Made-to-Order Media (Part II)

Find out how your organization can create a social media outlet that your users trust and how to adapt to new technologies in this additional, online-only interview with technology writer Nick Bilton.

Technology writer Nick Bilton recently spoke to Associations Now about how new social media and techonolgy tools have reshaped the way that we create and consume content. In Part I of his interview, Bilton explains how associations can utitilze the latest technology and why we're better at multitasking than we think. In the online-only Part II of the interview, below, Bilton discusses e-readers, touchscreens, the changing definition of "authority," and much more.

Associations Now: Regarding e-books: Do the "paper versus pixels" discussions or arguments that we've been seeing break down into specific philosophies or is it kind of all over the place?

Nick Bilton: It's completely all over the place. What's even stranger is that you have now not only just paper versus pixels, but now you have these people where it's the Kindle people with the black-and-white screens versus the iPad people with the color screens, and then those that read on their mobile phones. I call it the digital/digital divide.

There was a comment on a blog post [on The New York Times' Bits blog] where somebody said they were in court duty as a juror, and you're not allowed to have a computer. During the break people pulled out their books and magazines, so this woman pulled out her iPad and she was reading a book on it. The head juror was like, "You can't have a computer in here," and she was like, "No it's a book. I'm reading a book on my digital device." So there's still not this acceptance, and I think it's going to be a little while before we see that.

Many associations have had a hard time getting in social media to become part of "anchoring communities" [Bilton's term for groups of people that social-media users' trust] that their target members are trying to gather for themselves. Do you had any thoughts about the best ways for nonprofit organizations to become a part of people's anchoring communities?

I think what people in the media really have to realize is that information is not just designed. It is not just what the media puts out there. It's what anyone puts out there. Like today, my iPhone broke and I tweeted a picture on Flickr of this broken phone, and it's been shared all over the place. And that's still news. It's not necessarily on The New York Times' website or wires and things like that, but it's still news that sits out there. Everything is now some sort of news experience.

Look at how people are really adopting these experiences. Recently there was a fire in New York City, and of course I read about it on Twitter first. And it happened in an area where I actually know quite a few people that I follow on Twitter and on Facebook. They were all taking photos of this fire from every single different angle. I had this three-dimensional view of this fire from rooftops, from the street, from a mile away, from a helicopter—all of these different things. It was really fascinating to see how all these views can tell one story.

And I think it's figuring out how to bring that sensibility over into the media and non-profits. It's just a matter of thinking about how it becomes relevant to what that business is.

Does that behavior erode the authority of what we used to consider leading authorities like The New York Times or, say, a major nonprofit like the Red Cross, who could say, "We know more than anybody else about rescue and recovery after earthquakes."?

Authority comes in numbers. So if one person says, "Hey, fire downtown," but there's no photo you're going to be like, eh. But if 10,000 people say, "fire downtown," and there's a photo to go along with those or whether there's no photo at all, I mean the numbers start to tell the truth a little bit.

And that's kind of what I was trying to get at in the section [in the book] about the fish that swim down these different alleyways based on what the numbers are telling them and this swarm logic of how information is shared. We saw the same thing happen in Iran [where protests in 2009 were covered via Twitter]. At first people didn't know whether they could trust if it was coming from a news source or if it was a person that was really in Iran. It took this aggregate-number kind of storytelling for that to change.

So it's sort of an egalitarian context we're living in now. If you are an authority and your information is valuable people will put some stock in it. But even if you're an authority and you don't have particularly interesting or valuable information people are welcome to dismiss it.

Yeah. Trust is really important. I do trust The New York Times but somebody who watches Fox News does not trust The New York Times but trusts Fox News. And so it's also very relevant to how our brains work with respect to trust and so on.

I think what's fascinating is if you look at organizations like Gizmodo or TechCrunch, these blogs that cover technology. They've only been around for a few years— TechCrunch is four or five years old, but it's become an authority on venture capital and things of that nature within the technology industry, whereas it took The New York Times 150, 160 years to become that authority. I think that because it's so much easier to start these blogs and websites and video sites and all these things it actually becomes easier for people to start to develop trust as they build a brand.

Are there specific devices that you would, for want of a better word, bank on? Should mobile be the focus? Should the iPad be the focus?

I think first of all everything is going to be touch. I mean, there will not be a screen in the world that doesn't have a touch screen, from your computer desk to the whiteboard in the office. Everything is going to be some sort of touch screen because that's now the way we expect everything to work. Imagine if you picked up a glass phone right now, with a big glass screen and if the touch didn't work you'd be like, "What's wrong with this thing?" It doesn't work, right?

I think another thing is that mobile is not going to slow down in any way. I think mobile is quickly replacing computers for certain people and tablets become a fourth device that kind of fits somewhere in the middle. But the idea that the end of the book that I talk about with 1/2/10 [how we'll use devices that we experience from one foot away, two feet, and 10 feet] about these experiences following you through between the devices? That's really what's going to help bring it all together.

A cynic might say that those who are best at practicing the dark SEO arts are the ones who are going to win in terms of getting information out there, and that the more niche-oriented content is going to get lost. How does solid, quality content win against that sort of storm?

I think it's not necessarily about the good solid content versus the other things. I think it's about access. … One of the things that I found while researching the book was that people were extremely frustrated with the mainstream media because they weren't included in the conversation and they wanted to be. But The New York Times is always going to be around because it offers something that is a professional. It's packaged really well. You know that you can guarantee that everything is going to come in the same way it did for the story before it and the next story.

Think back to that fire I mentioned earlier. Sure, when I found out about it I immediately looked it up on Twitter because I knew that Twitter had it before any mainstream news outlet did. But once I got as much information as I could from people that were standing there watching, I then went to The New York Times website and find out from the local section what had really happened, what the mayor's comments were and things like that, and I think that exists for all kinds of news experiences.

Do you have a sense that that's how everybody behaves? That everybody has that sort of reporter's mind that has an instinct to validate the information they see?

Yeah. Actually, it was interesting. I saw some studies a few years ago where some news outlets talked to kids in middle school and they asked how they got their news. And there were some kids that said, "Oh, I go to CNN, I go here," but there was actually a group of kids that said, "Oh, I go, I look for it on Facebook," but then he said they were like, "If it's a big news thing I always go to The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal or whatever it is to make sure it's real." So even these kids understand that there's a difference between something that their friend says, like "Michael Jackson's dead" and actually being able to see that in a mainstream news outlet.

One of the more interesting sections of the book was your back and forth with [New Yorker writer] George Packer about adapting to new technologies. He's speaking to a very common fear I think a lot of people have: That we're just going to be hit with this firehose of information and there'll be no discernment and no way of kind of processing what's good or what's bad about it.

It's a completely understandable fear. I get it. I went through it too when I first joined Twitter in 2007 when I knew three people on there. And then as more and more people started joining I knew 10 and then 100 and I was like, I can't keep up with this stuff. How am I going to keep with it? This is just one more thing I have to deal with.

And then as I started to realize what I was doing with it, I realized that I could step away from it for a week or I could step away from it for a minute, and I didn't need to read everything—that whatever was important would end up finding me. And that's essentially happened. If it doesn't, I mean then it still finds its way in other routes and other directions. I think that what we've started to do as a society is we share information. My mom used to cut the recipes out of the newspaper and give them to my sister, and now she copies a link and emails it to her. And so it's just another way of us sharing information.

Which is something that's pleasing to the mission that associations and nonprofits have: We just want to get the correct valuable information out to people as quickly and efficiently as we can.

And I think also if you do it right, if you do enter that anchor community and you do help people find information, they become reliant on you and they want to be a part of helping you and working with you. And you want to be a part of helping them. I spend a few hours a day just surfing the web for my job and looking for things. And I always look for really interesting things that I think people who follow me on these social networks will want to see. People email me all the time to say, "I really appreciate the fact that you find these fun, interesting things." It helps the way I tell stories and the way I communicate with my readers.

Mark Athitakis is senior editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]