The Right Social-Media Starting Point
Andy Warhol thought that in the future everybody would be famous for 15 minutes. That never really happened, but today something almost as startling is true: On the Internet, anybody can become famous in 15 seconds. After a tragedy or horror, journalists mine the Facebook pages, MySpace profiles and personal blogs of perpetrators or victims for foreboding statements, tragic details or just biographical information. The modern equivalent of Mom urging you to always wear clean underwear in case you’re in an accident? It’s asking if that’s really the Facebook photo you want all over the local news if, you know, God forbid.
What does that have to do with the social-media rules for journalists? Everything.
Facebook, MySpace and their ilk let everybody be a publisher. This isn’t new – it’s been true at least since the dawn of the commercial Web. But until recently the hype outstripped the reality. In the mid-1990s, few people had the technical chops or interest to follow the lead of, say, Justin’s Links From the Underground. Blog software made self-publishing an order of magnitude easier (and generated another round of hype), but blogging was still a call heard by relatively few. It took social-media networks to finally make self-publishing a true mass phenomenon: Just about anybody with an opposable thumb (and a few whom you suspect might lack one) can put up a MySpace page.
Being a publisher makes you a potentially public figure – hence the unearthing of Facebook pages after a newsworthy event. The effect of this is frequently overstated — the fact that something is available online doesn’t mean that anybody is reading it. But it’s a sea change nonetheless — we now routinely Google friends, neighbors, potential dates, prospective employees, new acquaintances and of course ourselves, and find it odd (even slightly creepy) when someone hasn’t left some kind of digital trace. An enormous amount of personal information is now available about people who would have been anonymous not long ago – and this information is increasingly generated by the people themselves. The fact that we’ve gotten used to this makes it no less extraordinary.
When anybody can be a publisher, the rules change for existing publishers. News organizations are accepting this and struggling with it, but most of their thinking has been about how to adapt to changing rules at an institutional level. Less thought has been given to how the rules have changed for individuals within news organizations – and this is why the social-media rules handed down to journalists seem so out of sync.
Technology has always been coercive, and social media is just the latest example of that. Not so long ago, having a social-media identity was something high-school and college kids did and older people disapproved of. Now, there’s a hint of expectation about it: “Why aren’t you on Facebook?” Very soon, not having some kind of personal Web presence will go from eccentric to borderline rude — the same curve of technological adoption and social expectation followed by answering machines and cellphones. Once the borderline-rude point is reached, the social-media debates about public and private and personal and professional will be over by fiat. This isn’t new either: The telephone prompted at-times searing arguments about social relationships and etiquette, arguments that weren’t so much settled as made irrelevant by the technology’s mass adoption. So it will be here. And this, to me, is the missing piece of the equation when news organizations discuss what their employees should and shouldn’t do on Facebook and Twitter.
The rules and routines for individual journalists were shaped by circumstances that seemed eternal:
- Publishing and distribution were so difficult and expensive that they were reserved for very few.
- Communication between journalists and readers was basically one-way.
- Journalists had huge advantages in finding information and reaching people.
When few could publish, publishers made the rules. Publishing and distribution hammerlocks, the ability to control most conversations and superior access to information set journalists apart. Yet journalists largely rejected the idea of becoming public figures, seeing themselves as an oddly cloistered class: They were admitted to places and able to speak with people most readers were kept from, but were expected to be wary of fame and celebrity, to cultivate movers and shakers while shrinking from becoming movers and shakers themselves. “Celebrity journalist” was basically an epithet; the ideal was to report the news but never to be it.
With publishing reserved for the few, these rules went more or less unchallenged. But now circumstances have changed drastically:
- Anyone can publish, and news organizations’ distribution advantage is based not on infrastructure but on brand equity.
- Readers are demanding their place in the conversation, and having their say whether or not journalists respond.
- Google has largely leveled the information playing field.
With publishing now open to the many, journalists’ special access has shrunk to getting past gatekeepers and having important people return calls and emails. Meanwhile, the social expectation is that everyday lives are — to an extent we’re still working out — public. Transparency, disclosure, dialogue and debate are the new social norms – not just for journalists but for everybody. And so the cloister is being forced open.
This doesn’t mean internal newsroom decisions and debates have to be aired publicly, sources must be revealed and impartiality and discretion are extinct. But it does mean that things have changed.
The reaction to a world in which sources eschew letters to the editor for posting their own accounts and even emailed conversations can’t be to insist that the story stand alone and speak for itself. The reaction to a world in which communication is two-way and never-ending can’t be that journalists hold themselves aloof from discussions. And the reaction to a world in which everybody publishes personal information can’t be that journalists don’t publish theirs. We have to report what we know as we know it, see stories as part of continuing conversations, engage those who read them as well as those who we reported on, and do so while acknowledging that what was once personal life is increasingly public – for us as well as for everybody else. These aren’t new journalistic rules, but social ones.
I’m not endorsing any of this as progress, but endorsement or rejection is beside the point, just as it was for the telephone’s champions and detractors. What’s important is for news organizations to understand the evolving social expectations of their prospective readers, and make that understanding the starting point for finding a new place in those readers’ lives. Right now the starting point for too many of them isn’t how things will be but how things were, back in the days of the cloister.
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