Iran changes everything.
Lots of professional journalists are pretty mad at the web. They blame it for sucking away ad dollars that pay their salaries. They view blogs and social media as low quality, unoriginal, and owing their existence to the work produced by real journalists. The wonderful writer Buzzr Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights, spoke for many reporters last year when as a guest on Bob Costas’ HBO show he denounced blogs as being “dedicated to journalistic dishonesty” and responsible for “the complete dumbing down of our society.”
In February of 2008, I wrote an essay for FastCompany.com, a website I ran, called The Media is Social arguing that journalism and community-generated content should become a tightly-integrated hybrid. The digerati approved; lots of professional journalists made it clear to me they did not.
But anyone who still believes that social media is anything other than a powerful force for good and must be part of the new digital journalism (which before too long, will be almost all journalism), isn’t getting the profound media lessons from the 2009 revolution in Iran: Twitter is writing the first draft of history.
We used to say that about journalism. A few reporters in Tehran, though, simply can’t compare to the thousands of Iranians capturing the street revolution on cell phone and digital camera videos, as well as blogs and tweets, and distributing their observations with the help of Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and all sorts of other people-powered channels that didn’t exist five years ago. (Yes, it’s not just Twitter, although Twitter has become emblematic of all social media these days. It’s just more fun to say than “social media.”)
As the Economist pointed out, CNN was running a Larry King repeat on June 13, just as Twitter lit up with news of the street protests. If you were in the U.S. and wanted to see the protests almost in real time, your only choice was links from Twitter to videos uploaded by Iranian citizens. CNN was wall-to-wall with coverage by June 16th – but what were they showing? A selection of those very same videos from street protesters.
A few journalists were braving the streets (at risk of death) but they couldn’t be everywhere at once. And the important images – of men and women being shot and beaten by Iranian authorities, and huge crowds assembling – were captured by “citizen journalists,” not pros.
I got tired of watching the same few dramatic videos rerun over and over by CNN. So I went to YouTube and found a channel called “CitizenTube” with dozens of videos from Iran. Amazing images – large crowds repelling cadres of police by tossing back tear gas canisters thrown at them, bloodied men being hurriedly carried off the streets, calm corners suddenly erupting with storms of people.
How extraordinary if this technology had been available just a few decades ago. The Warsaw ghettos as Jews were murdered in the streets and rounded up on cattle cars. Turkey as its native Armenians were slaughtered during and after WWI. Cambodia in the time of Pol Pot.
Many of these stories took years or decades to emerge. How would history have changed in these places with he same flood of citizen media now focused on Iran? Even a great work of investigative journalism, no matter how brilliant and well-documented, does not have anywhere near the impact of thousands of almost real-time videos, photos and accounts by tens of thousands of people.
I’m not arguing that what ills the world will be solved by social media. Only that at least it will be better documented. As the Iran story continues to unfold, if I had to choose between countless citizens with cell phones or, a dozen western journalists in Teheran, I’d choose the former without hesitation. Journalists are more easily intimidated, more easily followed and often don’t know where and when the action is happening until after the fact.
Yet, I don’t want to sort through all those thousands of videos and tweets and blogs myself. Nor do I think social media sites have yet created tools to adequately filter out what’s most relevant, though Twitter is coming closest.
Twitter has tools for real people to recommend stuff they like best on the service: “RT”, or retweet, is one; another is the follower/following system – everyone on the service gets to choose whose posts to follow. Doesn’t take too long, usually, to decide if someone is worth your time. People also can set up their own “hash tags” to create a stream of tweets on the same subject. Google has its analytics engine and YouTube its star ratings and recommendation engine to help filter the wheat from the chafe. But Twitter is mostly human powered, and that seems to work best for following real-time news.
Journalists everywhere need to jump in to the fray. I think one of the most critical functions of news organization expecting to survive and thrive over the next few years will be to curate and analyze social media content, whether collected from external sources, (the New York Times blog, The Lede, is headed in this direction) or from their own readers (CNN’s iReport is a great early example.)
News organizations should spend time developing their own networks of reliable sources from among the social media masses; and they need to give context as to whether particular content being disseminated online is trustworthy. And even with professional analysis, readers still want to see the original material – and I think, a lot of it. Summarizing is not enough – readers want video embeds, real-time tweet round ups, and links out to the best material. Major media websites have been way too parsimonious to date with engaging their readers with the rest of the web.
Curating and analyzing social media can be an important and honorable journalistic endeavor – the digital equivalent of working an old-fashioned beat, ferreting out good sources, not being misled by others.
Right now, trusted media brands are in a good place to serve this role. And trumpet what they’re doing prominently on their homepages, instead of relegating it to a side blog. As with everything on the web, if the mainstream companies don’t get it fast enough, start-ups will.