On GigaOm, Matthew Ingram expresses fascination with the way that the news media and social media have collided and blurred the lines between each other, in the context of the recent Uber scandal. We’re increasingly seeing major news stories break and grow in social and new media—Twitter, Facebook, blogs—with the traditional media being relatively slow to catch on. Rather than issue press releases, public figures and companies are issuing quick responses via Twitter or Facebook.
So is this a good thing or a bad thing? That depends a lot on your perspective. Obviously if you’re the New York Times or some other traditional news outlet, it’s probably not a good thing, because you aren’t prepared for it and it takes time to realize that you don’t “make” the news any more, or at least not as much. Many journalists resist this new role as aggregator or interpreter because they liked being a gatekeeper.
It’s also making it a bit harder to understand complicated stories. When our understanding of the story comes strictly from Twitter and Facebook, or possibly-biased news stories reshared by people who agree with them, do we really know as much as we think we do? For example, one of my Facebook friends had previously been skeptical of the rape accusations against Bill Cosby, but today she posted:
Given the number of women accusing Bill Cosby none of which know each other or are in contact or cohoots (sic)… I’m starting to believe them.
I’m not saying every man accused of rape deserves to be treated like he did it, but sufficent (sic) evidence has to come forth. Well it has and now I believe it.
Does she really have sufficient evidence to make that determination? I don’t know, but she did it. Which isn’t to say anything against her—we all make that kind of determination about news stories every day, deciding to side with whoever we find compelling and pooh-poohing the stories that don’t fit our conception of what happened. That’s just how we are.
This isn’t just confined to the Uber story or the Bill Cosby story, either. It’s shaped many of the stories we’ve followed over the last few months: GamerGate, the Amazon/Hachette feud (where Amazon communicated its side of the story via email and posts to the Kindle forums, rather than press releases, and both Amazon and Hachette partisans took to social media, blogs, and petitions to make their cases), and even the Jonathan Ross Hugo kerfuffle (touched off by a LiveJournal post, exacerbated by Twitter).
In just the last couple of days, a social media furor erupted over a Barbie book from 2010 that purported to depict Barbie as a “computer engineer” who didn’t actually do any programming or know how to deal with a computer virus on her own—and Mattel almost immediately issued a statement apologizing and promising they’d “reworked our Barbie books” since that one had been published. This would have been practically unheard of even just ten years ago. You can now take for granted that any major news story is going to have a social media component of angry people on both sides, and sometimes the social media component itself is just as big news as the actual event.
As I think about it, the Cluetrain Manifesto seems more and more prescient these days. The Manifesto held that corporations needed to start cultivating a more direct and real relationship with consumers, because the Internet lets consumers talk to each other better than they ever had before. And now, the corporations are doing just that, going direct to Twitter and social media as often as issuing press releases. I wonder if, when they wrote the Cluetrain Manifesto, its authors had any idea of the extent to which it was going to come true?
I keep thinking of the consternation expressed by members of the old media (such as publishing execs) that Amazon was communicating via posts to the Kindle Boards instead of the old standby press releases. They seemed to regard this unorthodox method of communication as a further reason to scoff at its contents, which didn’t make much sense to me. Did it really matter whether it was a press release or a forum post? Either way, it came from Amazon itself and expressed Amazon’s views. And either way, it was going to make the news as soon as the media did notice it.
Like it or not, social media as news breaker and newsmaker is here to stay. We’re going to have to develop new tools for evaluating the trustworthiness of information sources. We need to learn to tell the difference between “satire” hoax news sites such as the National Report or The News Nerd and credible, trustworthy sources. Ditto for obviously partisan blogs and more “neutral” sources.
We’re going to need to learn to do a little research when we come across a story that seems too good or too outrageous to be true. That’s probably not a comfortable realization, because it means having to put some actual effort into interacting with the news rather than just letting it wash over us, but otherwise we run the risk of being poorly informed and easily led. We now have the ability to obtain more information about more subjects instantly than we could by spending hours in a library twenty years ago. We need to get in the habit of actually using it.