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When Social Media Goes Too Far

The social web can be a wonderful thing. But what happens when social content goes too far as a substitute for actual journalism? In an age when “everyone is the media,” the credibility bar drops fairly low, revealing biases, errors, and rumors that pass as fact. I’m grateful for the traditional press, battered, but unbowed, when it comes to sorting out what’s really happening.

Except when it isn’t. Occasionally the mainstream media is suckered by what they read on blogs and social media platforms. David Carr’s New York Times story on the TSA furor has me thinking about how things go haywire when social and traditional media, rather than complementing one another, join to fan a brushfire. It’s the worst of both worlds.

Carr recaps how the reaction to new TSA security procedures, including high-tech scans and thorough body pat-downs, blew up on Twitter, then mushroomed into a traditional news story, and spawned an opt-out movement…all turning out to be much ado about very little. The TSA struggled to respond to the furor. But, when the mainstream outlets went out to report the story of the airport protests, apparently there wasn’t one.

It reminded me of a larger news story. Remember the Iranian Twitter revolution that never happened? And, at the other end of the spectrum, a favorite recent blog topic, about the outcry around Gap’s new logo? The social media revolt was such that newspapers and other jumped on the story, and Gap was forced to backpedal and return to its original iconic look. Yet, afterwards, a customer survey showed that only 17 percent of Gap customers were even aware of the initial logo change. It was branding and social media insiders, and PR people like me, whose comments multiplied exponentially on the social web.

These examples raise “echo chamber” accusations about the social web and its so-called influencers. Who’s really out there? Is it twelve people with mirrors? Is what seems like digital “grassroots” just a a few plants treated with media miracle-gro?

Maybe it’s no surprise that those who tweet the loudest are heard. After all, social content sharers are prey to all the pitfalls of traditional press – wanting to be first with interesting items, needing news during a slow time (like a holiday week), wanting to stoke reader interest, retweets, and discussion.

To be fair, many readers of Carr’s TSA story hotly dispute his premise – that, in fact, there were few protests and little of note at major airports over Thanksgiving week. That’s a good thing. When controversy rages online, it’s a reminder of the diversity of opinion on the web, and an antidote to groupthink.

When we bother to look for it, that is. Maybe it’s a reminder for us to break out of our digital cliques and to try harder to avoid falling into a social/digital news feed of recycled ideas and commentary about commentary. The next post will explore ways to do that. Until then, enjoy this video about “old” media’s newfound fascination with it.

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