The Onion’s social media startup takedown

I’m glad we live in the same world as The Onion.

Their latest bit of brilliance: “New Social Media Startup Launches, Shuts Down Within 45 Minutes

During a candid postmortem 10 minutes after the site had been removed and an hour after it had launched, Nesheim cited myriad difficulties in the site’s first 15 or 20 minutes, including logistical hurdles, a stubborn market share, and administrative hassles.

Specific disruption: A reporter screwed up on social media. What are you going to do about it?

Here’s the situation: A reporter with a high-profile position in the Jerusalem bureau has been a little too free with her thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, etc.

What do you do?

A. Tell her to knock off the social media stuff.

B. Have a colleague read and critique all of her social media updates before they’re published.

C. Allow this reporter — and others — to post what they want, when they want. Professionals don’t need babysitters.

The New York Times is going with Option B.

From NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan:

… The Times is taking steps to make sure that Ms. [Jodi] Rudoren’s further social media efforts go more smoothly. The foreign editor, Joseph Kahn, is assigning an editor on the foreign desk in New York to work closely with Ms. Rudoren on her social media posts.

The idea is to capitalize on the promise of social media’s engagement with readers while not exposing The Times to a reporter’s unfiltered and unedited thoughts.

Given the spotlight that the Jerusalem bureau chief is bound to attract, and Ms. Rudoren’s self-acknowledged missteps, this was a necessary step.

The alternative would be to say, “Let’s forget about social media and just write stories.” As The Times fights for survival in the digital age, that alternative was not a good one.

My initial reaction was to rake the Times over the coals for its perpetuation of the “objectivity myth” (this perspective is shared by others). And what’s this nonsense about “not exposing The Times to a reporter’s unfiltered and unedited thoughts”? That’s naive.

But then I re-read this part:

“The alternative would be to say, ‘Let’s forget about social media and just write stories.’ As The Times fights for survival in the digital age, that alternative was not a good one.”

The Times is in a tough spot — and it’s a spot that people outside the Times (like me) don’t immediately understand.

The Times can’t give up on objectivity. Objectivity is its lifeblood.

The Times can’t give up on social media. Social media is the attention generator.

So if you can’t turn your back on the past (objectivity) or the future (social media), what do you do?

What you do is institue an editorial filter that seems ridiculous to anyone outside the organization.

And it is ridiculous. Investing someone else’s time into the social media wanderings of a colleague suggests the Times’ profit margins aren’t as narrow as we’ve been led to believe.

But what choice do they have? Think about it. If you’re not going to fire her or silence her social media efforts, what’s your recourse?

This is why knee-jerk reactions don’t work when you’re discussing real and particular moments of disruption. It’s easy for those unencumbered by the unique pressures of a specific organization (like me, again) to tell that organization how it should handle its business. “Fire her!” “Delete her Twitter account!”

Easy, right? But it’s not. Not when you inject the context of a business and a person into the conversation. This isn’t theoretical. This happened. And what are you going to do about it?

Real conversations about disruption — conversations catalyzed by specific events — are far more important and instructive than the theoretical babble that spews out of journalism conferences. These real examples show just how complicated this stuff is.

To be clear, I’m not saying the Times did the right thing here (I’d take the reporter off of social media altogether and suffer the consequences). What I’m saying is that I understand why they did what they did.

To me, that understanding is an essential part of a post-disruption mindset. I’m done with the theories and the reports and the “future of X” stuff. The real future of our media industries will be formed collectively through specific and tough decisions. This is how we learn.

Social media doesn’t make money directly, but it still has enormous value

Perhaps it’s a function of the intricate tracking the Web provides, but I’m still amazed at media’s inability to grasp the secondary (and often, tertiary) value of community efforts. So let’s make this as clear as clear can be: Twitter,…

Perhaps it’s a function of the intricate tracking the Web provides, but I’m still amazed at media’s inability to grasp the secondary (and often, tertiary) value of community efforts.

So let’s make this as clear as clear can be: Twitter, Facebook, forums and other social media functions rarely make money directly. Their value comes from the attention they gather and the opportunities that attention creates. If you have a mass of people who have willingly opted-in to your messaging, you damn well better put useful, for-pay products in front of them. Otherwise, all you’ve got is a social club.

This recent piece from Forbes does a nice job tearing down the direct-revenue mindset.

Judging Dell’s Twitter revenue against company revenue misses the point

If Dell turned heads last year when it claimed to have made $1 million through Twitter, its revised estimate for 2009 is going to cause nasty neck pulls: the company says Twitter revenue jumped to $6.5 million. (I’m assuming that…

Twitter and DellIf Dell turned heads last year when it claimed to have made $1 million through Twitter, its revised estimate for 2009 is going to cause nasty neck pulls: the company says Twitter revenue jumped to $6.5 million. (I’m assuming that spans multiple years.)

The Guardian has a nice bit of analysis on the announcement. It’s informative and interesting. It weaves in some contextual bits. But nestled amidst the numbers is the “drop in the bucket” paragraph that always pops up in these types of stories:

Although $6.5m sounds impressive, when you compare it with the net revenue of $12.3bn Dell reported in the first quarter of fiscal year 2010 it becomes clear that this is only a drop in the ocean …

Sorry. I guess that’s a ” drop in the ocean” paragraph. You get the idea.

I understand the need to insert this text. Its absence would surely raise a red flag for editors and consumers alike. But there’s an underlying perspective here that I believe is damaging, and I wish more analysts would call this out.

Social media exists in a space totally different from traditional business. Activity takes place at the edges, not the center. It’s ambiguous. It’s fleeting. Because of all this, judging social media efforts against traditional channels obscures the real analysis and the real opportunity.

What’s notable about Dell’s Twitter revenue is that it went from $1 million in 2008, to $3 million in June ’09, to $6.5 million now. That’s an enviable trajectory in any business, but it’s doubly impressive here because Dell is making actual money through a nascent system. It found a way to put social media’s tricky architecture to work.

That’s key. Digital disruption is wiping out the fat revenues from traditional models. Many businesses will get smaller simply because consumers have more power and more choice. The companies that find ways to make money within this new landscape — even relatively small amounts of money — have a better shot at adaptation.

Images courtesy Dell, Inc. and Twitter, Inc.