Edelman’s Steve Rubel Switches from Blog to Lifestream

This is one in an occasional series on MediaShift where I discuss issues in-depth with thought leaders in online media. The format has changed to give you a profile of the person, as well as more of our dialogue -- including video clips. If you have suggestions for future Q&As or want to participate yourself, drop me a line via the Feedback Form.

Profile

Steve Rubel

Age: 39

Hometown & Current Location: Long Island, NY

Favorite Websites: Gmail, Friendfeed, Posterous, Google Reader, NYTimes.com, Instapaper

Online Persona (all the places to find you online): Lifestream site, Facebook page, Twitter feed, Friendfeed page, Google Profile.

What Makes Him a Thought Leader: Rubel was one of the first PR people to take up active blogging back in 2004, and his Micropersuasion blog has been a must-read A-list blog since then. Rubel is now senior vice president, director of insights, for Edelman Digital, looking at technology, media and online trends. He has more than 27,000 followers on Twitter and writes a bi-weekly column for Advertising Age magazine.

What He's Doing Now: The biggest change for Rubel was mothballing his Micropersuasion blog and putting all his efforts into a lifestream site run through Posterous. He can now post more frequently and embed more multimedia easily into his stream. He told me the new site gets twice the traffic of his blog, likely because of the higher volume of posts, the curiosity of people who want to see his new site, and his experimentation on the site.

Q&A

I spoke with Rubel a couple months ago when he was visiting San Francisco for the Ad:tech conference. We met at B Restaurant near Moscone Center and I interviewed him with my Flip camera. We talked about his balancing act as a blogger/journalist/PR person, how PR is shifting with the advent of social media, and what lessons Edelman and Edelman's client Wal-Mart have learned from previous missteps online. Here's the edited video from that chat (apologies for the background noise), with notations below on particular questions and subjects if you'd like to jump to topics of interest to you.

01:48: Blogs losing their luster to Twitter and other online forms of expression.

02:52: Elephants (social media) and zebras (old media) mating, creating...?

03:58: What's the next big thing in social media?

05:44: Rubel got in trouble with PC Magazine by saying he doesn't read it anymore.

06:50: Social media has become an integral part of PR.

08:30: Will PR companies hire marketer-programmers?

08:58: What's the biggest mistake PR people make online?

09:55: Celebrities cut out the PR middleman by using Twitter, social media themselves.

11:05: What Wal-Mart and Edelman learned from past PR mistakes online.

12:30: Is the press release outdated, and should it be replaced with "social media press release"?

13:40: What's the best way for brands to track themselves on social media?

*****

What do you think about the changes happening in PR? Do you think social media has become an integral part of a PR person's daily routine? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Newspapers Try Again with Local Blog Networks

Recently, those who visited the front page of the Miami Herald's website began seeing a sidebar item labeled simply "Your Blogs." If you clicked on the link it would take you to a page containing a series of headlines and little snippets of opening paragraphs in a news feed format. If you clicked on one of the links, it would take you to an independent blog not affiliated with the Miami Herald, written by someone who lives somewhere in South Florida. Many of the blogs, though not all, have a regional bent. Some of the links would take you to film or music reviews, or commentary on national politics.

This blog news aggregator is a joint project between the Miami Herald and BlogNetNews, a company founded by David Mastio. For years now, Mastio has been pushing the idea that newspapers should be fostering closer relationships with local bloggers, linking to their content and in effect exposing their readerships to a wider range of media. Lately, he's been meeting with publishers from local newspapers, alt weeklies, and radio and TV stations to set up such networks using his own software.

Mastio's project is part of a trend in recent years of newspapers trying to team up with local bloggers. In 2006, the Washington Post launched a new ad network in which the newspaper's ad reps would sell advertising on local blogs and split the proceeds with the bloggers. I couldn't find any reference to the blogroll on the Post's front page and old permalinks to it no longer work. (I exchanged several emails with Washington Post publicity and advertising representatives, but couldn't get anyone to go on record before deadline.)

More recently, the Chicago Tribune launched a blog aggregator called ChicagoNow, which aggregates "50 blogs and growing." Newspapers and bloggers hope that such efforts could lead to mutually beneficial relationships, but the jury is out on whether those relationships enrich the business of either party.

A reader on-ramp

david mastio.JPGIn terms of teaming up with traditional news companies, Mastio has worked with organizations in Bowling Green, Ky.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Atlanta, among others. In addition to this, BlogNetNews has separate landing pages aggregating political blogs in all 50 states. He said that the basic idea when working with news outlets is to build an "on-ramp" for readers to find out what's going on in local blogs.

"What we do is use all the blogging services out there to find as many of the local blogs as we can -- that are somehow identified by geography, no matter what they're writing about," he said. "And then our system checks them every hour and runs excerpts of the latest posts, and makes all those blogs searchable in a narrow local blog search. We [include] a topic cloud that tracks what people are talking about in the last 100 posts. And we keep an archive of those topic clouds based on an entire day's blogging, so you can see what people were talking about yesterday, or six months ago or whatever you want."

Mastio explained that bloggers are linking to their local newspapers every day, so it seems selfish in some sense not to recognize the value in linking back. He said that doing so would provide a service that would be mutually beneficial for both the news organizations aggregating the blogs and the blogs themselves. These blog feeds would, in essence, create more content for the news site while at the same time sending valuable traffic to the blogs. He didn't have precise numbers, but based on some click-through counts for one of the networks he set up in Tennessee, he estimated blogs shown on the newspaper site received 10,000 click-throughs a week.

Monetizing Blogs

But what about monetary benefits? Mastio said that right now the main advantage to creating such a network is increased traffic, though he does have plans for future monetization.

"It's our plan that we're eventually going to use these networks to create local advertising networks so we'll be able to sell an ad that runs on the site and on blogs within its network," he said. "And in turn we would be able to share the revenue with the bloggers, but that's not something we're able to do quite yet."

Tracy Samantha Schmidt, editorial director for ChicagoNow, said that the bloggers on the site will get a share of the revenue based on page views. Unlike other newspaper attempts to monetize or aggregate off-site blogs, the Chicago Tribune actually approached dozens of Chicago bloggers and offered them contracts to blog on the ChicagoNow website non-exclusively.

"If the bloggers say, 'Sure, sign me up,' we pair them up with a community manager," she said. "We have four of them, and one of the managers will work one-on-one with them to get them trained on our system -- we use Movable Type -- and then we give them all sorts of support if they need training in social media. Whether it's training in SEO or building community, our managers will do that with them."

The team rolled out the beta site on May 25 and since then it has amassed over 600,000 page views. Schmidt said they have bloggers in several niches, from sports blogs to a blog about the city's parking tickets. Though many of the blogs are written by already-established bloggers, they've also invited some local celebrities and well-connected business types who have never blogged before.

I asked Schmidt why they didn't simply put the bloggers on the Chicago Tribune site.

"We are run by the Chicago Tribune, but we're calling it a flanker brand, because really what we want to do is be a separate website off the Chicago Tribune and have as little crossover between the Chicago Tribune and ChicagoNow as possible," she said. "Because we really want to reach readers that the Chicago Tribune hasn't been able to reach online. So that's why we're creating the separate brand."

In addition to traditional brand advertisement, Schmidt said the plan is to eventually launch "adverblogs," allowing local businesses -- in a "completely transparent way" -- to blog for the site. They will also create events around their bloggers and allow organizations and companies to sponsor them. At some point they want to open a classifieds section of ChicagoNow as well.

Posts, not blogs

tony pierce 2.JPGI spoke to Tony Pierce, the blog editor for the LA Times who first gained popularity in the blogging world by writing for his own personal site and then later for LAist. Pierce manages writers for several dozen of the LA Times' blogs, but though the newspaper has a few local LA blogs on some blogrolls, it hasn't adopted any kind of feed or network with local blogs. But surely someone who came from the local blogging scene could appreciate the potential for such a network?

"I think it really matters how good the local blogs are and how well they relate to the content in the newspaper," he told me. "I mean, you can have some really great blogs in your town, but if they're mostly personal or fragmented in their direction, then I don't know how it's going to play on a newspaper site. But if you have a city where you have a whole bunch of people writing about sports or politics or local events, then it would be ideal. As someone who competed with a lot of the local blogs in LA, I would say there's only about three or four that would really fit into a kind of a blogroll if we had that at the LA Times."

Pierce thought that simply creating a scrolling feed of every blog in the area wasn't exactly engaging in the medium. Instead, he thought that newspapers should put more focus on actually reading local blogs and linking to individual posts. For instance, several of the blogs he manages do daily link "round-ups," linking to blog posts within their niche. He often encourages his bloggers to click through their blogrolls and find more obscure content rather than simply linking to the latest Gawker piece.

"For the most part, this whole citizen journalism concept is fine for about three or four people per town, but that's about it," he said. "And most of those people are not journalists for a reason. Either they're crappy writers or they're crazy, which makes for sometimes interesting blog posts, but is that something that a major newspaper would link to? I mean, even my personal blog is certainly nothing I would have expected the LA Times to link to. I was swearing a lot, it was mostly very personal, plus I say on it that it's full of lies."

But if the newspaper didn't feel comfortable linking to all the local content, should it at least try to sell advertising on these sometimes highly specialized blogs, creating an advertising network that benefits everyone?

"It's just that if you have a whole lot of blogs getting 5,000 page views a day, you're going to need a lot of them, a whole lot of them," he said. "And even if you have a whole lot of them, where do you put that ad that it's going to be really valuable? It's a really tricky situation, and I might come across as kind of a snob -- I mean, I love blogs more than any other person -- but I'll be the first to tell you that most of them are crappy. Which isn't to say that individual posts can't be great, and I think that's where newspapers should focus."

Pierce said he thinks blog networks are only the first step toward true engagement. Despite the hype over Web 2.0, not all content deserves to be highlighted for a newspaper's readership. To be truly innovative, he said, editors are going to have to roll up their sleeves and wade through drivel to find the gems.

Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate editor for MediaShift. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.

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Brave Citizen Journalists Provide New Images of Iranian Life

Like many people, I have been watching this so-called "Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, [Insert New Media Application] Revolution" unfold in Iran from the comfort of my own home. Watching the dizzying and horrifying images that have emerged on the Internet has triggered a whirlwind of emotions and thoughts.

I was shocked and outraged by the death of Neda. I felt a sense of awe watching a group of women defiantly walking the streets without head coverings as if they were in a Pantene shampoo commercial.

I often felt bewildered watching these videos, for I consider myself to be somewhat worldly, and while I always assumed there to be Iranian dissenters, I had precious little knowledge about them. It turns out I'm not the only one who was in the dark. The image that most of the world has been getting about Iran just does not match up with the one that we've only recently been receiving via social media. But the tools for ordinary Iranians to get their stories out have existed for a while -- so why is it only now that Iranian citizen journalists are using them? And how is the work of citizen journalists in Iran changing the way the world sees their country?

What the world sees

Being a citizen of the U.S. currently based in Israel, I am generally shuttling back and forth between Iran's two greatest enemies.

While it can be expected that Iran would cast both "Big and Little Satan" as a monolithic evil entity in its media, I doubt that either the U.S. or Israeli media do a much better job showing Iran for what it actually is: a culturally rich country with an educated populace with varying political and social views.

I find this a bit disturbing, especially in this day and age.

This formula sums up what the average Israeli knows about Iran:

Iran = Ahmadinejad = Crazy = Holocaust Denier = Hamas and Hezbollah Financier = Finger on Red Button = Nuclear Armageddon = Mommy, I'm Scared = Vote for a Right Wing Government to Assuage Fears

Of course, Iran does a great job bolstering this viewpoint, by acting the part of a maniacal regime bested only by North Korea.

iranphoto.jpg

Yet in Israel, one gets the sense that the snake has finally been let out of the bag, and it's not that big and bad and poisonous after all.

While many Israelis I've spoken to are using the current events to validate their claims that the Iranian government is out of its mind, the overriding sense is one of surprise that the Iranian people are saner than previously thought.

Who knew that most Iranians support women's liberation, a more compassionate Islam, and a free press?

A month ago, most Israelis couldn't name one Iranian besides Ahmadinejad. Now some here have actually started wearing green in solidarity with Mousavi and company. Israelis are now realizing that they actually have a lot in common with Iranians, which I imagine is true across much of the world.

Why Now?

The big question I have is why did it take so long?

Couldn't these iReporters, as CNN calls citizen journalists, have uploaded anonymous stories a month or a year ago? Why did it take a fraudulent election and street riots to get the world's attention about the repressed majority in Iran?

I suppose the answer might have to do with the "if it bleeds it leads" business model in news journalism.

Iranian bloggers have long been the only truly independent journalists Iran has to offer, yet they have been largely ignored by the Western media as either not credible or not relevant. It's funny how quickly breaking news and street riots mitigate both of these factors.

The Iranian government, on the other hand, has always taken bloggers very seriously. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent non-profit organization, Iran is considering passing a law that would make the creation of blogs promoting "corruption, prostitution, and apostasy" punishable by death. To date, millions of websites have been blocked, and hundreds of bloggers have been arrested. In March, cultural blogger Omidreza Mirsayafi died in prison under suspicious circumstances. He was only 29.

If these intrepid citizen journalists are willing to sacrifice their lives to report from Iran, the least we can do is extend them a hand and publicize their work as much as possible, even if it's not about violent or sexy topics.

In general, it would be nice to read and see reports from despotic regimes during times of peace, so that we can have a window into their world before the blood spills. (One good example of seeing into the lives of people in a war zone is the "Gaza Sderot" video show that I profiled on MediaShift.)

Let this be a wakeup call for the Western media that has been collectively hitting the snooze button on Iran since 1979.

Tapping into Citizen Journalism

It's high time to tap into the plentiful and natural resource known as citizen journalists. The advantages are numerous: There's no need for an expensive bureau. They're already on the ground. Plus, they speak the language.

It should also be a stern warning to other governments that forcefully control their people and their outlets for free expression. From here on out, the relationship between press freedom and citizen journalism campaigns will be inversely proportional.

iran3.jpg

Whether it be China, Egypt, Cuba, or Burma, totalitarian states should note the futility in stripping the powers of professional journalists, because citizen journalists have the tools, the resolve, and the tenacity to fill the void.

Kudos to the brave citizen journalists of Iran who have used their cell phone cameras to finally give us a more complete picture of their country. While this may not be the revolution many Iranians were waiting for, we will look back at the events of 2009 as a watershed of sorts for citizen journalists across the globe, who got the attention of the wider global audience.

Thank you. We've gotten the message. And now let the draconian regimes of the world get theirs: If you don't change your ways, the revolution will be uploaded to the Internet, and then televised.

Jaron Gilinsky is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. As a freelance video correspondent for Time, the New York Times, and Current TV, he has produced and directed scores of documentaries on a range of international topics. Jaron is the founder of Falafel TV, a documentary production company, and regularly posts his videos and articles on his personal blog.

Iran protest photos collected but not taken by Misterarasmus via Flickr.

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Zombie Bloggers Create Communal Horror Stories

On June 13, bloggers around the world imagined they were under attack by the living dead, writing short horror narratives for the annual Blog Like It's the End of the World Day (which was especially appropriate for me since it fell on my birthday). But there are some bloggers who blog as if everyday were the end of the world: the zombie bloggers.

And while the bloggers involved in BLITEOTW day imagined exotic fantasy and science fiction scenarios, dedicated zombie bloggers strive to keep their stories grounded in reality. This is a community where writers win respect for their ability to spin plausible explanations for impossible events -- and where readers add to the experience, collaborating in blog comments, forums, and tweets to create a communal story.

A Group Story

Zombies have had a major hold on the zeitgeist lately, with a whole slew of new horror movies coming out as well as books like The Zombie Survival Guide and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. So it's no surprise that there are innumerable websites dedicated to these shambling monsters. But it's precisely because there's little in the way of an ultimate authority on zombies that makes enthusiasts so eager to discuss them.

lost zombies grab.jpg

"It's because of this, that everyone can have their voice heard," said Ryan Leach, co-creator of Lost Zombies, a social networking site dedicated to an unusual attempt to film a community-generated zombie mockumentary. "It's kind of like an undead democracy."

Lost Zombies community members donate videos, audio recordings and photos of "zombie attacks" in their area.

"When we decided we wanted to do a community film, we knew we needed a website to be at the center to get the content we need," said Leach. "From [the user-submitted content], we are pulling pieces out that we want to be in the final project. Originally we didn't have any rules and just let it be, but over time we realized that users needed more direction and in order to get any narrative, we needed to create a loose timeline. We put a timeline on the website with dates and some events, but even with this, users are free to play around a little."

Since the site's launch in May 2008, Leach said it had received 18 hours of footage submitted and 10,000 registered members and won both the Community and People's Choice Awards at this year's South by Southwest conference.

Zombie Central

"There's no literary tradition of zombies," agreed Andrew Morisson, co-founder of the Zombie Research Society (ZRS) and zombie-themed social networking site Zombie Central. "It's not like Bram Stoker wrote the great zombie novel. Modern zombies as we know them didn't exist until 1968, when George Romero made 'Night of the Living Dead.' That means that a lot of the questions about them are anyone's guess and there's a lot of debate about, if they did exist, what they would be like."

Andrew-Morisson.jpg

Even so, readers generally have a sense of where the discussion is going. First, there are enough established ground rules about zombie behavior drawn mostly from popular horror films that new participants can quickly learn the ropes and join the conversation. At the same time, though, there are enough gaps in our "zombie knowledge" to provide ample opportunity for pseudo-scientific discussion. The Zombie Research Society has an advisory board made up of heavy-hitters in the zombie world, including Harvard Medical School Co-Director of Psychiatry Steven Schlozman, to help lead discussions with suitably scientific-sounding explanations for the undead.

Social networks like Lost Zombies and Zombie Central are dominated by three main groups of users: arts buffs who are interested in zombie arts and like gathering to watch zombie movies or organizing zombie walks or costume parties; survivalists who like to plan out how they would survive in the event of an actual zombie attack; and philosophers who like to discuss the social, legal and scientific ramifications of a zombie outbreak.

ZRS commenters often get into heated discussions, because everyone has their own opinion on what to expect from zombies. Morisson said he often receives excited emails from readers eager to throw in their own two cents on blog post topics such as whether zombism could be spread by mosquitoes. Keith Harrop, editor of Zombie World News, compared it to online role-playing.

"Having so many people contributing to the discussion provides perspectives and solutions that may have otherwise been overlooked," said Melissa Ebbe of Zombie Defense Training. "Even if zombies never rise up against us, this type of Internet discussion has become a modern storytelling. We are collectively creating a narrative, of which we are all a part."

Staying Real

Other than their central conceit, most zombie websites want to appear as matter-of-fact and realistic as possible, something that helps readers to better imagine that the fantastic events being described could actually happen and to get into the spirit of the conversation.

ZRS's web page could belong to a serious thinktank...on zombie issues. Zombie World News is a mock newspaper written in dry AP style chronicling the rise of the undead. Harrop selects and edits reader-submitted stories to maintain the site's faux-news reel tone -- and the realism which he says is important to instill a sense of mounting paranoia in readers.

"The basic premise is that anyone can take it where they want," said Harrop, "But I was interested in exploring the socio-political aspects of an outbreak, the part you never see in horror movies. How would the government deal with it? Would borders close? How would religious zealots react when the dead start coming to life?"

keithharrop.jpg

Harrop has also created a number of auxiliary websites for the sole purpose of feeding into Zombie World News and giving it a heightened sense of realism -- for example, a fictitious pharmaceutical corporation working on a zombie antidote referenced in numerous ZWN articles now has its own 'official' website. Despite his commitment to building ambiance, Harrop was quick to point out that he still includes disclaimers on all his web pages, just in case any readers might be too credulous.

Having contributors from all over the world helped to establish credibility -- a story set in India or Sweden always felt more real when written by a contributor with knowledge of the local terrain and culture. Adding to the faux-news feel of the site, ZWN stories unfold in real time and often incorporate actual current events; during the presidency of George W. Bush, news stories often discussed the potentials of stem cell research in zombie prevention.

Zombie sites strive to give readers a "You Are There" sense of this hypothetical apocalypse. To that end, zombie bloggers rarely break character, always speaking as though zombies were a genuine threat.

"I believe that the appeal in discussing zombies arises from a need to feel proactive in the face of adversity, and moreover in the case of a test of survival," said Zombie Defense Training's Ebbe. "Most civilians have never encountered a life or death situation. There is an incredible disconnect in these modern times between our work and our survival. The zombie apocalypse represents a breakdown of this monotony. Every individual will be forced to step up or become zombie fodder. In a sense, discussing this scenario gives people a chance to explore the direct relationship between their actions and their survival."

A Global Game

Of course, communal storytelling isn't restricted to zombies. Harrop noted how the approach he used on Zombie World News could also be applied to any number of topics. But zombies seem to be a fruitful topic around which to build an online community for several reasons.

"It's the perfect post-modern monster," said Morisson, "They can be explained scientifically. They're a biologically definable creature occupying a human corpse. There's no romance to a zombie. It's not like a demon or a vampire which works by magic. The only mysteries with zombies are the ones that we haven't figured out yet."

Another aspect of the zombie genre that makes it particularly well-suited for discussion in a global forum like the Internet is that zombie attacks are almost invariably presented as causing a world apocalypse, a complete meltdown of society -- in contrast to most other monster movies which pit a small group of heroes against a single monster. So it's easier to suspend disbelief when web surfers from all over the world report similar zombie experiences.

"When I get an email from a zombie enthusiast in South Africa, we may have nothing in common," said Morisson, "but this gives us some common ground. We know that this will hit everywhere when it happens -- when it hits Cleveland, it'll hit L.A., and when it hits L.A. it'll hit South Africa."

Mike Rosen-Molina is a Northern California freelance reporter and an associate editor for MediaShift. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley schools of journalism and law, he has worked as an editor for the Fairfield Daily Republic and as a managing editor for JURIST legal news services.

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How Will Iranian Protests Change Twitter?

There's been much ado about Twitter's role in the political protests in Iran, and for good reason. With the Iranian government expelling foreign journalists, outlets like CNN scrambled to uncover sources where they could. They found these sources among the din of unverifiable messages surfacing on Twitter. It's been fun reading mainstream media accounts of how Twitter is, in a sense, revolutionizing revolutions -- very "meta," no? If you aren't familiar with these recent events, MediaShift editor Mark Glaser has a very useful summary here.

But I've been more interested in the way this story has brought Twitter into the mainstream. That is, not Twitter's effect on the Iranian protests, but the protests' effect on Twitter.

Ok, I'll Join...and So Will the UN Secretary-General

I have a confession: I've made a good chunk of my living recently counseling clients on digital media strategies, yet I myself have abstained from jumping aboard the Twitter bandwagon until this past week. Sure, I've launched Twitter campaigns on behalf of clients and I do consider myself wise in the ways of microblogging best practices. But while I understood how organizations could use this channel to connect with certain audiences, I felt that, for personal correspondence, Twitter had a sort of a navel-gazing, quasi-exhibitionist feel about it. If something's worth sharing with a larger group, isn't it worth more than 140 characters? Besides, I was -- and continue to be -- a stickler for good grammar, so the idea of proudly publishing that SMS-style nouveau scrawl makes me nauseous.

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My friend Laura Fitton (who authored the just-released Twitter for Dummies") has been hassling me for quite a while to sign up, but I've been stubborn. Nevertheless, the Western media's reliance on Twitter as a primary source -- along with the technology's power to enable dissent in an otherwise stifling environment -- has inspired me to climb aboard.

Twitter was scheduled to go offline for routine maintenance last week, but the U.S. State Department requested that the service keep the information flow from Iran uninterrupted. If the continuous operation of Twitter is deemed important to our national interest, perhaps there's something to this. Perhaps I should stop being so self-conscious about using such a self-conscious communications tool.

It's not just the State Department that's giving a nod to Twitter in the wake of the protests. The United Nations is adding its voice, too. I've been talking lately with my friend Jim Landale, a public information officer at the UN. Landale's been working on a multiplatform campaign to mark the 100 day countdown to the UN's International Day of Peace. The campaign, called WMD: We Must Disarm, is jettisoning traditional promotional tools in favor of social networks in an effort to reach a "socially active audience." (You can follow the campaign on Twitter here).

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who's shown a willingness to use digital media tools in the past, has even started tweeting. Landale, who was part of the team that encouraged Ban's use of Twitter, shared with me how the Iranian elections have impacted the UN's decision to use Twitter:

This is obviously the first time that a Secretary-General of the United Nations has 'tweeted' and the first time (that we know about) that one of our campaigns has used multiple online platforms at once...There was some skepticism initially within the UN Headquarters at the idea of using Twitter, Facebook and MySpace for such an important campaign, rather than the traditional set of promotional tools, but we managed to overcome this by demonstrating how the campaign would work online...In addition, although we planned the campaign well ahead of the recent elections in Iran, the role Twitter has played in the demonstrations has also probably helped persuade doubters within our own ranks that Twitter and other social networking sites can be an extremely powerful tool.

A Look Forward: Twitter and Limitations

Peggy Noonan, whose column is the sole reason I buy the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, had a thoughtful take on new technology's role in the recent Iran protests. She notes that Twitter and YouTube may have become powerful expression tools for existing sentiment, but acknowledges that they don't, by themselves, create that sentiment. What will be most interesting, she suggests, is how Twitter will be used moving forward. Using the French Revolution as a proxy, she writes:

If they Twittered and live-blogged the French Revolution, it still would have been the French Revolution: 'this aft 3pm @ the bastille.' It all still would have happened, perhaps with marginally greater support...The interesting question is what technology would have done after the Revolution, during the Terror. What would word of the demonic violence, the tumbrels and non-stop guillotines unleashed circa 1790-95 have done to French support for the Revolution, and world support? Would Thomas Jefferson have been able to continue his blithe indifference if reports of France grimly murdering France had been Twittered out each day?

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The answer, of course, is "no." And the point, of course, is that Twitter can enrich the newsgathering ability of the mainstream media by acting as an investigative tool, a harbinger of public sentiment , and/or a crowdsourcing device. But Twitter itself is not -- and should not be -- the story here (except for outlets like this that cover this beat). Instead, it's part of the storytelling apparatus. It's no longer a grand phenomenon, but is instead a mere fragment of the mainstream media's new configuration.

Journalists should use Twitter to better understand the Iranian rebellion, not use the Iranian rebellion to tout a "Twitter Revolution." By focusing too heavily -- and headily -- on a simple micro-blogging technology, the news media risk distracting themselves from the more macroscopic, geopolitical issues at play here. If the mainstream news media can't get over its impulse to hype their shiny new tool, they will be enfeebled by the same kind of navel-gazing I thought Twitter was all about...until now.

Mark Hannah has spent the past several years conducting sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. He specializes in issues and reputation management online. Before joining the PR agency world (v-Fluence Interactive and Edelman), Mark worked for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign as a member of the national advance staff. He's more recently conducted advance work for the Obama-Biden campaign. He is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and a fellow at the Society for New Communications Research, and he serves as an awards judge for both organizations. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he's currently pursuing a master's in strategic communications at Columbia University. He is an independent communications consultant based in New York City and the public relations correspondent for MediaShift. You can reach him at markphannah[at]gmail[dot]com.

Iran protest photo collected but not taken by Misterarasmus via Flickr.

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Your Guide to Iran Election News Online

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From time to time, I'll give an overview of one broad MediaShift topic, annotated with online resources and plenty of tips. The idea is to help you understand the topic, learn the jargon, and take action. I've already covered Twitter, citizen journalism, alternative models for newspapers and other topics. This week I'll look at Iran election news online.

Background

After the presidential election in Iran on June 12, incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner by a large margin not long after the polls closed. Then came questions about whether the vote was rigged, and rival candidate Mir-Hussein Mousavi called for protests. The resulting chaos involved mass protests, violence and killings in the streets of Tehran and other cities in Iran, and calls for a new election. During it all, Iran's government arrested journalists, would not allow them to report on protests, and blocked Internet sites or slowed down Net access to make it unusable.

With reporters restricted on the ground, that left the main reporting on demonstrations and violence to the citizens of Iran, who spread stories, photos and video through blogs and social networks. That made services such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube crucial to following the story as it unfolded the past couple weeks. But it also made it difficult to verify the information on all those sources. Soon CNN was warning viewers that the material it was getting from social networks was not verified -- leading to a swipe from Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show":

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How This is Different

This was not the first conflict that included a repressive regime cutting off media coverage leading to citizens reporting online. In 2007, citizens and tourists played key roles in getting news out of Burma during protests by monks there. And the wider global blogosphere helped bring attention to jailed bloggers in Egypt, China and Iran in 2006, leading to their freedom. In late 2004, citizens helped capture the destruction of a massive tsunami in Southeast Asia when major media couldn't reach disaster zones.

But what was different this time was that more Westerners were connected through social networks than ever before. So when news started spreading through Twitter under the #IranElection hashtag, anyone on Twitter could follow reports as they came in minute by minute. Not only could they read what was going on but they could take action, re-tweeting accounts they trusted as true, and changing their photos green in solidarity with protesters.

The myth of this being a "Twitter revolution" was quickly debunked because so few people in Iran were using Twitter, and the authorities could easily go onto Twitter and subvert the memes being spread. But what made Twitter so powerful was its ability to get news out of the conflict zone to the wider world. And Twitter is extremely difficult for authorities to block because of its open API, meaning that people could continue to get news out by text-messaging or via apps such as Tweetie or Tweetdeck even if Twitter.com was being blocked by the government.

Plus, Iranians have long had to deal with the government blocking websites, so they know about getting around those blocks. And they have a flourishing blogosphere accustomed to organizing to help out jailed bloggers or to get information out when the state-run media is censored.

The Ecosystem of News

What's happening online is that the people formerly known as news consumers are now given access to all the raw material being captured by eyewitnesses. What is truth and what is fiction? Who is there and who is pretending to be there? Where and when was that video captured? How do I know that Twitter feed isn't from a government agent posing as a protester?

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Soon the viewer starts to figure out that there are various levels of trust they can associate with what they find online. There are the raw unverified feeds found via Twitter hashtags and Flickr tags. Then there are users on those services that have been reporting for a number of days, and who have been quoted or verified by others as being legitimate. Then there are sites such as Global Voices Online that have editors who know which bloggers to trust. Then there's the cell phone video of Neda Soltan, a young Iranian woman who was shot in the street and died. That video started as raw and unverified and eventually was shared, passed around, and the story and context came out to the wider world.

Over time, we start to find places online where we can trust the content, where people have proved their value in sharing valuable pieces of information. And they're not just trained editors and journalists at news organizations, though those people also play a role in verifying information, when possible, and providing context. Here's a roundup of some of the best sources on the fallout of the Iranian election.

Live Blogs

Iran Live-Blogging at Huffington Post by Nico Pitney

Iranian Presidential Election coverage at the NY Times' The Lede blog

Iran Crisis Live in the Guardian

The Daily Dish by Andrew Sullivan

Videos

Citizentube Channel on YouTube

Where Is My Election videos from inside Iran

iReports on Iran Election

Videos from IranDoost09

Twitter Feeds

Iran Unrest on Twazzup

Super-filtered #IranElection info from Current TV's Robin Sloan

Breaking Tweets' Middle East

Mousavi1388

Persiankiwi

IranElection09

StopAhmadi

Facebook Pages

Neda

Protest to Iran Election

Democracy for Iran

Where Is My Vote?

Map Mashups

2009 Tehran Election Protests

Embassies Accepting Injured People in Tehran

Mapping the Protests in Iran at the BBC

Independent Websites

Iran Focus

Tehran 24 photos from Iran

Tehran Bureau

Wikipedia's 2009 Iranian election protests page

Wikipedia's Iranian presidential election 2009 page

Aggregated Information

Iran Election on Alltop

Iran Election 2009 at Global Voices Online

Iran Election Watch at FriendFeed

Iran page on Daylife

Iran Conflict and Tragedy News at Allvoices

Iran Election Crisis at FairSpin (via Stephen Hood)

Yahoo Full Coverage of Iran

Articles and Blog Posts

America's Iranian Twitter Revolution at Open Anthropology

Coverage of the Protests: Twitter 1, CNN 0 at the Economist

Iran, citizen media and media attention by Ethan Zuckerman

Iranians find ways to bypass Net censors at News.com

The Revolution, in real-time by Joe Trippi

Twitter Is a Player In Iran's Drama at Washington Post

Twitter, Social Networks Deliver News of Protests in Iran at Poynter

The Web vs. the Republic of Iran at Technology Review


This list is just a start. Please add any trusted sources you have found to follow the news in Iran in the comments, and I'll update my list with any glaring omissions.

Protest photos by Milad Avazbeigi via Flickr.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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Will Digg Users Bury New Digg Ads System?

Since its launch in late 2004, Digg has tried its hand with several outside advertising networks, going from an off-the-shelf Google AdSense arrangement to working with Federated Media before finally signing a deal for Microsoft to deliver its display advertisements. But in April of this year, Digg announced it would end its deal with the software giant in favor of selling and delivering its own ads. Earlier this month, it announced that in the coming months it would introduce Digg Ads, a platform that involves injecting sponsored links directly into Digg's news stream, allowing users to Digg up or bury the ad just as they would any other story.

Over the past several years, it has not been unusual for a Digg user to screenshot a Digg display ad that he found particularly annoying or ironic and submit it to the site itself -- in fact, several such items have made it to the front page. Describing Digg's user base as anti-consumer wouldn't be quite accurate given the daily front page stories of the latest gadget news on Gizmodo and Engadget, but its community has been quick to lash out against corporations seen as having brushes with unethical behavior.

Like all major Internet communities, Digg's hosts a fair number of trolls (though the community itself polices the worst offenders) and the user base has never hesitated to criticize the very site that hosts their comments. Given all this, it's not difficult to be skeptical that advertisers would want to throw their brands right into Digg's news stream, possibly placing them within the cross hairs of an extremely outspoken and acerbic community.

Over the past few week, I reached out to several of the site's most powerful users, people who have pushed hundreds of submissions to the coveted front page. All of them spend sometimes hours a day on the site, commenting and Digging their friends' articles. Did they think that the community would welcome sponsored submissions and treat them just like the dozens of other stories, videos and images that flow across the front page every day?

Power Users react

Steve Elliot became an active user of the site in April of last year, pulled in initially by the idea of promoting his own content. But like other power users, he quickly realized the quid pro quo nature of Digg, in which you must push and network other Diggers' content. He told me that he's hopeful that the new ad platform will work, but that he's worried about the "noise" generated with front page submissions.

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"I think that it's possibly a workable system, but for it to be workable, they're going to have to find a way to cut through the noise of the automatic knee-jerk negative reaction a lot of people have to any front page story," Elliot said. "For any paid content, there's going to be even more users ready to react negatively to it. So if there is a way to separate that inevitable sizable negative reaction to an ad, then maybe out of the rest you can get enough usable data of up and down votes to see what kind of advertising is most effective."

He explained that if a company feels like an outsider to the community, then they're going to have a different experience of feedback than if they somehow integrate themselves into the community. The question, he said, is whether they can learn and replicate the formula for a popular Digg submission. He believes that it's possible.

"I'm cautiously optimistic," he said. "And when I say I'm optimistic, it goes beyond the baseline optimism that maybe they can pull this off. It goes for me all the way to the level that I'm hopeful that maybe in their attempts to catch the eye of the Digg community...instead of trying the same little tricks of old media, maybe they'll get creative. Maybe they'll break some new ground, and maybe we'll see some exciting ideas and ways of interacting with the community, which to me is what Digg is all about."

Abusing the 'Bury' Button

A Digg power user named Patrick (he didn't want me to use his full name) told me that he thought that the idea was a "brilliant one on Digg's part," because of the potential for massively higher click-through rates than you'd ever see with standard display advertising. And, unlike some, he was confident that the advertisers could create enticing content.

"I'm sure Digg has people who are smart enough to come up with stuff that's eye-catching, and I'm sure that people who work for Digg monitor the site and know what works really well and what doesn't," Patrick told me. "So they know what formula works. They know the algorithm...If I saw [an ad] that caught my eye, I'd click on it just like any other Digg submission. By the time I opened it and checked it out, and if I'm reading it and checked it out that long, I'm going to Digg it because it held my attention."

As for what consumer products would work well under this new system, Patrick said that anything involving mobile phones and tech products already gets a lot of coverage on the site, but pointed out that, with entertaining content, almost anything could work. His only fear would be that a certain percentage of the site's users would automatically bury all sponsored content.

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"They should get rid of the bury button, because more often than not it's misused," he said.

Rami Taibah, who has submitted over 700 stories to Digg, over 100 of which made it to the front page, said that the Digg demographics -- and likes and dislikes -- could be somewhat limiting in terms of what advertisers could be successful on the new platform. He noted that companies that have prior histories of perceived unethical behavior will likely have some negative pushback from Digg, no matter what the content.

"Advertisers will have to try to understand the Digg community and what the users like to click," he said. "It's very anti-establishment, and is pro-Apple, pro-Linux, and very anti-Microsoft. If they try to understand the submission culture, then yes they can succeed. There are a lot of social media experts out there that could help such companies to customize articles and content that would sit well with the Digg community."

When I pointed out the sometimes-trollish behavior of some Digg commenters, Taibah said that this is simply the nature of the Internet and that he didn't believe that such a thing should or would deter companies from promoting their brands through the social news site.

Digg Ads

Mike Maser, Digg's chief strategy officer, told me in a phone interview that they first approached a few of the site's advertisers with the idea years ago and were met with enthusiasm. As their ad budgets have continued to contract -- especially in the last year or so -- the companies have been looking more toward performance-based advertising and less toward the traditional branding approach.

mike maser.jpg

"They believed in this model that Digg was leading, which was this user-generated, user-led definition of what's popular content," Maser said. "But they wanted to apply those ideas in some way to their advertising as well. I remember a conversation with Intel, which has been a longtime advertiser with Digg, in late 2007. We came in and said, 'What if we could apply a Digg platform, the Digg model, to advertising?'...And they were absolutely interested in that because they were seeing that consumers were part of that conversation already, whether they like it or not."

Maser explained that a large percentage of Digg's front page stories are already directed toward promoting consumer products, and he doesn't think it will be very difficult for advertisers to sponsor that kind of content. Not only that, but they would have monetary incentive to tailor their submissions to those users.

"So let's say an advertiser comes in and has a $10,000 budget," he said. "We place their advertisement into the system. Let's say it starts a baseline of $1 cost per click. So the ad gets shot out to the Digg audience in the stream of news. If that ad is really resonating, and people are clicking out to see the content...that dollar will come down so every time there's a click maybe they pay 90 cents, or even better 80 cents and so on. So even more people are clicking on that advertisement and it's spending more of their budget, but the incremental cost of that ad is going down."

The flip side is that if people aren't Digging the piece, or if they're actively burying it, the cost-per-click will go up until it hits some pre-set maximum, causing the ad to fall out of the system.

User control

But what if a so-called "bury brigade" forms that automatically buries every sponsored post?

"When we announced this last week, we saw a lot of generally positive reactions from our user base," Maser said. "The notion going into this is that there will be more control over the ad experience, so when Digg is transparent with their users and gives them that control over the site, they've actually really taken it to heart and appreciated that control. So we feel like the users being able to sort of have a more relevant content experience on the site is one way we'll mitigate any sort of backlash."

And then there's the Digg algorithm. For years the site has refined the algorithm to weed out organized attempts to "game" the system, so Maser was sure that they were well equipped to locate any sort of advertisement bury brigade and neutralize its efforts.

The ad platform is still a work in progress and won't be rolled out for a few months. Maser said they announced it early so they can work with advertisers over the coming months, developing the kind of content and ideas that will attract Digg's user base.

"I do think innovation is the name of the game," he said. "I think that sites need to come up with advertising experiences that are more endemic to their own property and their user base. So I don't think there's a one-size-fits-all approach to advertising anymore. Does that mean that display advertising is going away? No, but I do think systems like Digg Ads speak directly to our audience; it has a pricing mechanism that works for advertisers. Being more performance-oriented advertising, it gives them a more innovative option than display advertising."

Of course, Digg's display advertising isn't going away. But with continuous reports that advertisers are getting frustrated with the lack of effectiveness of traditional CPM advertising, it's not unfathomable that they would want to take the risk and inject their brands right into the user base. What the users do with the brand once it's in their hands will likely determine whether Digg has come up with an advertising program that will truly break the mold.

Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate editor for MediaShift. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.

Photo of Mike Maser by Scott Beale of Laughing Squid.

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