Social Readers and Citizen Editors
By Ghazi Ahamat
In the past year a new wave of Social Reader apps have intertwined social media and journalism like never before. Not only can anybody with a social media page and a story become a journalist, Facebook users can now shape the content of which stories get told, becoming Citizen Editors.
With over 800 million members, and data suggesting that one out of every seven minutes online is spend on Facebook, global media outlets have had to deal with the massive audience that this social media site represents.
Instead of trying to beat Facebook in the ‘battle for eyeballs,’ several major media outlets have embraced Facebook as a platform for delivering information. While some attempt to push content to subscribers by posting on Facebook Pages, an increasing number of publications are developing full-blown Facebook Apps such as the Washington Post’s Social Reader. Social Reader Apps seamlessly integrate a user’s online reading of ‘old media’ with their Facebook account. Rather than users browsing the web, and choosing to share particular links with their Facebook friends, Social Readers keep track of what you read by default, while the apps use Facebook’s Open Graph Protocol to push these stories to friends who are ‘close’ within their social network.
The point of these apps is to harness the power of social networks, following the simple premise that readers “want to know and read what your friends are reading.” This isn’t the first time that networks have been used to measure the relevance of online content, with Google’s PageRank algorithm revolutionising online search by measuring the relevance of sites by how many other sites link to them. But this time, it’s personal: the algorithm relies on tracking the ‘strength’ of connections by how many recent interactions have occurred, from wall posts, to sharing photos, to common interests.
After several months in operation, the Social Reader Apps have been widely adopted. The Washington Post’s app being downloaded by 30 million times dwarfs the paper’s circulation of approximately 500 thousand, and also links over 30 other blogs and publications to this wide audience. Meanwhile The Guardian’s Facebook App has seen over 4 million downloads. Both apps have seen readerships expand around the world, with the majority of App downloaders located outside the US and UK respectively.
While these Apps bring more news content within the Facebook ecosystem, the more interesting change these apps bring is that every reader is helping select what stories their friends are reading, making every Facebook timeline a potential broadcast channel, and every Facebook user an editor: selecting what stories deserve attention through their own reading habits. Creators of these apps are conscious of this change, with the Wall Street Journal’s WSJ Social app even providing rankings and ratings of editors, and “elevating the role of people as the curators of content.” But few readers recognise that their relationship to the news has changed. Nor do they realise that they can easily mark stories as unread, which would prevent newsfeeds being clogged with inane gossip or stories with enticing headlines but little substance.
The tracking of web browsing to provide recommendations also raises serious (if unoriginal) concerns about privacy. But unlike many other concerns about social media privacy, this one is optional as users choose to install these apps. Of course, that assumes they know what they are signing up for. Meanwhile, these apps bring new concerns about ‘the filter bubble’ (which MA has previously explored), where our browsing habits are steered by unseen filters into reading content we already agree with.
These concerns are real, but instead of shutting off and refusing to participate, or only accessing the internet anonymously, we can take our new relationship with news seriously. Through Social Reader Apps, Facebook moves from keeping up with friends to sharing stories around the world, and our reading habits can leave breadcrumbs for likeminded readers to follow. If this is the path media will go down, readers should do so with their eyes wide open.Ghazi Ahamat is the Chair of the ACCESS Network. He is currently completing Honours study in Economics at the University of Melbourne.