Behind the scenes: How to upgrade a citizen journalism website

Updated 22nd December 2010 with list of plugins used on the site.

Groundviews launched its new version today. It was a radical departure from the look and feel of the old and first version to the new avatar.


Old / original version

Groundviews New
Current version

Counting articles and comments, Groundviews has, at last count, well over 5.5. million of words of content published since 2006. This does not include the photos, audio and video featured on the site. The sheer size was its own worst enemy – once an article went off from the homepage in the previous version, readers had a hard time rediscovering it. Site search was ineffective, inaccurate and slow to boot. While the site had a distinct look and feel loyal readers had come to love, it was evident that a lot of the content useful for researchers and historians, as well as serious readers, was simply too hard to access.

The new site officially launched today with key improvements. What was done to enhance the features, readability and discoverability of content is not something any other media site in Sri Lanka comes even close to achieving today.

How did we do it? Key to the new site were the following three considerations.

  1. Content discoverability and enhanced search features
  2. Mobile phone and mobile browser friendly content, with particular emphasis on Apple’s iOS based devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch)
  3. Integration with Facebook and Twitter

We didn’t move away from WordPress, which from the get go has served Groundviews well. That said, there was no plugin on WordPress capable of serving the search functionality we required. We turned to Google’s Custom Search Engine instead. For $100 per annum, the CSE we created is the most comprehensive search currently available for a site, bringing to bear Google’s power (including boolean logic operations and specific filetype searches) to enhance content discovery on the site. To complement this new search engine, we created a new Archive page on the site, making it easier to visually navigate to content published in the past.

Groundviews, through the WordPress Mobile Edition plugin, already automatically rendered content on mobile devices to suit each device and browser. This plugin was retained in the new version. The option to go to the full site is present and works best with iOS, Android and Symbian devices.

A strict a standards based design and the switch to HTML5, non-Flash based video was done with Apple’s iOS devices in mind, which don’t run Adobe Flash. All the videos, and the scrolling features on the homepage, are non-Flash based, and work perfectly on any iOS device.

The earlier site had patchy connections to Facebook and Twitter. The new site streamlines these connections. At the end of each article, tight Twitter and Facebook integration make it possible to highlight the story quickly and easily. In addition to this, we continued the use of Apture, first introduced to the site over a year ago. Featured on sites like the Economist as well, Apture comes into its own when one scrolls down any page. The resulting header makes it easy to search for content, as well as post anything to Twitter or Facebook. An added bonus is that double-clicking on any word, or set of words, opens an Apture window that searches Groundviews for that key word or phrase, as well as the wider web. It is an elegant solution that helps retain readers on the site.

Several new technologies are incorporated on the new version of the site. Google’s Feedburner now powers email subscriptions to site content. Full feed RSS is provided by default. The idea that readers have to come to the site itself to read and engage with content is laughable, and yet one that animates the majority of news websites in Sri Lanka. In addition to email subscriptions and full feed RSS, another new technology is the site’s tight integration with Instapaper. As Instapaper’s website notes,

“Instapaper facilitates easy reading of long text content.We discover web content throughout the day, and sometimes, we don’t have time to read long articles right when we find them. Instapaper allows you to easily save them for later, when you do have time, so you don’t just forget about them or skim through them…. The times we find information aren’t always ideal for consuming it. Instapaper helps you bridge that gap.”

It’s also important that Instapaper has iPhone / iPad apps, making it very easy to save and read site content on these devices, with seamless content synchronisation.

As noted in the email sent out announcing the launch,

“The site update has preserved links from the previous avatar and Google indexing. What this means is that references to site content made for example in academic journals are still valid, and that existing indexing of site content on Google is unaffected by the upgrade.”

The point about preserving Google indexing is important because over 2009 and 2010, the website of the Daily Mirror, one of Sri Lanka’s leading mainstream media newspapers (published by arguably one of the most profitable and tech savvy media houses, the Wijeya Group) underwent around over 3 major revisions. One revision completely rendered the Google indexing of the site’s articles worthless by changing the internal site links. Further, even today, this leading online news site offers a pathetic search engine seemingly designed to hide content rather than expose it. As I noted in Daily Mirror’s online woes reveal an industry issue,

It is one thing to know about web and new media, quite another to strategically leverage it to strengthen brand identity, content consumption and forge new models of participatory, independent and indeed, investigative journalism. Though newspapers in Sri Lanka have embraced the likes of Twitter, Facebook and web media, there is no real understanding of any of the platforms, the manner in which content needs to be tailored for each of them, the varying consumption and delivery patterns or through them, how consumers can be made to engage with the news in more engaging ways.

Underlying technology aside, the new design uses a new typography and layout, leveraging white space, line spacing and content placement to enhance readability.

Other key plugins for WordPress used on the site are:

  1. Akismet, for handling automated comment spam
  2. WP Captcha Free, complements Akismet, and guards against comment spam from contact and comment boxes
  3. Audio player, for MP3 playback
  4. Similar posts, for reader retention and content discoverability
  5. WP-Print, for easy formatting of a post for printing
  6. WP-Post Views, for displaying how many times an article has been read
  7. WP-CommentNavi, for page navigation on the site

The design, content migration and technical features were implemented by Cezar Neaga. It is almost impossible to find WordPress expertise in Sri Lanka to the level of complexity Groundviews demands. Cezar’s keen eye and technical proficiency helped a great deal to realise our core requirements for the new version.

At the end though, what drives a site is its content. All of the design elements and technical features are anchored to the international award winning content featured since 2006 on Groundviews. The new site makes this content more easily accessible and more visually appealing. It is also the basis for new, compelling ventures in citizen journalism lined up for 2011 and beyond.

Watch this space.

Commonwealth Expert Team on social media use during presidential election

The Final Report on 2010 Presidential Election in Sri Lanka by the Commonwealth Expert Team issued on 15th February 2010 interrogates briefly the use of social media during the campaign,

This election campaign saw the two main candidates and their supporters make wide use of social media sites such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter, as well as unsolicited SMS messages and pre-recorded phone messages. Although the reach of social media websites is generally limited to Colombo and a few of the larger towns, and primarily confined to a younger, English-literate demographic, both candidates enthusiastically reached out to this group of voters, many of whom were likely first time voters.

In a less positive development, websites were also used by supporters of President Rajapaksa and, to a lesser extent, General Fonseka, to spread defamatory allegations and rumours about their candidate‟s opponent. There were reports that websites masquerading as official Sarath Fonseka websites had published negative allegations about the candidate, while it was reported on 23 January that the UNP website had been hacked into and fake opinion poll results predicting a loss for General Fonseka had been published. A variety of unsubstantiated rumours, including about the house arrest of the Commissioner of Elections, were also spread the day after the election, while the initial results were being announced. This was done via SMS, with the possible intent of inflaming emotions.

Sumaiya Rizvi in the Daily Mirror also covered the use of social media during the campaign. What on page 13 of the report getting only passing reference – the unsolicited SMS’s from the President received during January – is covered in more detail on Groundviews in The Shocking Behaviour of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka.

I have also flagged the incredible abuse of media by the government during the campaign in an article published on Index on Censorship. See Media abuse in Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election.

How to identify a fake Facebook profile. Not.

Sri Lanka Watch reports that,

According to intelligence reports, a massive fake facebook scam is underway by certain individuals to collect personal photos and information of people for commercial and other purposes. This is the latest Internet scam that is common in Colombo and Kandy areas.

Sri Lanka Watch, in a remarkable display of sheer genius, goes on to tell us four key characteristics of fake Facebook profiles.

How to identify a fake profile
1)      Many wall messages in the fake profile claiming “ thanks for the add”
2)      Fake profiles usually have one or two profile photos
3)      A fake profile photo is usually of a very attractive female/male
4)      Fake profiles have sexual overtones all ove
  1. Many wall messages in the fake profile claiming “ thanks for the add”
  2. Fake profiles usually have one or two profile photos
  3. A fake profile photo is usually of a very attractive female/male
  4. Fake profiles have sexual overtones all over

Based on 2 – 4 alone, I fear everyone I thought were friends on my Facebook account are actually fake profiles. More seriously, this is a prime example of inconsequential, web illiterate journalists furnishing pedestrian piffle in the hope that they are noticed and taken seriously.

Facebook and Google Maps in Iran

Following up from my previous post on the use of new media and citizen journalism in Iran recently, I came across two more powerful examples today.

Presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi
Presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi

Facebook it seems, in Persian, is now an important means of mobilising and disseminating information produced by polity and society opposed to the Presidential election outcome. The very fact that Persian is available on Facebook is because of its heightened use in Iran. As Facebook notes,

Since the Iranian election last week, people around the world have increasingly been sharing news and information on Facebook about the results and its aftermath. Much of the content created and shared has been in Persian—the native language of Iran—but people have had to navigate the site in English or other languages. Today we’re making the entire site available in a beta version of Persian, so Persian speakers inside of Iran and around the world can begin using it in their native language.

View Embassies Accepting Injured People in Tehran in a larger map

This Google Maps mashup shows a list of foreign embassies accepting injured people in Tehran, with information sourced from the Huffington Post. It’s certainly not innovative in the sense of using Google Maps to display information critical in a crisis. However, with well over 6,831 views in less than 24 hours, it means that those on the ground in Tehran and elsewhere in the world communicating this information back to friends, colleagues and loved ones back in Iran find this information critical.

This is another simple and powerful example of the self-organisation of protest groups and dissent made possible by mapping platforms on the web.

Facebook for Good

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“Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”

That may or may not be Facebook’s mission. But at 200 million users, there’s no denying that the social network has some appeal. The new Facebook for Good page asks users of the network to share their stories about how Facebook has helped them give back to their communities, effect change or connect with a distant relative.

At the time of writing, there’s a BBC story on how some teenager was ‘saved by Facebook’, how the platform is being used for distance education, matchmaking, family reunions, and politcal and social mobilisation. This last bit is very interesting and is why I added Pissu Poona to the list of sites the group features.

While Facebook’s growth is astounding (watch this video to see how much it is) the diffusion of users on the platform and the resulting competition for limited and short-lived interest suggests that it is, no more and no less than any other web based platform, able to translate users to those who will contribute towards humanitarian aid financially. Even a dollar from every user on Facebook would translate into a budget unimaginable in a lifetime of activism at the grassroots, but how realistic is this? On the other hand, is the value of social network in the connections themselves – i.e. not in how much of money FB is able to generate amongst users, but in how much of awareness it can raise, through connections made through its network, on issues, events and processes?

Sri Lanka’s first mainstream media article on Facebook activism

Facebook - Courtest Sunday Times
Image from Sunday Times

Smriti Daniel’s article last Sunday in the Sunday Times is to my knowledge the first article that appears in the print media in Sri Lanka dealing with growing web based activism via the social networking platform Facebook. It’s a well written and researched piece that deals with a phenomenon I most recently touched upon in my post on Pissu Poona (Pissu is Crazy in Sinhala, and Poona is cat in Tamil).

There may be sociological limits for activism in and through Facebook, and it is debatable whether Facebook actually engenders meaningful relationships anchored to a common purpose, ideal, process or event over the long term – especially under repressive regimes.  An example of FB supporting a real world event can be found here, set up by the Peoples Movement for Democracy. However, in Sri Lanka, Facebook engineered real world action on the lines of Egypt leading to real world swarms is non-existent today and won’t I believe emerge for a while in SL – though dissent and critical communications within and between local and diaspora groups may blossom.

In this light, the article usefully ends on a particularly sobering note,

At times, it must seem a little like setting up shop in the market and shouting as loudly as you can, cheek by jowl with the other vendors…and it can get frustrating. “On the internet it’s very easy to start things, it’s much harder to sustain them,” says Indi frankly. Both he and Sanjaya agree that while it has the potential to be a powerful democratic tool, Facebook simply needs many more Sri Lankans online and engaged before it can be used as such.

Read Smriti’s article in full here.

Pissu Poona: The new face of activism on the web in Sri Lanka?

pissu-poona

Facebook’s appeal as a platform for political activism in the Middle East is well known. Far fewer people access it in Sri Lanka, even amongst the handful in the country who are connected to the web and Internet. And yet, I received an invitation yesterday from Pissu Poona, an anonymous identity I befriended whose only reason on the social networking platform is to push articles and content of interest to fellow friends.

I had major concerns about befriending Pissu Poona. Though I can guess, I don’t know who Pissu Poona really is and given that my Facebook profile, which any friend has access to, is full of personal stuff, I didn’t at first want to befriend this identity, and only did so after being cajoled by a (real life / true / human) friend.

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