Letting the reader call the shots


In a democratisation of media, newspapers and TV programmes are being created by their readers, listeners and viewers, writes Haydn Shaughnessy.

Like many articles you read in the morning newspaper, this one has a beginning, middle and end. Unlike most, it has a life outside the page. Even before the article was written it began to take on a new life. Strange things are happening to it, and to find out about them you need to go online.

On www.corante.com, experts in product branding and advertising are chewing over some of the questions I put, while researching this article, to a brand consultant, Jennifer Rice, of Brand Mantra. On http://brand.blogs.com, people provoked by the interview are discussing whether or not we are on the cusp of a new revolution in human communications.

The subject has crept over onto yet another website, www.advancinginsights.com, where it seems to have run aground. No doubt, as of today, the discussion will reactivate.

Welcome to content co-creation, the new world where articles, stories, opinions, even whole newspapers or TV programmes, are created through conversations between readers, listeners or viewers rather than being left solely at the discretion of professionals.

Content co-creation is, according to Rice, who works with advertisers to help them understand the changing media landscape, a result of the public disaffection with how conventional media and advertisers treat them.

"The breakdown of the family unit, increased mobility, decreased job tenure and the rise of the 'free-agent nation' meant that a basic human need - belonging - is no longer being met. And over the years, consumers stopped having a voice and companies stopped listening . . . We want to do things differently . . . which is how all revolutions are started," says Rice, who believes content co-creation will redefine how many products, not only media ones, are made and sold.

"There are millions of unpaid volunteers who want to help create products and content that they want to buy," she says.

Take Mon Quotidien (My Daily). Mon Quotidien is a national French daily newspaper for children. The editorial board is made up of children who, from all over France, dictate to the editors the stories they want to see in the paper.

Whereas the main French dailies are losing readers, Mon Quotidien continues to grow. Launched 10 years ago for 10- to 14-year-olds, the parent company Playbac now runs a similar newspaper for the 14-plus age group and one for seven- to 10-year-olds. They have a joint subscription base approaching 185,000 and recently launched Quoti for five- to seven-year olds.

Or take Mercora, a new internet radio service. Mercora allows listeners to become web DJs. Mercora software, once downloaded, takes any music files you may have on your PC and organises them into a playlist that other PC users can access and listen to via the Mercora site.

You, the playlist owner, can adjust it and rearrange it. The software helps people find you.

And it has an extraordinary effect. While allowing listeners to become DJs, Mercora software helps to organise the vast reservoir of music that is now available. Each playlist becomes part of an on-line classification system designed and developed by Mercora users.

There is a new word for that too: the development of information categorisation systems by users is called a folksonomy.

Folksonomies are the new rage on the web. A folksonomy is an environment where people's intuitive use of information - whether it be songs, research articles, artwork, etc - becomes part of the process of cataloguing and classifying that information.

Mercora, who had 300,000 members by the early part of this year, is slowly becoming a giant catalogue of music available on the internet, a catalogue built by people who download music.

At one extreme, then, content co-creation requires sophisticated software that uses the opinions, listening habits or research interests of tens of thousands of people to create new information products.

Over on www.bloglines.com, users of the new web browser Firefox can create automatic news feeds from their chosen websites and then share access to these with other Firefox users. It is a way of pre-organising information on the web through the surfing habits of thousands. Looking for information on content co-creation, you can locate a Bloglines user who already has news on content co-creation.

Bloglines is becoming a vast repository of information classified by its users.

Content co-creation and folksonomies work together to produce a new form of publishing powered by people whose information habits automatically produce new content.

Large corporations are already making use of them. IBM, for example, is experimenting with folksonomy software to organise its internal web portals.

In the main, the content co-creation/folksonomy trend is new and American. However, here in Ireland we experimented with the first folksonomies five years ago.

Dexer was, like Bloglines, a tool that allowed surfers to take information from websites and automatically organise it into databases with a simple drag and drop of the PC mouse. It also allowed users to search other users' databases and to create communities around their favourite subjects.

A small declaration of interest here. I know about Dexer because I designed it.

Unfortunately for Dexer, American companies with access to more adventurous venture capital funders have belatedly stolen a march.

Whereas at one end content co-creation relies on sophisticated software, at the other it relies on a new concept of publishing, what the founder of blogger.com, San Francisco-based Evan Williams, calls push-button publishing. Williams is now at work on odeo.com, a push-button publishing concept for podcasts, or the creation of audio content for the web.

"The democratisation of media is something I take very seriously. I think it's one of the most powerful forces in society today. And it's what inspired me to help develop and spend my time on Odeo," Williams writes on his blog.

The push-button, co-creating, folksonomic publishing world we're building online begs important questions about the relationship between the new publishing environment and the advertising community.

Traditional media outlets, newspapers such as The Irish Times, TV broadcasters, magazines etc all rely on advertisers prepared to take a gamble on building a product's brand by appealing to a wide audience with similar characteristics.

The new publishing environment is narrow and small. Even though a recent research report in the United States suggested that as many as six million people have already downloaded radio content from the web in the US alone, co-creation projects tend to divide audiences into small segments.

"The pendulum swung from extreme local to extreme mass-market," argues Rice, reviewing trends in the advertising and marketing worlds over the past 50 years. "Now the system is seeking to balance itself. The market [ in future] will be both mass-market and individual relationships."

In other words, the big brands that support today's big circulation media, the Coca Cola, Dell, BMW type companies whose euros underwrite our newspaper and TV production, will have to find ways of communicating with us outside mass-market publications.

There are already a small number of new age advertising agencies, companies that link into the co-creation world. Blogads (motto: "You need to engage 500,000 opinion makers, not pester 100,000,000 nobodies") is one such service, but others are emerging to coordinate a publishing world where you the reader are as likely to be the producer of content as we the professionals are.