Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

Curating, not moderating, the flow of content and participation

by Robin Hamman

User generated content is, for many media companies and other organisations, more of a problem than a solution. Vague calls to action lead to waves of irrelevant content submitted by audiences who have taken time, effort, and in some instances spent money to do so – only for that content to, in most instances, be ignored. Online communities require moderation to keep discussions on the right side of the law. Breaking stories of importance, or topics that capture the imagination, lead to floods of content that quickly overwhelm processes and technical platforms.

In all these situations, which will be familiar to anyone who has ever worked at the social media collision point between audiences and organisations, very little of value is extracted from what can be a costly exercise, primarily because most “social platforms” have been built to pull in audiences and allow moderators to police user activity.

Whilst there is still a place for such propositions, particularly where calls to action can be closely aligned to the editorial or other content that is of value to the owners of that proposition, in many instances it makes sense to move away from moderation towards curation.

A simple enough idea, in practice curation of external and social content has been relatively difficult for media brands and other organisations to put themselves at the centre of the flow of information and content around them. That, at least, was my experience at the BBC where, for more than seven years, I (and others) tried to come up with a solution to this problem, culminating in the well received but ultimately unsustainable, at least within the (non)budgetary confines in which it existed, BBC Manchester Blog.

A few months ago, one of our technology partners, eVectors, introduced me to a tool they’d created which, with the right editorial strategy wrapped around it, can make the job of finding, curating, editorialising and socialising content far more efficient – and interesting – than I’ve seen before.

So, with our friends Paolo and Cristian at eVectors, Nick, myself and several others here at Headshift created a demonstration which we call ClimatePulse. As we say on the site:

“Climate Pulse tracks a wide range of source for information, commentand content about the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (COP15).It’s different from mere aggregation services because there is an editorial layer and a social layer. The editorial layer allows curators to highlight specific pieces of content. The Social layergets users involved in tagging and categorising content. In the nearfuture, you’ll even be able to take away a widget containing the flowfrom Climate Pulse – a widget that lets your friends, contacts oraudience to not only consume but to contribute their own content, straight from your site, back into that flow.”

In plain English, Climate Pulse basically monitors and aggregates blog posts, news websites, twitter tweets and a wide range of other sources we’ve configured in the backend. An editor can then curate this content and display it as they wish – for example letting the flow appear as a raw feed, tagging or geo-tagging content, featuring the best stuff, etc. Here’s a diagramme showing the flow of content into the system, the editorial and tagging layer, and the social layer:

climatepulseflow.jpg 

For the social layer, in this instance we’ve asked users to declare an interest based upon work based affiliation – energy business, business, government, environmental NGO or journalist. As can be seen in the screenshot below, users then determine whether pieces of content describe a problem or a solution, and add free tags to describe, in their own language, why:

climatepulsesocial.jpg

All content is tagged, either by the original author, the editor, users, or by the system scraping the content for key words. When visitors click on a tag, say “nuclear energy”, they get a graph showing how each of the five categories of users voted. Using this example, it’s likely that government and energy business will see nuclear energy as a solution and, because of they’ve tagged the content, we can see that they feel it’s clean, brings jobs, is future proof, etc. Environmentalists, however, area likely to see nuclear energy as a problem because, again based on likely tags, disposal of spent fuel, mining, accidents, etc. Here’s a few possible use cases:

  • If the UN, which is organising the Copenhagen Climate conference, or an environmental NGO was using Climate Pulse, they’d be able to see, at a glance, what issues people agree upon and why, and could push delegates to spend time negotiating on topics where it’s necessary to do so.

  • Businesses wanting to send the message, “we know you care about this issue, we’re doing what we can understand your views, and we want to be part of the solution” could use a proposition like this to do exactly that.

  • A media organisation, wanting to provide coverage and analysis of a range of viewpoints, based upon content from a wide range of sources, could use a tool like this to create a compelling editorial proposition that feeds content to journalists.

One last feature, which would help exposure to the proposition spread virally, is that we can easily build widgets of the flow from the page, and enable site owners interested in a particular issue, for example deforestation, to create a widget that displays, on their own site, that content. Social features could then be made available, meaning that the audience on third party sites could participate on the sites they choose to visit, rather than visiting Climate Pulse itself, and that participation, likely to be ranking, voting or comments, could feed back into the general flow to be highlighted and editorialised by the site curator.

It’s been, and I hope will continue to be, an interesting example of how Headshift, working with technology partners, can help implement exciting and useful propositions that extract real value from audience participation, wherever that participation takes place. It is, to me, a giant leap in the direction of resolving the issue many have grappled with in the past, which is how to find and reflect the content and opinions of a wide range of participants, without being overwhelmed, as is so often the case, by the flood of content and rising moderation costs.

The model here is a nice example of the social business archetypes that my colleague Lee Bryant described in this earlier post and it’s easy to see how we could use the ideas here not just for climate change but any topic or event, such as an electi
on, a popular television programme, a brand, or the research or strategic work being done by an organisation.

You can see the alpha release of Climate Pulse at http://www.climatepulse.org

7 Responses to Curating, not moderating, the flow of content and participation

  1. By Adam Westbrook on November 5, 2009 at 9:41 am

    I like this idea-it’s quite innovative for a start, which is what’s needed right now. I love your widget idea as well.
    I’ve blogged about it more over here:
    http://adamwestbrook.wordpress.com/2009/11/04/ideas-the-news-aggregator/

  2. By Kevin Sablan on November 5, 2009 at 10:38 am

    I’m very glad to see a system that allows (human) editors to improve the many streams of social information.
    ClimatePulse is a great example. Here are a few questions that I would love to have it answer from its home page.
    When does COP15 take place? I don’t want to dig through tweets or links to find that.
    Outside of the tag cloud, are there a few topics that I should be aware of? Can some of the content be organized according to those topics?
    Are the tweets and pictures telling other small (sub)stories? All the retweets and hashtags make it hard for me to tell.
    What do the numbers on the map represent?

  3. By Ed on November 5, 2009 at 11:05 am

    Nice piece of work – well done.
    We are just beginning a series of new service launches for the Transition Towns web project and something very similar to this is at the top of our agenda – we are supporting a broad movement of bottom up initiatives all over the country and increasingly around the world and this approach is neat.

  4. By Kenneth Stein on November 6, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    I find it interesting that on the demo page I found: Humming Bird With an Incredible Tail Does a Mating Dance (Video). This video is at least two years old, and points to the need for more than mob rule when it comes to the development of understanding.
    While I appreciate the time you’ve taken drafting this post, it seems that “curating” at least as far as you’ve defined it in the present instance, lacks some set of essential attributes (constraints?).
    Before we systematize and abstract process for arriving at understanding, we ought to consciously engage in such processes (refining our understanding of the processes themselves) before we AUTOMATE them.
    What process it is that you think is being systematized and to what end is such a process valuable? Thanks!

  5. By Charlie beckett on November 6, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    Hi Robin,
    Congratulations on getting ClimatePulse up. As you know I am passionately committed to finding ways to network journalism and this is an interesting model. I think it works best around something specific like COP15.
    I have a few queries. I am not sure that this is curation or if it is, that it’s any different from intelligent moderation or just editorial management. Nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t somehow solve the problem of investing in editorial effort by calling it curation (which feels too static a word for this task anyway). I can’t see how the ‘problem’ ‘solution’ thing works either. Too simplistic.
    Generally, it actually feels like it needs more not less editorial management – as Kevin says above, to sort out topics etc. it’s much too ‘streamy’ for me at the moment.
    I am also unsure about who is editing or what for. Somehow it lacks either a clear purpose or organising principle. But that might be my problem.
    I am not sure if it would have the uses that you describe (eg the UN using it as a kind of focus group) because it is still a relatively crude measure of opinion amongst a very self-selecting and ill-defined group but it certainly offers a model for that process of online deliberative discussion.
    Hope that doesn’t sound negative – quite the opposite – delighted to see this kind of project taking shape – it raises all sorts of fascinating possibilities!
    cheers
    Charlie

  6. By Robin Hamman on November 6, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    Thank you all for your comments, some of which have been really interesting.
    Ed, looks like an interesting comment. Will get in touch to share some info, and learn from your experience.
    Kevin, most of the things you point out are issues because we have, purposefully, left the site very generic. We wanted clients and potential clients across a range business sectors to be able to see themselves doing this, so the design and editorial has been left more generic than if we were building it for a specific client. But we do have full control over what comes into the aggregation, what appears on the page, and how it’s displayed.
    Adam, thanks for the link from your post, which I really enjoyed reading. I hope we’ll be able to keep up the conversation in future.
    Kenneth, the video that appears is from an unmoderated flow, just like the content labeled “flow” at the bottom of the page. I should properly signpost that to avoid confusion.
    Charlie, thanks for stopping by. For me, the key distinction is to replace moderation, which is essentially a negative, policing resource, with an editorial one. I don’t mind if that’s a curator or editor here – it’s putting a knowledgeable resource in place to shape and add value to the content that is the goal. As for the UN focus group idea, done correctly, I think it could work – if, for example, they encouraged all the delegates to use something like this, perhaps in a closed environment, they could extract meaningful information that would help them focus on the areas required to achieve consensus.
    All – thanks again for taking the time to read and comment. Much appreciated.

  7. By film izle on December 4, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    We are just beginning a series of new service launches for the Transition Towns web project and something very similar to this is at the top of our agenda – we are supporting a broad movement of bottom up initiatives all over the country and increasingly around the world and this approach is neat…