niche who might come to the next game.

We ran a short-notice one-off event that wouldn’t have been possible without the forum and Facebook page as communication tools, and we backed that up with video.

We’re starting to get attention from German groups on Twitter purely by having Youtube and Facebook accounts feeding there. And a group of people are running a spin-off game in Kansas, suddenly. We’re international.

There’s a lot more work to do. We have video processing problems to iron out, insurance to negotiate, banks to deal with, applications to fill in, alternate reality games to create and venues to find.

But the next event will be bigger, better, more widely anticipated and more fun because of the community we’re building around the game. And, if we’re lucky and we work hard and smart, it’ll be in either an abandoned shopping mall or a fort.

I think that’s a success. What do you think?

Short is sexy

16/06/2009 - Magnetic poetry wall at the Cambridge Arts FestivalI’m a fairly recent Twitter convert, and at the moment there are two main reasons I’m sticking with it. First, it’s short, and second, it’s art.

I’ve failed to enjoy Facebook or work well with it for several years, preferring to do my moaning on my blog and my events management by email. Yes, I know, I should do better. That’s why I joined Twitter.

The interface is easy, keeping up with people you find intriguing or blogs you want to keep tabs on is suddenly very simple, and you can engage as much or as little as you fancy.

All of which is lovely, but it’s not why I like it so much – it’s not why it works. The best and most innovative thing Twitter has done is forced us to condense communication into short bursts – to crystallise. To be brief.

Twitter’s 140-character limit forces poetry from mundanity. It’s possible to build a tweet around a single thought, a concept, without over-egging it or forcing it. It rewards neatness. Even “pointless babble” becomes a crystal of meaning, complete in itself.

And people are using the microblogging format for all sorts of textual art, from condensing words down to fit within the strict limits to haiku to artistic political satire, such as William Shatner’s Tonight Show recital of Sarah Palin’s Twitter feed. The medium even spawned the world’s first interactive poetry competition.

Mashable laid out the reasons for loving the character limit very neatly and persuasively, but didn’t mention the possibility of poetry.

Twitter is forcing us to distill our words, and words distilled can make art.

Branding

registered trademark If you’re interested in personal development as a journalist, I’d really recommend taking a bit of time to read the first post in Adam Westbrook’s 6×6 series – and, I imagine, all the others too once they’re up. It’s on branding yourself online and in real life, with common sense tips.

There’s some excellent advice and some useful sources, and it’s given me a project idea – I’m going to be building my own website, learning/relearning/honing my CSS, HTML and hopefully Flash skills as I go along.

Pointless babble

A study (warning, PDF) was published recently by Pear Analytics looking at Twitter usage, which found that more than 40% of all tweets are “pointless babble”. It’s a startling result – I for one was expecting a much higher percentage of spam and links posts – but I’m fascinated by the idea that a type of communication making up such a large proportion of a medium is defined as “pointless”.

The study authors defined six groups – news, spam, self-promotion, conversational, pass-along value and pointless babble – and babble is the only one that carries a value judgement. “Pointless babble” is a biased description, and I’m not sure why the authors of a statistical study decided to pass judgement on their data – or whether they even realised that’s what they were doing.

The implication is that we shouldn’t be babbling, we should be doing something else instead. No one wants to know whether you’re eating a sandwich or on a train – this is babbling, minutiae, and therefore without purpose – pointless.

For many Twitter users, someone else’s conversational tweets are often uninteresting unless they are directed at you, whereas your friend tweeting that their bus is stuck in traffic might be very relevant if they’ve arranged to meet you in half an hour. Sometimes status updates are far from pointless – “out of hospital, all’s well” is a long way from a pointless post even if it’s not directed at anyone in particular.

And I suspect, but can’t prove except with this very study, a lot of people use Twitter like Facebook status updates, following people rather than friending them and using the site as an easily-accessible Facebook lite. The description of that usage as “pointless” seems more than a little harsh – particularly when you’ve just found that 40.55% of the site is examples of that type of usage.

Many of these utterances are the sort of speech that human beings use to remind each other, and themselves, that they are still alive. It’s a way of keeping in touch without saying anything, akin to talking about the weather (if you’re English, of course). Rather than calling it pointless, wouldn’t it have made more sense to ask why this use is so common, and whether it’s a feature of Twitter rather than a bug?

There are a couple of other question marks for me about this study – why did the authors chose not to sample tweets on Saturday or Sunday? Why didn’t they sample between 5pm and 11am CST – that’s 11pm-5pm GMT, neatly missing the daytime usage of a lot of non-American folks? Did they include non-English language tweets?

But those are methodology quibbles, when my main problem with the study is the way it demeans a form of communication as “pointless” without asking whether or not it has a point. I don’t know if it does, but I’d retweet any study that had a go at finding out.