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Stefanie Botelho

Social Media: Where Have All the Grown-Ups Gone?

Stefanie Botelho emedia and Technology - 04/12/2011-12:32 PM

Publishers of all sorts have now entered the social media space – a place once mostly populated by college kids, indie rock bands and dance club promoters. It seems largely unnecessary to explain in this forum why publishers have chosen to do so. Staying relevant is the only way to stay alive, and it appears publishers think social media may be the fountain of youth.

However, I’ve noticed certain perils publishers sometimes snafu on when entering social media territory. Perhaps the most disconcerting trend is the downgrading of voice and ramping up of a global popularity contest (“Like us! Tweet us! Share us with your grandmother!”) occurring among publishers. For all the “likes”, fan base building, retweeting and friending occurring, at what price are publishers paying to rein in the social media-scape?

On March 24th, Forbes published a blog written by Lewis DVorkin exploring Forbes’ recent social media efforts “to put authoritative journalism at the center of a social media experience”. He writes, “...with the release of our World Billionaires List, we rolled out Like buttons on our people profile pages.” Click on the provided link, and the reader is taken to a profile featuring Carlos Slim Helu, chairman of Telmex (a telecommunications company based in Mexico). The profile lists 2,000 likes of Slim via Facebook.

Why is it that Forbes, a well-respected news outlet serving numerous locations around the globe, is encouraging readers to “like” a wealthy businessman? Chances are, a huge percentage of these readers don’t know Slim personally. I’ll go as far as to guess that many of them had never heard of him before this profile ran. I might even go farther to say that it does not really matter at all whether people like him or not, as he is a chairman of a company who is valued at $18 billion; he’s not the guy who drives the neighborhood ice cream truck.

I think I understand Forbes’ aim here. Creating a like button sparks interaction between reader and content, and the share feature allows readers to pass it along in their respective social networks. The more shares, the bigger the audience. However, it is the message that is troubling here: the encouragement of a popularity contest between business tycoons from a publication readers rely on for unbiased, well-reported news.

Publishers utilizing Twitter aren’t safe, either. Maybe it is the fact that the limited tweet can only contain 140 characters, or maybe it’s because publishers are often hiring “social media experts” to run their social media offerings instead of having their writers do so. Unfortunately, these social media gurus often equal fresh out of college young adults whose “expertise” is honed by logging on to Facebook every twenty minutes or so to obsess over what their friends are doing, wearing and watching. Possibly not the best choice to promote a major publication’s brand and copy in a venue where all its peers are watching.

Either way, the tone of tweets often misalign with the publication doing the tweeting. TIME Magazine, another reputable news publication, is a repeat offender. Last week, TIME’s Twitter account tweeted, “Can Japan really just dump radiation into the ocean?” and included a link in the post. In a sentence that contains less than 10 words, sensationalism, stereotyping and simplification of a complex matter are all apparent.

I suppose that reading the provided link may clear up a portion of this, but much of the point of Twitter is to provide short digestible pieces for a busy audience to consume. If the only thing a reader takes away from this tweet is the tweet itself, a misconstrued picture is the one they will have – one TIME would probably not be keen on being identified with.

Some publications thrive off the casual, “We can say what we want” attitude that comes with the social media turf. TechCrunch’s tweets of a few weeks slamming owner AOL and MovieFone execs serve as one entertaining example (full story here). Important to note, though, that TechCrunch has built a reputation on technological insight and a rebellious attitude (as TechCrunch contributor Alexia Tsotsis writes, “This is Silicon Valley, not Hollywood.”)

In short, I do believe publishers should use social media outlets to promote their writers, content and products to audiences. But maybe, they should also focus on not losing their actual message in the mix.

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