‘I’m not dead yet': How to use RSS effectively

Screen Shot 2013-07-21 at 8.50.10 AMWhen Google announced it was killing Reader, some pundits wondered whether the move might mean the demise of RSS as well.

Let me channel a little Monty Python so we don’t throw RSS — the original push technology that delivers content to users — on the death cart just yet.

‘I’m not dead yet’

In the days before social media became our primary filters, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) had been the primary way to manage the firehose of Internet information. Let me humbly suggest that we should keep RSS in our media mix.

Facebook filters its news feed, and we’re apt to miss important stories in the sea of updates and snapshots from friends and family. Twitter works more effectively, but content moves so quickly — especially if you follow more than 100 accounts — it can be difficult to keep up. And if you miss a day? Forget trying to catch up.

Enter RSS.

What is RSS?

An RSS feed is an .xml file that has content specifically formatted for programs that can interpret the specialized markup. Just as browsers can turn HTML into Web pages with pictures and formatted text, RSS readers can decipher the .xml and turn it into a readable summary of the latest content from sites you subscribe to.

Most sites — especially news sites like NPR and the New York Times — still have RSS feeds built into their sites, allowing users to subscribe to the site’s content. And often, the feeds are customized by topic or interest:

NYTimes RSS feeds

Once you find the page of feeds, click through to the feed itself so that you see the link to the .xml file in your address bar. This link is what you’ll need to copy into your RSS reader. If your browser is RSS-aware, it may offer to subscribe to the feed for you.

Why RSS?

At first glance, RSS seems a lot like a Twitter feed: Headlines and blurbs, with links to full articles. But RSS feeds are  updated every time new content is added to the site; that’s not always true of a site’s social-media presence.

A good RSS reader usually gives you a bit more than a social-media blurb. Some pull in pictures and provide ways for you to save stories or share them with your social networks. Often, the blurbs are longer than 140 characters, and you can consume content more completely.

After Google wrote Reader’s obituary, I latched onto Feedly, a free cross-platform reader that works well with Google Chrome and Apple’s mobile devices.

Feedly Reader

I’ve changed my morning routine to start with Feedly. The site allows you to designate certain feeds as “must-reads,” which prevents you from missing the latest posts from your favorite blog. It also makes it easy to organize feeds into categories to create your own magazine of sorts.

The site provides an effective recommendation engine as well. I’ve added more than a few feeds suggested after Feedly saw what types of content I had subscribed to.

More than subscriptions

RSS feedsBut RSS feeds are not limited to subscriptions.

For starters, you can add a WordPress widget that will post headlines from an RSS feed on your blog’s sidebar. It’s a great way to provide fresh, updated content from around the Web.

And Twitterfeed (among others) allows you to take content from RSS feeds and deliver them straight to Twitter or other social medium.

Yes, RSS may be an older technology, but old doesn’t mean useless. Before you dismiss RSS, try it with your favorite sites, and see how much more you discover and learn.

The phases of engagement and the best answer ever

Since 2009, my research partner and I have been studying the changes at the Christian Science Monitor in its efforts to morph into a Web-first newsroom.

Its success in increasing page views has been well documented. Using search-engine optimization and frequent news updates, its site regularly tops 30 million page views a month, and the organization has earned a spot among the 250 most visited U.S. sites on the Web.

But during our research visits, we’ve often heard reporters and editors struggle with how to transform the drive-by SEO audience to one that is more engaged, more invested in the Monitor itself.

Many other news organizations, marketers, and Web producers have become obsessed with this idea as well. As someone working with the next generation of content creators, I have dedicated much time developing my own model to understand how engagement happens.

A simple model

For years, I’ve been attracted to the uses-and-gratifications model of media behavior, which simply states that people use media to satisfy certain communication needs. But how does this process evolve? And how do we build regular usage and make our sites a media habit?

Integrating several threads of innovation and media research, I came up with four primary phases:

Engagement

  1. ATTENTION: It begins with an appreciation for SEO and messaging. Do we have something that will grab people’s attention from the mass of information already available to them?
  2. USAGE: Ease of use is vital for luring new users. Usability experts like Jakob Nielsen regularly remind us of the importance of clean, responsive design, and if a site/app/program is too difficult to use, users often will abandon it, especially if they are not emotionally attached or invested in the content.
  3. HABIT: Once users have overcome the trepidation of trying something new, we need to use consistent content to keep people coming back. And that consistency should come in quantity (frequency of updating) and quality (meaningful, well-produced content). It is finding the right balance between quantity and quality that so many organizations struggle with. This part of the process is more transactional and informational: Are we providing the type of content users need to satisfy what they’re looking for?
  4. COMMUNITY: After securing the intellectual commitment, we must establish that emotional investment in our site by building community. It is this phase where so many news organizations and businesses fail, and the social media succeed so dramatically. To develop this human connection, we must be willing to share our site with the audience. Allow them to contribute photos, comments, and other user-generated content. Make them feel a part of the site.

I find this simplified model — which incorporates ideas from diffusion of innovations, the theory of media attendance, the Media Choice Model, and engagement research — resonates more effectively with my students than more complex formulations (such as Philip Napoli’s definitive  conception of engagement in his book Audience Evolution: New Technologies and the Transformation of Media Audiences).

The best answer ever

I teach this model to my students in my Web Communication class, a junior/senior level class in our Multimedia Production and Journalism program, and a question about the idea inevitably appears on my exams. As I tell my students, I am most concerned with concepts rather than terminology; I want them to articulate clearly what’s happening at each stage, rather than just regurgitating my lecture blather.

And so, this past semester, one student took me at my word.

I share this answer with her permission. (The spelling-error comment refers to an error on her own site that we discovered during her final presentation.) Enjoy.

  • First: Discovery of a site. “Well, hello there,” its viewer purrs. “What have we here? Is this worth my time? Is it going to play games with me and break my heart with a lack of updates, shoddy information, or spelling errors (that may very well be tragic mistakes and not actually errors because son is actually a word, just not the right word)? Hmm. Let’s take a look…”
  • Second: Getting to know a site. “That’s a snazzy nav bar,” its viewer giggles. “And I can’t get over how nicely this content is organized! Holy cow, those tags group things well! It seems like I can find exactly what I’m looking for before I even start looking for it.”
  • Third: Regular use of a site. “We’re in it for the long haul,” its viewer promises. “You and I are an item now. You’ve proven your worth, and I want to commit my valuable Web time to you.”
  • Fourth: Interacting with a site. “I’ve gotten up enough courage to make my presence known to you,” its viewer proclaims. “I am going to post in your comment section and like you on Facebook and re-tweet your tweets to show the world how much I’m devoted to you. I’ll shout your existence to the world.”

#jcarn: Measuring journalism

Note: This post is another installment for the Carnival of Journalism project, where people passionate about journalism are sharing ideas in the blogosphere about ways to preserve and improve the craft.

This month’s prompt:

What’s the best way — or ways — to measure journalism and how?

The root of journalism is truth, and the time-tested method that journalists have to uncover that truth is verification. If we want to measure journalism, it must begin here.

Respected journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel explored this idea more than a decade ago as part of their work with the Committee of Concerned Journalists, which they codified in their book The Elements of Journalism. As they noted, what sets journalists apart from every other type of content creator — entertainer, technologist, pundit — is verification.

Simply put, verification is checking out everything with multiple sources. I think of the adage I learned early in my journalism career:

If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

It’s only semi-facetious. It doesn’t mean your mother is a liar. It just means she may not be quite accurate.

Maybe she wasn’t talking to you.

Maybe her definition of “love” doesn’t jibe with conventional wisdom.

Maybe she’s not really your mother.

In today’s environment of the immediate and the ephemeral, it’s ever more important to verify the drive-by comments, the frenetic machine gun of news. It’s too easy to retweet, reblog, or republish what’s happening with the claim that the rush of information requires us to be first rather than accurate.

What does the audience want?

What’s clouding journalism today is the need for audience. In such a fragmented environment, how do we generate enough interest — in terms of page views, time spent on site, or other measures of engagement — to secure advertising to pay the bills?

We tap into Google Trends and try to SEO our headlines and content to lure people to our website. We crank up the level of content with frequent updating — sometimes including links to hot content that we haven’t independently verified. The goal is noble: Get them to our site so they can see our real, verified journalism.

But some pockets of experimentation are turning that idea on its head. Gawker has begun finding that original content may be generating more meaningful connections than its SEO junk. Salon recently noted its recent upsurge in traffic came from abandoning the aggregation gold rush. And ProPublica has figured out how to win Pulitzer Prizes and remain financially viable (PDF) without buying into the hype.

Maintaining credibility

As Philip Napoli notes in his book Audience Evolution, a large audience may not be the most engaged. In the age of social media, a small but motivated group can make a big noise.

But the information has to be accurate. Witness the backlash regarding Invisible Children and the #stopkony campaign. After the initial rush of eye-candy addicts, more thoughtful writers began questioning the group’s methods, spending, and accuracy.

Even credible, well-read organizations such as Mashable fall into this trap. The all-things-social-media site recently posted an item with the misleading title “Top 10 Social Media-Savvy Universities [STUDY].” As you dig deeper into the study, you find that the list is actually drawn from already culled list of 25 UK universities and 25 U.S. universities.

Even the study’s author notes this clarification in the comments of the story:

Journalism’s value/impact can come from reaffirming its role as the verifier without agenda. Places such as FactCheck.org and PolitiFact serve as role models for our aspirations of verification.

Measuring verification

Measurement assumes quantification, and some ideas — such as verification — are better evaluated qualitatively. Creating a measure requires including some attributes and excluding others; inevitably, such measures are always imperfect approximations, especially when it comes to complex concepts.

But we can establish a few expectations, with a little help from Kovach and Rosenstiel:

  • Transparency: Where did the information come from? Are you transparent about your sources? Post your spreadsheets through Google Docs and your documents on DocumentCloud. Embrace an open-source ethic. Disclose what you were unable to confirm.
  • Consistency: Test information from every source, even your mother. Don’t rely exclusively on secondary sources; check the primary information yourself to ensure it is presented accurately with context.
  • Context: Link to sources you’ve used to verify your content, and provide access to full interviews to bolster confidence that you’re not cherry-picking information to support an agenda. Make sure you’re representing all nuances and resisting the urge to simplify everything to two sides.

Italian schoolteacher Tommaso De Benedetti turned humilating news organizations into an art form with his mock Twitter accounts of Harmid Karzai, Bashar al-Assad, and other world leaders. He found that some news organizations quickly retweeted information without verification — including news that Fidel Castro had died.

In his interview with The Guardian, he may have created the journalistic warning for the Internet age: “Twitter works well for deaths.”

Or maybe we should craft a new adage:

If your mother tweets her death, check it out.

Free surfing: Where does your brain go?

It usually happens on a Sunday morning, in the quiet of the solitary kitchen.

The house is asleep. The coffee is fresh. The sun is rising. And I humbly drift through the Web, aimlessly consuming content insightful and insipid.

It’s not anything I intend to do. I usually start by reviewing Google+ or scanning the New York Times home page or clicking on a link from a friend’s e-mail or tweet. Suddenly, 45 minutes have passed, 10 tabs are open on my browser, and the thought flashes: “How did I get here?”

This type of experience in part inspired Nicholas Carr’s writing The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, a book I expected to dislike but instead found exhilarating. Instead of a cherry-picking screed railing against technology, it’s a thoughtful exploration of what we know — and have yet to learn — about how this interconnected, plugged-in life is affecting us.

Since reading it, I find myself stopping every once in a while and retracing my technological steps. Too many times, I’ve passively accepted my consumption like a French-fry carnivore at McDonald’s.

So this past Sunday morning, with browser tabbed to capacity, I found myself wondering once again, “How did I get here?”

WordPress

Each morning, I compile a list of local headlines for my community news site, SGFNews.org, which I’ve set up at WordPress.com.

Unfortunately, when I log into WordPress, I get the dreaded Freshly Pressed screen, a pleasantly presented buffet of images, blog titles, and headlines seductively gesturing to be clicked.

This morning, my eyes were drawn to a screenshot from “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II,” one of my favorite movies from the past year.

Cut the Crap Movie ReviewsBeing a movie buff, I clicked on the link to Cut the Crap Movie Reviews, an entertaining blog of short reviews. It was a fruitful detour; I had not heard of half of the movies on the list.

Google+

Weekends are my time to delve into media trends and research. It’s also my time to catch up with neglected social media such as Google+ and Pinterest (my primary medium is Twitter).

This morning, I logged into my Google+ account for the first time in a couple of weeks. One of the first headlines posted by Dan Gillmor, noted journalist and media thinker, caught my attention:

I did not immediately make the connection, but the article reminded me that Zaslow co-wrote The Last Lecture, the story of Randy Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who gave an inspiring talk about life’s lessons. The Wall Street Journal also noted Zaslow’s dedication to his wife and daughters, significant details that touched me as a husband and father.

Another Google+ headline from Wired caught my eye:

Privacy has become a flashpoint for me — it’s one of the reasons I use Facebook only while holding my nose — and I shared the article on Google+ and Twitter without hesitation.

Using Google+’s feed-view buttons, I then focused on updates from Friends. My research partner Carrie Brown-Smith led me to two fascinating pieces: The WeMedia.com PitchIt Challenge offering $50,000 for digital-media startups and an Advertising Age article about studying brand perceptions of online consumers.

I briefly considered the possibility of pitching my community news site to the challenge. I also hovered over the Advertising Age comments and thought of criticizing the headline “GE Study Proves Consumers Respond More to Shared Content,” as studies do not prove hypotheses. But thought did not turn to action, and I returned to my Google+ stream.

Next came a blog post titled “And Deliver Us From Distraction: Understanding Resistance to Media Life,” from Seth Lewis, an insightful media scholar at the University of Minnesota I’ve gotten to know in the academic world.

But the blog post wasn’t the only thing lighting up my brain. The site design was interesting, and I noticed the design was created by one of the blog’s co-writers, Joshua Braun, another media scholar.

At his site, he highlighted one of his published papers that fit right in with a study I’m working on. I headed to our university library site and found the paper, “Hosting the Public Discourse, Hosting the Public.”

Sexist startups

My last intellectual side road came courtesy of Kathy Gill, a sharp educator at the University of Washington whom I have connected with through the Carnival of Journalism blog group.

I clicked on the post by Dan Shapiro that recounted a disrespectful introduction of Rebecca Lovell as she was about to moderate a panel on funding startups. The man introducing her said:

Rebecca’s one of the smartest ladies I know, and I thought that she was a perfect pick for the role of moderator.  When we selected Rebecca and she said yes, she was a sexy single woman. And since that time, she’s become a sexy married woman, and so I wanted her lucky new spouse to stand up.  So we’ve got not only a very talented, but a happy moderator.

The post struck a chord with me. I am continually amazed that in 2012 we still hear this kind of — as Shapiro put it — crap. Did we not leave this behind with the age of the Mad Men?

The next item I clicked on from Gill’s stream involved storytelling with infographics. As one of my classes has to create an infographic as an assignment this semester, I thought the post would be particularly useful, and I saved it to my Diigo account.

And then the thought hit me: “How did I get here?”

What I learned

Thinking about my free surf led me to a few conclusions:

  • Free surfing can be insightful: In an hour of surfing, I had discovered a couple of helpful articles for my classes, a paper for one of my research projects, and a potential grant source for my community news site.
  • Emotions drive clicks. In some instances, the provocative subjects lured me during the free surf. Perhaps sadness was lingering from the news of Whitney Houston’s death, but I clicked on the Zaslow piece and the startup post partly because of visceral reactions to the content.
  • Sharing equals power. “Free surf” is a misnomer; I had several trusted guides from my social network leading me to useful content. In fact, most of my content discovery comes through this method (usually through Twitter instead of Google+). And I shared a few of the items I found with my own networks.
  • The stream induces anxiety. As someone whose stock in trade is information, I find that the constant exposure to an ever-growing influx does spark a sense of anxiety: How do I keep up with all of this? How can I accomplish everything I need to get done?

Does this experience jibe with yours? Where do your free surfs lead you in the silence of a Sunday morning?

Five ways to detect Internet BS

In the quest for page views and visitors, bloggers and content creators skate the ethical borders.

They steal content. They create meaningless lists. They perpetuate inaccuracy with statistically ridiculous online polls.

Do not nibble on these cognitive candy bars; they make for flabby brains.

So I offer you a post that is not pilfered, that is accurate as far as I know. I hope it will bring meaning and substance to your online diet.

1. Top 75 ways to …

Have you noticed the proliferation of lists (including this one)? People like them because they are easy to scan, digest, and comment upon. It’s like the weather: Everyone can comment on their favorite song, dog breed, gluten-free cereal, etc.

Often, these lists are meant to spark an emotional reaction — How dare you leave out my favorite song, dog breed, gluten-free cereal, etc.! — and create “engagement.” They’re also designed to pump up page views by putting each item on its own Web page.

Be especially wary of lists with more than 10 items.

The best compilations I find don’t actually use the word “list” anywhere in them. Two of my favorites: The Big Picture, which collects the best photojournalism from around the Web daily (by Boston.com); and Brain Pickings, which curates some of the most thought-provoking content from the Internet.

2. Who’s your favorite…?

As a researcher, I find online polls particularly offensive. They give the veneer of validity, presenting quantitative “findings” to support a given claim.

The problem? Statistically valid polls depend on a random sample of a given population. In an open online poll, the visitors to a given site decide whether to participate; there’s no control over the sample. The results are meaningless in a larger context.

The questions are often meant to provoke a response rather than elicit valuable information.

The most reliable polls (e.g. ones from Pew Research or Gallup) will provide their methodology, questionnaire, sample size, and margin of error. They will carefully pull together a list from which anyone from the population could be randomly selected. And they will be equally careful in how they interpret the results.

3. Whose content is it anyway?

We’ve all done it. Searching for a quick answer, we Google our query and click on the first reasonable headline. We scan the article, and if the information is useful, we smack our lips and continue on merrily with our day, with little regard for the actual source of the information.

Often, content farms scrape the Web for posts and articles on a given topic and shamelessly repost them with credit lines in the small print. In my opinion, this plagiarism is a lazy, misleading way to manufacture false credibility.

Like the multi-paged list, this ploy is another attempt to pad page-view numbers to lure advertisers and ultimately revenue.

4. Coffee is [bad, neutral, good] for you.

Good journalists know there is a wealth of fascinating, insightful academic research available for public consumption. Academics are often more concerned with publishing in peer-reviewed journals than the public sphere, making this source a rich mine for the resourceful writer.

The key, however, is putting that research into perspective. No single study or paper exists in a vacuum. Research must be tested, validated, and corroborated.

Still, some will elevate a solitary study to inerrant status. Those in search of click-throughs opt for the sexy headline — “Coffee is good for you, says science” — and selectively cite the studies that support their point of view.

5. Don’t believe that S.O.B.

As with academic cherry-picking, the polarized blogosphere has a nasty habit of taking quotes out of context and elevating them to the level of scandal.

Take a quotation from Mitt Romney that made the rounds from one of the GOP primary debates:

…I like being able to fire people…

For people who focus on Romney’s stint as head of Bain Capital, it fits the narrative of Romney as the evil CEO who cuts thousands of jobs. The problem is the quotation is out of context.

Watch the entire quote:

Even his opponents in the GOP primary called off the critics to say his comments were being taken out of context — but not before the Internet masses feasted upon the supposed “gaffe.”

It is this misrepresentation of fact that affects all of us who hope to gain credible knowledge from the Internet. Unfortunately, as authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel note in Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload, it’s up to us as content consumers to be skeptical of all we encounter.

Kovach and Rosenstiel offer six questions to consider when hearing or reading information:

  • What kind of content am I encountering?
  • Is the information complete, and if not, what is missing?
  • Who or what are the sources, and why should I believe them?
  • What evidence is presented, and how was it tested or vetted?
  • What might be an alternative explanation or understanding?
  • Am I learning what I need to?

The technological explosion brought on by the Internet has democratized the ability to consume and create information. It has expanded our minds and empowers us to take action.

But it has also required us to become more discerning, skeptical consumers.

Get noticed with Technorati (TQBQQQS2KR9K)

In my classes, I often mention the importance of blogs as a news medium.

Then comes the inevitable follow-up question from my students: “How do you find good blogs?”

I point them to Technorati, an aggregator of the best in blog content. The site uses an “authority” calculation based on linking and other measures to determine a blog’s authority in a given topic segment. For example, TechCrunch is listed as the top technology blog for good reason. It regularly breaks top technology news and is followed by many movers and shakers.

Technorati is also inclusive. Anyone can join the network and submit his or her own blog with a “blog claim.”

To establish a claim, submit your blog’s URL, and Technorati will ask you to verify the claim with a “token” — for this blog, the token was TQBQQQS2KR9K — which you insert a post for verification.

Once verified, your blog joins the ranks of Technorati.

(Hat tip to blogger Brian Rothenberg for a succinct explanation on using claim tokens)

The most powerful tweet in the world: Chuck Norris, the iPhone 4 and @ceoSteveJobs

Most tweets exist in the Twittersphere for a few hours. They enter followers’ streams with dozens of others, soon to be cleared out by the latest links, thoughts, and observations of other Twitterers.

Some may last a bit longer in the form of retweets. But a rare few survive for weeks as retweeted retweets, restatements, and reiterations.

Such was the case with a recent tweet about Chuck Norris and the iPhone 4.

I first saw this tweet a couple of weeks ago as a retweet of the parody account @ceoSteveJobs, who tweeted on Aug. 10:

The tweet had the right mix of timeliness, humor, and universality, three critical criteria for anything to go viral.

A strange thing then began to happen. I noticed people began appropriating this tweet as their own, without giving credit. I saw it in my stream as “original” content. I also noticed it among self-proclaimed tech gurus.

I’m sure such repetition happens often on Twitter, but here, the Twittersphere began policing itself. People challenged the copiers and demanded that they give credit through retweeting or the “via” tag.

Bartlett responded with a tweet explaining he had overheard the comment from a friend and tweeted it.

Like a Chuck Norris action hero, the tweet kept on going as aggregators embraced the meme, again without sourcing the original tweet.

Then, like the old game of Telephone, the tweet began to morph into new iterations. People with dozens of followers tweaked the words, and the tweet began life anew in retweet after retweet.

@davidrisley posted this form on Aug. 18, a full week after @ceoSteveJobs:

A couple of days later, it spread in other languages, to other countries.

By this point, I became curious how long a tweet could linger. I’ve been on Twitter for almost three years, and I can’t remember a tweet with such a long lifespan. So I began digging.

Lo and behold, @ceoSteveJobs was not the original creator.

I found a tweet from June 25 crafted by @vowe, a consultant and systems architect from Darmstadt, Germany, with more than 1,600 followers. His tweet had been retweeted more than 100 times.

Is it the original most powerful tweet? Only the Twittersphere knows.

(Note: This post focuses on tweets surviving in real time on Twitter proper. Some do live on for months and years in web archives and leaderboard-type sites such as Favstar.)

G20 vs. the World Cup: A tale of two Twitters

If you glanced at Twitter this weekend, you found the trending topics consumed by World Cup mania. At a glance, you could quickly grasp the mood of the worldwide audience as they tweeted about various players, plays, and calls.

While England and the U.S. were losing, however, Toronto was recovering from rioting and street clashes related to the G20 summit.

Amid the usual news photos and articles chronicling the chaos, Twitter once again proved itself an invaluable live-reporting tool.

Among the most notable streams was that of Steve Paikin, an Ontario-based television journalist who witnessed the beating and arrest of fellow reporter Jesse Rosenfeld of The Guardian.

The live tweets speak for themselves (start from the bottom):

Paikan stream

His account ends abruptly:

Paikan tweet

This kind of narrative, with simple bursts of instantaneous thought, convey the intensity of an event unlike other methods. Paikin’s reports could also spread virally — 64 people had retweeted this note within hours of his posting.

Some raise questions about such unverified reporting leaching out so quickly. But as with the World Cup masses, there seems to be a Wikipedia-esque quality to live-tweeting of events such as the G20 meeting. The mass of tweets should root out the inaccuracies, and those who tweet unreliably will lose followers in the long run.
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The rule of engagement: Be authentic

Confession: I am an Internet idealist.

I first started using the medium in 1993, when Gopher was cutting edge and people used Lynx browsers to explore the World Wide Web. Back then, people shared information via newsgroups and listservs, and swapped shareware at FTP sites. It was a communal era, before the dot-com gold rush struck.

In many ways, we are at a similar point with social media.

Most of these sites began as a way to connect and build communities around shared interests. Few worried about returns on investment or social-media strategies. Now, the prospectors are flooding the social space.

Unfortunately, many are missing one key element when they “get on Facebook” or “jump into Twitter”: authenticity.

It isn’t about amassing a huge number of followers or friends, which can raise its own issues. It’s about being transparent and honest, engaging with community members on their terms.

Since 2008, I’ve spent many hours — probably too many, by my wife’s accounting — on Twitter, learning the ways of the Twitterverse and trying to understand the whys and hows of engagement.

Over that time, I have developed a framework for thinking about authenticity and levels of engagement on Twitter:

I see connectivity as a deeper, more emotional communication need than information. And two-way communication — conversation — establishes a greater sense of engagement than one-way communication, or lecturing. (For more on the importance of conversation in the new-media environment, check out the excellent Journalism as a Conversation blog).

  • Level I: One-way, information. These are the tweet blasts: “Hey, folks, I’m on Twitter. Here’s my random tidbit. Take it or leave it.” In some cases, these can be useful. I love @nytimes for my news. But the account ignores my @replies and has no interest in following little ol’ me.
  • Level II: One-way, connectivity. These are the links that provide value beyond self-promotion, the ones that tell your followers, “This is for your benefit.” Think @amazonmp3 with daily download specials or @Twitter_Tips with links to sharp commentary about the medium.
  • Level III: Two-way, information. Retweeting is a deeper form of engagement than mere links. It says, “I’m listening to you, and I think what you say is valuable.”
  • Level IV: Two-way, connectivity. @replies and direct messages are Twitter conversations that inspire the deepest level of engagement. It shows you are actively participating in the community and acknowledge the value of the communal conversation.

Reaching Level IV is no small task. It takes time, dedication, and most of all, a willingness to open yourself up to the Twitterverse, accepting of its praise and its criticism.

Twitter Search: The real-time pulse of the world

In an unadvertised corner among Twitter’s servers is a site that allows users to capture the real-time pulse of the world on any phrase, topic, or idea.

It is known as Twitter Search, and it provides an interface with Google-like simplicity for discovering what people are saying about anything from the Tiger Woods debacle (ack!) to health-care legislation (or the lack thereof).

The best part is that Twitter has built in feed capabilities to the site.

A large part of Twitter’s power stems from its ability to aggregate mass sentiment from the public sphere (largely because of its 140-character limit). We seek to connect with the world, especially with large events such as the Super Bowl or the Olympics. Twitter Search allows us to focus more clearly on certain aspects of the public psyche.

With the RSS capability, Web designers can develop a variety of tools — whether it be a simple update widget or more complex mash-ups — to understand how the public is engaging on a particular topic or issue.

NBC tapped into this function to create an Olympic Twitter tracker, which gauges in real-time what people are saying about Olympic stars and events.

Combined with word clouds, the tracker offers a creative interface for navigating Twitter’s Olympic conversation. And NBC smartly incorporates an easy-to-update Twitter interface with a link to its tracker. What better way to become part of the public sphere than making it easy to spread the word?