I can’t remember the first (or last time) I heard this proverb but I am convinced it is an allegory for product management and technical debt.
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
For want of the shoe, the horse was lost;
For want of the horse, the rider was lost;
For want of the rider, the battle was lost;
For want of the battle, the kingdom was lost;
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail
As the old joke goes, you have three options for any project: “Quick, Cheap or Good. Pick two.”
For better or worse, at least those are affirmative choices – assuming you make them well enough in advance of the deadline. But wait till you have a month or a week left and the equation changes. Now you can only pick one. And “Cheap or Good” have already left the building.
Since it launched, Zite has been one of my favorite apps. Keying off my Twitter stream the product does an absolutely amazing job of finding stories I am 1) interested in; 2) had not seen already; 3) from sources I was unlikely to stumble across.
That sort of personalization – saving time by accurately filtering information – is of huge value to readers. If you can reduce the number of clicks (the currency of the web) needed to find stories of interest, I am likely to return. No surprise that most media organizations have recommended story lists on their websites.
But in many cases these lists are of minimal value. Browsing Salon.com just now – five of the suggested stories were more than four months old. And I was reading about the Affordable Health Care Act.
The challenge is, even the most prolific news sites (say the NYT) only publish 1000 – 1500 stories daily. Even over a week or a month, there is not enough variety to make an effective recommendation in every case. So, older or less relevant stories are surfaced. But as a pure aggregator Zite is not restricted to a single news source. A billion new pages are added to the world wide web daily. That is more than enough to recommend 50 – 100 highly relevant stories to me each day.
Doing some news math, the filtering value (or number of potential clicks saved) to the user is not comparable:
Yes, that is a farcical equation and the news site still returns a positive value — but not enough to be competitive.
For news publishers, there are three ways to improve our odds: 1) Improve the algorithms to eliminate outdated or irrelevant articles; 2) Reach outside your own CMS and aggregate stores from other sources; 3) Start focusing your metrics less on raw page views, and more on efficiency and value created for the reader ‘clicks saved.’ (See Cory Bergman’s ‘time saved’ take on this earlier this year.)
Yes, those aggregated links will need to be highly relevant (see improve the algorithm above) and they will lead visitors away from your site. But, all Zite does is send me away. And yet I return every day.
Along with the tragedy of the Marathon bombing last week came the instant but well-worn conspiracy theories – none of which I am going to link to. Suffice to say, if you can dream up an improbable scenario someone has a webpage and a YouTube video dedicated to proving it is true.
One of particular interest here was pegged to a Boston Globe tweet sent at 3:53pm on April 15, an hour after the bombing:
BREAKING NEWS: Police will have controlled explosion on 600 block on Boylston Street
Due to the vagaries of timezones and a lack of media literacy this was almost immediately seized upon by conspiracy theorists who thought it was sent hours before the actual bombing. (See below for details.) After intermittently responding on Twitter for a day or two, I compiled a timeline in Storify and began somewhat aggressively linking to it.
It is tough to quantify the success of those efforts. But, I did learn a few things along the way. These specifically apply to Twitter, but can extend to any platform.
First, I found five different types of users who were discussing the myth. Roughly categorized they were:
Passers-by were people who simply got caught up in the conversation of friends and had little or no passion about the topic. Questioners had no particular reason to believe in a conspiracy, but were troubled by what others were saying about it. Trolls are just trolls – tough to say if some of them actually believed in anything aside from causing trouble. Accusers were the easiest to spot and respond to. Their tweets typically read “@BostonGlobe why did you <fill in the blank>?” They tended to be skeptical of any answer, but may be reasoned with. Conspiracists were probably the smallest, but most vocal group. They are also the least likely to believe any evidence that contradicts their world view. They often responded with “Yes, but what about <link to conspiracy website> that was confirmed by eyewitnesses?”
In every case, the key is to respond honestly and directly and to stay on topic. Aside from some fairly amusing reactions (one person tried to report me to the FBI for spreading the myth) the effort seemed to be worth it. There are no fewer conspiracies floating around, but this particular one seems to have at least lost some traction. If there is a next time there are a few tips I would follow from day one:
Before you respond, have something (in this case Storify) you can link to that tells your story.
Track @ responses, but also check for keywords (in this case Globe, controlled explosion, drill)
Prioritize responses to users who have large followings or numerous retweets
Engage with individuals – but assume innocence. Some people are honestly confused and are just trying to make sense of events.
Respond carefully, stay on topic and stick to the facts, avoid ANY extraneous detail.
Humor does not work, sarcasm does not work. Use a few short words and a link.
Everyone gets one back-and-forth but then disengage. This is fact-sharing not a debate. Stop while you are ahead.
Don’t expect people to respond, correct their mistake, or even RT your link. The best you can hope for is they stop spreading the myth further.
Look for allies already arguing with the conspiracists. They will be more likely to retweet the link and fight its spread for you.
In the face of abusive responses say, “Thanks, sorry I could not be of more help.” or something similar. Then block those accounts as necessary.
You certainly can not “win” in these situations. There is no gatekeeper available to make a ruling on truth vs fiction. Some people will continue to believe whatever they want to believe. But, we can’t pretend that the spread of misinformation is not worth fighting. The more people that believe in a fiction, the fewer people will believe anything factual we do report.
Links are the currency of the Web. By staying out of these arguments we cede the field to the fantasists. By specifically addressing the truth (which many have this week) and then spreading the message on social media, we can fight fire with fire. We won’t convince everyone, but we can at least assure that a Twitter or Google search of the subject provides some facts, not just the fantasy.
There must be additional media companies with public-facing APIs – these were just the obvious ones that showed up in a Google search. Interested though in who has developed internal APIs that are used for product development, not public use?