The Tipster Network

Media | Access/Network
Proposing a scaleable solution for sending tips to publishers.

Last month, I wrote that publications, traditional and online, have a primary responsibility to demonstrate that they are responsive to their readers, and that a majority of the questions along these lines should be concerned with how they handle tips. This month Jay Rosen recognized the problem in the midst of a PressThink discussion and spelled out some guidelines for sending in tips (e.g., “Write a post in PressThink’s major areas of interest that gets other people talking, and makes an original point or two.”) This is a good start. Here’s a longer proposal for how it can be done that meets goals of accountability and fairness.

Following the dictates of constructive media, we need to recognizes this as an information management problem and engineer a solution. Fortunately, we can piggyback, for the foreseeable future, on the technology of social bookmarking services, such as



For this proposal, I make certain assumptions. First of all, as I have written before, that there is a “star system” in information media. There is a “publisher/writer” who has an audience of “contributors/readers.” It is of course true, that any reader will be a writer of their own material. The reader in fact does write something (or finds something that somebody else has written) and then sends it in the form of a “tip” for the publisher to consider. Furthermore, while readers are free to submit tips in the commenting section of a website or individual article, it may be the case that they want to propose it specially.


  • Addressable: The system should naturally allow tips to be addressed to a particular publisher.
  • Structured: The system should provide a structure for tips, so that they can be filtered, sorted, searched, etc.
  • Responsive: The system should enable the publisher to demonstrate how responsive he is to the tips received.
  • Cumulative: The system should cumulate, or aggregate, the same tip offered by multiple readers.
  • Assurance: The system should strive to minimize abuse to discourage one reader from submitting an excessive number of tips.


Email is addressable, but that’s it. There has been little interest in extending the structure anymore; it has been preferable to develop new standards based on HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol– the format that the web uses). A more recent solution is Trackback, introduced in 2002 by SixApart. It was not designed to handle addressing to individual web pages, sparing the contributor from having to write a comment on the publisher’s site. Like email, it can be sent anonymously, and has started being abused by spammers. Neither offer any cumulative capabilities. The email address, and the weblog, have at various times been mistaken as a panacea for guaranteeing responsiveness (see discussion at PDF), but they inherently provide no measure of accountability for whether the publisher is responsible at all.

The most promising technology to used is called social bookmarking– an elegant of which is the popular service called (there is is also Furl and others). Adding a link in is quicker than creating a blog post, quicker than creating an email, and matches many of the objectives set above.

Implementation Details


The service allows readers to specify their own keyword “tags” for classifying material, and they may specify multiple tags for a given resource (this has come to be known as folksonomy). Typically, these tags are used to indicate that the resource relates to the keyword, but there’s no reason that the tags shouldn’t also convey that they are addressed to the keyword.

A simple identifier of the publisher’s website should be sufficient– in Rosen’s case, pressthink. (which has a handful of tags). This website’s domain is an English word, is preferred. Writers such as Dan Gillmor who have a self-named website (“Dan Gillmor on Grassroots Journalism, etc.”) should suggest tags to distinguish between himself and his writings– though it is safe to say he would simply monitor any tags with his name in it, just as anybody would.

On that point, there need not be an assumption that the publisher have a blog or even a website at all. You can address anyone. I found last year that David Brooks, New York Times columnist (among other opinion-making perches), received an average of 200 posts regarding his column– and who knows how many emails to [email protected]. He would have perhaps been able to better review the tips had they been compiled through a structured service.

I leave it to to specify whether a prefix could be further helpful: ToPressThink, ToCivilities, etc.

Structured has a minimal structure which is quite useful. Each link combines the URL, a title, a description, and tags (one of which we have designated as the address). The description provides 256 characters (letters, numbers, spaces– a common cutoff size in computer database applications). This translates to about 30 words, which should be sufficient for summarizing a resource.

Steve Mallett’s project allows users to incorporate longer notes as they see fit. But this may not be necessary.

There’s still a bit missing. At the least, the length (in words for text, in minutes for audio/video) should be displayed. In addition, the given rhetorical type could be specified as well (proposal, review, definition, first-person anecdote, etc.) Most importantly, the contributor should indicate whether they are agreeing or disagreeing with the overall theme of the publisher.

For the time being, these can be written out in the description.


Sending email confers privacy that is not always necessary, or even honored. Many star CEO’s, professors and editors have assistants who review their mail (Bill Gates has a department read the 4m emails addressed to him daily, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told the AP). Similarly, most readers expect their tips to be public requests, the equivalent of letters to the editor. Ideally such a messaging service would enable the reader to designate what privacy level the tip is. and other social bookmarking services expects all links to be public.

The publisher may also delegate certain people to review the tips in a distributed approach. Ultimately, the system should reserve a field that allows the publisher or his delegates to respond either publicly or privately– they can check off whether they have read the resource, as well as whether they have responded.


If many people send the same link, the service should combine the data and give a cumulative report. Furthermore, the advantage about publicly posted links is that other contributors can “second” the tip(or third, or fourth it, etc.). This would in effect allow a distributed group to boost an existing link through cumulative tipping. does both of these. It is also possible to view the individual. This use neatly aligns with the vision of the Hearsay Network, a prior proposal.

This is a little improved over the conventional web wisdom that a simple hyperlink equals a positive vote– an assumption made by Google’s PageRank and Technorati’s ratings. This is a problematic assumption since links on the web are not exclusively used for voting. On a bookmarking service, the use is much more restricted, so there would be far less corruption in the rankings.

The voting still could be improved to allow the readers to assign values to their votes. Furl uses a 1-5 point scale, which is rather unengaging. I would suggest the ViewPoints framework as a more functional starting point.


To succeed in the long run, such a service needs to implement some controls against misuse. What’s to stop an over-eager reader from sending in an excessive amount of tips? Even worse, what’s to stop a spammer from exploiting the service to send junk?

It is not unreasonable to consider a “postage” scheme akin to what Bill Gates has suggested for email– but make it voluntary. A popular publisher can set a small fee that they expect. In submitting a link, a reader can choose to contribute a micropayment, if at all, below or above the suggested amount. If the publisher reads and approves the link, they should refund the micropayment. All of the transactions should be publicly accountable, to help shed light on what a “fair” refund rate is. In addition, readers may also pay a yearly subscription rate. The subscription entitles them to nothing more than having their profile indicate that they are a subscriber to that publisher– and that in itself simply is a measure of how the reader values the publication.

Such a tiered system may be an anathema to some, but it has precedent. Blogger Jason Kottke has asked his readers to step up to be “micropatrons” and pay him for the privilege of being listed– and he has listed 650 people so far. Popular political blogger Andrew Sullivan gamely calls his contribution page Tipping Point, though it appears unconnected with news tips; those who provide monetary tips of $20/year are rewarded with an email newsletter. Josh Marshall asks for contributions, though he does not promise anything in return.

There would be many benefits by introducing a market system. The “stars” would be able to charge for access, which can offset, to some degree, the need for advertisements, as well as the draw of other ways of making money (appearing on TV, the conference circuit, which James Fallows excoriated in 1996 as “buckraking”). In addition, readers who do not want to buy into this access game can simply make contacts with some of the lesser stars who do not charge for access. In the area of social media, for example, here’s a scorecard of information that is currently available, and you can get the sense that some stars are more in-demand than others.

Nonetheless, this area is least essential, for the time being, towards the overall architecture of the Tipster Network.


Sending tips should be a natural process of any constructive media system– not only on the open Internet, but within organizations as well. Contributors should be encouraged to first write up information artifacts, and then classify them properly so others may find them. Lastly they should seek out how best to send this in the form of a tip to people who would not ordinarily seek out such artifacts. This is the opposite currently of the current primitive approach of addressing an email message to a higher authority, and then wondering later why it isn’t read.

So we should expect civ software to be able to implement tip functionality. Until then, it is likely that this can be a good function for the social bookmarking services to provide. I am now stronger in my conviction from two months back that a service like will continue to provide useful services that a giant Internet information management service, like Google, would be interested in. The founder of, Joshua Schachter, has recently announced that he will work on it full time, so this will be a very interesting development.

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  • Response summary: 2 comments, 0 Viewpoints
    tagging extended [email protected] Apr 04 ’05 12:49AM
    Good idea jessicajessica Aug 03 ’05 11:58AM