Does Social Networking Destroy Quality Journalism?

This Quality Journalist sure thinks so. He notes that popularity is 1) Gratifying, and 2) Thanks to the rise of link-sharing sites, really easy to measure. He's worried that once writers are allowed to know how popular they are, they'll write just to be popular.

Let's hope this trend doesn't spread to other industries: I'd cower in fear if I knew that restaurants only served food they thought people would like, or if programmers only wrote software their customers would use, or if artists only painted works that they thought people would like to look at. It's a null criticism: Social networking sites homogenize on a superficial level, but they also let users track the individual preferences of a select group of users -- if I find someone who I know is good at ferreting out interesting stories, I'd rather read their list of bookmarked sites than rely on the collective wisdom of any random collective. This isn't new, and it isn't a problem: Popular works have a certain minimum appeal, which usually constrains them from maximum appeal to a single group. This reduces risks and rewards (if I want to completely tune thought out on a long trip, I can grab pretty much any top-20 bestseller and expect to be entertained, but I'd hate to impose my individual literary taste on anyone, even though I prefer my favorites to King, Grisham, and Brown).

This story needs a coup de grâce, so here it is: I found this clever, articulate anti-Digg screed on Digg.

This blog is no longer being updated. Visit ByrneHobart.com for more blogging, or pay a visit to my new Internet stock research and M&A due diligence company.

posted by Byrne Hobart at 1:15:00 PM


Anonymous bree said...

You're confusing the issue here. The article talks about popularity not social networking. While the two are tangentially linked, they are not the same thing.

The threat to journalism that the author is writing about has more to do with web analytics and the current trend towards surfacing popular content automatically, rather than having a trained editorial team highlight stories based on merit. The result is that news of Britney's divorce will always trump important (but to many, boring or depressing) stories such as further deaths in Sudan.

I suppose you could make an argument that the ability to track where the audience attention is going could encourage bloggers to write for traffic rather than passion, but that's not social networking either. While blogging has an element of social interaction with readers, it's not the same as social networking.

You do a disservice to the original argument by summarizing it as a 'sky is falling' warning about the perils of social networking. I think the original argument is legitimate - online journalism does have the potential to become more like television than print if this trend continues of measuring quality by number of pageviews. If that's your only metric, it makes perfect sense to be as mainstream as possible.

Social networking and blogging will have, at best, a minor role in this change. It's more likely that these technologies will actually provide some audience for the non-mainstream stories. Most bloggers have found that their most popular stories are not the ones about Britney and K-Fed (not when you look at metrics over a long period of time) but rather those on niche topics, where people are googling for hard-to-find information. For example, my husband wrote about Grizzly trucks, a long-defunct brand with a base of passionate fans. That continues to be one of the most popular posts on his blog, because there's just not a lot out there about it. This is, of course, the stuff of the Long Tail. While that theory should be taken with a grain of salt, in general it still proves true that one of the unique and powerful qualities of the web is the ability to turn niche into popular, without necessarily becoming mainstream.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Byrne Hobart said...

I assume he was mostly worried about social bookmarking because it's the only recent development that would make the problem worse. I really hope his headline couldn't be summarized as "Problem that has always existed is still a problem!"

Annnd while celebrity gossip certainly shows up in the news, it's easy to filter it out. My RSS reader has 3488 stories archived right now (it saves the last ten or so from each feed). Searching for "Britney Spears" gives four results, the only one of which I clicked was a link to the very story I blogged about in this entry. If you can't avoid reading news stories you don't want to read, you're not trying hard enough.

If bloggers and journalists measure their success by traffic, you will see lots of patronizing, traffic-pumping stories. But that creates an opportunity for specialized writers to cater to a smaller, choosier audience -- I'd rather have 100 visitors who care about stocks than 10,000 who clicked through because I made a Mark Foley joke. I do prefer editors to aggregators (which is why I read the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, instead of just cruising Digg, Reddit, and del.icio.us for the highlights), but each of those sites has a mechanism for letting readers choose more specialized link-pickers. Digg and del.icio.us let you see what other individual users liked, so if one person has taste similar to yours, you can track their picks -- reddit lets you select an entire group of like-minded folk to follow, and recommends links based on the selections of similar voters. This by nature leads to readers clicking through to more obscure stuff, raising both the pageviews and the value of each pageview for writers who put quality ahead of popular appeal.

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Anonymous Insurance said...

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