Discussion about the future of newspapers is a bit rife in my particular corner of the bloggersphere at the moment. Gary Andrews kicked it off talking about the death of local newspapers, which was picked up by Roy Greenslade and then Chris at Clicking&Screaming. All of which is making me feel a little precognisant today as I wrote an essay on how social media is impacting newspapers a month or so ago for the degree course I’ve recently embarked upon.
I finally got it back last night and being relatively happy with the mark I thought I’d post it for wider peer review. A couple of caveats, I had a strict word limit, hence the rather superficial examination of the topic and it was written for someone who know’s nothing about social media, hence the definition piece.
I’d really welcome any feedback, just be a bit gentle – its the first piece of academic writing I’ve done in 12 years and I’m a wee bit rusty still.
To What Extent is Social Media a Force for Change?
This essay will consider the extent to which social media can be a force for change. It will concentrate on establishing whether changes in the way people are communicating, using recently developed internet based technologies, can have a negative effect on the role of mainstream media within our society. Firstly, the essay will define social media and its constructs, including how internet users are changing their communication patterns and forming new social connections. Secondly, it will examine how social media is being represented and portrayed by the media, in particular newspaper and business publications. It will then explore the impact of these new communications methodologies on the traditional media scene. Finally, it will assess if social media is influencing how people communicate and if it will be a force for change for society as a whole.
The concept of social media is a relatively new one and it is yet to be satisfactorily described, as such it is often used interchangeably with ‘Web 2.0’ and ‘new media’. Wikipedia (2008) currently defines social media as ‘primarily Internet- and mobile-based tools for sharing and discussing information among human beings… The term most often refers to activities that integrate technology, telecommunications and social interaction’. The activities that this definition refers to are the sharing and collaboration of text, images, audio and video, using a variety of websites and applications. These include blogs, message boards, podcasts, wikis and vlogs, well known social media sites or applications include Wikipedia, Facebook, YouTube, Second Life, Digg, Flickr and Twitter.
It differs to the industrial media, which consists of newspapers, magazines, television and radio, in several ways, most distinctly tools such as blogs and wikis are readily available and at little cost, significantly lowering the barriers to entry. Benkler (2006 pp3) states ‘What characterizes the networked information economy is that decentralized individual action – specifically, new and important cooperative and coordinate action carried out through radically distributed, nonmarket mechanisms that do not depend on proprietary strategies – plays a much greater role than it did, or could have, in the industrial information economy’. It is through this greater access to free tools that social media enables people to produce and broadcast their own content and to interact with the content created by other people, none of whom need to be a media professional.
Other social media proponents agree that it that it is far more than a collection of websites and software applications and rather that it represents a cultural change (Sollis 2007) and that by changing how we communicate, we change society (Shirky 2008). It cannot be denied that increasing numbers of people are using social media sites and tools. Technorati.com, a website which specialises in blog search and statistics, published that in a three months period this year there had been 7.4 million blogs created with 900,000 posts in one 24 hour period (Technorati 2008). Facebook, the popular social utility website, recently overtook the BBC Online website to become the most visited site in the UK, with 18.4 million unique visitors (New Media Age 2008), a figure which represents almost 45% of the UK’s internet users (New Media Review). Facebook only became available to UK residents in September 2006, previously only being open to American college students, which demonstrates how quickly the UK population has adapted to sharing information in new ways.
Social media has also become a favourite topic of the industrial press and it is not unusual for the use of social media technology to be used as the hook for a news article. A story such as ‘gatecrashers ruin house’ which would not be newsworthy in its own right, will garner national newspaper attention once it transpires the party was advertised on Facebook (Telegraph 2008). Recent earthquakes in California and China have also been notable for the coverage concentrating on how bloggers and twitter users broke the story before the industrial media (The Age 2008). Business Week (2008) has gone so far as to state that ‘social media will change your business’, updating a previous article that argued blogging will change you business (2005). In 2006 Time Magazine declared ‘You’ to be the person of the year, for ‘seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game’. Social media is clearing having an impact on the news agenda of the industrial media, changing how and what it considers important to report on. Increased media coverage on social media will only serve to raise awareness of it and potentially encourage more people to use the tools to communicate in new ways.
As well as covering including social media topics in its editorial coverage, the industrial media is keen to include more social media elements in its own formats. Website editions of all the UK newspapers include links to the most popular social bookmarking or networking sites, such as delicious and Facebook. Many articles ask for readers to comment directly on them and every site features multiple blogs. The Guardian online currently has over 40 different blogs, most with multiple authors, covering every aspect from the news to the environment to the Qur’an. As an essential element of social media is encouraging comments and responses, the industrial media is changing the way that it interacts with its readership, becoming far more conversational especially in the online versions of the traditional print or broadcast formats.
Pinpointing exactly what is causing the decline of newspapers is a topic of much discussion and argument. Jarvis argues that the fall of journalism is the fault of the journalists who did not see how media consumption would change, ‘It is our fault we did not exploit – hell, too many resisted – the opportunities new media and new relationships with the public presented’. Jarvis also praises the internet for the opportunity journalists have to change their relationship with the public, to work collaboratively with them as well as to find new ways of thinking and covering the news. However Farhi (2008)believes that the decline has nothing to do with how journalist have, or have not, embraced changes in communication, claiming that the internet has expanded readership of newspaper content, but that the damage has been caused by the loss of classified advertising, which had accounted for up to ‘40 percent of a newspaper’s revenues and more than half its profits’. He argues that the quality of the coverage had little to do with their loss, but rather the choice of cheaper online alternatives such as eBay and Craigslist. Greenslade (2008) supports this belief, further arguing that the current economic climate has made it impossible for media companies to transition smoothly from a print to web platform. It is worth noting that while circulations maybe dropping the industrial media remain one of the most trusted sources for information on companies (Edelman 2008). Newspaper circulations have been falling since pre-Internet days which makes it difficult to definitely state that the rise and adoption of social media is to blame. Yet the rate of the decline is increasing, with only the Financial Times seeing an increase in year-on- year sales (Fraser 2008), while the rate of internet usage is rising, which points to social media impacting circulation figures to some extent.
It is arguable what extent social media is impacting industrial media, whether it is hastening its decline or giving it fresh opportunities to reach old and new audiences. The advent of social media is undoubtedly having an impact on how people are communicating with each other, from almost no where the concept of blogs and blogging has almost seamless entered in the everyday consciousness, which is partly due to their uptake by the established communications platforms of the industrial media. Social media has also undoubtedly impacted how readers and viewers interact with not just publications but also with their fellow readers and viewers, enabling conversation around, as well we as with the content and its creators . While it is unlikely that without the focal point provided by media platforms that this interaction would occur on such a large scale or ongoing basis, it is certain that the way in which some elements of society communicate has changed. What greater impact this will have over the next few years, potentially the end of printed publications, it is impossible to accurately predict.