Hacks/Hackers Brighton: Open communities

September’s meet-up of Hacks/Hackers Brighton heard from user-experience designer and developer Aral Balkan, who led a discussion on identity, privacy and App.net, and Joanna Geary, digital development editor at the Guardian, who proposed five questions journalists should ask when thinking about online communities.

Adam Tinworth’s liveblog of Aral Balkan’s talk is here, and his report on Joanna Geary’s presentation is here. All photos are by Adam Tinworth.

The meet-up was part of the Brighton Digital Festival, a month-long celebration of digital culture, and to participate further in the festival Hacks/Hackers Brighton ran a pop-up digital newsroom at the Mini Maker Faire.

Identity, privacy and App.net

Aral Balkan talked about how a lot of free platforms depend on gathering data from their users in order to make them sustainable through advertising.

Balkan observed that the model of many web 2.0 companies, including social networks and web apps, has been to:

1. Gather as many users as possible and then approach venture capitalists to get them to lend money based on the number of users

2. ?????

3. Profit

And it’s the second step of “?????” where the model falls down, Balkan said. This is the stage where web entrepreneurs find they need to attract advertising to bring in revenue.

Users think they are getting to use a platform or service for free, but they give away their data in return.

Free is a lie. And the cost of your personal information? Your privacy.

Balkan talked about Google, Kindle Fire and Facebook before going on to talk about Twitter’s path.

The tools of  Twitter were invented by the users: @mentions, @replies and #hashtags, were all created by the early adopters. And developers built great things.

He talked through the process of the restrictions to the Twitter API and went through a list of third-party clients that could be affected.

And then he introduced App.net, a Twitter-like platform and service. (For more on App.net see this journalist’s guide.)

App.net is the result of “an audacious proposal” by developer and entrepreneur Dalton Caldwell. It promises to remain ad-free and open and in order to do this – and avoid the “????” step described above when a free-to-use platform must find a way of bringing in revenue – App.net charges $50 a year for membership.

Balkan said Facebook and Twitter are targeting the same audience as McDonalds.

It’s the McDonaldsification of social media. But it’s good that we have alternatives to McDonalds as not all of us want to eat there.

An alternative to Twitter is App.net, which users must pay to use. But it is worth paying, Balkan implied as he asked:

Is your identity, privacy and security worth $4 a month? That’s £2.50 – which is less than the price of a pint of beer.

That online community stuff … it’s all sortied now, right?

Joanna Geary, who is leading the Guardian’s digital-first strategy (and who also runs Hacks/Hackers London), proposed five questions to ask your editor – and maybe yourself – before starting any online community project.

1. Why are you doing it?

When at The Times, Geary received an email response to an idea she had proposed which stated: “Common practice is a factor we should consider…”

This suggests journalists should only try something if others are doing it first and then blindly follow. Would you put your head in an oven if others went there first? Geary asked.

There are far better reasons for launching a new project or starting a new initiative, she said. She urged journalists and community managers to ask: does it improve your journalism? Does it increase traffic from social? Does it get people spending more time on your site? Does it improve customer relationships? Does it help you get customer data?

2. How are you measuring that?

Geary’s next tip is to gather some metrics. The Guardian has been developing its own proxy metrics system during the past couple of months. Gather qualitative data and feedback and make sure you know the strengths and weaknesses, Geary urged.

3. Are you paying attention to the results?

Geary also said news organisations should experiment, keeping a close eye on the results.

4. Are you sharing what works?

Members of the Guardian’s communities team will give ‘stand up’ presentations in the morning news conference, they hold lunchtime talks once a month, there is formal training for journalists, they send daily and weekly emails of good examples, and the Guardian is soon to launch ‘community clinics’.

The idea for community clinics comes out of the tradition of ‘social media surgeries’ held in in Birmingham. “People who have learned something share that skill and pass it on,” Geary explained.

The Guardian’s approach will be to “bring all of the community team to a very visual place in the Guardian – the canteen – once a week and people can pop over and ask questions.”

Initially community clinics will be for Guardian journalists and staff, but Geary hopes they will “bring that out of the Guardian and include readers as well”.

5. Are you supporting them once they get the message?

Geary said that there’s a need to constantly repeat and reinforce the messages and lessons.

You need to repeat as people forget and new people come in.

Pop-up digital newsroom

Following the discussions on open communities and open journalism, members of Hacks/Hackers Brighton spent the weekend news gathering and sharing their skills.

Hacks/Hackers Brighton became ‘makers’ at the Mini Maker Faire, a show-and-tell attended by 7,000 people that saw inventors giving demos of their creations and encouraging others to get involved.

Hacks/Hackers Brighton teamed up with Brighton & Hove Community Reporters, a group set up to promote cohesion by sharing stories and encouraging links between people from different parts of the community, and ran demos to get the community reporters and people who came along to the Maker Faire ‘making’.

During the course of the day skills were swapped, blogs were created and stories were gathered and shared via a Tumblr.

The next meet-up of Hacks/Hackers Brighton is on 2 October.

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