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

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.

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 Everywhere that 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.”

So I did all the shooting and then uploaded all of the media, all the tapes, into the cloud, and I cut my own piece which I put up there, and I also put up the script. But then I said, “Here’s all the media, so maybe you can make a truer version. You can modify my version, or you can make a whole version yourself.”

It was really a departure for me because I actually had to consciously say “I have to let go.” Again, if you’re thinking documentary film, what do they call that? The director. There’s a reason we have all these terms; they’re metaphors for the reality, the underlying subconscious underpinnings.

That was around 2004, and in a sense that's what launched me into this whole project. I started blogging that same year. I started really looking at the new tools, which were just being created at that point, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube. People forget how new these media are. They literally haven’t been around for 10 years, most of them.

When I started my company, Globalvision, 25 years ago, we needed to buy a $60,000 video camera, just to make the stuff. When we were editing we had to have all this equipment, and to finish it, we had to go to a $400-an-hour room. Now I do all that with a $2,000 camera and my computer. How could this not be better?

For the first time in history, we have this information at our fingertips. You combine that with these new tools and technologies, then with the online social networks. One of the other key points in my book is that online social networks are very different from offline social networks, so they have unique characteristics.

Putnam was talking about offline social networks, which are much smaller and have much stronger ties. In other words, your family and close friends. Obviously, the online ones are much wider and much weaker and the ease of the creation of these networks has an incredibly low cost. By that I don’t just mean the financial cost, but effort. All of the costs involved are so low and so easy, that we now have access to a much wider range of people and more social capital than we had in the past. And it can expose us to more diverse news and information.

SJ: People are always saying, “Oh, well, online you just talk to people who agree with you.” But I find that in person you might hang out with people who disagree with you, but you don’t talk about the things you disagree about. My parents and I have détente at the dinner table, we don’t talk about politics. People at work, who don’t work in a political setting, don’t talk about politics at work, or don’t talk about religion. Online, I actually found that I learned more about things that my friends believe because I follow them on Facebook or on Twitter, things that I would have found out otherwise.

RO: Yeah, and there’s lots of corporations and politicians that know all about that too.

SJ: This is very true.

RO: It’s exactly what I was just saying, the offline social networks are smaller and tighter. It’s very strong, what they call bonding capital. And people will, if they disagree, avoid the topic, or if you’re with your family and your close friends, there’s more likelihood that you're going to agree on those things than a universe of, let’s say, 1,500 friends and acquaintances on Facebook. So by just having a wider network, you’re going to be exposed to more diverse material, unless you fix it and game it.

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.

RO: Andy Carvin is maybe the best example of someone who is taking these tools and creating entirely new ways to use them. He’s a social media strategist at NPR, and he was an early blogger and he went to a blogging conference in Tunisia in 2005, so he knew Tunisian bloggers. When stuff started jumping off there, they got in touch with him on Twitter and they said, hey, there’s some stuff going on here, we could use some help. He just got into it because he knew these guys from his social media world. But within a year he had created a whole new way of doing journalism.

That’s why I’m so optimistic and enthusiastic, despite all the doom and the gloom. Is journalism threatened? Well, yes it is. But if newspapers die, that doesn’t mean journalism has to die. I believe that newspapers will die, in fact, at least the way that we currently understand them, in a very short period of time.

Since the journalists work for the newspapers and the magazines and all these places and things have been getting cut back, they of course see only doom and gloom. But there’s another story, there’s a flip side to it, there’s actually, potentially, a very sunny one where we’re coming out of a world where just a handful of people were able to tell you that’s the way it is.

Don’t get me wrong, I knew Walter Cronkite and I loved him, but that was the apotheosis of the old thinking. There were three centralized networks and at the end of the day they would give you your half hour and tell you that’s all you need to know and that’s the way it is.

Well, we now know there’s a million ways for it to be, a billion, seven billion, however many people are out there. And we have a different set of problems now. So yes, now we have the means to produce media, which is great, and moreover, we have the means to distribute it and redistribute it, which is great. The question now is the attention economy, because I can sit here at my computer all day and make media and beam it out, but how am I going to get anybody to focus on it? Now we’re back to the tsunami. Now we’re back to the issues of how I find credible information. The answer is that I have got to become a trusted provider of news and information to you, and if it works for you, you will find me and then you will probably tell other people. How can that be a bad thing?

SJ: There are some questions, though. Do we actually find the best news or do we just find the loudest and the people who self-promote the most? My question is, citizen journalism is a great thing and things like Occupy Wall Street wouldn’t have happened without it. But how do we keep funding that? How do we keep doing this stuff when something isn’t trending on Twitter anymore, how do we make sure that the maybe not-so-sexy stories are still getting covered or still getting reported on?

RO: I guess I would say that it’s always been a struggle. I’ve had stints in my career when I was an investigative reporter. Frankly, all reporting is investigative reporting, but the way that we understand that term, I can tell you, it was never popular with the bosses. Why? It cost a lot of money, and it might not pan out. It was uncertain.

It happened, but it happened because it was massively subsidized. It was subsidized by all the other stuff in the newspapers and things now on the so-called fluff was paying for this, and also advertising. So we’re coming out of this period where we moved from the model of rich individuals, Hearst to Pulitzer, saying “I want it for either commercial or political gain and that’s why I control this media,” and moving over to this other model where advertising paid for it. Well, that model is gone. It’s not coming back. There’s a lot of challenges out there. I’m not going to tell you all the answers are before us. You’re talking about a revenue issue. That hasn’t been solved yet.

On the other hand, there are a lot of extremely interesting experiments going on. There are a lot of nonprofits that have sprung up that are doing good work and are now getting support.There’s more collaboration happening; out of necessity people are being forced to work together and to distribute together.

I think we’re literally in the middle of a revolution. In a revolution, things are uncertain, people get hurt, lots of things happen that in a less tumultuous time might be viewed as negative. But that’s the situation we’re in. So you can either deny it and put your head in the sand, or you can embrace it and try to find a model going forward. That’s pretty much where I put my bets, on the future.

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