Participation Culture

Today was National Ban Bullying at Work day. We had an awareness activity at work today – not that bullying and intimidation is something that’s rampant or even existent in our workplace, or in any work place I’ved worked in so far (thankfully), but it’s important not to take that as a given.

It got me to thinking about intimidation and participation though… and then to lots of other issues related to participation. It’s a vexed but important question in a Web 2.0 world.

Many of the projects we work on these days are all about community and participation. Now, some of us are participation junkies… there are so many things we want to participate in that we run out of time for all of them and end up being online way too long!

But there are many people out there who *should* be participating, but don’t.

There are plenty of reasons why people opt out – some of them are good reasons, like that they have something better to do with their time (you know, friends, family, ‘real life’).

But other reasons are not so great.

  • they don’t think their contribution is valuable/relevant/topic/important
  • they’re afraid that their contribution will not be valuable (which is different to the first point)
  • they’re afraid that they’ll be ‘wrong’ (they might not know the complete answer, they might miss something out, the might make a mistake)
  • they’re afraid that they’ll be not good enough
  • they don’t see the value of participation (there is no/not enough incentive)
  • they’re intimidated by louder voices that sound authoratative
  • they’ve seen other people attacked/confronted and don’t want to be subject to this aggression
  • they don’t know how to work the mechanics of participation (I’ve seen a lot of this lately with people trying to work the WordPress backend! same goes with mailing lists, wikis, podcasts and more)
  • they feel stupid/inadequate because they don’t know how to work the above mechanism
  • they don’t understand how the mechanism works and why it is powerful/interesting/important

Now, we know that when we create an architecture for participation, the majority of the participants will actually be lurkers. Of all people, Jakob Nielsen doled out a set of tips for how to get more people to participate (mostly about reducing the effort involved and increasing the incentive). These are all great tips, but they don’t touch on that issue of intimidation that is apparent in the list above (afraid, inadequate, don’t understand).

What can we do to address these more personal issues? How can we design architectures of participation that are supportive and welcoming and comfortable and secure?

Is this just about the people who populate the space? Or are there ways that we can design to promote this?

This is something I’ve been dwelling on for a long time now. I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts.

I know for me, I ‘listen’ to a lot of mailing lists but actively participate in very few because of several of the points I listed above.

To people who wouldn’t usually comment on a blog for example… why don’t you? is there something we can do to encourage you? do you feel tempted or are you just here for the read and not the interaction?

And for those who do comment/participate regularly – are there places where you feel comfortable contributing and others where you don’t? What makes the difference?

Podcasts are boring (Hot tips to hold attention)

I keep getting distracted when I try to listen to podcasts. My mind wanders, I check my email, before I know it I’m doing something entirely different and have forgotten that there’s someone talking in my ears. The podcast becomes background noise. I stop listening.

You could say it’s my fault. That I don’t have good concentration, or discipline. That I don’t care enough. But it’s not me, it’s them.

Podcasts are boring.

(At least, the ones that I’ve been listening to that are produced by people who are supposedly interested in design and user experience…. I know there are some that are really cool and interesting… but that would make a boring title).

Yes, yes, so you’re really smart and probably pretty well known… that’s why I’m listening to you. But you still have to make an effort to reach through the microphone and grab me by the earlobes. Lots of people are trying to get in my ear these days, but too few are putting any effort into making it a great experience for me.

I’m no expert in podcasting, but I know what I like ;) Having spent the last few days listening to a whole bunch of podcasts, this is what I’ve learned:

  • Don’t over prepare and don’t read from a script. Definitely don’t try to ‘fake’ an interview. It sounds artificial and lifeless and dull.
  • Have a plan. Once you get started with your podcast it’s pretty easy to ramble on and on. This is not a good idea. Know what point you want to make or what information you want to share, have a strong structure and stick to it.
  • Talk about something interesting. Just like my wishlist for conference presentations, I’d also like your podcast to be full of meaty information not just a top level review, I want you to take a position and argue it (bonus points if it’s a controversial position and you can back it up!), and I love hearing about real life examples and stories.
  • If you must edit, try to keep it subtle. Personally, I’d be aiming to keep the podcast authentic sounding and to edit as little as possible. I’d rather do a few takes and minimal editing than try to hack together something coherent from rambling single take.
    Why shouldn’t you rehearse your podcast? You’ll do a better job the third time through than the first.
  • Don’t be cool, be passionate. If you care about your subject matter (and you should if you think you’re worth listening to), then put a bit of enthusiasm into your delivery. It was always the voice that held my attention – speakers who had LIFE in their voice, and HUMOUR and HUMANITY. People who were passionate about the topic of the podcast. And don’t cut out the bits that make you seem human. This is the joy of the podcast… you make yourself more human.
  • It’s a performance, not an internal monologue. Think about how you’d prepare for a conference presentation. Take away the slides and all the same ‘how to’s’ pretty much apply. You can’t just get three of your mates on the phone (no matter how A-list they maybe), shoot the breeze and call it a podcast because you’ve got some big names chatting. Have you seen all those posts about how panel sessions at conferences often suck? These kinds of podcasts are worse.
  • Keep it snappy. Set yourself a time limit and stick to it. For me, I’d prefer a podcast around say 15 minutes long. Any longer than that and I’ll probably lose concentration or get called away to do something else. I’d LOVE a really satifisfying 15 minute podcast to listen to every day.
  • Be creative. What can you do to make your podcast a better experience for your users? I don’t know the answer to this, but I have some ideas that I reckon might be kind of cool… podcasts use music a bit these days but I’d quite like to see a bit more. What about sound effects?
    I’m thinking of radio plays – sound effects, characters, storytelling, suspense. Lists? Vox pops? Talk show? There are lots of different genres from which we could be drawing inspiration.

Now that anyone who wants to can easily grab a microphone and start pumping out the podcasts, I think it’s time to raise the bar. So, if you’ve to something to say, and you want to say it in a podcast… take a little time before you hit record and think about how you can give your audience a great listening experience.

What are our tips for making podcasts not boring? And what podcasts do you recommend?