Photo from iStockphoto.

With all the buzz around the invitation-only beta release of Google Wave last week, you might be excused for not noticing the much quieter and, in the humble opinion of this writer, far more significant launch of a little tool Google calls Sidewiki.

What is Sidewiki you might ask? It sounds rather diminutive. A little side project perhaps having to do with Wikipedia? Or maybe it is an allusion to the movie “Sideways“—a wiki for wine? (Note to John Shaw: Please build one of those). Or perhaps it has something to do with Google’s Wikipedia-esque Knol platform that you vaguely remember launching and suspect may still be lurking out there somewhere?

Um . . . no.

Sidewiki is a browser plug-in that lets users leave comments on any page on the Web. Those comments will then be visible to any other user with the plug-in.

Let me put this a different way: Google just kicked in your door.

If your publication doesn’t enable readers to comment on your online journal articles, book chapters, newsletters, or home page, it does now. Perhaps your organization is still thinking through the best way to experiment with commenting. Perhaps your organization, thoughtfully, wants to ensure that authors and/or editors have a chance to respond to comments. Maybe you are weighing the pros and cons of commenting on your publication site versus encouraging comments on Twitter or Facebook or a subject-specific site like Sermo or ResearchGate. Maybe your organization is still thinking through its overall social media strategy and working out how user comments will fit into the larger picture. Perhaps your organization is developing social media policies in advance of implementing any social media initiatives.

That’s nice.

This is a good opportunity to clear some clutter off your desk. For example, you can pick up your current social media plan, the draft social media guidelines your committee came up with over the summer, and that handy color-coded flow chart showing which editor will review which reader comments, and you can put them all in the waste-bin next to your feet. And while you’re down there, you might want to put on your running shoes as the social media train has left the station. If your organization isn’t fully on board, start running.

Readers can now comment on any page on your Web site, and you have absolutely no control over it. Whatever your policy is regarding appropriate versus inappropriate comments is irrelevant. Whatever process you have developed that provides authors an opportunity to respond or editors an opportunity to moderate is irrelevant. Whatever internal discussions you’ve had regarding the pros and cons of allowing reader comments are irrelevant. Your readers are now in control of the conversation about your organization and your publications. Your readers are now in control of the conversation on your Web site.

Well, you might say, doesn’t everyone have to install a plug-in for this to work? That sounds complicated. It probably won’t catch on.

It will be standard in Chrome.

Sidewiki has been integrated with Gmail and Google Profiles. It also plugs into the Facebook and Twitter APIs. Post a comment to Sidewiki and you are presented with a number of options for making others aware—you can send a link to your comment via e-mail or post your comment to your Google, Facebook, or Twitter profiles. People subscribed to your feeds from any of these sites don’t need a plug-in to read your comment. The comment includes a link to the page the post references. For example, I used Sidewiki to post a comment about my own home page. That comment now appears under a new “Sidewiki” tab on my Google Profile.

But even if Sidewiki never catches on, let’s not forget about Facebook and Twitter and similar products those companies may develop. And all the developers and aggregators that plug into their APIs. Sidewiki is but the first glimpse of a social media layer that is about to be built on top of your content. And commenting is, quite frankly, not the troubling part. The troubling part comes when you realize that there will eventually have to be a business model to support this new layer and it will likely involve advertising. Advertising adjacent to your content. Advertising adjacent to your content that you have no control over and that you will likely receive little-to-no revenue from. Just speculating here, but it seems like a likely scenario.

So what, you might ask, is a publisher to do about this? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Monitor. Appoint someone to monitor comments. The conversation about your brand is now taking place both on and off your site. It is now on your site via Sidewiki and off your site via Twitter, and Facebook. Depending on what you publish, it may also be on Sermo, ResearchGate, or Nature Network. It is definitely on various blogs. Know where the conversation is taking place so you can stay involved.
  2. Participate. You can’t control the conversation but you can participate. Respond to comments in Sidewiki when it is appropriate to do so. Comment on blog posts about your brand. Join the conversation on Twitter. Attendees of SSP IN will note that in the above video John Maeda has posted the first Sidewiki comment on RISD’s home page.
  3. Develop. You might consider developing your own commenting system if you have not done so already. This will signal to readers that you encourage comments and value their opinion, which may result in more thoughtful commenting. This is a short term strategy, however, as the advantage of Sidewiki is that comments can be aggregated and streamed to user profiles on various sites. Readers may eventually prefer to keep their comments with systems that feed into their profiles, and hence out to their connections, as opposed to systems that do not. Of course, your organization might then develop its own software that will take advantage of new commenting systems by aggregating and streaming user comments for your own purposes.
  4. Adapt. Don’t think of this as extra, tedious work. This is an opportunity to hear directly from your readers and customers about what they are thinking about your organization and your publications. You used to have a pay a lot of money to sit in the dark behind a two-way mirror while eating Chinese takeout for that.
  5. Imbibe, if all else fails. I recommend the “official” drink of the Scholarly Kitchen: the Pimms cocktail.
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Michael Clarke

Michael Clarke

Michael Clarke is the Managing Partner at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services.


29 Thoughts on "Been Avoiding Social Media? It Just Kicked In Your Door"

Strangely enough Sidiwiki is only available currently for IE and Firefox?!

Not only is that interesting – but I just went back to see if there were other comments there and I don’t even see mine anymore! Looks like there are still a few bugs in the process.

Your Sidewiki comment is still there as is Kent’s. It is on the home page of the Scholarly Kitchen, not on this post’s page.

Another confusing aspect of Sidewiki use with blogs.

As a follow-up here, it gets odder. There are now no Sidewiki comments on the home page of The Scholarly Kitchen. There are several comments on this posting when viewed as a separate page. It’s odd how things have moved and disappeared. It also points out how annoying it is to have the conversation about the blog articles bifurcated into two separate conversations that will never be integrated.

I think any advertising placed alongside content without the clear agreement of the main site, would be in clear breach of copyright. Remember Google Ads run either off the search terms used (not the co-occurring site links) or off the site text with the full agreement of the participating site (Adsense).

In the spirit of enquiry, I just tried to report Ann’s comment as abusive (sorry Ann!). That takes me to a Google support page (I didn’t fill in the request) but it was very interesting to note, that as the site owner you get no special treatment…

I’m wondering just how long it will be before somebody posts something unquestionably unpleasant on a site, and the owners of that site promptly sue Google. I cannot see much of a defence here when Google are taking the sole responsibility for patrolling the comments.

Also, How on earth are they going to handle the flood of comment complaints?

Michael – the readers won’t be in control though will they – not as it stands now. The Graffiti artists will be the rulers of this domain.

Google don’t seem to have a very good track record on respecting copyright!

David – I have also been puzzling over how Google will handle the flood of complaints. And why they would introduce a feature that will require an army of customer service staff to manage.

And you are right, “Graffiti” might have been the better name for this product.

It does seem odd-they talk about the power of distributing the rating and flagging of comments to the masses, yet they’ve built in a complete bottleneck that requires individual intervention on their part.

It also seems at odds with Google’s main business model. Why create something that will alienate and annoy your customers? It’s the website owners who buy Google Ads and pay for these things, not the readers, and very few seem happy about this new service.

For those of us who have built in commenting features into our journals, only to watch them sit idle, anything that has the potential to start online conversations about our content is highly welcome.

That said, this is already highly controversial, as you can tell from the comments over at Google’s forum on the subject. Many are likening the service to Microsoft’s villified “Smart Tags” or Gator’s attempts to serve pop-up ads on top of other people’s websites.

It’s clear that spam is going to be a massive problem here. Google claims to have some sort of secret algorithm that will magically prevent spam, but that sounds like wishful thinking to me. Spammers are going to create automated robots to fill Sidewikis with ads, and Google and site owners are always going to be playing catchup. Even worse, there’s no tool for site owners to be notified when someone posts a Sidewiki comment to one of their pages. You essentially have to monitor each and every page in your site (often tens of thousands of pages for some journals) to be able to spot spam activity and report it. Then, once you’ve reported it, you’re at Google’s mercy as to what they decide is acceptable, and even then, you’ll have to wait for removal, so inflammatory material or spam may be visible on your site for quite a while.

Imagine the sorts of things that are going to be up on Planned Parenthood’s website in the near future. Or sites describing evolution, or other controversial topics. Some solutions are already available (I can’t vouch for the effectiveness of any of these): Sidewiki defeat, Stop Google Sidewiki Spam, or just blocking any Google Toolbar users from visiting your site altogether.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

ReFrameIt has been out there doing this for a year or so, but I don’t think uptake has been high. Google may have the name-brand recognition and/or usability to make it work. It’ll be interesting to watch!

Just for the record, if you are the owner of a site and choose to annotate your site through the use of the Sidewiki, Google ensures that your post as owner of the site remains at the top of the viewable side panel. Not a solution to the bulk of concerns expressed above, but worth noting.

I know this because I annotated the NFAIS web site, using the Sidewiki tool.

@Micheal–You put a bit of invisible code on your site that identifies you as the site owner. Much like one does to identify oneself as the site owner for Google Analytics.

Aha yes, but to do that you have to have a Google Profile right? Now, that means to ensure you have some understanding of what is happening over your site, you have to give up some information to Google to anable it to happen. Google Analytics is a choice. Having to take action simply to be able to be recognised as the rightful owner of a site is not right. Google have dropped the ball on this one very badly.

I’m going back to the graffiti metaphor. Google just gave folks the tools to come along and deface your property. They didn’t give you the tools to remove the offending material. (And on your property, offending material is what YOU deem it to be.) You have to petition Google to get it removed (every single time) and you have no assurance that it will in fact happen.

You shouldn’t have to install their damn toolbar in order to find out what is happening in association with your site. You shouldn’t have to dedicate IT time and resources in order to get an output from Googles APIs to tell you what’s going on. You shouldn’t have to dedicate time, it should be your choice.

Not only did they kick down the door, they went and sat on your couch, turned on your tv and opened a beer – YOUR BEER!

@David, you’ve hit the nail on the head here. Google is creating a massive timesink for anyone who runs a website. The journal I run has thousands of articles (abstract and full text versions), and hundreds of supporting pages. Now I’m supposed to constantly monitor every one of those pages to see if someone is spamming them in the Sidewiki so I can report it to Google? Well, there goes my whole day. At the very least, Google needs a tool to notify webmasters when comments are added to a Sidewiki. Even with that, if this catches on, the best option may just be blocking access to users of the Google Toolbar. I don’t have time to act as a spam filter on every single page in my journal.

The last 5 points in the blog entry (monitor, participate, etc) add up to money, money, and more money. The costs that the journals will have to bear will surely be passed along to the researcher in the form of page charges. I don’t mind paying page charges because I think they’re generally a good value, but I also think they’re high enough already. I don’t want the publication fees to play a role in deciding which journal I should submit my work to.

Richard, what are you thoughts about unsolicited comments appearing next to an article you have written?

Would you want publishers to monitor this or would you be happy to do it yourself?

I guess most comments are coming at this from the point of view of publishing so your thoughts would be a most welcome perspective.

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