Publisher or Seeker: Who is responsible for the flow of information in the age of new media?

By Adena Schutzberg

In the past few weeks, three different incidents occurred in my life that involved miscommunication, that is, some messages not getting through to the desired recipient. In my work as an editor at Directions Magazine and elsewhere, much of what I do is heavily dependent on communicating effectively, and I suspect that's true for many of you, our readers. I want to use these vignettes as a starting point to examine the question: Who is ultimately responsible for a communications breakdown, the publisher of the information or the intended recipient?

First, a brief story related to my hobby, running. Each year my running club rents a bus to take members of our club to Hopkinton for the start of the Boston Marathon. There are only 55 seats and once the sign up announcement is made, they go to the first 55 people who pay. About a month after the announcement this year, only eight seats were left. One of our members contacted our coach (who has nothing to do with the bus) asking when he could sign up for a seat on the bus. He apparently was expecting notification of bus availability via the club's homepage. In fact, we didn't communicate the message there, but rather via a Yahoo group everyone is invited to join when they submit their membership. It's described as our primary communications mechanism. Apparently this individual didn't sign up for the group. In the end, he did get a seat, but this prompts a few questions: Whose job is it to be sure this important announcement gets to those interested? In what way/form should it be shared?

A second story relates to the geospatial community. An organization put out a request to the geospatial community for input on a topic. The request circulated as a press release on many geospatial websites and newsletters. One member of the community was upset that the request was not in a place where he could readily find it; he only found it when a blog (not the blog of the organization) cited the request. Again, who has responsibility here?

The final story is a personal one. I use a Web aggregation tool to pull together posts from a variety of blogs. One blog's formatting made it difficult to read in that aggregator and I informed the blogger of the situation. The reply was essentially, "I don't write for an aggregator." I was a bit surprised since it was my sense that bloggers want their content distributed through as many media outlets as possible. Interestingly, a few days after that reply, the format was updated and now appears in more readable form in my aggregator of choice. Whose role is it to ensure the content is readable within an aggregator?

In the first two cases I tend to push the responsibility back to the seekers. If they are truly interested in these rather specific topics, they need to be sure they get "news" from the organizations. I should note that the organizations in question are not primarily in the communications business.

In the third case, I push responsibility to the publisher. In that case the blogger (like any blogger in mind) is in the publishing business. I believe the publisher/blogger should be in the habit of exploring how that content (in this case published via RSS) looks in different kinds of aggregators. It's analogous to the way in which anyone hosting a website would explore how the pages look in different browsers. While I know it's not possible to test all possible scenarios, many issues pop up by looking at just one or two different reading environments.
Tim O'Reilly follows 500 people's messages and tweets multiple times a day.

I raise these issues because I continually hear two sides of the "geospatial news" business. I hear either: "I get too much e-mail, have to read too many blogs, can't keep up with the news..." or "I miss important news." Like many other things in life, managing incoming communications to suit your needs is a balancing act. You don't want to get too much, but you don't want to miss anything. That's why you must select your sources (and how often you tap them) with great care. Let's take Twitter as an example.

When I see individuals on Twitter following (that is, signing up to receive all the messages from) upwards of a 1,000 people it's clear they are not really keeping up with the inflow in any meaningful way. I follow about 40 people, the most prolific of whom is Tim O'Reilly. O'Reilly follows 500 as I write this, but it seems he's on Twitter 10 hours a day. He probably tweets (sends messages) 20 or 30 times a day. Most of the people I follow don't tweet more than a few times a day, at most. And if they've not said anything of interest in a week or so, or simply make too much noise, they are likely to "get the hook" from the list of people I follow. I'm not being mean, just practical.
I follow just 40 people.

I'm sure some of you are thinking, "There are more than 40 interesting people twittering about geospatial!" No doubt. That's why I use tools to filter and search the rest of the tweets (messages on Twitter) talking about GIS. It works great (start here: There is no magic to this; like most life management activities it takes some time and effort (homework!), but anyone should be able to use simple searches, alerts, RSS and the like to ensure they don't miss anything of interest in their personal or professional lives. Come on, you know if you are basketball fan you have a way that works for you to track The Big Dance, right? Do you also have a way that works for you to track topics/news/announcements for your professional life? If you fall into one or the other of the categories I described above, you likely do not.

Finally, let me be clear. I'm not suggesting for a moment that a single source - on any topic, geospatial or sports or child rearing, etc. - will fill all your needs. That's the wonder of the Web: Multiple sources can be searched, aggregated and explored with ease, so that almost nothing of interest slips past. If you are a seeker of information, you owe it to yourself to set up processes that work for you. If you are a publisher of content, make sure it's easy to find the information in as many forms as are practical to support. That's the only way you'll find your way in the new media, whether you want information for your professional or personal life.

Published Friday, March 27th, 2009

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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