Contribution to the Debate „Digital Lifestyle Day 2011“
Much has been talked about the importance of „social media“ in a digital age. Yet the term itself is a double tautology. Media is always social unless we conceive of it strictly as the technical transmission of information and signals between two locations. Journalistic platforms are social by definition. They contribute to political and cultural discourse by providing topical, chronological and social synchronization – an invaluable service in a global network society. But there is something else that renders „social media“ a tautology: the term itself is temporary, it will vanish as soon as the concept becomes accepted reality. In the future, it will not make sense to talk about „non-social“ media. Everything is online. Explicit references to social aspects become redundant as our online activities are connected to and embedded in the interactive communication platforms that we call social media today.
The internet did not usher in the complete re-invention of media by spawning the likes of Facebook and Twitter. But it demands a radical shift from those who have thus far been responsible for running media outlets and for practicing journalism. These professionals remain hesitant to embrace the current shift. That is not surprising, given that many long-held convictions are being challenged by technological progress. Until today, journalism found itself cushioned by its unchallenged position. Journalists explained the world largely without having to question the models upon which their analyses were based. Corrections were the exception rather than the norm, communication happened only in one direction: from the media to the audience.
Suddenly, the rules of the game have changed. Citizens have become „citizen journalists“ and help to define the journalistic agenda through new communication platforms. They provide information, critical feedback and pictures to local events and global developments. Articles and op-ed pieces are shared, tagged, linked to, quoted and re-published across a large range of platforms. And journalists themselves are now faced with the need to take responses from their readers seriously. The media landscape is more diversified and more interactive than ever before.
But readers don’t just consume the work or professional journalists and respond to it. They set topics themselves. Story ideas often originate within communities that grapple with a specific question – and the subsequent research is crowdsourced in ways that are impossible to achieve within the rigid environment of the traditional newsroom. Thousands of people have helped the British newspaper The Guardian to analyze more than 450,000 receipts for expenses from parliamentarians to uncover potential instances of fraud. Hints for investigative stories result not only from journalistic work but also from information passed around in social networks (as long as journalists understand how to use them). Data from organizations such as Wikileaks even requires the re-conceptualization of journalistic work and the participation of many. Enormous amounts of data must be carefully combed and analyzed to reveal newsworthy facts and connections – a task that any single newsroom is poorly equipped to fulfill.
The consequence of these developments is paradigmatic change in nine different areas of journalism:
1) Journalists risk losing their authoritative voice.
2) New roles emerge. Journalists serve as aggregators or brokers; they collect and analyze information and serve as links between different communities.
3) There is no single audience. Readers can be grouped into communities that differ in the degree of their activity.
4) Corporate brands are replaced or supplemented by personality-driven brands.
5) No journalistic product will ever be „finished“. Articles remain in the beta stage; they are updated and changed over time.
6) The writer/reader hierarchy breaks down. It is replaced by the permanent interaction between different participants that can serve as either reader or writer at different points in time.
7) Journalists who ignore the collaborative and communicative potential of the Internet are sidelined by those who embrace it.
8) There is no „offline“ opinion. The internet is the arena of opinion formation. It is arrogant for any journalist to assume superiority of intellect or knowledge over his readers.
9) The Internet reveals mistakes and carelessness. It deconstructs journalistic pieces for their poor quality.
Not surprisingly, many journalists dread these developments. It is difficult to abandon established modes of thought and work habits and open up to new technologies and communication practices. It is less exhilarating to get news reports from twitter updates than it is to travel yourself or communicate with a global network of correspondents. But most importantly, it is hard to accept for the self-proclaimed explainers that they might lose their authoritative voice and protected institutional position. They are no longer sheltered by the brand of their publication or by their hierarchical position within the editorial staff. Only by presenting quality arguments – and by linking their contributions to discourses and discursive spaces on the internet – will they be able to distinguish themselves.
Information is power. Journalists know that; and so does anyone else with an interest to present their point of view to the general public without an intermediary filter. That was the rationale behind the creation of „embedded journalists“ who merged with military forces to report directly from the front lines. The same analogy can be used to describe the changes taking place right now. Journalists are embedded into processes of collaborative production of information and stories. They are embedded into communities instead of towering above their audiences. If they want to survive in the age of crowdsourcing, they are well advised to heed the words of their embedded colleagues: ‚I am only a small part, neither especially knowledgeable nor especially important. If I want to survive, I better adjust to the new situation‘.