A UBC Journalism prof’s new book explores social media and the power of sharing
In his upcoming book, Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters, UBC’s Alfred Hermida explores how social media is transforming the news – and our lives.
Hermida, an associate professor in UBC’s Graduate School of Journalism – discusses his new book and reflects on the state of our social world.
The first sentence of your book is ‘this is a story about us.’ How so?
Often when people speak about social media, they get distracted by the technologies. But really, what’s happening is not about technology, it’s about how we communicate.
We are social animals. We love to share what we know. Social media empowers us to do that, and this is why I think this is a story about us.
When I look at the wealth of material that’s been produced, this is an amazing archive of the world today – the passions and interest of millions and millions of people.
Traditionally, we’ve received media in tidy bundles: the newspaper, the news article, the book, the newscast.
With social media, we don’t get this bundle; we get one fragment here, one there. If you looked closely at a picture by Seurat, the French pointillist painter, you would only see dots – no context. With social media, very often we see the dots. But if we pull back and see the full picture, we see this amazing work of art.
A lot of people talk about social media in terms of flows and streams of information – we dip in and out of the stream. One of the ways that social media helps you do that, but still get the context, is this notion that people expect the news to come to them. If something is important enough, someone in your network will bring it to your notice.
This is a very different mindset, particularly for young people using social media for news almost as much other forms of media.
Is journalism better or worse off due to social media?
The question is: is journalism better as a practice to be shared, or a profession to be defended? In some ways, what we have now is a return to the way information circulated before news became an industrial product put out by big companies.
In my book I look to the salons of 18th-century France. How did people find out what was happening? Intellectuals, aristocrats and writers would gather in Parisian salons, share what they’d heard, and evaluate what was true. Those accounts would be sent to their friends in the countryside.
This is not new. We all know people who have friends who seem to be better connected and hear more than we do. I think social media does actually make journalism better, because we have more journalism than ever before – not just by journalists, but by everyday people. Our friends are helping to be our editors.
You also highlight the empowering aspect of social media, citing the example of the Arab Spring. Given the challenges that have emerged in states such as Egypt, isn’t such empowerment a Pyrrhic victory?
We can’t expect a communication technology to overthrow governments. Social, political and cultural change takes years, if not decades. We can’t expect the Arab Spring and a few months of activism to suddenly change Egypt. It did change Egypt, but the consequences of what we saw then will probably not be felt fully for decades to come.
One of the deficits when it comes to new grassroots movements is that they rise very quickly. This is the big challenge: once a movement emerges, the next stage is how to build capacity for change. Social media helps identify others who feel like you, and that’s tremendously empowering.
Twitter didn’t exist until 2006 – today, hundreds of millions of tweets are sent daily. Where is this all heading?
Where we’re heading is a world where we are living our lives out loud. We are just social beings. So this genie’s not going back into the bottle.
When a technology becomes boring, that’s when its impact is really felt. I think that’s where we’re going with social media – this is how I tell my story, this is how I hear from my friends about their stories. It will just become media.
Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters (Doubleday Canada) is now available.