Conversation Is Free-Range — Quit Building Corrals
By now news organizations know they have to be aggressive about social media — it’s a vehicle for distributing their content, commenting, criticizing and otherwise discussing it, and reusing it in various ways. And social media is a chance to rebuild ties with an audience that’s now so busy talking back and creating content of its own that the word hardly seems to fit.
But as is often the case with big opportunities, the question of how to dive in can be paralyzing. And I think that paralysis causes too many news organizations to choose the wrong social-media starting point. Social media is seen as another channel for disseminating news. It’s viewed as a mutation of discussions or article comments. It’s eyed as a new promotional vehicle. And none of those approaches is wrong, for social media can be any or all of those things. But thinking about social media in such narrow ways misses the bigger picture, and starting one’s social-media efforts from such points of view helps ensure that discussions will continue to be about trees, and not the forest.
Social media can seem new and complicated, but at its heart it’s old and simple. Before too long, it will be so woven into our daily lives that it will be invisible and the term will be generally meaningless. Which is as it should be: The underlying technologies and individual platforms aren’t nearly as important as what we do with them. And what is that? Interesting new things, to be sure, but mostly what we’ve always done: We talk. We ask questions and give advice and gossip and trade interesting stories and argue and try to sell each other stuff and be inspiring and be petty and self-promote and help each other and fall in love and pick fights and discover new ideas and seek refuge in old ones. And by doing all that, we create new bonds between people and reinforce existing ones. Whether we’re talking about fan pages or Twitter, it comes down to talking and listening.
Conversation doesn’t just happen in specific places, but everywhere. Yet in approaching social media, news organizations tend to see their role as starting conversations, or providing settings for them. On the surface, this seems logical: News organizations already host discussions. Playing host to conversations reinforces news organizations’ sense of self-worth, and seems to promise greater control over them. And starting conversations feels like a fit for news organizations’ desire to serve their communities.
All of these are logical or laudable impulses. But that playbook stopped working a generation ago, as newspapers ceded their place as community centers and connectors. The conversation doesn’t need to be restarted, for it never stopped — it just needs to be joined. The community doesn’t need to be built — it’s already there. Instead of thinking of themselves as the potential seeds or centers of communities, news organizations need to see themselves as parts of larger communities that already exist, and find roles within them.
How can we do this? For starters, consider Twitter lists. It’s great to have a Twitter list of staffers, but it’s much more powerful to have a Twitter list of leaders in various communities of interest, and then integrate those lists within your site as low-maintenance, real-time news feeds. For examples, check out the Texas Tribune’s Tweetwire, or the ideas in this Mashable post. Now, think how many such communities your average metro paper could dip into and display. Every local sports franchise can have a feed that includes the news organization’s own sportswriters, other news organizations’ writers, smart bloggers, players and club officials. By putting together a feed that includes music writers and members of local bands who tweet, you’ve created a nightlife guide and an interesting collective musicians’ diary. Politicians and civic leaders should have their own feed, of course — joined by City Hall reporters and spiced up by the tweets of community gadflies. And so on.
Such feeds are fundamentally out of control? That’s OK — so’s conversation itself. Readers are increasingly sophisticated consumers of content — they’ll understand. (And you can always remove any truly bad actors from your feeds.) These feeds could direct readers to your rivals? So what — you’ll get more credit as a gatekeeper than you will by pretending your rivals don’t exist.
Such efforts are just the beginning, and only one way of joining conversations and communities. They’re early experiments — but experiments that begin with the right starting point, and so will lead to much more. Conversations and the communities engaged in them are free-range — we need to resist the impulse to create corrals.
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