Social Media: The Ground Shifts: Social Networks Serving as Web Services, Not Sites, 'Create New Challenges for Journalists, News Organizations, and Media Companies That Are Only Now Starting to Embrace Social Media.'

By Gordon, Richard | Nieman Reports, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Social Media: The Ground Shifts: Social Networks Serving as Web Services, Not Sites, 'Create New Challenges for Journalists, News Organizations, and Media Companies That Are Only Now Starting to Embrace Social Media.'


Gordon, Richard, Nieman Reports


When the history of online journalism is written, it will be hard to ignore the biggest mistake made by news organizations and media companies: thinking of the World Wide Web as primarily a one-way broadcasting or publishing medium.

Back in 1996, when I was the first online director for The Miami Herald Publishing Company, I was as guilty of this misperception as anyone. Our team created discussion boards but hoped they'd require no attention from our staff. We didn't think that cultivating community or moderating discussions were appropriate or necessary roles for a journalist. And we ignored evidence right in front of us--our own behavior as online users--that the most powerful and persistent driver of Internet usage was the value of connecting with other people.

Today, with commenting opportunities available on almost any kind of content Web site, and with Facebook and Twitter empowering new forms of interpersonal communication online, it's hard to find a news organization that's not trying to tap into what we once would have called "online communities" and now more typically refer to as "social media."

So this may not be the ideal time to suggest that the social media landscape is continuing to be transformed in ways that journalists and news organizations will find confounding. Online communities and social networks, which historically have been formed on Web sites, are instead becoming Web services that shape people's digital lives across many sites and many communication channels. As online users and consumers, we will likely welcome and appreciate this transformation, but it will create new challenges for journalists, news organizations, and media companies that are only now starting to embrace social media.

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Facebook and Twitter

The two forces driving the latest evolution of interpersonal communication online are now well known: Facebook and Twitter. Savvy journalists and media leaders recognize how important these sites are, but many have not noticed what I think are their most significant attributes:

Facebook, through a service called Facebook Connect, now allows any other Web site to log in users with their Facebook ID instead of a site-specific login. Beyond that, Facebook Connect allows other sites to shape users' experiences through profile information, such as their list of Facebook friends.

Twitter, because it makes tweets available through an easily available Application Programming Interface (API), has enabled the creation of an enormous variety of applications that tap into its ever-growing database of 140-character snippets without requiring the user to visit Twitter.com.

Last year, Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li predicted: "... in the future, social networks will be like air." It will seem "archaic and quaint," Li wrote, that we had to go to a Web site to "be social." At the time, it wasn't easy to find the evidence that Li's prediction would come true any time soon. But now, changes at Facebook and Twitter are bringing the future more clearly into focus.

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Facebook officially launched Facebook Connect in December, after several months in which a few sites were invited to test it. Today, Facebook says more than 15,000 sites have implemented the service, including YouTube, CNN, Digg and Microsoft's XBox Live service for garners. While this means online users are becoming accustomed to being offered the option of logging in with their Facebook ID, they might not grasp just how novel this service is by the standards of traditional media thinking.

The revolutionary idea behind Facebook Connect is this: Facebook is encouraging other sites to create more engaging user experiences by leveraging the Facebook "social graph"--without needing to visit Facebook.com. This approach is completely counter to the thinking of traditional news organizations, which have been reluctant even to link to other sites for fear that users will click away and not come back.

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Social Media: The Ground Shifts: Social Networks Serving as Web Services, Not Sites, 'Create New Challenges for Journalists, News Organizations, and Media Companies That Are Only Now Starting to Embrace Social Media.'
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