Nick Carr is wrong about Google

After seeing recommendations on Twitter from Clay Shirky and others, I was expecting a tour de force from author and former Harvard Business Review editor Nick Carr, but I confess that I found his post on Google as middleman — and its effect on newspapers — disappointing. Not just because the middleman comparison is one that has been made repeatedly over the past couple of years, and therefore doesn’t really add much to the conversation, but also because I think he is wrong. Or rather, I think that his description has some merit, but the lessons he draws are flawed, and ultimately unhelpful for newspapers (I would have put these thoughts into a comment, but Nick says he has disabled comments because they are too distracting).

Is Google a “middleman made of software,” as Nick describes it? In many ways, yes. And as he points out, entities that act as middlemen in a market typically act in their own interest. But what about his third point, in which he says:

The broader the span of the middleman’s control over the exchanges that take place in a market, the greater the middleman’s power and the lesser the power of the suppliers.

I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding here. The broader the control that Google has over the exchanges that take place in a market, the greater its power — but that power doesn’t lessen the power of Google’s suppliers. If anything, in fact, it amplifies it. Does Google indexing my website, and providing a link to it when someone searches for my name, lessen the power that I have over my content? If you think of power as control over who sees the content and where, then yes. But in reality, it provides me with far more reach than I could otherwise achieve on my own, by exposing that content to people.

(read the rest of this post at the Nieman Journalism Lab blog)

Anonymity in reader comments has value

Doug Feaver, the former executive editor of the Washington Post, has a great column up about comments and the value of allowing them to not only be anonymous but unmoderated (other than by fellow commenters). This is a case I have tried — and continue to try — to make at the Globe and Mail, where I am the communities editor.

When I first took the job (and since) one of the first things people said was that our comments were unrelentingly bad and that we should require people to use their real names. I try to point out that while we are working on a number of ways to improve the tone of our comments, it’s virtually impossible to actually guarantee that someone has provided their real name, unless we ask them for their driver’s licence or credit card or SIN number, in which case we would dramatically reduce the number of people who would be willing to comment (I think in many cases what people want are real-*sounding* names, as opposed to obvious pseudonyms).

But in addition to that, I think the anonymity issue is largely a red herring, and that in fact there are many virtues to offering it, some of which I tried to outline in this post. Here’s a great excerpt from the Feaver piece:

I believe that it is useful to be reminded bluntly that the dark forces are out there and that it is too easy to forget that truth by imposing rules that obscure it. As Oscar Wilde wrote in a different context, “Man is least in himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

Twitter: A workshop for journalists

I did a workshop about Twitter today for some of the journalists I work with at the Globe and Mail, and uploaded it to our internal wiki — and then I figured I might as well upload it to Slideshare so others could see it as well. I’ve embedded it in this post (click through if you’re reading via RSS) and you are free to share it or download it as you wish. I took a couple of slides out that had Globe-related traffic data in them — traffic pushed to stories by Twitter — but other than that it’s as I gave it (without my witty commentary, of course). I’m happy to say that while there was a range of knowledge in the room when it came to Twitter and social media, from a general familiarity to virtual nothing at all, I detected a lot of openness to the idea of using such tools to connect with readers in different ways.

I tried to make a number of points in the workshop, among them that Twitter is extremely simple to use (so why not give it a shot); that yes, it has a silly name, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be useful or valuable (Google had a silly name at one point too); that it is a great way of a) reaching out to and connecting with users, b) promoting our stories and c) finding sources for stories (otherwise known as “real people”); and that there are a number of tools that can make it even more useful (Tweetdeck, etc.). I also noted that you really only get out of it what you are prepared to put into it, and that the experience depends a lot on whom you choose to follow. And just to drive the point about promoting our stories home, I noted that our most-read story ever racked up a lot of those views because of Twitter.