Facebook as a news site

Sep. 28, 2010 7:21 pm

A social networking site is nothing like reading the news. Or is it?

On Facebook, we look at pictures, read wall posts and talk with friends. On news sites, we read articles, keep up with issues and learn about the world. Both social networking sites and news sites are popular.

A recent Pew Research Center for the People & the Press study found that 80 percent of adults between ages 18 and 30 have profiles on social networking sites. The same study found those between ages 18 and 29 spend about 45 minutes with news on a typical day, significantly less than other age groups. However, the study determined that news consumption in general has increased over time: Those who do consume news consume more of it, and from more platforms. The average American spends 70 minutes consuming news on a typical day — the highest level since 2004 — and doesn’t even include news consumed through mobile devices.

So social networking sites and news consumption co-exist, but are they related? The answer is “yes,” and Facebook qualifies as a news site.

When a person is using a social networking site, they’re performing many of the same activities required when reading the news. Both require the user to scan, filter and synthesize large amounts of information, as well as engage and interact with content and other users. These are skills that are increasingly important in today’s news environment and are encouraged and cultivated by many of today’s news organizations.

I’m a journalism major. On the first day of a reporting class this semester, the professor lectured about the nature of local news.

Local news, he said, is niche news.

It’s niche news in the way that news on knitting or on sailing is niche news: It’s only valuable to a select group of people. He went on to say that if an elementary school in a small town distributes its weekly lunch menu to its students’ parents, that school lunch menu is local news, valuable new information to that specific group.

If we take this definition of news and apply it to social networking sites, Facebook becomes a niche news site. When I log onto Facebook, I receive a flood of information about what’s going on in my friend group. This information is niche news just like the elementary school’s menu is niche news. It’s new information, specific to me.

In order to make all of this information useful, I have to perform certain tasks. I have to scan through all of the wall posts, status updates and pictures, and filter them in order to find the most valuable pieces. Searching for news is the same way. No longer does a consumer receive daily news from a single source. The news environment is one of multiple news sites, real-time updates, multimedia and multiple platforms. A new skill set is required.

We don’t just read news. We open the floodgates, scan and filter. We are our own editors. At the 2008 Web 2.0 Expo, NYU media scholar Clay Shirky said if we’re having trouble sifting through the information available today, “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.”

Interactivity is also becoming a part of news consumption. Media no longer just publish or broadcast information to the audience. News is a two-way system. The Internet allows audiences to more easily respond to, discuss and share news articles.  The journalist no longer speaks through a loudspeaker. The journalist is one of many voices. Jay Rosen, chair of the New York University Department of Journalism, describes it this way:

“A highly centralized media system had connected people ‘up’ to big social agencies and centers of power but not ‘across’ to each other. Now the horizontal flow, citizen-to-citizen, is as real and consequential as the vertical one.”

As it turns out, Facebook relies on a similar kind of horizontal interactivity. As users comment on each others’ posts, they create and exchange social capital within their communities.  Interactivity is big on Facebook. Its 500 million users share more than 30 billion pieces of content (links, notes, photo albums, etc.) each month.

Facebook isn’t traditional news — it does not usually provide the kind of information that will inspire civic action or serve a watchdog function over the government. It teaches us about our social network and allows us to build that community but doesn’t usually teach much about about the outside world.  But when we’re scanning Facebook and sifting through the deluge of 21st-century news, the information processes are the same. It requires the same skill set. The difference between Facebook (an ultra-niche news site) and CNN (a global news site) is one of scale, not of type. And this is promising.

We are learning how to scan and filter information. We’re getting better at it. New generations growing up digital will be more adept and willing to follow and interact with news — as they define it. As we worry about the future of journalism and the future of community engagement and civic participation, this is worth keeping in mind.

Noel Cody, a senior from St. Louis, is director of audience engagement for the Reese Felts Digital News Project.