As any frequent reader of this column will note, I am generally reluctant to slip into the first person in my writing and less than enthusiastic when it comes to discussing the "meta" goings on within the Social News community in which I publish. We here at Newsvine comprise a tiny community - an island of perhaps a few thousand active and writing participants amidst a torrent of hundreds of thousands of readers, themselves awash in an ocean of internet users. We are, in the grand scheme, insignificant, only rarely rising from our obscurity to national or global prominence. To that end I apologize to more politically inclined readers of this column; check back on Monday for something more topical.
As many no doubt already know, a number of Newsvine authors1 recently "traded places," writing for each others columns in a self-described attempt to stimulate discussion and challenge assumptions. By any measure they succeeded but the reaction to their "joke" was perhaps more negative than anticipated. To many members of the Newsvine community the actions of these authors were profoundly upsetting. Words like "betrayal," "lie," and "deceive" have been bandied about, emblematic of the real crisis of confidence this subversive project perpetuated.
Newsvine will doubtless spend many weeks mending these rifts and the columnists and site itself will likely suffer in the short and possibly long term. This raises serious ethical issues, many of which will be debated by the community at great length, but rather than address the moral or professional justifications for the the so-called "joke," I would like to take a moment to discuss what I believe to be the reason it has upset so many.
We Are Not A Newspaper
Around this time last year I was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal for a brief blurb in their "Wizzards of Buzz" feature for their weekend edition. Though yours truly was reduced to a tiny blurb, the interview process took, in fact, several hours and in the course of it I spoke with two or three different researchers and writers at the Journal. One made a comment that struck me as very revealing.2
The editorial and journalistic sections of the paper don't have anything to do with each other. We don't even like each other that much.
The Journal, like many papers, keeps its opinion writers and its news writers separate, seeking to impart a barrier between the two. News is to be objective, devoid of opinion wherever possible and the institutional gulf within the paper seeks to ensure that.
In social media we lack that separation. On April 16, 2007 I wrote for Newsvine in the role of a Citizen Journalist, providing updates and breaking news on the shootings at Virginia Tech, yet just the day before I had published an article calling Don Immus a fool for his apology to Rutgers Women's Basketball team.
In social media we are neither opinion writer nor objective journalist but a strange commingling of the two. Lauren Vicary of MSNBC.com would call us pundits or news personalities.3 She's not wrong.
As participants in social media we are expected to inject our own personal experiences into the stories we publish, the opinion pieces we write, and the information we share. Our subjectivity is perhaps our greatest strength, lending and air of genuine authenticity to our work. To our readers this establishes each of us as a trusted source, closer to a well informed friend than the interchangeable and unremarkable talking heads that grace the evening news.
An Ill Conceived Plot
To that end the elaborate social experiment perpetrated upon Newsvine this week was an ill conceived one. It violated, not journalistic trust, but the at once personal and anonymous bond between writer and reader, teacher and student. Our gravitas as a media outlet derives almost entirely from that personal bond and the injection of that personal voice and personal identity. In the false appropriation of that identity is a breach of personal trust which, in turn, places both the writer's and the broader community's reputation in jeopardy.
Ill conceived or otherwise, these events served to serendipitously illustrate something fundamental about social news and social media - something that I, at least, would probably have never seen or known otherwise. I can not say that I would have agreed to take part, had I been asked, but I can say that I learned something, that I got smarter here, and that perhaps others did too.
1. Who will go unnamed here because their identities and what they actually wrote are of no relevance to this discourse.
3. Lauren, I really hope you don't mind my quoting you on that.