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The Problem With the Media's Social Media Addiction

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Earlier this year, a study found that social media is more addicting than alcohol and cigarettes.

Addictions can be dangerous. They can threaten our relationships with others and overall well-being. No one is more addicted to social media right now than the media.

Arianna blogged about this in March, when she wrote that the media's obsession with social media had reached "idol-worshipping proportions."

I'd argue the addiction has only gotten stronger, as journalists live tweeted seemingly every word of the first presidential debate last week, helping set a new record for volume of tweets in the process. Because you know the world needs a thousand journalists tweeting the same line at the same time.

Let's take a step back. Five years ago, the role "social media editor" was unusual. Now, it's common; Columbia University's Sree Sreenivasan has compiled a list of them. But will the position exist five years from now? Liz Heron isn't so sure.

Fact is, if you're a journalist, and you don't use Twitter or Facebook, you're a rare breed these days.

Now, that alone is not such a bad thing. To the contrary, it allows for so much good. These tools enable us to easily connect with others, engage with them, and distribute the work that we do. And, really, we have to be there. That's where our readers and viewers are.

The problem lies in over-reliance on social networks, obsession with them, and over-dependency.

It's troubling for several reasons.

(1) Forgetting What Journalism Is About: First of all, what about good old-fashioned journalism?

Crowdsourcing is great, and tapping into the power of social networks is wonderful, but does it equate with interviewing people on the phone, or better yet, speaking face-to-face?

Can 140 characters alone tell an effective story?

Can social media compete with being at the scene yourself, witnessing news happening firsthand? Can it conduct in-depth investigations?

Social media newsgathering can enhance our journalism, but it cannot entirely replace it. It can help us add context. It can personalize the personalities behind the news (these are real people!). It cannot fact-check and verify information in real-time. (Update: Some people have called me out on this last sentence; they disagree. They have a point. Social media can and does self-correct itself over time. But instant fact-checks do require some good old-fashioned research from human beings.)

(2) Losing Sense Of Reality: Social media also puts us in a bubble. Not everyone uses social media, even if we'd like to believe they do.

As Arianna wrote (emphasis mine):

Our job in the media is to use all the social tools at our disposal to tell the stories that matter -- as well as the stories that entertain -- and to keep reminding ourselves that the tools are not the story. When we become too obsessed with our closed, circular Twitter or Facebook ecosystem, we can easily forget that poverty is on the rise, or that downward mobility is trending upward, or that over 5 million people have been without a job for half a year or more, or that millions of homeowners are still underwater.

(3) Worrying About Seconds: Social media can also be a threat to the news business itself.

The Onion joked about a 24-second news cycle in 2007. It's not so funny anymore. It's here.

Social media's impact on the news cycle is perhaps best explained by one of my favorite graphs here. The problem? It puts pressure on journalists to do everything quicker, and that can lead to mistakes. Mistakes can hurt our credibility.

(4) New Competition: Social media companies like Tumblr and Facebook are hiring journalists themselves.

Similarly, GigaOm's Mathew Ingram has asked: Should Twitter be treated by news organizations as competition? The answer is yes.

In this new world of media and technology, we should embrace the opportunity to work with our competitors when we get the chance. We should try to forge partnerships and build bridges for the benefit of the industry as a whole. But we should also be aware of the ways we compete.

Social media companies -- like media companies -- rely largely on advertising as their business model. There is competition for ad dollars.

What to do about this? BuzzFeed is "strengthening its ties to Facebook," the Wall Street Journal reports.

"We are very complementary companies," BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti told WSJ. "They own the railroad tracks, we drive the trains."

Smart, and that's one way to look at it. Not every media organization is as large as BuzzFeed, though, and not every media company will be able to build a strong relationship with Facebook, or Twitter for that matter.

(5) Loss Of Control: What's the biggest problem with being over-reliant on social media companies? We lose control.

Overnight, if it wants to, Facebook could make it more difficult to reach even our own audience on Facebook if we're not willing to pay to do so.

It could tweak its homepage algorithm (EdgeRank) and decrease the reach of our Pages at any time (it seems it did recently), meaning less engagement and traffic for us.

It could add more ads to the NewsFeed. Mashable's Stephanie Haberman recently spoke up about this:

The amount of ads on my Facebook newsfeed is getting out of hand.

Is Facebook nearing their MySpace moment? I, for one, wish my friends were on Google+.

I've also seen the uptick. The more we see sponsored posts, the less we see our friends' posts and posts from Pages we like. It's just common sense. (Though there are ways around the issue like using Facebook Interest Lists instead, as Robert Scoble points out in the comments here.)

Even individual users can now pay to promote their posts.

Twitter can do what it would like to do too. It already has a Promoted Tweets product and who's to say it won't follow in Facebook's footsteps to increase revenue? It also has a CEO in charge Dick Costolo who is not afraid to make quick decisions, according to a recent New York Times profile.

Conclusion

We need to be careful; that's all. We need to "be everywhere" these days but not overly rely on any one site or place.

A futurist (Johannes Koponen) told me just the other day -- Facebook and Twitter will be gone in 20 years. Why? Technological advances, pressures to keep growing and monetize, generational differences are among the reasons, he told me. It's an interesting thought to ponder...

The social media communication revolution is here to stay. And if these companies ever do go away, others will fill the void. But why sit back? We should be proactive and try to build our own solutions, at our own companies, innovate with new technologies for the world today instead of waiting for tomorrow.

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