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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Imbibe, if all else fails. I recommend the “official” drink of the Scholarly Kitchen: the Pimms cocktail.