Tactics for Content Re-Use [en]

You might have realised how resource intensive content creation is. There is no hope for economies of scale, unfortunately. However, there are a few things you can do to reduce the costs of content. First, you can use your attention and research time to create more content. Second, you can make your content live longer. Third, you can plan on reusing content in various places.

Get More Out of Your Research

You can get more content for the same amount of research. For example, when composing a document, there are always notes and links that don’t find their place or get edited out. Maybe you could use them as a tweet or a blog post. Even research that does get used for one piece can be used in others. With a publication calendar and a solid multi-channel content strategy, you can find ways to reuse research and, often, also content up to five different ways, according to Ardath Albee. She gives the example of a white paper which might help you create blog posts, slide decks and a webinar. Of course, what you create should depend on a strong strategic foundation defined by your goals and your means.

Be Aware of the Cycles and Use Them to Your Advantage

You can also, when appropriate, re-use content that has been published long ago. If you were to compare this spring’s advice about weight-loss and exercise with last spring’s, you wouldn’t notice such a big difference. Just like magazines, you can use tactics to promote, or even re-edit and re-publish old content.

When you can’t re-use content like this, having a list of content triggers and corresponding templates can save you time and worries. When quarterly results hit or new product lines are announced, lots of content is published on multiple channels. The content is often similar. Write a template (a recipe) which will guide the writing and use it every time.

Modules and Meta-Data

Unfortunately, we often let our content management systems decide how granular our content can be. Out of the box, we often get text-areas for a title, an excerpt, the body of your post, categories and tags. Whatever you publish, you can benefit from getting more granularity — especially in the giant blob that is called “body”. Breaking down content in smaller chunks opens the gate to content re-use across different contexts and different channels.

Product descriptions and biographies of staff, for example, need only be written once and — ideally — stored in only one place. Tweets linking to the same article, even if you publish them numerous times can all have the same text. Pamela Kostur explains How to Rewrite Content for Reuse in a two-part series. Every step you take towards content re-use can have tremendous benefits.

With a little more in-depth work, you can prepare your content to last longer and be reusable on various channels most effectively by summoning technical expertise. To attain this degree might take a lot of work and you might need the assistance of a content strategist to help you decide on the purpose of your content by giving it SMART goals, break it into appropriate modules, mark it up well, and add copious amounts of accurate meta-data. Sara Wachter-Boettcher details how to do just that in Future-Ready Content. If you work on a big enough project with many stakeholders, the benefits will make the whole endeavor worth it. Promise.

Which Content On Which Channel

Preparing content for re-use isn’t a license to send all your content on all your channels, however. “Create Once, Publish Everywhere” is a catchy phrase for content strategists. Yet if you and other people in your organisation take it literally, you might get into trouble. Clinton Forry explains that it is best to “publish selectively”. It all comes back to your strong strategic foundation and your goals. Each channel and platform should have their own set of guidelines because every one of them has their own constraints. Keep that in mind.

Content re-use is a hot topic right now and there certainly is more to learn. If this quick survey sparks ideas around content creation and distribution work flows, I would love to hear about them in the comments.

I wrote “Tactics for Content Re-Use” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on April 4, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Let Readers Discover Your Publication’s Personality [en]

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At first, I used Paper.li simply as an aggregator of links from all the people I followed. Of course, to an outsider, the group of people I follow looks random. No wonder I am the only regular reader of my first paper. To experiment further, I made another paper about content strategy. I thought that it would be neat and orderly at last. However, the people in the list are… well, people. So of course, they share things that aren’t related to their work. At first, this bothered me and I tried to edit things out manually but I soon gave up and then came to like it. Disorder and variety are a great vehicle of personality.

Sharpness in publications is overrated

Recently, Seth Godin threw out one of his short brain poking posts. He compared the merits of sharp and well-rounded individuals. As my brain still tries to reconcile its liberal arts education with all the unsolicited advice about sharpness floating around, it got me thinking.

I have a lot of varied interests, this is also why my first paper doesn’t make much sense to anyone but me. When people tell me to be focused, sharp or pointy, I like to remind myself: “I am no sword. I am no laser. I am a man“. Personal branding experts and their followers stay “on message”. Repeat their “value proposition” incessantly until they become so dull and uninteresting, they have to stage conflicts where none exists, churn out top sevens on their blogs, etc. Many publications I used to adore began resorting to these techniques. They publish things like “Kurt Vonnegut’s ten best tips on writing” and “What five things Hunter S. Thompson can teach you about writing”.

These blogs seem to publish for search engines and forget they address people. They cover keyword after keyword to lure us onto the business sites. This strategy is short-sighted because it doesn’t show their personalities and the full breadth of their expertise.

As Mandy Brown explained in her essay in Contents magazine, editing and publishing is about people and communities. You can’t be too sharp with people, they’re made out of flesh. Publications and editing need to take this into account.

Diversity is necessary

Editing any publication requires more than focus and sharpness. We need context and diversity. In content creation as in curation, coming to the subject matter from a variety of angles will provide both.

On the one hand, it will prevent readers from getting bored by creating rhythm. As Stephanie Booth explains in “Variety is the spice of life”:

By publishing only one type of “top post”, one turns it into the “average post”. Add a sprinkle of intermittent reward to the mix, and you’ll probably positively influence the way readers perceive your content.

Gradual discovery is a delight

On the other, gradual discovery and engagement works wonders to encourage readers to come again. Providing information little by little rewards subscribers and followers. It creates familiarity over time. In turn, familiarity provides the necessary context for you to go farther into details like in a good television series when you discover the characters little by little.

BoingBoing, Kottke and Brain Pickings, for instance, are the ultimate examples.  They are difficult to grasp at first. Even after many visits, it might still be difficult to reduce their editorial line to one sentence or even a paragraph. Does that prevent people from getting it right away? Sure. Yet, after stumbling upon interesting articles of theirs over and over, curiosity is tickled. Readers start trusting them to come up with rich and fulfilling content. A relationship develops, in short. Each author has their own numerous areas of expertise and interests. Through their long history, they develop themes that subscribers can pick up on and follow.

The point is not to forget about planning all together. To convey the breadth and depth of your or your organisation’s personality requires a strategy. We made progress in our methodologies but relationships with humans can’t be mechanized. We shouldn’t forget Tara Hunt’s advice to embrace the chaos. In all forms of publishing, you are always dealing with humans. You don’t get to choose if things are messy, they will always be. You can only choose how much of a mess you want and if the mess is rich in meaning or not.

Image credit: “Spinning Blade” by Patrick Fitzgerald, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

I wrote “Let Readers Discover Your Publication’s Personality” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on January 9, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Content Marketing for Small Businesses [en]

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Content marketing is the buzzword of the week. Yet, it has always existed: under different names, spread by different means. When a farmer talks with his customers about the compared merits of different crops on the market floor, it is content marketing already. He helps his customers make better sense of the world in a language they can understand and builds goodwill in the process.Somewhere along the way, companies lost this human connection as evidenced by the fourteenth thesis of the Cluetrain Manifesto by Levine, Locke, Searls and Weinberger:

Corporations do not speak in the same voice as these new networked conversations. To their intended online audiences, companies sound hollow, flat, literally inhuman.

But now, they’re beginning to get better at communicating in a human voice again and respond to their customers’ true concerns in conversations. There is talk of content strategy, content marketing, etc. in lots of exciting places.

Small businesses relied on these conversations and the spreading of good content for a while now. John Jantsch, in his 2006 book Duct Tape Marketing, exposes a holistic approach to marketing which is all about reaching out to the right prospects with compelling content.

The major point is this: Content Marketing is the creation and distribution of content to build trust in your relationship with your prospects. They want reliable information about their situation and how different options compare. Give them that and soon, prospects will turn to leads and leads will transform into customers.

In most content marketing efforts, there are three goals you have to work towards.

  1. Help people live happy stories by sharing relevant information.
  2. Show them how you can intervene in their stories with your products.
  3. Discover your specific way of caring in the process.

How To Join The Conversation

John Jantsch advocates reusable and modular content. So you can mix and match according to your audience and chosen means of distribution. The different pieces of content he would suggest are:

  • A statement of why they should hire you
  • A summary of how you’re different from the competition
  • A description of your ideal customer and why you appeal to them
  • Your marketing story
  • Your offerings, of course.
  • Compelling case studies and testimonial proof
  • And the list goes on…

The content types detailed above are all sound, but remember you don’t have to feel overwhelmed or constrained by the list. Don’t rush it. Some organizations can churn out content and hope for the better. You can’t gamble like this, you have a business to run. Create as much value as you can. Stay confident that each piece of content you create answers your audiences’ needs and supports as many of your business objectives as possible. Focus on the three pillars, take your time to plan your content as you would a new line of products.

Small Steps Add Up

This being said, don’t let such warnings block you. Content publishing is like any new business you dive into, you will make mistakes at first and it’s OK. Writing and publishing are processes of constant discovery. The feedback you will receive will help you get better. Start writing right now, publish when a piece is ready. Take it step by step, one piece at a time.

Most advisers, just like John Jantsch, would want you to start at the center with core messages. Enough with this obsession, I say! Start at the periphery and move towards the center later. In their time, themes and patterns will emerge and point towards core messages and values. If you can’t figure them out, don’t be discouraged. Keep writing and publishing content nonetheless. Core messages and differentiation from the competition will come as you discover subtleties in your way of caring for customers. You can’t just declare them, they have to mature and arise. If you pay attention to your education efforts, your caring and your story, you can be confident that good things will happen.

What’s Practical

Marcus Sheridan taught himself how to use the web to promote his fiberglass pools business. The content he has created became a major factor in River Pools and Spas growth. His first move when he started out was to collect questions he was being asked, answer them in writing, often breaking industry taboos like pricing in the process. His efforts were so successful that he became a content marketing consultant known as The Sales Lion. If you are just starting out or if questions don’t roll in the door fast enough, you can use Q&A sites such as Quora or Stack Exchange to gather more. Write answers in the best manner possible using your own personal voice and post them on the web. If you don’t already have one, a blog is a great format for such efforts because it is modular and flexible.

By helping people make sense of the world around them, you will gain their trust and their business. Saddleback Leather, a small business selling durable leather bags, teaches how leather work is done, on the one hand, and shows their specific way of caring in a story on the other. You also have a great story to tell — I am sure. Invest a little bit of time to write it down because it will bring context and help with connections. Follow the steps I showed to craft the Editor’s Note of your Paper.li with a broader focus and get your story heard.

Of course, curation with Paper.li is also a way of providing content to help your customers make sense of the world. Many small business owners share their experiences on this blog like Nichelle Stephens, cupcake queen, or Brendon Held, kitesurfing expert. There are countless others such as Brian from the Edison Pen company — specializing in custom pens. They edit a delightful Paper.li about writing tools entitled Writing Instruments Daily. Follow their lead: I wish you nice chats!

Image Credit: Table centerpiece representing Turkish merchants in conversation photographed at Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts by FA2010

I wrote “Content Marketing for Small Businesses” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on Mars 16, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

How To Share Online Without Worrying About Reputation [en]

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Our beloved internet never sleeps, never forgets. Worse, people often don’t understand our intents or make wrong assumptions about us. We may assume a curator approves of the content of every article he shares, for example. As a beginner on the web, I’ve been misled like this myself. Or, we may make mistakes with the tools. We live in troubled times — the economy suffers and the social norms around online sharing haven’t been firmly established yet. Employees worry about what they can and can’t do online. Job seekers worry that what they share online can be held against them. In such a context, using Facebook’s frictionless sharing and semi-automated curation tools like Paper.li may seem risky for one’s reputation. Yet, the benefits of online sharing are too numerous to abstain. So, what can we do?

Letting Go of Fear

We’re all protective of our reputation. Who isn’t, right? So much so that worms and phishing attacks spread on social networks using our concerns. We, from time to time, all receive direct messages on Twitter saying “OMG, they’re saying nasty things about you here” with a link to a malicious site. Even if we suspect a trap, the urge to click that link is always strong. Yet if you click that link out of fear, your Twitter account will be hacked and send out the same direct message to all your contacts. Letting yourself get caught in this manner will damage your reputation.

Although less immediate, being defensive with your social media presence or your curation efforts will cause you harm also. People are able to tell when you let your fears drive you. Curation implies risks: you never have all the facts, you make decisions quickly, etc. Many regret having bombarded their friends with the KONY 2012 video because of the backlash and revelations about the campaign. Said friends may hold this against them.

You can’t stop people from talking. There might be people criticizing you down the street. Could you interrupt their conversation and protest that their characterization of you is anything but fair? Yes, but it would make you look freaked-out and whiny. Social media offers the unique opportunity to listen as people have conversations. Your new found ability to listen isn’t, however, a license to make rude interruptions, complaints and start petty arguments.

Letting Go of the Thirst for Control

We may have trouble accepting that we can’t control how others see us — ever. We can influence it to some extent but never control it. We can’t even control all the signals that we, ourselves, send into the world as tightly as we would like. Body-language, micro-expressions and other leakage can always be interpreted. Not accepting this will only make us insane.

It’s the same online: you can’t attend to everything all the time. Your Paper.li might go out with a story you wouldn’t have shared. One of your clever “If this then that” recipes might cause feedback loops and spill large quantities of updates. Tumblr’s queue might malfunction and all your posts might get published at once. Such accidents happen.

The best we can hope for is a set of social norms and best practices to handle these problems. Call it netiquette, social media guidelines, whatever… we look to grow and spread the online equivalent of tact and manners. Lots of people have been working on this problem by now and some widely agreed upon best practices have emerged. I have reviewed some of the many social media policies that organisations have made publicly available (and that Chris Bourdreaux has listed for everyone’s benefit). there are a few constants:

A Few Guidelines

  • Once something is published, it can’t be taken back. This is the first rule. Bots, archive builders and content scrapers are constantly making copies of everything. There’s no complete “delete” function. Therefore, you should always consider your posts carefully.
  • Be respectful. Avoid being a troll, feeding trolls or flaming people. Beware of themes such as religion and politics. Treat social media like you would face to face encounters.
  • Stay calm. As stated in the example above, do not complain about misrepresentation, just point it out and always assume it was a mistake made in good faith.
  • Admit your own mistakes and correct them. If you’re willing to admit and correct your mistakes, people will be far more forgiving.
  • Do not mislead your audience. Make a clear distinction between facts, opinions and fiction. If you want to experiment with self-representation as a literary genre, make the relevant writer-reader pact as clear as possible.
  • Respect copyright laws. There are countless resources to find free or cheap images to illustrate your posts. You can search Flickr by license, browse Wikimedia Commons’ catalogue or even take your pictures yourself.
  • Ask before naming friends who don’t blog. If your blog or social media posts get high PageRank, your blog may come up in the search results for your friends’ name.
  • When you disclose who you work for, put a disclaimer up stating that your opinions are solely yours.
  • As long as such a disclaimer is very clear, express your opinions.
  • When it comes to your profession, stay around your areas of expertise.

If you keep these guidelines in mind, everything shall be OK and you’ll be able to handle the risks of online sharing. I hope you are a little less worried — I certainly am, so we can go make and spread cool stuff. Sharing’s beautiful. Let’s go!

Image credit: “Surveillance Video Cameras”. Paweł Zdziarski. Creative Commons Attribution License.

I wrote “How To Share Online Without Worrying About Reputation” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on April 20, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Context-free content: new challenges for publishers [en]

Publishers used to control the way content was experienced. Designers read and put content in tailored layouts. Content was produced and laid out for consumption on paper and later on desktop computers.

The experience could be controlled but the content landscape is changing. First, an ever expanding portion of audiences access content through mobile devices. Each device, browser or app fragments the user experience. Second, new services extract content from the publishers’ websites and put presentation firmly in the users’ hands. As a result of both developments, the number of contexts in which a single piece of content is available has grown out of control. No one can keep track or test them all.

Content consumption apps and services

In the last few years, many new services appeared to help users collect, experience, store and share the pieces of content they come across on the web. Paper.li is a good example. It collects links in Twitter and Facebook and displays them alongside an excerpt in a familiar format. Others such as Readability and Instapaper reformat the content, act as repositories and sync it to other devices. All these services trend towards orbital content which “is no longer entrenched in websites, but floats in orbit around users” as Cameron Koczon puts it.

One of the consequences is that content is separate from its original layout. “The separation of design and content is not a bad thing for designers, in fact, it’s an opportunity to create a better content consumption experience than the next guy”, Simon Madine explains in Context-free content and content-agnostic design.

Responsive web design

Context is fragmenting even on single websites. Last year, Ethan Marcotte published an article entitled Responsive Web Design which he later expanded into a book. His ideas ignited the passion of web designers. Using the capabilities of modern browsers, web designers craft a single website which adapts to devices dynamically. You can see an example by visiting the Boston Globe and resizing your browser window. New challenges arise from these changes in design process. A single site’s user experience now changes dramatically from device to device.

Responsive content

Due to both the new service ecosystem and responsive design practices, content needs to fulfil business objectives and user goals in many different situations. To adapt to these changes, we must go back to content fundamentals and pay close attention to the emerging practice of content strategy. Shelly Wilson proposed, in her five minute presentation at the 2011 Content Strategy Forum, to integrate content professionals to the iterative design process of responsive web services. Ongoing conversations among content professionals and other designers address these issues and significant progress is made.

Progressive publishers who have embraced the separation of content and context by implementing content serving APIs (The Guardian, National Public Radio) had to adapt their content creation processes. Martin Belam, Lead User Experience & Information Architect at Guardian News & Media, shared his experience in a talk at the 2011 Content Strategy Forum and on his blog. Content creators must learn to create content that is self-contained and context-agnostic enough. Otherwise, we might run into problems, such as:

  • Spatial relationships between pieces of content are often broken. You can’t say “the figure on the right” because it might very well be somewhere else or not render at all.
  • Embeds, whether based on Flash, inline frames, or native HTML5 audio and video tags, can prove problematic in certain contexts. iOS refuses to render Flash and HTML5 tags are not universally supported. Planning for graceful degradation is more important than ever.
  • Help sections instructing users to use a mouse are rendered meaningless on touch-screen devices. Users may get confused and write for support or worse — leave forever.

Creating content which retains all of its meaning in different contexts is challenging. Fortunately, the whole community discusses these issues and best practices are starting to emerge.

I wrote “Context-free content: new challenges for publishers” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on October 14, 2011. Reproduced here with permission.

Use the Editor’s Note to Tell Your Paper’s Story [en]

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Curators show who they are by exposing what they care about, what they consider worthy of other people’s attention. We use stories as currency in the attention economy: picking the best of them and passing them along.We manage a platform of stories. Yet, it seems we’re not storytellers ourselves. Or when we are, we separate the curation from the storytelling. Browsing through Paper.li, I found that most editors do not use the “editor’s note” text area — myself included. Is it shyness? Do we want to put other people’s content first and foremost?

By putting your curation efforts in context, you add value to each individual link you share. It is not necessarily about taking a larger chunk of your reader’s attention for yourself.

And if you do want the attention, please, put effort in it. Pasting your website URL in there isn’t going to cut it. Whenever I see such editor’s notes, I get a spammy vibe and it hurts your credibility. Self promotion is fine, just make it elegant.

How To Unearth Your Story?

Curators care. Some care enough to set up a Twitter list and a Paper.li to use it themselves. Some walk the extra miles and edit theirs every day before sending it out to their community. We have individual reasons for caring. If you tell these reasons to others, they might be touched and start caring too. To unearth your own Paper.li’s story, all you have to do is ask yourself the questions that the interviewers here have asked to the featured editors. It is better to do it in writing, so open a text editor or grab some paper and a pen. Here we go.

Start with your topic. Explore the reasons why you are interested in the subject. Explain how you became the person who engages in the task of editing your paper. What happened? This is the first “crisis” of the story. Readers get a glimpse of the hero’s background and learn about the event which led you to your subject.

Next comes everybody. Our hero — yes, you! — meets people on social networks. There is a connection. And you use Paper.li to achieve a goal. Maybe they help you. Maybe you help them. Or both. Even if you don’t promote your paper, it’s your chance to take a better look at your sources. What do they have in common? Why did you select them?

The resolution. The hero’s efforts have brought the Paper.li to life. Somebody — it might be only you or your whole community — is now better off. To write this part, ask yourself these questions: do you get a response when you put your Paper.li out there ? Does it have an impact on the people you publish?

It’s OK to not be 100% accurate. I wouldn’t encourage you to lie, but don’t let an obsession with accuracy ruin your story. It’s your inner critic trying to fool you. There are many ways to cover the same sequence of events. The way you recall events isn’t necessarily the most accurate version anyway. Tell your inner critic to shut up and re-frame your story in the most positive and active light possible using the above structure. You should, in fact, feel a little uncomfortable with the result at first.

Editing, The Funny Part

Sprinkle active verbs. Verbs which describe movements engage the reader’s motor cognition. Neurons in the parts of the brain which treat our own movements fire when we see somebody else move and even when we read or hear about movement. You should use this in your writing — even more so in short pieces. For example, you “embrace social media” and you “use Paper.li to pick up interesting links from the community’s feeds”. “Embrace” and “pick up” paint a vivid picture and enhance your story without using too much space.

Disassociation strategies. If your topic is polarizing, you might be afraid to have your name associated with what could get pulled in your Paper. Framing your paper as the result of an encounter between you and the whole community (as we did) might not be enough. If you still feel anxious, describe how Paper.li helps you with its algorithms.

Make it short. You want to preserve space for the stories you and the algorithms have picked. It’s the point, really. So you need to pack your grand story in the tiniest amount of space possible. Don’t worry, though: just lay down the words first. Then, take out the unnecessary nuances and modesty. Eliminate the passive voice, the adjectives and the adverbs. Replace comparisons with metaphors. And see your word count. Repeat until you have sixty words or less.

Now, you’re ready to copy and paste it into your Paper.li. If you do complete this exercise, it might give you the courage to tackle other text areas. For example, take the part that is most personal in your story and squeeze words out until you reach below the 160 character limit of Twitter biographies. It’s a fun game and you’ll reap benefits.

Image credit: “Story Time”, by Dave Parker. Creative Commons.

I wrote “Use the Editor’s Note to Tell Your Paper’s Story” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on January 25, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Presenting Pearls: Stakes of Content Discovery [en]

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Users of fast growing services face challenges discovering relevant content. To address these challenges is hard because relevance is an ever evolving concept which depends on the context. When the user has a clear goal or specific question, relevance is straight forward: that’s how we got search engines. But it is less obvious to address the needs of users who want to discover content that they don’t know about yet, or who watch a specific topic over a period of time. Search is about asking questions and getting answers. It doesn’t help you to figure out which questions to ask. Paper.li recently unveiled their Topic Browser to address these issues and let users of the platform extract more value out of our collective curation efforts.

Problems of Visibility

As the number of users to social networks and publishing platforms grow, the signals multiply. On the one hand, owners of the platform celebrate the growth of their service and the success of their company. On the other, this threatens to diminish the value of the platform as users get overwhelmed. The social signals which were supposed to help them make sense of the tidal waves of content become a part of the waves themselves. Moreover, potential users have difficulties understanding what the service is about or where the best stuff is. Each growing platform faces the same issues: Twitter, Tumblr, WordPress.com and Paper.li.

In our world of plenty, each service wants to give users tools to navigate the oceans of content and find the true pearls. If these tools can be developed, problems of visibility will not only be averted but the community will get more value.

Content Discovery Mechanisms

Relying on content discovery mechanisms means that we are outsourcing part of our choices. They present us with manageable amounts of options and we choose from this instead of choosing from the bigger pool. This is how we get a suggested user list on Twitter, Flickr’s interestingness index, WordPress.com’s homepage, or dedicated services such as Squidoo or Paper.li and its Topic Browser.

Tumblr faced a problem with their vast amounts of signals. Tumblr relies on tags and human editors to surface the best content. Tag pages are produced by contributors and editors working together. Users, then, can subscribe to this curated experience.

Squidoo is another service which relies heavily on human editorial skills to create pages about topics with original content and material from around the web: images, videos, RSS feeds. The addition of Amazon and Ebay affiliate modules brings revenue that is shared with editors who can then give it to charity or keep it.

Paper.li is in a position to solve this problem differently. With their Topic Browser, they inverted the process. Instead of having topics curated by few editors, they rely on the massive numbers of Paper.lis edited every day by their algorithms in tight collaboration with their users to surface content. The scale at which the Topic Browser operates is impressive: more than 13 million articles are categorized in one or more of the 20,000 curated topic pages. The filters ensure that the most topically relevant content gets added. Each topic page also features links to the individual Paper.lis which contribute to it, making it a topic watch as well as a discovery tool.

Personality Through Taxonomy

Using the wisdom of crowds to perform editorial tasks may seem risky but it gives us access to new information about our own community. On the one hand, individual personalities of the community’s members and publications may not shine as much anymore. This is a loss, since personalities are to be cherished. Yet, on the other hand, we may discover more about our collective biases and quirks. The culture of services and the communities they gather shine through their taxonomic choices. Tagging and categorization practices give us insights into the choices made when developing algorithms, and about human editioral practices of both administrators and users.

On Tumblr, for example, the Explore function is based on enlisting moderators to curate topic pages. They introduced this function with a limited array of topics in December 2010 and slowly added more to finally merge everything into the Explore function. Today, the page shows a selection of what the service has to offer.

This page does say tons about the Tumblr community: their love of pictures, leisure-related content and cuteness becomes apparent.

Paper.li’s Topic Browser is still in Alpha but the tagging system already shows signs of personality — especially on broad topics. Recreation, for example, seems to be synonymous with exercise for most of our community’s members. Love’s topic page points to an impressive array of posts about interpersonal relationships, wonderful personal blogs, and some NSFW images forming a striking portrait of the topic online.

As we explore the Topic Browser together, we will gain new insights about our community and our world. Dive in. And when you come back out, tell us what pearls you found and what you learned about the Paper.li community in the process.

Image credit: “Pearls” by Dr. John Supan for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

I wrote “Presenting Pearls: Stakes of Content Discovery” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on February 6, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

How to Select Only What You Need and Leave the Rest [en]

To ensure high quality, two workers at a local tea shop sort through the dried tea. Kunming, China.
“Information Gluttony”, a previous post, provoked interesting reactions among social media enthusiasts and editors. The need to become more picky is widely felt. Jan Gordon wrote:

I think this is most important for all of us, continually refining our ability to select only what we need and leave the rest. Today everyone is a publisher and everyone has an opinion. Aren’t we suffering from meaning overwhelm as well?

To address her comment and the others, I will try to deconstruct the process of content selection and explore ways in which we might fine tune our filters together.

How to Select Content

In my own journey through content, I try to consistently refer to first filters. A piece of content must pass a series of tests before I link to it. They may be performed consciously or unconsciously, but these questions do get asked. At least, one of the following must get a yes.

  • Does it support a goal?
  • Does it make an emotional connection?
  • Did I laugh while reading it?

Yet, these three questions aren’t specific enough. Meaning overwhelm occurs because there’s too much “good” content out there. In fact, it makes me quite uncomfortable to talk in terms of good or bad content. This distinction isn’t helpful or clear anyway. If it were, we wouldn’t be discussing “content gluttony”, “meaning overwhelm” and how to avoid being “content fried”. Relevance seems to be a far more appropriate way to talk about content. Unfortunately, relevance is contextual. Aiming for relevance in edition is trying to align your goals and purposes with the ones of your readers and the ones of the content creators you share, re-blog, etc. As Jan Gordon wrote, it will be a “continual” process of refinement but you need a solid and documented strategic foundation.

If you are starting out, choose your topic wisely. Then, there are three main areas which require your focused attention.

  • Know what your curation efforts’ purposes are. Do you want to learn more about the field? Establish credibility? Do you want to encourage people to action about a certain issue?
  • Understand your audience, their purposes, and goals. Once you have started, listen to them and ask questions. Take notes of the articles which gather the most responses. Try to figure out what features distinguish them: topic, tone, format, angle.
  • Develop a talent to quickly evaluate content. Revisit the basics for evaluating web content. Determine whether or not it aligns with your goals and your audience’s.

Whether you are doing it for yourself or an organization, create a short document about your findings, the tools you will be using, ideas for recurring sources, etc. Review it often. Your future self will be glad.

What You Can Safely Dismiss

After that, it’s practice, practice, practice. Even with a strategy in place, the actual task of monitoring all the sources has no clear beginning nor end. This is taxing. Beth Kanter offers insights in how to stay sane while doing it. Her last piece of advice “Just say No” is where the most power lies.

Saying “No” is useful, not only to pace yourself and make pauses during the week, but also to dismiss pieces of content in a heartbeat. I would love to learn how to become more picky. In other words, what can I safely ignore? is a question I ask myself often. Here are a few answers:

Poor form. Good writers pay attention to grammar, edit, and proof-read. As an editor, you should pay attention to these things as well. Here’s how to do it. By directing people’s attention to well-written content, you prove how much you value their time and attention.

Tips and tricks. Nobody acts on tips and tricks — especially long lists thereof. Unless you have acted upon them and have personal experiences to add, don’t pass them along. For example, when I identify a problem in my workflow, I go on Lifehacker.com or search the web for solutions but it never works the other way around. The problem with tips and tricks is that you never get enough because they feel like action when they are anything but. They don’t encourage anybody to do anything. Really.

Advice. Shoulds and shouldn’ts can be just as toxic as tips and tricks. Everybody bathes in “expert” advice all day. We should (!) all raise our standards or stop paying attention to advice altogether. Each situation is unique and advisers try to shove a standardized solution in them. Pieces of content which ask questions and encourage your audience to see their situations more clearly will bring more value in the long run.

Helping each other update our filters will save us from becoming content fried. I hope to make this list longer with your suggestions. What types of content do you say “No” to?

Image credit: “Workers sort through dried tea. Kunming, China” by Steve Evans. Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial License.

I wrote “How to Select Only What You Need and Leave the Rest” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on February 23, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Content Rivers and Information Gluttony [en]

Portion depicting Gluttony in Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things”

As the festive season was drawing to a close, I –like a large portion of the online population– became concerned about ending the cycle of over-eating. The sense of satiety is easy to numb and hard to get back. It is not only true for food but also for content. Non-physical items can lead to gluttony as easily as the very physical foods and beverages of Yule. Similar mechanisms are at work. Only, content doesn’t have a season. The feast is all year round.

Information overload or gluttony

“Information overload”, I hear you say, “we know that already”. Is it really the problem, though? As Clay Shirky argues in his talk “It’s Not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure”, information overload is our new environment of plenty and not a problem that needs solving. We celebrate the availability of information in many great ways. Yet we experience problems with it sometimes. It lies upon us to create internal and external filters to manage our time and attention because they are our most precious resources.

Excited by the wealth of information available, we lay the traps ourselves by using the tools in an unsustainable manner. I’ve been doing it myself. At some point, I was following three hundred Tumblr accounts and around four hundred RSS feeds. Soon, I started operating under the impression that I should see every item and extract value out of them. These expectations were unreasonable and they were making me crazy. I cut more than half of my RSS feeds. I left Tumblr for a while. Only now that I have returned a wiser man, do I understand more about this information gluttony.

More and More

As humans we’re drawn towards content. There’s a drive to accumulate experience and learn about things because it helps us survive. Putting aside immediate threats, it helps us reach our other goals too. This drive, however, has a tendency to extend. Soon, we start consuming content because it might help us reach a potential goal. Our scope widens out of proportion. That’s also why we hop from entry to entry on Wikipedia and catch ourselves only four hours later. This is why people keep updating their Tumblr dashboard to see more shiny things.

Yet, if we go down this path, neophilia –the love of novelty– becomes the purpose. In the mass of indiscriminate content, true interestingness constitutes a surprise reward. As our brains try to unveil the secret pattern which leads to more such rewards, it sends us on a quest for more and more content. Infinite scrolling or infinite pagination can keep us on a site or service for hours.

Too Little Information To Decide What To Ignore

Dumb aggregation tools collect an endless chronological sequence of content items. The absence of an unread count makes it into a “river of content”. Somehow, this should be enough to change expectations and make it OK. It doesn’t always work and we get stuck on sites like Tumblr or Facebook.

Understanding what features of such content rivers cause you to slip into gluttony is key.

  1. Piles make us want to get to the end…
  2. but rivers of content have no edges or limits. Trying to consume all that passes on our screens is futile. So, we should know what we can safely ignore…
  3. yet, rivers of content are often indiscriminate messes which make it difficult to decide what to read and what to throw out. Posts are often unstructured and stripped from categories: source and date are all we have to decide. Links on Twitter are inscrutable shortened URLs so we don’t even get that precious little indication regarding the source.

Deciding with certainty which pieces you can ignore is important for content consumers as well as curators. Design can help us with that. As publishers and designers we should ask ourselves what relevant information we can provide to help our audience decide what they should or shouldn’t read. Metadata can be richer and more relevant.

Lists and Folders

Until then, we might have to use old tools to organize our incoming streams and restrain ourselves. Lists and categories provide order and visibility. They help us decide what to pay attention to and what we can ignore. To come back to food, you have better chances to avoid picking up candy if you make a list of groceries in advance and stick to it.

Mark Zuckerberg is often quoted as saying: “Nobody wants to make lists”. Most people don’t want to, yet, some order must be imposed if we are to stop treating content like formless stuff. Lists have a long and rich history in helping us make sense of the infinite, as Umberto Eco says. What makes list-making unpopular on the web is the lack of a strong incentive.

Paper.li and Google+ both encourage their users to make lists and categories.

  1. Google+ asks you to put the people you follow into circles.
  2. Paper.li functions best with public Twitter user lists and, hence, provides a strong incentive to use them.

Yet, there’s something to note about categorization in Twitter lists, Google+ circles and folders in RSS readers. They categorize the sources but not the items they publish. Put a Twitter user in a list and then, regardless of what she publishes, the content is going to be in the list. Same with Google+ and most RSS feed readers. You put a feed in a category or folder and then, the items from that feed are all stuck together. There’s a general lack of granularity and an opportunity for more intelligent tools. Paper.li, however, is different. It shows the source and puts the links in categories like Technology, Business or Education automagically. The result is not perfect but –oh so– helpful. I would love to see other tools do the same.

Bearing this limitation in mind and with practice, it is possible to gain a little control back. Take a little time aside, while we’re still in the beginning of the year, to review your lists of sources and the folders/categories they’re in. It is worth doing.

Image credit: Portion depicting Gluttony in Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things”.

I wrote “Content Rivers and Information Gluttony” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on January 13, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.