[18 October 2009]
At a major media conference in Times Square last month, the head of digital operations at the New York Times Company, Martin Nisenholz, was waiting for someone to bring him the clicker, that tiny, magical apparatus that lets a person give a presentation while strutting thoughtfully around the stage. A big draw of the two-day OMMA Global NY 2009, a gathering of marketing, advertising and publishing bigwigs and hopefuls, Nisenholz was about to launch into a PowerPoint about, essentially, how the New York Times website manages to be so awesome.
“I need someone to bring me the clicker,” Nisenholz said. There was a very brief pause, perhaps two seconds long. “Helloooooooooo?” he cried. A tall, redheaded man appeared, jogging down the center aisle of the banquet hall. “There he is,” Nisenholz said. The clicker had arrived.
For a peek into the mind of the man who has directed the most popular news destination on the Web since its inception in 1995, this might have been the audience’s best bet. But the actual presentation delivered on the assumptions made during this peek. Nisenholz is impatient. But he’s gracious when necessary (he thanked each New York Times advertiser that appeared in the presentation’s screenshots). More importantly he is honest (“We’ve made three big mistakes”) and most importantly, he is confident. He speaks the lingo of late 2009 fluently (“tweeted”, not “twittered”) and he rightly believes that the New York Times can own, both literally and figuratively, any market on the Web it wants to.
Well, it sort of wants to own Twitter.
The New York Times Company has been watching Twitter closely and tweeting its own links by the thousands. In so doing, it has absorbed one of the micro-blogging tool’s greatest strengths: curation. Nisenholz and his team clearly don’t just see curation as a means to an end—getting its writers and editors to create dynamic online reputations, build a following, and drive traffic to the New York Times site. They see it as an end unto itself.
Little pockets of curation, like the Twitter account of the New York Times fashion blog The Moment, can be packaged, perhaps perfected, and distributed, Nisenholz suggested. The New York Times has a future here, he said. But how exactly do you package dynamic link-sharing?
In other words, how do you put the brakes on the Web? The New York Times could harness individual Twitter users’ tweets. Nope, that already exists (it’s called a Twitter profile). The New York Times could categorize Twitter users. That exists, too (WeFollow.com is one example). The New York Times could input all Twitter users’ shared links into a tagged, categorized database of links. That exists in at least two forms: Delicious and Diigo; they just aren’t integrated with Twitter, though I suspect that’s coming.
The New York Times could create a search engine of links by topic and rank them by popularity. That exists, too: TweetMeme. And as a vertical search engine, TweetMeme stinks. So where does curation go from here, and do we really want it to go there?
Let’s think about the end goal of curation. First of all, what is curation? It’s organizing content in a way that showcases, complements and narrates. The driving force behind curation is not the curator, though he or she makes money, has a personality, may have an agenda, and is probably ambitious. The driving force isn’t the audience, either, though many online publishers think it is. The driving force is the content.
When the audience is running the show, curators let data dictate what future shows will look like. For example, if people click most often on links to interviews, a curator may be inclined to tweet more interviews and in turn, NYTimes.com could decide to publish more interviews. But where does a publisher draw the line between publishing what the people want and publishing what it thinks it should publish?
NYTimes.com lets the content run the show. It does a fine job of adapting without really changing. It churns out the same quality of content, it just fits this content into modern technology’s newest niches, e.g. blogs (short-form, link-rich, digestible) and Twitter (pithy, personable, pre-digested). But what Nisenholz realizes – oddly, many publishers have not yet figured this out – is that Twitter needs to be far more than a publisher’s traffic-generating (and self-generating) headline ticker. Twitter can be this, but it also needs to be living and breathing, inquisitive and outgoing. The website’s best employee is she who tweets, supplementing links to her stories and her colleagues’ stories with interesting links from around the Web. She is a curator.
The question is, why do the New York Times and other business want to commoditize this? Sites like Mahalo, which pays researchers a small fee to compile the so-called “best” links on a topic, have shown, by way of its crappy results, that asking a human to overcome scaling is asking too much. At OMMA, Nisenholz said he regrets the company’s decision to close Abuzz, a community-driven site of helping hands, during the dot-com bust.
The reason this is commendable is that, beyond admitting a mistake, Nisenholz was acknowledging the value of Abuzz’s imperfect system, where people asked and answered questions for each other to the best of their ability. There was no fence dividing company from customer (as with Mahalo, where there are comforting little features that allow user input, but not much of it). Sites like Mahalo attempt to be a be-all, end-all source of credible information. But a site shouldn’t be anything more than the people who run it, and there is no end to the Internet.
On Twitter – and to some degree on the Times Company’s About.com – the fence is lowered. A Times “curator” may follow you back—may even retweet something you tweet. You can write to them. Even the most verbose, unreadable fans are forced to condense their thoughts and ideas to 140 characters or less, which undoubtedly gives them a better chance of being paid attention to. The pleasure of following a good curator on Twitter, Times employee or not, is that you get a sense of who these people are, what drives their stories or projects, what interests them. You have free, if selective, access to their inquisitive mind and their pit stops around the Web.
But what they choose to share is guided, to some degree, by whimsy and chance. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, it’s one of the only hubs of content that seems, at the moment, proud of the mess it continually creates. I follow people on Twitter because they make my experience of the Web more streamlined, fun, and thought-provoking than any newspaper website can, even the New York Times, with its dozens of blogs and “What we’re reading” selection of links, and Newsweek with its selected links from “trusted Newsweek partners.”
I can understand the Times Company’s desire to harness this power and turn it into a business, but I am afraid that innovations involving Twitter, by the Times or anyone else, will not be cool and will ultimately end in bankruptcy, literally or figuratively. There is something truly refreshing and exciting about the Twitter of today. Its best curators operate in a relaxed, fun, free environment constrained only by a loose journalistic code of conduct, and, while building their own reputations and that of their employers (if applicable), have created a system that also happens to help other people.
If the Times Company wants to do some sweeping and dusting of Twitter, perhaps organizing only worthwhile links (leaving out thoughts) from its staff into visually appealing little buckets, no problem. But its best bet is to just continue to encourage writers and editors to tweet as they are now—organically, randomly, frequently—promoting not only their home base, but content they had no hand in creating until the moment they grabbed the link, condensed it, and transmitted it to thousands, perhaps millions, of people.
How Twitter’s financial survival fits into this I couldn’t say, except to remind everyone that the best things in life really are free.