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Rory O'Connor

Rory O'Connor

Posted January 14, 2009 | 04:28 PM (EST)

Facebook Journalism


I spent much of last fall at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government as a Fellow at the Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy. While there, I researched issues related to journalistic trust and credibility - and in particular what role emerging social media might play in addressing those concerns. One of the most prominent online social networks, of course, is the seemingly ubiquitous Facebook. Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, who created the platform as a Harvard student along with roommates Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes, was unavailable for comment, as was Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg. But Randi Zuckerberg, who is part of the network's creative marketing organization "where she regularly interacts with media organizations to discuss ways they can partner with Facebook," did agree to a recent email interview -- the first in a series of posts on the topic of trust and journalism.

- Rory O'Connor

ROC: With slumping public approval, journalism is facing a crisis of trust. We're looking at how people can find and share credible news and information in hopes of regaining this trust. Do you think Facebook plays a role in this process at all? If so, how?

RZ: The concept of "the trusted referral" is integral to the success of content sharing on Facebook. We've found that it is tremendously more powerful to get a piece of content -- an article, a news clip, a video, etc -- from a friend, and it makes you much more likely to watch, read, and engage with the content.

People will always want to consume content from experts and they will always look to trusted news sources and journalists for important news and current events, but the market has become so oversaturated that it is now just as important to rely on one's friends to help filter the news. When you get a news clip from a friend, they are putting their own personal brand on the line, saying "I recommend THIS piece of content to you out of all the content that is out there," -- just as they would recommend a restaurant, or a movie.

We are beginning to see journalists and news/broadcast companies creating a significant presence on Facebook to engage with Facebook users and help facilitate this notion of the trusted referral to assist with the viral spread of content. When journalists can really engage with this audience and enlist Facebook users to market and share their content, that is such a powerful way to share credible news and information and tap into the implicit trust that people have with their friends.

ROC:The conventional wisdom in academia is that social networks do the opposite, they serve as polarizing echo chambers where users reinforce their own views rather than being persuaded to listen and perhaps agree with others. Why or why not does Facebook fit this mold?

RZ: This is a great question. I think this greatly depends on where you look within a social website. If you are looking at a user profile, you'd probably be correct in that people use that real estate on the site to build their own personal brand. They post photos of themselves, write about their view points, and tell their friends what they are doing and what they are thinking. So yes, if you look at only the profile, you might believe that social media is just a place for a one-sided posting of information about oneself.

However, if you only looked at the profile, you'd be ignoring a tremendous amount of activity that takes place, on Facebook and other sites. Facebook users join groups to discuss issues, topics, and activities that are important to them. They become "fans" of celebrities, brands, public figures, and businesses. They use applications to see photos of their friends traveling the world, read their friends' blog posts, and keep up to date with news and content.

And most importantly, people use Facebook to learn new things about their friends and the world around them. Our mission as a company is to encourage people to share information that is important to them with their friends. Through the news feed on a user's homepage, Facebook users see what their friends are doing, thinking, and talking about. They discover new books, new articles, new videos, new places to visit, and new people to become friends with.

I can't even begin to tell you how many new things I have personally discovered through Facebook and how my Facebook friends have broadened my horizons and introduced me to new things I never would have discovered before. On many days, I hear about the current events because my Facebook friends will post articles and write thoughts about it... even before I discover it from a news site. I have discovered new places in the world to visit, have been introduced to new and incredible people, have discovered new music and bands to follow, and have had my views challenged on everything from politics to taste in Broadway musicals.

ROC: Journalists are using Facebook in unanticipated ways. What are some of the main trends you have noticed? Are you surprised at these novel applicaitons? Can you give us details about your interaction with ABC in the past and where you hope to take things in the future? What has your interaction been with other media outlets and individual journalists?

RZ: I think journalists are only beginning to discover what a powerful tool Facebook can be for their content. In my discussions with many mainstream media companies, I constantly hear them talk about why they are squeamish about posting their content on other sites - their content is their lifeblood, it's all they have... why would they give it away for free on other sites?

However, I see more and more media companies understanding the importance of allowing people to consume content anywhere they want to consume it on the web, not just at the media company's website. As I mentioned before, I don't think expert journalism will go away - people will always want a trusted, expert opinion when it comes to news, politics, current events, and important topics - but people would rather get that content on a site they are already on, like Facebook, rather than traveling off to another site if they are already on Facebook engaging with friends and doing other things.

When we worked with ABC on the presidential primary debates, we built a really powerful tool together in the "US Politics Application." In this area on Facebook, we allowed users to consume ABC News content and set up special pages for the reporters who were on the campaign trails where they could blog about their experiences and engage with Facebook users. We also strove to make this area extremely interactive, by turning almost every article, piece of content, and question into a "debate/discussion topic" where Facebook users could post their viewpoint and see what all of their friends thought about a specific issue. This information helped power some of the pundit commentary for a high-profile, televised primetime presidential primary debate for the New Hampshire primary.

Understanding that there is still a struggle in which media companies prefer to keep their content on their own site, we recently launched a product called Facebook Connect, which allows companies to incorporate Facebook's social tools into their website. Facebook users can log into other sites with their Facebook login and see what content their friends are consuming and activity their friends are taking on that site. Companies like CNN and CBS have done a great job implementing connect and this is clearly only the beginning.

ROC: Do you agree that Facebook is increasingly becoming a sort of conveyor belt for the mainstream media's news products? Do you have metrics showing how often and what type of news stories are posted and disseminated on Facebook?

RZ: I would agree with your initial question. We have an incredible tool called Lexicon, which shows trends and insights into what Facebook users are talking about. Around the presidential election, it was fascinating to look at terms such as "Obama," "Palin," "voting"....even "Tina Fey!" to see trends in Facebook user discussion as election day got closer and closer. Lexicon allows you to look at the buzz around a certain word or topic on Facebook, and even allows you to drill down to see exactly where in the United States people are most talking about that topic. As this data becomes more and more refined, I think you will start to see this becoming a really powerful way to show the type of news that is posted and shared through Facebook and how often Facebook users are discussing certain topics.