Chasing after Big Bird: Risks and benefits of reporting on memes

Memes are all over the 2012 election campaign. Not only do they provide endless fodder for snarky conversations, they’re changing who gets to define a candidate’s message. “Local reporters and national reporters thought [the phrase 'You didn't build that'] was pretty minor, or nothing,” commentator Dave Weigel told Amanda Hess at Poynter. Then it went viral – and became a monthlong talking point.

Now campaigns don’t have to worry about their own gaffes and misspeakings alone, but also about to the hive mind of Internet users everywhere to seize on one phrase and keep passing it along in hundreds of iterations.

Part of the reason these short-lived jokes get so much attention, Hess argues, is that many highly engaged voters and journalists are multitasking while following debates and rallies. That makes it more likely that they’ll notice and grab onto something superficial and funny, however irrelevant that is on the grand scale.

There’s another reason memes spread so far and wide into news coverage, though. It’s really easy to find them. One look at Twitter’s “trending topics” gives you at least two or three highly discussed phrases on any debate night or rally.

Twitter claims that more than half of the messages sent during the third Presidential debate were about the economy. But even millions of messages about the same topic are very difficult to track if they all happen disparately, using different terms and phrases. One catchphrase like “horses and bayonets” however, is highly visible. Both users and reporters will therefore continue to spread the memes.

Twitter would do well to get better at surfacing the more in-depth conversations happening on the service if it doesn’t want to be associated only with an insidery meme culture. Journalists, too, need to wonder whom they’re serving by covering these viral jokes.

Because the question is, do memes swing any votes? Hess is not so sure.

Who wins the redesign quest?

Oh, to be a student again and have all the time in the world. Wouldn’t we all spend it coming up with ways to make Microsoft look cool? Well, that’s just what one very committed desing student did. “I decided that Microsoft needs to be a brand that represents the future,” Andrew Kim writes on his website. So he spent three days coming up with a new look for Microsoft’s packages and logos.

He based his design around a slate element and applied it to all of Microsoft’s products. The slate would appear on Microsoft’s phones, tablets and software in different combinations. Kim also changed the color scheme for Microsoft phones to a more muted look. Check out all of his ideas on his website. He gathered a lot of praise for his vision, but Microsoft itself didn’t heed his advice. The company unveiled its new logo the other day, and it looks… just like the old one, except flat.


Quickly, jokes spread that the logo was designed using Microsoft’s Excel.

A second well-known brand to get an overhaul was community encyclopedia Wikipedia. A design company proposed a mock-up of what the site could look like were it to be completely rethought. “Wikipedia is one of our favorite sources of accumulated knowledge,” the designers of Now write. “But from the user’s and designer’s point of view, it still has room to improve.”

Their proposal for such an improvement includes radically simplifying the Wikipedia homepage by focusing on its main element: The search bar. Different language wikipedia collections are represented by bold colors. The Wikipedia logo itself is deconstructed and a whole family of logos created for the different Wikipedia projects. The article editing functions are also simplified.

Wikipedia itself is also working on a redesign, prototypes of which were shown at the community’s convention this summer. The focus of this change isn’t on looks, however. Rather, it’s meant to encourage more interaction. Wikipedia wants to draw more people into working on the site by making it easier to edit stories.

Wikipedia app with new design planned

It also wants to become more visual, which fits with an overall trend in design online. The Wikipedia site hasn’t seen a design overhaul since it was started 11 years ago. Since then, our web usage and web design have changed considerably. Sites like Pinterest with its tiled interface consisting entirely of pictures embody this new focus on visuals.

I bet both Kim and the design company have gotten a lot of calls from new clients since their new take on well-known brands got so much attention. “Our website, which usually receives three-to-four visits a day, has been browsed by +30,000 people in first week alone”, the design company writes on its blog. They’re now planning an app to read Wikipedia in the new design.

So who wins the redesign quest, the brands themselves or the snazzy competitors? In my very subjective opinion, the outsiders win. Kim took a step back and thought about what Microsoft should stand for, and he came up with a cool way to incorporate that. Microsoft itself kept with a recognizeable style closely derived from its past look.

The designers from Now took a different approach than Kim. They focused on functionality. I actually wish the site would implement parts of the design mockup. It showcases just how cluttered the starting page of Wikipedia.org is, and how much information is taking up space there when it’s not really needed. I also wasn’t aware of some of the other Wikipedia communities, so bringing those out would make them more accessible to people.

Still, it’ll be a good while before we see Wikipedia’s own redesign. The overhaul isn’t set to roll out for another year and a half, mainly because the site doesn’t have enough volunteers to help.

What news orgs can learn from BuzzFeed

The cat-loving Internet hub is ruling the craft of social distribution

BuzzFeed is known for short, visual posts that many find impossible not to share with their Facebook friends. (One recent post, entitled “21 pictures that will restore your faith in humanity” has received a mind-blowing 1.8 million Facebook likes so far.) What BuzzFeed hasn’t been known for is political coverage or, well, actual news stories. But that’s been changing this year as the outlet has made a big push into hiring reporters and producing original content.

Now, BuzzFeed is stepping up its politics coverage, reports Nieman Lab. The outlet has three staffers covering politics, with two working in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Capitol and one out on the campaign trail.

BuzzFeed’s secret sauce

The endavour is coming up with the usual mixture. Nieman Lab had no trouble finding half a dozen ridiculous posts (“12 pictures of Tim Pawlenty looking sad“), but there are also smart articles about how Romney is having trouble relating to young people worried about their own debt, not the nation’s (“Romney’s tough sell to young voters“).

That mix actually fits perfectly with BuzzFeed’s credo. Continue reading

What’s better than sports pictures? Moving sports pictures!

But will GIFs take hold as a new way to tell stories?

Updated below

We’ve all seen the small moving images, preferably of cats being cute or people falling down, looped infinitely. GIFs have actually been around since the 1980s, but haven’t been used much for a while. Now, they’re seeing a comeback thanks to social media communities such as Reddit and Tumblr.

“A number of young bloggers and artists have found a new niche for the long forgotten GIF—it can bridge the gap between video and still photo,” writes Forbes.

The venerable Ann Friedman voices a similar sentiment that GIFs are “a uniquely digital mode of conveying ideas and emotion.” The name stands for the filetype Graphics Interchange Format. (Friedman helpfully points out the GIF renaissance has started a couple years ago, but is reaching full mainstream tilt now.)

Especially the blogging platform Tumblr, with its visual touch and reblogging functionaly, has pushed GIFs into online virality. Even President Barack Obama’s campaign team uses them.

Ann Friedman's coffee table

Can news sites capitalize on this newfound popularity of GIFs among young consumers? There are three challenges to using GIFs in news. (Be warned: Hit the escape key if you want to stop the moving images.)

  • 1. Ridicule.
  • There’s a reason GIFs work great for cat videos. They often repeat comical or painful moments, such as falls. The form itself seems best fit for a 13-year-old, which is why it’s a bit challenging for news content.

  • 2. Visual Overload.
  • The Atlantic used GIF images to explain the gymnastics competition at the Olympics. This was actually a fitting topic because you’re trying to explain why certain movements were better executed than others. But with more than two dozen (!) images moving simultaneously on the page, it has the same effect as blinking banner ads: unnerving busyness.

  • 3. Copyright.
  • Often, GIFs are ripped from movies or TV shows, or reposted from elsewhere on the Internet. Even power users of GIFs admit that trying to find the person who originally created the little image is often impossible. Then there’s the owner of the video or photos used in the GIF. In the U.S. you’re probably covered under fair use. Elsewhere, not so much. What internet users often worry little about, news organizations should.

    Actually, there’s a fourth point: No pre-roll. The advertisements that usually run before online videos fall flat for GIFs – and those ads are big moneymakers for news orgs doing visual content on the web. However, GIFs aren’t the same as video and won’t replace video content anytime soon. Rather, they’re useful for isolating one specific moment.

    Are GIFs here to stay?

    That’s why they work so well for sports coverage: They’re perfect for showing that one play, that one move, and the repetition helps viewers see the detail. In fact, during the Olympic games, GIFs have had a coming out moment, becoming such a mainstream hit that even the New York Times stitched together images by its photographers into semi-coherent moving pictures.

    Yes, the New York Times published a story titled “10 Animated GIFs From London 2012″. Let that sink in for a moment. So it’s certainly fair to say GIFs have hit the mainstream. (One of the reasons is likely the restricted video rights for the Olmypics, which have precluded news outlets from embedding video of events.)

    With the surge in popularity, will GIFs be used after the Olympics? They work very well for sports, but can also add snarky commentary to other stories, as Matt Wynn points out via Twitter:

    He links to this animation. Using GIFs as commentary certainly suits the medium well.

    There are ways to incorporate the visual ideas without entering full-on videogame mode. The New York Times has used a moving image, albeit an HTML5 video, on its homepage on Independence Day. It showed the Statue of Liberty with the water around it moving ever so slightly in the sundown. That’s a subtle way to approach the subject.

    Another option is to pick your GIF moments wisely. Use a rocket launch or a sporting event. Platform matters, too: On Tumblr, there’s no need to worry about whether GIFs are appropriate. They just are.

    Nike skirts Olympics rules with “Find Greatness” ads

    This Nike ad looks like the perfect spot for the Olympics, yet it’s a carefully set-up marketing ambush. That’s because Nike is not an official sponsor of the London games – that would be Adidas. But Nike has stolen a good amount of attention from its competitor, with the spot above watched more than four million times alone.

    The organizing committee has been notorious for its strict rules about how businesses that aren’t Olympic sponsors are allowed to talk about the event. Words such as “summer”, “bronze” and “London” are forbidden. Even pubs in London aren’t allowed to advertise that they’re showing the games. A parody Twitter account called “Brand Police 2012″ is funny mainly because it probably isn’t that far from the truth.

    Yet here comes Nike, one of the biggest sports manufacturers on the planet, and sidesteps all those rules to leave Adidas in the dust (it wouldn’t reveal how much it’s paying for the campaign, which also included a promoted hashtag #FindGreatness on Twitter).

    Organizers are grinding their teeth, but have decided against trying to sue Nike.

    This is a cross-post from my Tumblr blog. Come follow me there as well for bite-size musings and pictures.

    Facebook und Twitter drängen auf die Olympische Bühne

    Es sollen die ersten “social media Olympics” werden, die ersten Spiele, bei denen soziale Netzwerke breit genutzt werden. Sowohl Fans wie auch Athleten tummeln sich auf Facebook, Twitter und Co. Allein in den Tagen vor der Eröffnungsfeier wurden mehr Nachrichten über Twitter verschickt als während der gesamten Spiele in Peking 2008. Während viele Athleten fleißig Fotos verschicken, gab es jedoch bereits die ersten Skandale.

    Die Netzwerke selber wittern das Geschäft, wollen bekannter werden, neue Nutzer und Werbegelder anlocken. Sowohl Twitter als auch Facebook arbeiten mit dem US-amerikanischen Olympiasender NBC zusammen. Twitter will damit vor einem Millionenpublikum beweisen, dass sein Dienst und Geschäftsmodell tragfähig sind, schreibt das Wall Street Journal.

    Wider adoption can help Twitter expand its ad business, justify its $8.4 billion valuation and eventually pave the way for an initial public offering (Jessica’s note: Twitter has maintained that a potential public offering is still a ways off).
    As a result, Twitter’s Olympics bet is crucial. “This is a way for new users to sample Twitter,” said Chloe Sladden, Twitter’s vice president of media.

    Auch für Facebook ist die Zusammenarbeit mit NBC ein interessanter Schachzug, hätten die Betreiber doch auch eine offene Schnittstelle für alle Medien anbieten können. Die sozialen Netzwerke steigen also ins Mediengeschäft ein, auch wenn sie steif und fest behaupten, Technologieunternehmen zu sein. Nicht zu vergessen: Auch Google hat eine extra Olympiaseite eingerichtet, auf der Wettkampfergebnisse und Medallienspiegel einlaufen.

    Twitterreporter und Sportler teilen eigene Eindrücke

    Bei der Fülle der Twitternachrichten und Facebook-Updates sind jedoch auch Journalisten gefragt, die interessantesten Informationen herauszupicken. Spiegel Online holt sich dazu Hilfe von Lesern und hat sich Twitterreporter gesucht, engagierte Normalos, die während der Spiele ihre Beobachtungen und Kommentare absetzen. Die Nachrichten laufen in einer speziellen Box auf der Website von Spiegel Online ein. Die 23 Leute teilen unter dem Olympia-Hashtag #London2012 ihre Beobachtungen und Kommentare.

    “Die Leute, die sich bei uns beworben haben, sind alle große Olympia-Fans, einige mit Spezialwissen in bestimmten Disziplinen, andere Allrounder, die von Leichtathletik bis Dressurreiten alles gucken”, sagt die Social-Media-Redakteurin von Spiegel Online, Maike Haselmann, dem Österreichischen Standard.

    Sie erhoffe sich von ihnen eine Mischung aus Unterhaltung und Information. Zeit Online hatte zur Fußballeuropameisterschaft bereits eine ähnliche Idee umgesetzt. Die Webseite hatte die jeweils beste Twitternachricht zu einem jeden Spiel aufgespürt und daraus eine interaktive Erzählung der EM gestaltet.

    Einer der von Zeit Online gesammelten EM-Tweets

    Auch bei der dapd haben wir uns auf die soziale Seite der Spiele vorbereitet. Auf Twitter haben wir eine Liste der deutschen Olympioniken zusammengestellt, die von jedem abonniert werden kann. Auch auf Facebook habe ich eine Liste offizieller Sportlerprofile erstellt.

    Erste Pannen schon vor dem Start

    Doch bereits vor der Eröffnungsfeier gab es die ersten Fehltritte. Eine griechische Athletin wurde wegen herabwürdigenden Äußerungen über Afrikaner, die sie über ihr Twitterprofil getätigt hatte, aus dem Olympiakader gestrichen. Die deutschen Hockeyspielerin und Fahnenträgerin Natascha Keller wurde ihrerseits mit Twitternachrichten in Verbindung gebracht, in denen sie sich negativ über Griechen geäußert haben soll. Der DOSB wies die Anschuldigung weit von sich. Später stellte sich heraus: Es war nur ein schlechter Scherz, den sich ein griechischer Journalist auf Kellers Kosten erlaubt hatte. Ihr Twitterprofil wurde dennoch gelöscht – zu viele Hasskommentare hatten sich gegen Keller gerichtet.

    Abgesehen von solchen Patzern macht es Spaß, den Sportlern über die Schulter zu schauen. Viele laden Fotos hoch und lassen uns so an ihren persönlichen Eindrücken teilhaben – eine schöne Ergänzung zur gewohnten Berichterstattung.

    To succeed, first learn to fail

    What sets successful people apart from unsuccessful ones? Intelligence may be less important than how we deal with failure, according to the Wall Street Journal. When presented with a task that’s too difficult for them, some children in a study thought they “weren’t smart enough” and gave up. Others tried to find a way around it, determined that with enough effort, they would be able to solve the puzzle game. Researchers concluded that this mindset helps people attack new challenges.

    Interestingly, some children threw their hands up at the complex task even though they considered themselves smart. That is “because they are afraid to try anything new for fear that failure will undermine their self-image as ‘one of the bright ones.’”

    In short, some people are afraid to take a risk because of the inherent potential for failure. They’ll have fewer opportunities to learn, because what we learn from failure often proves more important than what we win from successes.

    Not being deterred by failure can lead to innovation. Photo by "Punk Nomad" on Flickr used under Creative Commons.

    It’s especially true in the business world, where failure is as dreaded as it is important. Often, it is failure that leads to innovation, says business professor Edward D. Hess.

    Innovation is the result of iterative learning processes as well as environments that encourage experimentation, critical inquiry, critical debate, and accept failures as a necessary part of the process. … Almost all innovations are the result of prior learning from failures.

    Just ask Dyson or Edison, who each went through hundreds of prototypes before arriving at their respective revolutionary inventions. If employees and organizations are too focused on reducing mistakes, Hess says, they avoid uncertainty, thereby narrowing the area where new ideas are shaped. If you never fail, you’re playing it safe.

    Unfortunately, nobody likes to admit their failures. This creates a skewed image of success as somehow inevitable, the end of a straight road instead of one filled with twists and turns. As Ben Horowitz of the venture captial firm Andreesen Horowitz relays, learning from the failures of a fellow CEO was an important help for him in running his own company. The most difficult task as head of a company, he says, is managing your own psychology. Then he offers this interesting bit of advice:

    Whenever I meet a successful CEO, I ask them how they did it. Mediocre CEOs point to their brilliant strategic moves or their intuitive business sense or a variety of other self-congratulatory explanations. The great CEOs tend to be remarkably consistent in their answers. They all say: “I didn’t quit.”

    Sounds like those children with their puzzles were onto something.

    A female CEO, and pregnant

    Everyone’s talking about it: Marissa Mayer of Google is the new chief executive of competitor Yahoo. She’s supposed to turn around the struggling Internet giant. And she’s pregnant, expecting her first child in October. Does it matter? This piece in The Atlantic offers a nuanced take:

    This, on the one hand, should really be none of our business. And on whatever level the news may be even a tiny bit our business — the human family, the public eye — it should be worth a congratulations to Mayer and her husband, nothing more. On the broader level, though — of the human family, of the public eye — Mayer’s pregnancy means something. How she handles it, publicly, will mean something. “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it,” Mayer said in announcing the news. And that, too, will mean something.

    This ties into a discussion started by Anne-Marie Slaughter, formerly a top official at the State Department under Hillary Clinton and now a Princeton University professor. She slammed the myth that women can “have it all”, saying it’s still incredibly hard to combine a career with raising a family. The women who make it to the top, she argued, “are genuine superwomen”. Asked by a journalist via Twitter whether she thought Mayer proved her wrong, Slaughter echoed her earlier sentiment.

    Slaughter tweet

    I think those two pieces in the Atlantic offer a good, thoughtful background for the debate.
    (Thanks to Shortformblog and MuckRack for pointing out today’s story.)

    How we can diversify our storytelling

    Most news websites tell stories primarily in one format: text. It may be broken up into pages, and there are pictures to go with it, but the basic story is still a text story. Meanwhile, our news consumption habits are changing quickly. News is increasingly becoming an on-the-go commodity, especially when consumed on a mobile device. One way to adapt to that is to make text stories shorter and therefore more easily digestible. But why does the main anchor of a story have to be text, anyway?

    Pictures can tell a story. A number can tell a story. A quote can tell a story. A list can tell a story. Of course, a video can tell a story, and when scientists discovered the higgs bosom, this video told the story better than a lot of texts did. All those elements can at once both boil down information and entice a reader to find out more.

    This diversification is playing out on the blogging platform Tumblr. The site’s setup encourages posting and sharing short pieces of information, be it quotes, statements or images. It’s a very visual platform where images tend to get shared a lot (animated gifs are also popular). A number of Tumblr sites have taken this up and put a newsy twist on it by uploading graphs or images of a number that connects to a bigger story.

    Another interesting approach pioneered by the smart people at the Tumblr site Shortformblog is to break up a story into logical or time sequences. Instead of saying “After a backlash over its decision to leave an environmental certification program, computer maker Apple reversed the step”, Shortformblog posted this:

    shortformblog on apple

    These postings break down a story into its parts, again making it easier for readers to understand what’s happened. (Funnily enough, they also turn the journalistic approach on its head: We’re trained to put the newest piece of information first, then add context later.)

    This doesn’t mean we should do away with the text story. In fact, often these elements need text to accompany them, to explain more clearly what they mean. An infamous example are Ezra Klein’s “the state of (insert complicated thing here) in a chart” blog posts, where he claims to show the one chart that easily explains the state of whatever complexity is the subject of the day. Really, the posts would be more aptly described as “the state of (complicated thing) in a chart and 1,000 words“. But aren’t you much more likely to read about something complicated if it’s presented in a more digestible way?

    Poverty and race in one chart, from Wonkbook (click for article)

    My point is: We need to think of more diverse ways to grab readers and tell them what’s important about a story. Let’s think about how to tell stories instead of just defaulting to text. That still means we need to find the format that’s best suited to convey the information (hint: it’s probably not a word cloud).

    We also need to work hard to make it easy for readers to understand what’s going on even if they don’t chose to dig deeper. Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but they can also skew an impression. The same is true for charts – as the saying goes, don’t trust a statistic you haven’t faked yourself. So journalistic principles have to be applied here as well.

    But these examples show that you don’t need a squad of interactive developers to mix up the type of media you use. All that’s necessary are some good ideas.

    (P.S.: Next step: Making a gif for this post)