Saturday, October 30, 2010

Make It Better

For individuals without a background in Journalism, or who have not gone through the tumultuous J202, writing a piece of journalism can be a daunting task. With the advent of participatory sites like YouTube and citizen journalism hubs, as well as the increasing accessibility of video recording tools, citizen journalism is taking on the form of personal opinion/testimony videos.

A good example of this is the "It Gets Better" project. Earlier this year, popular sex columnist Dan Savage and his partner started a YouTube channel called the “It Gets Better” project, in response to increasing coverage of queer-related youth violence and suicides. He encourages people from around the world to share their personal stories of triumph over high school bullying, or for allies to come forward to express support. Groups from the employees of Google and Facebook to President Obama himself have posted videos for the campaign.

Scouring through these videos, I find myself frustrated. As a victim of some pretty emotionally debilitating bullying for being gay during middle and high school, I think the campaign is too simple. Yes, it did get better for me, but I didn’t just wake up one morning and find myself completely out and accepted. It was an on-going process where I had to gather courage to come out to friends and family, make an active commitment to reaching out to self-affirming queer communities in my hometown, online and in Madison, and search for ways to involve myself in advocacy.

Then I found the "Make It Better" project, a smaller spin-off of Dan Savage’s campaign that asks the question, “how can you tell people it just gets better without giving them tools to make it better?” Leaving a queer youth with the empty promise that it just miraculously gets better leaves them with no concrete tools for fighting through the isolation and fear.

So I submitted a video to the “Make It Better” project, outlining my involvement here on campus. This semester I am working as the Educational Outreach Coordinator at the LGBT Campus Center am facilitating the Mentorship Program which pairs queer students who might be just coming out, or freshly navigating LGBTQ life in Madison with an “out” student who can relate to their experiences. The idea is to build connections within the queer community as a means of identity development: the Mentor and Mentee are supposed to meet weekly just to chat about life, dating, telling friends and family, finding community, or anything else that may come up. I currently have thirty-two Mentors to which I provide guidance, fourteen of which are currently paired up with a Mentee.

Even though I am openly gay, it is still a task for me to publicly “out” myself in order to share some of the things I work on. Posting a video of myself just talking is an especially vulnerable endeavor when speaking on subjects so deeply personal.

I have to wonder why the “It Gets Better” campaign has hundreds of videos, but “Make It Better” has only five. I think a lot of the problem with citizen journalism efforts, especially around advocacy in the context of this issue, is that it gives people a way to feel like they’ve really made an impact when they haven’t. Online activism that tries to make itself accessible doesn’t hold its supporters accountable for actually doing anything. To me, it’s just a step above “liking” something on Facebook: sometimes good intentions just don’t cut it.

Attempted Citizen Journalism

I came across a lot of challenges when participating in citizen journalism. The assignment said I had to contribute a story to a news site, so the first challenge became coming up with something that I could write about. I decided to write a first hand account of efforts going on around campus to get students to vote in the upcoming election. Next, I searched for an online place to put my story. I tried accessing "OhmyNews," but it came up in Korean, so I decided to try another one. I found CNN's "iReport" which looks to be a great source for participatory media. CNN makes a point to notify readers that everything within iReport is directly from citizens and not an official news source. I tried several times to make a log in name so I could upload my story. For whatever reason, I was completely unable to make a name on this site. Every time I tried registering (no matter which Internet browser I used) the form came up with an "error" that the password I was choosing could not have a "space" in it, and needed to be 6-10 characters long. While I followed all of those rules, it never accepted my password. Next, I decided to see if I could find an English version of Ohmynews. The good news is that I found it (, but the bad news was that the site no longer allowed new content to be added in. At this point, I felt pretty frustrated. I finally looked for Helium. This site looks great - there are tons of ways to contribute a news story! Writers can even get paid for their content, because publishers can register and buy content from the site for their publication or organization. To sign up, you had to enter in a lot of personal information, so I opted out.

In my experience, I definitely found to be the best example of a participatory media site. For each topic, several people have posted articles so readers can find a lot of different perspectives on the same issue. This helps readers become more informed and serves as a check for citizen journalists to write accurately. While this is a great aspect of the site, it can also hinder readership. For example, the topic "winning the war against terrorism" has 62 articles listed under it. I'm not sure that anyone has the time or patience to read through 62 articles on one topic, and there is no way to filter through the articles to find which is most relevant to what you are looking for.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


I just saw this on Fox News and thought it was interesting. Do you think texting your "spot" in a restaurant line is a good idea? Does this have any hope of catching on right now?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Crazy time with MAPS!

Hey guys,

Check out this video. It is MIND-BLOWING how they combined user-generated content with mapping....


Monday, October 25, 2010

Social Media Sells

This semester, I had to run a fundraiser for an organization I am apart of. To raise money, we sold cheap magazine subscriptions through a program called "Campus Fundraiser." Individuals could follow a link, pick a cheap subscription to a popular magazine, and my organization would raise money - everyone wins. I thought it would be easy to spread the word about the fundraiser because it gave people discounted subscriptions to something they may purchase anyway. I chose to mobilize people to find out about the fundraiser in 4 different ways: on my Twitter feed, on my Facebook page, using word of mouth and by personally emailing close friends and family.

Twitter did not attract any individuals interested in purchasing a magazine subscription. This did not surprise me because I am not an avid Twitter user, so I can't imagine many people really pay attention to my tweets. Total Magazine Subscriptions Sold = 0

Word of mouth did not attract any individuals either - this did surprise me. I thought that face-to-face I'd be most successful, as I could personally answer any questions the person had and convince them to buy magazine subscriptions. Total Magazine Subscriptions Sold = 2 (my own family)

Emailing close family and friends paid off more than I thought it would. This was a simple method that they could then pass along to their friends and people they thought were interested. All the information was clearly laid out and all they had to do was click a link to buy magazines. Total Magazine Subscriptions Sold = 3

Facebook proved to be the most successful outlet to mobilize people towards this fundraiser. I created a Facebook event and invited all of my friends. While hundreds responded "attending" only a few actually bought subscriptions. Even though this discrepancy was so large - people knew about the fundraiser and some actually acted on it. Friends would write on my wall after buying one to let me know they participated, my Aunt posted a question about the fundraiser on my wall, I responded on her wall and within 10 minutes she bought 2 magazine subscriptions! Total Magazine Subscriptions Sold = 6

All in all, I think the key to public mobilization is using every outlet possible. Use each way of communicating to reinforce the message and make sure it gets to people.

Public Mobilization Doesn't Have to be Boring

Last semester I worked for an environmental startup based in Madison and we did a public mobilization campaign via social media for Earth Day. To commemorate the 40th annual Earth Day and raise awareness for renewable energy, we launched an Earth Day scavenger hunt. Special stickers were placed around busy areas on UW-Madison’s campus, and students were encouraged to find a sticker, snap a picture and upload it to the Powered Green Facebook Page. The participants were then automatically entered into daily drawings for a chance to win sustainable products from participating sponsors. We used Facebook, Twitter and a page on our website to publicize the event and drive traffic to the Facebook page. Our tweets and status updates included event updates, prize announcements and hints about sticker placements.

Hundreds of pictures and comments appeared on Powered Green’s Facebook page, the story was picked up by several popular green blogs, and we got tons of traffic to our website and Facebook fan page. I think it was successful because the event provided people with an easy way to get involved in the Earth Day celebration, peoples’ Facebook friends could see their environmental efforts, the social media platforms were popular among our target, and there were prize incentives.

A weekend or so after Earth Day, my roommates and I were having a Mifflin pre-game party and a friend of a friend noticed my (Powered Green branded) water bottle sitting by the sink. After he found out it was my water bottle, he came up to me and told me how great he thought the event was and he had fun searching for stickers on his way to class. I was so excited he recognized our efforts that I did what anyone in my position would have done. I poured him a shot and we threw one back to going green.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Where the Homos At?

Navigating Madison as a gay male I often find myself wondering, “where the homo’s at?” In a city that prides itself on “liberalism” and “diversity,” I experience a queer community decentralized: spread out into pockets of social comfort that are characterized more by other common identities (race, class, gender, religion) that intersect queerness, rather than a city-wide sense of sexual identity-based cohesion.

But then I heard about “Grindr,” a free iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch dating application that caters exclusively to a gay market. Because there is no Grindr for my Palm Pixi, I rented an iPad from the JRR and went to work, creating a profile for myself.

At first log in, a grid comes up with pictures of real gay men, sorted in order of geographical distance to me. I can see what they look like, chat with them, read their “stats” (age, height, weight, short bio), and am shown the amount of miles (or more excitingly, feet) they are from me at that particular moment.

Grindr has the potential to deeply revolutionize the way we date. Instead of other sites like eHarmony that facilitate an online relationship that only suggests the potential for personal interaction, Grindr encourages you to get off your ass and actually go out together, because the person is literally close by.

Founder Joel Simkai writes, “Grindr... [is] real. It is not a Second life. It is not a virtual world. It’s a tool. It enables real life, it doesn’t replace it” (, 2010).

Once people look past preconceived notions of Grindr as a space exclusively for hooking up, we can more critically evaluate the new and exciting potential it has for individuals seeking human interaction to make friends, court one another, and find community.

I must have been a new face for seasoned users, because within the first 20 minutes of creating my profile, I received six messages from local gays of close proximity. With J676 in mind, I asked Grindr users if they see any potential for the application to be used as a tool for public mobilization. I got a range of responses from “absolutely!” to “people are on here just to hook up, kid. You got a nude pic?”

After some continued research and Grindr chat “interviews,” I asked interviewee's to meet me that night outside “Plan B” on Williamson street: Madison’s only gay dance club. I wrote:

“Hey, I’m looking to make more gay friends! My boyfriend lives in Chicago and I’m feeling a lack of gay male camaraderie, you know? If you’re free, meet me outside of Plan B at 11PM. My name is Jake, I’ve got wavy brown hair and I’ll be wearing a black v-neck and black jeans.”

The boyfriend in Chicago is not real... just a protective measure...!

That night I headed to Plan B in promised attire, and stood outside.

Three interviewee’s showed up, and after some casual and semi-awkward conversation, we headed into the club, and actually had a great night hanging out together. While Grindr did not so much live up to my expectations as a tool for public mobilization, I came out of the experience with three new friends.

When looking at my failure in using Grindr for public mobilization, I have to think of the deeper reasons why people use the application. Grindr re-affirms for gay men that others are around them; it’s appeal is enhanced for individuals who don’t have many other venues to reach out. Because the focus is more on personal interaction as a means for social/sexual gratification, the “plutonic” group dynamic I proposed might not be salient to its users.

I also have to think about who is/is not represented on Grindr. In its current form, it exempts many people. I only perceived two of the total local users to be queer men of color. The grid of faces tells these men that if they’d like to meet other queer men of color: good luck trying to find them here.

Heterosexuals, lesbians, transgender individuals, and most importantly, people without access to Apple products, are not represented. The gay men you find on Grindr are those with enough disposable income to own an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, denying individuals with lower socio-economic status access its services: quick and modern social interaction that can be quite self-affirming, especially for the marginalized, fragmented queer community we have here in Madison.

A question I have for J676 blog readers is, do you think this product could translate well to a straight market? What sorts of realities that are specific to the ways heterosexuals date, make this an application that might not be successful for straight people? Or do you think it's not so different, and would work?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Mookerwind the Night Elf

The screen goes black. The music, daunting and luminous steadily rises as I enter the World of Warcraft as Mookerwind, the night elf from Shadowglen and leave behind the all too human world. Believe it or not, I have only been playing WoW for a little over a week, still I am sure you can sense my defensive and somewhat addictive growing affiliation for WoW. I should mention the closest experience I have with MMORPGs is Mario Cart. Given my lack of experience and lack of hand eye coordination, all my avatar did was run around and explore different realms. I am embarrassed to say I only actually completed one task which included killing four young night sabers and four thistle boars.

Regardless, I spent countless hours just picking out an avatar and discovering different realms. The addictiveness, for me at least, is the continuous discovery of WoW knowledge gained, each time I played. There is a different language you have to adopt, different species to discover, new territory to find and new avatars from around the world to meet. It truly is like entering another world and I was shocked by the complexity of WoW. This accompanied by a little human competition, suspenseful music and the success of James Cameron's, Avatar, makes WoW one of the most popular MMORPG games to exist. As if that isn't enough, simply visit the WoW home page to find books, magazines, board games, support, community news and insider tips to live your WoW life to the fullest.

While WoW can be all fun and games, the reality of people becoming addicted affects more people than one would think. If you simply search online for WoW addiction support groups you can find thousands of blogs, videos, detox centers for addictive behaviors and 12 step programs encouraging addicts to give up their gaming. If you were to read one of the blogs on you might think you were reading about someone giving up drugs or alcohol. The addiction is alarmingly strong and makes me wonder whether this virtual reality, as ingenious as it may be, will create laws to prevent such addiction in the future.

Mookerwind will leave me in a few short days when my free trial is completed. I can confidently say I do not plan on purchasing WoW to begin another quest, but the journey was fun while it lasted.

I'm a Gangsterr

The EuroGangster is an online RPG mafia game, where you create your own character and perpetrate crime, fight for your family, and gamble at the casino. I have to admit, while registering to be a “Mobster” I was a little hesitant of the environment I was about to enter, and the advertisements that would show up on the side of my browser in the future. But I went with it.

After registering, I was given the choice to click Crime, Job, Gym, Explore, Bank, Jail, Hospital and more. So, first I went to the gym. I was told that “I” had enough energy to work out 12 times, so I clicked “train” and then the text came up on the screen, telling me that I had boosted my strength, but ran out of energy. So I was given a bodyguard for “1427minutes.” Then I decided to click on Crime, and a long list of crimes I could commit, along with the jail time if I fail, came on the screen. Cannabis caught my eye first. I clicked “do”… and I was told that I didn’t have enough “brave” to commit this crime. It turns out, to “do” Cannabis, it costs “30 braves.” So I looked for some cheaper crimes that my bravery could afford, and clicked on the cheapest one… Community Center. I clicked ”do” and a screen comes up that told me that I headed over to the Community Center, I started scavenging for cash, and there was nothing to be found. So I clicked “try again” and then the screen said, “You collected $100 from the gutters!” No I didn’t… I clicked the words Try Again! Where is the action and fun in that?

Then I continued playing around on the site, exploring the town (click on buttons and having them tell me I explored the town), getting a job at “McDaniels” a fast food restaurant (clicking on the only job that was available to me, and having them congratulate me). Then I went to the Game Station, where I played Poker, Pacman, Blackjack and a few others. Then, all of a sudden a message popped up on my screen…

“Cudax [2223] proposed to you, Message: Will you marry me and start a family? fun aspect of the game :)” I mean, I’m still in college but I’m not going to turn down a proposal; and just like that I was married. Then, a minute after we “got married” Cudax sent me $5,000,000 for wedding expenses… ROCK ON! This game instantly got better. Cudax would message me every time I was logged in... things like “honey pie.” The next day I was notified, “Your partner slept with you, you gained one happiness.” Thirty minutes later Cudax divorced me. Well, lets just say Cudax wasn’t satisfied?

After I was divorced, I decided to take some of my wedding expenses and buy a house. There were several homes to choose from, but I settled on the beach house for $750,000. This game went from being extremely dull, to an adventure where too many things were happening at once. I got offered a job as a Football Referee, got remarried to “The Nerd”, bailed a friend out of jail, went shopping, burned illegal music on DVD’s and sold them, stole money from the community and took a course on Agility.

My guess would be that this game is meant for uneducated teens, as it can take over your life and pull you into an alternative, adventurous, “badass” world full of spelling and grammar mistakes. I enjoyed playing the game for class, but otherwise I plan on divorcing TheNerd and deleting my account. I guess I’m just not truly a GANGSTER.

WoW, its addicting.

In the World of Warcraft, life is what you make of it. In a seemingly endless platform for exploration and no concrete story line, once you choose your avatar and realm of game play, the next step is truly your choice. Explore the expansive regions of land, find both non-player characters or other players currently logged in, or join up for quests either alone or with a formed clan.
When creating a new character there are several prompts leading to several choices you must make before getting started: First a decision of what type of realm you would your character to exist in--PvP (player vs. Player) or PvE (Player vs. Environment). I chose PvP in an effort to induce more interaction with other players. You must then choose the faction your character fights for, the Alliance or the Horde. In choosing the Alliance I was able to choose from either a human or a dwarf. Then, a profession is chosen and the journey begins...

I chose to be a Human with a profession as a blacksmith. Throughout the exploration of land I was able to obtain metals through skills in mining and create armour that I could sell or keep for myself. On my travels through the land I battled boars and winged creatures resembling exotic over sized bats to earn experience points. The world is made up of four different types of regions: Friendly, Enemy, Contested and Sanctuary. Contested areas are where PvP battles can take place, with sanctuaries as the opposite.
While I chose to enter the Player versus Player realm in hopes of more interaction within the game, it seemed as though I had to make it to the sanctuary regions to even get responses. As WoW is the most popular MMORPG game today, I took my attempts of interaction to the many forums on the web. The realms are filled with hundreds of players at any given time and each realm hosts a different language. In my experience, while each realm had some type of "lingo," it was essentially always in English. There are certainly many people who want to share and converse about the game, but finding them within the game was not nearly as rewarding as the blogs and forums.
In WoW, the term 'addiction' seems to be an understatement. Over 12 million people log on to play, and it seems as though  there no boundaries as far as the ages and locations of the participants--small business owners, young children, even senior citizens are involved, and arevery passionate and positive about the game. A majority of the conversing is centered around strategy and tips as opposed to sharing personal information. It may be a social media platform, but it often has the feel of a simply higher evolved form of a video game captivating millions around the world. Players stay logged on for years and perhaps if my trial had not ended, I may have been lured into the WoW obsession as well.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Your Quest...

...Should you choose to accept it: Bring back the tough meat of 8 wolves. At least that's what my avatar's, Sanginka, very first mission was. Which then meant I had to first find the wolves then figure out how to even fight them then figure out how to kill them then figure out how to get their tough meat…What?? Then Sanginka had to decode a manual for Odin and kill 8 boars for their tough meat. For those of you who are lost, I was too…until my roommate and I spent about an hour playing World of Warcraft, and became near addicts. Fear not, we have weaned ourselves off of it…But yes, Nick—there is a whole World of Warcraft out there.

With more than 12 million subscribers, World of Warcraft is the most popular Massive Multi-player Online Role-Playing Game. Upon logging in to WoW, players select a realm to play in. Within these realms, players choose to engage in player versus player, player versus environment, role-play and role-play versus players battles. Once selected, the players enter their selected realm and create their avatar with some ridiculous sounding name e.g. Odin and Sanginka and intense fighting apparel. The avatars wander into the realm, which often appear to look like sparse areas with occasional nomads and tenting areas set up, looking for new and trying to complete existing quests.

These realms are filled with hundreds of other players at any given time. Upon signing in, the player can see how many people are in which realm and what languages they speak. However, in my experience, these other people were not really existent. While each realm does have certain languages attached to it, I found the things the avatars in my realm said virtually in a different language, even though they were in English. This lingo, I unfortunately was unable to pick up in my short few days playing Wow.

Overall, I enjoyed playing WoW. While I may have been subject to ridicule from my friends, I think they also secretly wondered, “What it was that draws people towards WoW.” After my 10 days of playing, I’m still not sure what differentiates this MMORPG from the others. However, I thought it was fun. Unlike other video games, it was pretty user friendly for me to figure out how to play and actually be decent at it. Overall, I enjoyed my experience with MMORPGs. I think these are gaining popularity even more so with new technology. They are just another way for people to connect with each other in an even more interactive format. Plus it also ties in special interests such as gaming. While gaming may not be a special interest of mine, I know in researching different MMORPGs, there are so many MMORPGS that there has to be one for everyone. These ranged from Wow to Karaoke and more. While I may not rush back to WoW, maybe some day I’ll try another!

Quest Completed.

Greetings from the world of Dofus

Salutations my friends! I am Captain Wiggles, a level 4 Enutrof in the land of Dofus. Although my Gimli-like appearance and age may make you question my battle readiness, I throw a pretty mean Ghostly Shovel.

To those of you who may not know about my mystical land, I'll give you a brief overview. For some, Dofus is a free to play online world for Mac users, but for me it's home. After a brief tutorial battling a minotaur on top of a floating cloud, I teleported into the expansive Dofus forest to begin my questing. Orkblot!!! Ahem, excuse me.

The world I inhabit is quite small. There are rolling fields, forests, a couple of wells and a huge frickin' sword made out of stone that the gods threw from heavens. Sweet. The land if full of your typical run-of-the-mill animals that I spend most of my time attacking. Today I slayed a gaggle of porcupines, a few baby sheep, and a skeleton before being headbutted to death by a pig while I Ghostly Shoveled her kids. I suppose I had it coming.

Besides fighting random, adorable animals, I spend my time talking to some of the Non-Playable Characters that give me random tasks. Most of the time I'm doing fetch quests for them or they tell me about the history of this magical place. Needless to say I have since stopped talking to these characters.

I am not alone in the Dofus world however. There are upwards of a dozen (actual) people with me at all times. I may join in their battles, challenge them to a duel, or designate them as my friend/enemy. Pretty much every interaction involves me fighting with or against them basically. It's a violent world out here.

Sometimes I'll try talking with them in a chat window but my calls for friendship have fallen on deaf ears. The only time someone responded to me they turned out to be from the Czech Republic and only responded in emoticons. :-(

My brutal and lonely existence in Dofus has been a regrettable experience. I've already started to pack my Ghostly Shovel and porcupine pelts in my rucksack to venture out West. I hear there's a whole World of Warcraft world out there.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

MMORPGs may maim and pwn but words will never hurt me.

I found this awesome clip about "griefing" or name-calling on this Harvard tech blog I read that those of you who will be playing MMORPGs in the near future might find interesting:

In online gaming environments you may be getting shot at, impaled, or run over by tanks. But the more serious damage may come in the form of the offensive chatter bandied about casually between players connected remotely via headsets.

Racist, homophobic, and sexist language proliferates as gamers trash talk. But often such language and name calling is used, not to offend, but to distract and gain attention.

Such “Griefing” behavior is meant to be ironic. “I am not racist/sexist/homophobic,” a griefer will think, “therefore, my use of an offensive term is just a joke. If you interpret it any other way then you just don’t get it.”

But that doesn’t mean griefing doesn’t have an impact.

Lisa Nakamura — Professor in the Institute of Communication Research at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and author of the book Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet — spoke to David Weinberger about the origins of griefing, and how online communities are dealing with it.

Here's the link if you'd like to learn more.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Since maybe you're studying for the midterm and looking through blog posts, and since maybe (like me) you saw The Social Network (now at a staggering 97% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes) this weekend, and since maybe you want a little break...I wanted to share this illuminating "other side" of the Facebook story as published on Gawker Media's sister site on Silicon Valley gossip, Valleywag.

While the movie makes Facebook CEO Zuckerberg out to be sort of cold and calculating and his former best friend and FB co-founder Eduardo Saverin out to be, as one reviewer pegged him, "an oasis of warmth", you may find the link above an antidote to the movie's powers of persuasion. The article's a tad on the long side but reads juicy and fast, and details how Saverin, in a what seems like a vengeful move, talked an author into telling Facebook's creation story--from Saverin's perspective. That book, "The Accidental Billionaires", provided the basis for The Social Network screenplay. Not really a stretch to see why Saverin comes out looking like sunshine.

On a side note, while leaving the movie, I was tempted to tell my friend how poignant it was that the film begins with two people, talking face-to-face in a bar and ends with one of those people seeking Facebook friendship with the other, alone in front of a screen, constantly hitting refresh, desperately seeking a human connection that FB is supposed to be so good at providing.

Then, I realized, I hadn't thought of that on my own. No, I'd read that on a blog somewhere.

Then I thought I should really mention I read that somewhere when I told my friend.

Then I thought, how funny, after seeing this movie, that I'd be worried about intellectual property...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Your Mom, Your Neighbor, Your Classmate....Your News Source

While studying the Madison Commons Web site, I noticed three main issues to be addressed:

  1. Need for social media, new media
  2. Need for incentive to publish pieces
  3. Need for moderation and structure

Madison Commons has a great concept that could serve as a city-wide information source for local and regional news. I think the overall organization of the site is intuitive. By giving the different neighborhoods their own news tabs, it localizes the news and allows users to look up not only their city and county news, but their very own town/village/neighborhood. The locality of it gives citizens a feeling of importance when publishing articles about their very own neighborhood. In this way, the site serves as a “neighborhood watchdog” by allowing citizens to personally report on the happenings in their neighborhood, to announce events, to raise awareness to an issue, etc. While this function is important for any community to have, Madison Commons needs to expand beyond this function to be successful.

Citizen journalism is quickly becoming a main news source for many Americans through social networks such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. As citizens witness events occur, instead of waiting to see what the news reports on it later, they now turn to their mobile device(s) and update their social networks- in essence launching their own news stories. If Madison Commons can create a buzz to become the singular online platform in the Madison area to publish these news updates to, they can create a collective voice authority.

However, some improvements should be made to take the Web site to the next level, encouraging more interaction and engagement from citizen journalists and readers.

I really like the use of the poll in the left hand column, the quizzes and the CommonsMaps. These tools necessitate engagement and involvement within the Web site. However, to be successful, Madison Commons needs to pull interaction from numerous platforms. By introducing a Twitter feed and allowing citizen journalists and readers to follow the account, news, site updates, events, new posts, and much more can be updated from here.

This incorporation of social media is important to modernize the site. Right now, it has a very traditional newsy feel. However, news is taking new forms in today’s ever changing mediascape. Media is going mobile and the faster news can be published, the more salient it becomes. Accuracy and urgency are still priorities to news reporting, and by allowing citizen journalists the ability to create and publish from their phones including images and video will stimulate consumers to use the platform. If Madison Commons could initiate a smartphone application or partner with an existing application to allows users to write and publish stories straight from their phones, I think the news publishing and interaction portion of the site would improve.

To encourage users to take the citizen journalist workshops and publish stories to the site, incentives should be created and enforced. An example would be if someone attends a workshop and recommends it to two friends, they can “unlock” a CommonsMap that includes daily food and drink deals from around the town. Perhaps Madison Commons could partner with a few local shops/restaurant/bars, that anytime their business is mentioned in an article or a tweet, the writer receives $1 off their meal/purchase (up to $X.00). These sorts of incentives will stimulate interaction. Another idea could be to host monthly Madison area image and video contests since the site lacks use of visuals. Web site users can upload their best photos and videos to go along with their stories. Readers can vote on the images/videos and a winner is announced at the end of the month. This winner gets a “Citizen Photographer/Videographer” profile on the front page of the Web site including a biography and any fun facts they’d like included about themselves. They can also win a prize. Bribes still work people!

These ideas foster higher levels of use and engagement to the Madison Commons Web site, which in turn increase the number of voices heard through the site. The shear number of opinions included will garner a wide range of viewpoints and issues reported, creating a legitimate news source that can be linked from other Madison area news sources (aggregated authority).

My last critique of the site is the lack of moderation and attribution. While the news stories are all attributed to named writers or outside news sources, reader comments, blog posts and discussion forum entries can remain anonymous. I think to run a legitimate news source in the Madison area, Madison Commons needs to require all citizen journalists to take a workshop before posting and provide their name with each posting. Also, I think anyone commenting needs to have to log in to the site. Not only does this help regulate Web site content, but it also gives consumer information to the Web site. This information can be used for expansion in the future. For example, a weekly/monthly e-newsletter, etc. Although it is citizen journalism, to be treated as a legitimate news publication, some degree of regulation does need to be taken.

Overall, I think the site has a great skeleton structure and the ideas are there. With a bit of expansion and added spice to it, I think Madison Commons can succeed as a legitimate citizen journalism news platform in the Madison area.

Will you contribute? Is citizen journalism a legitimate news source? Would you use Madison Commons as your regional news source?

Tragedy of the commons

I was once in conversation with an established Madison journalist about the fate of the industry and the promise of taking it new directions. At one point in the talk she paused, changed tone, and said, "Have you heard of Madison Commons?"

I indicated that I had not.

"Well," she said, nodding in dismay, "That's the problem."

Here I was, a journalist in Madison for several years, having reported for two publications downtown, trolled blogs and news sites regularly, participated heavily UW J-school presentations and engaged in conversations like the one above with other reporters and editors who worked and lived in the area. And yet I had not heard of Madison Commons, a project which ambitiously and commendably aims to unite Madison neighborhoods through citizen journalism and traditional journalism from some of the city's most prominent news outlets: the Isthmus, Channel 3000, the Wisconsin State Journal. If I wasn't aware of Madison Commons, who was?

There is an old concept first proposed by ecologist Garrett Hardin in a 1968 edition of Science called the "tragedy of the commons." It basically stipulates that overuse of a finite resource may deplete the resource, to the detriment of all those using it. But the tragedy of Madison Commons is quite the opposite, if related: it has the potential to be a near infinite resource, yet nobody uses it.

Check the homepage today and you'll find, billed under "Top Stories" a piece written last January. Under "Recent comments" the most recent of the comments was posted 1 year ago. The headline "A Visit from the President" gave me hope for a compelling, from-the-crowd citizen journalist's coverage of President Obama's visit to Madison last week, but instead I found a Flickr photostream on Obama's appearance at Wright Middle School last November. Forget being underused, the Commons seems virtually abandoned.

Now, I understand that some of the disuse and lack of updates may be due to the site's current renovation. For this I am glad, because I believe the Madison Commons project has enormous potential. It does many things well already.

Off the bat, I like that the Commons is a fusion of work from citizen journalists and schooled traditional reporters alike, not resigning the fate of the industry to one school or another, but strengthening both through collaboration. I like that it maintains its primary focus on news, and not event listings or entertainment calendars, though that would be easy to fall into for a site about neighborhoods. No, that niche is covered (extremely well) by the Isthmus, and even to some degree by the State Journal's 77 Square. Calendars of place-specific events on neighborhood pages (and maybe the occasional feature) would be helpful while remaining unobtrusive and secondary to news coverage. Which leads me to the best thing about Madison Commons: it's emphasis on place. The Commons, fleshed out to its full capacity, is a hub of information from all sides of Madison. This works to enhance community by connecting people downtown with the outer reaches of Madison, and bringing suburbanites into the heart of the city.

These things said, I am heartened to know that positive changes are afoot. Here are some things I hope to see next time I check in on the Commons:
  • A deeper involvement in Madison's neighborhoods. The first time I peeked at Madison Commons, I looked up my relatively obscure neighborhood on the west side of Madison, excited that it was even represented. But there were no stories, I found only a blank page. And while some of the more well known neighborhoods near downtown had a page full of articles that gave me a vague feel for the area, I still wanted more detail. At the top of a neighborhood page I want to see a large photo of the district, with vivid, neighborhood descriptions and brief histories excerpted and arranged as clickable links at the top. (For this, Madison Commons could take a cue from the Isthmus neighborhood guide). I wanted to see short profiles of the citizen journalists from each area, with links to their individual blogs and Twitter accounts. All of this could help foster more of a connection with between the reader, the place and the people from that place.
  • More images. Again, we need to improve use and comment traffic on the Commons, and nothing gets the masses going like a visual. Citizen journalists could submit photo essays that depicting a day at an area festival or describing the journey of a neighborhood figure. If the site adopted a YouTube account, the citizen journalists and even site users could upload video from neighborhood events, projects, meetings, etc. that could be rotated daily or weekly on the sites homepage, linking to the full collection of videos on a separate page. A large Flash player at the top of the homepage would utilize images to draw readers into news stories, almost all of which currently lack any photos at all. Maps are another excellent way to promote interactivity, and are especially called for with a site so place-oriented. Embedding Google maps on the neighborhood pages and even the homepage is an easy and efficient way to familiarize users with an area. Each article could include a small map pinpointing the areas it mentions in the text, with information that pops out when you scroll over it, such as the neighborhood name, population and other articles about/from that area.
  • High-profile promotion of collaborations with other news sources. People who have not heard of Madison Commons have probably heard of the Wisconsin State Journal. I'd like to see the Commons site have separate columns on its neighborhood pages, one with citizen journalism, one with articles from its collaborators. This would serve to highlight pieces coming in from the outside, and perhaps generate dynamic interactions between the citizen journalism pieces and the traditional ones. In addition, when a piece from a source like the State Journal is published on Madison Commons, a footnote on the article at its home site could indicate "You can also find this and other ____-related State Journal pieces at" A few readers would click through, and find a wealth of helpful, similar articles. The homepage could indicate at the top the site's association with big name publications in the area, at least until it had more name recognition.
  • Direct use of Facebook and Twitter. Finally, while I've suggested the use of social media in various indirect ways above, it is clear that Madison Commons could benefit enormously through the plugging into Facebook and Twitter. Got a new blog post up? Tweet it! A new collaborator has joined the network? Share the news on Facebook. The high-profile promotion of its collaborators will start the Commons off with a few friends, fans or likes to start off with. When the State Journal "likes" Madison Commons on Facebook, loyal readers of the State Journal will be more likely to check it out, and perhaps even "like" it in return. It grows from there. The more FB likes and Twitter followers, the more traffic to the site, the higher demand for quality content.
All of these suggestions, if implemented could play off one another in a cycle that benefits all the players involved. They could boost the Madison Commons brand, increase readership, promote individual writers and strengthen partnerships with traditional media. In the end, it could help the project achieve its goal in fostering discussion, debate and involvement, effectively creating a commons that spans all corners of Madison, growing more and more as its used more and more. No tragedy there.

Bringing the Village Commons Online

At my first arrival to I wasn't quite sure of the website's focus. A venture into the site's About page explains that its "name comes from the idea of a village commons, a place for news, talk, debate, and some entertainment, too, that's open to everyone." I believe the idea of a physical village commons has dissolved in the age of Internet where information is always at the click of a finger; however, the concept of reviving this traditional outlet sparked my interest. I thought I would find lively debates about political candidates, discussions of recent performances at the Overture, and a place to engage with community members about Madison- or neighborhood-specific issues. While this appears to be the ideal of MadisonCommons, it is lacking in multiple areas that prevent it from reaching these goals. Regardless, the website still holds promise--especially with its pending renovations.

For example, the incorporation of social media could drastically change this site. Firstly, the ability to share content through different social media outlets would not only increase the visibility of MadisonCommons but would likely draw more traffic to the site. Currently the site only supports sharing blogs or stories via Digg. While this is a good start, incorporating sharing options for the social media titans Facebook and Twitter would instantly bring the site into the Web 2.0 age. Without these sharing options, community members are unlikely to stumble upon--another good sharing option by the way--the website on their own. That is not to say that the site doesn't already appear in Google searches. In fact, one comment on a blog post about "Woodman's commercials" explained that the user was directed to MadisonCommons through a Google search.

Secondly, setting up a Facebook page for MadisonCommons would provide a gateway directing community members to the site. Also, Facebook's newest Groups feature--released today--could be utilized to increase community interaction by allowing community members to instantly interact with their neighbors through posts on the group wall as well as through the new group IM capabilities. For instance, if you wanted to know if anyone in your community would be interested in a neighborhood yard sale you could easily Facebook IM everyone in the community to see if they would want to participate. MadisonCommons could even create separate Groups for each neighborhood for this function if enough people from each neighborhood participated.

Thirdly, sharing new blog posts or news items via a Twitter account would allow interested parties to keep up with MadisonCommons and other active community members.

While MadisonCommons current Maps are a gem in their website--everything from gas prices by location to a Universe of interactive keywords--incorporating Foursquare could improve the site's reach. Using Foursquare's "add this place to my Foursquare" to suggest important places to visit in Madison would be useful for Foursquare users. Also, the MadStubs could incorporate this function for its location-based blog posts.

Finally, I noticed a distinct lack of video on the site. While posting videos to accompany stories may be too time-consuming for some community members or even the staff, they would be another gateway to the website and an entertaining reason to stay. Even a weekly video blog by one of the contributors could make a big difference.

Another major issue I had with the site was its commenting system. Commenters on the blogs were not required to login. While this was most likely an active choice by the creators of the site to encourage more participation, it may in fact have the exact opposite effect. The lack of accountability to an anonymous post could spark more freedom in the commenter's speech but at what cost? One of the major concepts of the village commons was always direct accountability for speech. If you had something to say, you said it and everyone knew how you stood on the issue. This allows for a feeling of community because you feel responsible to be respectful of other ideas even though they might not align with your own. I believe that if MadisonCommons hopes to bring this community feel to its online commons it has to require commenters to log in. Moreover, requiring log-in would encourage more interaction and information sharing with the site in general.

[On a side note, it is odd and confusing that the newest comments to rise to the top of the comments list because it blocks interaction by confusing users as to how the discussion on a certain blog post developed.]

Two commenters on one specific blog post criticize the site for its failure to monitor "accuracy and content" and its unmoderated forum. If the commons hopes to address such concerns it might need to more clearly establish itself as a community project and open "wiki"-like collaborative effort. On the other hand, if the journalistic clarity of the site's reporting ranks more important to the site creators they might increase monitoring efforts.

While it might seem I completely dismantled and disliked all of the MadisonCommons, that could not be further from the truth. Let's look at some of the great things that MadisonCommons is already doing such as the terrific CommonsMaps I've already mentioned.

Even though the site lacks interactivity through outside social media outlets, it does a great job of offering interactivity within the site. For example, the poll on the lefthand sidebar of the site engages community members with an important issue and allows them to see how their feelings compare to other community members' feelings. Also the site's CommonQuiz draws users to test their knowledge of the Madison community while encouraging them to learn about the community in the process. Offering the reward of making it on the Commons Quiz Honor Roll is another enticing/challenging for users to participate.

Although I previously bashed the site's lack of ability to keep community member up-to-date with community content (read: lack of social media), the site does offer visiters the opportunity to have updates sent to them via RSS feed. Twitter might be the RSS of the site's possible younger audience, but many people rely on RSS feeds via email for their daily news.

A comment on one of the blog posts regarding a spray paint artist demonstrates the possibilities for establishing connections with community members. The blog poster mentioned the artist's work in passing and the artist commented with his thanks as well as a way interested community members could contact him. I believe that this ability to connect with other community members is a main goal of this site, and while it was only met on a small scale, I think that the site holds great potential in this regard.

Another promising area of the site is its issues discussions. If more people participated by sharing their opinions regarding community problems such as the adoption of city bus wraps, this area would be an ideal place for community leaders to gauge public sentiment and organize proper petitions or social movements to effect change.

Lastly, the site does a great job of uniting people with a general love of Madison and its community. The words of one blogger writing her goodbye to Madison honors this sentiment best:

Dear Madison,

It's not you... it's me...

Now don’t get jealous of New York, or D.C. or Minneapolis. You and I know that what we have had together can never be replaced. They can never be what you were to me.
But I must move on. It will be scary for both of us, but we can get through it. Don’t call. It will just make things harder. I will come back when I am ready.
Please don’t forget about me . . . don't forget about us.

I love you, xoxoxox

What do you think? Could these changes save the MadisonCommons? Would the site be something you would participate in regularly? Is it really Nancy or was she just trying to let Madison down easy?