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Hello! Welcome to Journalism For Brands, a blog about digital media strategy. If you keep scrolling down then you’ll see some of my articles here on the site. I’ve also published elsewhere.

My favorite article from 2016 was published in Vice, titled “My Year In San Francisco’s $2 Million Secret Society Startup.” The article contains many thoughts about media product design as well as the in-depth story of the Latitude Society, which was a truly amazing project. (If you loved the article and want to learn more about it, I posted these followup thoughts after publication.)

My favorite article from 2015 was published in the Harvard Business Review. It asks the question, “Can Platform-Publisher Hybrids Survive, Or Will They All Fall Apart?” It discusses the incentives, difficulties and complications of building these hybrids. If you like charts, I made a relevant chart!

My other favorite project from 2015 is a Tumblr called “The Cruelest Opt-Out Forms.” The project went viral, and trended on Tumblr less than a week after I started it! It’s been featured in Buzzfeed and Business Insider, which described me as “one courageous media strategist.”

My favorite article from 2014 was published in The Atlantic, under the title “A More Pseudonymous Internet.” It’s about the value of pseudonyms and anonymity on the Internet. I believe these things are important for a number of cultural and social reasons.

My favorite piece from 2013 is a long report about content marketing called “Brandopolis.” It was commissioned by a digital marketing agency named Distilled. I scoped the project and I did all the research and writing, which was incredibly fun.

Thanks for visiting!

Some Recent Updates

In which Lydia shares the latest news, mid-2016.

Topics: Life Updates

September 2016

Last year, I announced that I’d joined a small, amazing journalism company full-time: News Deeply. News Deeply was a beloved client before I joined full-time — and now, once again, the company is a beloved client! I’ve transitioned into being an advisor and consultant for the company, with much love all around.

Love Deeply rockThis heart-shaped rock belongs to Lara Setrakian, the founder of News Deeply, and it truly encapsulates the spirit of the company. This may sound campy, but I actually can’t express how grateful I am for the time that I spent on that team, pursuing my life’s work by developing ND’s user research processes and other elements of their technical media strategy.

I’m continuing to work on some projects for News Deeply, as well as other clients. Here are some areas of specific interest for me right now:

Thought leadership — I’ve built thought leadership in multiple domains, both for myself and for clients

High-quality social networks, interest networks, and expert networks — I’ve worked on a number of social networks intended to create a “higher-quality” experience, stronger connections among members, networks around specific interests, or communities with members at a high level of expertise

Virtual and augmented reality — within these realms I’m excited about emerging social tools, content creation tools, and experiences that change users’ sense of awareness or consciousness

Immersive theatre and participatory design — for more about that, I maintain a Facebook album of experiences I’ve observed and material I’ve written

As always, feel free to drop me a line anytime.

Thrilled to Announce That I’ve Joined News Deeply!

I’m so happy to say that I’ve joined a fantastic journalism company as Director of Strategy & Research.


July 2015

I’m so happy to say that I have joined a small, wonderful journalism company full-time. The company’s name is News Deeply; they’ve been a client since March. It’s been a great match so far, and I look forward to continuing our work together.

I will be Director of Strategy & Research at News Deeply — thereby fusing my passion for media, content, and editorial strategy with user research. I will also be working with our philanthropic partners.

Here is the company’s exciting official description:

News Deeply logoNews Deeply is dedicated to advancing the user experience of complex global issues. Our team of journalists and technologists builds unique, user-centered resources that fuse news, live events, information design, and social participation.

Our inaugural platform, Syria Deeply, is a fusion of journalism and technology created to enhance coverage of the Syrian crisis. In recognition of the project’s innovative approach, Time Magazine called Syria Deeply “The Future of News,” while Fast Company Magazine said “Syria Deeply Outsmarts the News, Redefines Conflict Coverage.” Based on the website’s success, CEO & Founder Lara Setrakian was invited to the White House to brief President Obama on the dynamics of the Syrian conflict. News Deeply won the National Press Foundation’s Excellence in Online Journalism Award in 2013, joining honorees like the Wall Street Journal, the Center for Public Integrity, NPR, and Re/code.

The most recent platform from News Deeply is Water Deeply, which covers California’s record-breaking drought crisis.

In addition to our single-subject information hubs, the News Deeply team ideates and creates custom projects for think tanks, institutions, and private sector partners. News Deeply’s clients and partners include the World Economic Forum, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Baker Institute at Rice University, and Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. The company’s work has been featured on outlets including CNN, NPR, BBC News, the Guardian, and Wired.

How To Hire Writers For Content Marketing: Reviewing The Options For Quibb

Many companies really want to hire high-quality writers, but have trouble finding them. Here’s how to find and hire good writers.


June 2015

When companies build content marketing strategies, they typically include writing — whether blog posts, how-to lists, thoughtful articles, in-depth white papers, or full-on “brand publications” and “owned information hubs.”  For these projects, brand marketers need professional writers.

But where can they find writers?  As brand content has proliferated, a variety of solutions hit the market.  Solutions include semi-famous subculture bloggers with devoted, niche fanbases; marketing agencies with an arsenal of versatile English majors; and tech platforms that want to be the “Uber for articles.”  It’s bewildering.  How do you know what’s out there, and what’s the best value for money?

I started by drawing from my own experience as a writer and content strategist; then I interviewed my media friends and surveyed a few technical products in order to help Sandi answer this question for Quibb.  (During this process, I had to sign up for email lists run by content marketers with varying moral sensibilities, and I’m still unsubscribing weeks later!  You’re welcome. :) )

Continue reading…

How I Audited My Daily Media Habits And Improved The Way I Read

I’ve thought a lot about how to have a good media diet, and ensure that I read only the best stuff. Here’s how I dodge bad articles and collect the best.


April 2015

This piece was originally published at the tech site Gigaom at the beginning of 2015.

Creating web content is incredibly easy — but filtering content is really hard. In late 2014, I realized I was reading too much bad content. I felt enraged by some of the articles I clicked on, because they were such a thoughtless waste of my time.

I got so frustrated that I decided to invest serious effort in fixing the problem on my end, instead of fruitlessly swearing at my laptop.  I hoped to determine what’s non-optimal about my media habits, and how I can improve them.  So I audited my habits (with a spreadsheet and everything!) — and what I learned might surprise you!

Current Clickbait Solutions

I’m not alone in my anger about clickbait and my desire for a better media diet.  There’s plenty of mocking commentary about this, like The Onion’s satirical site ClickHole, or the amazing Twitter feed Saved You A Click by Jake Beckman.  Beckman helpfully summarizes the answer to one clickbait headline per tweet:

It’s becoming an arms race: One side makes ever-sneakier clickbait… while the other side makes ever-better filters.  Much of this stuff get spread via Facebook, yet Facebook knows that it’s a threat to user satisfaction, so the company is working to make the News Feed algorithms less vulnerable to bad content in clever packaging.

Continue reading…

Can Platform-Publisher Hybrids Survive, Or Will They All Fall Apart?

Today I have a piece in the Harvard Business Review about platform-publisher hybrids. (Some people call them “platishers,” which is an amazing word!) My article discusses some difficulties and complications of building these hybrids. And I have a chart!


January 2015

Today I have a piece in the Harvard Business Review about digital media business models. In the piece, I wrote about some of the forces that pull “platforms” and “publishers” together, and I also discussed the tensions tearing them apart.

While I was writing the piece, I constructed a table to help me think about what I was trying to say. The table didn’t make it into the article, so I wanted to share it here.

The distinction between publishers and platforms is cultural; it’s not an inherent truth. It may be possible to bridge the gap, although it’s difficult due to the conflicting incentives laid out in my article. With that said, here are some common differences between the two:

Platforms… Publishers…
Emphasize that everyone can participate Emphasize taste, curation, and gatekeeping
Have lots of content, since lots of people can create it Have content some people consider higher-quality
Are perceived as having no editorial judgment Are held responsible for editing and values
Can scale more easily to a giant user base Have a defined audience that they try to serve
Identify strongly with the tech subculture Identify strongly with the media subculture

I have lots more to say about this topic — more later! The HBR article is here.

One Dollar At A Time: The Ultimate Guide To Earning Money From An Internet Audience

This guide is for writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, game creators, and anyone else who wants to raise money from their audiences. I discuss Kickstarter, Patreon, self-publishing, and many more tactics and tools.


October 2014

Everyone knows that the creative businesses have changed. You can still get huge book deals, record deals, and other deals — but those business models are not the only answer anymore. Now independent creators can reach their fans directly.

One dollar at a time picture by doctorwonder

We’ve all heard the Kickstarter success stories. But not everyone knows all their options. Talented creators are using Patreon, self-publishing, and many other tools to raise money one dollar at a time. This guide will explain and describe the best ones!

(If you’re new to my site: Hi! I’m Lydia, a writer and media strategist. I have personal and professional experience with these tools and I’ve helped other people figure them out, too. If you want my advice or help for your project, feel free to leave a comment or contact me directly.)

Important Note:
This Is The Wild West

Before I cover all the options, I’ll point out that these tools are evolving rapidly. And there’s more change to come.

I hear about new relevant startups every week. The almighty Google just announced that they’re developing features that allow fans to fund their favorite creators on YouTube. This is on top of Google’s other new service, which sells music through YouTube.

I’ve heard suggestions that Apple’s $3 billion purchase of Beats happened because Beats could become “a platform for artists to build businesses.” And even Lady Gaga’s social network, Backplane, just recreated itself as a monetization tool for creators.

Click to tweet: Twitter is starting to offer its users the ability to sell directly to their followers!

Meanwhile, over in China, people can already sell directly to their audience on Chinese social media platforms like WeChat. And Twitter will soon offer its users the ability to sell directly to their followers! I’m so excited that this is happening — I’ve been hoping Twitter would do something like this for a long time.

So the future is bright! But let’s talk about what creators can do right now! For each strategy below, I describe some current tools that cover it. Then I give pro tips for using them.

Continue reading…

How Censorship Affects Social Media Business

Lately, I’ve been researching how different cultural circumstances affect social media! This article outlines some social and technical effects of censorship at different places and times.


May 2014

The 29-year-old founder of VKontakte, Russia’s largest social network, just got “fired” and left the country. That is, Pavel Durov described himself as fired, although there were previous rustlings of resignation.

Durov’s departure was accompanied by much commentary about the censorship climate in Russia. He himself announced that he plans to create a new social network, and that he moved because “the country is incompatible with Internet business at the moment.” This comes right on the heels of the U.S. IPO for Sina Weibo, a social platform that’s sometimes called “China’s Twitter.” Mashable recently reported that when Sina Weibo filed its IPO, it described Chinese censorship specifically as a risk factor.

How much does censorship affect digital media from a business perspective? I’ve recently been researching cross-cultural social media while working on some articles for O’Reilly Media. Unsurprisingly, it’s clear that censorship has a huge impact on how social platforms develop and on how individuals use them. Some of the specific effects of censorship can be surprising, though.

Strengthening Social Ties…

Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and other experienced commentators have argued that censorship can actually strengthen dissent when very popular sites get taken down. For example, a person who only visits YouTube for cat videos will be alerted that something big has gone wrong if YouTube is blocked, even if that person wouldn’t normally pay attention to the news.

I’ve also heard tales of how censorship and its pal, propaganda, strengthen social media ties. “In China, the Internet plays a much deeper role in society because all the normal media is propaganda. You know that what’s appearing in state-run media is not objective, but something on the Internet might be,” says Thomas Crampton, the global managing director for international marketing agency Ogilvy & Mather.

This is supported by other marketing reports like this one from management consulting firm McKinsey, which notes that Chinese consumers value the brand recommendations of friends, family, and social media influencers far more than American consumers do.

… But Censorship Weakens Social Ties, Too

However, there are plenty of situations where social media platforms are decimated by censorship. Some data crunching by the Telegraph in the U.K. showed clearly that last year’s Chinese “war on rumors” — and more importantly, the war’s associated arrests — caused Sina Weibo usage to drop off a cliff. No wonder Weibo called censorship a “risk factor” in its IPO.

The writer and anthropologist Sarah Kendzior, who researches authoritarian states in Eastern Europe, has written that “In authoritarian states, the circulation of state crimes often serves to confirm tacit suspicions, and in some cases, to reaffirm the futility of the fight. Fear, apathy, cynicism and distrust are as common reactions to these quasi-revelations as are outrage and a desire for change.”

“What I think is interesting is how much of the authoritarian state mentality people take when they leave the country,” Kendzior tells me. “I see the same fear and wariness about social media from people who have fled Uzbekistan, as people who are still there. It’s very hard to shake off self-censorship.”

Kendzior also mentions a case from 2011 where someone, probably the Uzbekistan government, created a fake activist who only existed on social media. Then they spread the news that the activist committed suicide. This was an effective strategy to weaken ties by spreading fear, anxiety and distrust.

“It means everyone’s suspicious of everyone else,” explains Kendzior. “It makes everyone wonder: Am I talking to a real person?”

Protectionist and Popularization Side Effects

China’s blockade on Facebook, Twitter, Google and other high-profile American platforms has arguably had some protectionist side effects for local industry. I’ve often heard China’s social media landscape compared to the Galápagos Islands — Darwin’s closed-off archipelago, which famously evolved many unique animal species due to its isolation. In other words, when China blocked most major U.S. social platforms, its government created an ecosystem where local platforms that came later to market could flourish.

Censorship can carry other unexpected popularization effects, too.

Continue reading…

Why You Shouldn’t Share That Awesome Infographic

A friend sent me an infographic from a sketchy “medical degree information website” … and I learned that sometimes, good people pass on bad Internet pages that make money for bad people.


May 2014

A friend recently sent me an infographic that supposedly shows that doctors make less in lifetime earnings than teachers. Unsurprisingly, the infographic is controversial. It also went viral and has been Liked on Facebook over fifteen thousand times.

I am not impressed by this infographic, and I could write a whole post dissecting its statistical silliness, but that’s not the point here. More importantly, this infographic is just one piece of a vast and sketchy clickbait empire. Everyone who links to this dumb infographic is helping a clever, unethical man make money. His name is Ryan Caldwell, and he’s been playing this game for years.

This wouldn’t bug me so much if Caldwell were giving out decent information. But he’s not, although his website calls itself an “independent online publication dedicated to providing accurate and useful information for prospective students considering a career in medicine.” And my smart friends are passing this on! Some of them are doctors and teachers!

Red Flags That Tipped Me Off

Many small, sketchy aspects of the site made my hackles rise. But I’ll just tell you about the big red flags:

The infographic is hosted at BestMedicalDegrees, which does not list any authors, editors, or other names anywhere. There are no names on the website’s main page, the About page, or the Contact page. Most of the articles list “Editors” as the author. I saw the name Yvonne McArthur on a couple of posts, but she has no biography on the site. If Yvonne exists, BestMedicalDegrees doesn’t offer any way to find her elsewhere (like a website or Twitter link).

BestMedicalDegrees also has an irritating “Rankings Methodology” page that says: “We rank schools and degree programs based on widely accepted measures of market reputation, academic quality, student satisfaction, and value, as well as our own editorial judgement.”

“Editorial judgment?” “Widely accepted?” Are they even saying anything at all?

Anyway, by the time I went through all that, I knew the site was nonsense. So I checked the registered owner of the site, using its publicly available Whois record, and I found a name: Ryan Caldwell. I didn’t have to work hard to figure out the details after that, because as soon as I Googled Caldwell’s name, I found this blog post from 2011 that described one of his other viral hits.

Caldwell routinely makes viral sites that pretend to be information sources about schools. On those sites, he links to school-related organizations, and those organizations pay him an affiliate fee for each person he refers. Voilà!

In fact, from Caldwell’s perspective, I’m guessing that being mildly inaccurate is valuable, because that will just get people riled up and send more attention his way.

Why My Smart Friends Helped This Guy Make Money

My friends are really smart people (hi friends! I love you!). Why are my smart friends forwarding this thing around?

I guess most people are unfamiliar with how online content makes money. Also, maybe people are lulled by the lack of ads at BestMedicalDegrees; maybe people assume that an ad-free site won’t be profit-driven. And maybe people are less critical about media that does not appear to be “political,” or that doesn’t have an obvious “agenda.”

But I’m hardly the first person to make this point, and I won’t be the last: When you pass on a piece of content to your friends, you are helping spread its influence or earn money for its creator — even if you’re saying something negative.

Are you sure you want to do that? Do you even know who the creator is?

One of my favorite things about the Internet is that it’s relatively easy for people with zero established reputation to work their way up, solely by being awesome. And personally, I really enjoy great content marketing. But people like Caldwell are not even close to legit. So don’t reward them by passing on their stuff.

For the record, I tried sending a note through the BestMedicalDegrees Contact page — I said I was a writer working on a piece about the site, and that I’d love to talk to the editors. I received no response.

P.S. Hey, if you’re planning to link to BestMedicalDegrees, then I strongly recommend that you use DoNotLink when you do so. (To learn more about DoNotLink, here’s a great writeup.)

(Image credit to 401K 2012, who posted it on Flickr under a Creative Commons license)

I Didn’t Expose Him—But Last Year, Rapportive Showed Me @GSElevator’s True Identity

Months ago, a Gmail tool showed me the true identity of a snarky Twitter personality. The man was publicly exposed this week, and I’m not the one who identified him. But here’s how you could use the tool to expose someone — or protect yourself!


March 2014

Months ago, I interviewed the snarky Twitter personality @GSElevator while researching a long report. Last week, I heard that the elusive and anonymous man behind @GSElevator had been unmasked. He even lost his book deal.

But I already knew who he was, because I — quite accidentally — had discovered his identity before I interviewed him.

I wasn’t even trying, so how did I do it? I used a Gmail tool called Rapportive. (Update: As of July 2014, Rapportive no longer works as described in this article. This is how it used to work, though.)

Rapportive is a great tool for journalists and other media folks. It digs through lots of data to show you the complete social media profile of each person you email. Here’s what it looks like in action:

This is a screenshot of me in Gmail, composing an email to my awesome friend Erin Polgreen. (I’m totally following Erin on Twitter, by the way, but sometimes Rapportive doesn’t show that properly.) As you can see, the tool dug up Erin’s many fabulous job titles, as well as a picture that’s associated with her, and links to a batch of social profiles. I got her permission before using this screenshot here.
John Lefevre
I love Rapportive and I use it all the time. I was using it when I sent a message to the email account on @GSElevator’s Twitter profile, and it unexpectedly gave me his name: John LeFevre. I even got a headshot!

I had no interest in exposing LeFevre. I just wanted to talk to him about @GSElevator. Plus, I have a soft spot for Internet anonymity, although anonymity gets scarcer every day. So I simply told LeFevre that I’d found his name connected through Rapportive, and I explained how he could fix that.

Then I asked for an interview — which LeFevre immediately granted. ;)

(Incidentally, in case you’re concerned about what your Rapportive profile might be showing, you can control that by downloading Rapportive to your Gmail account. Then you should type your own email address. When your own Rapportive profile comes up in the sidebar, you will be able to edit it. If you’re concerned about Rapportive gathering your data, there may be an alternative way to change your Rapportive profile without downloading the product — try contacting their Support people.)

I don’t know who gave LeFevre’s real name to The New York Times. One article claims that it took “weeks” to find his identity, but it doesn’t explain how they did it.

I also don’t know how Rapportive found his real name. Rapportive has a privacy policy in which they say that the tool only uses publicly available data. But of course, the truth is that the “public availability” of most data has become fuzzier and fuzzier, and it’s extremely difficult for people to know what they’re making public and what they are not.

I don’t blame Rapportive — although obviously, I think anyone who’s concerned about how they look online should check on their profile right away. Yet when it comes to privacy, that’s almost beside the point by now. This story is a useful object lesson in how data collection and correlation is making true pseudonyms hard. The level of tech-savviness required to maintain any pseudonym has gotten very high — and it’s only going to get higher.

Update: Someone asked me whether Rapportive paid me to write this post, or whether Rapportive is a client of mine. I don’t have any professional relationship with Rapportive; I just use their tool a lot.

Update 2: Mr. Elevator has a new book deal!

Update 3: Rapportive, which was recently purchased by LinkedIn, had my favorite features removed on July 31st. I’m currently testing alternatives such as Rapporto, Ark, FullContact, Vibe, Connect6, and/or Sansan (via this post by Alan Hamlett). If you have any suggestions, please let me know!