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Social Media Opportunities and Challenges: The Big Picture

Chris Shipley is the executive director of BlogOn, as well as the cofounder and editorial director of the Guidewire Group. Tony Perkins created and serves as editor in chief of AlwaysOn. Bill Schreiner is VP of community programming for AOL. John Roberts works as AVP of product development for CNET.

Chris Shipley is the executive director of BlogOn, as well as the cofounder and editorial director of the Guidewire Group. Tony Perkins created and serves as editor in chief of AlwaysOn. Bill Schreiner is VP of community programming for AOL. John Roberts works as AVP of product development for CNET. And Scott Gatz works as senior director of personalization products for Yahoo. In their evening panel discussion, they touched on many of the same topics that most panels like this still address: the business case for blogging, the benefits of transparency, and the perceived challenge to big media. What follows is a partial transcript of the conversation:

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[Caveat: Visibility was a challenge; if I misattribute something, let me know, and I’ll correct my mistakes.]

Chris Shipley: What we want to do tonight is set a bit of context for the conversations we’ll have tomorrow. Social media really is about an aggregated and amplified voice. Having founded Guidewire Group and calling it a social media company, the first question is, “What is that? How is it different?”

Scott Gatz: Social media isn’t a term I use, but I think about like-minded people seeking each other out. They look to congregate around technologies that make that easy, regardless of whether they’re blogs or email lists. Being able to aggregate around certain topics, it allows a voice to be shared. You no longer need to be part of big media. The barrier to finding people and sharing is getting lower every day.

Shipley: In the late ’80s, desktop publishing and printers lowered the barrier to entry to publishing. Then personal Web pages lowered the barrier again. We’ve lowered the barrier yet again, but what’s different this time?

John Roberts: It’s easier. It’s easy to install, publish, and share. The audience is listening, but the audience is also creating. It gives you a way to connect with your audience, but also a way to communicate with your audience. It’s so easy to publish and connect.

Gatz: It’s also a dialogue. You’re talking back. You’re linking to a community.

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Susan Mernit: What do you think about peer-to-peer networks, Craig’s List, and Ebay? Do you see any connections?

Roberts: RSS is kind of a Napster for ideas. Something that is popular becomes more popular.

Bill Schreiner: They’re precursors to what we see now. It’s much more like what we do. It’s a real-world equivalent that’s not quite the same as — they’re one step away from true, social network systems.

Tony Perkins: Ebay I consider one of the first social network services. And they’re one of the first ones who’ve been able to make money. I’ve been in the media business for a long time. Just when the Internet almost bottomed out, bloggers said, “Wait a minute, we’ve got something else to say now.” I’m thankful that people made really inexpensive tools so bloggers could jump in and take over the media business. We’re going to have more choice. There will be higher quality material. And you’ll be able to read it on any device.

Mernit: One of the questions for the big media companies is, “How disruptive is this? And how do I cope with it?”

Gatz: One of the great ideas is a levelling function. Those with a voice and a tone and high-quality content are going to win out. Back in the day, if you were going to compete with Yahoo, it was an economy of scale. Now, you can compete with RSS. Your competition is no longer measured by three organizations. It’s hundreds of thousands. How do you differentiate yourself in the media business? The things I read on My Yahoo page today are different than they were in 1999. Everyone’s using the same infrastructure.

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Mernit: What are companies like CNET and AOL doing to adapt to these new trends?

Schreiner: It’s an online behavior that has an inevitability to it. We are going to monetize, but I’m not sure what direction it’s going to go in. Instant messaging is a good example. The monetization lagged well behind the emergence of the behavior. We need to see what happens in the wild first.

Shipley: Perhaps the question for large media companies isn’t how do we monetize it but how do we avoid losing money to it? At the same time, you have the blogger community sitting around and scratching its head saying, “How do I make money doing this?”

Roberts: For CNET broadly, it’s about informing, entertaining, and connecting with people. You have to participate. That starts with a link out. That’s social currency, a vote of attention. And for News.com, we believe in a world in which content matters and voices matter. We embrace other professional content and independent content.

How can we participate? We spit out hundreds of RSS feeds. Where there is an audience, there is a media opportunity. Pull everything together, watch, and learn. We’ve done RSS feeds for three years and I still can’t tell you what the business model is, but to not participate is to play defense.

Perkins: Old media is pretty closed. In an era in which big media has been creating junk food, if you take in this alternative media and then come back to the New York Times, people won’t trust brands that don’t take on the open source media revolution. With Red Herring, people would stay three minutes. With AlwaysOn, people spend 11 minutes. That’s what advertisers want. We also believe in social networks. We want people to click on each other. Rather than watch, this is happening fast. Open up to the new concepts, or you’ll get voted out. It all starts with the reader. As a business journalist, there are tons of opportunities to create communities, package them, and sell them.

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Schreiner: You’re talking about size, and the ability to slice and dice that to sell to advertisers. What we’re seeing is an audience that’s much more engaged in the content. What we don’t see is the way to always package that audience.

Jason Calacanis: What’s going to stop the New York Times is fact checking and their editorial process. The thing of blogs is speed. That 15 minutes is everything.

Shipley: Don’t they also want to know accurately?

Calacanis: Yeah, and they will. Blogs are accurate. When we make an error, people call us on it in the comments. And we cross it out in the same post. That takes six minutes.

Mernit: Let’s talk about brand. Is it true that Brand Scoble, Brand Yahoo, and Brand AOL are all the same?

Roberts: Your brand is a promise. Trust the audience. I know the background. I know the personal background of the blogger. CNET is shorthand: Tech news first. We may report it. We may aggregate it. How stories spread is just compressed. The same thing used to happen from trade journals to magazines to local TV to network TV. We’ve just short circuited that. The Dow went up. The Dow went down. Anyone can tell you that. Who can tell you why?