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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.

Photo Credit: City Lights


AlterNet co-presents Rory O'Connor at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco on Tuesday, May 1, at 7pm. Event info here

Rory O'Connor is betting on the future of media.

The author of a new book, Friends, Followers and the Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands and Killing Traditional Media , just published by City Lights, O'Connor is a longtime journalist who's seen sweeping changes to his profession. Unlike many with his experience, however, O'Connor is optimistic about the new, more democratic, more widely distributed future of media, and he lays that argument out in his book, looking at how Facebook, Twitter and other new media have radically transformed the way we get our news.

O'Connor took some time to talk to AlterNet about his book, his research and why he thinks that providing access to the means of media production to millions of citizens is democratizing the news.

Sarah Jaffe: Trust was a major theme of your book and of the problems that the media are having right now. Could you elaborate on that for us a little bit? 

Rory O'Connor: I would actually go a little further and say trust is the central theme of the book. I think that is the central issue before all of us, journalists and non-journalists, in a new media world. We’ve got this tsunami of information that we never had before at our fingertips. And the first response, of course, was, “Wow, great. We’ve got all this information.”

But then it becomes so overwhelming that the next response is, oh, my God, look at all this information. How can I process it? How can I separate signal from noise, wheat from chaff? How can I find what’s really valuable without drowning in the flood?

So the issue then becomes, how do I find trustworthy news and information? Having valuable information that’s credible is becoming increasingly important as we become more and more of an information-centered society.

I also think that the issue of “Can we trust the providers of the tools and technologies that have empowered us?” obviously becomes another big issue. And then in addition, now that the politicians are making their own media, can we trust what they’re saying?

And obviously big brands of all sorts, not just legacy brands, but across a very wide spectrum are coming in for scrutiny. In the past that was the definition of a brand, that I trust them, I know them over time, I bought their products, I know they’ll be good and they’re consistent. I think that by the creation of these new brands, we’ve created this system of micro-brands now that’s stretching the very meaning or the past meaning of what a brand is, to the point at which it may no longer even be a useful term. If everybody’s a brand, then what does it mean to be a brand?

SJ: As the old media brands decline, a lot of the big ones that are rising up, the Googles and the Facebooks--they’re not content producers, they’re content purveyors or they’re connecting engines, but they’re not producing news. So where does that leave those of us who still produce the news?

RO: My take on this is probably 180 degrees diametrically opposed to the conventional wisdom. I actually think that this is one of the most fertile and potentially best times in the history of journalism, because the barriers to entry that were so much higher decades ago, when I started doing this, have almost gone away. And it’s a time of great experimentation. I think there’s a great opportunity for people to get into a field when a field is changing so rapidly.

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