This is a transcript (sort of)of an Ignite session I just delivered at the Melcrum Digital Communications Summit in London.
Journalism, game design and social media meet at last.
My first job when I moved to the UK was as a receptionist at a TV production company in Kentish town. (Well, I was actually hired to move in furniture, but worked up to answering the phones.) The boss there was an energetic, garrulous guy named Ian. He could spin off a dozen concepts for reality TV shows with his first sip of Pinot Grigio, drove his Jag to work every day from his house in Islington – and he was very proud of being working class.
I never really got that. How could the Cambridge-educated managing director of a TV company consider himself working class? In Canada, the class system doesn’t work like that.
Well, it turns out it doesn’t here in the UK, either. So says Science.
Over two years ago, I worked on an interactive investigation for BBC Current Affairs called The Great British Class Survey. The survey launched in early 2011, but it’s taken until now for the responses to be properly studied, revised and published. And what results they have been! On April 2nd, the BBC finally published the results. Apparently it’s the largest study on class ever conducted in the UK, with over 160,000 respondents.
The results have been fascinating. Professors Mike Savage and Fiona Devine, our partner sociologists, (along with their research team) were able to use the data they gathered to blow apart the old three-way working/middle/upper division of class. They describe the UK more accurately with seven classes: Elite, Established Middle Class, Technical Middle Class, New Affluent Workers, Traditional Working Class (yep, that one’s still there), Emergent Service Workers, and the poor, isolated Precariat. You can take the test yourself if you want, and find out which of the seven new classes you fit into.
I’ve been thrilled with the impact this work has had. There have been hundreds of responses on Twitter. There’s plenty of mainstream coverage, too – the Telegraph, Reuters, the Guardian. Even the Daily Mail covered the survey in depth. They even did us the honour of a cartoon by Pugh:
There was even a hilariously sour spin-off piece in Vice magazine.
Plenty of the coverage takes issue with the results, of course – this piece from The Boar is just one example. But that’s the whole point. Class is something important and infinitely discussable, and the survey is sparking debate and discussion. It even looks like all this hot air might have some sort of effect. I’ve seen ‘Precariat’ used at least once in print, and heard it a couple of times in the wild – people at my office were talking about the survey earlier today.
This was a fascinating project to develop and produce. It was the last interactive project I worked on before I left the BBC. I’m pleased to see that it’s come into its own at last, and profoundly grateful to all the people who helped make it happen.
In which are explained the various rules, and variations, of luck-obtention in the finding and picking up pennies on the street
When I was growing up, in Montreal, and old enough to just have learned where babies come from, I also learned about penny luck.
The idea is simple. If you find a penny on the street, and pick it up, it brings you good luck for one day.
Since then I’ve grown a lot older and learned a lot about the way the world works. It turns out that, like so many things, penny-picking-up-luck is more complicated and subtle than it appears at first. I’ve given this matter considerable thought and engaged in over 20 years of penny-luck experimentation. So I thought I’d clear up the rules.
This one is pretty obvious. One penny = one day of good luck. One penny is worth one cent. Therefore if you find a five cent coin, it confers five days of luck. A quarter is worth 25 cents and so covers you for the better part of a month. If you find a loonie or a toonie, they convey 100 and 200 days of good luck, respectively. By the same token, I am still riding on the wave of the $10 bill I found in the parking lot of the Angrignon Mall Future Shop on the 10th of January 2011. (So far it has pretty much worked.)
As stipulated in Rule 1, luck accrues at a rate of one day per penny, or one day per cent. But whose pennies are we talking about here? It seems logical that the pennies you grew up with are the luck standard for you. Of course, I grew up in Canada, so in my case we’re talking Canadian pennies here. But I live in London now. If I went out in the street today and found a British penny in the street, that would count for 1.56113 days of good luck, at current rates. (Which is a bit of a bummer, ’cause when I moved to London in 2005 one British penny equaled 2.45 days of good luck. If I found a two-penny coin back then, I was set for like a whole week.)
If you grew up in Britain or the USA and you come to Canada and find pennies on the sidewalk, you’re sort of getting ripped off. At current rates, if you’re British, a Canadian penny only gives you 0.640563 days of good luck. That’s about enough to get you to three-thirty in the afternoon or so.
This one is a real surprise, but I assure you that the logic holds. This is Science here people, and we all know you can’t argue with Science. As the saying goes, finding a penny makes that day lucky. But what if you find another penny that day? (This has, in fact, happened to me several times during my years of experimentation.) Your current day is already lucky, so the second penny’s lucky day must fall on another date. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that it the luck should accrue on the next day. Logically, it follows that any luck past the first penny is bankable, and can be redeemed at a future date of the finder’s choosing. By extension, any penny luck is bankable – including the luck from the first penny. This is really convenient, because it’s a great idea to save luck up until you need it – for example, for a big presentation, a hot date, or an appointment with your bail board.
Though luck is bankable and can be called on at any time, you can’t cut up luck from multiple-cent finds into smaller chunks. That means that if you find a dime, you have to use all ten days in one go. You can’t use one or two of them and keep the other nine or eight for later.
If you’ve banked a lot of luck, and have something really big coming up, and you really really need a lot of luck, you can focus all your luck from a particular find into one day. For example, I found a pound coin on Carnaby street the other day. I’m saving that one up to use in one go – next time I play poker I am makin’ it, baby.
Because seriously. You can’t go spending all your luck in some sort of like twice normal concentration or some random shit like that. That’s just silly. It’s one day per penny, or all at once. Your choice, punk.
Because otherwise time zones would apply, and that would just be weird. And confusing. Like I’m supposed to keep track of where I’m from and use the time zone from there? But there are like 12 time zones in Canada. So that clearly doesn’t work. It has to just last 24 hours.
There, that’s all the rules that I’ve been able to determine from many years of observation and experimentation. I hope you find them useful.
It’s official: I’m leaving Citizenside to take on a post as Account Director at Edelman Digital.
There I’ll be designing interactive communications strategy and working up crisis response scenarios, as well as a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff.
I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in. It seems like interesting times at Edelman. The company has grown from about 3000 to nearly 4000 employees in little over a year, and the 80-person London Digital team, which I am joining, was just 35 strong only a year ago. I’ll be working with, among others, Tim Callington and Robin Hamman – who I first met when he was Head of Blogging at the BBC. (Yes, the BBC once had a Head of Blogging).
It’s been a heck of a ride at Citizenside. Since I joined in February, Citizenside’s member base has grown from 50,000 to nearly 70,000 members around the world. The Arab Spring and the Occupy protests have really started to grow Citizenside’s membership internationally and flood the feed with truly excellent photos. In January 2012, Citizenside will unveil Citizenside 3.0, a completely redesigned website that focuses much more on community interactivity.
This is the historic moment for citizen journalism, and I think the next couple of years will be really interesting for Citizenside. I wish the Citizenside team in Paris all the best in their continued quest to fully realize the potential of citizen media.
As for me, I’m really looking forward to new challenges, and working with the award-winnning team at Edelman.
The rise of social media has obliterated barriers to entry for the media industries. Advanced capabilities once reserved for well-funded teams with expensive equipment are now more or less universally accessible. At this very moment, thousands of people with nothing more than a smartphone and mobile signal are publishing newsworthy photos and videos online.
Coping with this upsurge in distributed newsgathering capability is one of the most important challenges for any news organisation active in 2011.
The users are already sharing vast volumes of valuable material. However, their output is unstructured, often highly subjective, and devoid of context or analysis.
Professional news organisations can add value here, if they develop ways to work with users to create high-quality journalism together. For all their experience in research, production skills, and their contact networks, this is a difficult task for the pros. The intelligent application of game dynamics is a key part of the solution.
Citizenside exists specifically to take advantage of this new opportunity for networked newsgathering. Game design principles are at the heart of our work. Here are some of the ways in which we apply them to improve our journalism.
This is not about ‘gamification’ – a word whose trendiness has leached it of all meaning. There are compelling editorial reasons that applied game dynamics are fundamentally important for any interactive journalism operation.
At the most basic level, any news operation that wants to survive must attract, motivate and retain a network of active users – whatever its business model. This is precisely what game design is about: creating intrinsically rewarding experiences.
As proven by its soaring player numbers and revenue, the gaming industry has already mastered the art of attracting, motivating and retaining a large user network. Any interactive journalism operation benefits from the application of proven game design principles from the very beginning.
On a more specific level, there are four main ways in which game design principles can help attract, motivate and retain a network of active users.
Blank pages are terrifying, and total creative freedom can be daunting. On the other hand, a specific, achievable challenge can be extremely motivating.
It is a fundamental game design concept that players need always to have a clearly defined, intriguing problem to solve. It is even better if the problem is pitched at just the right level of complexity for their level of experience. In this way they are neither bored with a simple, repetitive task, or frustrated by something too difficult for them to solve.
This very simple but powerful idea should inform all editors’ interactions with their users.
In the networked news ecosystem, it is not enough to simply ask users to send in newsworthy material. Most people have neither the news awareness, nor the contact network, nor the editorial nous to simply find newsworthy images. These remain the pro’s advantage.
However, using a game design approach, an editor can motivate a distributed network of users to attack a range of newsgathering tasks. Specific creative challenges are attractive to users. Viewed through the lens of game design, newsgathering tasks become challenging but achievable missions that users can complete.
At Citizenside, missions take the form of ‘Calls for Witnesses’. These are targeted calls for UGC, usually delivered to people within a defined radius of a news event. With members all over the world, we usually have several within a reasonable distance of any given news event. When we contact them, we give them specific information about the event and the sort of images we would like, and the deadline. This avoids the bewildering challenge of the blank page, instead offering users a specific, achievable challenge.
Constant information on progress and performance is a vital part of any rewarding interactive experience. Users who aren’t constantly aware of how they are doing will find the experience frustrating and will stop coming back.
Many news websites ask users to ‘Send us your images!’. This makes sending information easy, but is not a rewarding user proposition. When a user enters text or submits images that way, there is usually no return information about what happened with it. Was their note read? Were their pictures looked at? . . . Is anyone even there?
Clear feedback to users is absolutely essential, but communicating directly with every user is extremely labour-intensive (and thus effectively impossible).
Viewed through the lens of game design, the solution is simple. Well-designed games use points and often use leveling-up structures to mark player progress.
In Citizenside’s networked news operation, users get points for submitting material, for making comments, for having their images viewed, and for many other actions. In short, users are recognized and rewarded every time they do something that helps inform the user community, or increases the quality of content, no matter how small.
Citizenside users level up as a function of these accumulated points. As they prove themselves, we grant them more user privileges. Effectively, a user’s level is a quantified measure of their commitment to the site. The feedback is clear. It allows them to see at a glance how far they’ve come, and – crucially – where they stand compared to other users.
Another game mechanic that is useful to Citizenside’s newsgathering is specialized rewards. We are implementing a badge-based system of identity rewards that will reward users for specific types of actions. For instance, submitting many photos will unlock a ‘shutterbug’ badge, while leaving many comments can lead to a ‘life of the party’ badge. (This is similar to the Xbox Live series of achievements, and the FourSquare badges).
A particular application of this principle will be specialist badges awarded for local coverage. Many of our users take photos near where they live, becoming specialists in local news over time. After all, no one knows an area like the people who live there full-time. By rewarding users for consistently contributing material from a particular location, we can identify them as reliable local experts. This recognition will be publicly displayed on their user profile, thus granting them feedback on our recognition – as well as serving as a valuable signal to the editorial team.
A level-based system with clear feedback, such as the one sketched above, has advantages for the editorial team as well as the user. A clear trust signal is, perhaps, the most important advantage.
Any media operation with more than a few hundred users will find it impossible to manage relationships with each one individually. How then can an editor quickly determine the quality of incoming information, without a time-consuming background check on each member?
Because it is based on the sum of past contributions, a user’s level effectively shows the degree of commitment that a user has demonstrated to his or her particular user community. This level is an unambiguous, quantified trust rating. It enables editors to make rapid and accurate judgements on a source’s trustworthiness in a networked newsgathering context.
In addition, badges serve to further refine a user’s profile. Are they specialists in photography, videography, or very active in the community? Have they unlocked privileges as power-users in a particular town or neighborhood? This is all vital information when assessing the context and validity of information.
Finally, game dynamics can aid in user retention. There is a well-established ‘lock-in effect’ among players of massively multiplayer network games such as World of Warcraft. Once players of such a game have accumulated rank and status in one game world, they are disincentivized from leaving it, because that level is effectively non-transferable social capital. They would have to start building their rank again from zero in a new game.
In the news context, this means that once users have begun submitting material to one media operator, they are much less likely to submit future material to competitors, as they will not get the same rewards (levels/badges/status) there.
It should be noted that long-established media companies have a latent advantage in brand loyalty, which can be exploited when it comes to setting up a networked newsgathering operation. Users who have grown up reading or watching a particular news brand often display high loyalty, and can be reluctant to switch.
Naturally this puts established companies in a good position when it comes to soliciting material from their users. This is why Citizenside provides a plug-and-play version of its technology to other media companies, which we call the Reporter Kit. It is the same software as Citizenside uses to interact with our own user base, with one difference. The Reporter Kit allows news companies to collect news images and video directly from their own users, without passing through the Citizenside website. This allows established media companies to build on their brand loyalty and take advantage of the newsgathering ability distributed throughout their existing loyal user base.
None of these principles amount to transforming journalism into a game. Rather, as journalism is necessarily becoming an interactive, networked pursuit, media operators must adapt the lessons learned in the best interactive experiences.
Video games, one of the most popular and fastest-growing media in our civilization, offer a wealth of basic principles that can be applied to attract, motivate and retain a network of active users. Citizenside is applying these principles in many ways, which give us and our partners an edge in a difficult and fast-changing marketplace.