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Writing

Cat memes will become less prominent on Facebook

Recent changes to Facebook’s news feed algorithm mean that organizations and companies developing and publishing their own original content are now receiving a significant boost on the leading social media site. Two weeks ago, Varun Kacholia and Minwen Ji, engineering and software managers at Facebook, respectively, posted in the Facebook Newsroom that “we are now paying closer attention to what makes for high quality content…what this means is that you may start to notice links to articles a little more often (particularly on mobile). Why are we doing this? Our surveys show that on average people prefer links to [these kinds of] articles…to the latest meme” about dancing cats or photos marked up with funny captions (as in the example to the left).

The bottom line: “high quality articles you or others read may show up a bit more prominently in your News Feed, and meme photos may show up a bit less prominently.”

Facebook’s move is not a surprise. Traffic from Facebook to news sites tripled in the past year. Facebook is being increasingly used as a news source (much as Twitter has also evolved). So why shouldn’t Facebook’s algorithm promote original news articles? Facebook hasn’t revealed the secret formula for how it will recognize “high quality content” but the Kacholia and Ji’s promise is clear: uninformative over-shared links and tired memes will be demoted.

All of this is great news for Blum Interactive Media clients that have engaged us to create original content to publish on their websites, Facebook pages, email newsletters and other social sharing services. Original content already ranked high in Google’s organic listings; now Facebook is joining the party. Take a look at the home page from one of our clients, Shavei Israel: they treat their website as a mini-newspaper, publishing 2-3 original stories (which we write) every week. The result has been dramatic – on Facebook alone, Shavei Israel and its related pages now have more than 60,000 “likes” and web traffic is up as well.

There’s a sidebar take away here too: trying to create “viral” material online just got harder…and easier. You can spend less time over-thinking and crazy planning what you hope will become the next mega-video hit. Instead, write the best quality content and the social networks will help you out on their own terms.

Facebook - Related articles exampleFacebook will also be showing “related articles” directly below the news feed post. Although you can’t control which articles will appear, our experience using similar products on our own websites indicates that at least some of the time, these will be articles that your organization or company has published. The more content you have out there, the more likely it will appear in this new Facebook section. See the example from Facebook on the right.

If you’re thinking about how to get going with your own original content strategy, keep in mind that it’s not a one-time thing. To stand out on Facebook, Google – really, anywhere online – your organization or company needs a regular stream of innovative articles and multimedia material. The aim is to turn your website and social media presence into a destination; a trusted source of compelling content that make readers want to come back – to subscribe to your newsletter, to like your Facebook page, and to share and forward what they receive.

Now more than ever, you can’t do this with a couple of lines and a cute picture in a blog post here or a press release there. You need to publish new material on a continuing basis. As your content appears more frequently in your followers’ news feeds and in search engine results, your supporters will know who and what you are about, so that when it’s time to ask for donations, or to sell a new product, they’ll already be primed.

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A poster for the interactive movie "Turbulence"

“All filmmaking is based on a lie,” says Israeli Professor Nitzan Ben-Shaul. “In the narrative structure of a movie, it appears that there is only one possible ending – that the way it’s presented is the way it has to be. But in life there are always options.”

To demonstrate his argument, Ben-Shaul of the Film and Television Department at Tel Aviv University has created the world’s first, fully interactive feature film where the viewer gets to decide at various points, in real time, how the action will progress. “It’s nothing short of revolutionary,” he says. “It has the possibility of turning every one of us into potential film directors.”

Ben-Shaul is not a technologist – he teaches classes in cinema studies at Tel Aviv University and has written several books including Mythical Expressions of Siege in Israeli Films and Hyper-Narrative Interactive Cinema: Problems and Solution. So to create his interactive movie, he partnered with Guy Avneyon who built a sophisticated patent-pending movie editor and standalone player.

The technology is still under construction, as is the company. Turbulence (also the name of Ben-Shaul’s interactive film) is just now being incorporated and seeking angel investment. For Ben-Shaul, that’s less important. His focus is the process of thinking through the making of an interactive movie.

Ben-Shaul points to the Gwyneth Paltrow hit Sliding Doors which presented two alternative paths that intersected, diverged and eventually arrived at a single conclusion.

Turbulence the film is similar, except that the viewer controls the points of departure. The 83-minute suspense/thriller is about three friends who meet by chance in New York 20 years after they participated in a demonstration in Israel and were arrested. At the time, the police pitted the three against each other, which led to accusations of betrayal. There is also a love story that is rekindled.

The interaction takes the form of “hot spots” that glow when the viewer can make a choice. At one point, for example, one of the Israelis has written a message to his lover on his cell phone. The viewer can click “Send” or “Cancel”. If the viewer hesitates too long, the action continues according to a pre-determined narrative path.

Unlike previous interactive attempts, the transitions in Turbulence are seamless, which means there is no point where the movie stops and a flashing button appears with big icons to click. Once a choice is made, the film immediately cuts to a new scene. “That’s the language of movies,” Ben-Shaul explains. “There could be 4,000 cuts in a film, but if you cut on motion, people don’t see the transition, they just see the flow.”

While viewers make choices throughout the viewing experience, the film regularly returns to the main narrative. This means the writers don’t have to create 10 entirely different scripts (although in Turbulence there are several alternate endings).

Ben-Shaul is adamant that interactivity is not a gimmick – like the first attempts at 3D in the 1950s and 1960s. But he warns that interactive films must be carefully planned to avoid the errors of more primitive experiments in the past.

These mistakes include what he refers to as the ‘computerization trap’. “Computers can generate endless possibilities, but that doesn’t help the viewer in terms of drama. It interests computers, but not humans!” he says. Good interactive drama, he adds, is actually about “option restriction”.

Interactive movie producers should also not try to emulate the gaming world, he cautions. “It’s not about scoring and puzzle-solving,” Ben-Shaul says. “It’s about creating real, life-like situations.”

Turbulence can currently be viewed on either a Mac or PC. But Ben-Shaul is most excited about the red-hot Apple iPad. With its touch screen and media consumption emphasis, “it’s the perfect device. The iPad is a main target,” Ben-Shaul says.

Behind the scenes at Turbulence

The technological secret behind the film comprises an editor that will be familiar to anyone who’s ever created a movie, with a timeline, audio control, and multiple tracks. There are various additions such as a library of clips and hot spots that can be easily inserted.

The aim is to sell a standalone version as well as plug-ins for professional editing systems such as Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere and Avid. Ben-Shaul and his team are also developing a scriptwriting tool that will ease the creation of a hyper-narrative.

Both grassroots and professional filmmakers should be empowered. “We’re not aiming toward automatic storytelling,” he says. “That’s like robots today, which are so far off from what humans can do.”

Turbulence isn’t the only software company making interactive movies. Israeli alternative rock sensation Yoni Bloch owns a company called Interlude, which is moving in the same direction. Earlier this year, Interlude produced a music video by pop singer Andy Grammar that includes seamless interactivity. YouTube also has its own very simple interactive functionality.

Ben-Shaul acknowledges the competition but says his system is further along, not to mention patented. Turbulence also gives viewers the ability to actually move an object on screen (for example, to slide a letter out of a drawer) rather than just click or touch a point on the screen.

The idea for Turbulence was hatched in response to one of Ben-Shaul’s courses about the “siege mentality in Israeli cinema.” The professor explains: “Israeli movies are very close-minded. It comes from the society and the political situation; from war and ethnic tensions. Interactivity and giving people options is the opposite.”

Interactive movies are primarily intended for an audience of one. But Ben-Shaul says it’s possible for an entire audience to get in on the fun. Turbulence was premiered at the Berkeley Film Festival this year where it won the prize for “best experimental feature.”

In a demonstration of the interactivity at the showing, Ben-Shaul’s wife (who also works at the company) canvassed the audience at each decision point. Ben-Shaul then clicked the viewer’s choice from his computer backstage.

In the future, Ben-Shaul would like to build a system where everyone in the audience has a controller, allowing the movie to move in the direction dictated by a majority vote. In the meantime, Ben-Shaul says the showing at Berkeley was “very successful. People loved it.”

Ben-Shaul hopes to show Turbulence in Israel, perhaps at one of the country’s Cinematheques, though nothing has been finalized yet. For now, interactive movie fans will have to visit Ben-Shaul in his office at Tel Aviv University or watch a TV news clip and interview with Ben-Shaul on Israel’s Channel 10 which provides a hint of the richness of interactive moviemaking.

Beyond entertainment, interactive video might even help to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ben-Shaul suggests. Interactivity, he says, “develops thinking for people who are in what seems like an intractable conflict. It can be a real therapeutic tool.”

This article originally appeared on Israel21c.

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Kindle 2I’ve written before about how I believe the physical nature of books will change…much sooner than most of us can imagine. Within 10 years, 20 years tops, there will be virtually no print books being published – we’ll be consuming content exclusively on portable reading devices. Newspapers will fall even sooner.

Today’s text readers include the Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, The Plastic Logic Que and, of course, the iPhone and its various cell phone based derivatives. Future products – perhaps even the long rumored Apple “iPad” – will undoubtedly be much easier on the eyes and intuitive to use than what’s currently available.

But how about the creation of books? Bob Stein of the Institute of the Future of the Book suggests that the same phenomena of “crowdsourcing” that forms the backbone of content creation on social media – from blogs to Facebook – and that has made Wikipedia the world’s largest and most popular reference source, will be applied next to novels, biographies and all sorts of non-fiction.

The initial reaction of traditional authors – myself included – has been a quick harrumph. You can’t displace a well-trained and experienced writer with the power of isolated individuals across the Internet.

Or can you?

Stein gives the example of a well-known biographer who receives a $2 million advance, goes off for 10 years to research and write, and returns with his latest best-seller. Crowdsource me? says the writer. Not going to happen.

But at the same time, there is undoubtedly a newly minted PhD in Creative Writing who grew up on Facebook who has no problem writing in public and letting her thousands of friends and followers contribute. It may seem improbable today, but then so does the total demise of a hard cover book you can hold in your hand.

You can already see companies exploring this space. WeBook is probably the best known. Founded by Israeli serial entrepreneur Itai Kohavi and backed by some of the biggest names in venture capital, the site allows anyone to start a book topic and solicit submissions from other WeBook members who can also collaboratively edit the book in real time for all the world to see. WeBook runs periodic votes where members determine which books WeBook should actually publish (gasp) in print.

The startup Vook is more traditional in that most of what this company publishes is written by a single author, but it breaks the traditional mold by including video as an integral part of the storytelling process. “Vooks,” of course, are digital only.

Group written books are actually not that new. Take a look at the Talmud, the massive work of Jewish law, folklore and history. The original source material for the Talmud was oral, written by multiple authors and handed down from generation to generation until it was finally written down.

Legally, publishing crowdsourced books can be pretty tricky. The Internet culture of free sharing makes it tough to solicit help on a book and then charge for it. For example, I have a personal crowdsourcing project called SiddurWiki and I’m still trying to figure out the lawyerly language so that content on the site can be widely distributed electronically at no cost, while at the same time, be set up so that I can also sell it and make a profit.

So what does an established, traditional author (or an electronic publisher of any type, for that matter) do in such turbulent times? I think that individual authors have to begin thinking of themselves as hybrid writers and managers. It’s not enough to lock yourself in a room with just a typewriter (boy, that really dates me!) Rather you have to view your work as a “product” that needs leadership.

Writers of the future will be need to be cheerleaders, evangelists and social media experts, as well as dedicated craftsmen.

Ultimately, writers won’t go the way of the dinosaur. Indeed they’ll be as valuable as ever: a single person will still need to put it all together. But the process that leads up to that is about to change forever.

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Keyboard 2I’ve always felt that I’ve been an under-performer when it comes to updating my blog. Unlike some of my more prolific colleagues, I’m in general  a once a week poster, both on this blog and my personal site. I like to take my time, collate references, and create a thoughtful 800-word essay. I suppose it comes from being a professional writer (you can see my portfolio here).

Now it turns out, I’m not such a bad boy after all. I recently stumbled across this article on Leo Babauta’s Write to Done blog. A guest writer (with the improbable name Bamboo Forest) suggests that it’s not posting frequency but the quality of the content that’s key. “People don’t line up to subscribe to a blog (just) because it’s spitting out three posts a day,” Forest says.

Here are 7 reasons why less frequent posting is not only OK, but may be better for your blog’s traffic. These are important lessons for publishers and media companies that maintain a blog but don’t have the staff (or available hours) to keep up a daily routine.

1. More posts mean you can’t weed out the duds.

When you’re rapidly posting several times a day, not all your posts are going to be top notch. Some will be mediocre at best. And that not-so-stellar article is going to be at the top of your blog, at least for a while.

2. Your blog is judged by the front page.

If you post too often, it won’t be long before some of your posts drop off the front page of your blog, relegated to the “previous posts” button or even into the monthly archive. Not a lot of people go trawling through back articles. So you want your best posts to be at the top, to give your readers an incentive to keep coming back.

3. Posts improve with time.

Whenever I write – whether it’s for this blog or a document for a client – I never submit it the moment I’m done. I’ll put it in the digital drawer for several hours, maybe even wait until the morning to finish it. I’ll always find something to change or add to make the piece that much more compelling. Don’t your readers deserve the same attention to detail?

4. People read many blogs.

The people who follow your blog are also perusing many others. If they use an RSS reader, it’s even worse. If you post too frequently, your busy readers may miss some of your posts – perhaps even your best ones. Give your fans the time to consume all of your great writing.

5. Less frequency generates more comments.

The longer a post stays on your front page, the more comments it can collect. A post without comments can be damning – it says to readers that no one is really visiting, so why should I?

6. Open up your blog to guest posts.

Guest posts on your blog let you fill in gaps when you get too busy (hopefully with paying clients) to blog that day or week, and the cross-linking is a great way to build traffic. If you’re doing all of the posting yourself, several times a day, there’s not much room for the out of towners.

7. Readers do not unsubscribe from too few posts.

Your followers won’t unsubscribe if you only post once a week. But if you publish uninspiring content, you’ll drive away readers you could have otherwise retained.

If you’re maintaining a blog, check out the Write to Done blog. Bamboo Forest blogs at Pun Intended.

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