When to go fast, when to go slow on social media

Reuters | Nieman Lab
Ben Walsh writes that his unfiltered Twitter stream "was basically unusable as an information source" during the Newtown school shooting.

Because he follows so many journalists and news organizations, his timeline repeated the same facts over and over. Twitter, he says, "has developed its own news cycle" that occurs predictably in any big news event and drowns out originality.

Broadly speaking, it goes like so:

1. New facts are reported and quickly repeated.
2. Reactions are added.
3. Commentary is layered on.
4. Those original facts are amended, corrected, or invalidated.
5. Forcefully folksy explainers and lists of “The [Insert Number Here] Facts You Need to Know” are published.
6. Conventional wisdom is formed so that it can be…
7. Ideologically challenged, wonkishly debunked, and expertly analyzed.
8. Infographics appear.
9. The medium is truly, fully saturated.

Let me pause here to add two footnotes:

  1. This is, as Walsh acknowledges, a #firstworldproblem faced mostly by power users and the news-obsessed; and
  2. This information-overload phenomenon is just one of many side effects that may come from surrounding yourself with too many journalists (others include: gluttonous alcohol consumption, desensitization to human suffering and overinflated self-importance).

That said, I think Walsh has a point. Twitter and its journalist users might do better sometimes to ease off the rapid-fire updates and focus on surfacing what's truly new and significant.

NYU professor Jay Rosen expressed a similar thought as the shooting coverage developed:

ProPublica's senior engagement editor Amanda Zamora suggests journalism is in need of something called "slow social."

In our fixation on immediacy, we’re missing opportunities to tell a larger story through social means. At times, we’re even perpetrating rumor for the sake of "real-time" coverage.

The rush of real-time tweets is good at answering some questions: What happened, when, and who did it? It's not so good at others: Why did it happen, how, and what did it mean?

Zamora points to a couple examples of news websites harvesting YouTube videos of conflict in Syria ("social"), but then taking the time to add context, maps, verification and other original reporting ("slow").

"Slow social" is about the chance to refocus our efforts toward connecting people in more open-minded conversation, adding more context and reporting, and producing more meaningful engagement and longer-lasting impact.

Zamora challenges us to make 2013 the year of the slow-social movement, and I second that.

That's not to say journalists shouldn't live-tweet big news or be concerned, at times, with speed. But maybe during the next Code Red news event we all should raise our eyes from the keyboard before hitting "send" and ask a few questions:

1) Is what I'm about to share really adding new knowledge or insight? Or am I about to become just another sound wave in an echo chamber?

2) Can I add more clarity, context or understanding to what's already been said? (Examples: Chris Cillizza, Andy Carvin, Anthony De Rosa)

3) Is there a way to step back and to deeply engage my audience in this story through collaborative or coordinated action? (Example: ProPublica's Free the Files project)

Journalists ask these questions while making decisions in their other daily work -- there is a time to bang out a quick news bulletin, and a time to step back and take a few days to develop a long, thoughtful enterprise piece.

We've figured out how to bang out news on social media, but there's much more we can discover about leveraging social dynamics for more thoughtful, impactful journalistic efforts.

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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