Counting quality — not characters — in social media

June 3, 2009

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

Are we too connected?

In recent days and weeks I’ve been wondering if our mobile phones, Blackberries, text messaging and constant access to email and social media have brought us too close together for our own good.

Or maybe the quality of our connected life is only as good as the information we share.

At this point, social media and microblogging phenomena like Facebook and Twitter focus on short answers to such generic questions as, “What are you doing?”

We hear from network and cable television anchors who tell us what they’re having for lunch (often a quick sandwich in the company cafeteria because they are, well, really busy). Or from usually cynical White House journalists who can’t resist Tweeting which B-list celebrity they saw at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Here are a few actual Tweets from the so-called nerd prom:

  • “Just spend quality time with ricky schroeder #nerdprom”.
  • “post #nerdprom sightings. demi/ashton, james franco, owen wilson, eric holder, mayor fente, d axelrod, christopher hitchens, dana delaney”. (This one’s fitting since Ashton Kutcher is the world’s most followed Twitterer).
  • “Just got picture with Dule Hill.”

Given the quality of the material, it’s little wonder that a Nielsen study found that Twitter retained only 40 percent of its new members after a month of use. And that was after Oprah started sharing her 140-character thoughts. Before that it was 30 percent.

But could it be that this “me, me, me” quality of Facebook and Twitter is just an early evolutionary stage of something smarter and more useful? There are some encouraging signs — and that’s a good thing, because we’re becoming ever more connected.

How connected are we?

  • Facebook has more than 200 million active users and more than 100 million log on at least once a day. More than 3.5 billion minutes a day are spent on Facebook and more than 20 million users update their statuses at least once a day.
  • A Nielsen survey found that American teenagers sent and received an average of 2,272 text messages a month in the last quarter of 2008, an astonishing 80 messages a day. That’s more than double the previous year’s figures and works out to more than three messages an hour — if they never sleep or go to class.

How connected are we going to be?

  • Delta Airlines reported that more than 300 of its aircraft will be equipped with wi-fi this year, enabling email users to stay connected — or shackled — to their accounts even seven miles above the earth. Other airlines are closely watching Delta’s experience.

Media outlets and other institutions are finding ways to take advantage of this connectivity, moving beyond gossip and gab.

  • ProPublica recently introduced Change Tracker, an application that monitors government websites and sends out notices of changes as they are posted via a Twitter feed. Some of the changes are a bit obscure — “Biography of Millard Fillmore [rare] changed on 5/27″ — but others track changes to the website following the spending of economic stimulus money.
  • The Vatican has added an iPhone app to reach out to young, connected people, according to Online Media Daily. Young people “are looking to a different media culture, and this is our effort to ensure that the Church is present in that communications culture,” said Monsignor Paul Tighe, secretary of the Vatican’s Social Communications department.
  • At Reuters, we’re using Reuters Messenger to build chat rooms in which our journalists can expand their conversation with the marketplace through informal, dynamic interactions with a group of engaged financial news clients on our terminals.

We’re also using Twitter in some intriguing ways:

  • Specialist journalists use it to share articles and build up a following.
  • Online editorial staff and bloggers use Twitter to distribute news and solicit reader comment.
  • Journalists are using Twitter during live events like Davos (Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger used it to break news there earlier this year) and to solicit questions for newsmaker interviews.

There are huge implications for those of us in the news media as we try to reach an increasingly fragmented and distracted audience awash in information, some of it wanted and much of it not.

And journalists who work and live in the digital world (and that’s just about all of us now) will find that there is little or no difference between our professional and private personae in the wide-open world of social media. A visit to my Facebook page, for example, would reveal to my friends that I have a strong interest in horse racing; an affection for the New York Yankees (an obsession, my wife would argue); and take great pleasure in the words and music of Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and Townes Van Zandt. What you won’t find is an indication of my politics or religion.

Here at Reuters, we are developing guidelines for how our journalists interact with social media.

  • If Reuters journalists want to use Twitter or social media as part of their professional role they should seek the permission of their manager.
  • If Reuters journalists use Twitter professionally they should use the word “Reuters” in the name of their streams or somewhere else on the page.
  • The Trust Principles apply to Twitter and social media — they should do nothing that compromises them.
  • Microblogging and use of social media tend to blur the distinction between professional and personal lives: When using Twitter or social media in a professional capacity our journalists should aim to be personable but not to include irrelevant material about their personal lives.

In an email to the editorial staff, Editor-in-Chief Schlesinger told Reuters journalists, “whether we like it or not, our online identities are inextricably linked with our workplace identities….Things we do online could very easily taint our journalistic activity. If one of us self-identifies as ‘very liberal’ politically, it may well be the truth, but would advertising it simply feed the myth that journalists in general have a liberal bias?”

“The easiest rule,” Schlesinger cautioned, “is to stop, think and imagine: How would you feel and how would you react if someone made your Facebook page or blog or online comment a story? Could you defend your objectivity? Could Reuters defend having you on the beat you’re on? Could your reputation, and ours, survive someone making an issue of it?”

I’m sure neither Schlesinger nor I have had the last word on the relationship of journalism and social media, nor on whether we’re all too connected. What we need to pay attention to is the quality of those connections.

What do you think about how journalists are and should be using social media and microblogging? Let us know here — and don’t feel like you have to keep your thoughts to 140 characters.

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