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The strengths and weaknesses of social media

Anna-Maria Wallner writes:

It came as a surprise when Jamie Bartlett opened his presentation with a confession: "I really don't like Social Media and what it is doing to journalism, to my attention span, to a lot of things. It concerns me, yes, I see the benefits, but I'm not an evangelist". The main reason it was surprising was because for the last 18 months Jamie Bartlett has been running the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media (CASM), which is a collaboration between the University of Sussex and the London-based think tank Demos.

As Bartlett pointed out, think tanks used to be on the cutting edge of technology. "They used to be thinking always five years down the line about the big trends. But we've been completely overtaken as a sector; we can't keep up with the speed of change. We are miles behind what is going on with media production and consumption." What Bartlett called his "small and imperfect effort to bridge that gap" was to set up the CASM which looks at ways to use automated techniques of collecting social media data for research purposes.

"Journalists need some grounding in modern Social Media analysis"

Of course, the mere existence of Social Media has changed the news production and media consumption. But what benefits and problems do we face in this new era of media usage? What consequences does it have that more and more people consume news via Social Media like Facebook or Twitter? Raising these questions, Bartlett argued that the society "desperately needs good journalists who curate the unimaginable mass of information that is published every day".

Journalists should therefore start looking into this new world of data sets. "What you need is some grounding in modern analysis of Social Media and internet data, some technical knowhow about how big data sets work." Instead journalists at the moment tend to generalize single Tweets or information they gather from Social Media, for example like this: "Twitter-users responded with fury"; "…were disgusted by…" But how representative is a Twitter group that a journalist might have happen to scroll through in his or her timeline? Bartlett believes that most of the things that have been said based on Twitter and Facebook are completely meaningless: "It's just about me, the journalist, who saw a few people tweeting something – and that is not good journalism."

Though Bartlett calls himself a Social Media skeptic, he sees advantages. The massive amount of data that is published every day - about four billion downloads at Facebook, about 200 Million tweets a day at least right now, because these figures change immediately – can be powerful and above all provide access to people that someone never could have reached previously.

Bartlett himself experienced that when he did a poll on Facebook amongst 100,000 online supporters of 15 different extremist groups (left and right wing) in twelve different countries. 20,000 people filled in the survey and helped him to get "really valuable data". He added: "The ability to reach that amount of people in a cheap way is absolutely remarkable. Everyone can do that." He says that political parties could especially benefit from the use of Social Media although most of the traditional parties are far behind in these terms.

"It takes decades to change national curriculums"

Unsurprisingly Jamie Bartlett says the list of problems that we face with Social Media is longer than the one with the benefits. "People are much more able to surround themselves with stories that essentially corroborate whatever worldview they are already happen to hold." In general Bartlett notices that people according to Eurobarometer surveys trust the Internet more than the legacy media. "But a lot of them really don’t know what they are doing when they are surfing" Bartlett said.

The problem starts at schools and the fact that no one teaches how to distinguish between truthful and inaccurate sources. One example for the need of education is looking at websites such as www.martinlutherking.org. When searching for the African-American civil rights activist at Google you receive this site as one of the first results, but if you take a deeper look under the surface, you realise that it is hosted by the US-Neo-Nazi group Stormfront.

How does Google's algorithm work? What is search engine optimization? Basics like these, Bartlett argued, should be taught at school. "It takes decades to change national curriculums." According to Bartlett the speed with which our information world has changed completely outstrips the ability of a slow moving national curriculum to realign.

Links: http://www.demos.co.uk/projects/casm