Making social media work for you

Struggling to keep up with the never ending stream of information coming your way via social media? Fear not, you are not alone. That was the reassuring message from Mark Little of Storyful.com when he addressed the recent Dalkey Book Festival. As someone currently studying journalism and who works in IT, Little’s views on how IT and social media are changing the face of news are of particular importance to me.

The former RTE presenter – sitting astride a stool like a country and western singer who has forgotten his guitar – is evangelising to the 40 or so attendees who have congregated in the upstairs in Ouzo’s bar and grill on Dalkey’s Church Street. Now a self proclaimed social media “evangelist”, he believes he has seen the future of journalism and storytelling, a future in which we can all play a part. In the world of social media, he says, reporters will be replaced by witnesses and communities.

Powerbases will no longer be defined by whose job description reads “journalist”, but by who is closest to the action. The observer’s location, whether by choice or chance, is what will give them the scoop, enabling them to become a leader within the social conversation. These citizen journalists are the authentic leaders of such world events as the recent “Arab Spring”.

While the recent rioting in Vancouver was widely reported by both social and traditional media, it was through Facebook pages that people organised a large scale clean up of the destruction, as well as a place to post pictures of the rioters. For those afraid to take the next step, Little says – “dive in, the waters lovely, and it’s not that deep”.

As the big hitters that are Facebook and Twitter continue to grow, it is easy to curse social media for polluting our lives. In fact, the “always on” nature of the web and social media can leave consumers feeling overwhelmed. The Urban Dictionary defines this feeling best with the acronym FOMO – Fear of Missing Out. Whereas journalism and news organisations were once plagued by a scarcity of information, social media has turned this on its head.

The current buzzword in social media is curation, a process which Little defines as consisting of three steps: discovery, verification, and delivery. Verification can prove particularly tricky. An obvious downside to anyone and everyone being able to enter the social conversation is that people can tell untruths, either deliberately or by mistake. There is little use picking out what you believe to be the truth if it cannot be verified. With upwards of 110 million tweets sent per day and 48 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, those with a genuine FOMO face an impossible task.

Little is aware of the turn offs faced by those who wish to embrace social media, realising that 99.9% of what it out there is “basically people talking about what they had for breakfast”, he says. The 0.1%, however, is a more authentic form of reporting than ever before. While some journalists will fear the democratisation of news gathering, Little believes that those who love the form will revel in the open communication within these online communities, where the aloofness and status once afforded to those with a press pass is consigned to an out of date, offline world.

Harking back to his time presenting Prime Time, Little welcomes this shift, believing that there is “something fantastic about being challenged by a bigger community of people”.

Storyful has put Ireland at the heart of making this influx of information useful. As a result of its curation process, the venture is succeeding, and succeeding globally, with YouTube’s news department, broadcast on its CitizenTube channel, being curated by them. I wonder whether our long and proud history of Sean Nós storytelling has the ability to put Ireland on a world stage once again. Just as our Defence Forces are known far and wide for their peace keeping abilities, I believe that Ireland has the potential to become the peace keepers of social media, with Storyful merely the tip of the iceberg.

Asked the question of whether social media cheapens tradition journalism, he believes that “journalists never earned any money from writing” but instead earned it from classified advertising. “The content was never a commodity that could be sold”, he believes. Having worked in what can be classed as traditional journalism for many years, and while understanding their worry, he believes that “journalists have to get over themselves” and must realise that “we only ever have use if we have value”.

News content, he believes, needs to be free, but what the 140 character snippets coming from Twitter will never do adequately, is to provide the necessary context. This is where the print media will continue to have a part to play. Damningly, he believes that “there is way too much talk about saving newspapers. I don’t want to save newspapers; I do want to save journalism”. “How people consume is of no interest to me as long as we are getting quality and authenticity”, he says.

Responding to my point about what I deemed to be a watershed moment recently with the announcement that The Guardian News and Media was to become a digital-first organisation, Little replied that steps such as this are “the responsibility of the leaders, the managers” of print media.

Caution is required, however, to ensure to not destroy the advertising revenue generated from the print edition, and, indeed, its sales. That said, when he says he refuses to “pay for a newspaper to tell me what I found out on Twitter 3 days ago”, it’s hard not to see his point, and to see the major challenges which lie ahead for Ireland’s traditional media outlets.

As someone who holds a BSC in computing and 7 years experience as a Software Engineer, even I struggle to keep up with the pace at which social media is evolving. For those thinking of stepping away from social media due to the volume of information coming their way, I would say this; do not cut off your nose to spite your face. Let the curators do the work for you. This new world that we find ourselves in is not going to change anytime soon. As the generations that follow come into the world, what we are struggling to get to grips with will be normal to them. If you give up now, you really will be left behind.

For the most part, this social media “evangelist” was preaching to the converted, but I still walked away feeling excited at what this still new platform holds for journalists the world over. Despite the hurdles that the industry currently faces, I found his views inspiring. While Little has for now moved on from the more traditional form of journalism, I believe that both can co-exist. As long as the message can be delivered successfully to those who want or need to get it, the medium remains secondary.

Once home, I wanted to ask if I could quote him for this article. But how could I reach him, having only met him for the first time earlier that evening? Via Twitter of course! And did he respond to his community? I believe this article answers the question.

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