Monday, February 4, 2008

Thought Leader? Really?

Is it just my imagination, or has Thought Leader lost its edge? It seems that every time the front page opens, we’re bombarded with individual’s views of how much is wrong with our country, and in that respect, there is little to distinguish it from the daily news [both newspaper and television]. During the course of last year, this site was one of my first and favourite stops for good reading, but now I struggle to even open the site without specific cause to do so, merely to avoid the onslaught of pessimism and camouflaged insults that permeate the pages. Judging from the first comment on this recent TL post, it seems I’m not the only one who feels this way.

“Thought Leader” is a truly great name. It conjures up images of inspiring writing, simply overflowing with innovative ideas and contributing towards leadership development amongst its readership. In fact, the Wikipedia entry for “thought leader” says this term is “used to describe a futurist or person who is recognized among their peers and mentors for innovative ideas and demonstrates the confidence to promote or share those ideas as actionable distilled insights.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll gladly admit that most of the contributors on TL are highly skilled writers with an excellent knowledge of their subject matter - hence they are most probably considered leaders in their field. And as a social commentary forum, I greatly respect what Matthew, Vincent and company have built here. It’s just sad to see that this social media leader now largely consists primarily of para-journalism and critical political commentary... and too often doesn't continue from there with the thought leadership that its name promises.

At my last count there were 112 signed-up bloggers. With so many contributors, its obvious that new posts fly through the front page faster than you can say “Mail & Guardian”. And what is the prevalent message being put out there? Well, I’m not too sure, because the consistent flow of bitter anger is drowning out even the real thought leaders amongst the arsenal of contributors.

[As an aside, if Vincent’s target of 1,000 contributors ever realises, it will be even more difficult to hear anything amongst all the noise. Perhaps allowing users to “follow” or “block” specific contributors [as used on Twitter] would help keep content relevant to readers individually?]

Surely thought leadership requires the exhibition of at least some of the following characteristics: innovation; constructive writing; inspirational thinking; instigating positive action; either describing or demonstrating leadership qualities; and encouraging readers to make a difference and change the world. In his post referenced above, Vincent even describes the characteristics required of contributors as being the ability to “provide high-quality critical commentary on his or her field of expertise and provide leadership in terms of starting important conversations.”

Okay, perhaps I’m wrong here. I actually hope I am. In the last paragraph of this TL post, Grant Walliser makes a fair argument that Thought Leader is indeed serving its purpose. I’m sorry to say that I still can’t agree with him. Do yourself a favour and just look at the posts on the front page at any given time, and ask yourself whether they are constructive, negative or irrelevant. Sure, this is a subjective assessment, but the best I could come up with was about half of the posts being constructive in any way at any given moment.

Most people would probably believe that the site as it currently stands is social media in all its splendour. I agree that it cannot be censored to weed out the negative commentary, nor can restrictive guidelines be used to ensure a warm and fuzzy tone, as that would defeat the purpose.

However, one thing I would challenge all involved to ask is why you do it. Are you just using it as a platform to vent your own thoughts, regardless of any consequences whatsoever and without thought to the thousands of influential and influence-able people that read these posts?

Or are you truly aiming to be thought leaders in whatever sphere you write about, to understand the world and environment we live in [yes, the good and the bad] and to put forth constructive ideas and solutions that generate real excitement and perhaps, just maybe, instigate change?

Is this really SA thought leadership at its best? Think about it.


FeistyFemale said...

A thought provoking post indeed! This post asks very relevant questions.

Even if I sit on the other side of the fence, I have to agree with many of the points made.

I feel that there is such a strong political emphasis [which comes with bad attitude and lots of whining] that the other interesting topics and articles do get lost.

Maybe the old adage of bad news sells has also transferred to the online world and has become "bad news" ups your readership?

In addition I fear that with 1000 contributors, Thought Leader will indeed loose some of it's edge. I understand that it's hard to get contributors to post regularly [guilty as charged], but will a bigger number of contributors really change this? Or will it simply add noise and become more like the daily South African news we're exposed to?

Perhaps as an instant solution Thought Leader can run a "happy thoughts" week!

You would do well as a Thought Leader - you have just started a much needed conversation!

Justin said...

Very interesting post and you make some solid points. I'm interested to see what Vincent makes of this.

Darren said...

Feistyfemale - thanks for the feedback from a contributor's perspective. I suspect your 'bad news sells' suggestion is probably not far wrong.

As for more contributors - could be a very good thing as long as there is not too large a political bias and there is some way to easily refine what you are interested in.

It could also be that those with negative news just post more often. I do find that the writers I most enjoy following post very rarely, but then again, as M&G doesn't pay its contributors, can we expect more?

Justin - only time will tell. Hopefully , if nothing else, this will give them some food for thought as they grow.

Justin said...

I do think however that we need to take the M&G's editorial stance into perspective here. While it may appear negative M&G are a very in-depth newspaper and as such TL is a reflection of the paper.

I'm not sure all of this is a bad thing but maybe we just need to visit sites like sarocks to combat the negativity?

Darren said...

Justin, as I say, I hope I'm wrong. The reason I wrote it is because it seems that, as "Thought Leaders", they should not just be bringing problems, but solutions too.

I don't mind reading about SA's problems [we know there are enough of them] as long as the commentators also bring any sort of ideas for resolving the problem. Stimulating movement forward, not just moaning about what everyone else moans about.

Hope that makes sense.

Anonymous said...

this is an excellent post, especially your point regarding the quality of the posts/bloggers and what you rightly point to: the frivolous and reactionary tone of much of it with few exceptions (for me, Steven Friedman).

Marc said...

Great post with some Valid points. Looking forward to hearing what the guys have to say ;)

Matthew Buckland said...

Darren -- First of all let me say, great post and thanks for the comments. Many of your criticisms are valid, but here are some thoughts from our perspective:

Like you, we have noticed there has been more negativity and that the temperature has got a bit higher on Thought Leader recently... but this probably reflects the current mood of the country more than anything else. Hopefully this will pass...

Our aim is also to get a diverse set of views, moderate and extreme views -- but the extreme views still have to be well argued and balanced though. The idea around this is to stimulate robust debate and criticism. If readers disagree with a blogger, they will say as much.

With regards to our editorial policy. We have gatekeeping -- an editor that vets content. Some call it censorship -- we call it quality control. So we do have controls in place to ensure the blog is a place of quality writing. Its why Thought Leader is a hybrid media-blog product...not quite one or the other.

We have rejected some posts. We've rejected so many comments I cannot count and recently we even let our first blogger go, as both our readers and ourselves were not happy with the writing.

Getting more bloggers on Thought Leader will help the quality not result in its decline...Remember that we cherry pick what we think are the best for featuring on the homepage. If we have more to choose from the quality will improve -- that's why we are signing up more...

Vincent Maher said...

Hi Darren, these are some great points and very valid I think, but the following should mitigate your worries:

1. The mood on TL is negative right now, as is the mood of the rest of the country. I think it will shift when something good actually happens but er, who knows when that will be. Maybe we need to win another sporting event or something. Cynicism aside, TL changes its tone every few months, lately its been about racism and eskom and government because, I suppose, this is what our contributors are feeling passionate about. That will change soon, on its own.

2. TL is still a new site, only been around for 5 months so its likely to go through several changes as time goes on and people find their feet. We will also be keeping an eye on people using it as a platform to rant and cull them.

3. We're not keen on intervening in the content creation process, but we have some ideas up our sleeve that might enable us to steer things a little bit without restricting individual writers.

All in all I think Thought Leader is going to appeal to some and not to others, and to some on some days and not others. There are days when I want to go into the bathroom and work myself over with a razor blade after reading TL but I make myself do it because I want to feel like I care about the state of the country. This is normal for the type of publication it is and we definitely value your criticism and feedback because it will help us identify what the people who aren't commenting think.

Darren said...

Steven and Marc, thanks for your feedback, I do appreciate it.

Matthew, great of you to stop by and give this commentary. As I said, I respect what you have done - it is certainly not an easy task to take on.

Quality control is a good thing in this forum, and its understandable that you cannot control the content [as you could if it was generated by yourselves]. As you say, all you can do from your side is censor the content received to a certain degree. [I'm glad to hear about the rejecting of comments too - it would be quite painful to wade through unmoderated comments in this "high temperature" arena, as you put it]. Its evident that your media-blog hybrid has been well executed and offers a fantastic forum for creating stimulating debate.

In the end, my challenge is aimed at the writers themselves. They have a fantastic platform in Thought Leader and probably more opportunity than they realise to significantly impact on our reality - it would be great to see them all using it to best advantage, rather than just join the growing chorus of naysayers. If they are going to wait for the prevalent mood in the country to change, then they are following, not leading.

I wish you and your team all the best as you develop this further, and look forward to the content really living up to its name in every respect!

Darren said...

Vincent, very good - I can appreciate your perspective. Just saw your comment after replying to Matthew, but it all holds true here too.

I don't think it is your responsibility to have to steer this, I would like to see the writers do it themselves. And I trust they will, hopefully sooner rather than later.

PS Please stay away from the razor blades. SA needs all its talent.

Note to Matthew - please ensure there are no razor blades in the offices either. Thanks.

Diana said...

Hi Darren
An excellent post - as usual!

I must admit I enjoy the political rants - though I often think that the people that they are about (who should be reading them) are either too busy conniving or unable to realise that they drastically need to change.

I do believe that having up to 1000 bloggers on Thought Leader can only be successful if they are divided into different categories - political, motivational, educational, sport, art and culture etc. That way one would not have to wade through everything.

Vincent Maher's comment, although tongue-in-cheek about when is 'someting good going to happen.....We'll have to win a sporting event' is exactly what worries you. Something extaordinary doesn't have to happen to be positive - focus on the small things. People's mindset has to change - complaining becomes a habit that is hard to break.

How about starting a junior Thought Leader section with a positive perspective where youngstes can relate someting good that has happened or inspired them. In this way they can be encouraged to debate intelligently and at the same time work on reading/writing/comprehension skills that the majoriy of schools are not developing adequately.

So why are you not a Thought Leader blogger yet? You have all the positive thoughts and sound values we so desperately need!

Darren said...

Hi Diana, thank you for this positive feedback! It feels like you took many of the words right out of my mouth.

Your junior Thought Leader suggestion is absolutely fantastic and well worth consideration for the M&G team - you should send it through to Matthew/Vincent immediately!

As for me being a contributor - I appreciate the compliment! I believe SA has a wealth of talent, with people capable of putting together far more inspirational and thought-provoking writing than I am, and I trust that M&G have targeted these people for their growth phase. Like you, I look forward to seeing the improvement in quality and all of this thought leadership in action.

Michelle said...

Fantastic, thought provoking post Darren. I appreciate both Matthew's and Vincent's comments and couldn't agree more that SA is experiencing a 'negative mood' currently. Hopefully this passes, although perhaps it has been refreshing to realize that people in this country do give a damn about what fellow citizens think and feel and are passionate about what is theirs.

You raise some excellent points - your style of writing provokes thought and action! thank you ;-)

Darren said...

Hey Michelle, thanks for what you've said! Really good to hear that you feel the same way, and hopefully people will at least look at the underlying issue and realise that they can make a difference by changing their attitude.

Well, we'll see what happens...

Bridget said...

I'm glad you brought this up! As a ThoughtLeader blogger myself (the one you linked to in your first paragraph, actually) I've begun feeling a little like I'm on the firing line any time I write about anything positive.

I wrote a blog about why I like living in Cape Town and somehow it turned into a racial debate.
I pointed out some pretty obvious reasons to be happy about being South African, and got viciously accused of being a blind middle-class woman uncaring about the rest of the country.

Sometimes it feels as if the only thing people want to read is vitriol.
But I refuse! I only write about my favourite things. There's no harm in seeing the lighter side of life.
Thanks Darren!

FeistyFemale said...

Hi Bridget - Think we in the same boat on Thought Leader. Who would have thought that writing about something inspiring, motivational and positive could turn into something wildly debated and criticised? Keep on writing though - love reading your posts! [LOL, Invading your space Darren]

Anonymous said...

In late December, a white Johannesburg-based political activist posted this comment on a political listserv:

" The Johannesburg Mail and Guardian's "Thought Leader" tame bloggers,
> as of yesterday, were 73% male and 70% white. 97 of them were listed
> on that day.
> Mark Gevisser in his book on Thabo Mbeki describes the Mail and
> Guardian as the "house organ" of the "white left". Yet there is
> nothing "left" about the average young white "entrepreneur" who is the
> typical "Thought Leader" blogger.
> The Mail and Guardian is an anti-communist rag, but they used to have
> enough savvy to disguise themselves behind black anti-communists. With
> these blogs, they have thrown caution to the winds.
> In flagrante delicto, and with more two out of three of them being a
> whiter shade of pale, and male, these "leaders" drip with white
> condescention."

Any responses? Comments? Is this a relatively accurate description of the race-class breakdown not just of Thoughtleader, but the Internet in SA in general?

Darren said...

Bridget, great to hear from you and I fully support your views. I'm glad you will not be discouraged into believing you need follow the herd. Carry on leading the way! Feistyfemale... ditto for you.

Anonymous, that is probably a question on many people's minds but I won't comment as I don't believe race has anything to do with my point here. If that is your question, may I suggest reading this post by Sandile Memela, which offers an interesting viewpoint. In addition, Vincent's post linked to in my post above also touches on these issues. As for "the internet in SA in general" as you put it, I would believe that the race-class breakdown arises from accessibility and would probably be represented in the majority by people classified as LSM's 7 to 10. Until we have low hardware and connectivity costs locally, this will continue to be the case.

Darren said...

Bridget, great to hear from you and I fully support your views. I'm glad you will not be discouraged into believing you need follow the herd. Carry on leading the way! Feistyfemale... ditto for you.

Anonymous, that is probably a question on many people's minds but I won't comment as I don't believe race has anything to do with my point here. If that is your question, may I suggest reading this post by Sandile Memela, which offers an interesting viewpoint. In addition, Vincent's post linked to in my post above also touches on these issues. As for "the internet in SA in general" as you put it, I would believe that the race-class breakdown arises from accessibility and would probably be represented in the majority by people classified as LSM's 7 to 10. Until we have low hardware and connectivity costs locally, this will continue to be the case.