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Friends, Followers and the Future: How Social Media Is Changing Our News and Our Lives

In his new book, Rory O'Connor traces the impact of social media on how we get our information -- and who we trust to bring it to us.

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SJ: When I talk to kids who are really enthusiastic about going into journalism, I have a hard time trying to figure out a way to tell them how to make a living.

RO: Well, but it’s always been tough making a living in journalism. I drove a taxi for two and a half years before I ever got my first job.

I would say that aspect of it is not necessarily new. I do feel like there’s a lot of openings now because the people who are running the legacy media no longer think they know what’s going on. Most of them don’t know what to do for the next step, but they know they’ve got to change. That’s a sea change, because when I was coming out they were quite convinced that they knew what they were supposed to do.

I worked in a lot of different contexts, including the networks and so on. I’ve had different experiences in not-for-profit and commercial and big and small, and cable and broadcast and so on. In the past these people were convinced that this is the way it’s always been and this is the way it should be. Just for example, what is the dominant metaphor in the television business? It’s control. They literally have the control room. So what that actually means is that they believe in this centralized hierarchical broadcast model of one to many. And that’s gone. Its heyday is over. It’s not coming back, okay?

Instead we have a completely different model, the flattened, democratized model. And that induces fear in people. It’s not surprising to me that they’re afraid, but it’s surprising to me that more people aren’t willing to go beyond their fear and say, well, this could be a positive for us if we actually are open to it.

SJ: In the book, you refer to social media as a form of access to the means of media production. Paul Mason says in his book Why It's Kicking Off Everywherethat what he calls “networked individuals,” who are using this many-to-many communications form, are actually changing the way we think and communicate, and are a fundamentally different type of person than we were before. What do you think about that?

RO: I think there may well be something to it, and in fact, I reference in my book the preliminary results of a study that Time Inc. was doing on that very topic. And what the preliminary results showed is that there’s some reason to believe that younger people, let’s say digital natives, that their brains are actually wired differently. Again, these were preliminary results, but it was suggested because the brains actually appeared in the scanning to be different. That would not surprise me if that was the case.

SJ: I also think that the culture of sharing online, specifically on social media, is changing the way we relate to property as well as to media. We don’t need to buy music, we can listen to music online. I wonder how much this stuff is really, really changing us.

RO: The key moment for me was when I decided I wanted to do a documentary on Wikipedia, and they were having, for the first time, something called Wikimania, where all the Wikipedians actually got together. I went over and I was shooting this documentary, and for days I was hearing people saying, “We have to share and nobody can be in control and you have to let go.”

And at a certain point in the middle of this week of being surrounded by these people all the time, a light bulb went off and I said, “I shouldn’t even be making a documentary. I should be making a Wiki-mentary.”

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