More on 2011 Predictions
The folks at Nieman Labs were kind enough to ask me to contribute some predictions for what 2011 has in store for digital journalism. I mostly played it straight, which means I predicted a muddle. But I couldn’t resist a prediction — or perhaps it’s a bit of wishful thinking — about content farms. Where Demand Media and their ilk are concerned, I think Google is on the horns of a dilemma. They’re not happy about the content farms, which they view as gaming their algorithms, yet it’s a basic part of the Google ethos to leave qualitative judgments to users in aggregate. If Google starts making qualitative judgments about content, where will that end?
Hence my prediction: that Google will do something to drive content farms’ results way down in search results, but will be stubbornly quiet about what exactly that was, which will cause all sorts of kerfuffle about secrecy and power and Don’t Be Evil. We’ll see. (Meanwhile, it’s interesting to see Yahoo looking to remake Associated Content as an engine for hyperlocal contributions.)
Still, the Nieman prediction that was dearest to my heart was about Facebook and social media. I think the most promising efforts to make hyperlocal scale will be based on extracting relevant information from the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Yelp and other services. As I told Nieman,”the most promising startups and efforts from established social media companies will center around creating quiet water that draws from the river of news without leaving us overwhelmed by the current.”
That prediction emerged from an exchange I had back in March with my old friend and mentor Roy Peter Clark about Facebook and refrigerator journalism — local articles and photos about kids’ sports, school recitals and so forth that get cut out and put on the fridge and then saved to be unearthed years later. Our conversation made me realize something that I’ve thought about a lot since: There’s an impermanence to social media that undermines its sense of connection.
As I wrote back then:
[W]hile Facebook is wonderful for sharing, it’s lacking something: The sacramental aspect Roy talks about isn’t there. The things we share on Facebook are soon swept away by newer things and lost from view. They’re part of a rich stream of shared experience, but with the exception of photo albums, most of that shared experience is carried off into the realm of “older posts” and effectively lost. Our real-world fridge is like a lot of people’s — magnetic letters hold down a mess of to-do lists, old notes, amusing junk-mail misfires, cartoons, drawings by our son and of course photos, some of which date back to 1990. It’s a rich record of our family. So is Facebook, but there the richness can only be seen over time. It’s like everything gets cleared off the fridge and replaced every 18 hours.
Fast-forward to December and my prediction that Facebook (or maybe someone else) might offer users a way to preserve the sacramental. So I was intrigued when a few days after I sent off that prediction (and before it appeared), Facebook accidentally gave users a peek at something called Memories. Memories wasn’t available long enough to fully grasp what it is, but I found myself hoping that it might be a scrapbook service — a way to preserve social-media bits so they can be easily retrieved later. Why hasn’t Facebook done this? My pet theory is it’s because their key product-development folks are young — they live happily in the ceaseless river of news, and don’t yet grasp that the passage of time will come to seem bittersweet. That’s where the sacramental aspect comes in — with being aware of that whirl, and wanting to be able to stop it and steal back a few moments.
I don’t know if content farms will really have a day of reckoning in 2011. But I do think that social-media scrapbooking will emerge — if not from Facebook, than from somebody else. It’s become too big a part of our lives for that not to happen. And once it does, all sorts of intriguing possibilities will emerge.
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