What Facebook, Twitter and other Social Media Sites Teach us about Our Journalism Jobs.
By Paula Pant, blogger at AffordAnything.org, the site which teaches you to redesign your wallet and your life.
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When I signed up for a Facebook account, users were still required to have a university email address – “.edu” – to be eligible to use Facebook. In those days, we didn’t know anyone on Facebook older than 26. As our friends neared their mid-twenties, they started wondering aloud if they were aging out of their Facebook account. No one wanted to be the oldest person at the party.
When Facebook dropped its “.edu” eligibility requirement, we heaved a sigh of relief from the social pressure to exit with grace once we reached a certain age. But when our bosses, teachers and – horror of horror – our parents joined the mix, we early-adopters of social media predicted its demise.
“Facebook is over,” we’d whisper among ourselves in hushed conversations in dorm hallways. “Who wants to post tailgate pictures on Facebook now that our parents are on it?” We called this the “Macarena” effect, based on a song-dance that was wildly popular in the 1990’s until Al Gore did it, at which point it became passé.
But there would be no Macarena effect for Facebook. My generation was wrong in our predictions: the social networking site assimilated its new users into blue-and-white culture and emerged stronger than ever, proving itself to be not a fleeting trend but a lasting institution.
Its permanence – or at least, its relative permanence in our online era – is partly because it provides the ultimate local news: stories with which we are personally connected. We can aggregate our friends and family into one location and give them tools to share their stories, thoughts, photos and jokes – just as we read the newspaper for stories, opinions, photos and the comic strip. Facebook is the ultimate local newspaper, in which “local” means you – your high school classmates, your colleagues, your Pilates instructor. Every reporter on Facebook is like a freelancer who specializes in reporting on himself.
Yet Facebook lacks one crucial component of a traditional local newspaper: analysis and context. Facebook simply states the facts: Anna and Bradley broke up, Karen loves the new seafood restaurant on 8th Street, Jake is vacationing at Cape Cod this August and hopes it isn’t too hot. It’s rich in user-generated reports but it lacks an overarching narrator who can contextualize the information or shape a story from all its raw data.
From this shortcoming, we learn more about the needed role of the modern-day journalist: to provide nuance and context to this cacophony of information. Facts are no longer the reporter’s commodity. In this age of user-generated noise, true substance is a scarcity. And in a world in which more and more journalists are becoming freelancers – some by choice, some by necessity – the successful freelance journalist will be the one who can bring context to the crowd’s roar.
IT’S YOUR TURN: What are your thoughts? Do you agree or disagree? Should today’s journalists add more context and analysis to stories? Or should a journalist focus on hunting for sources and facts that can’t be crowd-sourced? How is it different for staff employees vs. freelancers? Please share your thoughts, ideas and experiences in the Comments section below.
By Paula Pant, blogger for AffordAnything.org, the site which teaches you to redesign your wallet and your life.