Archive for March, 2007

Project Red Stripe will push it to the limit

March 29, 2007

I feel incredibly bad that I haven’t posted for a while. That’s the online equivalent of the Pope forgetting to pray, but here’s an exciting status report. We’re getting a lot closer to coming up with an idea of what we’re going to do, and it won’t really touch on The Economist. How we got to this place is very interesting.

Imagine, to begin with, that we could do anything. Imagine the difficulty of having such a wide brief. What we set about doing was cutting it down so we could find a smaller thing to concentrate on. We decided to concentrate on The Economist Group, because that was the asset that differentiated us from 6 guys sitting in a garage thinking “Um, what shall we do?”. Concentrating on The Economist Group gave us the greatest opportunity to make a large impact.

However, even that could be seen as a bit too large. We refined it again to The Economist. This is the largest section of the business, the most well known, and one which we could still do a ton of things for. I mean, I’ve been thinking about webbing up Economist.com for a year now. I pretty much had a to-do list for the site.

Last Thursday something changed. We decided to do something that was not even on The Economist’s radar. Why? It was partly brought on by there being a new publisher of Economist.com. He was clearly brought in to add pzazz to the site, meaning that anything we did on Project Red Stripe might be something that would just happen a year down the line anyway.

For that reason we decided to look to the edges. To look at the crazy things that just wouldn’t happen otherwise. We’ve discussed some pretty exciting things and I hope one day all of them get done. But for the moment we’re just trying to pick one.

Unfortunately I’ve had to shelve my dream (one so real that I could almost taste it) of making Economist.com the coolest site in the world. Like Rick kissing good bye to Ilsa on the runway of Casablanca, I get the feeling it was not meant to be, but it would have been beautiful.

As I’m not going to be able to do that, instead I’m going to share my playbook, with a series of posts on what I think a news site should do.

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Update : re-reading my post I’ve seen that it might give the impression that the ideas we’ve collected will not be used. Nothing could be more wrong. The quality of the ideas is such that we’d be a fool not to use them. And besides, as we’re now probably looking to go a bit further out there than we thought at the beginning, we might even be able to use more. However, just because we might well do something a bit different, it doesn’t mean we’re going to go totally wild. We’ll not, in Stew’s great phrase, ‘build a sheep with a dog’s foot for a heart’. Whatever we’ll do will still have a connection to The Economist Group, it just might be a bit of a surprise. Glad I cleared that up. Have a good weekend.

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Please note that I am putting in the Scarface clip for the song Push it To The Limit. Project Red Stripe will, almost certainly, not sell drugs on the web.

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Data is fun

March 14, 2007

Exciting possibilities are opening up in the realm of data visualization. I’m keeping an eye on it particularly through through blogs like Datamining and Infosthetics. Data visualization has been around for a while and Charles Minard’s graph of the fate of the Napoleon’s army on the retreat from Moscow in 1812 is a good place to start.”The graph shows the size of the army by the width of the band across the map of the campaign on its outward and return legs, with temperature on the retreat shown on the line graph at the bottom. Many consider Minard’s original the best statistical graphic ever drawn.” (via Department of Maths York University)

It may not have AJAX, Flash or any rich media but is shows that data visualization is all about : telling a story.

GCensus lets you tells a whole bunch of stories by putting US Census data across Google Maps (down at the moment as Google maps upgrades).

Not Just A Number turns the (many) murders in Oakland from numbers into people, by placing the pictures of the dead on a map of the area. Mindy at Teaching Online Journalism explains the point : “A lot of people get killed there. The idea behind the package: These are people, not statistics. Many of them are not criminals, not drug dealers. Every one of them has a story, but these stories usually go untold in the news media.”

The Marumushi Newsmap is a great aggregation of Google News Data into a tree map. Stories are sorted into genres by colour, the brightness of the colour shows how new the story is. The great thing is that this data can be further cut by region. In short, semantic graphic design turns this data into a quick view of news in the world. (Read the about page to see how about pages shouldn’t be written.)

Wildcard is is an incredibly hypnotic flash art game – who’d have thought waving a ribbon would be so pretty? We should create an intelligent game that let you play with data in this way, bringing meaning as well as amusement.

Lovelines takes love and hate expressions from blogs (searching for “I love” and “I hate”) and then generates these into a good looking ui. A nice glimpse into humanity telling thousands of little stories.

See, data is fun. And today Jo is going to give me a tour of the EIU data fortress.

The best idea yet

March 13, 2007

This afternoon has been great fun looking at all the ideas that we’ve already collected. And, there’s one that really stands out, as much for its structure as content.

On the end of a paragraph or two on social media there’s this killer last sentence: “and you may want to think about buying wikipedia”.

Why not? And then we’ll give a little call to Sergey and Brin, they’re probably in need of a bit of cash.

Wow, we’ve been Slashdotted

March 13, 2007

Before we left on Friday we had a little wager on how many ideas we’d have in the tank on Monday morning. Jo and Stew went for 10, Mike doubled up at 20, I was thinking less.

None of us thought we’d have 200 ideas. And what’s more they’re really good.

What a great start.

Project Red Stripe seeks ideas

March 9, 2007

Today we’re going live with our idea gathering process. This is where we throw open the doors to everyone to contribute ideas. Asking the question : what would you like to see The Economist Group doing online? We’re ready to do anything that rocks, and I’m sure there are a lot of creative people who would like to see that happen. I’m sure there are a lot of folk that would like to give advice on how this big old group could change. This is the opportunity to do it.

We’ve written a brief here, which sketches out what we sort of idea we’d like. It’s great, but I’d like to have my own go at it, for a more personal touch.

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Tom’s Manifesto

The Economist Group is ready to do amazing things. They’ve set up Project Redstripe to dream impossible dreams on the web. We’ve got the chance to build something outrageous and we want your help.

Think big. Think bigger than big. Send that idea in and we’ll try to make it happen.

Our objective is to come up with “innovative web based product”, but that sounds a little staid. It doesn’t quite capture the true jaw dropping potential of our project.

Project Redstripe wants to start a new state in the U.S. of Awesome.

Our ice cream flavour is Pralines and Ridonculousness.

Project Redstripe is a Model T Ford in any colour as long as it’s smokin’.

Think Elvis riding a unicorn through Area 51. Yep, think like that.

Now, if you’d like to tell us some cool things you’d like to see happen then please give us your ideas.

We want ideas that rock.

Ideas that make a difference.

Ideas that you can make happen if you’ve got a global community of incredibly interesting people, amazing content, tons of data and six months to do it.

Gentlepeople, start your engines and submit ideas here.

Thanks so much for your time, creativity and kindness. Please keep in touch for the rest of the project via our blog and thanks again.

ps. T&Cs and FAQs over here.

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Yep, that’s closer to the mark. It seems a bit more me. Hope you submit an idea.

Thanks if you do.

Subscriptions add value and anonymous blogs are great

March 9, 2007

If you’re into the web then that headline could only be more controversial if I included the word “macaca”. Free is good and human voice is essential are two of the guiding principles of the internet today, but these have slightly stuck in my craw. This post has been brewing for a while, but a conversation with Jeff Jarvis yesterday, when he came to talk to the Project Red Stripe team, gave me the impetus to finish it, partly because Jeff didn’t like it when I suggested these ideas.

Let’s begin : Information wants to be free goes the mantra, so media organisations should drop the paywall. Maybe it does, but that is quite a Web1.0 idea, because it imagines that newspapers, for example, only distribute information. They are outlets, so in that model it can make sense to get as much info out as far as possible. However, lets look at the post-broadcast idea of news sites. Let’s look at communities.

Media outlets have communities floating around them and it is imperative that we enable them (I hear you loud and clear on that Jeff). The value of the community is the quality of the discourse that you enable users to have. In this model free is not, necessarily, the answer. Free means no barrier to entry of the community. Free means no cost sommunication. Those conditions are spam agar.

Anyone who’s MySpaced for a bit will know what happens in that system. And, if you want to receive random emails from bands, standups and webcam girls, it might be the thing for you. Not for most people. This shows that an open, free, system is not always the answer.

Contrast that with the exclusive SmallWorld model (the social network for rich kids), which really limits the amount of invites each user gets. This model enables rich kids, who value exclusivity, to be themselves. They don’t want to sound stupid when they start the group “Don’t you hate it when your chauffeur forgets to chill the champagne”. And they don’t like the hassle they could get elsewhere, so this suits them.

Indeed, when Jeff was talking about Davos, he made the point that the five layers of Swiss police made the quality of the conversation possible. The exclusivity keeps the raff riff out so world leaders can be themselves. (And, Jeff, please correct me if I’ve misrepresented your view point).

Bearing in mind that a media organisation can’t be invite only (or can it?) then a sub is a good way of increasing the quality of the conversation, because you’re not going to spend money to spam. It also gives power to the community leader as any trollish behaviour can be met with a sanction that nullifies the user’s investment – say a three month no comment ban.

So two benefits of a sub are the barrier for entry and the possibility to sanction anti-social communication, all of which leads to a better conversation.

What about anonymity? Now this one is slightly more specific to The Economist, where we have a fine tradition of anonymous writing. And this is something that readers love. The voice of The Economist is renowned for being witty, erudite and concise. But why do we have it on our blogs? Surely we can lighten up there? Anonymity means unaccountability, blandness and nasty power relationship, or so the internetters would have it. At a tactical level it just wouldn’t make sense to have one section of the Economist personal, with the magazine unchanged.

My real problem with Jeff’s POV was when he said the internet expects blogs to be a certain way, so we should do it. To my mind, that’s no reason to do anything. There’s no point losing this great Economist USP just to comply with internet orthodoxies. So the second lesson would be you don’t have to do things the “web2.0 way” just because its expected of you, but adapt these technologies to your circumstances and your community.

What should we do with Economist Group user data?

March 7, 2007

The Bush administration has accelerated its Internet surveillance push by proposing that Web sites must keep records of who uploads photographs or videos in case police determine the content is illegal and choose to investigate. — Declan McCullagh, CNET News. (via Danah at apophenia)

It would be really worrying if this development did come to pass as the last thing I’d want is the government to be nosing around my web. I mean I don’t have a Nectar card because I don’t like companies knowing too much about me. However, some of the most interesting things that are being done on the web rely on aggregating user behaviour.

StumbleUpon suggests the sites you’ll like, based on your previous preferences.

Last.fm tells you what music to listen as it knows what listeners like you liked.

The more we can learn from Economist Group users the better a service we can provide them because it facilitates discoverability. It also facilitates deliverability of targetted ads.

Where do we draw the line? I don’t know yet, but it will definitely have to get a lot of thought.

Worrying developments for citizen journalists in France

March 7, 2007

As any celebrity will tell you, there is now a camera around every corner. This is bad news if you are a Hilton or Spears and have yet to grasp the fundamentals of underwearing, however, it is hugely exciting for citizen journalism. The first pictures that came out of the tunnels in the July 7 bombings came from camera phones. The massive tsunami was brought to life by tourists camcorders.

This is a good thing.

However, the other side of the story is the rise of happy slapping. I’d heard of this lovely social phenomenon before it hit the frontpages from a teacher in a not particularly nice school in Hackney, who’d been hit in the face whilst trying to break up a fight staged for cameraphones. (A sidenote : it started in the days before YouTube but I guess it only spread to everyone once that great video distributor started).

To combat this France has decided that any recording of violence by a non-professional journalist will be punishable and “anyone publishing such images could face up to five years in prison and a fine of €75,000 ($98,537), potentially a harsher sentence than that for committing the violent act” (via Infoworld). 

Whilst no one wants to watch chavs hitting strangers what happens if a Rodney King situation arises? Will witnesses who gather evidence of violent crimes be prosecuted? If riot police attack a crowd (and the French CRS are partial to a bit of baton) will the passerby with a video camera be prosecuted?

Disturbing.

At the same time there is talk of “ a certification system for Web sites, blog hosters, mobile-phone operators and Internet service providers, identifying them as government-approved sources of information if they adhere to certain rules.” This is a clear sign that they don’t “get it” because this certification exists : inbound links and reputation already work as certification for news. In true Economist style, I think I can say this is unnecessary regulation where the free market already works.

Rob Curley on innovation : “I just want to keep building cool shit”

March 5, 2007

Here at Project Redstripe we’re trying to find ways to judege ideas because we’re going to  be flooded by them. Hell, I think of ten fun things to do online whilst doing up my shoelaces, not because I’m particularly bright, but because there’s so much great stuff out there.

But how do you decide what to do?

Should it make money? Should it change the world? Is it for Economist Group users? Or should we get new users? It’s got to be innovative, but what does that mean?

During these discussions I tend to get frustrated, because we should just know when something kicks ass. Then I find solace in a Rob Curley interview discussing  what he wants to do online. And there’s no “bringing multimedia to the masses” rhetoric, or “helping people help themselves” schtick.

No, he “justs wants to keep building cool shit“.

Amen to that.

The Washington Post has great video

March 5, 2007

It’s hard for me to say whether my excitement around Project Redstripe is more because we’re doing funky things on the web, or because the web lets you do great journalism (though it might be in a very different form). Before I joined the Economist I really concentrated on the Web2.0 space, but in the past few months have been mainlining new journalism (frequently via Journerdism).

At present I’m just going nuts about video, and the place I go to find interesting things is the Washington Post.  The Answers Man is a great example of doing traditional local journalism with video. The Answers Man is columnist John Kelly, who responds to readers letters about local places of interest by going to the area itself. Importantly he does this in a hat.

In this episode a reader asks about an interestingly decorated ‘body shop’ (I think that’s Yankee for garage). This piece is clearly enlivened through video with the user being able to see the building in question, with its many statues and add ons. This what hyperlocal’s about. The Washington Post concentrating on Washington like no one else can, then bringing it to life with video.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on video from now on and try to deliver the best bits to you here. It also leads onto a question I have yet to answer : how can The Economist do hyperlocal? How can it do hyperlocal in video?