Back in March, I had the privilege of attending a student and faculty luncheon with journalist Jeffrey Brown and his wife, Paula Crawford. It was a nice, intimate affair – no more than twenty people there, I would say. As I sat there, attempting to eat my sandwich with grace while following the conversation, a couple of things ran through my mind:
- I’m so glad I’m here and I didn’t have to use one of my ten weekly dining hall swipes. Maybe tonight I can go to late night.
- Holy crap Jeffrey Brown is in this room and across the table wow wow wow
- Awesome, we’re talking about the future of journalism. Looking forward to getting perspective from the people in the room (professors and guests alike) who have experience in the industry.
- This conversation is not going where it could (should) be going.
- Maybe if I eat these potato chips I can drown out the sound of shameless networking happening right in front of me.
Make no mistake, it was a good experience, promise. But I couldn’t help but think that a fair amount of the media veterans in that room were having a hard time embracing the new media-turn that journalism appears to be taking, with things like hashtags, infotainment, and listicles on the clear rise.
While it’s easy to blame this sour attitude on things like a “generational gap,” the change in methods may be the sign of a larger shift, signaling towards something more populist. BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief (and ex-Politico) Ben Smith once said that “this is a difficult era for snobs.” And while I may just be one of those snobs Ben Smith is talking about, I’m beginning to wonder if this is new age of social news actually isn’t the worst thing in the world. In fact, given the original reporting and research is of a certain quality, we may just be looking at progress.
Now, we know that what gets shared on Facebook isn’t always of the highest journalistic integrity. But something else is happening. Websites like PolicyMic and Upworthy are aggregators that ultimately aim to push readers to share their content (or repackaged content, as it may be). From the looks of my Facebook feed, it seems that the strategies put forth by these sites are working – and is that really so bad?
Sure, some of the writing isn’t the best. Yes, a fair amount of what gets shared simply regurgitates content from highly respected outlets. And yeah, posts go viral in a matter of minutes and people fall for doctored photos and unconfirmed celebrity deaths. Trust me, I have many of these same complaints and more. However, the strength of these aggregators is not so much the quality of reporting, but the easy reading experience and the way that these sites encourage discussion among friends and colleagues.
These links and listicles become interesting not just through their appealing packaging, but also through discussions and debates with Facebook friends. And yes, it can and does get ugly. But it is through this process that many of us have actually had to do research to defend and argue our own points. The (semi-)public arena of it all makes the conversation self-regulated in a way, with friends liking and piping in as they please.
We’ve seen this happen. I’m sure plenty of people have witnessed this after reports on various tragedies have been shared. This idea of collective critical thinking (as opposed to defensiveness) can be a beautiful thing. And with people constantly sharing their own finds from different sites (yes, aside from Upworthy, Buzzfeed, and PolicyMic), we can all work together with our critical friends to be the well-informed millennials that many people don’t expect us to be. We can improve our collective media diet.
Sharing posts can be great for web journalism. Awesome, even. But it’s the possibility for (critical) conversation that may make this era a real and lasting game-changer, holding everyone – writers, editors, researchers, and designers included – to higher standards.
Or perhaps that’s a bit too optimistic of me. What are your thoughts, friends? What and how do you “share” on Facebook?