Ankit Maheshwari on Instablogs and Citizen Journalism
Instablogs have been around for quite some time. The blog network launched 2005 with 40 blogs, all focusing on news. Since then the network have evolved, and gotten social, and recently it went global in terms of localized content served to the visitor via its front page. Everything presented focusing on news, repackaging relevant blog posts, and feeding it directly to you through the various sections of Instablogs, enticing you to participate.
According to Ankit Maheshwari, one of the founders of Instablogs, this is just the beginning. This is his take on citizen journalism, and what’s next for his news obsessed blog network gone social.
Before we get down to Instablogs, why don’t tell us a bit about yourself?
I have been doing coding from the days of PC-XT. Nandini who is a co-founder, has been writing for magazines and newspapers from early days as well. So we combined a team of a programmer and a blogger and Instablogs was born.
My father served the Hindustan Times for as many as 27 years till April 2006. Therefore one can say, news was in my blood. But I was not satisfied with the top down model of newspapers, where editors and journalists used to decide what readers should read.
Instablogs was launched with 40 news based blogs in October, 2005 running on proprietary blog software coded by in-house Technical Team. The tag line of Instablogs at that time was “News organization based on blogging”.
Instablogs enjoyed a modest start. With $1000 in our pockets, we started from a one room office. Though we had 4 team members to start with, we now have 30 full time employees and over 300 paid contributors from all over the world.
Instablogs started out as what at least looked like a traditional blog network. Why did you leave that sphere in favor for the more social version that you’ve got now?
We never left the sphere, we have just made the sphere a bit bigger. Our readers wanted more tools to share, participate and interact. One of the key features from the early days we understood that the focus should be on community building and to build a better community we needed to bring our bloggers and readers closer. Most of the blog networks haven’t evolved from what they were 2 years ago or 3 years ago. Instablogs still has hundreds of writers publishing great new articles every day, but now we also have power of thousands if not millions of readers who help them create interesting news. Our audience is becoming and more active, and we are foreseeing an exponential growth in this trend.
We would also be opening our network to external blogs by next month, so that they can also enjoy some of network benefits which includes but are not limited to traffic, ad sales, technology, hardware, and meeting great new people working in similar fields.
That sounds interesting! How will it work, including external blogs I mean, and how will you rank external content compared to content from within your network?
We will group content from our blogs and external blogs in one section and will call it Instablogs Club. It will be a great opportunity for bloggers to join Instablogs Network. The Instablogs Club consists of those who host and maintain independent blogs and would like to avail our platform that will showcase their content to millions of Instablogs readers each month. Our aim is to showcase the best blogs on a variety of topics and help bloggers get more exposure through the Instablogs Network.
For people not really “getting” what Instablogs is, why don’t you describe it in a sentence?
Instablogs aims to be your favorite news destination on the web irrespective of your interest or taste. If you want to get local news, we have it. If you are looking for exclusive news from a particular channel or interest, we have loads of them. And the best part is, you are not treated as a reader alone, but we try to put you into the news. Instablogs is a playground for news junkies who refuse to be only mere spectators when it comes to news. It’s a collaborative approach to the age old news model which brings different perspectives from traditional media, new media, bloggers and citizen journalists together.
With Instablogs it’s all about news, isn’t it? How do you value various sources, avoiding dublicates, dupes and fakes?
Our programmers are busy building algorithms to detect duplicates and spam. But we still depend upon our readers to help us filter out inappropriate content.
To a true extend, for us news is more of a trigger, a spark. This spark ignites discussions, opinions from different perspectives, and makes readers more engaged with the news. Instead of dead-ending the articles with comments, we have separated discussions in groups (Local Vs Global Opinions, etc.) For example, this story from Pakistan, when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated, brought opinions from all over the globe. But these opinions were very different, since the impact of the news was also different in other regions. People in India were more concerned of relation with Pakistan, and in USA and Europe everyone was concerned about increase in terrorist activities, while the sufferings from Pakistan highlighted their own plea.
Most of the Traditional media, can give you either a local or global view (which is considered to be neutral). We at Instablogs are trying to get all sides of the coin on a single story.
When relying on users, isn’t there always a risk that the system gets played? Getting on the frontpage of Instablogs are sure to drive some traffic, right?
Getting on front page can surely drive thousands of pageviews to your blog or website, and we are seeing more and more spam content appearing in our Upcoming Section. But most of the low quality content is flagged and removed by community members very quickly. The system till now has performed really well for us, you can check our homepage and you will find really great content there. But we do understand once the traffic will increase so will more attempts to game the system. We are constantly updating our algorithm to remove pornographic and advertorials as soon as they appear. Our technical team is also working on new tools which can help community members to keep spam at bay.
The recent Instablogs release introduced global features. Tell us a little about them, and what made you make this addition?
Instablogs focus is more on international coverage, enabling our users to read or contribute news from local or regional levels of their cities and towns to a more global level of different countries. The site is constructed in a fashion to enable users to switch from Local to Global with just one click. Our unique approach of grouping articles and conversations according to their perspective (Local or Global) will enable users to see a news event from the eyes of the people who are directly affected by the event (Local News Coverage/Local Opinions) and with its repercussion on a Global Level (Global News Coverage/Global Opinions). One of the interesting features on Instablogs Homepage is that it can metamorphosize itself according to the country you are from. If you are from USA, the first stories you get are from your country, while a user from Singapore or Egypt will get more stories from his or her respective countries.
We’ve dozens of active citizen journalists, with more joining everyday and contributing to the Citizen Voices section. It highlights latest opinions and news from different countries. Being a social news site centered on international news, it was very important for us to give a platform to our global users where they can share their thoughts with the rest of the world with a viewpoint. And Instablogs is serving the purpose.
The new global edition of Instablogs serves me news from Sweden
Covering the whole world locally is a huge task. How will you handle it, content-wise? Is this the reason why you’ve chosen to let external blogs into the Instablogs content flow?
Instablogs has an amazing community. We have active members from across almost all countries. The homepage is also localized, and gives you stories from your countries on top of all. This has boosted local activities. Allowing external local blogs will definitely improve all local coverage.
How would you say blogs in general stands in the news department? What’s the state of citizen journalism, really?
Citizen journalism has come a long way now. Bloggers are newsmakers. Coverage of events in the past and the latest in Burma, Tibet, Africa has proved that we cannot neglect the phenomenon anymore.
Still, there’s the whole problem with ethics, protecting sources, things like that. What will it take to bring citizen journalism into the mainstream? Maybe we don’t want it there?
Citizen journalism has already gotten into mainstream. In coming days you will see some more collaborative approach where news story will have inputs from all three sources, bloggers, citizen reporters and traditional media.
Even on Instablogs, where we have blend of traditional media news and new media news, I am finding numbers of comments, votes and pageviews on new media stories are much more than on traditional media news.
I agree still much work has to be done in terms of validating sources, ethics, digital manipulation of images, privacy issues but traditional media also had its share of controversies from embedded journalism and corporate journalists, to sensationalizing the news.
Citizen journalists and bloggers do not talk corporate language and neither their work get censored according to the style of the newspaper. They publish what they want without the editorial control of any corporation, and I doubt if you don’t want these opinionated and true voices out there.
One key aspect at Instablogs is versatility of the different opinions we get on a single news item. These different and highly opinionated voices make news more interesting.
What would be ideal next step for online news?
More power to the audience, more tools to collaborate, stream, participate with news easily.
Finally, what’s your next big goal for Instablogs? Going global was obviously a big step, where would you like to take it now?
The next plan is to get on to the mobile devices. News is instant, and you can be present anywhere witnessing something important, what better tool you can have than the cell phone to immediately let the whole world witness it. We will be releasing new set of mobile tools very soon to people to let them more actively participate on Instablogs through their mobile devices.
I’d like to thank Ankit Maheshwari for doing this interview, and urge you to check out the new global version of Instablogs, as well as keep an eye open for the new features.