By Sarah-Jane CollinsMarch 29, 2012
As the internet grows more sophisticated, our individual interests and interactions will determine what we see and consume.
How we consume the news has shifted, with more and more people clicking through links posted by friends on Facebook and Twitter. What we see online increasingly is targeted to our singular interests, and the news we view is self-selected.
In response, newsrooms and producers are changing how they think about the news of the day and experimenting with crowd-sourcing — using social networks, blogs and on-the-ground accounts collected by "citizen journalists". The most obvious example of this is The Guardian's recent shift to an "Open" newsroom. "I think there's a break now between the 19th and 20th century idea of a journalist and a journalist today," Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said in a video posted as part of the newspaper's campaign.
At the same time, the more "shares" a story gets, the more powerful it becomes, even if it would not always be thought in traditional newsrooms to deserve such power.
For so long a one-way street, the news — what we see and when we see it — is determined much more now by us, by our web interaction. A case in point: Late last year, United States-based content aggregator Buzzfeed (think pictures of cats that look like fonts, or celebrity gossip, or anything that ratchets up the hits) hired an editor. And a dozen reporters.
"Scoop generators" they called them. Buzzfeed could afford to hire an editorial team because their aggregation work was pulling eyeballs and, most importantly, advertising to their site. The money was coming in off the back of successful user-sharing, and it allowed them to branch out — or perhaps step backwards — into the traditional world of journalism.
Buzzfeed's expansion is indicative of a trend in the news industry. We know people increasingly are getting their news online, but how much of the news we see there is now being shaped by the news we share?
More than ever before audiences are influencing the news cycle, shifting the priorities of editors, who are allocating resources in different directions. In February 2012, The Age's Editor-in-Chief Paul Ramadge told the Melbourne Press Club that "digital journalism will dominate" within two years. "Newsrooms will be smaller, more focused, and more responsive to audiences," he said. Yes, that's been going on over a long period with eyeballs, clicks and unique browsers at the core of any outlet's online strategy — but as search engines and social networks tweak their systems to allow incredibly narrow targeting and easy, integrated sharing, the pressure on news to penetrate and spread, virus-like, across the web has reached new intensity.
We sort of know it as Web 3.0. It's social media, linked in to traditional media, utilised across multiple platforms and delivery methods. Storify, a web tool that gathers up what people are saying on social media about an event or issue and condenses it into a "story", and its use by mainstream media outlets is a good example. It's the integration of our social profiles into our working ones, and our private networks into our public ones. And what it means for news, and the people who make news, is that there is suddenly a much easier way to find out what hits the spot with an audience — what inflames passions, what people care about enough to share. And those actions enable editors, aggregators, journalists and "citizen journalists" to tap into what's making people talk. Right now.
These days, the social network Facebook is ubiquitous. It's insidious. It's affecting your job prospects. It's selecting what advertising you see based on what you do online. It's reshaping the news agenda, and increasingly, determining what news you choose to consume.
In Australia, Nielsen's Online Consumer Landscape survey estimates that almost half of all Australians are active social networkers.
Andrew Gregson is the London-based head of Media 140, an international social media outfit that consults on social media through workshops and conferences.
He told The Global Mail: "News is evolving beyond the single story, there is a much more collaborative approach to the creation of news... Given the right tools, data and resources news can be investigative, crowd-sourced and managed on a very large scale.
"The future of news within social media, I think, is one of collaboration and curation — where the power of distributed research and eyewitnesses, coupled with a focused direction of resources, leads us to richer and more powerful news mediums."
More than an extension of traditional news gathering, in some cases social media is driving the news cycle — a change that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
"You often see stories that break through social media or events which typically the mainstream would not have had the resources to cover. There is also a trend of the mainstream picking up on viral stories, videos and content through social media — in effect mainstream mirroring what's happening within these social networks," Gregson says.
Is this a good thing?
"The decentralisation of content production is eroding the value of news and traditional journalism. This will be compounded by a generation of digital natives who… will find news through social networks. This is already happening, if you look at how Facebook generates such vast traffic for new organisations."
Who hasn't seen the KONY 2012 video? Or the endless stream of don't-buy-into-the-hype blowback? In the bluntest terms, Joseph Kony, and his army of child soldiers is not "news". It's not new, there are no new developments, nothing had happened leading up to the release of the KONY 2012 video that would have made a news editor choose to run a story about the Ugandan war criminal. But for whatever reason — slick production values, a horrific narrative, the relative ease of online sharing — suddenly the man and his crimes were all over the news.
So after years of debate and actions, including charges laid in the International Criminal Court out of the spotlight, finally the western world was interested in Kony. That pressure has spurred the African Union to form a brigade to hunt him down.
University of Canberra journalism academic Julie Posetti says that's a good example of news consumers shaping news content.
"It's not just about a video going viral — and the same thing happened with Iran during the 2009 uprising," she says.
"I think what it reflects is the need for journalists not to make assumptions about audiences [or to] think that it's only entertainment stories that rate.
"I hear this all the time from journalists concerned about the future of investigative journalism and long-form journalism and quality journalism, that it is all going to be under threat in the social media age, But I think we'll continue to see different audiences for different content, and the beauty of social media is we'll see audiences who may not have [otherwise discovered a story] getting access to that sort of information through the social feeds they are a part of."
Posetti says newsrooms must adapt and engage with their audiences, or they will be left behind.
"The fundamental shift goes to a literal upheaval of control and power in terms of curation — the way in which decisions are made about what gets put out, how it is put out and what order it gets put out," she says.
"We used to have this very top-down model of news dissemination and information dissemination, with the editors and producers and journalists up top and the audience at the bottom as humble receivers, and now we have a situation where the audience is choosing what it is consuming, how it is consuming and when it wants to consume it and more importantly sharing it in this much more parallel model."
The Nielsen survey found that throughout 2011 the number of people "liking" posts on Facebook increased 11 per cent. And the number of people using a "share" button to post articles and content online increased from 39 per cent to 46 per cent.
The top two uses of social media, according to Nielsen, are browsing other people's content (72 per cent of social networkers do this) and reading other people's reviews and discussions of "brands, products and services" (71 per cent). Social networkers are interested to know what their friends and colleagues think, consume and recommend.
"It's the rate of increase that this is happening that is incredible. It's people making choices to trust their friends and their family as recommenders of content over and above what editors and journalists might do," Posetti says. "They really are fundamentally influencing the news agenda and fundamentally influencing the business model."
Social networks such as Twitter and Facebook are huge influencers, not just of news production, but also of brand strategy. The networks' engagement tools, allowing highly targeted advertising, have helped drive the shift towards the personalised web — something driven also by the biggest web-influencer, Google, adopting increasingly targeted search functions.
The links Google delivers when you enter a term into the search box will be different for every user. Your Google search is based on your browsing history and the things you've chosen to view before. It's tailored to you. As are the ads in your news feed on Facebook. That kind of feature, allowing advertisers to micro-target their best audience, is worth a lot of money and has helped drive the integration of news sharing into social media.
The more we share, the more the network knows about our interests, our preferences, our idiosyncrasies. Reading a travel story about Vietnam? Maybe you'll get a tour company popping up in the sidebar with special deals to Hanoi.
In the future web, like-minded consumers and companies may simply circulate in an endless feedback loop. That creeping self-selection was the basis for a book by online political organizer Eli Pariser, called The Filter Bubble, released in May 2011.
"If I search for something, and you search for something, even right now at the very same time, we may get very different search results. Even if you're logged out, one engineer told me, there are 57 signals that Google looks at — everything from what kind of computer you're on to what kind of browser you're using, to where you're located — that it uses to personally tailor your query results. Think about it for a second: there is no standard Google anymore," he said in a TED talk.
So in that kind of environment, perhaps Twitter and Facebook become more important as tools for sharing and influencing news, because people might find something that they otherwise wouldn't have seen. We can choose our browsing habits, but we can't choose our friends' and as they post their own interests online the reach of an article or idea will increase.
But America's Pew Research Centre's Project for Excellence in Journalism annual report on journalism in America — the State of the News Media 2012 — found that in that country at least, sharing news via social networks is not as common as we might expect it to be.
"The population that uses these networks for news at all is still relatively small, especially the part that does so very often. Moreover, these social media news consumers have not given up other methods of getting news, such going directly to websites, using apps or through search," Pew found.
The research found that only nine per cent of online news consumers "very often" follow recommendations from Facebook or Twitter. That is significantly less than the 36 per cent who go directly to news outlets, the 32 per cent who search for it through sites like Google, or the 29 per cent using apps. But people are spending a lot of time on Facebook — in the US users spent an average of 423 minutes on the site in December 2011. Far longer than the average of less than 12 minutes for the top 25 news sites.
Still, the market for news sharing is growing, and with more the 800 million unique accounts across the globe, Facebook is gaining more and more control of how we exchange information online. In Australia, media organisations are responding to social media by appointing social media reporters — The Age, The Herald Sun, The ABC and The Australian all have people in these roles, to name a few — encouraging readers to contact and follow journalists on Twitter and adding sharing buttons to their content.
Perhaps the single biggest step towards the integration of the social web and news was Facebook's decision to collaborate with news organisations to build in-Facebook apps that allow users to read stories without leaving the website. Called social readers, the tools have been incredibly successful, according to Facebook.
"Yahoo! News has seen a 600 per cent increase in traffic coming from Facebook, and people who connect to Facebook on Yahoo! read more articles than the average user," Facebook developer Austin Haugen blogged in November 2011.
Yahoo! is not the only success story.
Facebook sights impressive traffic figures for other partners, including The Washington Post, The Guardian and The Independent. One statistic that's sure to please anxious newspaper executives is the share of the social reader audience in the younger demographic.
Some 83 percent of the Washington Post's social reader users are under 35, which is surely a big increase on the number of younger readers of the newspaper's print edition. In 2010, the number of Americans aged between 18 and 34 who read a print edition of a newspaper daily fell to 25 percent.
The future is sharing. And integration. The future is algorithm-curated search engines that decide what we want to see. The future is an online world folded into our concrete world. Available on every device, linked up through user profiling that guesses what you like and what you want, and offers handy hints on what to buy, and where to go based on what your browsing choices and interactions say about you.
The future is a little bit creepy, and it's already here.