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Oct. 1, 2013, 12:27 p.m.

Q&A: Guardian social and community editor Joanna Geary heads off to Twitter U.K.

“What we’re seeing is we just haven’t found the right social signals or social codes to make people feel that they have to behave a certain way in certain spaces online — and to tell the difference between a club and a church.”

Debates over commenting culture and how to manage it took center stage last week. The New York Times had an in-depth look at innovations in commenting just as Gawker was set to announce updates to its Kinja community platform. Then Popular Science announced they would be shutting down its comments section. The magazine said comments were out of control and detrimental to their mission, and Mathew Ingram gathered a milieu of responses from across the web, arguing that even noxious comments do more good than harm.

Where and how to engage with readers is a hot topic. But for Joanna Geary, departing community editor at The Guardian, it’s not a question of platform — it’s a question of behavior. Geary has been trying to engage with readers since she sent her first, hopeful tweet in 2007:

Now, she’s bringing that focus on personal interaction with her when she moves to Twitter, where she’ll be working in news partnerships — a prospect Geary says excites her after years spent preaching the web gospel within newspapers.

As founder of the London Hacks/Hackers chapter and the woman behind many interesting projects at The Guardian, Geary has a lot to share herself about best practices in user engagement. We talked about social plumbing, the importance of an integrated CMS, overrating anonymity, and transatlantic cultural differences in digital spaces. Here’s a lightly edited transcript.

O’Donovan: I think I read that you originally started out as a business reporter before you got into the web community stuff. How did that transition happen?
Geary: I was a university student in Birmingham and I’d always wanted to get into journalism, but I couldn’t afford post-graduate training. So I did a very, very traditional route, which was I took a very low-paying job at a post-production house as an admin and worked all my holidays in the newsroom until someone eventually gave in and gave me a job.

I started on the business desk, because they were looking for a new starter — they were looking for someone younger, and female, to join a team of guys who had been there for a little while, called John, John, John, and Steve. They realized that to widen the type of people doing reporting for business at the Birmingham Post, they’d have to give me a go.  

I was trained up in the job by all the Johns and Steves, association training that the company had at the time, so I trained with weekly journalists although I was on a daily publication. Learned my shorthand by getting up in the early hours of the morning and working it out until — I hate shorthand, I’m left handed — but yeah, training in my spare time.

So that was how it started. How I ended up getting into social and community was quite simple. I think, just as it is in the U.S., regional press has been suffering quite a bit over the last couple of years, and the Birmingham Post is no exception. Obviously, like a lot of regional newspapers, we were subjected to redundancies and cost-cutting, and I remember just feeling that there was an awful lot of stuff I had to do.

In addition, I was appointed the creative industries correspondent. So I’d be doing the day-to-day business stories during the week, and then one day a week, I had a creative industries page to fill. You know, you go through the week just thinking, “Gosh, I hope I have enough stories, I hope I can pull enough stories together for this page.”

Someone actually — one of my contacts pointed out to me, and this was back in 2006 or 2007 — pointed out a local blog called Created in Birmingham, and it did one post a day. Someone who was doing it pretty much in their spare time, and it completely and utterly whooped my ass, basically. I mean, it was so good.

And it was good for a couple of reasons. One, because they only posted once a day, but every single post was just spot-on relevant and was obviously of interest to the author. And secondly, because there were really incredible people in the comments below who were also working in the creative industries who were inputing interesting stuff. And I was like, I have to meet this guy.

I had always been nervous about blogging and publishing online at the time, because I thought I had to have an opinion about everything. I thoughts that what blogs were about. I was pretty naive. I loved surfing the web, but I was very much a reader, not a contributor.

Eventually, the blog’s author, Pete Ashton, agreed to meet me. He was very skeptical about me.

O’Donovan: What was he skeptical about?
Geary: Well, I was the evil mainstream press.
O’Donovan: Oh. Right.
Geary: And what had happened was that, as time had gone on, we were less and less representing our readership because we had fewer people to do it. We were seeing, obviously, like many newspapers, the decline in circulation. It wasn’t that the people who were interested in the business news in the Midlands of the U.K. had disappeared; the people who were from the younger generations just weren’t looking at the newspaper to get it, and were often a bit angry with the newspaper because they felt it was very misrepresentative. And they would talk about it online, but we didn’t talk to them. We just didn’t talk to them.

It was a frustration, and I look back and even before I met Pete, that was the case. When he eventually plucked up the courage, or whatever it was, to decide to meet me, we realized we had so much in common in terms of what we were trying to achieve, why we were trying to achieve it. And I’m forever grateful to him because he opened up this entirely new world to me — of very connected people who were all professionals working in the creative industries in the West Midlands, all passionate about talking about the issues that affected them — that I had never reached out to before. All credit to that community as well; as soon as I started engaging with them, they were incredibly supportive of it, and the relationship just grew from there.

I started increasingly not just writing the creative industries stories, but I developed my own blog looking at the future of journalism — not really having impressive thoughts, more just interested questions. I learned a lot from the community through that and then started writing more general stories as well.

Like so many newspapers, the Birmingham Post sold its city-center office and moved out to an old tire factory on a motorway outside of the city limits. It’s a sad tale of many newspapers. One day, there was a commotion because somebody had jumped off one of the tallest buildings in Birmingham. Nobody knew — was it suicide? was he pushed? what happened? — and it was right in the middle of a very, very busy shopping center.

So what do we have to do? We have to get a reporter to get in the car and go drive 15-20 minutes to see what’s happening in the city center.

O’Donovan: Because you’re in a tire factory.
Geary: Because you’re in a tire factory outside of the city that you’re supposed to be writing your newspaper for!

But of course, at that point, I had sort of got into Twitter and embraced it, and it was through that network of people in Birmingham that I’d built up online that I was able to put out a message instantly. Just like normal practice today: Has anyone seen anything? Do a bit of a search to see if anyone’s talking about it, get in touch with them. By the time the reporter had actually got to the scene, we’d got a picture and three eyewitness accounts.

That proves there’s something really important about this stuff.

O’Donovan: Do you feel like that was something that you were mimicking — like something you saw other people doing and you thought, I could do that? Or did it come more naturally, like this is the obvious reaction to this situation?
Geary: Well, it was 2008. It’s difficult to know, isn’t it? I don’t like to claim originality too much, because with these sorts of things everyone was trying everything all the time. But Twitter particularly came quite naturally in terms of a reporter.

In fact, my first tweet was a slightly more…simplistic tweet. It just said “Looking for stories.” Which was a ridiculous thing to say to absolutely 0 followers!

O’Donovan: Shouting into the —
Geary: Shouting into the void, yeah. But, you know, at least I was hopeful!

I didn’t join Twitter for the personal aspect of it originally, although there has also been that. I saw it was a way to communicate with these people I had already been talking to on blogs but in a much more immediate way. I was just stunned by how it grew.

O’Donovan: So that was six or seven years ago. I want to talk about some of the specific stuff that you’ve worked on, but, what have been since then the sea changes, to you? As you’ve been doing this and building it into the culture of wherever you’re working, what have been the biggest changes in the way that people interact with or rely on those online communities, be it Twitter or other spaces?
Geary: Well, the first one is the high level of adoption and enthusiasm for it. I’m very lucky to be working at The Guardian at the moment. It’s very different from any newsroom that I’ve been in in terms of absolute enthusiasm to understand these sorts of tools and to use them.

But, you know, there was a high, high level of skepticism at the start. And many, many people not feeling that it was something that they wanted to be involved in and actually seeing it as a very negative thing. Whereas I think now most people accept it as part and parcel of one of the tools a journalist has. So I think that’s really exciting. I think we’ve still got some way to go with this, but we’ve started to develop some really, really interesting processes and approaches as an industry around breaking news — being able to find and filter, search, and deal with a very large amount of information very quickly that’s coming out of social media.

The fact that we can legitimately bring a role such as a social media editor into a newsroom and people know what it is is very exciting. And the thing that it’s now such an established role, with names, and especially in the U.S., that are so well recognized.

O’Donovan: Although there’s also been a lot of conversation about whether we need to eradicate that as as a specific role, right?
Geary: Absolutely, absolutely. I think there’s always that vacillation between do you have a figurehead and a point person. I really just don’t see that as a problem at The Guardian. We’ve got some of the highest, especially with Twitter, one of the highest newsroom adoption rates in the world. But I like the fact that how you are presenting yourself online is now considered an important thing.
O’Donovan: Were you a big part of setting the guidelines at The Guardian for how journalists are supposed to use social media?
Geary: I have been at The Guardian for two years, and I’m not going to take credit for that. It’s the incredible work of a lady called Meg Pickard, who worked at The Guardian until last year.

I think some organizations make people feel very nervous around engaging online, and I think the beauty of what Meg’s guidelines have managed to do is allow people to feel free to engage with audience — in fact, to encourage them to engage with audiences — while just…not being an idiot about it. That’s what the guidelines basically boil down to.

O’Donovan: And to that end, I was just reading a blog post about the Guardian Style Guide Twitter account, which seems more lenient in having conversations with users. Can you talk about how that account came to be?
Geary: That’s actually run by the guys who run our style guide. To get more details about it, it would be good for you to speak to them. But there’s always been a huge culture at The Guardian about the importance of engagement and the importance of actually having a conversation with your readers, and the idea that their experience and knowledge can be invaluable to you, in terms of your journalism and making what you do better and more transparent.

So I think it’s quite natural — there’s a lot of accounts managed by individuals at The Guardian that are very…chatty.

O’Donovan: You also wrote an interesting post recently where you come down pretty clearly on one side about anonymity and people using real names in comments. I thought it was interesting that you don’t think that’s a cure-all.
Geary: I feel like sometimes I’m swimming against the tide of public opinion at the moment, because so much of public debate is around getting rid of anonymous comments.

The public debate is confusing in itself because very often when people refer to anonymous comments what they’re referring to is pseudonymous comments. They might be tied to an email address, they might be tied to some sort of identity aspect of a person — they’re not just purely 4chan-esque where you can go in and invent your name and disappear off again.

I just think we’re throwing the baby out with the bath water. When I was at the Birmingham Post, one of the most important things you had to do was at some point, when you’re a senior journalist, you had to man the public telephone line. It wasn’t always the most fun job in the world — there were always a lot of mad people who phoned you. And sometimes it was quite distressing. But it was important that we had it and important that we did it, and the reason why was that everyone was told that was our link. It may not necessarily always bring us the front page story every day — but when something important happened, that was our link to the people who saw it and understood about it, and it was really, really valuable to us. And it was worth putting in the time.

I just think so many people have now just abandoned online comments as a similar tool. Rather than going down the route of interest in communities like Reddit or Gawker, and saying there is something really important in this ability for our readers to communicate with us on our platform and publicly. Everyone sort of said, “No, we need to shut this conversation down, or we need to make the barrier much, much higher to join it.” When you think about The Guardian as a global brand, I think that’s a really sad thing, if that’s what we’re choosing to do. We’re able to reach people all over the world through our site, and we should be actually looking at how we encourage and improve that and do more to highlight the best of it and discourage the worst than blocking certain people because they’re not willing to tell us exactly who they are or give us their Social Security number or whatever it is.

I also think it’s a very difficult thing to do technically, but I know at The Huffington Post are pretty certain they can do it, and I’m interested to see the results.

What we’re creating online are social spaces, right? Places where people come together to have conversations. They might not have met each other before. We can sort of do that in real life, we’ve got that covered — we’ve managed to create village halls and speaker’s corners and governments and churches and pubs and clubs, and we’ve managed to do that. And for the most part, except to prove their age, for the most part they don’t have to hand over their identification to do that.

What we’re seeing is we just haven’t found the right social signals or social codes to make people feel that they have to behave a certain way in certain spaces online — and to tell the difference between a club and a church. It’s still early days for our social spaces online.

I think there’s still lots more that we can think about and try and address. Such as different solutions to tackle the disinhibition effect. Even if your real name’s up there, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be a model community member because you don’t necessarily feel connected to the people you’re talking to. We need to do more to make people feel that connection.

O’Donovan: Like going back to that one-to-one intimacy of the phone line that you were talking about.
Geary: Exactly. And the way that when you look someone in the eye, you might moderate how you communicate with them based on the emotional feedback you’re getting.
O’Donovan: You mentioned Gawker as an example of a company that’s doing interesting things in their commenting and engagement space, and they actually just made some more announcements about changes to their Kinja platform, where readers get to make posts and alters the hierarchy of that conversation. You guys have this Witness thing, the Guardian Witness project — I don’t know how closely involved you were with that, but that seems, in a way, a space for what you’re talking about.
Geary: It’s not quite Kinja.

We do a lot of community work at The Guardian, we have quite a big community team, and we were finding that we were working on lots and lots of different platforms to build community — which is great, and really, really useful — but within our own platform, we wanted to find more ways to be able to have conversations with our readers. Comments is a fairly limited one; we wanted to be able to use digital images as well.

So Witness is integrated into our CMS, in the sense that, at any point, someone can create an article on our CMS and decide that it involves a conversation with readers and tick a box, and a call-out assignment is created. That’s when people can start sending photos which then go back into the article, published to the Witness site. Then, if the journalist feels it’s something apt to what they’re doing, it can then be dropped into the article just by dropping in a URL, and then that’s formatted into an embed which keeps the integrity of the submission that readers have given us, and we link back to their profile and their words that they said when they submitted it.

It’s very much like this is their content, this is their thing, this is their addition to the story. It’s very integrated into our CMS and will be increasingly so as time goes on in terms of how its integrated into our other platforms and tablets and things. We see it as an important tool for opening up new routes for storytelling on our site and allow us readers to contribute their stories.

O’Donovan: What has the readership feedback been like? Do they like getting assignments from you guys?
Geary: So far, it’s been really, really good. And we were quite nervous about it — it’s a bit of a change from some of the things The Guardian has done before. What we have found is that a lot of people that are contributing to Witness are people that have signed up for The Guardian some time ago and may not have necessarily have commented or created a commenting profile, but are now contributing via Witness. It’s almost like they’ve come back and started that conversation with us now.
O’Donovan: It’s almost like what you were saying about your original observation way back when you were first discovering the blogging community. Comments are more about opinions, right? And that can be a turn off if everyone’s being super-opinionated. But this is a thing where you can just share what you’re doing or what you’re seeing and you don’t have to wrap it up in some sort of vitriol to get attention to it. That could be, I think, more attractive to people who would not necessarily be attracted to joining in a political debate in a comment space.

Geary: That’s absolutely right. I think there’s quite a big focus within our team at the moment on encouraging readers to be talking to us about what they know and what they experience and now what they think about something, if that makes sense. Ultimately, our community is a community around news, around journalism, around storytelling. You’ve got to have a purpose for a community, and that’s what The Guardian is really about: working together to tell those stories that couldn’t be told any other way. That’s why we’re kind of interested in how we can structure things to focus on those experiences, to focus on that knowledge.
O’Donovan: There’s been so much talk — and you can call it hot air or not — around this idea of annotation lately. We’ve written about it, it was in The New York Times twice this weekend, a lot of people — Gawker to an extent, but also Medium, Quartz — are experimenting with it. What do you think about that whole debate?
Geary: I think annotations are really interesting. I actually listened to a journalist from Quartz talking — I run the Hacks/Hackers chapter in London — and we had someone talking from Quartz last night, and he basically said, “We like annotations because we feel comments are just toxic and useless.” I was a bit saddened by that.

I like annotations, because it’s another way for us to work out how we can best interact with our readers, and how our readers can interact with each other. I like that, that’s exciting, I think it’s interesting. I’m certainly not averse to giving it a go. But I find it very baffling when people go, “It’s not comments anymore, it’s annotations!” “It’s not annotations anymore, it’s whatever the next thing is!” “It’s not pictures anymore, it’s video!”

No! We’re going through a revolution where the wonderful, exciting thing is that we are diversifying our communication routes, and if you’ve got a strong ambition in mind for that communication and what you want to get out of it, then shape how you use it and what tools you select through your ambition and your aim. Not one digital communication platform to rule them all. I think it’s a bit sad, really.

O’Donovan: It sounds like, to you, the questions that are more interesting are the behaviors — what leads to certain behaviors and how do you guide that. More than: Where do you stick people’s words?
Geary: Exactly. I’m much more interested in: How do you create the social plumbing? How do you translate a very, very complex set of social signals that we have in the real world — how do you translate them as best as possible online? That’s not ever going to be completely transferable because we have faces and eyes and tone of voice and all sorts of useful things in the real world, if you can call it that, that we can call upon to get a sense of what would be appropriate. But, you know, the fun is the challenge!

O’Donovan: So I know you don’t even know where the bathrooms are yet at Twitter, but I did want to ask you, what made you want to switch over to the other side? As someone who’s been doing a lot of thinking for a publication about how Twitter can be used, what are the big things you want to see Twitter be able to do for news brands?
Geary: I think it’s a really exciting platform. It’s been part of my journalism and my transition into social and community roles all the way through. Got offered my first job by Twitter DM so, you know, there’s a connection there.

I’m really excited about the idea of being able to work on that concept of best practice and strategy and be able to make that connection with people who are working in my field. If you’re in one place, it can be kind of lonely, sometimes — not at The Guardian, because we’ve got a good team, but in other places in the past, I think sometimes people feel quite isolated, and I’m looking forward to being a connection point for people.

I can’t really say much more than that at the moment because it’s a new role in the U.K., obviously. It’s a bit more established in New York. I’ll be doing a lot of fact finding. I’m sure I’ll be learning a lot from my colleagues. It’s my first step away from newspapers since that rubbish admin job in the post-production house in 2002, so it’s quite new big thing for me.

O’Donovan: Is there anyone who is doing interesting stuff with the platform here in the U.S. that you would like to encourage more of in the U.K.?
Geary: I’d have to have a bit of a think about that one, but I do think there’s some interesting culture differences as well.
O’Donovan: Funny you should say that: My last question was going to be on cultural differences between the U.S. and U.K. that you think makes online communications…different.
Geary: Yes! I think there is. I love this subject.

It’s been fascinating me over the last couple of months, because at The Guardian we have the U.S. office and we’ve quite a big U.K. organization as well. And I think the community aspect of that has just been fascinating, because we share a lot of cultural values, the same language. But some things we react very, very differently to.

So, for example, in the U.K. there is a very strong contempt-of-court law. which means as soon as someone is arrested you need to stop speculating and talking about that particular person and the crime that they’ve been arrested for in order to avoid prejudicing the jury. That means, as a standard thing, we will close comments on any story related to a court case like that. I think what has happened — and I’m not sure what came first — I think that Britain, culturally, has sort of interpreted that as not just a legal thing, but a matter of taste. It is tasteless to speculate around someone that has committed a crime, especially if it involves violence. For a British person, it is quite shocking, the idea that you would allow people to talk about that subject.

Now, for an American commenting community, it would be shocking to close down a conversation about an important, high-profile crime that may have national implications. They would be horrified to see an important story like that involving a court case with comments closed, because that would signify a restriction of speech.

So what you end up with with this strange, odd combination is opening comments on U.S. stories which we would always keep comments closed for on U.K. ones for legal reasons, and the community has to then kind of learn that this is not us being horrendously tasteless, but it’s representing what a U.S. community needs in order to discuss the things that are important to them. And that can make emotions run high for commenters, since it’s something that is a very deeply held belief for both sides — freedom of speech and an ability to stop prejudicing the jury.

O’Donovan: I thought you were going to tell me something funny about, you know, food or something. Instead you had this actually incredibly relevant comment.
Geary: Well, there’s other things as well. Misunderstandings of what words mean. Our U.S. office have a Tumblr called English to English, I’m sure born out of their own personal experiences as well. There are lots of words we say, we think they mean the same thing…
O’Donovan: …but they don’t.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that the Birmingham Post was relocated to an old tire factory, not an old tie factory.

Photo by Adam Tinworth used via Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 1, 2013, 12:27 p.m.
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