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Now that Twitter is Writing the First Draft of History, Where Does that Leave Journalists?

Iran changes everything.

Lots of professional journalists are pretty mad at the web. They blame it for sucking away ad dollars that pay their salaries. They view blogs and social media as low quality, unoriginal, and owing their existence to the work produced by real journalists. The wonderful writer Buzzr Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights, spoke for many reporters last year when as a guest on Bob Costas’ HBO show he denounced blogs as being “dedicated to journalistic dishonesty” and responsible for “the complete dumbing down of our society.”

In February of 2008, I wrote an essay for FastCompany.com, a website I ran, called The Media is Social arguing that journalism and community-generated content should become a tightly-integrated hybrid. The digerati approved; lots of professional journalists made it clear to me they did not.

But anyone who still believes that social media is anything other than a powerful force for good and must be part of the new digital journalism (which before too long, will be almost all journalism), isn’t getting the profound media lessons from the 2009 revolution in Iran: Twitter is writing the first draft of history.

We used to say that about journalism. A few reporters in Tehran, though, simply can’t compare to the thousands of Iranians capturing the street revolution on cell phone and digital camera videos, as well as blogs and tweets, and distributing their observations with the help of Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and all sorts of other people-powered channels that didn’t exist five years ago. (Yes, it’s not just Twitter, although Twitter has become emblematic of all social media these days.  It’s just more fun to say than “social media.”)

As the Economist pointed out, CNN was running a Larry King repeat on June 13, just as Twitter lit up with news of the street protests. If you were in the U.S. and wanted to see the protests almost in real time, your only choice was links from Twitter to videos uploaded by Iranian citizens. CNN was wall-to-wall with coverage by June 16th – but what were they showing? A selection of those very same videos from street protesters.

A few journalists were braving the streets (at risk of death) but they couldn’t be everywhere at once.  And the important images – of men and women being shot and beaten by Iranian authorities, and huge crowds assembling – were captured by “citizen journalists,” not pros.

I got tired of watching the same few dramatic videos rerun over and over by CNN. So I went to YouTube and found a channel called “CitizenTube” with dozens of videos from Iran.   Amazing images – large crowds repelling cadres of police by tossing back tear gas canisters thrown at them, bloodied men being hurriedly carried off the streets, calm corners suddenly erupting with storms of people.

How extraordinary if this technology had been available just a few decades ago. The Warsaw ghettos as Jews were murdered in the streets and rounded up on cattle cars. Turkey as its native Armenians were slaughtered during and after WWI.  Cambodia in the time of Pol Pot.

Many of these stories took years or decades to emerge.  How would history have changed in these places with he same flood of citizen media now focused on Iran? Even a great work of investigative journalism, no matter how brilliant and well-documented, does not have anywhere near the impact of thousands of almost real-time videos, photos and accounts by tens of thousands of people.

I’m not arguing that what ills the world will be solved by social media. Only that at least it will be better documented. As the Iran story continues to unfold, if I had to choose between countless citizens with cell phones or, a dozen western journalists in Teheran, I’d choose the former without hesitation.  Journalists are more easily intimidated, more easily followed and often don’t know where and when the action is happening until after the fact.

Yet, I don’t want to sort through all those thousands of videos and tweets and blogs myself.  Nor do I think social media sites have yet created tools to adequately filter out what’s most relevant, though Twitter is coming closest.

Twitter has tools for real people to recommend stuff they like best on the service: “RT”, or retweet, is one; another is the follower/following system – everyone on the service gets to choose whose posts to follow. Doesn’t take too long, usually, to decide if someone is worth your time. People also can set up their own “hash tags” to create a stream of tweets on the same subject. Google has its analytics engine and YouTube its star ratings and recommendation engine to help filter the wheat from the chafe. But Twitter is mostly human powered, and that seems to work best for following real-time news.

Journalists everywhere need to jump in to the fray. I think one of the most critical functions of news organization expecting to survive and thrive over the next few years will be to curate and analyze social media content, whether collected from external sources, (the New York Times blog, The Lede, is headed in this direction) or from their own readers (CNN’s iReport is a great early example.)

News organizations should spend time developing their own networks of reliable sources from among the social media masses; and they need to give context as to whether particular content being disseminated online is trustworthy.  And even with professional analysis, readers still want to see the original material – and I think, a lot of it.  Summarizing is not enough – readers want video embeds, real-time tweet round ups, and links out to the best material. Major media websites have been way too parsimonious to date with engaging their readers with the rest of the web.

Curating and analyzing social media can be an important and honorable journalistic endeavor – the digital equivalent of working an old-fashioned beat, ferreting out good sources, not being misled by others.

Right now, trusted media brands are in a good place to serve this role. And trumpet what they’re doing prominently on their homepages, instead of relegating it to a side blog. As with everything on the web, if the mainstream companies don’t get it fast enough, start-ups will.

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The Media is Social — 2/28/2007

The following is a February, 2008 reprint from my blog at FastCompany.com. http://www.fastcompany.com/article/media-social At the time, I ran FastCompany.com as president of Mansueto Digital.

Fast Company is about to shake things up again. Back in 1995, in our first issue, we announced on our cover: “Computing is Social.” It became a Fast Company mantra and helped open the eyes of a generation of entrepreneurs to the possibilities of the Internet.

In November of 1997, before social networking on the Web was called social networking, FastCompany.com started the “Company of Friends,” dubbed the “Fast Company Readers’ Network.”

The network featured members’ professional profiles, online business discussions that were moderated by volunteer group coordinators, and in-person monthly meet-ups of more than 200 regional groups around the world. (Sound familiar? MeetUp.com was founded five years later in 2002 and LinkedIn followed in 2003.)

As progressive as Fast Company was, serving our online community of about 100,000 members was a secondary mission to creating great editorial content.

But no more.

Starting today, we become the first major media website to tackle the following problem: Can a business publication blend journalism and online community to create something better than either by itself?

We think so. If done right. That’s what we’ve been thinking about and working on at FastCompany.com for more than a year now.

Why bother in the first place? I could get high minded and talk a bit about what my colleague Jeff Jarvis of http://www.BuzzMachine.com [1] and the director of the new media program at the City University of New York calls the rise of “networked journalism [2].”

There are a lot of important reasons why amateurs should be powerfully enabled to participate in journalistic endeavors.

But we’re also doing it because it’s fun. It’s innovative. And it’s very Fast Company.

So what is it?

First off, here’s what it’s not: It’s not a pure social network. A pure social network tries to recreate what Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook calls the “social graph [3]” of a community that already exists. You go to Facebook or MySpace and find the friends and co-workers you already know. The real world gets reproduced virtually. Maybe you meet a friend of a friend.

We’re not that.

We’re an entirely new community of people brought together because we want to share ideas about business. We like business. We think it’s important. Work gives more meaning to our lives. We believe business profoundly helps define our culture.

We don’t always know each other yet. We’re an open community. Feel free to introduce yourself to a stranger with interesting ideas. Try not to pay too much attention to the resume info on their profile pages – pay attention to their ideas, what they write or say.

Personalized profiles collect most everything a member contributes to the site: from a blog if you choose to write one, to your answers to daily questions from our editors, and much, much more.

If members participate actively, we’ll all get to know each other very well.

Second, the site is not an end to professional journalism. We’re still the website of one of the most influential business magazines in the world. Journalists like Robert Safian, Ellen McGirt, Chuck Salter, Linda Tischler, Will Bourne, Charles Fishman, and Adam Penenberg will continue to produce thought-provoking, ground breaking stories.

Our newest online FastCompany.com editorial employee, superstar tech blogger Robert Scoble, http://www.scobleizer.com [4] will continue to cover Davos and CES and SouthbySouthWest. We’ll even be introducing a full slate of professional video programming (featuring Scoble and Shel Israel, among others) on http://www.fastcompany.tv [5] on March 3.

We are, however, an open forum.

Write an interesting blog post [5] and you’ll find yourself featured on the homepage of FastCompany.com alongside Scoble, McGirt and Fishman.

Respond to one of our articles and you may find yourself in an exchange with the author. Or perhaps you’ll add the author to your contact list so you can keep talking about related issues.

Suggest an interesting Fast Talk [5] question for the community to debate and you’ll find not only fellow readers mixing it up but our writers and editors as well.

Contribute a provocative video [5] and tens of thousands of our million monthly visitors might take a look.

Join a group [5] centered around a Fast Company core topic and engage other experts in your field.

Fast Company is about eight core topics: innovation, technology, leadership, management, design, social responsibility, careers, and work/life balance.

When you contribute content to the site, you can tag the content according to one of these topics and add your own free-form tags. We’ll automatically tag certain content, too (if, for instance, you’re responding to something, like an article about technology, that’s been previously tagged).

Will we stray off-topic once in a while? Sure. It’s sometimes too much fun to resist. For the most part, only the content and groups that fit our business-focused mission will bubble up to be featured on the site. That’s part of what our editors will be looking for.

We intend to stay a site centered around business conversation and that makes us unique. Facebook and MySpace already do a good job as general-interest sites. LinkedIn is a site for professionals to manage contacts. We’re different.

Third, we’re not chasing a fad. We’ve been in the business of online community for a decade. Opening up the site to deeply ingrain it with the voices of our millions of online and print readers has been a goal we’ve had since our owner, Joe Mansueto, gave us the means to realize this vision when he took over in 2005.

To make the vision a reality, we have become heavily invested in the Open Source movement. FastCompany.com is now one of the most sophisticated websites built on the open-source platform Drupal [6].

We’ve worked with some of the most talented user-interface experts [7] and Drupal [8] developers [9] in the world to build our platform and we’ve staffed up internally to become one of the best Drupal shops in the nation. Our office is now the New York home of the monthly Drupal meet-up.

Open source allows us to take advantage of the work of thousands of developers contributing back their work free-of-charge to the platform. We hope the development work we contribute back will help to improve all sites running on the Drupal platform. We’re committed to supporting OpenID, the movement to allow portability of a member’s own data from one site to another. (When you register [9] at FastCompany.com, feel free to import your LinkedIn, Gmail, Yahoo mail, or Outlook contacts. If Facebook opens their “walled garden [10],” we’ll help you import those contacts, too.)

Finally, we don’t intend to be a closed-site. We want to share our model and our technology. We’d like to join with like-minded sites and to share the software we’ve spent a year developing – if they’ll join us in an open network where members can easily find each other and engage in a dialogue.

If you’re interested, just become a member of FastCompany.com. That’s where you’ll find me [10].

We think our site will help change how traditional media websites think about online community. It’s shouldn’t be bolted-on to the main website as a side show. And it’s not something only pure-play start ups can do well. In fact, media websites can leverage their editorial staff to develop a deeply engaging conversation with and amongst their community. It’s a model the pure plays can’t even compete with.

Community should be at the core of all media sites. From now on, we’ll see that social media doesn’t need to be separate from traditional media. The Media is Social.

Edward Sussman is the president of the Mansueto Digital network of sites, which includes FastCompany.com [11], Inc.com [12], IncBizNet.com [13], IncTechnology.com [14] and starting in March, FastCompany.TV [15] and Scobleizer.com [16].


Links:
[1] http://www.buzzmachine.com
[2] http://www.buzzmachine.com/2006/07/05/networked-journalism/
[3] http://blogs.zdnet.com/BTL/?p=5156
[4] http://www.scobleizer.com
[5] http://www.fastcompany.tv
[6] http://www.drupal.org
[7] http://www.bondartscience.com/
[8] http://www.lullabot.com
[9] http://www.achieveinternet.com/
[10] http://scobleizer.com/2007/08/02/the-latest-shiny-social-object-an-opencontrollable-social-network/
[11] http://www.fastcompany.com
[12] http://www.inc.com
[13] http://www.incbiznet.com
[14] http://www.inctechnology.com
[15] http://www.fastcompany.tv
[16] http://www.scobleizer.com


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Filed under journalism, Media, online communities, social networking