Is Social Media Coming Of Age?

This week was a very tough week for many Americans and particularly for Bostonians.  What should have been an annual festive sporting event turned into a nightmare. This post is not about politics nor the attackers but how we became aware of the events and followed them.

On Monday afternoon I saw an item in my Twitter feed about an explosion quickly followed by multiple tweets from people/organizations I follow. Simultaneously some of my coworkers—we work in an open environment so everyone pretty much knows what anyone else is doing—found out about the bombing at the same time. All via social media.

We have two TV’s within easy walking distance of our desks in the conference rooms and no one left their desk to watch CNN. Everyone tracked their Twitter and Facebook feeds, selecting a link to follow.

In January 1986 the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch. The only live TV coverage of the launch was on CNN and this is considered the watershed event in the establishment of CNN as a major news outlet. Five years later they outdid themselves by, figuratively speaking, carrying the Gulf War live.

So, back to Monday’s bombing. Why as events unfolded did we all stay glued to our computers and social media instead of the TV?

Speaking for myself, I found it better suited my needs to jump from social media to linked sites than to sit idly waiting for one news source to report the facts—especially since so many were simply wrong. I also felt as if I was personally investigating and researching the story rather, getting new information faster than waiting for more information to be fed to me by one source or three for that matter. I also found Boston news outlets to be the best sources for breaking information because they were already on the scene, much like CNN was in January 1986. They were able to capitalize on this tragedy and leverage it.

That being said, CNN (and other TV news outlets) did see dramatic increases in viewership over the last few days but I think it was more for the entertainment value of the manhunt that ensued. On Thursday night and all day Friday people were riveted by the unscripted drama, real reality TV, all day and into the night. This doesn’t surprise me at all. For anyone who hasn’t figured it out already TV news is entertainment more than it is news.  It’s been programmed on TV to make you want to tune in again and again. Stories are teased and drawn out over time so you feel obligated to stay tuned to see what happens next. (A better perspective on this is Michael Crichton’s masterpiece “State of Fear”).

On another note we also see why social media needs to be managed by a real person in real time with real sensibilities and not automated or entrusted to a $15 per hour kid with no common sense. Some social media postings seemed trivial as we were all still in shock over the bombing. Some posts were downright offensive: epictweets_610x338

Have we just witnessed a watershed event in news consumption? Has social media usurped mainstream news outlets for news dissemination? Will the established news media figure out how to capitalize on this phenomenon to stay relevant? Now that social media has “grown-up” will publishers treat it (and us) with more dignity than Epicurious did?

Only time will tell.

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3 thoughts on “Is Social Media Coming Of Age?

  1. Dave says:

    To me, the answer is “yes and no.” TV news has had no credibility since the days of Huntley and Brinkley, as far as I’m concerned. At the same time, though, many who “report” via social media have an obvious axe to grind, and therefore have very little credibility, either.

    At 52 I may be somewhat old-fashioned, but I don’t have the burning need to keep up on events 24 hours a day, especially those happening on the other end of the country. In the case of the Boston incidents, it’s nice to know they happened but I don’t need up-to-the-minute coverage of what’s going on with the search for the bombers and so on. If similar events started happening elsewhere at the same time, then it might be of interest (like on 9/11/01, when I was working in downtown Chicago). Normally I’m content to read it in the newspaper the next day, or on a reasonably-unbiased online site at my leisure. At least in the paper I’m usually able to sort the wheat from the chaff as long as the articles aren’t edited down to nothing.

  2. henryblaufox says:

    David,

    I think the answer is a qualified “Yes.” Qualified, because social media isn’t actually a standalone news channel competing with more established news channels for viewers (and ultimately advertising to generate revenue from the audience.) Social has certainly become a symbiotic organism in the ecosystem, though. Because major news events can break so fast, as long as a cell or wifi connection is open, social is the fastest channel. Lots of people are around to break the news, and social is the way news spreads out in concentric, overlapping circles of connections. This is especially the case with Twitter, which can be used for little more than the length of a headline or lede. But that is enough to get the process started.

    Your comparison to CNN is apt. I was with Time Inc. when the Challenger burned up, first learned about it on the elevator from very shaken co-workers. They’d been watching on CNN so they could prepare stories. What happened was an old fashioned “stop the presses…” Time and People, as I recall, changed their cover stories on the fly to accommodate the breaking news.

    In the past few years,social media has replaced CNN as first to break critical news. In this case, it was anyone not already watching the race (was it even still being telecast on any channel of consequence by 2pm?) And from Twitter we could tune in, or go online, to our news sources of choice.

    Therein lies the opportunity for the major news organizations, to get and hold audience while covering these events. The challenge is to do this within bounds of decorum. It struck me that CBS, which I followed on TV for awhile, ran out of news to report, yet wouldn’t break away. Perhaps the concern about hanging onto audience played a role. In the end, I just decided to turn off the set and check online updates periodically. Perhaps that will become a trend across the country. Online sites of the major news entities are useful in this regard. New Yorkers should recall when the Eliot Spitzer scandal broke in 2008. The NY Times was among the first to get the story online. They blew away all records for views that day.

    You also wisely note in your blog that “we also see why social media needs to be managed by a real person in real time with real sensibilities and not automated or entrusted to a $15 per hour kid with no common sense. Some social media postings seemed trivial as we were all still in shock over the bombing. Some posts were downright offensive…” My colleagues and I couldn’t agree more. Here at DragonSearch our CEO instructed all to stop marketing and promotional posts for clients; it was the wrong time, he told us.

  3. markkolier says:

    Reblogged this on The Way I See It – Mark Kolier and commented:
    Great post from my partner David – has social media reached a watershed? The answer is…maybe?

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