A couple of years ago, I spoke at the Oxford Internet Institute, and after my talk, the conversation carried on via Strange Attractor and the blogs written by some of the students there. I went back to Oxford today to talk about social media, journalism and broader media trends with the very international group of “scholars and regulators? at the Annenberg-Oxford Summer Institute.
As I did from my talk a few years ago at the OII, I’ll follow up some questions that came after my talk and some questions that came in via Twitter.
Does participatory media make public service media obsolete?
I met Shawn Powers at the Al Jazeera Forum in Doha in May, and he invited me to give a talk at the institute. After my talk, he highlighted what he thought was a contradiction in my presentation, which he thought could be interpreted as supporting James Murdoch’s attack on the BBC. Not to over-simplify his point, but with all of the examples I gave of people creating their own media, Shawn wondered if I was making the point that British society no longer needed a public broadcaster like the BBC.
It never really occurred to me that my presentation could be interpreted like this because four years after I left the BBC, I value public service media even more than when I was working there. Most of the examples I talk about in my presentation (a version is here on SlideShare) are collaborations between professional journalists and members of the public not examples of the public supplanting or replacing journalists.
When I came to London in 2005 to research how BBC News could use blogging, I actually saw the possibility of a public service broadcaster like the BBC deepening its public role by developing stronger relationships with people formerly known as the audience.
James Murdoch’s argument delivered in Edinburgh last year:
We seem to have decided to let independence and plurality wither. To let the BBC throttle the news market, and get bigger to compensate
I see commercial media and public service media combined with emerging participatory media as creating greater plurality, not throttling it. Murdoch’s argument is a rather unsophisticated and transparent attack on the BBC because he knows that most surveys show that when consumers are asked to pay for news online, most of them (74%) would switch to free options, such as the BBC. Only about 5% in the paidcontent.co.uk and Harris survey would pay to continue to use the service. (For a good critique of the Murdochs’ hard paywall that they just erected around The Times and The Sunday Times, see Steve Outing’s look at different commercial strategies.)
Returning to the strategic white paper I wrote for the BBC, I also thought by encouraging media creation by a wider part of the population that it actually would expand civic participation in new ways and possibly reverse trends in the decline in traditional forms of democratic participation such as voting. (Andy Carvin at NPR is demonstrating how social media is public service media can be a powerful combination.)
Maybe in the future, I should start with a statement of principles or values. I assume that my career choices say a lot about my journalistic values. I have worked for two very unique journalism organisations, the publicly-funded BBC and the trust-supported Guardian. It was an honour to work at two places that value journalism as much as the BBC and The Guardian. I don’t see social media as an argument for ending subsidies to public media in favour of a “pure” market-based media eco-system. Rather, I see my interest in social media as a perfectly logical extension of my passion for the social mission of journalism, a mission to inform and engage people and to empower them as citizens in democratic societies.
Choosing the right tool for the job
Another person at the institute raised the issue of whether I was focusing on the tools rather than the editorial goals. Was I seeing social media as the hammer and every story as a nail?
In reality, I’ve long argued against using a tool for the sake of using a tool. In my original presentation at the BBC, one of my slides was a herd of cattle with a little Photoshopped brand on one of the bulls labelled MSM (mainstream media), complete with the song Rawhide playing in the background. I said that the media was engaging in a lot of herd-like behaviour, rushing off to blog without any clear reason as to why. I used to play a clip of Jon Stewart of the Daily Show sarcastically congratulating MSNBC and their blogging efforts as “giving a voice to the already voiced”. I questioned why the media needed blogs when we already had publishing platforms.
To justify blogging, we had to have clear editorial goals and not just blog because it was the new media flavour of the month. I did see benefits in blogging and using social media. We could engage our audiences directly and take our journalism to where they were instead of relying on them to come our site. We could enhance our journalism by expanding our sources, adding new voices and highlighting expertise in our audience.
Often people saw blogging not as a conversational, engagement focused media but as a means to secure their own column. They didn’t want to write more than once a week. They had no interest in actually responding to comments. Although I didn’t see this as an appropriate use of blogging, usually, they got a blog because I wasn’t in a position to deny them one.
It’s important to understand that social media is only one tool in a journalist’s toolkit. It is powerful, but it is very important to understand when it is appropriate to use social media and when it isn’t.
As someone at Oxford also pointed out, as journalists we need to make sure that we don’t over-interpret opinion on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks as truly representative. I often use social networks and blogging to find expertise and first person experience of an event, not necessarily to canvas for opinion. The same student at Oxford also was concerned that journalists would rely solely on online social networks to source stories or generate story ideas. That’s the mark of either a lazy journalist or one who is so overburdened with work due to staffing cuts that social media becomes an all too easy shortcut. (I understand only too well the time pressures that journalists are under due to the hollowing out of newsrooms.)
Do location-based networks have staying power?
One of the students told me that she had asked a few questions via Twitter while I was talking, and here is one of her questions:
I’ve been working with location for a couple of years ago, starting with my coverage of the US elections in 2008. I’ve been testing location-based networks like BrightKite and the location features with Twitter since 2008, and I’ve been trying the newer networks such as FourSquare in preparation for a keynote that I’m giving at the SpotOn conference in Helsinki in September.
As I started saying in 2005, in this age of information-overload, two things are key to success: Relationship and relevance. Social media allows news organisations to much more directly build and maintain their relationships with both members of the public who simply want to consume their content and also with people who want to collaborate or contribute to news coverage. In a world with so many information choices, relevance is extremely valuable. This weekend, I spoke to the Gates Scholars at Cambridge, and many of the questions to the panel that I was on were about finding and filtering the vast ocean of information available. To me location is one filter for relevance.
There are two ways to interpret this question: Will the current generation of location-based networks have staying power? Will location itself have staying power?
In using FourSquare, I actually find the game element rather simplistic. Without a native app on my Nokia N82 (am considering buying Gravity, but its £8 is higher than my impulse threshold for buying a mobile app), the friction is too high for me. I am too aware that FourSquare is trying to trick me into surfacing my location. For Google’s Latitude, I set it and forget it, and I see my friends on my Google Map. That service hasn’t hit a critical mass of users in my offline social networks to be all that useful.
However, in convincing people to reveal their location, FourSquare is already beginning to partner with media and other companies to sell other location-based services. Frankly, I don’t need the psychological trickery of points and mayor-ships to get me to check-in, if I get a useful service from revealing my location.
That’s where I see location being interesting, not as an element of games like Gowalla or FourSquare, but as a fundamental enabling technology like RSS. Very few people use RSS directly in standalone readers as I do, but many more people use RSS without even knowing it. Location will be one of those underlying, enabling technologies.
The big difference between RSS and location is the issue of privacy and security connected to revealing one’s location. Lots of people follow me on Twitter who I don’t know. I have a category of contacts on Facebook “People I don’t know”. I am not going to let people I don’t know in the real world know where I am in the real world. I’m working through whether I want to be selective in my contacts on FourSquare or selective in checking in.
Location is going to be a powerful feature in new services. That has staying power. Part of me thinks that services like Gowalla and FourSquare are very first generation at this point. They have a certain Friendster feel about them. However, FourSquare is evolving very quickly, and its very clear business model means that it will have the space to experiment.
Those are the questions that I can think of off the top of my head. If people have more, leave a comment. I’ll try to answer them before Suw and I start our summer break on Thursday.