Originally published in Current, April 3, 2006
By Steve Behrens
On MySpace.com, you don’t have to look long to find someone posting a comment like: “Most importantly, mimosas and turkey sandwiches with avocados kick ass, especially when consumed together on Sunday fundays!”
This — plus personal web pages that blast guitar riffs and show photos of teens and 20-somethings to their supposed best advantage — begins to explain why Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp spent $580 million to buy MySpace’s parent company last year. MySpace claimed 35 million unique visitors in January and hosted pages for roughly 350,000 bands and performers. Among websites, it ranks fifth in traffic, according to comScore.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Sunday fundays, but the typical public radio listener might hesitate to dive into MySpace.com or dozens of other youth-dominated networking sites. Middle-aged Americans might never know the benefits of Internet social networking technology!
Now two web companies with pubradio connections are on the case: Gather.com and Public Action.
Most recently announced is Public Action, an online community-building tool from Public Interactive, a division of PRI. A handful of partner stations will try it out on their sites without charge during its first phase, starting this summer. Already signed are New York’s WNYC, Oregon Public Broadcasting, Vermont Public Radio, Salt Lake City’s KUER, Seattle/Tacoma’s KPLU, Los Angeles pubTV station KCET, Car Talk and PRI’s weekday news program The World, says Debra May Hughes, Public Interactive c.o.o.
"The need for connection is increasingly permeating our culture. And the private sector is sure taking notice,” said PRI President Alisa Miller at the Public Broadcasting New Media Conference in February. “We in public broadcasting now have a tremendous opportunity to claim community engagement on behalf of our constituents,” Miller said, announcing plans for Public Action. The investors pouring millions into social-networking startups “wish they had the [public’s] trust and our broadcast capabilities to support their web work.”
Hughes said the system will offer “an engaging environment that seems familiar and friendly,” that doesn’t make you feel "far too old to enter this space.” The service will use public radio and TV material as the starting point for conversations, and users will find it only by going to websites of participating stations and national programs.
Gather.com adds backers
Already operating with 20,000 registered users and 150,000 unique visitors a week is Gather.com, a for-profit social networking startup backed initially by American Public Media Group, parent of Minnesota Public Radio (earlier article ).
Though users come to Gather.com through its own web address rather than sites of participating stations, the company is considering whether to “remote deploy” its material on sites of affiliated organizations, says Tom Gerace, co-founder and president. Pubcasters already contribute to parts of the site. APM’s Splendid Table cooking show contributes to food.gather.com, for example.
Gerace aims to distinguish Gather.com from hordes of other dot-coms by paying for content based on its drawing power. Just as many merchandisers got their start on eBay, he wants freelance writers and media producers to benefit from Gather.com as their platform.
Since Gather.com began operating last fall, it has raised a second round of financing — $6.3 million from big-name investors Allen & Co. and Jim Manzi, onetime head of Lotus software. Manzi and former Sen. Bill Bradley, an executive at Allen & Co., joined the board chaired by APMG President Bill Kling.
Public Action has its own connections with high-tech royalty. The project was funded last year by the Omidyar Network, a public-interest investment firm created by billionaire eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam.
Users of Public Action will choose among topics under discussion, following message threads or clicking one of the keywords in a “cloud” of topics currently hot among users. Using their own names or pseudonyms, they post short profiles of themselves. Public Action puts “dynamic profiling” to work: While users read and write, it automatically adds to their profile a list of topics that caught the users’ interest and pages they have recommended to others by bookmarking.
Users eager for openness may love it, and the more wary can customize their profiles to reveal less. Participating stations likewise can tune the service for their websites, adjusting not only the graphics but also operational decisions: Will the station provide a moderator or ask users to police the discussion? Will it create all the topical groups or let users start new discussions? Will it run the system on its own server or on Public Interactive’s?
The World hopes its broadcasts will spark online conversations among U.S. listeners who then will bring stories of international experiences to Public Action and, potentially, to future broadcasts, according to Jonathan Dyer, managing editor. Dyer believes his team should dip a toe into new online information sources as they develop because some may turn out to be “luxury swimming pools” for journalists.
Despite the name “Public Action,” and the Omidyar family’s focus on empowering individuals, Hughes doesn’t paint pictures of public broadcasting fans starting political movements with the PI service.
“This isn’t about activism — it’s giving people a way to voice their concerns,” says Hughes. “What they choose to do with it is completely up to them.”
BBC goes a step further
In later phases, however, Public Action may be extended to give people the tools for creating online campaigns, she says.
Hughes points to the example of BBC Action Network (www.bbc.co.uk/actionnetwork), launched in 2003 under the name iCan. The extensive Internet social networking site lets people vent about such aggravations as trash dumping that has spoiled a river in Grimsby, London nightclubs that exclude Asians and the “derivative rubbish” aired on BBC Three.
Users can announce an online campaign — with disclaimers that the BBC does not endorse them — to save a historic market in London, for example, or to serve healthier meals in Swindon schools. The action has its limits, however: Under BBC rules, people can’t use the Action Network to organize campaigns for political candidates or parties, and politicians can’t use it to organize campaigns less than 25 days before an election.
About 235,000 visitors a month come to the Public Action site, and some 20,000 have registered to participate, says Martin Vogel, director. The BBC service isn’t bragging that it has reformed Britain, but it has met rising goals.
“These things take time to nurture and build,” says Jo Twist, senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research, a progressive think tank in London.
Action Network not only helps people connect with others with shared concerns, but Twist believes their successes, when reported by BBC News, will demonstrate to disheartened Britons that individuals can make a difference. Though private online companies have objected that Action Network is treading on their turf, Twist contends that the service has clear public value to the people who pay fees for the BBC.
Public Interactive will have another new product this summer: Pulse, an e-mail marketing system designed specifically for public broadcasters. Stations can use it to communicate with their members and send e-newsletters to those interested in certain topics or programs. Hughes expects Pulse will be sold to stations both separately and as a part of its bundle of online services.
Web page posted April 11, 2006
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