Thoughts on Journalism and Social Media

Over at TechCrunch, Paul Carr is taking an individual to task for her role in broadcasting information about the Fort Hood shootings. At the outset, I agree with a central point of Carr's argument: a person at the scene of a tragedy has an obligation to do what they can to make the situation better. Our first obligation is to the people in the world around us.

And with that said, I don't know enough about the specifics of her situation to render anything that approaches judgment. Also, the twitter account in question has been locked, so I have not been able to read the accounts Carr references. So, my only source of this information is secondhand, via Carr's post.

However, Carr states:

"And yet, the first news and analysis out of the base didn’t come from the experts. Nor did it come from the 24-hour news media, or even from dedicated military blogs – but rather from the Twitter account of one Tearah Moore, a soldier from Linden, Michigan who is based at Fort Hood, having recently returned from Iraq."

While the analysis that comes from mainstream media outlets (aka, the people who used to be known as professional journalists) often resembles something as sloppy as a twitter stream, the two should not be confused. A twitter stream is raw, unverified information, where we assume (often erroneously) that "analysis" coming from "professionals" has undergone more thorough vetting. This is a failing of traditional media, and while it is convenient to lay this at the blame of social media, this blame is misplaced. Initial accounts will by nature be inaccurate. With complex events, an accurate accounting can only be created through synthesizing multiple perspectives of the event. You just won't get this from a single source. Carr's point also begs the question as to why the mainstream media would elevate hearsay into news.

I will also admit a certain amount of skepticism about cautionary tales on social media coming from a writer on Techcrunch, which has breathlessly celebrated "news" of social media startups for more years than I care to remember.

In an earlier article on Techcrunch, Carr describes his experience at an invite-only event put on by MySpace. In this earlier post, he takes his experience (a bunch of people at a social media event) and generalizes it to the world at large. His argument is that social media has converted the general population into voyeurs and narcissists. Just for the record, many of us who have the excellent fortune to work in/with technology outside the Hype/Bullshit Bubble that envelops parts of Silicon Valley can actually use social media when we want to, without an obsessive need to tweet every detail. We can both talk and live; experiences without an audience are just as significant.

Case in point (and this is anecdotal, so take it for what it's worth): last week, the house across the street from mine experienced a fire. The inhabitant of the house -- an elderly woman -- was saved by a neighbor who kicked in the back door and pulled her to safety. His wife called 911. No one died, the house was saved, and no one tweeted about it. To the world of social media, this event never happened. To those of us in the neighborhood, our neighbor is a hero.

And that's exactly the point. Unless something gets dropped on Twitter (or any other social media app), it remains below the radar of social media, and therefore outside of the conversation within social media. Social media can only concern itself with what is visible within the world of social media -- this is normal, as you can't see what you can't see (duh). But the nearly unforgivable conceit of many people who write about social media is that human nature can be defined by what you see on social media. I don't know whether this is cluelessness, arrogance, lack of life experience, or just plain oversight, but the reality is that much of life transpires beyond the view of social media. Video clips that go viral offer us a deep, often terrifying glimpse of corners of human nature that are frequently left unexplored, but these deep glimpses should not be confused with balanced, broad insights. Good social media resembles, more than anything, a great piece of microfiction: a snapshot that encapsulates a truth about a larger whole, told from an individual viewpoint.

At the risk of stating the obvious, details coming from social media should be regarded as suspect, just as any unverified information coming from a single source should be regarded as suspect. To blame this on social media, however, misses the larger point: people who are paid to report the news should verify what they report, or indicate how reliable(or unreliable) it is. Be transparent. Be honest. And if you happen to be at a situation where you can help, don't video the event rather than make it better.

But that's also just common sense. Before social media, these were the types of people who ran away from an emergency without doing anything. Now, ironically, they broadcast their inactivity, often using one of the many social media startups celebrated on the pages of Techcrunch.

PS: To find out about the latest and greatest mobile hardware, just browse Techcrunch's mobile section: Then, in a few months, they can complain about how you use the technology they cover.

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