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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: Getting back to the corporations that know everything about us now, you mentioned in the book that the executives at Facebook talk about reconfiguring the idea of public and private. What does that mean, for journalism and also for progressives or civil libertarians?

RO: What it means for journalists, that’s something that people even now are debating. Let’s say a news event happens, one of the first things that any journalist does now is immediately go to social media and see what they can find out. But there’s a debate coming up now, and the AP is considering what standards should be in this regard. What somebody posted on Twitter, if something happens to them, the next thing you know their private lives might be splashed out on the AP wire or the  New York Times.

Now, is the stuff public? Well, yes. So, for journalists, this is actually a matter of some debate. People are trying to look at evolving standards and practices as to how to best deal with that.

In terms of the other issue--I don’t think it’s a progressive issue, it’s a privacy issue. This brings us full circle because if these large companies repeatedly violate your privacy, what happens? You say, “I can’t trust you.”

That’s why we get back to the central issue. All of the other spokes in my book always come out of trust. Now, it’s privacy, I can’t trust them, because they keep making my private stuff public without even asking me. All of these issues are coming up in this new world and they all evolve around that one central issue of trust. I think the privacy one is the big trust issue and I think that more and more people are saying, “I don’t trust Facebook, I don’t trust Google.”

And in the end, if you are a big brand, isn’t that really all you have is trust? You don’t have a trust relationship with your customers, in the end your brand is going to suffer and your company is going to suffer. I think that’s what’s happening. Google, in particular, is in bad shape now because they have the same privacy and trust issues as Facebook, but it’s compounded by the fact that we’re moving into a world where social is replacing search, and they’re a search company and they can’t do social. Are they going to go away? No. But they could go away in the sense of being the dominant internet phenomenon that they were for the last 10 years.

I mean, Microsoft is obviously still a very big and profitable company. But nobody looks to Microsoft for any cutting-edge things anymore.

SJ: Biz Stone (co-founder of Twitter) told you that Twitter is social media, but is not a social network. What do you think he means by that?

RO: I think he’s right. A social network is a very particular thing and Twitter is not that, because Twitter is not so much about the relationships per se. Twitter is a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I have always found it, right from the inception, a tremendous journalistic tool, for example. People who don’t really do Twitter or understand Twitter always say, “Well, how could you say anything meaningful in 140 characters?” But Twitter is about the link economy. Facebook is a lot more than that. They perform, very, very different functions in the social universe.

SJ: Facebook still has this custom of using your own name, your picture, it tends to be people you already know. Whereas I follow lots of people on Twitter that I’ve never met, I have no idea who they are, and a lot of cases I don’t know what their real name is. But we’ve been interacting, in some cases since 2008, on this silly little thing where we talk 140 characters at a time. It goes back to the idea of many to many and which many.

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