Through My Eyes

Timing was everything.

My Take On The Evolution of Social Media and Online News

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This is an essay I wrote for my Evolution of Media class at the Academy of Art. Enjoy!

Introduction

What do we mean when we use the term: social media? According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, social media is –

“forms of electronic communication (as Web sites for social networking and micro-blogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (such as videos).”

If I remember correctly, social media wasn’t a buzzword until the early 2000’s. I was a senior at the University of California, Santa Barbara, sitting on the filthy, beer-stained couch in our living room, having just created my profile on a (then) little-known social networking site called Facebook. It was 2004. Two of my best friends (whom were also my roommates) made fun of me for signing up for something that was just going to aid in procrastination – as if living between a gorgeous beach and thick forested mountains didn’t already keep me from turning in papers on time. Sure, I had used Friendster (which had launched in 2002) and Myspace (2003) to keep in touch with friends I had made in Italy and Hong Kong during studies abroad, but this new Facebook site seemed to be catching on rapidly throughout campus. More and more of my friends became members every day.

Before Facebook, my friends and I were avid cell phone users – texting and calling one another to discuss what we planned to do over the weekend or where we were going that particular night. After Facebook became a more prominant force in our social lives, sharing calendars, plans, personal thoughts, and opinions became so much more efficient, frequent, and, inevitably, public. With the current popularity of location-based tracking applications (such as Foursquare) that allow people to “check in,” friends, family members, co-workers, and even acquaintances can’t help but feel overwhelmed, even inundated, with the amount of knowledge they have access to in regards to one another’s daily lives. Let’s admit it – it’s overkill, but, undeniably, addictive. When someone responds to (or re-tweets) your “tweet,” you feel a sense of accomplishment. I’d liken it to what one might feel if he or she were a comedian onstage and finally got a good laugh from the audience. To be noticed or recognized, even if by strangers, has become something web personalities, particularly those whom we call influencers, and even ourselves strive to achieve. Simply put, we’re attention whores.

Now, it’s not just about sharing the personal details of our lives with one another. There’s more to social media than that. Many individuals use social media to share what’s going on in the world around them. Whether it’s what’s happening down the street, on their block, in their neighborhood, city, state, or country, it’s a way for people to spread information. Companies, institutions, and organizations use social media and networking sites as marketing and advertising agents – some benefitting from the low (and many times no) cost to sign up for an account. When a company wants to promote a new product or service, all they have to do is “share” the campaign on their social networking page or site, and their followers, as well as the general public, can view the details and then spread the word by sharing with their own networks. It’s, ultimately, low cost publicity and a very modern way of operating business and encouraging engagement while maintaining customer relationships.

10 Beautiful Social Media Infographics (Mashable.com)

News organizations have also had to jump on the social media wagon or risk being left behind. In the past, newspapers mostly relied on paid subscriptions and revenue from newsstand and ad sales to operate and grow their readership and bottom line. With these limitations behind them, they are now better equipped to engage audiences on a global scale and begin conversations oceans away. Citizen journalists, especially dedicated bloggers, have risen to become a significant online population, contributing to breaking news stories and “hyper-local” updates. Social media has empowered the ordinary resident to act as a reporter representing his or her community. These tools have allowed people from all over the world to intimately share and follow real-time streams of information released during critical events such as Egypt’s political uprising and Japan’s devastating tsunami. As a result, reporters no longer have to take the time to put together perfect, nor complete, news packages to deliver pertinent information – he or she can do so with a tweet, status update, picture or video upload. Though this does call into question how much time and effort are allotted for fact checking. We may benefit from receiving immediate content, but are we getting accurate information? Unfortunately, that’s a compromise for which we might be settling.

Convergence

What does social media and online news have to do with convergence? How have these mediums evolved in the last decade?

Let’s first define convergenceand observe an example in media where it has occurred so that we have a better idea of what it is and why it is important for certain mediums. Convergence can be described as the instance when two or more of something become uniform or merge to achieve one goal or purpose. In my Evolution of Media course, we learned that, “Mediums do not disappear as new ones are developed. Rather, they supplement and complement one another (ie. TV is audio. Radio is print. Newspaper is television…etc.).” For instance, when a TV news program isn’t given enough time to cover a full story, the anchor or reporter might encourage the viewer to visit the station or channel’s website to find more information or details of the story.  In this case, the web content that is made available supplements the TV news story. With on-air time being costly and competitive to obtain, this is one way for the program to stay within budget and reach its audience in a communicative and engaging manner. In this advanced technological age, it is safe to assume that viewers also expect, and even demand, television channels or stations to have up-to-date and easy to navigate websites. If a station or channel lacked investment in this department, it would be a poor reflection of its vision and priorities to keep up with web savvy viewers.

In other cases, there are many individuals who prefer to get their news online as opposed to watching it on their televisions at home. With the applications that have been developed in the last decade, many are watching it on mobile devices during their daily commute to work. During any time of day, on BART or Muni, you will notice people of all ages, races, and ethnic groups carrying various tablets and mobile phones with decent sized screens in their hands. With these devices, they can access their Twitter feed or read news articles directly from digital journalism apps such as The Daily, created exclusively for the iPad.

When I asked my friend why she chose reading online news over watching it on TV, she said she prefers this format because it allows her a choice in what she is able to view. She has control over what type of news she wants to access, where it is coming from, and which category she is interested in learning more about. She doesn’t have to sit through anything she doesn’t want to know more about.

While many prefer to read the news on their mobile devices, some still listen to programs on their car radios during their commute. Programs such as NPR’s Fresh Air, This American Life, and Morning Edition have also benefitted from convergence, since many who listen to these audio programs might visit their websites to “share” the stories they heard earlier that morning. So, while it’s true that newspapers and radio programs are struggling to survive in this industry, they do have the opportunity to live on. Online, that is. This leads us to the question of how these mediums are able to survive online – one word: monetization.

Monetization

It is common sense in acknowledging that, “A medium will ultimately fail if it can’t find a way to make money.”[i] In order for businesses, organizations, and even non-profits to operate, there must be available funds from which to pay staff, create and maintain websites, lease real estate, purchase supplies, among other major expenses.

Newspapers and magazines are really struggling to survive due to the abundance of free content available to members of the online community. As a result, pay walls and paid access are necessary evils if these organizations want to stay in business. Solely relying on advertising dollars will no longer suffice.

How else can social media and online news organizations monetize their efforts? Perhaps sites can sell archived content for research or market surveys. Or, maybe an online news site can sell its most popular or “shared” articles in a publication, such as a collection of stories. These sites can also monetize their efforts by charging consumers who want to download apps for their mobile devices.

An app could be built to help consumers organize and archive their “likes.” For example, the app would create categories in the form of online folders where music, video, and article “likes” are stored forever and accessible to the user through a one-time payment. This concept is somewhat similar to a curator site called Pinterest, where the user can keep and “pin” images or items onto a virtual board. This saves them time from having to search for what they previously “liked.” Every future “like” is also stored and managed.

Acceptance

Some argue that there are too many social networking sites that exist today. These same individuals might complain about the fact that their lives are no longer private. With over 750 million active users on Facebook (according to its site), and counting, it is presumable that many individuals are accepting of the phenomenon that is social media. Professional networking sites like LinkedIn and new apps such as Google+ demonstrate the ease and comfort with which people allow internet entities to tap into their interests and online activities. We could argue all day about whether people want more social networking, but the numbers don’t lie. The point is: users opt-in to use these sites.

Facebook vs. Google+ (Singlegrain.com)

When there were major changes that occurred, such as the arrival and presence of Facebook ads and the infamous NY Times pay wall, users got heated and made demands that reflected the controversy of these business decisions. We, the users, have come to expect content that is free of charge. If the content lives online, and you are paying to access the internet, you should be able to access all information without any additional charges – right? Many share this opinion. However, how can one expect a news business to survive when ad revenues are on the decline, and there are no charges for the businesses’ product or service offered online? It just doesn’t make any sense, and readers must begin to accept that.

Another example of the public’s acceptance of online news is the concept of “user-generated content.” Everyday people record footage or audio and take still images, using their camera phones and Flip cameras, and contribute significantly to the content that is now available online. If you visit YouTube, the majority of videos and music posted are from people like you and I. We’re not getting paid to post content; we’re doing it voluntarily.

In terms of social media, the people have spoken. How many times have you logged onto the homepage of your Facebook or Twitter account and saw that your friend “Liked” a promotional campaign or a particular company’s page? We have proved that we love to participate and actively engage in social media. I know advertising copywriters, actors, journalists, artists, comedians, and writers who use Twitter to practice their wit and elicit feedback in the form of replies and re-tweets. They use it to identify what works, what appeals to the masses, what attracts immediate attention, and whether it’s positive or negative. Many filmmakers, founders, and creators also use social media to create buzz around their new films, companies, and ideas or to promote past work. A large number of individuals and teams have used crowd-funding sites such as Kickstarter to fund their projects and have had much success. So, you see, social media is actually multi-purpose, as well as multi-faceted.

Whether we like it or not, social media is here to stay. We have demonstrated the need and desire for it by having adopted it so readily in the last decade. This speaks volumes to companies who have the capability and scalability to provide such tools that help us connect with one another. We’re no longer in the age of information technology, we’ve moved way beyond that to become an extremely inter-connected society. It’s difficult to predict what social media will look like in the next ten years, but monetization is going to be the main priority, as opposed to solely coming up with the next biggest and brightest idea.


[i] John Scott, Evolution of Media lecture

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Written by winniewongsf

July 24, 2011 at 1:00 pm

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