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.

Comments
12 comments so far

Hello Dean,

Good thoughts, thank you for sharing. It’s good to know you are developing guidelines for journalists using social media.

However, I have to take issue with your characterization of Twitter, in particular its ” ““me, me, me” quality” and “focus on short answers to such generic questions as, “What are you doing?””

This misses the mark on Twitter’s value and importance. For some of us that have been active users for two or more years (yes, we do exist) Twitter is primarily an INFORMATION MANAGEMENT tool. That’s not to say all who use it find value that way, but it is a way of finding and sharing information that is more efficient than email, yet as the same time a bit quixotic and serendipitous. It is like Digg and StumbleUpon with people who share your interests. Thus, I have characterized Twitter as part of a personal information management system. Not the only part, but an important one.

On a broader level, the manifestation of so many thoughts can be seen as a peek into the collective conscious, or panconsciousness. I’ve articulated this concept on my blog.

tldnr :-)

Posted by Felix Salmon | Report as abusive

I’m of the opinion every corporation should have a well thought out Social Media Policy in place. Your article brings up many of the very reasons why. Thank you!

Twitter is for middle-age people with no friends; ergo no one to send text messages to so they just send them out into oblivion, and feel as if they have communicated with someone – sad, very very sad.

Posted by Sebastian | Report as abusive

Dean, there’s some debate about whether the Nielsen figures reflect the fact that many people don’t use twitter.com for Twitter. Most Reuters users access it via applications such as Tweet Deck, Twhirl and TwitterBerry. Once they’ve signed up at twitter.com they never need to go back there.

That’s a fair point on the Twitter return numbers, Richard, though that does raise some questions about the business plan. I’d be thrilled if more people continued to Twitter, or Tweet, especially if the content is useful.

Twitter is for middle-age people with no friends; ergo no one to send text messages to so they just send them out into oblivion, and feel as if they have communicated with someone – sad, very very sad.

- Posted by Sebastian

So Twitter is a lot like your post here…

Posted by Brad | Report as abusive

Roger, perhaps your state of conscience is more important than your conscious state. Only a dunk behind the wheel of a moving vehicle can cause any harm unconscious. You might do well to find your information by visiting the websites for CDC, NOAA, Scripps and other institutions of higher learning.

Greed and Narcicism go hand in hand. It has become the American hallmark of the past generation or so. It is not so surprising our children are coming up the same way. Twitter is not influencing us. It is a manifestation of the self centered nature of many individuals in our society.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

I think that, as much as Twitter can be silly and self-absorbed, it has actual journalistic uses. For every update Ana Marie Cox posts about her pants, there is one which gives me some insight into what goes on during White House Press things–same with Mike Knoller, who live-tweets them and is able to incorporate his own insight as he does.

Posted by Emily | Report as abusive

“Are we too connected?”
This is a very relative question. It’s like saying are we communicating too much? You are asking this question because you have something to compare against. A 15-year old born into today’s connected world won’t know the difference and couldn’t care less. I don’t know what a world without telephones is like and will not say that phones make me too connected.

Counting quality not quantity –
Didn’t someone say brevity is the soul of wit? Anyway, communication today is not so much about just speed, or limited to text, audio and video. With each medium now possible in many many ways it’s now about appropriateness – where e-mail is not suitable instant messaging may be, where FB is not suitable twitter may be. Its all about finding what meets your needs/interests and has nothing to do with limitations of 140 characters. Just as financial news goes out as snaps or updates, and both have their own merits. Take for instance Google’s attempt to now fuse email and chat into a new hybrid realtime communication medium.

“At Reuters, we’re using Reuters Messenger to build chat rooms in which our journalists …”
You’ve got to be joking. If this is true then Reuters journalists are about 15 years behind the rest of the world. When I had my first job 5 years ago, small businesses were already years into saving money by connecting their global teams via IM such as ICQ and Yahoo messenger, for free!

Journalism and Social Media
What the printing press did for literature, and what you tube and myspace have done for film making and music, blogging has done for journalism. It’s no longer the purvue of a few selected individuals and this is just the beginning. Despite deficiencies, mediums like blogging, twitter and others, have overcome traditional journalistic barriers of censorship, govt control, funding, infrastructure, geography and even language.

“Me me me?” With so much networking isn’t it more like us us us? I love Japanese horror films and support the rights of indigineous people around the world. 50 years ago I would have been pretty clueless. Now I can go on FB or Twitter or any networking portal and find people who think like me. I can form groups, associations. I can start a movement, arrange protests, pretty much do anything a team can, at a global level. You call that selfish? And its happening …. There is no such thing as too much information, just as there is no such thing as too many books. You only assimilate what you want to, when you want to.

What about journalists and social media?
Isn’t it a little pretentious to be blocking journos from freely using any kind of social media? Wouldn’t you want a president elect to come clean on his past? Isn’t journalism about transparency and truth? If a journo is anti-corporation, he shouldn’t be covering Wall Street in the first place, and it is the responsibility of both the journo and the company to come clean on this. What’s the point of either covering up the truth by censoring public profiles, or doing crisis management once the damage is done.

The bigger question is – can you do it? In trying to limit what journos can write on their blogs and profiles, news companies like Reuters may be like a China trying to ban the internet.

Posted by Eric | Report as abusive

Too much communication does not exist. Too little, might.

Posted by oscar canosa | Report as abusive

The state of “Being Connected” has changed and continues to morph. The constant access to information can overload our abilty to mine it in search of knowledge. Amorphous data is like slurry
that must be sifted to secure honest and valuable data. The adage that knowledge is power is being rediscovered in ways previously impossible. That is a very good thing, despite the anxiety it may bring to oppressive governments! Thanks for the Forum.

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