Reinventing the Newsroom

When Social Media Says Too Much

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Social Media, Twitter by reinventingthenewsroom on March 17, 2010

It seems like every time a media organization releases a social-media policy, it gets pilloried by digital-journalism thinkers for telling its writers what they can’t do instead of making suggestions about what they could do. I’ve piled on a time or two myself.

But next time one of these memos makes the rounds, I’m going to hold my fire for a bit. Social media has remade my life, in ways I find gratifying and exciting and fascinating. But as I realized recently, it’s also eroded some boundaries that were put up for a reason.

Wait Until Dark image

Damn, forgot about the scrobbling.

Last week I hopped on a train for an overnight trip to write a freelance story. As per usual, I was posting Facebook status updates and Tweeting away the whole time. If you’re a friend of mine on Facebook, you knew I was headed for Providence, R.I. If you follow me on Twitter, you learned that I was eating old-school Italian on Federal Hill. And if you’re a friend of mine on Foursquare, you knew I was eating at Andino’s.

While I never stated explicitly where I was going (my formative years at The Wall Street Journal have given me an almost-visceral aversion to discussing work in progress), I knew I’d said enough for some people who know me or what I write about to figure out what I was up to. I thought about it, but I wasn’t too concerned: It wasn’t a sensitive assignment, and nobody was going to scoop me. So my guard was down a bit.

But I hadn’t realized the other ways in which I was telegraphing what I was doing — and revealing more than I meant to.

I recorded a couple of group interviews and came back home to Brooklyn. Now, I needed to transcribe the interviews. I decided to use Mechanical Turk, the Amazon service — an experiment I’d wanted to try since learning the folks at Nieman Journalism Lab use it to cheaply transcribe their video interviews. (Another reason to use Mechanical Turk: Having the interviews transcribed by a traditional service or doing the job myself would have eaten up so much money or time that my assignment would no longer pay for itself.)

Using Mechanical Turk meant putting up my recorded interviews online. That gave me pause, but I figured there was security in obscurity — the sheer volume of such material would mean nobody would notice those files, and they’d be gone soon enough. Then I realized the file names I’d assigned to the MP3s of my interviews included the company name. Oops. Fortunately, I changed them before posting them for Mechanical Turk’s transcribers. Lesson learned, I thought.

Well, not quite. I’d offered enough money for transcription services that a Twitter account dedicated to Mechanical Turk opportunities broadcast the job, complete with my name. Then I needed to reboot my Mac, and when it came back up started demanding attention about something or other.

Put a sock in it,, I thought. Hey, wait a minute.

When the MP3s of the interviews still had their full, identifying filenames, they’d played through iTunes as I reviewed them. My iTunes is connected to And what I’m listening to — MP3s of interviews, for example — automatically gets “scrobbled” to my profile. I was dumbstruck — it was like stumbling across the social-media equivalent of the light inside the refrigerator in “Wait Until Dark.”

I still have a lot to learn about social media, the way software and digital services are increasingly connected to our identities, and the fact that those identities are increasingly public. (We all do. Anyone who says otherwise either isn’t learning or is trying to fleece you.) But I’m not a newbie, either. And for better or worse, my Journal background has lent me a certain caution in thinking about how these new services intersect journalism.

Neither of these things mattered during my recent trip. I wound up revealing far more about what I was doing than I thought I was. As far as I can tell, no harm was done. But if I were covering something sensitive, or working a fiercely competitive beat, I could have created a real mess for myself and my news organization.

I still think news organizations need to embrace social media. I still believe greater transparency will make readers see news providers as more trustworthy. And I still would advise reporters to step outside of their cloister and engage with readers. And I’m not saying social-media tools don’t work — I leaked what I was doing because they do, and I’m comfortable with them.

But from now on, I’ll have more sympathy for news organizations when they express doubts and worries about those tools. What makes “Wait Until Dark” frightening isn’t that Audrey Hepburn forgets the refrigerator light. It’s realizing that you’d forget it too.


One Response

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  1. Reginald said, on March 17, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Just don’t use foursquares to let people know where you are 🙂

    I think that’s just a bit much..that’s just me.


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