News Leadership 3.0

April 16, 2009

Social Networks: The New Architecture of the Web

Social media expert Paul Gillin outlines challenges and opportunities for news organizations as networks flourish online

Knight Digital Media Center and Poynter’s News University are offering classes and other resources on social media strategy in the coming weeks. Paul Gillin’s Webinar presentation,  “Social Networks: The New Architecture of the Web,” launched the course this week. I will blog highlights and list additional resources at the end of each post.)

It’s not too late for traditional news organizations to become players in social space on the Web, says Paul Gillin. But these organizations need to recognize and adapt to the revolutionary changes social networks bring to the ways people find, consume and share news and information.

“It’s not an option not to interact,” he said. “To simply write a story and walk away is not an option anymore.”

A key point is the way in which the networks allow Web users to talk with one another, to create and distribute news and information independent of traditional news organizations. That means news organizations must go the networks where the readers they want are active, rather than assuming the users will come to their sites, Gillin said.

“It’s one big cocktail party out there,” he said. “We no longer have the podium. We no longer have the mike. We have to join that cocktail party.”

Gillin discussed these “New Media Rules:

Mainstream media is downsizing
New voices are gaining influence
Citizens are becoming publishers
You must meet them on their turf
Speed trumps quality
Small is the new big

Gillin noted that the idea of speed trumping quality is controversial and particularly challenging for traditional media. New players are willing to publish information that is not fully vetted because it has become so much easier for users to correct errors online.

Among examples of effective networks, Gillin cited:

- The Obama presidential campaign, which used Facebook and other tools to engage millions of users. Gillian said the campaign not only put out campaign messages on the different networks. It also monitored reaction of different constituencies. “The Obama campaign was always on. They were the media pushing podcasts, videos and publishing every waking moment of the day.”

- In an early example of pressure from self-organizing online networks, consumers organized online to protest the end of production of the Wispa candy bar. The manufacturer, Cabury, relented and reinstated the product. Company sales increased.

- Motrin Moms protest of an advertisement generated thousands of tweets and blog entries during a two-day weekend firestorm before Motrin officials or mainstream media discovered what was going on, an example of how news is being generated with speed and power on networks.

“This is all happening from the ground up. That has important implications for news. News is increasingly from the ground up. People self organize and we have to tune into what they are saying.”

Traditional mass media must respond to a proliferation of small, engaged groups that are organized around common interests or geography.

“Niche markets are knowledgeable, engaged, responsive, helpful, and they’re spenders,” Gillin said, citing a network of people on Flickr who post photos of bacon. Seems trivial, right?  But “if you’re the Hormel company you’ve got to be there. People there are passionate about your product.”

Central to this phenomenon is that people trust their peers more than they trust institutions. The challenge for journalists is to engage with people on the networks and become a trusted source.

In this environment, getting onto the networks both to monitor what’s happening, respond to it and promote one’s own content are becoming an essential part of the job of the journalist.

While the new social networks may seem confusing and disruptive to news organizations, Gillin believes they also present opportunities. For one thing, they are an efficient way to grow audiences because the users will help spread the word. They also provide better sources of tips and ideas (while they are less effective for original reporting.) Traditional media, long a filter or gatekeeper for information, can still play that role.

“It’s not too late. We’re still in this wondrous discovery phase. New products and services are proliferating on a daily basis. There’s still plenty of time to figure out gameplans for engaging the customers.”

Find a pdf (free) of Paul Gillin’s presentation slides or enroll in a replay ($24.95) here.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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