Gawker, what did you DO?

I love Gawker. I’ve read it for a few years, since my finals years at KU. It has a wonderful combination of snark and basic content curation. Two things made it stand out: its writers and its comment section. The latter, though, has been dropped on its head.

Gawker’s old-old comment section involved first-time posters replying to posts and/or adding comments to “try out.” Veteran commenters could approve those comments, giving new posters their feet through the door. Such veteran commenters would earn stars, and those stars gave them certain privileges, namely approving new commenters and promoting quality comments. As a poster, you could follow your favorite commenters and be followed in turn.

A few months ago, the old-old system was canned and replaced with a free-for-all. Commenters lost their stars and approval privileges. Spam could be dismissed in the comments section, and “featured” discussions with several replies were pulled out of the larger pile. A definite change of pace from the older system, but not bad.

Cue last week’s announcement by tech writer Adrian Chen, explaining the new commenting system, which involves a crazy, not-intuitive-at-all, carpal tunnel-inducing labyrinth. Instead of getting a clear view of all original threads in one vertical swoop, such threads are now available on a single-click basis, with their replies underneath them. Describing it only makes it sound more confusing, which is the point — it’s nearly incomprehensible and it’s only been in the past day or two that I finally figured it out. The response has been near-universally negative, with many veterans swearing that they’re leaving.

The question now is, what’s next? Is Gawker going to blink and go back to one of the older, more likeable commenting systems? Will it simply ride out the criticism until people get used to it? Will it admit that the change was an error? I really don’t know. I can’t see this new system working; major-traffic threads can easily accrue hundreds of comments, each one necessitating its own click. It’s a chore, it takes the fun out of posting, it’s hard to follow and it takes a four-step article to explain it.

Gawker has a talented stable of writers — I like reading Chen, Hamilton Nolan and Caity Weaver, and was sad to see Richard Lawson, Maureen O’Connor and Brian Moylan go — but its comments have always been a huge, huge draw for the site. I will definitely be paying attention in the next few months to see how the commenting system changes, if it does. It may prove to be a valuable lesson in terms of Web design, development and user relations.

Advertisements

Does Facebook’s disappointment put social media at risk?

Facebook went public last week to much fanfare. Less-welcome news is that the company’s stock has been lagging, with a weak closing last Friday, May 18.

When it comes to scope and sheer volume of users, Facebook is the obvious juggernaut in the room. But as a Wall Street Journal article today suggests, the lukewarm reaction to its IPO could negatively affect other social media companies who might have also been planning their own public offerings. The idea is, if Facebook struggles, why expect other companies to do well?

The WSJ article quotes an IPO author who suggests that Facebook’s struggle could indicate that social media has hit a wall. Carrying capacity has been met, and perhaps the tech industry should move on to something else.

I suspect though that the real culprit here is probably unrealistic expectations. Perhaps the IPO was valued too high, and it had nowhere to go but down or ever-so-slightly up. In that sense, Facebook is simply a victim of its own success, of starry-eyed newcomers who just need to come back down to Earth. There’s talk of a bubble, but the tech press and investors helped create it with sheer hype, only to complain that a bubble exists at all. In economics, expectations are just as crucial as actual events and can even influence those events. If no one bets on social media companies because they don’t believe they’ll flourish, then it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So rather than discourage social media development, perhaps the wiser course would be to continue social media innovation, tempered with more realistic financial goals. The primary focus should always be on providing a worthwhile experience for the user and building quality symbiotic relationships with brands. If social media companies do that, the rest will follow. It’d be tragic if future good ideas were stymied by the Facebook rut — so set it aside and keep on trucking.

And remember that bubbles that are never overblown don’t pop.

How to use a Facebook cover photo

One of the biggest lessons I learned when first studying social media and multimedia production was, “Follow the eyeballs.” Know where your audience members are looking, what draws their attention and how you can take advantage of it.

Today, Mashable published an interesting piece about Facebook’s Timeline pages for brands vs. the old generic brand pages, using an eye-tracking study. The study found that viewers were less likely to notice sidebar ads on a timeline page, that there was less immediate interaction with the Timeline content (i.e. the new Wall) and that quantitative data measures (Likes, Followers, etc.) are now much more prominent.

The biggest takeaway, though, was the awesome power of the cover photo. Cover photos are new to Timeline, and are found on both personal and brand pages. The eye-tracking study found that everyone — everyone — looks at the cover photo. It’s the prime page real estate, choice material that on an old page would be dominated by the more content-rich Wall.

So why are so many brands wasting this space by filling it with nothing? Take the Huffington Post. The site’s flagship brand page actually has a decent cover photo, of the newsroom. Or more specifically, it’s a photo of people in the newsroom — the Mashable article also notes that cover photos with people in them are better at drawing and keeping viewers’ attention. A similar cover photo adorns its UK page. But on some of its other sub-section pages, the cover photo space goes to waste. HuffPost Religion, HuffPost Denver and HuffPost Books, for example, have generic titles on a colored backdrop. Gawker’s page isn’t much better, with a graphic of the site’s logo.

Considering the study, I offer up a few suggestions for brands looking to maximize the potential of their Timeline cover photos.

1. Don’t repeat anything that can be just as easily seen in your profile photo or in the basic information section directly beneath your cover photo.

2. Use people whenever possible. Even if they’re Muppets (yes, that page was one of those featured in the Mashable article).

3. Don’t be afraid to make use of text, especially if that text conveys information and/or cross-promotes the brand’s other social media profiles. The New York Knicks make great use out of points two and three with their cover photo — it includes both J.R. Smith (a face) and a hashtag for fans to use on Twitter.

4. Keep it fresh. Sports teams can include hashtags for games or playoffs, or information about their next matches. Companies can update their cover pages with newly introduced products, or craft them to fit new marketing campaigns’ visual styles. Newspapers and magazines can use actual staff photos that accompany prominent/centerpiece stories. No brand, be it a news agency, a sports team, a corporation or anything else, is ever completely sedentary. Neither should their cover photos.

The cover photo block is the biggest thing on the page and it will be seen, even if the viewer misses the Timeline, the ads or the metrics. Make sure that the photo does your brand justice.

HBO makes ‘Game’ worth playing through social media

Rather than drive people away from television, the Web has given viewers a larger water cooler around which to discuss it. Networks have taken notice and the savvier ones are taking advantage.

HBO’s handling of online marketing for “Game of Thrones” is the gold standard in social media management for a television show. It’s not just the breadth of its online presence, but also the depth — viewers who like the show’s Facebook page (and 2.6 million people have), for example, get regular access to behind-the-scenes features, photos, posters, quizzes, wallpapers and interviews.

The show’s GetGlue profile is also extremely popular; check-ins for its season premiere were enough to disrupt the site’s service. It’s sailed past a million check-ins, and fans who love the show can earn stickers for watching not just the episodes, but also the various trailers that led up to the show’s premiere.

And of course, what self-respecting television show these days is without its own YouTube channel? “Game” has a YouTube presence loaded with content: recaps, interviews, features, maps, previews and more. The cross-promotion between Facebook, YouTube, GetGlue and Twitter (followers: 316K+) is nearly flawless. GetGlue check-ins show up on the Facebook feed; YouTube videos are promoted on Twitter. The cohesion of the social media strategy is very impressive, in terms of visual style and voice.

But surely any show with a clutch marketing team can make that sort of thing happen, right? Which leads to HBO’s ace up its sleeve: “Game of Thrones” knows who its fans are, respects them and gives them a role in the marketing.

An entire playlist on the YouTube channel is devoted to fan-submitted covers of the show’s gorgeous theme. My personal favorite is Jason Yang’s violin cover, which has racked up more than 2 million views. The guy who runs the show’s Twitter account says that he’s a fan of “A Song of Ice and Fire” in the bio, and his tweets demonstrate a love and appreciation of the source material beyond mere content-shoveling. He finds ways to appeal to both newer fans, those who just watch the show, and older fans, whose knowledge of the story goes beyond “Game of Thrones” and extends into the five books and their author, George R.R. Martin.

Where some shows would ignore fan-submitted art entirely, “Game of Thrones” embraces it, regularly featuring fan-made drawings, paintings and even posters on its Facebook page. Notably, two fan-made posters — one featuring a reimagining of  the Stark direwolf sigil, and another making great visual use of Sean Bean’s severed head — became integral parts of the show’s second-season marketing.

One does get the impression that, if you’re a fan, the show really does want to hear from you. And that, in turn, only cements viewers’ loyalty to the show. It is known.

I have been completely, utterly pinned

I have a new obsession: Pinterest.

You may have heard of it and you may use it already. It started “way back” in March 2010 and got Time’s attention, landing on its list of top 50 websites of 2011. I’ve known about it myself for several months but hadn’t taken the time to join until this week. I was immediately taken with the concept: a digital pinboard where you can organize your recipes, decorating ideas, favorite quotes, photos, travel bucket list and virtually anything else you can possibly think of. It’s kind of like what Tumblr might be if it matured a little and hit an OCD phase.

I was dismayed to find that most of my friends had no pins at all or had very few. When I start something new like this, I want to dive in and immerse myself in it and set up a good foundation. I began with about four boards for books, recipes, decorating ideas and my travel photography. Four boards became six and six became nine (macarons really needed their own board …) and soon enough I had 300 different pins and had sent invitations to several of my friends who were interested.

My favorite aspect of it is the near-immediate social payoff. I’ve been getting alerts all afternoon and evening telling me that people have been repinning my photos and the links that I’ve added. The functionality appeals to my organizational style: hyper-compartmental, a place for everything and everything in its place. The design is clean, there are multiples ways to follow people (I can follow all of John’s boards or just the ones I’m interested in) and the use of square, 3 x 3 thumbnails for each board is visually appealing.

You can receive an invitation from any friend who is already on Pinterest, or get on the site and request an invitation. There are enough users already to have a good foundation of content, but not so many that it ends up being one big pass-around the way Tumblr tends to be. I’ve found that the “audience is there” for the photos, recipes and links that I contribute myself. The nifty and genius “Pin It” button, added to your browser toolbar, lets you add items to Pinterest while you’re looking at other websites, without having to reopen your full profile.

If you’re already on it, use it! If you’re not already on it, request an invitation and give it a go. Fair warning: You might get hooked.

How much Facebook sharing is too much?

Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a new Facebook layout with a lot of new features, including an ultimate timeline of sorts, including every event and post that a person has shared on Facebook.

Full disclosure: I don’t use Facebook as much as I have been. I’ve trimmed my friends list to about 375 (down from 600-ish at its peak) and I don’t post as often. I’m in a long-distance relationship (more or less), but you wouldn’t know it from my profile.

The front-page news ticker Facebook has now is a little too much information for me. I really don’t need to know that someone is listening to something or gave a thumbs-up to someone’s keg party recap. Many of the new features Zuckerberg highlighted involve automated posts, meaning that a lot of what you do will end up on your profile whether you want it to or not. Some of what you see in your own feed comes across like overkill, too.

The master timeline seems cute — imagine being able to chart your relationship, your engagement, your wedding and the birth of your first child. On the other hand, imagine scrolling back on your boyfriend or girlfriend’s timeline and seeing inevitable updates about their exes, the good and the bad.

Let’s be clear: This is first and foremost about maximizing data compilations for ads revenue. I don’t begrudge Facebook its (substantial) income, nor do I resent seeing ads on my profile (well, I might resent seeing weird dating ads). I just think that people should better educate themselves about what they’re putting out there, and Facebook might do better to make some modicum of privacy the default setting, instead of sending you on a wild goose chase for your security settings.

Of course, if you’re after absolute privacy, Facebook isn’t for you anyway. It seems though that users are putting a large amount of blind faith into the company, fawning over it and not holding it accountable for its actions. Who’s to say that the Facebook habits that feed us specific ads won’t one day give away our political philosophies? If an algorithm exists to give us dating, shopping and travel ads, it can exist for more nefarious things.

The key is for Facebook users to educate themselves and know exactly what they’re sharing and how to modify their profile security. In the end, the person responsible for keeping you safe on Facebook is you.

A comment on David Cameron’s social media remarks

Earlier today, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband both spoke in the House of Commons about the English riots. While browsing a timeline of the remarks, I was struck by something Cameron said: The government and the police were reviewing the “role of social media” in organizing the riots. At about 1 p.m., the Telegraph reported that Cameron went on to clarify, saying that sites like Twitter “could be closed down during periods of disorder.”

That general line of thinking set off my squick alarm. In the U.S., at least, speech that deliberately incites rioting or lawbreaking isn’t protected. On that note, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to A) single out social media and B) set a precedent of police and government interference in social media platforms. One night Twitter may be shut down to prevent rioting, but what else could a shut-down prevent? Who gets to decide what constitutes a “period of disorder”?

The Register took a similar tack, and wondered why Cameron wasn’t also chastising news stations for round-the-clock helicopter coverage. Such coverage, The Register suggested, gave as much of an idea as to which areas were unprotected as Twitter did.

Two years ago during the Tehran protests, Twitter was one of the only ways to get information into or out of Iran. It also played a large role in the recent Arab Spring uprisings. At its core, Twitter can be used by the disenfranchised to spread information and share their experiences. It has, I believe, a legitimate democratic underpinning, which is why I also believe that a short-sighted knee-jerk decision to shut it down in the face of yob rule is well-intentioned but ultimately misguided, if not overly authoritarian.

No one wants to see looting, rioting or property damage, but rather than simply cut off social media, the police would be wiser to adapt and use social media to infiltrate planned outbreaks. Eliminating all information would make law enforcement blind and deaf, too.

I see Cameron’s point, and I understand that much of it is the product of legitimate anger and frustration over the past few days, but if ever there was a “be careful what you (they?) wish for” moment, this is it.